Nikolai Gogol

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Nikolai Gogol established his reputation on his remarkable short stories, but he is often better known in the West for his play Revizor (pr., pb. 1836; The Inspector General, 1890) and for the first part of his novel Myortvye dushi (1842; Dead Souls, 1887). Still the subject of much debate and criticism, his Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druzyami (1847; Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1969) represents a range from literary criticism to tendentious and presumptuous evaluation of Russia as seen from abroad.


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In Russian literature of both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Nikolai Gogol as an innovator in style and subject matter. He created a great and enduring art form composed of the manners of petty officials, small landowners, and the fantastic and all-too-real people who inhabit the three worlds that he describes: the Ukraine, St. Petersburg, and the Russian heartland.

Outside Russia, his influence can be detected most noticeably in Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), which centers on a conceit not unlike Nikolai Gogol’s hapless titular councillor in Gogol’s “Nos” (“The Nose”). Inside Russia, Fyodor Dostoevski is reputed to have begun the saying that “we all came from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” meaning that Gogol’s stories originated the themes, social and spiritual anguish, and other literary preoccupations of the rest of Russian literature.

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In common with the other major Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Nikolai Gogol did not restrict himself to any one genre. Indeed, with the exception of Alexander Ostrovsky, there was no nineteenth century Russian dramatist who was exclusively a playwright. Gogol was preeminently a writer of fiction, producing many short stories, most of which fall into two cycles, the Ukrainian cycle and the Petersburg cycle. His stories and novellas and part 1 of his novel Myortvye dushi (1842, part 2, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887) influenced writers not only in Russia but also throughout the world. In addition to fiction and drama, Gogol published a small amount of poetry, a number of essays, and a controversial didactic work, Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druzyami (1847; Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1969), which mixed religious exhortation with a defense of the czar and of the institution of serfdom.


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Nikolai Gogol laid the foundations of the school of realism in Russian literature. His artistic vision was rooted in the classical and romantic traditions, which furnished him with patterns for his earliest literary experiments, but an initial lack of success disappointed him and made him search for inspiration elsewhere. He found it ultimately in the everyday realities of contemporary Russian life, an inexhaustible fund of material that his unique perception reworked to produce some of the best-loved classics of Russian literature.

Gogol brought into sharp focus types and characters that had previously made only incidental appearances in literary works. Although earlier writers had occasionally taken people of obscure social origins as their main characters, their plots tended to be developed along tragic, and therefore ennobling, lines. Gogol’s characters mark a departure from this norm, for he introduces elderly boors, corrupt officials, and downtrodden functionaries to highlight them as what they are and to laugh at them for their failings. Like all truly great comic writers, however, Gogol looked beyond the surface of his characters. A person who is the object of ridicule is often pitiable, and it is a close step from the pitiable to the tragic. At times, Gogol seems to understand and sympathize with the limitations of his characters, mitigating the caustic intolerance that otherwise predominates in his treatment of them. His understanding of his characters is based on his observance of human...

(This entire section contains 415 words.)

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nature, which at times verges on psychological study, though this focus never develops in Gogol’s writing to the extent it does later in Fyodor Dostoevski’s great novels. Of the nineteenth century Russian realists, Dostoevski probably owes the most to Gogol; his famous remark, “We have all come from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” was an acknowledgment of the key role that Gogol’s writing played in the development of Russian realism.

Gogol’s genius lies in his ability to capture the essence of the ridiculous in life, and the continued popularity and relevance of his works is proof of their universal appeal. He was innovative in shifting the focus of his writing away from the conventional literary settings of the day, the upper echelons of society and romantic wildernesses, to concentrate on the back streets of the capital and obscure provincial locales. The appeal of his work, however, is not limited by the concreteness of the historical setting that his attention to detail evokes. His characters transcend their time and place; their bizarre vitality has not become dated.

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Nikolai Gogol (GAW-guhl) authored many short stories, most of which are part of his “Ukrainian cycle” or his later “Petersburg cycle.” He also wrote many plays, including Revizor (pr., pb. 1836; The Inspector General, 1890) and Zhenit’ba (pr., pb. 1842; Marriage: A Quite Incredible Incident, 1926), as well as a great deal of nonfiction, much of it collected in Arabeski (1835; Arabesques, 1982) and Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druzyami (1847; Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1969). Gogol’s Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (1940-1952; collected works), which includes unfinished works and drafts as well as his voluminous correspondence, fills fourteen volumes. All of Gogol’s finished works, but not his drafts or correspondence, are available in English translation.


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Nikolai Gogol’s first collection of short stories, Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (1831, 1832; Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, 1926), made him famous, and his second collection, Mirgorod (1835; English translation, 1928), highlighted by the story “Taras Bulba,” established his reputation as Russia’s leading prose writer. While Gogol’s early stories, set in the Ukraine, are for the most part conventionally Romantic, his later Petersburg cycle of short stories, among which “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“Diary of a Madman”) and “Shinel” (“The Overcoat”) are two of the best known, marks the beginning of Russian critical realism. Gogol’s comedic plays are classics and are as popular on the stage (and screen) today as they were in Gogol’s lifetime.

Gogol’s novel Dead Souls is rivaled only by Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) as the greatest prose work of Russian literature. Russian prose fiction is routinely divided into two schools: the Pushkinian, which is objective, matter-of-fact, and sparing in its use of verbal devices; and the Gogolian, which is artful, ornamental, and exuberant in its use of ambiguity, irony, pathos, and a variety of figures and tropes usually associated with poetry. Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev belong to the Pushkinian school; Fyodor Dostoevski, to the Gogolian. In his historical, critical, and moral essays, but especially in Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, Gogol established many of the principles of Russian conservative thought, anticipating the ideas of such writers as Dostoevski and Apollon Grigoryev.

Discussion Topics

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Some have called Nikolai Gogol “the Russian Dickens.” What resemblances do you see between Gogol and Charles Dickens?

How does Gogol enlist sympathy for Akaky in “The Overcoat”? Is it undercut by the “supernatural revenge” at the end?

Show how Gogol’s rather offhand remarks and comments in his fiction contribute to its humorous effect.

What absurdist features do you find in Gogol’s writing, and can you make any comparison between them and similar effects in more recent fiction?

Some readers who come to Gogol after reading other Russian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, are disappointed that Gogol does not seem serious. Consider the matter of Gogol’s seriousness or lack of it.

Argue that Gogol is or is not a champion of the underdog.


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Erlich, Victor. Gogol. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. For nonspecialists, this book may be the most accessible and evenhanded. Erlich concentrates on Gogol’s oeuvre without shortchanging the generally disavowed Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. He deals with much of the “myth” of Gogol and supplies interesting background to the making of Gogol’s works.

Fanger, Donald L. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. Fanger presses deeply into the background material and includes in his purview works both published and unpublished, in his effort to reveal the genius of Gogol’s creative power. This book is worthwhile in many respects, particularly for the wealth of details about Gogol’s life and milieu. Includes twenty-eight pages of notes and an index.

Fusso, Susanne, and Priscilla Meyer, eds. Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1992. A collection of essays on Gogol from a conference at Wesleyan University. Bibliography and index.

Gippius, V. V. Gogol. Translated by Robert Maguire. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. Originally written in 1924, this famous monograph supplies not only the view of a fellow countryman but also a vast, informed, and intellectual analysis of both the literary tradition in which Gogol wrote and his innovation and contribution to that tradition. Vastly interesting and easily accessible. Contains notes and a detailed list of Gogol’s works.

Hart, Pierre R. “Narrative Oscillation in Gogol’s ‘Nevsky Prospect.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 639-645. Argues that the story is a commentary on the author’s development of strategies to deal with reality; discusses the urban scene in the story, suggesting that the city forces the protagonist into a final defensive position.

Jenness, Rosemarie K. Gogol’s Aesthetics Compared to Major Elements of German Romanticism. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. An examination of aesthetics in the works of Gogol and an analysis of German romanticism. Bibliography and index.

Karlinsky, Simon. The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol. 1976. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. A look at Gogol’s literature and his relations with men. Contains annotated bibliography of Gogol’s works in English. Index.

Luckyj, George Stephen Nestor. The Anguish of Mykola Hohol a.k.a. Nikolai Gogol. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1998. Explores Gogol’s life and how it affected his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. The most comprehensive study in English of Gogol’s entire writing career. Incorporates a chronology, detailed notes, and an extensive bibliography.

Maguire, Robert A., ed. Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. This collection of essays, with a lengthy introduction by the editor and translator, represents some of the most famous and influential opinions on Gogol in the twentieth century. Some of the most problematic aspects of Gogol’s stylistics, thematics, and other compositional elements are addressed and well elucidated. Bibliography, index.

Rancour-Laferriere, David. Out from Under Gogol’s “Overcoat”: A Psychoanalytic Study. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982. This specialized study proves very exciting to the reader of Gogol. Much of the discussion focuses on the particular usage of words by Gogol. Even students with no command of Russian will find the explication understandable since the examples are clear and self-defining. Much of the discussion comprises very modern literary-analytical technique and may prove of good use to the reader. Contains a bibliography that includes many background works.

Robey, Judith. “Modelling the Reading Act: Gogol’s Mute Scene and Its Intertexts.” Slavic Review 56 (Summer, 1997): 233-250. Discusses scenes in which viewers look at paintings in Gogol’s fiction and essays; argues these moments correspond to a metanarrative in Gogol’s works in which reading is depicted as a process that can lead to redemption and salvation.

Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Gogol: His Life and Works. Translated by Robert Kramer. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Still often recommended in undergraduate courses, Setchkarev’s monograph concentrates on both the biography and the works, seen individually and as an artistic system. Very straightforward and easily readable, this work might be perhaps the best place for the student to begin.

Shapiro, Gavriel. Nikolai Gogol and the Baroque Cultural Heritage. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A scholarly study of the literary style of Gogol, examining its links to Baroque literature.

Spieker, Sven, ed. Gogol: Exploring Absence: Negativity in Nineteenth Century Russian Literature. Bloomington, Ind.: Slavica, 1999. A collection of essays on Gogol focusing on negativity in his works and those of other Russian writers. Bibliography and index.

Tosi, Alessandra. “Andrei Kropotov’s ‘Istoriia o Smurom Kaftane’: A Thematic Source for Gogol’s ‘Shinel’?” The Slavonic and East European Review 76 (October, 1998): 601-613. Compares Gogol’s “The Overcoat” with Kropotov’s earlier story; in both stories a trivial garment takes on significance for the main characters and ultimately causes their ruin. Discusses the similarity in the twists in the plots; suggests that Kropotov’s story may have been source for Gogol’s.

Troyat, Henri. Divided Soul. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. This study provides perhaps the most information on Gogol’s life and demonstrates masterfully how Gogol’s life and work are inextricably intertwined. Troyat does not neglect the important role that “God’s will” played in Gogol’s life, the thread that lends the greatest cohesion to the diverse developments in his creative journey. The volume contains some interesting illustrations, a bibliography, notes, and an index.


Critical Essays