Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was a humorist, playwright, and novelist born in Ukraine whose works, written in Russian, significantly influenced the direction of Russian literature. His novel "Dead Souls" (1842.) and his short story "The Overcoat" (1942) are considered the foundations of the great tradition of Russian realism of the 19th century.
Early Life and Education
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was born on March 19, 1809, in Sorochintsy, near Poltava, Ukraine, previously the Russian Empire, and now in Ukraine. The Ukrainian countryside, with its colorful peasantry, Cossack traditions, and rich folklore, formed the background of Gogol's childhood.
A member of the small Ukrainian nobility and a subject of the Russian Empire, Gogol was sent to the gymnasium in Nezin at the age of 12 where he distinguished himself with his caustic language, his contributions of poetry and prose to the magazine, and his portrayal of comic old men and women in school theaters. In 1828, he went to Petrograd, hoping to enter the civil service, but he soon discovered that, without money and connections, he would have to struggle for life. He tried to become an actor, but the auditions he did were unsuccessful. In this predicament, he remembered a mediocre sentimental-idyllic poem he had written in high school.
Eager to achieve fame as a poet, he published it at his own expense, but its failure was so disastrous that he burned all copies and considered emigrating to the United States. He embezzled the money his mother sent him to pay the mortgage on her farm and took a boat to the German port of Lübeck. He did not sail but briefly visited Germany. Soon he ran out of money, so he returned to St. Petersburg, where he took a poorly paid government job.
Meanwhile, Gogol occasionally wrote for periodicals, finding escape in his childhood memories of Ukraine. He wrote about sunny landscapes, peasants, and noisy country boys, as well as stories about devils, witches, and other demonic or fantastical creatures that enliven Ukrainian folklore. Romantic stories from the past are thus intertwined with realistic events from the present. Such was the origin of his eight stories, published in two volumes in 1831 - 1832 under the title "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka". Written in lively and occasionally colloquial prose, these works contributed something fresh and new to Russian literature.
In addition to the author's whimsical inflections, they abounded in original folk flavor, including numerous Ukrainian words and phrases, all of which conquered the Russian literary world.
The young author became famous overnight. Among his first admirers were the poets Alexander Pushkin and Vasily Zhukovski, whom he met before. This respect was soon shared by writer Sergej Aksakov and critic Vissarion Belinsky, among others. Having given up his second government post, Gogol now taught history at a girls' boarding school.
In 1834 he was appointed assistant professor of medieval history at the University of St. Petersburg, but he felt ill-equipped for the position and left it after a year. In the meantime, he vigorously prepared for the publication of his next two books, Mirgorod and Arabeski ("Arabesques"), which were published in 1835.
A great story about the Cossack past as "Taras Buljba" certainly made it possible to escape from the present. But "Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich" was, for all its humor, full of bitterness because of the meanness and vulgarity of existence. Even the idyllic motif of Gogol's "The Old World Landowners" is undermined by satire, because the mutual affection of the elderly couple is undermined by gluttony.
In Gogol's St. Petersburg stories published (together with some essays) in his second work, the aggressive realism of the romantic prevails, who can neither adapt to the world nor escape from it and therefore wants to expose its naivety and malignity even more. In one of these stories, "Diary of a Madman", the hero is an extremely frustrating office bum who finds compensation in megalomania and ends up in an insane asylum.
In the second story, "Nevsky Prospekt", a tragic romantic dreamer is opposed to an adventurous vulgarian, while in the revised finale "Portrait" the author emphasizes his belief that evil is ineradicable in this world.
In 1836, Gogol published in Pushkin's "The Contemporary", one of his most cheerful satirical stories, "The Coach". In the same magazine, his amusingly acerbic surrealist story "The Nose" appeared. Gogol's association with Pushkin was of great value because he always trusted his friend's taste and criticism; moreover, he received from Pushkin the themes for his two major works, the play "The Government Inspector" and "Dead Souls", which were important not only for Russian literature but also for the further fate of Gogol.
In a great comedy, a government inspector mercilessly comes down on the corrupt bureaucracy under Nicholas I. Replacing the well-dressed airman with a hideous incognito inspector, the officials of a provincial town bribe him and throw him a banquet to distract him from the glaring evil of their administration. But during the triumph, after the departure of the fake inspector, the arrival of the real inspector is announced - to the horror of those concerned. It was only by special order of the emperor that the first performance of this comedy of accusations and "laughter through tears" was held on April 19, 1836.
Nevertheless, the uproar and shouting raised by the reactionary press and officials were such that Gogol left Russia for Rome, where he stayed, with some interruptions, until 1842. The atmosphere he found in Italy appealed to his taste and his somewhat patriarchal - not to say primitive - religious inclination. The religious painter Aleksandar Ivanov, who worked in Rome, became his close friend. He also met several traveling Russian aristocrats, and he often saw the emigrant princess Zinaida Volkonska, a convert to Roman Catholicism, in whose circle many religious topics were discussed. Gogol also wrote most of his masterpiece, "Dead Souls", in Rome.
This comic novel or "epic", as the author called it, reflects feudal Russia, with its serfdom and bureaucratic lawlessness. Chichikov, the hero of the novel, is a smooth con artist who, after several accidents, wants to get rich quickly. His bright but criminal idea is to buy from various landowners a certain number of their recently deceased serfs (or "souls", as they were called in Russia) whose deaths have not yet been registered by the official census and are therefore considered to be still alive. The landowners are overjoyed to get rid of the fictitious property on which they continue to pay taxes until the next census. Chichikov intends to pawn the "souls" in the bank and with the money thus collected, he settles in a distant region as a respectable gentleman. The inhabitants of the province where he first resided were charmed by his polite manners; he approaches several proprietors in the district who are all willing to sell the "souls" in question, knowing full well the fraudulent nature of the business. The sad conditions in Russia, where serfs were bought and sold like cattle, are revealed through grotesquely humorous transactions. Landlords, another more strange and repulsive than the previous one, became nicknames familiar to every Russian reader. When the secret of Chichikov's tasks begins to emerge, he hastily leaves town.
"Dead Souls" was published in 1842, the same year that the first edition of Gogol's collected works was published. The edition included, among other works of his, the lively comedy "Marriage" and the story "The Overcoat". The latter concerns a humble scribe who, at untold sacrifices, has acquired an elegant coat; when it is stolen from him, he dies of a broken heart. The tragedy of this insignificant man was elaborated with so many significant details that years later Fyodor Dostoyevsky would exclaim that all Russian realists originated "under Gogol's overcoat". The peak of Gogol's fame was still "Dead Souls".
Democratic intellectuals of the Belinsky brand saw in this novel a work imbued with the spirit of their liberal aspirations. Its author was all the more popular because, after Pushkin's tragic death, Gogol was now seen as the head of Russian literature. Gogol, however, began to understand his leading role from his perspective.
Having witnessed the salutary results of the laughter caused by his accusations, he was sure that God had given him a great literary talent to make him not only condemn abuses with laughter but also reveal to Russia the right way to live in an evil world. Therefore, he decided to continue "Dead Souls" as a kind of Divine Comedy in prose; the already published part would represent the hell of Russian life, and the second and third parts (with Chichikov's moral regeneration) would be his Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Unfortunately, having embarked on such a salutary task, Gogol noticed that his former creative ability was leaving him. He worked on the second part of his novel for more than 10 years, but with meager results. In the drafts of four chapters and a fragment of the fifth found among his papers, the negative and grotesque characters are outlined with a certain intensity, while the virtuous types he so wished to exalt are stiff and lifeless. This lack of enthusiasm was interpreted by Gogol as a sign that, for some reason, God no longer wanted him to be the voice urging his countrymen to a more dignified life.
Nevertheless, he decided to prove that at least as a teacher and preacher - if not as an artist - he was still able to set forth what was needed for Russia's moral and worldly improvement. He did this in his work "Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends", a collection of 32 speeches praising not only the conservative official church but the very powers that he had so ruthlessly condemned only a few years earlier. It is no wonder that the book was fiercely attacked by his former admirers, especially Belinsky, who in an indignant letter called him "a preacher of the wick, a defender of obscurantism and the darkest oppression".
Devastated by all this, Gogol saw in it another proof that, no matter how sinful he was, he had lost God's favor forever. In 1848 he even made a pilgrimage to Palestine but in vain. Despite a few bright moments, he began to wander from place to place like a condemned soul. He finally settled in Moscow, where he came under the influence of a fanatical priest, Father Matvej Konstantinovsky, who practiced a kind of spiritual sadism on Gogol. On his order, Gogol burned the probably finished manuscript of the second volume of "Dead Souls" on February 24 in 1852. Ten days later he died, on the verge of semi-madness.
Regardless of the vagaries of Gogol's mind and life, his role in Russian literature was immense. Above all, Belinsky derived from the nature of such works as "The State Inspector", "Dead Souls", and "The Coat" the principles of the "natural school" (as opposed to the "rhetorical" or romantic school) which was responsible for the trend of later Russian fiction. Gogol was among the first writers who discovered Russia for themselves.
However, unlike the simple classical-realistic prose of Pushkin, which was adopted by Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov, and Ivan Turgenev, Gogol's ornate and turbulent prose was adopted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Gogol's realism of the indictment found many followers, among them the great satirist Mihail Saltikov. He was also an advocate of the little man as a literary hero. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky continued (but on a higher level) with his experience of the spirit, as well as with his effort to transcend "mere literature".
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol died on March 4, 1852. in Moscow, Russia.
There is an assumption that the prophecy of his death was predicted by Gomola in "Old-World Landowners". Friends remembered that Gogol "dissolved before their eyes", he became weak - but refused food, he was sick - but rejected the doctor's advice. He said that he is his doctor.