Gogol, Nikolai

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Gogol, Nikolai Vasil’evich


Born Mar. 20 (Apr. I), 1809, in the village of Bol’shie Sorochintsy, in present-day Poltava Oblast; died Feb. 21 (Mar. 4), 1852, in Moscow. Russian writer. Born into a family of landowners of modest means, V. A. and M. I. Gogol-Ianovskii. His father wrote several comedies in Ukrainian.

Gogol was educated at the Nezhin Gymnasium (1821–28). where his interest in literature and painting manifested itself along with a superior talent for acting. Gogol’s social attitude during this period was typified by his conduct in the “freethinking case,” when he took the side of Professor N. G. Belousov, who was being persecuted for disseminating progressive ideas.

From his youth, Gogol had dreamed of lofty civic pursuits. He moved to St. Petersburg in 1828 hoping to devote himself to jurisprudence. However, the atmosphere of the bureaucratic state soon compelled him to abandon his intention. Gogol changed jobs several times. He attempted to teach history, but gradually literary activity crowded out all his other occupations.

In 1829, Gogol published his unsuccessful idyll, Hanz Kiichelgarten, under the pseudonym V. Alov. In 1831 he became acquainted with A. S. Pushkin, who played an important role in forming Gogol’s literary personality. Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831–32) brought him literary fame. In 1835 the collections Arabesques and Mir-gorod were published; and in that same year V. G. Belinskii called Gogol “the chief figure in our literature and the master of our poets” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 1. 1953; p. 306).

The apex of Gogol’s creative work as a playwright was The Inspector-General, published and staged in 1836. The satirical force of the play provoked fierce attacks upon Gogol from reactionary circles. The attacks and his dissatisfaction with the St. Petersburg production of the play, which lowered his social comedy to a farcical level, left Gogol profoundly depressed. In June 1836 he went abroad and remained there until 1848 (with the exception of two trips back to Russia). For the most part, he lived in Rome, where he became friends with the artist A. A. Ivanov.

In Italy, Gogol worked on his principal creation—the novel-narrative poem Dead Souls. His conception called for a three-volume work. Gogol published only the first volume (1842), which prompted an even more powerful social uproar than The Inspector-General. Of the mass of diverse interpretations of the “poem” the most correct was that by Belinskii, who defined the book’s essence as “the contradiction between the social forms of Russian life and its profound, substantive foundation” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 6, 1955, p. 431). Gogol’s Works in four volumes were published soon after; the short story “The Overcoat” was in the collection. With Dead Souls, it became a kind of manifesto of the critical trend in Russian literature.

Gogol’s ensuing creative work proceeded with more and more difficulty and unevenness. Sensing that he could not further realistically embody his concept in Dead Souls, Gogol published a book entitled Selected Passages From a Correspondence With Friends (1847), where in the form of exhortations he attempted to show Russian society the path to moral renewal. After his return to his native land in 1848, he tried to continue work on Dead Souls, but a feeling of creative inadequacy haunted him. On the night of Feb. 12 (24), 1852, while in a state of depression, he burned the manuscript of the second volume of his novel.

Gogol’s significance for Russian society was expressed by N. G. Chernyshevskii in these words: “He awoke in us an apprehension of ourselves” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 3, 1947, p. 20). Gogol depicted in his work those aspects of life that previously had been considered the province of the “low” genres in art. He made “a profitable marriage,” “the desire for a good job,” and similar motifs the basis of the action, creating a living picture of the prevalent mores of the epoch of Nicholas I. At the same time Gogol continued the process begun by Pushkin of enriching the literary language and bringing it as close as possible to the spoken language.

Gogol was acutely troubled by the lack of spirituality in the life around him and its narrowly egoistical and mercantile interests. He ridiculed the inner emptiness of provincial “existers” (“Ivan Fedorovich Shpon’ka and His Auntie,” “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled With Ivan Nikiforovich,” and “The Carriage”). Gogol’s dramatic works (Marriage, The Inspector-General, and the so-called dramatic fragments) demonstrate that the “respectable” shell of work, family, and everyday relations conceals people’s complete inner isolation and profound social antagonisms. The St. Petersburg stories (“Nevsky Prospect,” “Notes of a Madman,” and “The Overcoat”) gave the theme of the hierarchical compartmentalization of society and of man’s terrible loneliness a tragic resonance. Gogol contrasted this way of life with the ideals of liberty, the brotherhood of man, and lofty spiritual values. In the Zaporozhian Sech’ in Taras Bulba, Gogol depicted a harmonious society where man is free from the conventions of bourgeois civilization and where the interests of the individual merge with the interests of the group. “Old-World Landowners” contrasts the unselfish mutual devotion and the goodness of the two old people to the unnatural life of St. Petersburg society. In “The Portrait,” an artist who gives himself entirely to art is contrasted with one who has ruined his talent for the sake of money and cheap success.

Gogol’s ideals were incompatible with the moral norms of the feudal-bourgeois society. Nevertheless, a fundamental trait of Gogol’s aesthetics was the striving to introduce beauty into contemporary life. Service to civic ideals, which he had not accomplished in a government career, became the goal of his artistic creative work. The concept of art as a socially transforming force was expressed most fully by Gogol in “After the Theater,” “The Portrait,” and Chapter 7 of Dead Souls.“It is impossible for a society to strive toward the beautiful, unless and until you show it all the depths of its present vile loathsomeness,” wrote Gogol (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 8, 1952, p. 298). It was from this point of view that The Inspector-General and Dead Souls were created. By refusing to grant any genuinely human merit to the moral and psychological figures of his negative heroes, Gogol “tore off their human masks,” in Herzen’s words (Sobr. soch., vol. 13, 1958, p. 175).

A basic device of Gogol’s grotesque is to make his characters resemble animals or inanimate objects. The typicalness of the social psychological traits that are at the root of his characters underlies his realism. Gogol imprinted the moral outline of contemporary society in his characters with such psychological power that they took on a generic significance that has outlived their epoch. By showing the parasitic and antipopular character of Nicholas I’s bureaucracy and of the landed gentry, Gogol’s works proclaimed the historical exhaustion of feudal relations in Russia.

Another aspect of Gogol’s creative program was to show society the “path to the beautiful,” a task central to the creation of the second volume of Dead Souls. Gogol’s inability to realize this goal stemmed from his desire to arrive at the transformation of society by means of the moral rebirth of each of its individual component members. In this way, according to Gogol, the institutions of tsarist Russia could remain inviolable. His lack of understanding of the economic and political causes of social relations and his sympathy with the romantic conception of history, according to which the Russian nation was considered to be free from internal class enmity, led Gogol in the early 1840’s to the abstract conclusion that it was precisely in Russia that the principle of human brotherhood would first be affirmed and embodied. He sought in the Russian man those lofty spiritual qualities that would serve as the keystone for the realization of his ideal.

Gogol found all the best qualities of the national character in the milieu of the people, among the representatives of the toiling peasantry; they personified the living soul of the nation in the kingdom of dead souls described by the writer. However, the spirit of the historical views of his own epoch led Gogol to conceive of the nation as an internally unified organism and to try to seek out and bring to life these same moral traits even in the milieu of the ruling classes. In this erroneous theory lay the basis of Gogol’s creative tragedy. Because he considered a nation’s religion to be its inalienable characteristic, he presented his social ideal in Orthodox Christian trappings. His religiosity increased during the last few years of his life. He combined a negation of the moral foundations of existing society (many chapters of Selected Passages were forbidden by the censorship) with a recognition and acceptance of the monarchy, the church, and the system of serfdom. In like manner he combined an affirmation of the peasantry’s most important role (“Blessings upon all those who sow; they provide the subsistence for millions,” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 7, 1951, p. 72) with an attempt to create an ideal landowner and a Christian tax-farmer. Be-linskii’s famous letter to Gogol (1847) sharply criticized Selected Passages Front a Correspondence With Friends. Chernyshevskii characterized Gogol as “a martyr of afflicted thought and good strivings” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 3, 1947, p. 776).

Gogol’s art has achieved worldwide fame, but its internal complexity has led to controversy in its critical evaluation. Various schools in Russian and foreign literary scholarship have proposed differing interpretations of the contradictory aspects of his art. Soviet scholarship approaches Gogol in terms of his legacy, whose foundation was laid by the works of the Russian revolutionary democrats. Following the lead of Chernyshevskii, who introduced the concept of the “Gogolian period” in Russian literature, Soviet scholarship has revealed the enormous influence of Gogol’s creative work on the entire subsequent development of Russian critical realism. The numerous works devoted to Gogol, the republication of his works, and the embodiment of his characters on the stage and screen and in music and painting, both in the USSR and abroad, affirm the unflagging interest throughout the world in the art of this great Russian writer.

Gogol was buried in the cemetery of the Danilov Monastery in Moscow; in 1931 his remains were transferred to the Novodevich’e Cemetery.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Gogol, Nikolai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka).
Gogol, Nikolai. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil.
Gogol, Nikolai. "The Nose." Diary of a Madman and Other Stories.