Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3315
Nikolai Gogol combines the consummate stylist with the innocent spectator, flourishes and flounces with pure human emotion, naturalism with delicate sensitivity. He bridges the period between Romanticism and realism in Russian literature. He captures the “real” against the background of the imagined and, in the estimation of at least one...
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Nikolai Gogol combines the consummate stylist with the innocent spectator, flourishes and flounces with pure human emotion, naturalism with delicate sensitivity. He bridges the period between Romanticism and realism in Russian literature. He captures the “real” against the background of the imagined and, in the estimation of at least one critic, the surreal. Frequently, the supernatural or some confounding coincidence plays a major role in his works. His heroes of the “little man” variety imprinted the most profound impression on his readers and critics alike. These petty clerks, all socially dysfunctional in some major respect, nevertheless explore the great depth of the human soul and exhibit certain personality traits characteristic of the greatest heroes in literature.
Gogol focuses his major creative occupation on the manners of his characters; his creative energy is nowhere more apparent than in the “mannerizing” in which he describes and characterizes. His genius does not dwell in philosophical dialogues, allegory, or involved interior monologue as do the realist novels of the latter half of the century. Nor does he engender his heroes with abandon and ennui, as do his near contemporaries Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The depth of his psychological portraiture and the sweep of his romantic apostrophes, however, remain powerful and fascinating. In his plays, speech is swept aside from its characteristic place in the foreground; the dramatic foreground is given over to the manner or mannerisms of the characters. The actions literally speak louder than words. The social satire, deeply embedded in the manners of the characters, unfolds without special machinations and with few unnatural speech acts, such as asides. It is a tribute to Gogol’s skill that his characters do not necessarily become superficial or unidimensional as a result but are imbued with certain attributes that display a wide range of human passion, particularly human dignity and the cognizance of the injustices created in social stratification.
One of Gogol’s favored narrative devices can be called the chatty narrator. This narrator, seemingly prolix and sometimes random, will supply the reader with most of the information that will ever be revealed about a character. In a typical passage, the reader will encounter a character who might say something utterly commonplace such as: “I won’t have coffee today, Praskovia Osipovna, instead I will take some hot bread with onions.” The character says little that can be used to describe himself. The reader’s attention, however, is then directed to the information supplied by the narrator: “Actually, Ivan Yakovlevich would have liked to take both, but he knew it was utterly impossible to ask for two things at the same time since Praskovia Osipovna greatly disliked such whims.” Thus Ivan Yakovlevich is described by his manners—he speaks to his wife in a formal tone that relates very little information to the reader—but the narrator, in his chatty, nosy fashion reveals much about this individual and describes Ivan’s wife, his subordinate position at home, and his struggle for dignity within this relationship at the same time. Thus, from a seeming excess of information, the reader becomes familiar with a character who might otherwise remain nondescript.
Gogol’s narratives abound in descriptions, and these tend to be humorous. Many times, humor is created by the device of metonymy, whereby a part stands for the whole. Thus, women become “slender waists” and seem so light that one fears that they will float away, and men are mustaches of various colors, according to their rank. Another humorous effect might be created by the chatty narrator’s remark about some individual in a very unfavorable light. This information that he, for some reason, knows in regard to the character informs the reader’s opinion of that character and often lends either a humorous or a pathetic tone to his or her person. Also humorous is the effect created through realized metaphors, another favorite technique of Gogol. Thus, instead of “he ate like a pig,” the person is actually transformed into a pig with all the attributes of a perfect pig, at least temporarily. In general, Gogol’s works abound with descriptions packed with colors, similes, and wayward characterizations by his narrator or actors.
Gogol’s works fall roughly into three categories, which in turn correspond approximately to three different periods in his creative life. The first period is represented solely by short stories that exhibit lush local color from the Ukraine and Gogol’s own mixing of devils and simple folk. Seven of the eight stories from the collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which appeared in 1831 (with the second part following in 1832), belong in this category, as well as the stories in Mirgorod, first published in 1835.
The second major period of Gogol’s literary life features works either centered on a locus in the imperial center of Russia, St. Petersburg itself, or surrounding the bureaucrats and petty officials ubiquitous in the provinces of the empire. This period stretches roughly from 1835 to 1842 and includes the short stories “Nevsky Prospekti” (“Nevsky Prospect”), “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“The Diary of a Madman”), “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” the play The Inspector General, and the novel Dead Souls. The short story “Portret” (“The Portrait”), although definitely a product of this period, is singular for its strong echoes of the devil tales in the early period.
The last period can claim only one published work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, and is typically interpreted as a reversal in Gogol’s creative development. If the analyst, however, can keep in mind Gogol’s rather fanatic attachment to his artistic life as a devotional to God, then perhaps this otherwise unexplainable curve in his creative evolution might seem more understandable.
The two volumes of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka contain eight stories. However atypical they were to become in terms of setting and subject matter, these tales of the Ukraine, with various elements of the supernatural adding terror, exhibit many of the qualities found in the mature writer of the second period. They are magical and engaging, heroic and base, simply enjoyable to read and quite poignant.
“A May Night”
An excellent example of these tales is “Mayskaya Noch: Ili, utoplennitsa” (“A May Night: Or, The Drowned Maiden”). The plot is a simple love story in which the lovers are not allowed to wed because of the objection of the man’s father. The seeming simplicity, however, is overwhelmed by acts of Satan, witches, and rusalki. (In folk belief, rusalki are female suicides who endlessly inhabit the watery depths of ponds, tempting men and often causing their deaths.) When the antics of Ukrainian cossack youths do not by themselves bring the matter to resolution, the rusalka puts a letter into the young man’s hand, which secures for him his marriage.
The characters are depicted in ways highly reminiscent of the oral folktales. Levko, the hero, sings to his beloved to come out of her house. He speaks of his “brighteyed beauty,” her “little white hands,” and her “fair little face.” All these figures of speech are fixed epithets common in folklore. He promises to protect her from detection—“I will cover you with my jacket, wrap my sash around you, or hide you in my arms—and no one will see us,”—forfending the possible intrusion three ways. Likewise, he promises to protect her from any cold—“I’ll press you warmer to my heart, I’ll warm you with my kisses, I’ll put my cap over your little white feet”—that is, a threefold protection. The reinforcement of images in threes is also quite common in folklore. Thus, clearly, Gogol is invoking folklore in his artistic works. Nevertheless, there are hints of the mature Gogol in the landscape descriptions. Even the intervention of the supernatural to produce, in this case, the successful outcome of the story belongs to the second period as well as to the first.
“Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt”
One story, in retrospect, however, stands out clearly from the others. “Ivan Fyodorovich Shpon’ka i ego tetushka” (“Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt”) certainly presages the later works that will come to be regarded as Gogol’s most characteristic. Set in the Ukraine, the story begins with an elaborate frame involving the following: The original storyteller of the tale wrote the story entirely and gave it to the narrator (for reasons that are not explained), but the narrator’s wife later used the paper to wrap her pies, so the end of the story was unfortunately lost. The reader is assured, however, that should he or she so desire, he or she may contact the original storyteller, who still lives in that village and who will certainly oblige in sharing the ending.
There are many details in this frame alone that are very typical of the mature Gogol. First, the narrator does not take responsibility for the story—that is, that it is left unfinished; the abrupt end is presented as something over which he has no control. Second, the woman is the undoing of the man, although, in this case, the undoing is caused by her stupidity (she is illiterate) and not by an inherent evil. Moreover, the narrator could have rectified the situation himself, but, seemingly, he was fated to forget to ask the storyteller for another copy of the ending. Most of all, the story in the frame abounds with chatty, seemingly irrelevant details that serve to characterize the narrator, his wife, and the storyteller but that, ultimately, motivate the plot and occasion the sometimes precipitous changes in the course of the narrative.
The motifs described above reappear in forms both changed and unchanged throughout Gogol’s work. A woman will appear in many guises in three of the four stories in Mirgorod. In “Taras Bulba,” a long story with the color and force of an epic, a Polish beauty causes the son, Andrei, to defect to the enemy. Later, the traitor will be murdered by his father’s own hands, described in the father’s own words as a “vile dog.”
In another story from this collection, “Viy,” a young student, Khoma Brut, meets an old woman on his way home on vacation. When he stays for the night in her barn, she comes after him with outstretched arms. Khoma tries to avoid her three different ways, but she persists and, to his amazement, he loses the use of his arms and legs. The old woman turns out to be a witch who wickedly torments and then rides on the back of the young philosopher. Remembering some exorcisms, however, he renders her harmless and, in fact, exchanges places with her, now riding on her back. Khoma makes an incredible trek in this fashion until she falls in a faint. Now, watching her prone form, he is amazed to find not a witch or an old woman but a fair young maiden. Khoma races off, making it all the way to Kiev, but is called back to watch over her corpse for three nights, which was the last request of the dying maiden. During the third night, he is overcome by the supernatural devil, Viy, who emanates from the dead woman and thus brings his own doom.
“The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”
Another story from this collection, “Povest o tom, kak possorilsya Ivan Ivanovich s Ivanom Nikiforovichem” (“The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”), also revolves around the same motif of the evil woman, although almost imperceptibly. Here, it is a “stupid” woman who sets out the gun while cleaning the house, which causes Ivan Ivanovich to envy this possession of his neighbor Ivan Nikiforovich. This seemingly insignificant act is the very act that causes an ensuing argument and that in turn builds into a lasting enmity between the former friends and then lasts in the courts for a decade. In Russia, this story is often invoked when people quarrel over imagined improprieties or insignificant trifles.
In Arabesques, the two most famous stories, “Nevsky Prospect” and “The Diary of a Madman,” similarly feature the demonic power of women over men. “Nevsky Prospect” indeed centers on this “demonic” nature of women. Two tales are told, one of the “sensitive young man,” the artist Piskarev, and the other of a rather older, down-to-earth lieutenant named Pirogov. The artist, perhaps fooled by the falling darkness, is stunned by the dazzling beauty of a woman walking by on Nevsky Prospect, a main avenue in St. Petersburg. At the same moment, Pirogov notices and blindly takes off after a blonde woman, “convinced that no beauty could resist him.” Piskarev, almost overwhelmed at his own audacity, meekly follows his beauty to her “home,” only to find out that she is, indeed, a prostitute. This development soon becomes the undoing of the poor artist as he falls into daytime and nighttime dreaming in a vain attempt to rescue his former exalted vision and save her image from the reality of her vile lifestyle. He takes to opium and, finally emboldened, decides on the desperate act of proposing marriage to her. When she rebuffs him, he goes mad and takes his own life. Pirogov, on the other hand, for all of his self-confidence and experience, fares only slightly better after following his blonde beauty home—to her husband. He blindly but cunningly continues his pursuit of her, only to end up being humiliated and physically abused. Indignant, he sets out to put his case before the court, but, somehow, after eating a little and spending some time rather pleasantly, he becomes diverted and seemingly forgets the whole thing. The narrator then closes the story with the admonition not to trust Nevsky Prospect, since nothing is as it seems, especially not the ladies.
“The Diary of a Madman”
“The Diary of a Madman” appears to be the personal journal of Popryshchin, whose name sounds very much like “pimple.” The story is written as a series of entries with the chronology becoming entirely skewed at the end in accordance with the degree of dementia within the protagonist. The appearance of Popryshchin, the poor government clerk, marks the introduction of a new incarnation of the meek Shponkin type who will populate many of Gogol’s works thereafter and enter the world of Russian literature as a prototype for many writers, notably Dostoevski. Popryshchin, a rather older, undistinguished man, adores the director’s daughter but recognizes that pursuing her is useless. Moreover, he sees that his infatuation for her will be his doom: “Dear God, I’m a goner, completely lost!” Virtually at the same moment that he admits his futile position, his attention is drawn to the thin voice of Madgie, the young lady’s dog, who is speaking to Fido. This rather fantastic conversation is centered on the letter that poor Fido seemingly never received from Madgie. Popryshchin’s delusions continue to build up, with him even reading the canine correspondence. It is actually through Madgie’s letters that Popryshchin learns of the young lady’s love for, and engagement to, a handsome young chamberlain. Moreover, Popryshchin finds the young man’s description unflattering. The sentence, “Sophie always laughs at him,” becomes the crowning blow to his sanity. Shortly thereafter he goes mad, imagining himself to be the King of Spain. He is committed to Spain, more accurately, to a mental hospital, where he is constantly tormented. The pathos of the “little man” is palpable, conveyed through the evocation of a beautiful image—a troika coming to fly to him and rescue him—juxtaposed to the hateful attendants dousing him repeatedly with cold water.
Another “little man” follows closely in Popryshchin’s footsteps. In “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich, whose humorous name is a reminder of fecal matter (kaka), represents such a meek and orderly person that he can perform only one duty: copying papers. This duty he discharges perfectly and with great pleasure, sometimes so much so that he occasionally brings the document home and, in his spare time, copies it again. Akaky Akakievich lives in St. Petersburg, victim of almost unimaginable poverty with barely enough means to keep himself alive. It was, indeed, a terrible day when he could no longer convince his tailor to have his overcoat remade; he would have to buy a new one. The physical privations that were necessitated by this desperate position are reminiscent of saintly asceticism. However, Akaky begins to sublimate his anguish and dreams of the great overcoat as though of a wife. With the mention of the word “wife,” the reader who is accustomed to Gogol might immediately suspect the potential danger of this coat, since women in Gogol’s fiction are almost always the undoing of a man. True to form, after withstanding all the hardships, enduring all the misgivings and new sensations, Akaky wears the new coat only once before he is mugged and the coat stolen from him. Dazed and exposed in the cold of St. Petersburg, he musters the courage to petition a “Person of Consequence” who dismisses him pompously. Akaky then falls into a fever from which he will not emerge alive. The tale, however, takes on a fantastic ending. Akaky comes back from the dead, intimidates and robs the Person of Consequence of his overcoat, and then, apparently satisfied, leaves the scene forever.
The supernatural revenge makes “The Overcoat” quite singular in Gogol’s work. The fantastic element, however, appears again in another story of the same period, “The Nose.” A barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, takes a roll for breakfast and finds, much to his alarm, a human nose in it, and he recognizes the nose as that of the Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. Ivan Yakovlevich tries to rid himself of the nose. Meanwhile, its erstwhile owner wakes up to find a completely smooth area where his nose and incipient pimple had been the previous evening. He sets out on foot with the empty spot concealed by a handkerchief, only to witness his own former nose walking about freely, moreover in the uniform of a civil councillor—that is, a higher-ranking individual than Kovalyov himself. He accosts the nose very deferentially, but the nose claims to be an independent individual and not part of Kovalyov at all. In desperation, he sets out for the police department but, thinking better of it, decides to place an advertisement in the local newspaper. There, the clerk, thinking about it, decides against publishing such an advertisement to avoid potential scandals for the paper. Luckily for Kovalyov, the nose is returned to him by a police officer, but to his horror, it will not stick to his face. Then, as absurdly as the story began, it ends. Kovalyov wakes up with the nose back in its former place, goes to Ivan Yakovlevich and has a shave (the barber now not touching the olfactory organ), and it is as though nothing happened.
Many of Gogol’s characters have penetrated into everyday Russian speech. If someone works hard at a brainless job, he is called an “Akaky Akakievich,” for example, an attestation how well the writer created a type of Russian “little man” who, however uncreative, still captures the hearts and alliances of readers. There is something real about these absurd, impossible characters, something in their unidimensionality that transcends their locus and becomes universal. Gogol, while embroidering in highly ornate circumlocution, directly touches the wellspring of humanity in even the lowliest, most unattractive character. In his descriptions, there are simultaneously resonances of slapstick humor and the depths of human misery and social injustice.
Gogol left quite an imprint on the course of Russian literature. Very few subsequent writers will produce anything that does not at all reverberate the Gogolian legacy. Even in the twentieth century, writers incorporate his artistic ideas or emulate his style to a degree.