Gogol’s use of the grotesque and the fantastic to portray his characters in his attacks on society’s ills recalls Charles Dickens on the one hand, and on the other, his use of a narrator with his continual digressions and comments on the expectations of readers recalls Laurence Sterne. Like both Dickens and Sterne, Gogol delights in the use of language for its own sake: idiomatic phrases, phonetic and etymological puns, wordplay in general. The names of his characters, the little idiosyncrasies of their behavior, and the oddities of their physical appearance become major elements in the controlling tone of his fiction. Gogol does not deeply explore complex human motivation; rather, his method is to identify the flaws in people’s social behavior and to hold that behavior up for critical examination. Because his method focuses on people’s social actions, it is not surprising that Gogol also is the author of one of the world’s great comic dramas, Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1890), a satire that also examines men’s actions in bureaucratic organizations. Gogol, who worked as a bureaucrat himself, also wrote an epic novel of satire, Myortvye dushi (1842, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887), which examines provincial avarice and which is based on a bureaucratic flaw in the method of counting serfs for taxing purposes on pre-emancipated Russian estates.
His satiric approach is finally so effective because of his underlying concern with people’s inhumanity to others. In the character of Akaky, Gogol gave the world its first modern common man, a man who is overwhelmed by the complex bureaucracy of which he is a part.