Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 madness itself.

Gogol’s story “The Nose” is perhaps second only to his masterpiece “The Overcoat” in its influence on subsequent fiction. The fantastic plot of the story begins when a St. Petersburg barber finds the nose of the assessor Major Kovalev, whom he shaves regularly, in his breakfast roll one morning. On the same morning, Kovalev wakes up to find a smooth, shiny place on his face where his nose used to be. When he goes to the police to have the case of the missing nose investigated, he is astonished to see his nose on the street wearing a gold-braided uniform. After finally recovering the nose, Kovalev tries unsuccessfully to stick it back on his face; finally, he wakes up one morning to find it back where it belongs. Although, like “Diary of a Madman,” the story is filled with ironic social criticism, what makes it so influential is the integration of this fantastic plot premise with the most straightforward style of narration. Like Franz Kafka’s twentieth century masterpiece Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), Gogol’s “The Nose” only asks that the reader accept the initial incredible premise; all the rest follows in a strictly realistic fashion.

This combination of different realms of reality reaches a powerful culmination when Gogol unites it with two different literary styles in what all critics agree is his most nearly perfect work, “The Overcoat.” The story of the poverty-stricken copyist with the absurd name of Akakii Akakiievich Bashmachkin is so well known that it has been said that most modernist Russian fiction springs from under Gogol’s “overcoat.” Once again, Gogol combines what seems to be social realism of everyday St. Petersburg life with the fantastic style of folklore. Indeed, most of the commentary that has been written on the story focuses on either its realistic nature or its fantastic style. Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor has said that what makes the story so magnificent is Gogol’s focus on the copyist and his emphasis on Akakii’s implicit call for human brotherhood. On the other hand, in what is perhaps the best-known discussion of the story, Russian formalist critic Boris Eichenbaum claims that the genius of the story depends on the role played by the author’s personal tone and the story’s use of the oral conventions of Russian folktales.

Although Gogol published more ambitious works, at least in terms of scope, than these three short fictions, none of his later work surpasses them in narrative and stylistic control. Among Gogol’s longer works, only one drama—Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1890)—and one novel— Myortvye dushi (part 1, 1842, part 2, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887)—remain as influential indicators of Gogol’s genius. The Inspector General, although comic like his short fictions “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” is not fantastic like them. In fact, it has been called his most conventionally realistic work. Because of its satirical thrusts at government bureaucracy, the play was attacked, when it was first produced, by conservative critics as a slander on Russian government. Today it is remembered as one of Gogol’s most emphatic social satires.

Many critics, more impressed with the broader scope of the novel than the more limited perfection of the short story, consider Gogol’s novel Dead Souls to be his undisputed masterpiece. Indeed, it is an ambitious work, taking Gogol six years to complete. Building on an idea given him by Pushkin—that dead souls, or serfs, are taken as live ones—Gogol creates the character Tchitchikov, who buys dead souls to bolster his own wealth. Boasting an unforgettable assembly of grotesque comic characterizations, Dead Souls is often called one of the great comic masterpieces of European literature.

During the last ten years of his life, after the publication of part 1 of Dead Souls, Gogol worked on part 2. All that remains, however, are the first four chapters and part of a final chapter. In 1845, he burned all the other manuscript pages of the novel he had been working on for four years. Before his death in March, 1852, he once again put a match to the work he had subsequently done on part 2. He died a little more than a week later.

Summary

Although Nikolai Gogol died when he was only forty-two, thus leaving a body of work that is relatively small—certainly nothing to rival the monumental output of such nineteenth century greats as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski—his influence has loomed much larger than his output would suggest. Although he is generally remembered as a writer of biting social satire on Russian government bureaucracy and as a creator of comic types that rival those of Charles Dickens, it is his short fiction in particular that has had the most significant impact. Gogol is indeed a writer’s writer, for short-story writers themselves are the ones who most recognize his greatness. From his countryman Ivan Turgenev to Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor to American philosopher and fiction writer William H. Gass, Gogol has been recognized as a powerful nineteenth century innovator in the creation of that strange blend of fantasy and reality—the comic grotesque—that has come to be recognized as an essential element of modernism and post-modernism.

Bibliography

Driessen, F. C. Gogol as a Short-Story Writer: A Study of His Technique of Composition. Translated by Ian F. Finlay. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. A formalist study of Gogol’s technique as a short-story writer. Focuses on anxiety as a major Gogol theme before analyzing selected stories, including “The Overcoat,” which Driessen says represents an isolated attempt of Gogol to overcome his anxiety.

Erlich, Victor. Gogol. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. A study of Gogol by an expert on Russian formalist criticism. Focuses on Gogol’s technique and his most typical themes and images. More theoretical than practical in its approach to Gogol, the study contains numerous provocative ideas and concepts for understanding his genius.

Fanger, Donald L. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. An attempt to compensate for what the author calls the overabundance of eccentric views of Gogol in American criticism. Fanger outlines the Russian cultural context of Gogol’s work and then examines his works to elucidate the progressive development of its basic underlying pattern.

Lindstrom, Thaïs S. Nikolay Gogol. Boston: Twayne, 1974. A general introduction to Gogol’s life and his art in chronological order. The focus is on Gogol’s essential modernity and his creation of the comic grotesque. Includes a chronology of his life as well as a brief annotated bibliography of criticism.

Maguire, Robert A., ed. Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Includes eleven essays on Gogol from the perspective of various twentieth century Russian critical approaches, including formalist, psychological, religious, sociological, and historical criticism. Includes a famous essay by Boris Eichenbaum, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.”

Peace, Richard. The Enigma of Gogol. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A study of Gogol’s works from the point of view of their place in the Russian literary tradition, particularly focusing on the enigma of the scope of Gogol’s influence on a realistic tradition in spite of his own grotesque rhetorical style.

Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Gogol: His Life and Works. Translated by Robert Kramer. New York: New York University Press, 1965. A readable introduction to Gogol’s life and art. This straightforward study does not pretend to break any new critical ground but rather summarizes previous criticism and analyzes Gogol’s works both thematically and formally.

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