LESSON 6 The Rise of Prose: Nikolai Gogol

Study Notes

The Rise of Prose

The entire history of modern Russian literature from the time of Lomonosov (1711-1765) had been dominated by poetry. However, this overwhelming fact tends to be obscured in Russian literature courses that are based on English translations. Since it is extremely difficult to translate poetry well, this course, like many others, has dealt almost exclusively with prose texts. You need to remind yourself, therefore, that with the exception of the stories of Karamzin in the 1790s, Russian literature from 1740 to 1830 was almost exclusively a literature of poetry. However, from 1830 on, a new trend began to emerge in the development of Russian literary culture. Stimulated by developments abroad, especially in German and French literature, prose began to assert itself in Russia as an artistic medium on a par with poetry. By the middle of the 1840s the pendulum had swung so far in the direction of prose that poetry was a sort of second-class artistic citizen for about fifty years.

The great achievement of this age of prose, from the 1840s to the 1890s, was Russian Realism (discussed in the sequel to this course, Russ 3422--Russian Literature: Tolstoy to the Present). Our concern here is to have a look at the beginnings of Russian prose. We have seen that after 1830 Pushkin turned more and more to prose, a significant fact given that Pushkin was the greatest poet of the time. The writer who did most to establish prose as a force in Russian literary culture, however, was Gogol. Gogol's example, combined with the authoritative literary pronouncements of the greatest literary critic of the period, V. G. Belinsky, established prose as the literary medium of the future. The great novelist Dostoevsky is supposed to have said, referring to himself and his fellow Realists, "We have all come out from under Gogol's 'Overcoat'" (referring to the famous story by Gogol).

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was born in the Mirgorod district of the Ukraine in 1809. His early life was spent on his father's country estate. Gogol's father was also a writer; his works, many of which were written for the Ukrainian puppet theater, are in Ukrainian, and he is classed as a Ukrainian writer. His son, however, decided to write in Russian. Nikolai Gogol moved to St. Petersburg in 1828 with the intention of becoming a full-time professional writer. His first published work, a long narrative in verse, was received with indifference by the critics, and the sensitive Gogol fled from Russia in shame. When he returned from Europe in 1829, Gogol first tried to find work as an actor, but was eventually forced to take a minor post in the civil service to support himself. His experiences in the government bureaucracy are reflected in some of his later stories, especially "The Nose" and "The Overcoat."

Gogol's first important literary work was published in two volumes in 1831 and 1832. It is a collection of short stories called Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. (Gogol had greatly admired Pushkin, and he used in this work the same narrative device as Pushkin had in Tales of Belkin.) These stories promoted Gogol from obscurity to a position as one of the nation's leading young writers. After an abortive career change to university teaching, Gogol returned to literature in 1835 with Mirgorod, a collection of stories with Ukrainian background. Over the next seven years, Gogol published a number of stories with a St. Petersburg setting, the last in 1842 being Gogol's most famous story, "The Overcoat."

In 1836, Gogol's most celebrated play, The Inspector General, was staged for the first time. This comic masterpiece was, according to the author, universally misunderstood; he was not pleased by the praise of the liberal critics of the day, and he was distraught at the harsh criticism of the conservatives. As he had done after the failure of his first work, Gogol fled the country. He spent most of the next six years abroad. During this period his major achievement was the first part of a proposed three-part novel, Dead Souls.

During the 1840s Gogol became more and more conservative in his outlook, or perhaps it is only that the ideas he had held all along now took on a more definite and emphatic shape in his intellectual world. It is certain that he underwent a religious awakening in this period, which drew him ever more firmly into the teachings of conservative Orthodox theology. He became convinced that the writing of fiction was an inherently sinful enterprise, and he feared for the safety of his immortal soul. He tried to turn his efforts to less "dangerous" literary work. He wrote some essays in which he tried to emphasize the religious dimension of such works as The Inspector General. His efforts to complete Dead Souls met with repeated failure; in fact, he burned a nearly completed version of the second part just before his death.

Gogol's major work of the 1840s was Selected Passages from a Correspondence with My Friends. This work, which purports to be a collection of letters from Gogol's correspondents together with his replies, is in fact entirely the work of Gogol. It reads like a lengthy and discursive catechism, in which the questions are supplied by the letters of the "correspondents" and the answers by Gogol's replies. The main point of the world view revealed in this book is that a creator God has made everything in a certain way, assigned all beings to a certain station, and that the creation of God is just and good. Any attempt by an individual to leave the station into which he or she was born, then, is tantamount to opposing God's will. Such rebellion carries with it its own punishment in the form of personal and social misfortune. (It is possible to read some of Gogol's other works--for example, "The Overcoat"--in light of these ideas.)

Dead Souls (1842)

Gogol began working on Dead Souls in 1835. The basic idea of the story was suggested to Gogol by Pushkin. Pushkin seems to have understood Gogol as a writer quite well; Pushkin felt that the idea of a man travelling all over Russia buying up the ownership rights to serfs who had died would allow Gogol what would be most conducive to Gogol's literary success-- the opportunity to introduce a multitude of characters, varied settings, mountains of detail, and the scope within which to be able to elaborate the anecdotal kernel of the work to his heart's content. For the next six years, Gogol devoted almost all of his creative energy to this novel. His compulsive craftsmanship is evident in that the entire work was revised at least five times; the author stated that some passages had been rewritten as many as twenty times. Only the first part of Dead Souls, (twelve chapters in all) was completed by Gogol. The second part, as we know it, (some chapters of which are often published with the first part) is a recreation from various sources of what Gogol might have done with the continuation of his work; he burned what he actually had written of the second part just nine days before his death.

Part One of Dead Souls was completed and published in 1842. This version was titled The Adventures of Chichikov because the religious censorship objected to the phrase "dead souls" as being theologically contradictory. However, in later editions the censors relented, and the work appeared with the original title Gogol had given it, Dead Souls: An Epic. Some critics found the novel to be, in fact, a modern-day epic; others thought it ridiculous at best and offensive at worst to claim such a status for the novel. (You must draw your own conclusions regarding this question, and to do so you will need some idea of the traits associated with traditional epic poetry. You may want to consult a standard reference of literary terms, such as Holman and Harmon's A Handbook to Literature.)

The situation from which the novel develops is based upon a scheme which theoretically was possible in Gogol's day. The government had a policy of loaning money to landowners, feeling that this class was its strongest support. Lands owned, however, were measured not in acres, but by the number of "souls" (that is, serfs) residing on them. Landowners were, then, really serf owners. The government was ready to accept the land (that is, the serfs) of an individual as collateral for a loan. Thus, a method was required by which the holdings of an individual landowner could be established at any given time. This method stated that an individual possessed the number of serfs recorded as belonging to him or her in the most recent census. The census was taken every ten years, which meant that near the end of the ten-year cycle almost every landowner would have some serfs who were not recorded in the preceding census because they had recently been born, and some serfs still recorded even though they had died since the last census. In Dead Souls, the main character, Chichikov, schemes to buy from the serf holders a number of those "souls" who had died but were still counted as living until the next census. Once Chichikov had a number of such souls, he would apply to the government bank for a loan, using the "souls" as his collateral. With this low-interest loan in hand he would then buy and work an actual country estate, eventually paying back the loan and purchasing living souls to work the land.

The story is related by a narrator who seems at times to be omniscient, at other times not. The general tone is humorously ironic. The characters and their actions seem to be an open book to the narrator, and while he overtly shows them great respect, he manages as well to illustrate their folly, coarseness, and often their ugliness. At times the narrator seems to abandon his usual posture of detailed, almost microscopic, scrutiny and to rise above the world he has created and view it in a much broader perspective. At these moments the ironic tone is replaced by a lyricism and enthusiasm which at first seem to contradict or at least to have little justification or basis in the main flow of the narrative. Such, for instance, is the lengthy passage on Russia and her destiny (end of Part One) and the passage on the special greatness of the Russian word (Chapter Six).

Dead Souls is a remarkable work. It has called forth a great variety of critical reactions: it has been praised for its critical boldness in exposing the inequities of an unjust social order and condemned as a vicious slander on the Russian homeland; it has been understood as a satirical account of contemporary reality and as a modern-day national epic; it may be no more or less than an account of the world as seen by one convinced of its absurdity. As you reflect upon Dead Souls, you may want to consult the opinions of others who have studied this complex work. Some suggestions are listed in the supplementary reading list for this lesson.

Required Readings

          Gogol's stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat."

Supplemental Literary Text

Gogol, Dead Souls

Supplementary Reading on the Rise of Prose Literature

Auty and Obolensky, An Introduction to Russian Language and Literature, pp. 143 ff. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, pp. 115-16; 141-43; 158-59

Supplementary Reading on Gogol

Fanger, The Creation of Nikolai Gogol
Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol
Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature "Gogol"
Todd, Literature and Society in Imperial Russia section on Gogol
Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature pp. 149-162
Maguire, Gogol from the Twentieth Century

For Further Thought

1. How would you set about discussing the topic of "The Nose" or "The Overcoat" as  satirical attacks on contemporary Russian society?

2. One famous passage in "The Overcoat" tells how one of the clerks in the office is touched by Akaky Akakievich's protest against the teasing of his fellow workers. This "humanistic passage," as it is called, has been the subject of considerable debate. It seems to suggest that we should feel sympathy for Akaky Akakievich. Many readers disagree, however. What do you think?

Optional and Personal

In reading Dead Souls, do you detect any ambivalence in the author toward Russia, any aspects which he seemed to regard as positive. If so, how do you see these aspects as fitting into Gogol's portrait of his time?

Have a question?

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