Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844

Gogol's lasting influence on Russian literature cannot be underestimated. According to Richard Peace in The Enigma of Gogol:

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Gogol exerted an immense influence on the whole course of Russian literature and continues to do so to the present day. There is scarcely a later Russian writer who did not succumb in some measure to his magic, and in many cases (Dostoyevski, Chekhov, Ilf and Petrov) his influence was crucial. In this sense alone, to call Gogol the ‘father of Russian prose fiction’ is eminently justifiable.

Critics today almost universally agree on the comic and dramatic genius of The Government Inspector. Calling the play Gogol's ‘‘comic masterpiece,’’ Erlich asserts that it is ‘‘by far the greatest comedy in the Russian language and one of the finest ever written.’’ Campbell asserts that it is ‘‘perhaps the greatest comedy ever written for the Russian stage.’’ Lindstrom concurs that ‘‘the total effect is one of tremendous dramatic power.’’ Beresford comments that ‘‘The Government Inspector, a work of enormous comic power, with penetrating shafts of satire and a gallery of unforgettable characters, is the greatest play in the Russian language and one of the acknowledged masterpieces of world drama.’’

Because of extremely strict censorship under the reign of the Tsar Nicholas I, Gogol's play might not have been produced in his lifetime. However, the poet Zhukovsky brought the written play directly to the attention of the tsar, who liked it so much that he insisted on a production at the royal theater. The Government Inspector opened in 1836, with the tsar in attendance. Nicholas was said to have delighted in the production.

Popular and critical reception of the play, however, has been dubbed by several critics a ‘‘succes de scandale’’—meaning that the play's popular success was inextricable from its controversial critical reception. While the tsar himself was not offended by the play's open satire of the Russian bureaucracy, the audience members, most of whom were themselves civil servants, took personal offense. Nigel Brown notes that ‘‘it is virtually the first work of art to expose to ridicule aspects of the administrative and bureaucratic system of Tsarist Russia.’’ As a result, Erlich observes, ‘‘The story of the reception of The Inspector General and of Gogol's subsequent reaction is almost as interesting as the play itself.’’ He explains:

The initial impact was explosive. While the audiences’ responses were mixed, hardly anyone remained indifferent. The bulk of the theater going public, especially the officials and the sycophants of the bureaucratic establishment, were displeased, indeed often scandalized, by the ‘vulgarity’ and ‘coarseness’ of the play, and by its slanderous, not to say subversive tenor.

Janko Lavrin explains that ‘‘the spectators enjoyed the piece, but they were cross with the author. For everyone saw himself personally insulted.’’ Yet, ‘‘in spite of all the attacks on Gogol … the theatre was always crowded. For even those who disliked it could not help enjoying it.’’ Erlich notes, ‘‘The play was making an impact; it was the talk of the town, the focus of a lively and loud controversy,’’ thus making Gogol, ‘‘one of the best-known and most talked-about writers of his time.’’

Taken aback by the extensive negative reaction to the play, Lindstrom notes that Gogol wrote to a friend, ‘‘Everyone is against me.’’ In self-defense, he published an article, ‘‘After the Theater,’’ which recounted the overheard dialogue of theatre goers leaving at the end of the play. After the Theater was later expanded and published in book form in 1842. Lindstrom comments that ‘‘of little artistic merit, it is nevertheless a valuable record of Gogol's increasing insistence on the didactic role of literature and his need to explain his art in terms of moral and social philosophy.’’ Gogol, however, was so traumatized by the controversy raised by The Government Inspector that he quickly left the country, remaining in self-imposed exile for the next twelve years. He revised the play extensively, publishing a new edition in 1842, which was not performed until 1888. Included was an epilogue entitled, ‘‘The Denouement of the Revizor,’’ which attempted to justify the play's meaning by recasting it as a religious allegory. Erlich observes that ‘‘in this ponderous interpretation, the town … symbolizes the soul of man, the corrupt officials represent the base passions gnawing at it, while the Inspector serves as an embodiment of man's awakened ‘conscience’ or sense of guilt.’’ Lavrin states unequivocally that ‘‘such interpretation is of course ridiculous and entirely unconvincing.’’

Speaking to the lasting popularity and relevance of The Government Inspector, Beresford asserts:

The Government Inspector is a work of enormous scale, at one extreme an entertaining comedy of errors and, at the other, an illuminating drama of corruption. No single interpretation encompasses all its meaning .… It is a play of great originality, that contains the inexhaustible riches of all great art. Its theme is universal and it speaks to the eternal human condition. Its laughter is directed at what is essential and permanent in man. It transcends its own time and people, belonging to all ages and all peoples. It has justly earned for itself the name of immortal comedy.

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