Article abstract: Gogol made an important contribution to the development of modern comic fiction, particularly short fiction. By combining such disparate narrative elements as oral folklore and literary Romanticism, Gogol paved the way for such modernist writers as Franz Kafka.
Nikolai Gogol was born on March 31, 1809, on his family’s country estate in the Ukraine near the small town of Sorochintsy. A sickly child, he was so pampered and idolized by his mother when he was young that he developed an inflated opinion of himself. At the age of twelve, Gogol entered a boarding school in the city of Nezhin, where he stayed for seven years; however, probably because he was bored with the routine of the classroom, he was only an average student. He was, however, enthusiastic about literature and drama, actively taking part in school theatricals in every capacity, from stagehand to actor and director.
By all accounts, Gogol was a skinny, unattractive child with a bad complexion and a long nose; he was often called dwarfish by his schoolmates. Although there is no indication that he gave serious thought to a writing career while in school, Gogol did write one long poem during his adolescence entitled “Hans Küchelgarten” (1829), which he took to St. Petersburg with him after graduation in 1828 and published at his own expense. Yet, as most critics agree, the poem is highly imitative and immature; the derisive reception it received by the few reviewers who noticed it at all probably made Gogol decide to abandon poetry forever and focus instead on drama and prose, in which his talent for mixing traditional styles and genres could best be exhibited.
After his father’s death, Gogol’s mother was unable to manage the family estate profitably; as a result, Gogol found himself without funds and without prospects. Securing a position in the civil service to support himself, he began writing stories in his spare time about the Ukraine and submitting them to a St. Petersburg periodical. By gaining the attention of such influential Russian writers as Baron Anton Delvig and Vasily Zhukovsky with these pieces, Gogol was introduced to the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who admired Gogol’s fiction. Gogol’s early stories were published in two volumes in 1831 and 1832 as Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, 1926), and they received an enthusiastic response from critics in Moscow and St. Petersburg; Gogol had thus arrived as an exciting new talent and was admitted to the highest literary circles.
The stories in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka introduce readers to Gogol’s major stylistic innovation—the combining of the fanciful and earthy folklore of his native Ukraine with the literary and philosophic imagination of German Romanticism, about which he had learned in school. The hybrid generic form that resulted from the combination of fantastic events and realistic detail not only characterizes Gogol’s short stories in particular but also typifies similar narrative experiments being conducted with the short prose form in the United States, Germany, and France; Gogol’s experimentation with short prose fiction gives him a place in the creation of the short story equal in importance to Edgar Allan Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Prosper Mérimée.
In 1834, Gogol obtained a position as a history professor at the University of St. Petersburg and lectured there for a little more than a year; however, he was so bad at it that the administration gently compelled him to leave. Essays in art, history, and literature on which Gogol had been working while teaching appeared in 1835 under the title Arabeski (Arabesques, 1982). Although these essays were not distinguished in any way, the three new stories that appeared in the collection—“Portret” (“The Portrait”), “Nevsky Prospekti” (“Nevsky Prospect”), and “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“Diary of a Madman”)—are significant Gogol works. Along with “Nos” (1836; “The Nose”) and “Shinel” (1839; “The Overcoat”), and often referred to as the Petersburg Cycle, these stories are his major contribution to the short story and the novella forms.
Of the three stories that appeared in Arabesques, “Diary of a Madman” is perhaps the best known. Drawing some of his ideas from the German Romantic writer Hoffmann, Gogol has his central character, a minor government official, tell his own story of his hopeless infatuation with the daughter of the chief of his department. The story is an effective combination of social criticism, psychological analysis, and grotesque comedy, for, by intertwining the “mad” perception of the narrator with the supposedly “sane” perception of the bureaucratic world that surrounds the narrator, Gogol manages to underline the relativity of...
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