Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2727
Early in his literary career, Gogol strove to entertain his more cosmopolitan Russian readers with tales of Ukrainian folk customs and superstitions. Supernatural tales were very popular at that time, and the main literary method was to structure a story in such a way that the events related could be attributed either to natural or to supernatural causes. The tension between the two possibilities of interpretation was a key aspect of the narration. Occurrences of spontaneous human combustion, as Gogol relates in “Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala” (“St. John’s Eve”), from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and in “Viy,” from Mirgorod, and again later in Dead Souls, can be seen either as evidence of unknown natural processes or as divine intercession in human events.
As Gogol’s career matured, he began to deviate from the prevailing modes of prose narration, both in theme and in method. Indeed, his innovations in these areas defined his greatness as a writer. Taras Bulba (1835, 1842; English translation, 1886) was a harbinger of thematic innovation, with its treatment of a father’s killing of his own son for reasons of obsessive pride. This story also shows the transcendence of the narration itself over its relation to reality, a later Gogol hallmark. That is, the time frame of Taras Bulba is hard to define, and the specific ethnic conflicts among Cossacks and Turks and Poles are only vaguely explored, if at all. The time line of the narrative misses subtleties of season or of reasonable travel time between the cities depicted, yet the reader is swept into the relationships of the characters and into their actions by the power of Gogol’s narration. By the time of his Arabesques collection, Gogol had essentially abandoned the tales of Ukrainian life and was writing stories that were intended not only to entertain and amuse but also to edify and mystify. The struggle between good and evil and its consequences for ordinary people gained primacy in Gogol’s characterizations.
Long a part of Slavic narrative technique is the “telling of what is not.” Gogol elevated this technique to literary use and availed himself of it on a multitude of levels. He deliberately sought to bring to the reader’s attention details that other writers would not consider worth mentioning—descriptions of meals eaten, street signs passed, dogs encountered. In Dead Souls, Gogol justifies his fixation on detail by writing that “microscopes, revealing the movements of unseen creatures, are just as wonderful as telescopes, which give us a new view of the sun.” The reader is deluged with what is not of significance to the main plot, as well as with what is. Digression follows digression until the point is almost, but not quite, lost. Characters are created and explored and then suddenly dropped.
In Gogol’s earlier work, his satire is largely devoid of sympathy for its human objects. The epigraph to his play The Inspector General quotes a Russian popular saying, “If your face is skew don’t blame the mirror.” In his later “Confession by an Author,” Gogol writes that he “resolved in The Inspector General to pile all the rubbish of Russia together . . . and laugh at the whole lot.” Provincial officials are parodied as petty, corrupt, venal, and downright foolish in their attempts to find favor in the eyes of Khlestakov, a St. Petersburg clerk whom they mistakenly believe is a government inspector general. Khlestakov soon assumes the pose with relish but is revealed as a fraud when the local postmaster reads his letter to a friend in which, to their horror, the parodied provincial officials are ridiculed.
As Gogol matured as a writer, he developed more sympathy for his objects of ridicule, obviously identifying with them personally as a human being caught in the clash of forces, both social and spiritual, beyond human control. In “The Overcoat,” the reader can feel Gogol’s sympathy for the tormented Akaky Akakievich, the office copy clerk who is the butt of his coworkers’ pranks. Gogol gives Akaky a supernatural revenge for the cruelty and the slights. In Dead Souls, Gogol summarized his relationship with his characters in this way: “Supernatural powers have ordained that I should walk hand in hand with my odd heroes, observing the life that flows majestically past me, conveying it through laughter, which the world can hear, while seeing it myself through tears it never suspects.” This “laughter through tears” is the most lasting literary legacy of Nikolai Gogol.
“The Diary of a Madman”
First published: “Zapiski sumasshedshego,” 1835 (collected in Arabesques, 1982)
Type of work: Short story (in diary form)
The reader witnesses the progression of a man’s insanity in twenty entries from his diary.
In “The Diary of a Madman,” the eccentric clerk Poprishchin is infatuated with the daughter of his office director. He records in his diary that he has intercepted a letter from her dog to another dog. The contents eventually lead him to conclude that “women are in love with the Devil,” a fact that only he has discovered. Soon, he ceases going to work, where his main task is to sharpen the director’s quills, because he has become the king of Spain, although “Spain and China are one and the same country.” The flimsy moon, he relates, is inhabited by people’s noses, and that is why they cannot see them on their own faces.
Poprishchin (whose name evokes the Russian word for “pimple”) records October 3 as his first diary entry. Entries for October 4, November 6, and November 8 follow. As his insanity becomes more and more pervasive and debilitating, the entries are given dates such as “the 43rd Day of April in the year 2000” and “The 34th of yrae yraurbeF 349.” The reader begins to see shadows of reality in Poprishchin’s ramblings, as when he mentions the “Spanish court custom” requiring that his head be shaved and that water be dripped on it. In his last entry, Poprishchin longs for escape. He wants to return to his peasant home and to his mother, saying,O mother, mother, save your unhappy son! Let a tear fall on his aching head! See how they torture him! Press the poor orphan to your bosom! He has no rest in this world; they hunt him from place to place. Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?
First published: “Nos,” 1836 (collected in The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, 1985)
Type of work: Short story
A St. Petersburg city official awakens without a nose and takes several courses of remedial action to no effect before the nose’s mysterious return.
Much has been made of the “nose” theme in Gogol’s work “The Nose.” American writer Vladimir Nabokov, in his interpretation, rejects the Freudian view that, in Gogol’s topsy-turvy world, the nose represents a misplaced phallus, and that his literary fixation on noses, sneezes, snuff, stinks, scents, and the like evidences his own uncertain sense of sexual identity. Instead, Nabokov attributes Gogol’s “olfactivism” to a general nasal consciousness in the Russian culture that was made more acute in Gogol’s work because of the peaked prominence of his own nose. Whatever the origin, Gogol’s tale is “verily a hymn to that organ.”
St. Petersburg barber Ivan Yakovlevich awakes to find a nose baked into his breakfast bread. He recognizes the nose as that of his recent customer, Major Platon Kovalyov, a collegiate assessor in the municipal government. Harangued by his wife, he seeks to dispose of the nose by wrapping it in a cloth and throwing it into the water below the Isaac Bridge. He is observed in this act, however, by a policeman. Kovalyov awakens, looks in the mirror, and notices that his nose is missing. He is most upset about this, so he covers his face with a handkerchief and walks out onto Nevsky Prospect to seek aid. His sense of embarrassment prevents him from approaching anyone, however, and his discomfiture is greatly increased when, in front of a confectionary shop, he encounters his nose exiting a carriage. Since his nose is wearing the uniform of an official of higher rank than his, Kovalyov importunes the nose very politely to return to his face. The nose, however, is indignant and denies that there can be any close ties between them, before haughtily walking away.
Kovalyov goes to seek the aid of the chief of police, but the chief of police is not at home. Kovalyov realizes that he must act on his own to effect the return of his nose. He contemplates advertising in the newspaper for its return but rejects the idea. At this point, the policeman who had observed Yakovlevich throwing the nose off the Isaac Bridge comes to Kovalyov’s house to inform him that the nose “had been arrested just as it was getting into a carriage for Riga.” The nose is now returned to Kovalyov in its cloth wrapping. Kovalyov is very grateful, but he does not know how to stick the nose back onto his face. A physician whom he consults on the matter is of no help at all.
Thinking things over, Kovalyov concludes that the loss of his nose is the result of a spell put on him by his superior’s wife, Madame Podtochina, whose ire he aroused when he refused to marry her daughter. He writes Madame Podtochina a letter, demanding that she restore his nose to its rightful place or face “legal procedures.” Kovalyov’s quandary continues until April 7, when he awakens to find his nose returned to its proper place in the middle of his face.
The notion of a nose disappearing from a man’s face, assuming human size, rank, and uniform, is Gogol’s way of expressing life’s absurdity. The reader’s sense of expected reality is violated. Is this the relation of dreams? Is it the rambling of a madman? Are there unexplained facts behind it all? What does it mean? Many authors since have included similar violations of expected reality in their literary art. Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), in which a man wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect, comes to mind. Gogol characterizes the entire story within the narrative as one of those “strange things” that “happen all the time.” “Whatever you might say,” he writes in the famous concluding sentences, “such things do happen, rarely perhaps, but they do.”
First published: “Shinel,” 1842 (collected in The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, 1985)
Type of work: Short story
A downtrodden copy clerk saves for months to buy an overcoat, but before he can enjoy it, it is stolen, and as a result, he dies.
In many a workplace, there is one person who serves as the object of the others’ cruel amusement. In “The Overcoat,” that person is Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a poor office worker whose very name reminds a Russian of excrement-befouled boots (from “kaka,” the child’s word for excrement, and “bashmak” for boot or shoe). His coworkers poke endless fun at him. They tear paper into confetti and sprinkle it over his head. Akaky protests only when the torment becomes extreme. Otherwise, he is content to work as a copy clerk, keeping his pencils sharp and copying document after document all day.
The fiercely cold St. Petersburg winter forces Akaky to consider the purchase of a new overcoat, since his old coat has worn to complete transparency and is useless. The tailor, Petrovich, suggests the possibility of owning a splendid new coat with a “catskin collar that could pass for marten.” After months of the most sacrificing parsimony (so many months, in fact, that it would have been summer and the coat not needed, but Gogol’s narrative logic is not fazed by this fact), Akaky saves the needed eighty rubles to buy the coat. He immediately wears it to work and basks for the first time in the admiration of his coworkers. One of them even invites Akaky to a birthday party. On the way home after the party, a group of “people with moustaches,” one of whom had a “fist the size of a civil servant’s head,” accosts him and strips him of his new coat.
Akaky knows that seeking redress for such a crime from the police is futile. Instead, he makes an appointment to see a “very important person.” This “very important person,” however, sees Akaky only as someone else to intimidate. He booms out three questions at Akaky (there is much triplicity in Gogol’s work): “Are you aware who you are talking to?” “Do you realize who is standing before you?” and “Do you hear me?” Akaky flees this person’s office in terror, goes home coatless through the winter wind, and takes to bed with a swollen throat and a fever. In three days, he is dead. It takes another three days for his office to miss him and replace him with another copy clerk, whose letters were written “in a hand quite unlike Akaky Akakievich’s upright ciphers, sloping heavily to one side.”
The sad story is not ended, however, as a mysterious ghost begins to haunt St. Petersburg near the area of the department. The ghost accosts people and strips them of their coats. Indeed, the “very important person,” whose conscience had begun to trouble him over his treatment of Akaky, is accosted by the ghost and has his coat stolen as well. The reader feels that, in death, Akaky is wreaking his revenge on those who slighted him in life. The coat-stealing ghost is not seen again after the robbery of the “very important person’s” coat. Another ghost, though, is seen by a cowardly constable, who is taken aback by the “much taller” apparition’s “enormous moustache” and a “fist such as you would see on no living man.” With this baffling inclusion, Gogol ends his classic story of the “little man” and his mistreatment by society.
“The Overcoat” has been a very influential story in world literature. Many literary works that treat the problems of an individual in a callous society with some psychological depth and empathy owe a debt to Gogol. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski’s famous remark that “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat” still held true through much of the twentieth century. The “little tramp” films of the English actor Charlie Chaplin also embody Gogolesque aspects of the “little man” and the “laughter through tears” character type.
First published: Myortvye dushi, part 1, 1842; part 2, 1855 (English translation, 1887)
Type of work: Novel
A con artist plans to purchase “dead souls,” or serfs, from a number of provincial landowners who turn out to be the real “dead souls.”
In Gogol’s time, a Russian landowner could buy and sell serfs, or “souls,” like any other property. The serfs were counted, for the purpose of tax assessment, every ten years. Thus, a landowner still had to pay taxes on the value of serfs who had died, until the next ten-year census could legally record the deaths. In Dead Souls, a prose novel subtitled A Poem, Gogol’s hero, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, plans to buy the titles to these “dead souls” and use them as collateral to obtain a large loan. He comes to a small provincial town and begins to proposition the local landowners: the slothful Manilovs (the “kind-manners”), the slovenly Plewshkin (“Mr. Spitoon”), the coarse Sobakievich (“Mr. Dog”), the cautious Madame Korobachka (“Mrs. Box”), and the bully and cheat Nozdryov (“Mr. Nostrils”). These landowners are revealed to be so petty and avaricious that not even Chichikov’s amazing offer can be worked to his advantage on them. Some stall, some refuse for no obvious reasons, some promise and then renege, and others want “in on the deal.” In the end, Chichikov, having concluded that the landowners are a hopeless lot, leaves for other regions.
Throughout Dead Souls, Gogol presents Russian life as a mosaic of strangely intersecting inanities. He makes his authorial presence felt as a first-person commentator. His commentator’s stance is curiously unresolved. Though he likens Russia to the “fastest troika imaginable . . . racing headlong . . . inspired by God,” he seems most insistent, with his wordy, tongue-in-cheek prose, in portraying the life within its borders as inalterably superficial.
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