Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
This comedy, a high point of Nikolai Gogol’s work, represents an effective protest against the fumbling, venal bureaucracy of Russia’s small towns. The situation, which is credibly presented, makes this comedy work. The Inspector General builds almost entirely on the simple device of the mistaken identity of its hero. Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov is not a typical hero. Like many of Gogol’s characters, he lacks positive qualities and is instead defined by his absence of intellectual and spiritual traits. He appears a mixture of fool and rogue, hero and villain. Throughout the play, he remains passive, guided primarily by vulgar epicureanism and the imagination of town officials. As a social being, Khlestakov is not exceptional. He is a minor civil servant from a landowning family of modest means. The comedy, however, hinges precisely on his status as a nonentity. As an inert, indeterminate character, rather than a confidence man, he participates in the collective fantasy of the town and shares their fear of being unmasked.
Gogol never tries to convince the town members or the audience that Khlestakov could be the inspector; he instead flaunts the incongruity of Khlestakov’s demeanor and the interpretation of the town. The comedy concentrates on the town as a collective persona. The town officials, who originate and confirm the rumor of the inspector’s arrival, are terrified of being exposed. The mayor heads the group and establishes relations between Khlestakov and the provincial officials. The impression of solidarity created by the collective of officials and gentry is reinforced by their static function. Gogol originally considered the play as a parody of Judgment Day, with Khlestakov representing the deceiving conscience and the townspeople representing the passions, but the play emerged as a satirical commentary on contemporary society. The play presents a social microcosm, specifically in the sphere of public law, based on a hierarchy of rights that sanctions swindling, tyrannizing, and coercing. Gogol portrays officialdom as a tangled web of misunderstandings caused by self-satisfied philistines occupying positions for which they are ill-suited.
The theme of identity is a key to the play. The civil servants in the town are very conscious of rank—their own and Khlestakov’s. The comic treatment of character often relies on identity; in this case, Khlestakov’s ambiguous persona elicits the hidden identities of the officials, while his own identity is only partially revealed. The mayor, who invariably praises his own virtues, reveals himself as a petty dictator. Zemlyanika, the manager of charitable institutions, is not at all charitable but rather the comic embodiment of the informer. Lyapkin-Tyapkin, reputedly liberal and whose name means “a bungler,” acts with military precision. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, a slapstick pair, physically realize the duality of the identity and the external persona found in the other characters.
The common human desires to please, impress, and assert authority are wed to the lunatic fantasy of the townspeople. Khlestakov participates in the delusions of the mayor and his associates mainly out of complaisant idiocy. The extraordinary lies he tells about his position as the czar’s right-hand man are misplaced poetic inspiration rather than calculation. For Khlestakov, the boundaries between the real and the imaginary are tenuous; therefore, he plays an unwitting role in the confusion. Social satire is frequently overwhelmed by poetry when characters embrace their own fictions. Life in St. Petersburg, as described by Khlestakov, is pure fantasy. The image of St. Petersburg as a symbol of banal glory competes with the sinister character of the city as the center of hypocrisy. The fantasy world unravels after Khlestakov, laden with gifts and betrothed to the mayor’s daughter, gallops off. When the officials...
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of the town finally learn of the arrival of the real inspector, they freeze in terror and leave the audience to contemplate the possible ramifications. This sudden draining of comic animation is a hallmark of Gogol. The whole play is, in a manifestation of absurdity, an accidental usurpation of the real drama anticipated in the opening lines of the play, namely, the arrival of the inspector general.
The structure is concentrated in time and space, the action unified by the initial announcement of the inspector’s visit and his arrival in the final moments. Gogol also reaches beyond the confines of the stage: Minor characters are mentioned but never appear, action is heard offstage, and actors address the audience directly. Gogol also eliminates common moralizing features of comedy, such as the virtuous lovers, wise elders, and servant-confidants. His treatment of the love interest veers toward parody, with Khlestakov’s crude advances toward mother and daughter and their deflating responses. The contrasting aesthetic categories of satire and light comedy are unified within The Inspector General. Slips of the tongue, misspoken clichés, and banalities provide much of the comedy. Typical of Gogol’s work, the trivial is endowed with extreme importance, so there is a wealth of bizarre and improbable detail, whether from Khlestakov’s fantasy of life in St. Petersburg or the other characters’ assessment of provincial life.
The two planes of action allow the audience to perceive the “true” plot while the “false” plot is elaborated. The first act of the play creates the false point of view; the second builds on it; the third and fourth acts consolidate the false plot. The false plot concerns primarily the characterization of Khlestakov, out of which the characters of the officials develop. Although the officials seem to triumph near the end of the play, from the audience’s point of view, Khlestakov’s engagement and departure are a culmination of the misunderstandings and deflation of the town officials. In the final moment of the play, the true and false plots have these points of unity.
Few contemporary critics saw the play’s novelty—namely, its lack of positive characters, love intrigue, and stage resolution—and the audience often mistook it for a crude vaudeville. Despite Gogol’s careful direction and animated readings, the play’s depiction of the bureaucrats and merchants outraged the audience. As time has passed, the appreciation for The Inspector General has grown. The clever structure of the play and the insightful evaluation of the instability of identity remain powerful, while his depiction of bureaucracy still rings true.