Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
As was readily apparent to Gogol's contemporaries, The Government Inspector is a satire of the extensive bureaucracy of nineteenth-century Russian government. According to D. J. Campbell, writing in the forward to the The Government Inspector, Gogol once stated that ‘‘In The Government Inspector I tried to gather in one heap all that was bad in Russia.’’ Through the regular practices of ‘‘bribery and extortion,’’ according to Beresford in his introduction to Gogol's The Government Inspector: A Comedy in Five Acts, most public officials ‘‘tyrannized over the local population’’ of Russian towns. Beresford goes on to characterize Russia under the yoke of this vast bureaucratic system: ‘‘The whole of this immense empire was strangled by red tape, cramped by administrative fetters, and oppressed by a monstrous tyranny of paper over people.’’ Nigel Brown in his Notes on Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector states that, in The Government Inspector, ‘‘Gogol was the first Russian writer to examine the realities of the official world in literature, exposing it to hilarious satire.’’ In Gogol's play, Hlestakov, the young man mistaken for the government inspector, belongs to the lowest of fourteen possible levels within the hierarchy of the Russian civil service. The fact that he successfully poses as a public official occupying a much higher level in the bureaucracy thus demonstrates both the ignorance of the townspeople he has duped, and his own sense of self-importance. The chaotic atmosphere of the office of the governor in the opening scene immediately establishes the image of small town Russian bureaucracy as ridiculously inefficient and unprofessional. Nothing of any value seems to get accomplished by the masses of paper and the proliferation of characters holding official government titles. The lack of communication between the small town and the government center in Saint Petersburg also indicates that the Russian bureaucracy was so geographically extensive there was no means of regulating the behavior of civil servants or the effectiveness of local government offices.
All of the public officials in the town are thoroughly corrupt. The judge ‘‘openly admits to taking bribes’’; the postmaster indiscriminately opens and reads letters addressed to others; and the police are drunken, brawling, and given to flogging women. Most corrupt of all is the highest ranking official of the town, the governor: he regularly takes bribes, spends money allotted to the building of a church for his own purposes, and seizes money from the local shopkeepers. In satirizing the corruption within the Russian bureaucracy, Gogol addressed more universal themes of human corruption. Beresford asserts that the play is ‘‘an attack on all forms of moral depravity, of which bribery and corruption are but examples.’’ Because of this universal theme, Beresford insists that, ‘‘Gogol's play is thus as relevant to the world of the twentieth century as it was to its own time, and it points to a perennial evil of civilized societies.’’ In essence, according to Lavrin stating in his book Gogol, ‘‘Gogol was really ridiculing a much wider field of rottenness than the officialdom he knew.’’
Deception and Self-deception
The Government Inspector is a story of deception and self-deception. The townspeople deceive themselves into believing that Hlestakov is the government inspector, whereupon Hlestakov takes advantage of the case of mistaken identity, further extending the deception to his own advantage. Hlestakov takes such a liking to his assumed role that he almost appears to be convinced by his own deception, imagining himself to be the venerable high official he pretends to be. The townspeople attempt to deceive the government inspector as to the true corruption within the local government, but find that they have only deceived and cheated themselves in the process. Beresford comments that Gogol made use of the plot motif of mistaken identity ‘‘to reveal a fundamental state of chaos in human life.’’ Beresford continues,
It is no accident that the plot of most of his works hinges on a deception, because for him deception was at the very heart of things. He saw human beings as enmeshed in a web of confusion and deceptions, misled not only by appearances but also by their own delusions and lies.