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Gogol, Nikolai (1809-1852)  
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The Cycle of St. Petersburg Tales

The apex of Gogol's narrative art was reached in his cycle of St. Petersburg tales, written in 1835-1841 and comprising "The Portrait," "Nevsky Prospect," "Diary of a Madman," "The Nose," and "The Overcoat."

In these tales, Gogol renounced the Ukrainian background and the supernatural forces of his earlier work and launched two myths that dominated Russian literature through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the image of St. Petersburg as a ghostly, unreal, and fantastic place (later to be found in the novels of Feodor Dostoevsky and the poetry of Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam) and the great myth of a single, powerless man face to face with the impersonal, inhuman metropolis, a theme that Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens were independently developing at the same time as Gogol.


Simultaneously with Mirgorod and the St. Petersburg cycle, Gogol undertook the writing of several comedies, of which the first to be completed was The Inspector General (1836). A comedy of misunderstanding, the play pits an inspired, flighty young liar against a group of ursine and corrupt municipal officials who mistake him for a government inspector. The difference in their respective specific gravities keeps them on separate levels of existence.

Gogol parodied the love interest, obligatory in drama, in the young man's lunatic offer to marry both the wife and the daughter of the town's mayor. Once they seem to consent, he gallops off in a troika, happily escaping the Gogolian matrimonial trap.

The play was liked by Tsar Nicholas I and the public. But to Gogol's horror, it was read by many as a sweeping indictment of all the social institutions of the Russian empire. The politically conservative writer was puzzled and stunned. In his panic, he fled Russia and eventually settled in Rome, where he was to reside for the next twelve years.

In Italy, Gogol's inhibitions were loosened to the point where he allowed himself to love openly a young nobleman, Iosif Vielhorsky. It was a reciprocated love, but the young Iosif died of consumption less than a year after he and Gogol met.

Two years later, Gogol became hopelessly infatuated with the poet Nikolai Yazykov, whose verse was mostly about women's beauty and his attraction to it. After trying for months to win Yazykov and addressing passionate letters to him, Gogol understood the futility of this undertaking.

During his Italian period, Gogol completed the two comedies he had begun in Russia. Marriage (1842), seen by his contemporaries as a satire on social climbing and on matchmaking customs, is actually a headlong attack on the entire institution of matrimony.

The Gamblers (1843) is a play that could be properly understood only after the appearance of Jean Genet and Vladimir Nabokov. Like Genet, Gogol shows in this play an all-male criminal subculture (cardsharps), who casually betray one another; and as in Nabokov's novel Despair, their criminal endeavors are an allegory for artistic creation.

The "heroine" of the play is a specially marked deck of cards named Adelaida Ivanovna, with whom (or with which) the protagonist is in love, which assures his downfall.

Dead Souls

The novel Dead Souls (1841) uses the formula of earlier Spanish, French, and English picaresque novels (for example, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), but with one crucial difference: The picaro, Chichikov, has no interest in the sexual adventures so usual for the genre.

His clever scheme for fleecing the landowners of a small provincial town and the government almost succeeds, but the subject of matrimony comes up near the end, and Chichikov has to abandon his loot and flee the town.

Gogol imagined the central Russian provinces (which he had never seen) in this novel with such vividness, that the critics and readers of his time believed he was offering a slice of life he had observed.

Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends

Like The Inspector General earlier, Dead Souls was read by many as a call to reform society and free the serfs. Outraged, Gogol responded by publishing a volume of essays, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1846), where he spoke his political mind openly: Slavery was justified in the Bible and must not be abolished; social stratification had been decreed by God; and any reform or political change is an offense against Christianity.

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