Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” was the inspiration for many major nineteenth century Russian authors. The impact of this work was summarized by Fyodor Dostoevski in a now-famous statement: “We all come from under Gogol’s ’Overcoat.’” Gogol’s fiction, his life (particularly in his social origins), his orientation toward Russian society, and his literary aspirations anticipated experiences common to many of his literary followers.
Gogol’s life was aristocratic to the core, containing at the same time many of the most venerable and lackluster elements of this dominant Russian social class. He was the son of a Ukrainian noble who enjoyed some prestige and little wealth. Gogol early abandoned any thought of leading a bucolic life. Instead, he moved to St. Petersburg, the capital of czarist Russia, and attended a school designed to prepare him for a profession in the department of justice. A career in the Russian civil service was entirely in keeping with one of the most esteemed values of the nobility, service to society. Gogol hoped to achieve this goal as a bureaucrat rather than as an agronomist.
After less than a year, however, Gogol became intolerant of the tedium of the bureaucratic life and began to write. He led a dissident and cavalier life, wrote an epic poem and, after borrowing money from his mother, published his own work. The poem was unsuccessful. Distraught, Gogol purchased all the copies he could locate and burned them. Ironically, he framed his literary life with the burning of his work. Shortly before his death, he spent an entire evening casually tossing a manuscript of the second part of Myortvye dushi (1842, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887) into a stove.
Disenchanted with St. Petersburg, with his literature, and with his career, Gogol again borrowed from his nearly penniless mother and left Russia for Western Europe. Like other Russian writers who followed, Gogol spent most of his productive life in Western Europe. He died in Russia in 1852. At the time of his death, he had become a religious fanatic, and his death was the result of a grotesque religious fast. Even in his death, he was a model for future writers, such as Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom became religious zealots in their later lives.
Gogol’s published works are relatively few in number. He is best remembered for Dead...
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