Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2355
It is characteristic of Nikolai Gogol to create a microcosm for each of his main characters, giving his works a peculiarly episodic flavor. His plots center on an incident or a motif, rather than on a complex string of interconnecting events. This is particularly noticeable in his novel Dead Souls, in which the unifying theme of Chichikov’s fraud is no more than a device to link together the cameos of the different characters and the physical environment peculiar to each. Such an approach is especially suited to drama, where the microcosm is the illusion created on the stage, and Gogol makes distinctive use of the interplay between fantasy and reality in his dramatic works.
Compared with his production in other genres, Gogol’s output as a playwright was small. Although he worked on a number of subjects, he completed only one full-length play and two short comedies, the one-act play The Gamblers, written in 1832, and the two-act play Marriage, written in 1835 and performed unsuccessfully in 1842. The plot of The Gamblers turns on a cheat cheated, while Marriage is an account of the bachelor Podkolyosin’s efforts to marry Agafya, admirably assisted by his friend Kochkarev, an erstwhile suitor of the same girl. The twist of the plot in this case is suggested by the subtitle “A Quite Incredible Incident,” as the wedding never comes off. These short comedies are more overtly humorous, more farcical, more boisterous than Gogol’s full-length comedy, also written in 1835, The Inspector General. Although the comic elements in all three works are very similar, The Inspector General is more fully rounded. Themes, characters, and humorous devices are all less condensed than in the shorter sketches Any assessment of Gogol’s drama should be based largely on The Inspector General.
The Inspector General
Gogol wrote The Inspector General as a comedy, taking as his main theme a case of mistaken identity. He had written in October, 1835, to Alexander Pushkin, asking for suggestions for a comic plot, and the poet furnished him with a description of how he himself had been mistaken for a government official during a trip to Nizhni Novgorod (now Gorki) and Orenburg in 1833.
The plot of the play is not complicated and may be briefly summarized: The corrupt officials of a provincial town receive a warning that a government official is on his way to the town to carry out a tour of inspection, but he will be traveling incognito. The officials are aware of what the implications of such an inspection could be for them personally, so they take stock of their shortcomings and devise ways to conceal them. They get no further than discussion, however, before news comes that the government inspector has been positively identified as a young man who has been staying at the local inn for the last two weeks.
The second act acquaints the audience with the disguised “official,” one Khlestakov, an indolent young man from the fringes of St. Petersburg society who is being forced by lack of funds to return to his home in the provinces. He aspires to the high life but enters the drama completely penniless, expecting at any moment to be arrested for his unpaid bill at the inn. Wondering whether he should sell his fashionable clothes for the price of a meal, he decides that on balance it is better to return home hungry but dressed in a civilized fashion.
The town notables descend on the inn, desperate to correct the bad impression that the inspector may have formed of conditions in the town. The mayor insists on accommodating the young man in his own house, to the delight of his wife and daughter, both of whom set out to captivate the visitor. Driven to desperation by the knowledge of their dereliction of duty, the officials line up to bribe the “inspector” to look the other way. News of the inspection has reached the townsfolk, too, and deputations arrive to protest about the conduct of the officials and to persuade the inspector to do something about it.
Considerably wealthier for all this flurried activity, Khlestakov quickly becomes engaged to the mayor’s daughter, Marya Antonovna, a state of affairs that delights her parents and fills their friends and associates with envy. Heeding his servant’s advice that the bubble may burst at any moment, Khlestakov prepares to leave, but not before he has sent off an account of his adventure to a literary friend in St. Petersburg. The mayor provides a fast carriage with excellent horses to speed the inspector on his way to Saratov, fondly anticipating a glorious future for himself and his wife once their daughter is married to this illustrious official.
The postmaster, however, appears with unwelcome news: He has intercepted and read Khlestakov’s letter, and the officials now realize that they have all been duped. They scarcely have time to adjust to this change in fortune when the arrival of the real government inspector is announced. The plot has thus come full circle. Not only does the original corruption still prevail in the town, but also the guilt of the townsmen, which has already prompted them to pay out large sums to cover it up, will doubtless cause them to do so again, for disaster is imminent once more.
Throughout the play, an underlying current of motifs suggests that the visitation by the official is a kind of nemesis, the working out of an implacable fate. In the very first scene, the mayor casually mentions the dream he has had of the two strange black rats which have come, sniffed around, and gone away; when Luka Lukich asks why an inspector should be coming at all, the mayor replies that it is obvious that it must be fate.
The possibility suggested by Victor Erlich, in his 1969 study of Gogol, is that the second government inspector may also be an impostor. This interpretation lengthens the chain of purgatory for the officials, because the real inspector’s visit is still to come, and both the second impostor and the real official will have to be placated before the townsmen can sink back undisturbed into their old way of life. As the play moves toward its climax, the theme of malevolent fate becomes more insistent, and the frequent references to the Devil hint at some strange force at work. The imminent arrival, and yet still nonappearance, of the “real” inspector causes the characters to freeze into a spectacle of horrified realization. In this there is an echo of the supernatural, macabre elements that characterize Gogol’s short stories, particularly “The Overcoat” (1842). The grotesque dualism of the story “The Nose” (1836), where the hero’s identity is usurped by his own nose, is prefigured in The Inspector General by the deliberate parallel between the beginning of the play and the end, between the first inspector and the second, and by the implication that future events will parallel those of the past.
Contemporary reaction to The Inspector General was unfavorable. It had its premiere on April 19, 1836, at the Alexsandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, and the first-night audience was hostile, seeing it as a tasteless critique of the civil service, directed at the government. In fact, the play is a satiric condemnation not of civil service per se, but of certain deeply rooted, unacceptable attitudes that pervaded it at all levels. Gogol’s experience of the state bureaucracy lent authority and conviction to his presentation of the peccadilloes of the leading citizens of the town. By concentrating on minor infringements of acceptable bureaucratic behavior and treating as humorous such ideas as the judge delaying his verdict on a lawsuit concerning land so that he can course for hares over the property of both plaintiffs, or the foreign doctor who cannot speak a word of Russian and only grunts onstage, the playwright suggests that the corruption revealed in the play is only the tip of the iceberg. The corruption and graft are all-pervasive and, by implication, ineradicable. The fact that the patients in the hospital die like flies is discussed on exactly the same level as the idea that it would be impressive to have their illnesses identified in Latin over their beds. Nor is it only the civil servants who are satirized: Gogol presents in an equally unfavorable light the landowners, represented by the comic fools Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, and the merchants. The latter, in their beards and kaftans, are stylized caricatures epitomizing the conservatives that were typical of their class.
The first-night audience was wrong, however, in attributing to Gogol any antigovernment sentiment. Contrary to the assumptions of Belinsky and the other pro-Western, liberal intellectuals who erroneously believed that the object of Gogol’s satire was to redress social injustice, Gogol was a conservative. Although ultimately his writing was to become merely a vehicle for his own philosophy of salvation for Russia, at the time of writing The Inspector General, his perception of social evil was unaffected by the impulse to gloss over anything that varied with his quasi-religious vision. As a result, the characters in the play appear very human, embodying all the idiosyncrasies and failings familiar to the audience from its own dealings with officialdom. The nineteenth century Russian audience recognized the truth of Gogol’s comedy, and rejected it, because it hit too close to home. The reason for the enduring popularity of The Inspector General is the essentially universal comic appeal of the characters and their preoccupations: The idea of demonstrating a high level of productivity in the hospital by kicking out some of the patients is as amusing today as it was in 1836.
The dominant comic theme of the work, mistaken identity, is developed by Gogol into a rich sampler of comic techniques, including slapstick and humorous character names as well as more subtle devices.
One of Gogol’s tactics is to subvert conventional dramatic themes. The exaggerated amorous attentions of the city dandy, for example, are based on sentiment so trite that when his propositioning of Marya Antonovna is interrupted by her mother, Khlestakov simply continues his gambit but directs it at another possible conquest. Here Gogol has reduced the traditional comic love theme to mere farcical essentials by portraying mother and daughter in direct competition for the same man. Apart from their opposition as rivals, there is very little difference between them as individuals. They are both the products of the provincial milieu, but they both aspire to the lifestyle that Khlestakov appears to enjoy.
Similarly, by inverting the theme of the superfluous hero, by treating it with irony and by reducing it to a very provincial level, Gogol armed himself for an attack on something for which he had a lifelong hatred—the humdrum banality of much of human existence. The object of his hatred is summed up in Russian in the single word poshlost, encompassing a whole range of meanings which can be conveyed in English only by a string of synonyms: vulgarity, triviality, mediocrity, banality, triteness, and pretension. His enemy is the humdrum, the banal, the poshlost of daily life at all levels of society, but most frequently, as in The Inspector General, and later in Dead Souls, he takes as his battleground the middle levels of society—lesser government employees in the capital, leading citizens in sleepy backwaters, provincial landowners stultified from years of vegetating in the backlands. All three types are well represented in The Inspector General, leavened by a sprinkling of different sorts of people: Osip the servant, the woman who was flogged, the merchants. It is by his choice of characters, by his skillful juxtapositions of different types and backgrounds that Gogol re-creates for the audience a world, real in terms of itself, a world which is familiar and recognizable because its problems are universal human problems. Because he takes comedy as his medium of expression, the audience is beguiled into feeling superior to the characters onstage. It is here that the essential quality of Gogol’s “realism” becomes apparent. His technique is to create an ostensibly real world, but it is a reality within a fantasy.
The realism of Gogol’s drama does not consist in his merely looking at certain social phenomena and re-creating them on the stage as a self-contained microcosm. Rather, he abstracts from his observations of human nature and everyday life certain key factors that he enlarges to grotesque proportions until they themselves become the raison d’être of the characters’ existence. To create a realistic background against which to set the distortion of reality experienced by his characters, Gogol draws on acute observation of social mores and human behavior. From the outset, the utter provinciality of the town is readily apparent. Discussing the judge’s suggestion that the inspector’s visit may be connected with treason of some kind, the mayor witheringly points out that one might gallop away from the town for three years without reaching a foreign country. Later, the position of the town is fixed a little more precisely as a point somewhere on the road between St. Petersburg and Saratov. It is thus firmly established that the town is a backwater, and not merely a provincial backwater, but an inherently old-style Russian one as well. Into this unchanging setting bursts Khlestakov, fresh from the capital and full of superficial notions of refinement and urbanity. Much of the comedy in the play arises from the interaction of these opposed sets of values, those of the slow-witted, socially naïve, stolid citizens on one hand, and on the other of the feckless Khlestakov, who has not one original thought in his head.
The Inspector General fully deserves its continuing popularity and its reputation as Gogol’s dramatic masterpiece. A harmonious combination of themes found in embryonic form in his earlier sketches, it surpasses these in terms of its breadth of vision and its far-reaching social satire. The continued relevance of the play after a century and a half testifies both to Gogol’s understanding of human nature and to his infallible sense of the comic in life, which together have created a universally recognizable imaginary world.
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