Nikolai Vasil'evich Gogol was born on 20 March 1809 in the small Ukrainian town of Velikie Sorochintsy in the Mirgorod district, Poltava province. He was the first surviving child of Maria Ivanovna and Vasilii Afanas'evich Gogol-Ianovsky, landowners of modest means. Gogol's parents were alarmed by their son's tiny size and fragile health. To bolster his chances of survival, they named him for St. Nikolai, whose icon the neighboring town of Dikanka revered. They also built a small church in the name of their infant son on his home estate of Vasil'evka. The circumstances of his parents' marriage underscores the seemingly spiritual nature of Gogol's birth; he was the product of what the family considered a divinely ordained union. At thirteen, Gogol's father, Vasilii Afanas'evich, saw the Virgin Mary in a dream; pointing to a baby girl, she told him that the child would someday be his wife. Vasilii Afanas'evich recognized his neighbors' seven-month-old daughter, Maria Ivanovna Kosiarovskaia, whom he later married.
Young Nikolai was the darling of the Gogol-Ianovsky family, even after the birth of his siblings: Maria in 1811, Ivan in 1812, Anna in 1821, Elizaveta in 1823, and Ol'ga in 1825. The conditions of Gogol's childhood resound in his writing. His mother instilled in him colorful beliefs about heaven and hell; his father, who wrote Ukrainian folk comedies, showed Gogol the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the humor of its inhabitants; Gogol's paternal grandmother filled his mind with Cossack legends, ancient songs, and terrifying folk-tales.
The Gogol-Ianovsky home was a lively place, filled with visitors who enjoyed the family's hospitality and the abundance of their table. However, despite the richness of the land, Gogol's father was a dreamy man who managed his estate and affairs poorly. When Gogol left for school at age ten, a distant relative and family benefactor, Dmitrii Prokof'evich Troshchinsky, financed the boy's education.
In the spring of 1821 Gogol arrived at the High School for Advanced Study in Nezhin. Students and teachers at Nezhin did not warm quickly to Gogol, whose physical repulsiveness exacerbated his social ineptitude. The other boys thought the mottled skin of Gogol's pointed face and his unusually long, thin nose gave him a birdlike appearance. This epithet would be repeated throughout Gogol's life. The Nezhin school offered a nine-year course of study in religious education, Russian language and literature, Latin, Greek, German, French, physics, mathematics, political science, geography, history, military science, drawing, and dancing. However, Gogol took little interest in his schoolwork. He preferred instead to invent elaborate fabrications, assign nicknames to students, and write satirical verses about the teachers. Held at a distance by Gogol's insightful mockery, the community at the Nezhin school called him the "mysterious dwarf."
In 1825, during Gogol's fourth year at school, Vasilii Afanas'evich Gogol-Ianovsky died, leaving his sixteen-year-old son the male authority in the family (Gogol's brother, Ivan, drowned in 1819 at the age of seven). Bolstered by his new place in the family, Gogol returned to school that August with renewed vigor. He finally made friends among the boys who shared his growing interest in literature. The family benefactor, Troshchinsky, lent the students books from his personal library; French authors predominated in this collection, but there were also works of British, Spanish, and Russian literature. The students eventually decided to establish their own library of books and periodicals--of which Gogol was the librarian--by pooling their meager resources. Among the new talents of the day, Aleksandr Pushkin especially impressed Gogol. Pushkin's work, notably his novel in verse Evgeny Onegin (Eugene Onegin, 1823-1831, published in full in 1833), inspired Gogol and his fellow students to try their own hands at poetry.
Gogol's first literary endeavors were long, youthful poems that are no longer extant. On Sundays the students met to critique each others' work. When Gogol offered the group the story "Brat'ia Tverdoslavichi" (The Brothers Tverdoslavich) in 1826, all agreed that prose did not suit him, and Gogol destroyed the work. Ironically it was not until Gogol published his first collection of stories that Russian readers and writers alike would challenge the supremacy of the poetic genre.
Readings of student poetry gave way to theatrical performances. In a converted gym Gogol and his boyhood friends performed works of Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin, Ivan Andreevich Krylov, and Iakov Borisovich Kniazhnin along with the Ukrainian comedies of Gogol's father. Gogol was in his element on stage. Dressed as a crotchety old man or a female gossip, he displayed such dramatic talent and confidence that many thought Gogol would become an actor. Any aspirations he had for the stage remained unrealized, but those who were moved to tears and laughter when Gogol read his work in progress in Russian drawing rooms testify to the writer's great talent for losing himself in his characters.
During his final year at school, Gogol's thoughts turned increasingly to St. Petersburg. From his provincial distance Gogol perceived the Russian capital as a wondrous city of wealth and opportunity. There, he wrote friends and family, he would make a name for himself and serve Russia in government service or law. In his letters blind enthusiasm, conventional Christian piety, and a fascination with the latest fashions color Gogol's depiction of the civil servant. He arrived in St. Petersburg in December 1828 armed with letters of introduction that proved rather ineffectual. Gogol was insulted by the humble positions offered to him, disillusioned by the mindless workings of the civil bureaucracy, and irritated by the constraints of his own poverty. He finally accepted a post that paid poorly but demanded little of his time, and encouraged by the March 1829 publication of his short lyric "Italiia" (Italy) in Syn otechestva (Son of the Fatherland), he devoted himself to writing.
Gogol's first attempt to establish a literary identity and sympathetic readership in St. Petersburg ended in humiliating failure. In May 1829 Gogol published Gants Kiukhel'garten (Hanz Kuechelgarten) under the name V. Alov at his own expense. Initially ignored by the reading public and the critics, the idyll received two scornful reviews in June 1829 in Severnaia pchela (The Northern Bee) and Moskovskii telegraf (The Moscow Telegraph). Gogol was so disgraced by this reception that he bought and burned all remaining copies of Gants Kiukhel'garten.
Gants Kiukhel'garten is a menagerie of borrowings from Johann Heinrich Voss 's Luise: Ein laendliches Gedicht in drei Idyllen (1795) and also from George Gordon, Lord Byron ; Thomas Moore; Vicomte François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand; Vasilii Andreevich Zhukovsky; Vil'gel'm Karlovich Kiukhel'beker; and Pushkin. Donald Fanger says in The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (1979) that, despite its unremarkable poetics, Gants Kiukhel'garten shows the first stirrings of Gogol's understanding of the artist's vocation. In addition many motifs and images that later become important to Gogol's work are already present in the poem. Nabokov detects the spirit of Gogol's Ukrainian stories in a graveyard scene; the quiet home life and overladen tables depicted in Gants Kiukhel'garten are seen again in the well-fed domesticity of "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" (Old World Landowners, 1835).
In Gants Kiukhel'garten the title character forsakes the comforts of his idyllic German country home and his love, Luisa, for the wonders of Greece. Unable to find meaning in the ancient ruins, he returns to sing the praises of his homeland. The poem opens with a description of the village Luenensdorf as it is reflected in water, an inverted perspective that foreshadows Gogol's tendency to view the nature of his subject through a skewed lens: "Plenitel'no oborotilos' vse / Vniz golovoi v serebrianoi vode: / Zabor, i dom, i sadik v nei takie zh" (All things are turned enchantingly around, / Reversed, head first, within the silver water: / The fence and house and garden--all repeated).
The confusion of the village and its lifelike reflection is echoed immediately in Gogol's introduction of an elderly pastor, the heroine's grandfather. Dozing in a garden chair, the old man cannot distinguish dream from reality, a major theme in Gogol's later work. The pastor is awakened by a beautiful woman, whose lily whiteness is shared by almost every woman in Gogol's work. Like the artist Piskarev in Gogol's "Portret" (The Portrait, 1835), the pastor must wake up once again before he realizes that his granddaughter, Luisa--and not the heavenly creature of his dream--is standing before him.
With a sigh Luisa tells her grandfather about the mysterious agonies of young Gants. Oblivious to the present, Gants is engrossed with thoughts of a distant and glorious past, which comes to life for him in the ancient volumes he pores over at night. For Gogol the spatial and temporal estrangement of Gants from his object of intrigue is fundamental to the artist's unique ability to perceive beauty in a world of banalities. Gants longs to transcend the comfortable materialism of his provincial home, arriving in the dreamlike world of classical antiquity. "O, kak chudesno vy svoi mir / Mechtoiu, greki, naselili! / Kak vy ego obvorozhili! / A nash--i beden on, i sir, / I raskvadrachen ves' na mili" (How marvelous was the world wherein / You dwelt, O Greeks, as in a dream! / How you charmed it, made it gleam! / And ours: it's pallid, bare and thin, / And squared off by a mileage scheme).
In Athens, however, Gants discovers that he cannot resurrect the past among the ruins and that for such empty dreams he abandoned his home: "Zachem on put' siuda napravil, / Ne dlia istlevshikh li mogil / Krov bezmiatezhnyi svoi ostavil, / Pokoi svoi tikhii pozabyl?" (Why did he direct his path here? / Not, surely, for these graves of dust / Did he abandon his peaceful home, / Forget his quiet room?). He returns home a bent and weary pilgrim and pledges to celebrate only the pleasures of this world ("Ia svoiu Germaniiu poiu" [Of my own Germany I'll sing]).
Yet even as Gants vows to remain a disciple of earthly beauty, he grieves for the loss of his unrealizable dreams: "Proshchaias's nimi on navek, / Kak by po starom druge vernom, / Grustit v zabvenii userdnom" (On parting with those dreams for good, / It seems old faithful friends he's leaving, / And for them, lost in thought, is grieving). Gants Kiukhel'garten offers an early glimpse of the problematics of Gogol's own artistic aspirations. The artist needs "dusha zheleznoi voli" (a soul of iron will) to avoid worldly vanities or, lacking such resistance, should withdraw into the modest pleasures of family life. Yet as Gogol's earliest work intimates, the quiet solitude of home can be detrimental to the dreams essential to the artistic soul.
To recover from the devastatingJune 1829 critique of Gants Kiukhel'garten, Gogol left for Lübeck, Germany, in July of that year; he financed his travel with the money his mother had sent for him to pay the interest on the estate mortgage. Gogol's sudden departure reveals several tendencies that would soon establish a pattern in his life: a love-hate relationship with a perceived readership; the idea of travel as a remedy for personal and artistic crises; and a cunning willingness to deceive those closest to him, especially when in need of money.
Recalling his hero Gants, Gogol was disillusioned by the ordinariness of Lübeck and returned to St. Petersburg six weeks later. He took a position in the department of public buildings in the ministry of interior, where he worked until he transferred to the ministry of the court in April 1830. The publication of several of his early pieces proved to be the curative Germany was intended to be. "Bisavriuk" (Bisavriuk), later revised as "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala" (St. John's Eve), appeared anonymously in the February 1830 issue of Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland); "Glava iz istoricheckogo romana," a chapter from the incomplete historical novel "Get'man" (The Hetman), was published under the signature "OOOO" by Severnye tsvety (Northern Flowers) in December of the same year.
The following January Literaturnaia gazeta (The Literary Gazette) published a chapter from "Strashnyi kaban" (The Terrible Boar, another chapter of which appeared in March), signed "P. Glechik," along with "Mysli o geografii [dlia detskogo vosrasta]" (Some Thoughts on Teaching Geography to Children), signed "G. Ianov," and "Zhenshchina" (Woman), the first essay to use Gogol's name. The latter is a short, unrestrained meditation reworked from Gogol's school days and displaying the influence of the eternal feminine in German romanticism on the author. Woman balances man's contemptible corporeality; she is "poèziia" (poetry), the "iazyk bozh'ii" (language of the gods), the intangible Idea. All aesthetic inspiration stems from woman, who is the divine model from which the artist derives the material. Woman's ethereal purity defines the limits of her gender in Gogol's later characterizations; when a female character displays too forceful a bodily presence in his work, Gogol invariably emphasizes her often-grotesque manliness.
The director of Literaturnaia gazeta, Anton Antonovich Del'vig--a close friend of Pushkin and the poet Zhukovsky--took note of Gogol. Both Del'vig and Zhukovsky considered Gogol's civil position inappropriate for the new author. Through another friend of Pushkin, Petr Aleksandrovich Pletnev, Zhukovsky arranged for Gogol to teach history at the Patriotic Institute for the daughters of the nobility. Gogol took up his post on 10 March 1831. With waning enthusiasm Gogol relied on his weak knowledge to teach natural science, history, and geography. Most of all, students enjoyed listening to Gogol's hilarious Ukrainian anecdotes that he had collected from his family. These tales of Little Russia (as Ukraine was known prior to 1917) make up the first volume of his Dikanka stories.
In May, Pletnev invited Gogol to a reception in honor of Pushkin. Gogol was entranced by Pushkin, who greeted the younger writer amicably. This meeting between the two great writers was the first of many.
By the time Gogol's various preliminary work appeared in print, he had completed the stories that make up the first volume of Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan'ki . Although this collection established Gogol as a writer, several reviewers treated the originality of the work as a shortcoming. In his journal Severnaia pchela Faddei Venediktovich Bulgarin described the generally low qualities of Vechera as a lack of imagination, impoverished descriptions, and a shallowness of characterization. He wrote that Gogol's work was interesting only as a folkloric representation of the Russian or Slavic national spirit as preserved by the Ukrainian people. Others argued that the merit of the work--and the claim that the author was himself Ukrainian--suffered from ethnographical inaccuracies and an unlikely mingling of the Ukrainian and Russian languages. Combining cultural prejudice with a misunderstanding of innovative literary forms, Nikolai Alekseevich Polevoi flippantly noted in 1832 in the Moskovskii telegraf that the two volumes of Vechera must indeed be the work of a Ukrainian, who could not distinguish between significant and insignificant detail. Surprisingly the usually oversensitive Gogol was unfazed by this criticism. In addition to growing self-confidence and the prospect of financial success, Gogol had Pushkin's support and approval. Pushkin regarded Gogol's tales as fresh and lively; where others pointed out weakness, Pushkin saw strength.
Four stories comprise the first volume of Vechera. Gogol borrowed these tales from traditional folklore, but his use of authenticating detail--specifically Ukrainian customs, dress, and beliefs--to launch flights into the fantastic resulted in works of original literary prose. The deceptively simple beekeeper Rudyi Panko narrates the tales, directly addressing the readers and coaxing them into realms of the irrational that border the everyday world. The first part of Vechera is both playful and horrible; at times good and evil are no more than merriment and bedevilment while at other times they produce nightmarish tales and images. In these stories the boundaries between real and unreal blur as reality gives way to magical dream worlds and the laws of time and space are rendered mutable.
In "Sorochinskaia iarmarka" (The Fair at Sorochinsk) the hopes of the handsome young Grits'ko are dashed when the mean-spirited and domineering stepmother of the lovely Paraska will not allow the two to marry. At the Sorochintsy fair Grits'ko wagers that a gypsy cannot convince Paraska's father to permit the marriage. A rumor is circulating at the fair that scraps of the devil's red jacket have been seen, a sign of bad luck. Gripped by the fear of this jacket, Paraska's father is easy prey for the gypsy who, in the melee the devil story creates at the fair, beguiles him into accepting Grits'ko as a son-in-law.
The structure of "Sorochinskaia iarmarka" frames the interplay between the real and the fantastic in the devilish folktale. With his opening paean to a hot summer day in Little Russia, Gogol paints a detailed portrait that encompasses the fathomless sky, golden haystacks, and flittering insects. The artist's eye captures the beauty of the natural surroundings. "Nagnuvshiesia ot tiazhesti plodov, shirokie vetvi chereshen, sliv, iablon', grush; nebo, ego chistoe zerkalo--reka v zelenykh, gordo podniatykh ramakh kak polno sladostrastiia i negi malorossiiskoe leto!" (The broad branches of cherries, of plums, apples, and pears bent under their load of fruit, the sky with its pure mirror, the river in its green, proudly erect frame--how full of delight is the Little Russian summer!). The description of the colorful procession of wagons to the fair lacks the lofty tone of Gogol's verbal landscape, yet its naturalistic detail grounds the scene with the same sense of reality.
By the end of "Sorochinskaia iarmarka," however, the laws of the material world no longer motivate human action. The dancing crowd at Paraska and Grits'ko's wedding seems overcome by an all-encompassing force that grotesquely transforms even the oldest of guests into puppetlike automatons: "Starushki, na vetkhikh litsakh kotorykh veialo ravnodushie mogily, [tolkali] mezhdu novym, smeiushchimsia, zhivym chlovekom" (Old women, whose ancient faces breathed the indifference of the tomb, [shoved] their way between the young, laughing, living human beings). A mysterious power animates the soulless and the lifeless, blurring the boundary between living and dead. It is as if the mere telling of the story of the devil's jacket and its use in the gypsy's hoax introduces the irrational into the material world, confounding its laws of cause and effect.
Again, in "Maiskaia noch', ili Utoplennitsa" (A May Night, or The Drowned Maiden) an inner narrative affects the outcome of the love story that frames it. In this tale Levko's desire to wed Ganna is frustrated by his own father, the lecherous, one-eyed mayor of the town. Interjected into this love triangle is the legend that surrounds a deserted lakeside house on the outskirts of the village. Levko tells Ganna how the daughter of the Cossack officer who lived in the house was tormented by her stepmother, a witch. In her sorrow the girl drowned herself and, according to Russian folk belief, became a mermaid. One night the girl dragged her stepmother into the pond. The witch transformed herself into a mermaid to escape punishment, and any living man who can distinguish the stepmother among the other mermaids will be rewarded.
Attempting to curtail his father's interest in Ganna, Levko gathers the young men of the village together to create general confusion and to expose the mayor's lechery with satirical ditties. In the midst of this foolishness Levko wanders off and falls asleep by the deserted house of local legend. He dreams that the spurned daughter of the Cossack officer and her fellow mermaids surround him, compelling him to pick out the evil stepmother. He succeeds; the Cossack's drowned daughter gives him a note; and he awakes. The division between dream and reality blurs when, still groggy from sleep, Levko opens his clenched hand to find a note from the local commissar instructing the mayor to marry Levko to Ganna. As in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka" authentic details and realistic descriptions provide the base from which the fantastic arises. But whereas the strange phenomena in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka" have plausible explanations--rumor, the gypsy's intrigue--the appearance of the commissar's letter in "Maiskaia noch'" does not.
"Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala" shares with "Maiskaia noch'" the confusion of the magic and the real, but with disastrous results. A wealthy Cossack forbids his beautiful daughter Pidorka to marry the poor, kinless Petro. As in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka," devilry casts its shadow on Petro's attempts to overcome the father's obstinacy. However, the nature of the demonic in "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala" is more clearly sinister.
In exchange for a trunk full of treasure, Petro enters into a murderous pact with Bisavriuk, a mysterious drifter thought to be the devil incarnate. Petro accompanies Bisavriuk into the forest on St. John's Eve to pick the red flower of a fern that blossoms once a year on that day. If Petro can pick the flower at midnight, it will show him where the treasure is buried. He succeeds, but when he tries to grasp the trunk of gold and jewels, it recedes from him further into the earth. The forest witch appears to him and demands that he cut off the head of a six-year-old child. That child is Ivas', Pidorka's younger brother. Overcome by the sight of the wealth that awaits him, Petro kills the boy after only a moment's hesitation.
Waking the next day, Petro remembers nothing. Pidorka reports that her brother has disappeared in the forest, presumably carried off by gypsies. Now a rich man, Petro realizes his dream and marries Pidorka. But the couple never knows happiness; Petro's soul troubles him to the point of madness. A year later, again on St. John's Eve, Petro suddenly remembers the gruesome details of his night in the woods with Bisavriuk. In his horror he is reduced to a smoking pile of ashes and his remaining treasure turned into pottery shards. Pidorka enters a convent.
"Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala" intensifies the theme, introduced in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka," of desire that provides an opportunity for evil to infiltrate the material world. The ghastly tale also establishes a system of crime and punishment wherein the innocent (Ivas') and the beautiful (Pidorka) suffer horribly from others' misdeeds. Gogol's stunning use of language counterbalances the eerie pessimism of "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala." Pidorka's message of love to Petro, conveyed by Ivas', for example, displays rich images and the cadence of folk parallelism and repetition. In 1831 in the journal Teleskop (Telescope), Nikolai Ivanovich Nadezhdin remarked on the linguistic beauty of both this tale and "Maiskaia noch'." Such instances, he wrote, provide examples of successfully combining Ukrainian folk language with Russian literary language.
"Propavshaia gramota" (The Lost Letter), narrated by the local sexton, humorously treats themes found in the other Dikanka stories. In it the sexton's grandfather must retrieve from a den of witches a letter he was entrusted to deliver to Empress Catherine. Like Petro in "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala," he finds himself deep in the forest at night. However, to recover the letter he need not commit murder but must beat the witches at the card game durak (fool). He finally outwits them by secretly making the sign of the cross over the cards. Outraged, the witches fling his letter back and send him flying through the woods on a devilishly spirited steed. The grandfather wakes up the next morning on the roof of his own house.
Because he rushes off to deliver the letter without blessing his house, the sexton's grandfather is revisited every year at that same time by a strange force that compels his wife to dance. Recalling "Sorochinskaia iarmarka," the sexton concludes: "Za chto ni primetsia, nogi zatevaiut svoe, i vot tak i dergaet pustit'sia vprisiadku" (No matter what anyone did, her legs would go their own way, and something forced her to dance). Readers of Gogol have noted the influence of the Ukrainian vertep (folk puppet theater) in the plot and characterization in these early tales; indeed, at times human characters spontaneously transform into puppetlike beings.
The second volume of Vechera appeared in 1832. Like its predecessor, this collection creates a world where dreams and devilish magic coexist with the rational world. Again it is often desire--erotic or material--that initiates the interaction between these two realms. In "Noch' pered Rozhdestvom" (Christmas Eve) Gogol introduces for the first time the struggle between the artist and the devil, a theme that frequently appears in his later work and looms large in his ideas about the nature of art and the artist.
Like "Maiskaia noch'" and "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala," "Noch' pered Rozhdestvom" is set on a magical night when the natural and supernatural converge. Carolers roam the town while above them a witch gathers stars in her sleeve and the devil steals the moon. Using the mundane to describe these fantastic events, Gogol underscores their playful proximity: "[Chert] vdrug skhvatil . . . obeimi rukami mesiats, krivliaias' i duia, perekidyval ego iz odnoi ruki v druguiu, kak muzhik, dostavshii golymi rukami ogon' dlia svoei liul'ki" ([The devil] suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers).
On this night the blacksmith Vakula has gone to visit the lovely but conceited Oksana in defiance of the wishes of her father, the rich Cossack Chub. The design of the love plot is typical of Gogol with one important addition: Vakula is an artist. His greatest achievement--a picture of St. Peter driving a defeated devil out of hell on Judgment Day--so infuriated the devil that he swore to avenge himself on Vakula. Disregarding the blacksmith's talents, Oksana taunts him, making ludicrous stipulations for their marriage--she demands from him the slippers of the Empress Catherine--and asking Vakula if his mother is a witch.
The blacksmith's mother, Solokha, is indeed the very witch who was earlier gathering stars. When she slides back down the chimney into her house, a smitten devil follows her. However, Solokha's many suitors begin to visit. At the first knock she hides the devil in one of the many empty sacks lying on her floor. She fills the other sacks with each successive visitor: the mayor, the sexton, and her favorite--the Cossack Chub. Arriving home after Oksana's snub, the blacksmith is irritated to see that his mother has left drian' (trash) lying around, and he hauls the sacks outside for disposal. The devil is in the sack slung over Vakula's shoulder when the blacksmith meets a crowd of carolers and Oksana, who again teases him about the empress's slippers. The humiliated blacksmith runs away, leaving his mother's remaining suitors to be discovered by the carolers in a delightfully slapstick scene.
Meanwhile, Vakula approaches the wizard Puzatyi Patsiuk (whose Turkish pose and violation of the Christmas fast suggest his alliance with the devil) to exchange his soul for the slippers. Ready to oblige, the devil crawls out of the sack on Vakula's back. But the blacksmith outsmarts him and forces the devil to take him to meet the empress in St. Petersburg. The fanciful treatment of the spirit world in the representation of Vakula's flight echoes the fantastic opening of the tale. The magical brightness of St. Petersburg will never appear so innocent in Gogol's later stories as it does in "Noch' pered Rozhdestvom." Likewise the brief portrait of the Cossack regiment with which Vakula is presented to the empress will lose its vibrancy when it becomes Gogol's primary focus in "Taras Bul'ba" (one of the stories in Mirgorod, 1835). Vakula returns from St. Petersburg with the empress's slippers and marries Oksana with her father's blessing. In a final declaration of victory Vakula paints on the church wall an even more contemptuous picture of the devil, which causes passersby to spit in disgust.
The historical context for "Strashnaia mest'" (A Terrible Vengeance) is the struggle of the Ukraine for independence presented in Gogol's unfinished novel "Get'man" and later in "Taras Bul'ba." However, the bloody and ambiguous contest between good and evil eclipses the historical theme. The relentless lack of the comic in "Strashnaia mest'" reflects the predestined demise of a Cossack family; the tale is classically tragic as it opens with a wedding and ends with the death of an entire family. Gogol divides the story into two parts. First he presents the tale of the Cossack Danilo and his wife Katerina, who are killed by Katerina's sorcerer-father. In the second part of "Strashnaia mest'" an ancient curse provides an explanation for the bloodshed, infanticide, and incest in the first half of the story. By redirecting the horror of Danilo and Katerina's suffering back through the centuries, Gogol not only lessens its effect but also blurs the distinction between good and evil. In the end the sorcerer is as much a victim of fate as those he murders.
The story of Danilo and Katerina paints a richly symbolic picture of evil. It is noteworthy that in 1833 Gogol wrote a letter to his mother admitting that as a child he had not been inspired by any feeling until she described to him the horror of the Last Judgment. Although in many tales Gogol's artists pit themselves against images of evil, he himself acknowledges that these same images can awaken the artist's sensibilities. In addition to an increasingly complex representation of evil, Gogol introduces the notion of a second self, or double, in "Strashnaia mest'" and also utilizes the themes of changelings and deceptive identities.
"Strashnaia mest'" opens with the alarming appearance of a hideous sorcerer at a wedding attended by Danilo, his wife, Katerina, and their infant son. Boating home along the Dnieper River, the family witnesses a strange sight that recalls in a noncomic way the graveyard scene in Gants Kiukhel'garten. In a riverside burial ground corpses rise wailing from their graves and, as quickly as they appeared, fade away. Danilo bravely dismisses this frightening sight but immediately voices his concern about the strange behavior of Katerina's father, who has recently returned from living twenty years in Turkic lands. Like the Cossack sorcerer Puzatyi Patsiuk in "Noch' pered Rozhdestvom," the non-Christian traits of Katerina's father underscore his wickedness; he will not drink, eat pork, or toast the success of the Cossacks, the traditional defenders of Orthodox Christianity. His red jacket recalls the devil's coat that wreaks so much havoc in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka" although the devilry in the latter tale is playful rather than destructive. In "Strashnaia mest'" the diabolic is protean and powerful. The sorcerer can transform his shape and summon his daughter's soul, her spirit double. But Katerina's father cannot change his destiny. As fated, he kills every member of his family. He attempts to repent, but when the Bible of the monk to whom he has turned for redemption drips with blood, the sorcerer kills the holy man as well. "Strashnaia mest'" is an oppressive tale of unmitigated grief. Here innocent victims of evil cannot seek refuge in convents and monasteries, as did Pidorka in "Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala," and the devil cannot be outsmarted; there is no escape from the "terrible vengeance."
In contrast to the inevitability of "Strashnaia mest'," the dynamics of evasion motivate "Ivan Fedorovich Shpon'ka i ego tetushka" (Ivan Fedorovich Shpon'ka and His Auntie). As Ivan Shpon'ka tries to sidestep his aunt's schemes to marry him off, the narrative itself avoids any meaningful action or plot. With "Shpon'ka" Gogol finds a new way to engage his readers. Using a technique that evolves further in the Petersburg tales and in Mertvye dushi, Gogol focuses his attention on seemingly irrelevant detail and the development of comic moments. Readers strain to discern the significance of the story to no avail. Indeed the world around the text, rather than within the text, takes on importance, beginning with the opening line: "S ètoi istoriei sluchilas' istoriia" (There is a story about this story). The description of events that follow is almost entirely devoid of narrative direction and breaks off suddenly because Rudyi Panko's wife uses its final pages for the more practical task of baking fish (one reader playfully suggests that the text becomes food for thought). Gogol shifts the literary spotlight from the text onto the readers' extratextual experience of frustrated discovery. The evasive narrative technique in "Shpon'ka" illuminates Gogol's desire to direct readers' reactions to his work and hints at the increasing primacy of the narrative personality.
Although lacking a progressive plot, "Shpon'ka" offers rich and comic treatments of themes that later become central to Gogol's work. Much of what is humorous in the tale derives from sexual ambiguity; Gogol inverts gender stereotypes in the characterization of Shpon'ka and his aunt. Shpon'ka is given to typically feminine pursuits: fretting over his wardrobe and telling fortunes. A woman "rosta ispolinskogo" (of gigantic stature), his auntie hunts, fishes, and oversees Shpon'ka's small estate with a sharp eye and iron fist. Her life more closely resembles that of a nineteenth-century country bachelor than that of a middle-aged unmarried woman. Her strength necessarily implies her nephew's weakness; at thirty-eight he is reduced to a child as she addresses him by the diminutive Vaniusha and lifts him off the ground with her embraces. Related to this theme of sexual ambiguity is the question of Shpon'ka's paternity. His aunt tells him that he has been deeded a tract of land by a neighbor who used to visit his mother when her husband was away from home. The deed has been usurped by Shpon'ka's blustering neighbor Storchenko; the urgency of retrieving the deed fades, however, when Shpon'ka's aunt hatches a plan to marry her nephew to Storchenko's sister. Shpon'ka is panicked at the prospect of having a wife because, as he reasons, he has never had one before. The absurdity of Shpon'ka's logic extends into his nightmare, which provides rich material for Freudians. In the dream, wives with gooselike faces pop up everywhere Shpon'ka looks; he himself turns into a bell. In Gogol's folk-inspired tales, dreams often access magical and surreal parallel worlds; here, however, Gogol uses the dream symbolically to represent the anxiety of Shpon'ka's psyche.
"Zakoldovannoe mesto" (A Bewitched Spot) concludes the Vechera collection, acting as a final commentary on man's dubious ability to wield any power over the supernatural forces of evil. The sexton's grandfather is again the hero. He stumbles onto treasure in the illusory world of a "bewitched spot." Although this place abuts the grandfather's melon patch, he cannot relocate the site in daylight. The sudden transitions between the rational world and the fantastic are beyond his control and defy ordinary laws of time and space. He finally succeeds in carrying his pot of gold back home with him, only to discover that it has turned into slop. Despite its humor, "Zakoldovannoe mesto" suggests that man cannot regulate the evil that constantly encroaches upon the rational world. Enchanted patches are close by, perhaps just beyond one's own field, and they resist man's cultivation. The grandfather's melon patch was rented out, the sexton says at the end of his tale. But "zaseiut kak sleduet, a vzoidet takoe, chto i razobrat' nel'zia: arbuz--ne arbuz, tykva--ne tykva, ogurets--ne ogurets . . . chert znaet, chto takoe!" (they may sow it properly, but there's no saying what it is that comes up: not a melon--not a pumpkin--not a cucumber, the devil only knows what it is!).
Although the Patriotic Institute lay beyond his family's means and social standing, Gogol managed to enroll his two younger sisters, Anna and Elizaveta, in 1832. Gogol was inattentive to the girls' care and also to his teaching position. Yet he did harbor plans for a multivolume history of the world and in 1833 filed with the minister of education Sergei Semenovich Uvarov a report, "O prepodavanii vseobshchei istorii" (On the Teaching of World History), which was later included in Arabeski (Arabesques, 1835). Determined to become a great historian, Gogol managed to secure for himself an assistant professorship of history at the University of St. Petersburg in 1834 despite his lack of training or degree. His inaugural lecture that September was unforgettable. Gogol memorized the sweeping overview of the Middle Ages he created from brilliant images of crusades, chivalry, and the Inquisition and, without a single reference to historical names or dates, performed, rather than delivered, the lecture. However, Gogol could not repeat such a performance, nor did he seem willing or able to support his poetic rendition of history with facts. By the spring of 1835 it was clear that Gogol's teaching career, both at the Patriotic Institute and the university, was over.
Gogol's failure in scholarship was offset by a period of productivity in literature. In January 1835 Gogol published the two-volume Arabeski , a collection of stories and articles on subjects ranging from art and architecture to geography and history (much of the latter culled from his university lectures). By March the Mirgorod collection, also in two parts, appeared in publication. Although Arabeski and Mirgorod proved financial disappointments, they received high praise from the young critic Vissarion Grigor'evich Belinsky, who wrote that Gogol was taking the place of Pushkin in Russian literature.
Arabeski seems to be an eclectic grouping of Gogol's lecture notes, essays, and fiction. The remains of his short-lived assistant professorship are evident in "O srednikh vekakh" (On the Middle Ages), "Vzgliad na sostavlenie Malorossii" (A Glance at the Composition of Little Russia), "Al-Mamun" (Al-Mamun), "Zhizn'" (Life), "Schletser, Miller i Gerder" (Schlözer, Müller and Herder), "Mysli o geografii," and "O dvizhenii narodov v kontse V veka" (On the Movements of Peoples at the End of the Fifth Century). Gogol gathered his thoughts on music, architecture, literature, sculpture, and painting in "Skul'ptura, zhivopis' i muzyka" (Sculpture, Painting and Music), "Neskol'ko slov o Pushkine" (A Few Words about Pushkin), "Ob arkhitekture nyneshnego vremeni" (On Present-day Architecture), "O Malorossiiskikh pesniakh" (The Songs of the Ukraine), and "Poslednii den' Pompei" (The Last Day of Pompeii). Despite its appearance as a miscellany, Arabeski derives an inner unity when it is understood as an expression of Gogol's increasingly mature conception of art and the artist.
For Gogol the sphere of the artist is not limited to the arts. Rather the artist must be engaged in every area of culture and society. Although it is not necessary that the artist himself be a genius, it is essential that he detect genius and bring it to light. Thus, as Fanger shows, in Gogol's "Skul'ptura, zhivopis' i muzyka" the poet detects the greatness of the Greek world that has been lost to the centuries; in "O srednikh vekakh" the artist must construct a meaningful order out of the swirl of historical chaos; and in "Ob arkhitekture nyneshnego vremeni" only the architect who is both genius and poet will render his creations genuine. By perceiving and describing the universal truth and global wholeness that genius represents, Gogol's artist effectively counters the modern conditions of fragmentation and isolation that burden the individual with the loneliness of selfhood.
In the essays "Poslednii den' Pompei" and "Neskol'ko slov o Pushkine" Gogol suggests that art can stir a deadened soul. And for Gogol the soul is the instrument by which man transcends the constrictive bounds of his individual or social self. Thus in Arabeski the beginnings of Gogol's treatment of art as a religion advocating universal unity becomes evident. The truly aesthetic becomes for Gogol a spiritual force, lifting the viewers or readers out of the mundane, the banal, and the superficial. In the same way, bad art and the waste or abuse of genuine art becomes the realm of the devil. Gogol's artist is obliged to find the unusual in the ordinary without finding himself mired down by the subject of his representation. It is a difficult role to play. Like a ladder between heaven and earth, the artist joins the everyday with the sublime. Yet by representing the ordinary the artist risks losing a public that expects only grand, sweeping portraits of heroic subjects. Tempted by devilish greed and human weakness, the artist may also acquiesce to the demands of public approval.
By the time Gogol wrote the first volume of Mertvye dushi, his ideas and concerns about the role of the artist in society were explicit. In Arabeski they are clouded by unfocused rhetoric and lack of development. Yet Gogol expresses himself best in his creative prose. Gogol included three short works of fiction in Arabeski: "Zapiski sumasshedshego" (The Diary of a Madman), "Nevskii Prospekt" (Nevsky Prospect, revised for the 1842 edition of Gogol's Sochineniia [Works]), and "Portret" (The Portrait, also revised for the 1842 Sochineniia). In these stories Gogol develops the relationship among women, evil, and art that appears in its nascent stage in the Vechera collection. Gogol first envisioned "Zapiski sumasshedshego" as a story about a mad musician but later reworked it. In the resulting tale Poprishchin, a middle-aged clerk of little promise, records in his diary how he has fallen in love with the daughter of his departmental director. The clerk's obsession becomes the point of entry into a delusional world of madness. Although Poprishchin is not an artist, the insight he derives from his madness echoes with a hint of self-parody the notion of the perceptive aesthetic eye that Gogol explores in the Arabeski essays. Poprishchin's disregard for temporal chronology suggests comically that he perceives a mad order beneath the worldly calendar; Poprishchin dates his diary entries with "Martober 86," "2000 A.D., April 43" and "February thirtieth" as his sanity slips away. In addition his ears discern the language of dogs, allowing him to use their intercepted letters to spy on his chief's daughter. Finally he makes the most important discovery of all--woman is the consort of the devil: "O, èto kovarnoe sushchestvo-- zhenshchina! Ia teper' tol'ko postignul, chto takoe zhenshchina. Do sikh por nikto eshche ne uznal, v kogo ona vliublena: ia pervyi otkryl èto. Zhenshchina vliublena v cherta" (Oh, woman is a treacherous creature! I have discovered now what women are. So far no one has found out with whom she is in love: I have been the first to discover it. Woman is in love with the devil).
The urban setting of the stories in Arabeski provides a field of play for devilry. The deceptive city becomes as much of a character in the later collection as the enchanted spots and magical forest do in Vechera. As women often do in Gogol's work, the streets and houses of St. Petersburg join forces with the devil to confound the artist. In "Nevskii Prospekt" the deceptions of woman, city, and devil result in the suicide of the young artist Piskarev. The artist succumbs to the fragmentation and superficiality of the modern urban environment, taking along with him the "genius" that may have restored in Russia the sacred unity for which Gogol longed: "Tak pogib, zhertva bezumnoi strasti, bednyi Piskarev, tikhii, robkii, skromnyi, detski prostodushnyi, nosivshii v sebe iskru talanta, byt' mozhet, so vremenem by vspykhnuvshego shiroko i iarko" (So perished the victim of a frantic passion, poor Piskarev, the gentle, timid, modest, childishly simple-hearted artist whose spark of talent might with time have glowed into the full bright flame of genius).
Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg, is the title character of the tale. Gogol's depiction of a typical day in the "life" of the street opens the narrative and personifies the street. Perceived by an almost cinemographic eye, Nevsky Prospect is lively and colorful, yet it lacks whole forms. The various pieces of clothing and parts of the body that Gogol describes are so dissociated from the people who own them that they seem to stroll along the avenue of their own volition. The fragmentation of life on Nevsky is augmented by superficiality. In one account the stylish clothes that parade up and down the street hold their owners' fancy for only a short time: "Tysiachi sortov shliapok, plat'ev, platkov-pestrykh, legkikh, k kotorym inogda v techenie tselykh dvukh dnei sokhraniaetsia priviazannost' ikh vladetel'nits, oslepiat khot' kogo na Nevskom prospekte" (Thousands of varieties of hats, dresses, and kerchiefs, bright colored and sheer, for which their owners feel sometimes an adoration that lasts two whole days, dazzle everyone on Nevsky Prospect).
Nighttime on Nevsky Prospect is a "tainstvennoe vremia, kogda lampy daiut vsemu kakoi-to zamanchivyi, chudesnyi svet" (mysterious time when the street lamps throw a marvelous enchanting light upon everything). Like the fairgrounds in "Sorochinskaia iarmarka," the vibrant colors and diverse human activity at play on Nevsky Prospect delight the senses. But the narrator warns that the "enchantment" of Nevsky is not to be trusted; the street is the devil's path:
On lzhet vo vsiakoe vremia, ètot Nevskii prospekt, no bolee vsego togda, kogda noch' sgushchennoiu massoiu naliazhet na nego i otdelit belye i palevye steny domov, kogda ves' gorod prevratitsia v grom i blesk, miriady karet valiatsia s mostov, foreitory krichat i prygaiut na loshadiakh, i kogda sam demon zazhigaet lampy dlia togo tol'ko, chtoby pokazat' vse ne v nastoiashchem vide.
(It deceives at all hours, Nevsky Prospect does, but most of all when night falls in masses of shadow on it, throwing into relief the white and dun-colored walls of the houses, when all the town is transformed into noise and brilliance, when the myriad carriages roll over the bridges, postilions shout and jolt up and down on their horses, and when the devil himself lights the street lamps only to show everything in false colors.)
In the story two young men, the artist Piskarev and a Lieutenant Pirogov, venture out one evening into the beguiling world of Nevsky Prospect. The men part ways to pursue the attractive young women each has spotted on the street. Neither of the women lives up to the men's expectations, but the friends react differently to their disappointment. Pirogov's romantic interest turns out to be the simple and satisfied wife of a rather uncouth German tinsmith. Undaunted, Pirogov orders spurs and then a dagger sheath from the German and returns to the home repeatedly on the pretense of inquiring about his orders. When the tinsmith finally realizes the true nature of Pirogov's visits, he unceremoniously throws the young lieutenant out of the house. On his way to report the tinsmith's insulting conduct to the authorities, Pirogov stops in at a cafe, and his indignation subsides over a dish of cream puffs. By nightfall he has forgotten about the tinsmith's pretty wife. The mediocre and superficial life of Pirogov's regiment society effectively saves him from real heartbreak.
Piskarev does not fare so well. He is unable to reconcile the innocent appearance of the young woman he follows with her life of prostitution. In "Nevskii Prospekt" good and evil, beauty and corruption become as indistinguishable to Piskarev as dream and reality and ultimately result in his destruction. Initially, Piskarev interprets the pale beauty and youth of the mysterious belle as innocence and purity of spirit. As does Gogol's essay "Zhenshchina," "Nevskii Prospekt" equates beauty with purity and innocence. For Piskarev the fresh loveliness of the young woman also imbues her with a holiness bordering on divinity. The language of his thoughts reveals his understanding of his romantic pursuit as something of a holy pilgrimage: "Kak uteriat' èto bozhestvo i ne uznat' dazhe toi sviatyni, gde ono opustilos' gostit'?" (How could he lose this divine being without even discovering the sacred place in which she condescended to stay?). Piskarev is not motivated by base physical attraction. As he follows the young woman into her house and up the stairs, he is consumed only by innocent desire for her, the proper state when approaching a sacred shrine.
When Piskarev steps across the threshold of the apartment into which the young woman leads him, he is shocked to discover that he is standing in a brothel, "gde chelovek sviatotatstvenno podavil i posmeialsia nad vsem chistym i sviatym, ukrashaiushchim zhizn'" (where man sacrilegiously tramples and ridicules all that is pure and holy, all that makes life beautiful). In such a place, woman--the manifestation of beauty in the world--becomes "strannoe, dvusmyslennoe sushchestvo" (a strange, equivocal creature) surrendering the purity of her heart and all that is "womanly" about her. When the beauty finally speaks to Piskarev, her words are vulgar and her gaze suggestive. The artist is unable to tolerate such a wrenching dislocation of beauty from purity and holiness, and he flees in horror.
At home Piskarev convinces himself that the young woman is far too lovely to have willingly succumbed to such a life of vice; her presence in the brothel must be the work of the devil. The artist's delusional belief manifests itself in a dream. In fitful sleep he sees an enormous ballroom crowded with gowns and uniforms. Like the descriptions of Nevsky Prospect, the shattered kaleidoscope of colors and movement in this room suggest the work of the devil: "Neobyknovennaia pestrota lits privela ego v sovershennoe zameshatel'stvo; emu kazalos', chto kakoi-to demon iskroshil ves' mir na mnozhestvo raznykh kuskov i vse èti kuski bez smysla, bez tolku smeshal vmeste" (The extraordinary brightness and variety of the scene completely staggered [Piskarev]; it seemed to him as though some demon had crumbled the whole world into bits and mixed all these bits indiscriminately together). For Gogol unity of form expresses goodness in both life and art. Piskarev's mysterious beauty moves elegantly through this scene. She seems ready to entrust him with the terrible secret of her coercion into a sinful life, a secret that would restore innocence to her beauty. However, before she can speak, he wakes up.
From that point forward Piskarev devotes his life to the resurrection of his ideal of beauty. Afraid to approach "tainstvennyi obraz, original mechtatel'nykh kartin" (the mysterious divinity, the original of his dream pictures), he begins to regard his oneiric visions as reality, losing the distinction between waking and dream. Opium-induced dreaming becomes his obsession; only in dreams can the artist reunite the sacred and the beautiful that reality so insistently pulls apart. The aim of all art, the identification of beauty and good, is at odds with forces that threaten to conceal evil within beauty. Piskarev expresses his frustration with this struggle in terms of his dreaming and waking hours: "Bozhe, chto za zhizn' nasha! vechnyi razdor mechty s sushchestvennost'iu!" (My God, what is our life! An eternal battle of dream with reality!).
When Piskarev finally musters the courage to approach the young prostitute again, he proposes to her the simple life of an artist's wife. But she prefers her life of relative ease and scornfully rejects his idea of a life of redemptive drudgery that would serve his art. With no hope of reconciling beauty and truth through art, the disconsolate Piskarev commits suicide. The deceit of demonic beauty destroys a potentially genuine artist. In the end the tale serves as a warning: "O, ne ver'te ètomu Nevskomu prospektu! . . . Vse obman, vse mechta, vse ne to, chem kazhetsia!" (Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Prospect! . . . Everything is a cheat, everything is a dream, everything is other than it seems!).
Gogol continues to explore the fate of the artist in the city in "Portret," the third piece of fiction included in Arabeski. This Hoffmanesque tale develops further Gogol's concern with morality and aesthetics. In it the poor artist Chertkov (Chartkov in the expanded 1842 version) buys the portrait of an old moneylender, whose horribly lifelike eyes seem to animate the face on the canvas. As the young prostitute in "Nevskii Prospekt" embodies the disjunction of truth and beauty, the painting represents truth without beauty. The moneylender's portrait reflects "uzhasnaia deistvitel'nost'" (a horrible reality) where human existence and experience is without meaning and grace. Looking at the portrait, Chertkov senses a dark presence in the very absence of art:
Èto bylo uzhe ne iskusstvo: èto razrushalo dazhe garmoniiu samogo portreta. Èto byli zhivye, èto byli chelovecheskie glaza! Kazalos', kak budto oni byli vyrezany iz zhivogo cheloveka i vstavleny siuda. Zdes' ne bylo uzhe togo vysokogo naslazhden'ia, kotoroe ob"emlet dushu pri vzgliade na proizvedenie khudozhnika, kak ni uzhasen vziatyi im predmet; zdes' bylo kakoe-to boleznennoe, tomitel'noe chuvstvo.
(This is no longer art. [The eyes] actually destroyed the harmony of the portrait. They were alive, human! It was as if they had been cut from a living man and inserted in the canvas. Here was none of that sublime feeling of enjoyment which imbued the spirit at the sight of an artist's endeavors, regardless of how terrible the subject he may have put on canvas. Instead, there was a painful, joyless sense of anxiety.)
The strange vitality of the portrait extends even into the world of Chertkov's dreams. In his sleep he sees the moneylender come to life, step out of the painting's frame, and move around the room. The next morning the frame does indeed break, and Chertkov discovers a roll of gold coins inside the eerie portrait. However, Chertkov's apparent boon turns out to be the source of his demise. Instead of living on the money while he painstakingly and humbly develops his artistic talent, he indulges his desire for material comforts and the empty praise of high society. He places an advertisement full of self-praise in the newspaper and is then inundated with requests for portraits. At first Chertkov tries to render a true likeness of his subjects but soon realizes that his paying customers only want him to paint them in a more flattering, idealized light than reality reflects. Pandering to the tastes of society and his own vanity, Chertkov no longer attempts to capture the true nature of his subjects in his portraits. Doing so, he divorces art from nature and thus renders his work trivial and banal.
In "Portret" Gogol shows how evil--in the form of the devil or human philistinism--can destroy both art and the artist. In the moneylender's portrait and those Chertkov paints, nature and art fail to combine with the kind of balance that evokes a "sublime feeling of enjoyment" from the viewer. The portrait of the moneylender is too much infused with the real spirit of its subject while Chertkov's work becomes a series of tired and meaningless forms. Years later when Chertkov finally understands that he has squandered his talent, he himself becomes the agent of art's destruction. With a fortune at hand, he buys all the genuine paintings he can find and destroys them: "Nikogda ni odno chudovishche nevezhestva ne istrebilo stol'ko prekrasnykh proizvedenii, skol'ko istrebil ètot svirepyi mstitel'" (No ignorant monster ever destroyed so many marvelous works of art as this raving avenger). The first part of "Portret" ends with Chertkov's tortured death.
As with "Strashnaia mest'," the second part of "Portret" explains the first. At an auction an artist's son describes the strange circumstances under which his father painted the portrait of the moneylender. Before his death the moneylender entreated the artist to paint his portrait so that his spirit might remain in the world. The portrait passes from hand to hand, inspiring ill will and causing failure; thereafter the artist's work is pervaded by a vague sense of the demonic. For Gogol the artist resides in a lofty yet precarious realm. Although the salvation of the world depends on his aesthetic vision and his talent, the artist is often coerced by a terrible or petty force of evil to render human experience meaningless and devoid of value. To purge himself of the evil that has invaded his art and his life, the artist enters a monastery and for years lives the life of an ascetic. Only when his soul is pure can he paint guided by "sviataia vysshaia sila" (a holy and higher power). Turning to the painting after hearing the fantastic story about the artist, the auctiongoers are shocked to see that the terrible portrait has turned into an innocuous landscape (in the revised version it disappears).
The Mirgorod collection appeared in March 1835. Although the title page indicated the book would continue in the vein of the Ukrainian folktales of Vechera, the Little Russian setting receded into the background. With "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" (Old-World Landowners) Gogol shifts the position of the narrator. Gone is the insider's perspective that Rudyi Panko offers in Vechera. The narrator of "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" immediately establishes a distance between himself and his subject, the provincial world of Afanasii Ivanovich and Pul'kheriia Ivanovna Tovstogub, into which he sometimes likes "soiti na minutu" (to enter for a moment). Assuming this remote point of view, the narrator invites readers to share his experience of the Tovstogub home and also his ambivalent attitude toward the friendly, old couple. "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" is not a story but a meditation on a disappearing way of life and the response of the narrator's modern consciousness to this loss. The theme is not new, but as Fanger points out, the role of the narrator as main character was a novelty in Russian literature: "By eschewing plot . . . Gogol alters the code of Russian fiction, producing something midway between a story and a performance--a verbal artifact whose charm lies entirely in the modulations of its unfolding."
The narrator's characterization of his tale as a portrait reflects the lack of movement in the narrative itself; life on the Tovstogub homestead is literally a "still life." Referring to the loving couple in Greek myth who graciously provide Zeus and Hermes food when all others turn them away, the narrator says, "Esli by ia byl zhivopisets i khotel izobrazit' na polotne Filemona i Bavkidu, ia by nikogda ne izbral drugogo originala, krome ikh" (If I were a painter and wanted to portray Philemon and Baucis on canvas, I could choose no other models [than the Tovstogubs]). Yet these "models" of kindness turn out to be nothing more than human husks as grotesquely empty of true feeling as Piskarev's work in "Portret." The young social critic Belinsky plumbed the hollow depths of the Tovstogubs when he described them as "two parodies of humanity who, in the course of several decades, drink and eat, eat and drink, and then, as custom has it, die." And despite the narrator's apparent affection for the peace and plenty of the Tovstogub home, Renato Poggioli points out that "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" represents an inversion of the eclogue, which traditionally celebrates the fullness of the idyll.
In "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" the narrator's perspective alternates between that of the distant "outsider" and the more intimate viewpoint of a frequent houseguest. Moving between the "here" of St. Petersburg society and the "there" of the Ukrainian provinces, the narrative structure of the tale parallels the narrator's vacillating attitude toward the ironic Tovstogub idyll. The spatiality of "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki" describes the intangible pangs of feeling that are unclear to the narrator. Craving the cloying comforts of Tovstogub's traditional homestead at a distance, the narrator is vaguely repelled by their overfed and overheated lifestyle when he shares it with them. Ultimately it is through literary space that the narrator must reluctantly admit the moral depravity of the "old-fashioned" world he vainly attempts to sentimentalize. The Tovstogubs and their home succumb to the overwhelming force of habit, and the spiritual void that had all the while lurked behind the idyllic facade shows through when it becomes a vacant lot. The narrator says, "Chuvstva moi stranno szhimaiutsia, kogda voobrazhu sebe, chto priedu so vremenem opiat' na ikh prezhnee, nyne opusteloe zhilishche i uvizhu kuchu razvalivshikhsia khat, zaglokhshii prud, zarosshii rov na tom meste, gde stoil nizen'kii domik--i nichego bolee. Grustno!" (I feel a strange pang in my heart when I imagine myself going sometime again to their old, now deserted dwelling, and seeing the heap of ruined huts, the pond choked with weeds, an overgrown ditch on the spot where the little house stood--and nothing more. How depressing!). As in Gogol's earlier Vechera tales, the new evil--no longer petty devilry but the "immortal banality" of man that Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovsky detects in Gogol--dwells in wild and overgrown natural chaos where humanity is no longer evident.
Like "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki," "Taras Bul'ba" depicts a vanished way of life. This literary legend about a fifteenth-century Dnieper Cossack sech, or community, grew out of the historical work included in Arabeski and was supposedly part of Gogol's efforts to preserve the ancient traditions of his native Ukraine. Despite his best intentions, Gogol's accuracy in detail and chronology suffered from his tendency toward intuitive history. Nevertheless, in "Taras Bul'ba" Gogol brings to life the merrily uncouth ways, vivid traditions, and warrior pride of the Cossack encampment. Gogol's revisions in 1839-1840 (for the 1842 edition of Sochineniia), which expanded the tale and emphasized Homeric similes, reoriented "Taras Bul'ba" toward a more generally Russian, rather than specifically Ukrainian, patriotism. Yet the later edition retains the pervasiveness of wild abandon and heroism even in the face of tragedy.
There is little tension between revelry and tragedy in "Taras Bul'ba." The ineffectiveness of Gogol's pathos often stems from a formulaic approach to the genre of historical novel. The gruesome and triumphant deaths of the Cossack heroes are of the boyhood adventure-novel variety. Each man, whether beheaded or impaled on a lance, remembers to praise his comrades and their mission before dying. At other times Gogol denigrates the object of narrative pity. The grieving Cossack mother, for example, who runs after her two young sons as they set off for war, pursues them "so vseiu legkost'iu dikoi kozy, nesoobraznoi ee letam" (with the nimbleness of a wild goat, hardly believable at her years). She is never mentioned again in the story.
The young Polish woman with whom Taras's younger son Andrei falls in love plays a role familiar in Gogol's work; she initiates the ruin of the Bul'ba family. Before he leaves the seminary in Kiev to return to his father's house, Andrei encounters her, "krasavitsu, kakoi eshche ne vidyval otrodu: chernoglazuiu i beluiu, kak sneg, ozarennyi utrennim rumiantsem solntsa" (the loveliest creature he had seen in his life, with black eyes and skin white as snow when it is lighted up by the flush of the dawning sun). Andrei's love overcomes the fact that she is the daughter of his enemy, and on the night before the Cossacks battle the Poles, he forsakes his country by defecting to her father's side. Andrei's treachery sets off a chain of events that end in the death of every male member of the Bul'ba household. Gogol's weak representation of Andrei's love hardly justifies such a heavy loss. As with the descriptions of nature and battle, the narrative heights from which Gogol portrays the love story prove too heady. His language breaks down into cliché that is overly emotive and ultimately unconvincing. Omniscient narration does not suit Gogol. In order to ground his writing, his narrative persona needs to have some kind of involvement with the action he describes.
Gogol is self-involved in "Vii" to the extent that the tale gives shape to his personal anxiety about women as agents of evil. Many critics examine the roots of Gogol's fears in a Freudian context while Simon Karlinsky, in The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (1976), conjectures that the author's latent homosexuality generates the misogynist dread in stories such as "Vii." But these fears may be given a broader, cultural text. Both oral and written literary traditions in Russia express the terror of powerlessness before the erotic and the supernatural, which are represented in fiction as the beauty and power of woman and her perceived alliance with the uncontrollable forces of nature. In one Russian folktale, which closely resembles "Vii," a young man must read prayers over the body of a young witch. She is resurrected and is married to the man but refuses to live the pious and obedient life of a wife. Her body is burned, dismembered, and restored to a whole before she will conform. Although Gogol's claim that "Vii" is pure folklore is inaccurate, the folk patterns and motifs he invokes express a cultural fear of the supernatural and of female eroticism.
In "Vii" an old woman gives a night's lodging in her forest homestead to the young philosophy student Khoma Brut. In a scene that recalls the flight scene in "Noch' pered Rozhdestvom" of Vechera, the woman compels Khoma to ride through the night sky as she sits astride him with her broom in hand. Although he is repelled by the witch's suggestive advances, Khoma experiences orgasmic sensations during the ride: "Pot katilsia s nego gradom. On chuvstvoval besovski-sladkoe chuvstvo, on chuvstvoval kakoe-to pronzaiushchee, kakoe-to tomitel'no-strashnoe naslazhdenie" (The sweat was pouring out of him. He was aware of a fiendishly voluptuous feeling; he felt a stabbing, exhaustingly terrible delight). For the philosophy student such feelings are further proof that he is in the clutches of a frightening and evil force. Despite the circumstances, Khoma is able to compose himself enough to pronounce the prayers that counteract the witch's power. Back on the ground, Khoma beats the old woman until he notices that she has undergone a startling change. He flees in horror when he sees that "pered nim lezhala krasavitsa s rastrepannoiu roskoshnoiu kosoiu, s dlinnymi, kak strely, resnitsami" (before him lay a beautiful girl with luxuriant, tangled tresses and eyelashes as long as arrows).
Several days later Khoma is asked to read prayers and psalms for three nights over the body of a young Cossack girl who returned from the forest beaten and dying. When he looks at the body, he realizes with horror that the girl is the witch he killed days before. For three nights he is locked in a church with the body. As he reads prayers, the corpse sits up in its coffin and with eyes shut and teeth gnashing, proceeds to walk around the church in search of Khoma. Remembering the words of a monk, Khoma draws a circle in chalk around himself and repeats exorcisms. While inside the circle Khoma is invisible to the dead witch, and the multitude of evil spirits she summons on the second night cannot harm him. Finally on the third night the witch calls on Vii, the forest gnome with eyelids that reach the ground. Although Khoma's inner voice beseeches him not to look at this horrible creature, he cannot restrain himself. When his eyes fall on Vii, Khoma is visible, and the evil spirits descend upon him, causing him to die of fright. Ultimately the evil of feminine power and eroticism destroys Khoma. As in Gogol's earlier work the physical or emotional enjoyment of a woman results in the spiritual or actual death of the hero.
As Gogol's writing matures, spiritual death--the loss of value and significance in human life--begins to replace physical death as the most chilling phenomenon. In "Povest' o tom, kak possorilsia Ivan Ivanovich s Ivanom Nikiforovichem" (The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich), the two title characters end their long-standing friendship with a petty quarrel that continues for a decade. Of all the Mirgorod tales, "Povest' o dvukh Ivanakh" (The Tale of the Two Ivans), as the story is popularly known, is the only one attributed to Rudyi Panko, the folksy narrator of the earlier Dikanka cycle. The tale opens humorously with the ironic naiveté of the insider's point of view. Praising Ivan Ivanovich's and Ivan Nikiforovich's fine qualities, the narrator actually exposes the pettiness and absurdity of their existence. Ivan Ivanovich collects the seeds of any melon he eats in a piece of paper and dates it; he is a pious man who never fails to question the beggars who throng the church but refuses them money. The narrator vehemently denies that Ivan Nikiforovich was born with a tail like a witch (insisting that a tail is solely a woman's affliction) or that this respectable Mirgorod citizen ever considered marriage. Yet Ivan Nikiforovich endures long visits from Agafiia Fedoseevna, an unrelated and meddling woman who rubs his entire body with vinegar and turpentine. The narrator's exuberance extends to the town of Mirgorod, which he breathlessly describes as a cluster of ramshackle houses and laundry-strewn fences surrounding an enormous puddle.
By the end of the tale the narrator's perspective is decidedly more distant--he is passing through Mirgorod after a five-year absence--and his attitude toward the quarrel of the two Ivans is one of morose exhaustion. "Skuchno na ètom svete, gospoda!" (It is a dreary world, gentlemen!), he says in conclusion. Recalling the closing tone of "Starosvetskie pomeshchiki," this final line indicates that time and distance have altered the narrator's relationship to his subjects. Throughout the story the narrator's role as primary character grows increasingly evident. The mastery and the artistic value of his narrative skills eventually displace the content of the story and its plot in importance, a narrative style known as skaz. Here, Gogol wants to demonstrate the primacy of the word. In fact, what little plot there is in "Povest' o dvukh Ivanakh" turns on a single word--gusak (gander)--with which Ivan Nikiforovich initiates the quarrel and then, with a second slip of the tongue, ensures it long life. The richness of the verbal display throughout this tale and the others in the collection turns Mirgorod into a landmark in the development of the role and position of the narrator in Gogol's work, as well as the timbre of the narrative voice.
In 1833, languishing under the burdens of his teaching positions, Gogol produced several short stories. Among these was "Nos" (The Nose), which he did not include in Mirgorod but submitted instead in 1834 to the journal Moskovskii nabliudatel' (Moscow Observer), where the editorial board rejected it as vulgar and trivial. "Nos" was finally published in Pushkin's Sovremennik (The Contemporary) in 1836. As Viktor Vladimirovich Vinogradov shows, "Nos" follows a trend in early-nineteenth-century Europe that turned the nose into a thematic and phallic centerpiece. Gogol repeatedly declared himself incapable of inventing plots; it was Pushkin who supplied him with the subject for both Revizor (The Inspector General, 1836) and Mertvye dushi. However, Gogol's approach to well-known stories, themes, and motifs was so radically innovative that it seems unique. Gogol first conceived "Nos" as a dream, calling it "Son" (The Dream). With this idea in mind it is easy to view the contents of "Nos" as a Freudian example of castration anxiety, but a purely psychoanalytical reading of the story ultimately limits a fuller understanding.
In "Nos" the barber Ivan Iakovlevich wakes up on 25 March to the smell of hot bread. When he cuts into the loaf, he finds buried in it a nose that he recognizes as that of Major Kovalev, a pretentious civil servant preoccupied with social rank, whom Ivan Iakovlevich shaves regularly. Terrified, the barber flings the nose into the Neva, the central river in St. Petersburg, and for no apparent reason he is arrested.
Meanwhile, Major Kovalev wakes to find that indeed his nose is missing. On his way to report the loss, Kovalev is shocked to see his nose, dressed in a gentleman's uniform, stepping jauntily out of a carriage. Kovalev approaches his nose to express his surprise that it is not in its proper place on his face. The nose replies haughtily that it is an independent individual of more advanced rank and therefore entirely unconcerned with Kovalev's problems. Kovalev then tries to place an ad in the newspaper; he also consults a doctor; finally he registers a complaint with the police inspector. All who listen to his dilemma fail to consider it seriously and even question Kovalev's respectability. Although a policeman returns Kovalev's nose a few days later, it will not stick back in its place. Finally on 7 April, without warning or reason, Kovalev wakes up to find his nose has been restored to his face. Overjoyed, Kovalev dances a jig around the room and then resumes the superficial and self-centered social life he found impossible to conduct without a nose.
Despite its ribald tone, "Nos" represents an important step in Gogol's development as a writer. The independence of Kovalev's nose echoes Gogol's growing awareness of the autonomy of the word. While Kovalev grapples with his predicament, fantastic rumors about the strange event spread throughout St. Petersburg, filling the newspapers. Fanciful additions to the story allow it to take on a life of its own, as Kovalev's nose becomes an "independent individual." Reading "Nos" as a literary manifesto, Fanger suggests that Gogol is attempting to define his own tradition and readership by creating new forms that challenge the validity of their antecedents. In "Nos" plot does not generate narrative form; language does not clearly indicate intentionality; and the reader's hope that the story holds some deeper meaning remains unrealized. For Gogol the pleasurable act of reading the story is itself significant.
Embedded within the story "Nos," however, is a task that Gogol considered more serious than advocating art for art's sake. In search of what Ivan Ermakov calls a "unique, Gogolian self," Gogol examines himself in the mirror he creates through narrative self-focus and skaz. At the end of "Nos" Gogol turns the reader's attention to both the indecent subject matter and the narrative self: "Vot kakaia istoriia sluchilas' v servernoi stolitse nashego obshirnogo gosudarstva! . . . No chto strannee, chto neponiatnee vsego, èto to, kak avtory mogut brat' podobnye siuzhety. Priznaius' èto uzh sovsem nepostizhimo" (So this is the strange event that occurred in the northern capital of our spacious empire! . . . But what is stranger, what is more difficult to understand than anything is that authors can choose such subjects. I confess that is quite incomprehensible).
Praising the work and ascetic lifestyle of the painter Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov, Gogol contended that a writer cannot create positive characters until his own heart is pure. In a prelude to the more formal "Avtorskaia ispoved'" (An Author's Confession, published in the 1855 edition of Mertvye dushi), "Nos" allowed Gogol to examine within himself the impurity and vulgarity that prevented his art from truly reflecting the spiritual in life. The desire for purity and perfection, which begins on a light note in "Nos," would gradually reach unrealistic proportions in Gogol's life and work and in the end prove fatal to the artist.
Readers consistently choose "Shinel'" (The Greatcoat) as Gogol's best piece of short fiction. Gogol worked on the story from 1839 through 1841. During Gogol's lifetime it appeared only once, in the third volume of the four-volume Sochineniia of 1842. There it was grouped with "Nevskii Prospekt," "Portret," and "Zapiski sumasshedshego" from Arabeski and "Nos" as part of the so-called Petersburg tales. Like "Nos," "Shinel'" is more of a verbal performance than a plot-driven tale. As Boris Eikhenbaum shows in his essay "How Gogol's 'Overcoat' Is Made," the source of dynamism and the organizing force in the story is tension created by one layer of language play overlaid by another.
The first layer of what Eikhenbaum calls "purely comic skaz" includes etymological and sound puns. The best example of both types is found in the name of Gogol's hero, Akakii Akakievich, a name, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere shows, whose fecal overtones provide the basis of the anal-erotic theme running throughout the story. The hero's last name demonstrates the absurdity of Gogol's puns:
Familiia chinovnika byla Bashmachkin. Uzhe po samomu imeni vidno, chto ona kogda-to proizoshla ot bashmaka; no kogda, v kakoe vremia i kakim obrazom proizoshla ona ot bashmaka, nichego ètogo neizvestno. I otets, i ded, i dazhe shurin i vse sovershenno Bashmachkiny khodili v sopogakh.
(The clerk's surname was Bashmachkin. From the very name, it is clear that it must have been derived from shoe; but when, and in what way it was derived from a shoe, is not known. Both his father and his grandfather and even the brother-in-law, and all the Bashmachkins without exception wore boots.)
With the frequent repetition of the words bashmaka and Bashmachkin, readers associate the clerk with a shoe rather than a human face. Further breaching the limits of logic, the narrator emphasizes that "even" a Bashmachkin brother-in-law wore boots although, by definition, the brother-in-law is not a Bashmachkin at all.
The second layer of narration in "Shinel'" consists of an emotive, declamatory style into which the narrator slips when, for instance, he describes how Akakii Akakievich's beleaguered plea ("Ostav'te menia, zachem vy menia obizhaete?" [Leave me alone, why do you insult me?]) resounds within one of his colleagues: "I v ètikh pronikaiushchikh slovakh zveneli drugie slova: 'Ia brat tvoi.'. . . I mnogo raz sodrogalsia on potom na veku svoem, vidia, kak mnogo v cheloveke beschelovech'ia . . . Bozhe! dazhe v tom cheloveke, kotorogo svet priznaet blagorodnym i chestnym" (Within those moving words he heard others: 'I am your brother.'. . . And many times afterward in his life he shuddered, seeing how much inhumanity there is in man . . . my God! even in a man whom the world considers a gentlemen and a man of honor). Such evocative passages inspired Dostoyevsky to advocate compassion for the weak members of society in his novels Bednye liudi (Poor Folk, 1846) and Unizhennye i oskorblennye (The Insulted and Injured, 1861).
In "Shinel'" the alternation between comedy and pathos creates a tension that Eikhenbaum calls grotesque. These narrative dynamics isolate Akakii Akakievich's experiences from the world at large, allowing Gogol to distort reality. Gogol uses the text to challenge the normal proportions of literary conventions as well and to innovate with unlikely combinations of comic and pathetic. As in "Nos," in "Shinel'" Gogol steps forward as a comic writer who vaguely senses his role as ethicist, moralist, and shaper of society. At a dinner party in 1832 an anecdote about the compassion a group of civil servants showed for an unfortunate colleague provided Gogol the basic plot for his tale. But in "Shinel'" the nature of the hero and the mixed reactions of the reader to him, along with narrative structure, endless qualifications, and relativism, serve to complicate the matter of simple decency. In the end Gogol's tale raises more questions than it answers.
In "Shinel'" the poor, reclusive Akakii Akakievich must replace his worn-out greatcoat as a matter of survival. Living on a clerk's salary, he endures great privation to save enough money for the new greatcoat. On the first day Akakii Akakievich wears his coat to the office, his frivolous colleagues decide to throw a party in honor of his new acquisition. Crossing a vast and poorly lit city square--the urban equivalent of Dikanka's enchanted forests--on the way home from the gathering, Akakii Akakievich is set upon and robbed of his treasured coat. Akakii Akakievich meekly appeals for an investigation into the robbery to a "znachitel'noe litso" (important person), who is unduly severe with the clerk. Numb from fright and without a proper coat, Akakii Akakievich catches cold and soon dies as anonymously as he lived. Gogol's tale moves from the real into the realm of the fantastic as the ghost of Akakii Akakievich appears to the horrified "important person" and angrily yanks the fur coat from his shoulders. Sadly, Akakii Akakievich seems a more substantial character in death than in life.
Those characters with whom Akakii Akakievich has contact hardly note his passing until his ghost appears in the city. It is into this lacuna of compassion that Gogol invites the readers. Yet while obliged to have sympathy for Akakii Akakievich, readers cannot fail to sense the pettiness and banality of his character. Akakii Akakievich's preference for form over content thwarts his career advancement; he wants only to copy documents letter by letter, unconcerned with words or their meaning. On the other hand Akakii Akakievich assigns excessive meaning to his new greatcoat, which plays the role of a new wife in the clerk's dreary existence. The ability of this inanimate object to animate Akakii Akakievich is unsettling; it is not that his life is so pathetic but rather that his moral sense is corrupt. In the end Akakii Akakievich's very soul is preoccupied with the lost greatcoat, a fate more haunting than the ghost itself.
Gogol's "Koliaska" (The Carriage, 1836) is a small story that falls outside the bounds of his Ukrainian and Petersburg collections. Set in the sleepy Russian provinces, "Koliaska" briefly examines the shallowness and absurdity of human existence from a new angle--boredom. In the story the presence of a cavalry regiment brings a drowsy, provincial town to life. A local landowner, Pifagor Pifagorovich Chertokutsky, spends an evening at cards with the local gentry and the ranking members of the regiment. Boasting at dinner about his extraordinary carriage, Chertokutsky invites the regimental general and officers to view it the next day while they dine at his house. Quite drunk when he leaves the gathering, Chertokutsky fails to inform his household about the impending visit. He wakes the next afternoon only as the general and his entourage are approaching the house. The unprepared Chertokutsky is too ashamed to greet his guests and hides in the carriage house to avoid them. But when the officers decide to inspect the carriage anyway, they find their host huddled inside. "A, vy zdes'!" (Ah, here you are!) the general says in surprise before he slams the carriage door and rides off with his men.
"Koliaska" is Gogol's first foray into the empty and mind-numbing absurdity of provincial life. By the time he finished Mertvye dushi--begun in late 1835--the boredom and emptiness of the Russian provinces would take on greater meaning. Here he starts to explore the setting of a backwater town and the effect of unrelenting ennui on its inhabitants. With such a scanty plot, however, the richness of Gogol's narrative comes to the forefront, making language once again the only real event in the story.
The verbal presence of Gogol's narrators grew with his awareness of an artist's role as social commentator. In the 1830s Gogol saw the stage as an opportunity to further shorten the distance between author and audience. In 1833 he described in a letter to Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin how the audience materialized before him when he considered drama: "Peredo mnoiu dvizhetsia stsena, shumit aplodisment, rozhi vysovyvaiutsia iz lozh, iz raika, iz kresel" (The stage moves before me, applause thunders, mugs thrust out of the loges, the balcony, the stalls). Gogol's theatrical works--one unfinished and three complete plays plus the fragment "Al'fred" (King Alfred), an historical play--are satirical critiques of society at all levels. Subjects range from official corruption and confidence games to marriage contracting, and the theme of deception lies at the heart of each play.
For Gogol the audience members are characters as much as the actors onstage and as susceptible to petty shortcomings and flaws. To implicate spectators in his dramas, Gogol transgressed the limits of the stage, thus violating the integrity of its "frame." In Revizor characters directly address the audience; in Igroki (The Gamblers, probably written in 1836) a group of cardsharpers dupe the audience as well as the hero; in Zhenit'ba (The Marriage, begun in 1833) the hero jumps through the window frame to escape both his fiancée and the stage. Thus blurring the boundary between spectator and actor, Gogol inverts the relationship. Gogol's epigram for Revizor encapsulates his wish to confront his audience by suggesting they reserve their own judgment for themselves: "Na zerkalo necha peniat', koli rozha kriva" (It is no use blaming the mirror if your mug is crooked).
In 1833 Gogol began his first theatrical endeavor, "Vladimir tret'ei stepeni" (Vladimir of the Third Class). The three surviving scenes show how a bureaucrat's preoccupation with the Vladimir service award ends in madness and failure. In the spirit of "Zapiski sumasshedshego," the bureaucrat believes in the end that he himself is the Vladimir of the Third Class. However, the bizarre psychological twist of the play could not sustain the otherwise common themes and stock characters that forced Gogol to abandon the project.
Gogol was desperate to find a subject for a "purely Russian" comedy. In October 1835 Pushkin suggested the plot for Revizor, a story of mistaken identity that exhibits the vanity and corruption of small-town officials. A provincial mayor learns that an inspector general plans to visit the town incognito. In their apprehension the town officials believe that Khlestakov, a low-ranking St. Petersburg clerk stranded at the local inn with no money, is the inspector general. Khlestakov quickly catches on and takes full advantage of the townspeople. He collects money from them, enjoys their obsequious hospitality, and betroths himself to the mayor's daughter. By the time the town officials realize their mistake, Khlestakov is gone. The play ends with the arrival of the real inspector general.
In many ways Khlestakov is a precursor to Chichikov, the hero of Mertvye dushi, which Gogol set aside for the three months it took to write Revizor. Neither hero enjoys the rank and prestige he wants, but both manufacture the semblance of success out of wit and guile. Khlestakov's elaborations on his simple life in the capital are memorable. He claims to have written The Marriage of Figaro (1784) and popular Russian works. When he hosts a dinner party, he alleges that the soup is brought in a saucepan on a steamship directly from Paris. As does Chichikov, Khlestakov meets a procession of town officials, merchants, and citizens. However, in Revizor the townspeople present themselves to the hero, whereas in Mertvye dushi Chichikov ventures out himself. Nevertheless, in both works the visits allow Gogol to showcase the ignorance and petty concerns of provincial dwellers. In the play Khlestakov's letter to a friend in St. Petersburg performs the same function.
Khlestakov's letter depicts the townspeople in a less-than-flattering light. It is also the fulcrum on which Gogol's dramatic inversion turns. Angered at the letter and the spectators' laughter, the mayor turns the "mirror" on the audience. He asks them directly: "Chemu smeetes'? Nad soboiu smeetes'! . . . Ekh vy!" (What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves! . . . You are a fine lot!). In the final, unsettling moments of Revizor, Gogol again challenges the audience. A gendarme arrives at the mayor's house to announce the arrival of the real inspector general. The assembled officials are literally petrified in a one-and-one-half-minute mute scene that Fanger calls a parody of Judgment Day. Gogol's audiences in the spring of 1836 did not appreciate the opportunity for self-reflection. Actors and directors of Revizor shared critics' discomfort. Although Gogol insisted on direction for understated acting, Revizor was presented as vaudeville; the mute scene was shortened or cut altogether. The sense that his work had been misunderstood stunned Gogol as much as the poor reviews. Gogol left for Europe in June.
Before his departure Gogol met with Pushkin for the last time. He read the beginning of Mertvye dushi to the poet, who detected sadness rather than humor in Gogol's caricatures. At the time, both men were troubled--Gogol by debts and the response to Revizor, Pushkin by the rumors about his wife and the French baron Georges Charles d'Anthès-Heeckeren. Gogol's travels took him to Germany, Switzerland, and Paris, where in February 1837 he learned that d'Anthès-Heeckeren had killed Pushkin in a duel. In March, Gogol left Paris for Italy, where the warm climate and work on Mertvye dushi helped dull the painful loss of his mentor and friend. In Rome, Gogol associated with other Russian artists, notably the painter Aleksandr Ivanov, whose work, Gogol believed, truly reflected the purifying torments of his soul. Gogol's time in Italy was rather productive. In addition to working on Mertvye dushi, he revised "Taras Bul'ba," "Portret," "Nos," "Vii," and Revizor. He also rewrote the comedy Zhenit'ba but could not find an appropriate ending.
Work on these smaller pieces interfered with Mertvye dushi. In September 1839 a trip to Russia also delayed Gogol's progress on the novel. Gogol's widowed sister Maria was in danger of choosing an undesirable suitor, and the two youngest, Anna and Elizaveta, were about to complete their studies at the Patriotic Institute. Arriving first in Moscow, Gogol made a disagreeable impression on his friends. He was moody and reclusive, alternately eating enormous quantities of food, which he often prepared himself, and complaining about an assortment of stomach ailments. Gogol then traveled to St. Petersburg under considerable financial constraint, returning to Moscow in December with his two youngest sisters. Elizaveta stayed on in Moscow while the painfully shy Anna returned to Vasil'evka with Gogol's mother, who had traveled to Moscow to visit her son. Gogol remained in Moscow until his family and financial affairs were tentatively settled. In May 1840 he returned to Rome, where he completed the first volume of Mertvye dushi--for which Pushkin had provided the plot--and in August 1841 he returned to Moscow to oversee its publication.
As in many of Gogol's earlier works, Mertvye dushi turns on deception. Chichikov arrives in the town of N. and in the first five chapters visits a succession of landowners. He proposes to each that they transfer to him ownership of those serfs, or "souls," whose deaths have yet to be registered by the census and are therefore still taxable property. Chichikov plans to mortgage his nonexistent "souls" to buy an estate. The plan falls through, and Chichikov must quickly leave town.
The image of the road dominates Mertvye dushi, but the movement of the novel is not clearly linear. Narrative digressions into distant realms and long-winded description threaten to divert Chichikov's tale from its course. Meanwhile a swirling mass of irrelevant details destroys any hierarchy of meaning but creates the dizzying impression that the world of Mertvye dushi is spinning on its narrative axis. In a circular relationship the landowners project the dominant aspect of their character onto the faceless Chichikov. Manilov is vacuous and sentimental; Korobochka, frugal and suspicious; Sobakevich, a misanthropic bear; Nozdrev, an inveterate liar; and Pliushkin, a passionately acquisitive miser. Like the landowners' homes, Chichikov in turn becomes a collective reflection of their zadory (passions).
Gogol's interest in the theater is evident in Mertvye dushi. Chichikov's meetings with the five landowners are strongly reminiscent of similar scenes in Revizor and Zhenit'ba. The suggestion of staged drama in the novel allows the narrator to engage the readers as the townspeople in Revizor turn to the audience and address them directly. Again in Mertvye dushi Gogol challenges his readers to divert to themselves the judgment they so harshly train on his narrator and characters, asking themselves: "A net li i vo mne kakoi-nibud' chasti Chichikov?" (And isn't there some part of Chichikov in me too?).
In Mertvyi dushi Gogol further defines the position and role of the artist in Russian society. The narrator is a "bessemeinyi putnik" (homeless wayfarer). But only from his isolated perspective can the writer discern beauty in the everyday--the definition of the artist that harkens back to Arabeski--and also glean meaning from the empty expanse of Russian plains. In keeping with the picaresque genre Gogol creates a strong authorial presence in the novel that mediates the readers' response to Chichikov's experience. Using the hero's exploits to showcase his own opinions and linguistic talents, Gogol's narrator positions himself at the center of the novel. Indeed he presents his own biography in the sixth chapter--the middle point in the novel-- while Chichikov's life story comes much later. Hero and narrator vie for the role of main character in Mertvye dushi until their consciousnesses seem to merge in a vanishing point at the end.
Coupled with the task of authorship was Gogol's epic intent to portray in his work a truly "Russian Russia." To do so Gogol strove to inscribe meaning on the vast expanses of Russia and the blankovyi list (blank page) of its history. Mertvye dushi grew out of the absence of a Russian novelist tradition. In Gogol's work the emptiness of the Russian landscape and the moral hollowness of its inhabitants reflect this aesthetic void. By producing a perl sozdan'ia (pearl of creation) out of nothingness, Gogol hoped to revive the Russian "soul" as the seat of its realized self. Gogol envisioned three volumes of Mertvye dushi that would trace the transformation of his hero, Chichikov, from a wayfaring swindler into what Vasilii Vasil'evich Gippius calls "ideal khoziaev-domostrioitel'" (the ideal family man) and at the same time would kindle a cohesive Russian national consciousness. However, drafts of the second volume were a source of frustration and disappointment for him. In despair he burned them; the fragments that remain escaped the fire by chance and do not represent what Gogol meant to publish. The first volume of Mertvye dushi shows Gogol at the height of his verbal talents as he weaves the story of an emerging artist--whose words bespeak Russia itself--into the anticlimactic tale of his trickster hero.
In Mertvye dushi negation, imprecision, and what Andrei Belyi describes as the law of "ne to" (not quite) become important leitmotivs that convey the pervasive emptiness of Russia. Gogol's famous nondescription of Chichikov's physiognomy reflects the blank slate of the hero's own "dead soul." As Chichikov enters the town N., the narrator portrays him in a series of negatives: "ne krasavets, no i ne durnoi naruzhnosti, ni slishkom tolst, ni slishkom tonok; nel'zia skazat', chtoby star, odnako zh i ne tak, chtoby slishkom molod" ([he was] not handsome, nor was he ugly, neither too fat nor too thin; one wouldn't say he was old, although neither would one say that he was too young).
As the townspeople of N. devise identities for the faceless Chichikov, Gogol's narrator insists that the emptiness of Russia holds great meaning. As Grigorii A. Gukovsky and Leon Stilman note, the narrator's estrangement from Russia--like his homelessness--allows him expansive vision as well as superior insight. "Iz chudesnogo, prekrasnogo daleka" (From a miraculous, wondrous afar), the narrator lists what Russia lacks:
Rus! Rus! I see you: you are poor, far-flung and uncomfortable; cities with tall, many-windowed palaces growing on cliffs, picturesque trees and ivy-covered houses will not gladden the eye. . . . You are open, empty and flat; your low slung towns imperceptibly dot the plains like points, like marks; nothing beguiles and nothing charms the eye.
However, in this elegy to nothingness Gogol's narrator implies that there is some larger meaning in the open space of the plains:
What does this unbounded expanse prophesy?. . . And the powerful expanse envelops me menacingly, reflecting with a terrible force in the depths of me; my eyes are lighted with a supernatural power: oh! what glittering, wondrous, unfathomable infinity of space! Rus!
The narrator suggests that in him the reflection of Russia's emptiness will give rise to some "bespredel'naia mysl'" (boundless thought) to express its significance. However, at this point the double-voiced narrative structure of the picaresque genre allows Chichikov to interrupt. The hero's ambiguously placed intrusion seems directed at both his reckless coachman, Selifan, and the narrator, with the implication that the latter should "get hold" of himself ("Derzhi! Derzhi, durak!"). Placed near the end of Mertvye dushi, Chichikov's command emphasizes the culmination of struggle between hero and narrator for prominence. Frederick T. Griffiths and Stanley J. Rabinowitz describe Chichikov and Gogol's narrator as two sides of the same personality. But when the narrative relationship between the two unites them in the final pages of Mertvye dushi, there is little resolution of conflict, but only the doubting hope that the striking barrenness of Russia holds any meaning at all.
The originality of Mertvye dushi delighted and shocked Gogol's readers. Critics such as Belinsky praised the novel for its artistry, humor, and social commentary. However, the slow movement of the novel through the censorship process forecast the critical reviews to come. Dissenting censors balked at the paradoxical notion of a "dead" soul and at Gogol's celebration of Chichikov's criminality. Later reviewers questioned the literariness of the work. Ironically the objections of Gogol's detractors-- Polevoi, Nikolai Ivanovich Grech, Osip Ivanovich Senkovsky, and Konstantin Petrovich Masalsky--marked points of innovation in Mertvye dushi and illustrated its parody of selected sectors of Russian society. Reviewers' protestations about the indecency, banality, and base humor in the novel constitute an early reaction against the Natural School, of which Gogol is considered a founder. Similarly, as Belyi notes, the odd similes and metaphors for which Gogol's contemporaries chided him lie at the heart of Russian Symbolism. Negative reviews also failed to discern the parody of Gogol's circular speech and heavily stylized passages. Finally critics further inflamed the question of the writer's place in society by taking issue with Gogol's combination of the comic and the philosophic.
In May 1842 Gogol returned to Rome, imploring friends in Russia to describe in detail the reception of the novel. Gogol was also absent for the debut of his plays Zhenit'ba and Igroki in 1842 and 1843 after almost a decade of writing and revisions. Both plays focus on the theme of deception. In Igroki a cardsharper allies himself with a band of confidence men to cheat a landowner but falls prey to the elaborate hoax himself. Like Revizor, Igroki uses a provincial setting to satirize bureaucratic corruption. A treasury clerk suggests that the excesses of small-town officials depicted in works such as Igroki reflects widespread abuses: "Ved' vot uzhe i gospoda sochiniteli vse podsmeivaiutsia nad temi, kotorye berut vziatki; a kak rassmotrish' khoroshen'ko, tak vziatki berut i te, kotorye povyshe nas" (The gentlemen who write stories are always making jokes about people taking bribes, but when you look closely, our superiors take bribes too).
In Zhenit'ba the setting moves back to St. Petersburg, where Podkolesin, a government clerk, finds himself one of four suitors a matchmaker has arranged for a merchant's daughter. As in Mertvye dushi, the characters in Zhenit'ba are sketches of various physical types and humors. Determined to marry off the hero, Podkolesin's friend Kochkarev tricks the other suitors and arranges for a wedding that same day. In a moment of panic before the ceremony, Podkolesin jumps through an open window and rides away in a carriage, like Khlestakov in Revizor and Chichikov in Mertvye dushi.
Gogol believed that Russia expected Mertvye dushi to define for the country a collective cultural identity. He was frustrated by the public's misunderstanding of the work and his inability to produce the next volume. In 1843 and 1845 he burned two versions of the sequel. In 1847 Gogol published Vybrannye mesta iz perepiska s druz'iami (Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends), a collection of real and fictitious letters. In part the work presents Gogol's interpretation of the intent and the failure of Mertvye dushi. With a mixture of humility and pride typical of Vybrannye mesta, Gogol's four letters on Mertvye dushi at once acknowledge the shortcomings of his work while berating his readership for not helping him accurately portray Russian life.
In general Vybrannye mesta sought to point Russia toward redemption by modeling proper social, political, and spiritual behavior. Thus directed, Russia would undergo a spiritual rebirth as it realized its true cultural identity. Literature is central to Gogol's project. The insight of the prophet-writer is necessary to the creation of Russia as a religious civilization; only the writer can discern from his "miraculous, wondrous afar" the proper order of Russia's institutions and the daily life of its citizens. Again, Gogol saw his position outside of society and outside of Russia as an advantageous perspective. Now inspired by God rather than muse, he could more clearly discern, diagnose, and advise on the problems that confronted Russia.
As part of Gogol's lifetime meditation on good and evil, Vybrannye mesta outlines Russia's salvation through good social practices. In it Gogol outlines proper conduct for a governor's wife, the clergy, and a person in "high office"; he offers practical advice on running a household, an estate, a government office, and a courtroom. In the same work Gogol discusses eternal redemption and an intricate system of keeping household accounts. This odd mixture of concerns prompted Abram Terts to call the book a cross between the Christian gospels and the Domostroi (House Law), the medieval book of Russian mores and manners. Like the Domostroi, Vybrannye mesta instructed Russians of all classes and occupations to live according to the station into which they were born. Thus, according to the work, universal education is harmful to peasants, but a master is morally obligated to beat and humiliate his serfs. In some places Gogol defends Russia's conservative political, religious, and social institutions so zealously that suspicious church and government censors cut large parts of the collection. Liberal critics were outraged; the work was attacked by both friend and foe as servile, moralistic, and permeated with an insane pride thinly disguised as religious humility. After reading Vybrannye mesta Belinsky--usually a champion of Gogol's work--sent an invective letter to the author on 15 July 1847 that called him a "preacher of the knout, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism, panegyrist of barbarism."
What is useful in Vybrannye mesta are Gogol's analyses of Russian literature and its role in Russian society. In Gogol's mind the resurrection of the Russian soul depended on the literary word. Gogol likened the need to produce a work that would unify the Russian cultural consciousness to the need to feel "doma" (at home) in the country's "pustye, bespriiutnye prostranstva" (empty, shelterless expanses). The writer needed to lead Russia from what Ruth Sobel calls the "post-house condition"-- rootless, misdirected wandering symptomatic of alienation and fragmentation of self--to the warmth and integration of a cultural "homecoming."
The fate and duty of the writer, Gogol states, is to lead Russia toward a heartfelt, "brotherly" welcome at "home." Gogol believed that Russian poèziia (literature) must fulfill a spiritual mission--to assemble and unite Russia under one roof as a nation of brothers. The notion of achieving spirituality through unity lies at the heart of the Russian idea of spiritual sobornost' (communality). In addition to the connotations of oneness inherent in sobornost', the term conveys the meaning of unanimity or "consent" in the sense of a single (singing) voice comprised of many. In Vybrannye mesta Gogol wrote that Russian literature would produce a truly "Russian Russia." The clarity of this image would unite the country "v odin golos" (in one voice) to proclaim its long-awaited homecoming:
Our literature will call forth for us our Russia--our Russian Russia . . . that, which it will draw out of us and show us in such a way so that every last one of us, regardless of differing thought, upbringing and opinion, will say in one voice: "This is our Russia; in it we are warm and comfortable, and now we are indeed at home, under our own native roof, and not in a foreign land."
In contrast, for Gogol the post-house condition represents the persistent absence of a warm welcome at one's own home and life on the road. However, Sobel says, the post-house metaphor suggests movement in the present from alienation and the cold reception at the post-house to a brotherly welcome and the joy of homecoming in the future. Ironically, while the road represents Russia's alienation from itself, it is also the means by which it will ultimately realize its "homecoming." In keeping with Gogol's image of Russia as a homeward-bound pilgrim, the image of the post-house suggests both the potential transformation of the Russian soul and the promise of eternal wandering.
In 1847 Gogol also began his association with Father Matvei Konstantinovsky, the spiritual advisor to Count Aleksandr Petrovich Tolstoi, the one-time governor of Tver'. Ignorant and narrowly faithful, Father Matvei regarded art that did not celebrate Orthodoxy as potentially heretical. Gogol was taken with the certainty of such convictions and corresponded with Father Matvei for months before he actually met him in November 1848. Gogol had long been seeking a spiritual locus for his writing. In January 1848 he traveled to Jerusalem but was disappointed by the mundane reality of what he imagined the Holy Land to be. Over the next four years Gogol attempted to reconcile his increasingly intense sense of spirituality with his authorship; this effort was the purpose of "Avtorskaia izpoved'," which he had drafted in 1847. Early in February 1852 Gogol gave several chapters of the second volume of Mertvye dushi to Father Matvei to read. The priest condemned the work and advised Gogol to purify his body instead of writing such nonsense. When Gogol countered that spirituality and prose could serve each other, Father Matvei erupted into a horrifying description of what awaited Gogol at the Last Judgment.
Believing that he was purifying his soul, Gogol soon stopped writing altogether and began the fast that would end his life. In mid February, living at the house of Count Tolstoi, he burned the latest version of the second volume of Mertvye dushi. Friends, doctors, and other clergy vainly implored Gogol to eat. Throughout the night of 20 February, doctors tried to save the author's life. About 11 P.M. he cried out his last words: "Dai lestnitsu!" (Give me a ladder!). At 8 A.M. in the morning on 21 February 1852 Gogol died at the age of forty-two.
Gogol's final words reveal the author's lifelong attempt to bridge the earthly and the sublime in his art. Gogol offered his early work to a Russia that was unprepared for his challenges to preexisting art forms and the designated place of the author. Partisanship and lack of vision split nineteenth-century critics in their appreciation of Gogol. It was Dostoyevsky who summed up Gogol's role as the progenitor of Russian literature. Referring to the mastery of "Shinel'," he was reported to have said that he and his fellow authors "all came out from under Gogol's 'Overcoat.'"
From: Adams, Amy Singleton. "Nikolai (Vasilyevich) Gogol." Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose, edited by Christine Rydel, Gale, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 198.