Nikolai Gogol Drama Analysis
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 entire section is 2355 words.)