Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1676
First published: 1835 (English translation, 1886)
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Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: Fifteenth century
Taras Bulba, a Cossack warrior
Ostap, Taras’ older son
Andrii, Taras’ younger son
Yankel, a Jewish merchant
Daughter of the Polish Waiwode, Andrii’s sweetheart
When the two sons of Taras Bulba returned home after finishing their studies at the Royal Seminary in Kiev, their father ridiculed their monastic garb. Ostap, the older of the two brothers, insisted that any insult must be avenged, and father and son began to exchange blows. Taras, learning in this manner that Ostap was a stout contender, embraced him heartily. The father also would have liked to try the mettle of his younger son, Andrii, but his wife intervened, preventing any more fistfights.
In honor of his sons’ arrival, Taras entertained all the local officers of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Under the stimulus of corn brandy, Taras resolved to take his sons the next day to the Setch, the permanent camp of the fighting Cossacks. The mother was heartbroken to hear that she must part with her sons, but Taras was firm. Before the party left for the encampment, all sat down, even the servants, while the mother blessed her sons and gave them holy pictures to wear around their necks.
Taras Bulba and his sons rode off together across the steppes, each concerned with his own thoughts. Taras was a Cossack leader imbued with the old-fashioned ideas that the only good life was that of the soldier. Ostap, when first enrolled at the seminary, had found life there unbearable; but he gradually grew accustomed to scholastic life and became a good student. Though not a leader at the seminary, he was willing to follow other boys whose main interests, like his own, were war and revelry. Andrii was of a different sort. He was a willing student and a better leader, but he was also passionately fond of women, who came in his dreams to trouble his sleep. He remembered a beautiful girl who one day had laughed from her window. Learning that she was the daughter of the Polish Waiwode of Koven, Andrii daringly visited the girl in her bedroom the following night. To his regret, she left the city with her father soon afterward.
Three days later Taras and his sons reached the suburb of the Setch, where the workmen and merchants for the great encampment were located. Finally they came to the Setch itself, and the Cossacks uproariously greeted Taras, their old comrade-in-arms. The only requirements for admission to the Setch were belief in Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the Church. If the members lacked money, they simply plundered the merchants in the suburb. Andrii and Ostap fitted well into this wild life and soon gained recognition among the Cossacks for their bravery and daring.
Not wanting his sons to be idle, Taras consulted the Cossack leader about the possibility of stirring up some bold enterprise. Taras suggested attacking the Turks, but he was told that a treaty of peace had been signed with the sultan. Sly Taras then arranged for a meeting of the whole encampment, at which Kirdyaga, a close friend, was chosen as the new leader. The next day, Kirdyaga called the group together and harangued them into voting for a raid on the coasts of Anatolia.
The Setch immediately became active with preparations for the march. Before the arrangements were completed, however, a group of Cossacks appeared in a barge and reported persecution and defeat at the hands of the Poles. The Jews were also accused, and so the enraged Cossacks threw the Jewish merchants into the Dnieper River. Only one escaped, a trader named Yankel, who was saved by the intercession of Taras Bulba.
The Zaporozhti began their trek of pillage and plunder throughout southeast Poland. When they arrived at the city of Dubno, they found it heavily garrisoned and walled. The Zaporozhti then surrounded Dubno, cutting off all food supplies from the surrounding district, and gave themselves up to pillage and drunken revelry.
Both of Taras’ sons were bored with this inactivity. One night Andrii was awakened by a Tatar serving woman. She told him that her mistress was the beautiful daughter of the waiwode, the girl whom he had encountered at Kiev. The girl had seen him from the walls and had sent her servant through a secret gate to ask Andrii to visit her in the city and to bring food for her starving family. Andrii stole a sack of bread and accompanied the tatar into Dubno. When he met the waiwode’s daughter, she seemed more beautiful to his sight than ever; in her embrace, he forgot home, honor, country, loyalty, and Church.
A short time later Taras learned of his son’s treachery from Yankel, who had been inside the city walls. The old Cossack was furious at Andrii but proud of Ostap, who had been raised in rank and put in command of a large unit. Then news came that the Setch had been invaded by the Tatars. Half the Cossacks departed to pursue the Tatars, while the others remained at the siege of Dubno, Taras and Ostap among them. To bolster the courage of his warriors, Taras gave the Cossacks a large supply of wine he had brought along for just such a purpose.
One day there was a great battle, a fight in which most of the Cossacks were killed or captured. Toward the end of the fray, Andrii appeared, richly attired, to fight against his own people. Taras, who saw him come into the battle, maneuvered his men so that he and his son met alone. Taras shot Andrii, who died with the name of the waiwode’s daughter on his lips. The victorious Poles captured Ostap, who had distinguished himself in the battle. After receiving a serious wound, Taras was rescued by a faithful servant. He regained consciousness on the way back to the Setch, where he learned that not another man who had been on the expedition had returned.
Unable to forget Ostap, now a prisoner of the Poles, Taras set out for the city of Ouman. There he found Yankel, who for a large sum was persuaded to conduct Taras to the hostile city of Warsaw in search of Ostap. Hidden under a load of bricks, Taras entered the city, but he was unable to see Ostap before the day the Cossack prisoners were led out for torture and death. When Ostap called out for his father, Taras was unable to endure the sight of his son’s torture in silence. Taras answered him so that Ostap knew his father was close by at his death.
Thus discovered, Taras was pursued but escaped to the Ukraine, where he became the leader of a Cossack band. When the Zaporozhian chiefs made peace with the Poles, Taras broke away with a band of his followers and raided towns and cities throughout Poland. Finally, pursued by five regiments, he was taken prisoner. Crucified to a burning tree, Taras Bulba died calling to his comrades to carry on their fight for freedom.
TARAS BULBA, a tribute to the Cossack way of life and the Cossack code of honor, is a prose poem that reveals a nostalgic longing for the verities of the past, outdated even in the author’s own time. The novel takes its romantic flavor from such nostalgia, for Nikolai Gogol depicts the acts and beliefs of the Cossacks as heroic. Neither is cruelty condemned nor prejudice decried. The twentieth century reader may thus find some aspects of TARAS BULBA shocking: the way of life in the Setch, the pogrom, Taras’ execution of Andrii and Taras’ fiery crucifixion, to name only a few. Gogol, however, made no pretense at historical authenticity. Indeed, the story is highly fanciful and even contradictory at times. On the one hand, for example, Taras is described as a character who could have lived only in the fifteenth century. On the other hand, Taras’ sons, at the very beginning of the story, are returning home from a Kiev college, which was not founded until the early seventeenth century. Thus, however shocking the story might seem, the shock is mitigated by inconsistencies, which remind the reader that the story is a product less of the conventional historical romance tradition than of Gogol’s unfettered imagination.
In fact, Taras himself was a larger-than-life hero, an incarnation of the ideal Cossack. Unswervingly loyal to the Cossack cause, he accepted the rules and punishments of the Setch and the Cossack’s code of honor without question. Indeed, he endorsed these standards verbally and enforced them physically. On the three-day trip with his sons, from Mirgorod to Zaporozh’ ye Setch, for example, Taras allowed no drinking, although he both encouraged and joined in marathon drinking bouts at the Cossack encampment in the Setch and elsewhere. He strictly adhered to the rule of celibacy at the Setch and expected others to do likewise. As far as he was concerned, the rules and punishments of the Setch were absolute: A Cossack who stole from another Cossack was flogged to death; a Cossack who did not promptly pay his debt to another Cossack was chained to a cannon until a comrade paid his debt for him; and a Cossack who murdered another Cossack was buried alive with his victim.
To Taras, the Cossack code of honor—loyalty, dedication, and bravery—was paramount. His notions of loyalty were clearly expressed in his speech about comradeship to his fellow Cossacks on the eve of renewing the siege of Dubno. His dedication to the Cossack cause was reflected in his killing of Andrii for betraying the cause. His bravery was demonstrated in his disparagement of his very serious wound and in his unflagging courage when he was burned at the stake. Taras Bulba is certainly the perfect Cossack, and his pristine integrity nobly shoulders the dramatic burden of this bloody but compelling novel.