Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol (Russian: Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь) (March 31, 1809 – March 4, 1852) was a Ukrainian-born Russian writer. Although many of his works were influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and upbringing, he wrote in the Russian language and his works are among the most beloved in the tradition of Russian literature.
Gogol is seen by most critics as the first Russian realist. His biting satire, comic realism, and descriptions of Russian provincials and petty bureaucrats influenced later Russian masters Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and especially Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Many of Gogol's witty sayings have since become Russian maxims.
Gogol's best-known works, his play The Inspector General; short stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat;" and novel Dead Souls demonstrate a wit comparable to that of English satirist Jonathan Swift. His comic short story, "The Overcoat," about the trials and humiliations of a low-level clerk, was a clear precedent for Dostoyevsky's protagonists in Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment—a debt Dostoyevsky famously acknowledged in his tribute, "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat.'" Gogol's historical romance Taras Bulba, unlike his satirical portrayals of provincial life, presents a heroic account of Russian spirit and character and influenced later literary conceptions of the "Russian Soul." Praised by the Russian critic Belinski as "worthy of Homer," Taras Bulba directly influenced the vast fictional canvases of the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkievicz.
Despite his literary success, Gogol appears to have been ambivalent about his own work. Read by critics as a social reformer, the real aim of his literary output, as well as of his own personal life, appears to have been spiritual renewal. Raised by his mother as a Christian, Gogol increasingly found his work as a writer in conflict with his spiritual aims. Unable to reconcile the two, he burned his final manuscript shortly before his death in 1852.
According to Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the religious and moral character of Russian literature begins with Gogol: "The tragedy of Gogol lay in the fact that he could never see and depict the human, the image of God in man, and this fact was a torment to him."
Gogol was born in Sorochintsi of Poltava Guberniya, now Ukraine, to a family of Ukrainian (Ruthenian) lower nobility (dvoryanstvo). Some of his ancestors associated themselves with Polish Szlachta. This was probably not by ethnicity, but culturally, due to the continued Polonization of Ruthenian upper class. His grandfather, Afanasiy Gogol, wrote in census papers that "his ancestors, of the family-name Gogol, are of the Polish nation." However, his great-grandfather, Jan Gogol, after studying in the deeply Ukrainian and Orthodox Christian educational institution known as the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, moved to the Muscovy-leaning Left-bank Ukraine (Malorossia) and settled in the Poltava region, originating the Gogol-Janovsky family line. Gogol himself did not use the second part of his name, considering it an "artificial Polish addition." Gogol's father died when Nikolai was 15 years old. The deep religious convictions of his mother and the time he spent in the surroundings of local small-town nobility and everyday village life find their way into many of Gogol's works.
He moved to St. Petersburg in 1828. In 1831, he met Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin supported him as a writer and became his friend, later publishing some of Gogol's stories in his journal, The Contemporary. Evenings on a Farm Near the Dikanka River (1831–1832), his first collection of short stories, was well-received. Gogol taught history at St. Petersburg University from 1834 to 1835. He went on to write a number of short stories set in St. Petersburg, including "Nevsky Prospekt," the "Diary of a Madman," "The Overcoat," and "The Nose" (which was later turned into an opera of the same name by Dmitri Shostakovich). His farce, the uproariously funny play The Inspector General, was first produced in 1836. Its biting satire of Russian bureaucratic life (a characteristic of much of his other work), caused some controversy, leading Gogol to spend the next 12 years abroad, primarily in Rome.
It was in Rome during this period that he wrote Dead Souls. The first part, and the only part to survive intact, was published in 1842. In the same year, he published his great short story, "The Overcoat." Like The Inspector General, these two works continued Gogol's satiric treatment of Russian officialdom. "The Overcoat" tells the story of a simple copy clerk, Akaky Akakevich Bashmachkin. Gogol's name derivations give a significant insight into his comic mind. Bashmachkin is derived from the word for shoe. Of course, the story is about not a shoe, but a coat. The choice of name is based not on any significance of shoes in the story, but on the feeling that its meaning and its sound evokes. Akaky lives to copy. When his tailor informs him that his threadbare overcoat cannot be patched any further, it sets his life into turmoil. He must face the daunting task of replacing it with a new overcoat, which he cannot afford. But Akaky faces up to his challenge, finding ways to economize his already bleak existence in order to buy a new overcoat. After a long period of anticipation, finally the joyous day arrives. He picks up his new coat and it transforms his life. Not only does it inject in him a new sense of pride, but even his co-workers, who had mercilessly ridiculed him previously, began to treat him with new-found respect. Sadly, on the way home from a party given in honor of his new coat, he is beset by robbers who steal his new prized possession. He goes to visit a "very important person" to report the theft but is verbally abused by him for his pains. Devastated, he becomes ill and dies. But that is not the end of the story. Reports begin to circulate that a ghost is haunting people on the streets and stealing their overcoats.
The story was hailed by Russian literary and social critic, Visarrion Belinsky, as an example of the dehumanization under the corrupt Russian state. It was hailed as an example of the natural school for its realism. The often repeated claim that Russian novelists "have all come out of Gogol's Overcoat" expresses the importance of this work as a precursor to the development of realism in later Russian prose writers. However, Gogol's story, like all of his work, is equal parts grotesque, fantastic, satirical, and socially critical. Any realism is overwhelmed by these other elements.
Dead Souls is another example of the same combination of elements. The "hero" of the novel, Chichikov (another name chosen for its sound as much as anything), uses a loophole in the Russian tax system to hatch a plan to make himself wealthy. Landowners were taxed on their land and possessions, which included how many serfs, or souls, they owned. The number of serfs owned was determined by census, so landowners would continue to be taxed on the serfs, even after they had died, until the next census. Chichikov reasoned that he could buy these "dead souls" from landowners at bargain prices, then as a landowner with a large number of souls for collateral, he could borrow a hefty sum of money and live lavishly. The novel is a kind of picaresque novel which recounts Chichikov's travels and encounters with various landowners in his attempt to buy "dead souls." On his journey, the landowners that he meets are each more ridiculous than the next. These are stock characters that each embody a single characteristic, like the stupid and superstitious Korobochka and the miserly Plyushkin. They serve as perfect comic foils for Chichikov. Driven by their own vices and greed, they participate in his grotesque and wickedly funny plan. The title of the novel serves not only as a description of a commodity that is bought and sold in the action of the novel, but also as an ironic commentary on the moral state of the society depicted. Gogol's social commentary is all the more effective due to his comic genius and verbal artistry, which is the real hero of all of Gogol's great works.
Gogol began work on a second part of the novel Dead Souls, in which Chichikov was to undergo a moral and spiritual regeneration, however, in a state of nervous collapse toward the end of June 1845, he burnt all he had written of the second volume of Dead Souls. Only a small portion escaped the fire. Perhaps owing to its early stages of development, it is generally considered inferior to the first novel. For the next seven years, he resumed his work on the novel.
In 1847, Gogol published Selected Passages from My Correspondence with Friends. This collection of essays seemed for many to run counter to the thrust of his literary works, which had been so critical of Russian society's foibles. He endorsed the institutions of Russian society, including serfdom, arguing that individual moral and particularly religious development was what Russia needed. This view met with predictable criticism from his supporters who had championed his literary work and prompted Belinsky to write his famous Letter to Gogol. Belinsky condemned this book as a betrayal of the cause of social progress.
In 1848, after the fallout from his failed attempts at producing a second Dead Souls, Gogol left the country again, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even before his pilgrimage, Gogol decided that before he could continue his work on the novel and bring about the "spiritual regeneration of a crook like Chichikov," he had to undergo a spiritual regeneration himself. He imposed upon himself a strict regime of prayer and fasting, but it did not help him with his writing. But, after his return from Jerusalem, he fell under the influence of Father Matthew Konstantinovskii, a priest who regarded his literary work as an abomination "in the eyes of the Lord." Konstantinovskii wanted Gogol to give up his literary career and "atone for his sin of writing the first volume by entering a monastery." Following a tremendous inner conflict, Gogol decided to comply with Father Konstantinovskii's wishes and burnt the complete second part of his novel on the night of February 24, 1852. He soon after took to his bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later, on March 5, 1852. Some fragments of the work survived and have been published.
He was buried at the Donskoy Monastery, close to his fellow Slavophile Aleksey Khomyakov. In 1931, when Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery, his remains were transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery. His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. One of the Soviet critics even cut a part of his jacket to use as a binding for his copy of the Dead Souls. A piece of rock which used to stand on his grave at the Donskoy was reused for the tomb of Gogol's admirer Mikhail Bulgakov.
Gogol's literary life and work was caught up in the struggle between the Westernizer and Slavophile elements in Russian culture. Belinsky, N.G. Chernyshevsky, and other literary critics viewed his stories as social criticism. Due to the reactionary nature of the regime, direct social criticism was not permitted, so social critics like Belinsky turned to literary criticism to make their points. Belinsky's assessment of Gogol's stories was based more on his own reformist zeal than that of their author. Social satire always has a critical element, but Gogol was no social reformer, at least, not in the way that his liberal interpreters imagined. Thus, toward the end of his life, liberals saw him as a religious fanatic, strangely reactionary, and increasingly pathetic.
Gogol cannot be classified by a single genre. He wrote in the literary tradition of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Laurence Sterne, often involving elements of the fantastic and grotesque. As an artist, his guiding philosophy seems to be his comic outlook, but his artistic genius lies in his verbal ability. Through puns, idioms, and playful symbolism, his literary voice is wildly erratic and fresh, and often outrageously funny. The mixture of humor, social realism, the fantastic, and unusual prose forms are what readers love about his work.
Gogol wrote in a time of political censorship. The use of the fantastic is, like Aesophic storytelling, one way to circumvent the censor, as placing the supernatural into a realistic setting softens anything that offends the regime by making it also seem "not real." Some of the best Soviet writers would later also use the fantastic for similar purposes.
Gogol had a huge and enduring impact on Russian literature. Dostoevsky's style would have been unthinkable had there been no Gogol. In the 1920s, a group of Russian writers consciously built on this thread, creating the Serapian Brothers, naming the group after a character in a Hoffmann story. Writers such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Abram Tertz (Siniavsky) also consciously followed this tradition.
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