Nikolai Gogol World Literature Analysis
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,...
(The entire section is 2727 words.)