born March 19 [March 31, New Style], 1809, Sorochintsy, near Poltava,
Ukraine, Russian Empire [now in Ukraine]
died Feb. 21 [March 4], 1852, Moscow, Russia
Ukrainian-born Russian humorist, dramatist, and novelist, whose novel
Myortvye dushi (Dead Souls) and whose short story “Shinel” (“The
Overcoat”) are considered the foundations of the great 19th-century
tradition of Russian realism.
Youth and early fame.
The Ukrainian countryside, with its colourful peasantry, its Cossack
traditions, and its rich folklore, constituted the background of Gogol’s
boyhood. A member of the petty Ukrainian gentry, Gogol was sent at the
age of 12 to the high school at Nezhin. There he distinguished himself
by his biting tongue, his contributions of prose and poetry to a
magazine, and his portrayal of comic old men and women in school
theatricals. In 1828 he went to St. Petersburg, hoping to enter the
civil service, but soon discovered that without money and connections he
would have to fight hard for a living. He even tried to become an actor,
but his audition was unsuccessful. In this predicament he remembered a
mediocre sentimental-idyllic poem he had written in the high school.
Anxious to achieve fame as a poet, he published it at his own expense,
but its failure was so disastrous that he burned all the copies and
thought of emigrating to the United States. He embezzled the money his
mother had sent him for payment of the mortgage on her farm and took a
boat to the German port of Lübeck. He did not sail but briefly toured
Germany. Whatever his reasons for undertaking such an irresponsible
trip, he soon ran out of money and returned to St. Petersburg, where he
got an ill-paid government post.
In the meantime Gogol wrote occasionally for periodicals, finding an
escape in childhood memories of the Ukraine. He committed to paper what
he remembered of the sunny landscapes, peasants, and boisterous village
lads, and he also related tales about devils, witches, and other demonic
or fantastic agents that enliven Ukrainian folklore. Romantic stories of
the past were thus intermingled with realistic incidents of the present.
Such was the origin of his eight narratives, published in two volumes in
1831–32 under the title Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (Evenings on a
Farm near Dikanka). Written in a lively and at times colloquial prose,
these works contributed something fresh and new to Russian literature.
In addition to the author’s whimsical inflection, they abounded in
genuine folk flavour, including numerous Ukrainian words and phrases,
all of which captivated the Russian literary world.
The young author became famous overnight. Among his first admirers were
the poets Aleksandr Pushkin and Vasily Zhukovsky, both of whom he had
met before. This esteem was soon shared by the writer Sergey Aksakov and
the critic Vissarion Belinsky, among others. Having given up his second
government post, Gogol was now teaching history in a boarding school for
girls. In 1834 he was appointed assistant professor of medieval history
at St. Petersburg University, but he felt inadequately equipped for the
position and left it after a year. Meanwhile, he prepared energetically
for the publication of his next two books, Mirgorod and Arabeski
(Arabesques), which appeared in 1835. The four stories constituting
Mirgorod were a continuation of the Evenings, but they revealed a strong
gap between Gogol’s romantic escapism and his otherwise pessimistic
attitude toward life. Such a splendid narrative of the Cossack past as
“Taras Bulba” certainly provided an escape from the present. But “Povest
o tom, kak possorilsya Ivan Ivanovich s Ivanom Nikiforovichem” (“Story
of the Quarrel Between Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich”) was, for
all its humour, full of bitterness about the meanness and vulgarity of
existence. Even the idyllic motif of Gogol’s “Starosvetskiye
pomeshchiki” (“Old-World Landowners”) is undermined with satire, for the
mutual affection of the aged couple is marred by gluttony, their
ceaseless eating for eating’s sake.
The aggressive realism of a romantic who can neither adapt himself to
the world nor escape from it, and is therefore all the more anxious to
expose its vulgarity and evil, predominates in Gogol’s Petersburg
stories printed (together with some essays) in the second work,
Arabesques. In one of these stories, “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“Diary of
a Madman”), the hero is an utterly frustrated office drudge who finds
compensation in megalomania and ends in a lunatic asylum. In another,
“Nevsky prospekt” (“Nevsky Prospect”), a tragic romantic dreamer is
contrasted to an adventurous vulgarian, while in the revised finale of
“Portret” (“The Portrait”) the author stresses his conviction that evil
is ineradicable in this world. In 1836 Gogol published in Pushkin’s
Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”) one of his gayest satirical stories,
“Kolyaska” (“The Coach”). In the same periodical also appeared his
amusingly caustic surrealist tale, “Nos” (“The Nose”). 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 principal works, the play Revizor (The Government
Inspector, sometimes titled The Inspector General), and Dead Souls,
which were important not only to Russian literature but also to Gogol’s
A great comedy, The Government Inspector mercilessly lampoons the
corrupt bureaucracy under Nicholas I. Having mistaken a well-dressed
windbag for the dreaded incognito inspector, the officials of a
provincial town bribe and banquet him in order to turn his attention
away from the crying evils of their administration. But during the
triumph, after the bogus inspector’s departure, the arrival of the real
inspector is announced—to the horror of those concerned. It was only by
a special order of the tsar that the first performance of this comedy of
indictment and “laughter through tears” took place on April 19, 1836.
Yet the hue and cry raised by the reactionary press and officialdom was
such that Gogol left Russia for Rome, where he remained, with some
interruptions, until 1842. The atmosphere he found in Italy appealed to
his taste and to his somewhat patriarchal—not to say primitive—religious
propensity. The religious painter Aleksandr Ivanov, who worked in Rome,
became his close friend. He also met a number of traveling Russian
aristocrats and often saw the émigrée princess Zinaida Volkonsky, a
convert to Roman Catholicism, in whose circle religious themes were much
discussed. It was in Rome, too, that Gogol wrote most of his
masterpiece, Dead Souls.
This comic novel, or “epic,” as the author labeled it, reflects
feudal Russia, with its serfdom and bureaucratic iniquities. Chichikov,
the hero of the novel, is a polished swindler who, after several
reverses of fortune, wants to get rich quick. His bright but criminal
idea is to buy from various landowners a 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
regarded as still being alive. The landowners are only too happy to rid
themselves of the fictitious property on which they continue to pay
taxes until the next census. Chichikov intends to pawn the “souls” in a
bank and, with the money thus raised, settle down in a distant region as
a respectable gentleman. The provincial townsmen of his first stop are
charmed by his polite manners; he approaches several owners in the
district who are all willing to sell the “souls” in question, knowing
full well the fraudulent nature of the deal. The sad conditions of
Russia, in which serfs used to be bought and sold like cattle, are
evident throughout the grotesquely humorous transactions. The
landowners, one more queer and repellent than the last, have become
nicknames known to every Russian reader. When the secret of Chichikov’s
errands begins to leak out, he hurriedly leaves the town.
Dead Souls was published in 1842, the same year in which the first
edition of Gogol’s collected works was published. The edition included,
among his other writings, a sprightly comedy titled Zhenitba (Marriage)
and the story “The Overcoat.” The latter concerns a humble scribe who,
with untold sacrifices, has acquired a smart overcoat; when robbed of it
he dies of a broken heart. The tragedy of this insignificant man was
worked out with so many significant trifles that, years later, Fyodor
Dostoyevsky was to exclaim that all Russian realists had come “from
under Gogol’s greatcoat.” The apex of Gogol’s fame was, however, Dead
Souls. The democratic intellectuals of Belinsky’s brand saw in this
novel a work permeated with the spirit of their own liberal aspirations.
Its author was all the more popular because after Pushkin’s tragic death
Gogol was now looked upon as the head of Russian literature. Gogol,
however, began to see his leading role in a perspective of his own.
Having witnessed the beneficent results of the laughter caused by his
indictments, he was sure that God had given him a great literary talent
in order to make him not only castigate abuses through laughter but also
to reveal to Russia the righteous way of living in an evil world. He
therefore decided to continue Dead Souls as a kind of Divine Comedy in
prose; the already published part would represent the Inferno of Russian
life, and the second and third parts (with Chichikov’s moral
regeneration) would be its Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Unfortunately, having embarked upon such a soul-saving task, Gogol
noticed that his former creative capacity was deserting him. He worked
on the second part of his novel for more than 10 years but with meagre
results. In drafts of four chapters and a fragment of the fifth found
among his papers, the negative and grotesque characters are drawn with
some intensity, whereas the virtuous types he was so anxious to exalt
are stilted and devoid of life. This lack of zest was interpreted by
Gogol as a sign that, for some reason, God no longer wanted him to be
the voice exhorting his countrymen to a more worthy existence. In spite
of this he decided to prove that at least as teacher and preacher—if not
as artist—he was still able to set forth what was needed for Russia’s
moral and worldly improvement. This he did in his ill-starred Bybrannyye
mesta iz perepiski s druzyami (1847; Selected Passages from
Correspondence with My Friends), a collection of 32 discourses
eulogizing not only the conservative official church but also the very
powers that he had so mercilessly condemned only a few years before. It
is no wonder that the book was fiercely attacked by his one-time
admirers, most of all by Belinsky, who in an indignant letter called him
“a preacher of the knout, a defender of obscurantism and of darkest
oppression.” Crushed by it all, Gogol saw in it a further proof that,
sinful as he was, he had lost God’s favour forever. He increased his
prayers and his ascetic practices; 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 doomed soul. Finally he settled in Moscow,
where he came under the influence of a fanatical priest, Father Matvey
Konstantinovsky, who seems to have practiced on Gogol a kind of
spiritual sadism. Ordered by him, Gogol burned the presumably completed
manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls on Feb. 24 (Feb. 11, O.S.),
1852. Ten days later he died, on the verge of semimadness.
Influence and reputation.
Whatever the vagaries of Gogol’s mind and life, his part in Russian
literature was enormous. Above all, it was from the nature of such works
as The Government Inspector, Dead Souls, and “The Overcoat” that
Belinsky derived the tenets of the “natural school” (as distinct from
the “rhetorical,” or Romantic, school) that was responsible for the
trend of subsequent Russian fiction. Gogol was among the first authors
to have revealed Russia to itself. Yet in contrast to the simple
classical-realistic prose of Pushkin, adopted by Leo Tolstoy, Ivan
Goncharov, and Ivan Turgenev, Gogol’s ornate and agitated prose was
assumed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Gogol’s realism of indictment found many
followers, among them the great satirist Mikhail Saltykov. He was also a
champion of the little man as a literary hero. His vexation of spirit,
too, was continued (but on a higher level) by both Tolstoy and
Dostoyevsky as was his effort to transcend “mere literature.”
One of Gogol's best known stories, The Nose is quite possibly
also one of the most absurd, and as such is a forerunner of a
tradition that almost a century later would become very strong,
not only in Russia, but all over Europe. It has also served as
the basis for a wonderfully inventive and funny opera of the
same name by Shostakovich.
Kovalev is a junior civil servant with a consciousness of his
own importance and an equally acute sense of his place in the
bureaucratic hierarchy. Alarmingly, he wakes up one morning to
find his nose gone. While on his way to the relevant authorities
to signal this loss, he is astonished to meet his nose dressed
in the uniform of a civil servant several ranks above him. He
attempts to address the errant nose, but is rebuffed on the
grounds of rank. He tries to place a notice in the newspaper to
ask for help in catching his nose, but fails. When his nose is
later brought back to him by the police, the doctor says it
cannot be put back on. Some time later, and for no apparent
reason, Kovalev wakes up to find his nose mysteriously back in
its place. The whole story is related in considerable detail,
only to end with a list of all the implausibilities in this
literally incredible story. Gogol even goes so far as to make
the indignant statement that the greatest of these
implausibilities is"how authors can choose such
subjects"atall.Readers may well wonder why Gogol did choose to
write The Nose, but they areunlikely toregretthat hedid.
The writing of Dead Souls drove Gogol mad. It started off as a
humorous idea for a story, the conceit being that Chichikov, a
scheming opportunist, would travel through Russia buying up the
rights to dead serfs (souls), who had not yet been purged from
the census and could therefore—like all chattels—still be
mortgaged. As the novel grew, so did Gogol's aspirations; his
goal became no less than to rekindle the noble yet dormant core
of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and
economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that
was its destiny. He no longer wanted to write about Russia: he
wanted to save it. He was driven into messianic obsession and,
having burnt Part Two—twice—after ten years of labor, he
committed suicide by starvation.
Chichikov's travels across the expanse of Russia in a troika
provided the opportunity for Gogol to shine as a satiric
portrait artist, a caricaturist of the panoply of Russian types.
He makes Russian literature funny—tragically funny. In Chichikov
he created a timeless character, a huckster not unrecognizable
in today's dotcom billionaires, able to exploit the stupidity
and greed of landowners eager to get even richer themselves.
Although Gogol was unable to deliver the key to Russian
salvation he had envisaged, with what remains he has inarguably
succeeded in writing his "great epic poem" which, hauntingly,
did finally "solve the riddleof my existence."
Type of work: Novel
Author: Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
Type of plot: Social satire
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
First published: Myortvye dushi, part 1, 1842; part 2, 1855
(English translation, 1887)
Dead Souls is unanimously considered one of the greatest novels in
the Russian language for its characterizations, satiric humor, and
style. The plot is not complex—a scheme to buy, from landlords, serfs
who have died since the last census, in order to perpetrate the hero's
own real estate deal in eastern Russia. The length of the novel is
accounted for by numerous digressions adding up to a rich picture of
provincial Russia. Whether Gogol's fiction is reality or fantasy, a
topic much debated, he uses characterization, extravagant imagery, and
hyperbolic language to color intensely his work.
Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov (pavel Iva'na-vich chet'che-kaf), an
adventurer of early nineteenth century Russia. He buys "dead souls,"
that is, the names of serfs who have died since the last census but who
still continue to cost their owners taxes until they can be written off
in the next census. Using their names, he plans to get from his uncle's
estate the money refused him in the old man's will, by mortgaging his
own "estate," with its dead souls, to the Trustee Committee. To find
dead souls, he rides from village to village visiting landowners and
exerting his charm to obtain the names of dead serfs. The villagers
begin to talk, however, and, not able to guess what he is up to, accuse
him of all sorts of crimes. He has an encounter with the law and is
arrested. He is finally aided by an unscrupulous lawyer who brings to
light all the local scandals, so that the villagers are glad to get
Chichikov out of town.
Selifan (se'H-van), Pavel's coachman, through whose mistake about roads
he visits Madame Korobochka. They are put onto the right road by her
twelve-year-old maid, Pelageya.
Nastasya Petrovna Korobochka (nasta'sys pet-rov'na ko-ro-bach'ks), an
overnight hostess who sells Chichikov eighteen of her dead souls for
fifteen rubles each.
Petrushka (pet-roosh'ka), Chichikov's valet, who shares his adventures.
Nozdryov (noz'dryaf), a gambler and liar who meets Chichikov at an inn
and finally denounces him to the police as a spy and forger. He himself
is arrested for assaulting a friend, Maximov.
Manilov (ma-nHof), a genial landowner who offers hospitality to
Chichikov and gives him his first dead souls.
Themistoclus (te-mis'ts-kbs), one of Manilov's two children.
Mikhail Semyonovich Sobakevich (mlha-il' se-myo'ns-vich so-ba'ke-vich),
a landowner who at first demands a hundred rubles apiece for his dead
souls but finally settles for two and a half.
Plyushkin (plush'kin), a miser who haggles fiercely over 120 dead souls
and 78 fugitives. He finally gives Chichikov a letter to the town
Ivan Grigoryevich (I-van' gri-go'ryevich), the town president, who
transfers Chichikov's purchased dead souls to the adventurer's imaginary
estate in the Kherson province and makes the transactions legal.
Ivan Antonovich (I-van' an-to'na-vich), a minor clerk who must be bribed
to record the purchases.
The Governor, who entertains at a big ball.
The Governor's Daughter, with whom Chichikov is supposed to be eloping.
His coach had previously collided with hers.
Captain Kopeikin (êî-pa'kin), a legendary soldier of the War of 1812,
turned bandit. Some think he has returned disguised as Chichikov.
Andrey Ivanovich Tentetnikov (andra'I-va'ng-vich tyen-tyet'ni-ksf), a
thirty-three-year-old bachelor who plays host to the adventurer.
Chichikov aids him in his suit for a neighbor's daughter.
General Betrishchev (bet-rfsh'chef), a neighbor of Tentetnikov, who
gives the young landowner his daughter in marriage and sells more dead
souls to Chichikov.
Ulinka (áî-Íï'êý), the general's daughter, in love with Tentetnikov.
Vishnepokromov (vish-nye-pok'ra-maf), who tries to prevent Ulinka's
Petukh (pye'tuk), a generous glutton who entertains Chichikov.
Platonov (pla'tansf), a young friend who accompanies Chichikov on his
travels and introduces him to his sister and his brother-in-law.
Kostanjoglo (ko-stan-zho'gls), a prosperous landowner and the
brother-in-law of Platonov. He lends Chichikov ten thousand rubles to
buy an estate.
Khlobuyev (hlo-boo'yef), a spendthrift whose land Chiehikov wants to
buy. By forging a will Chiehikov tries to help him claim an inheritance
from a rich aunt, but he forgets to cancel in it all earlier documents.
Alexey Ivanovich Lenitsyn (a-lek-sa' I-va'na-vich le-m'tsoon), a public
official who discovers two wills of the old woman, one contradicting the
other. He has Chiehikov jailed on a charge of forgery.
Ivan Andreyevich (I-van' an-dra'ye-vich), the postmaster of N------.
Samosvistov (sa-mos'vis-taf), who offers to get Chiehikov out of jail
for thirty thousand rubles.
Murazov (moo-ra-zof), the shrewd, unscrupulous lawyer who gets Chiehikov
freed by raking up scandals against all those who have accused his
Pavel Ivanovich Chiehikov had arrived in the town accompanied by his
coachman, Selifan, and his valet, Petrushka. He had been entertained
gloriously and had met many interesting people, who insisted on his
visiting them in their own homes. Nothing could have suited Chiehikov
better. After several days of celebration in the town, he took his
coachman and began a round of visits to the various estates in the
His first host was Manilov, a genial man who wined and dined him in a
manner fit for a prince. When the time was ripe, Chiehikov began to
question his host about his estate. To his satisfaction, he learned that
many of Manilov's souls, as the serfs were called, had died since the
last census and that Manilov was still paying taxes on them and would
continue to do so until the next census. Chiehikov offered to buy these
dead souls from Manilov and so relieve him of his extra tax burden. The
contract was signed, and Chiehikov set out for the next estate.
Selifan got lost and in the middle of the night drew up to a house which
belonged to Madame Korobochka, from whom Chiehikov also bought dead
souls. When he left his hostess, he found his way to an inn in the
neighborhood. There he met Nozdryov, a notorious gambler and liar.
Nozdryov had recently lost a great deal of money at gambling, and
Chiehikov thought he would be a likely seller of dead souls. When he
broached the subject, Nozdryov asked him the reason for his interest in
dead souls. For every reason Chiehikov gave, Nozdryov called him a liar.
Then Nozdryov wanted to play at cards for the souls, but Chiehikov
refused. They were arguing when a police captain came in and arrested
Nozdryov for assault on a man while drunk. Chiehikov thought himself
well rid of the annoying Nozdryov.
His next host was Sobakevich, who at first demanded the unreasonable sum
of one hundred rubles for each name of a dead soul. Chiehikov finally
persuaded him to accept two and a half rubles apiece, a higher price
than he had planned to pay.
Plyushkin, with whom he negotiated next, was a miser. From him Chiehikov
bought 120 dead souls and 78 fugitives after considerable haggling.
Plyushkin gave him a letter to Ivan Grigoryevich, the town president.
Back in town, Chiehikov persuaded the town president to make his recent
purchases legal. Since the law required that souls when purchased be
transferred to another estate, Chiehikov told the officials that he had
land in the Kherson province. He had no trouble in making himself sound
plausible. Some bribes to minor officials helped.
Chiehikov proved to be such a delightful guest that the people of the
town insisted that he stay on and on. He was the center of attraction at
many social functions, including a ball at which he was especially
interested in the governor's daughter. Soon, however, rumors spread that
Chiehikov was using the dead souls as a screen, that he was really
planning to elope with the governor's daughter. The men, in consultation
at the police master's house, speculated variously. Some said he was a
forger; others thought he might be an officer in the governor-general's
office; one man put forth the fantastic suggestion that he was really
the legendary Captain Kopeikin in disguise. They questioned Nozdryov,
who had been the first to report the story of the purchase of dead
souls. At their interrogation, Nozdryov confirmed their opinions that
Chiehikov was a spy and a forger who was trying to elope with the
The truth of the matter was that Chiehikov had begun his career as a
humble clerk. His father had died leaving no legacy for his son, who
worked in various capacities, passing from customs officer to smuggler
to pauper to legal agent. When he learned that the Trustee Committee
would mortgage souls, he hit upon the scheme of acquiring funds by
mortgaging dead souls that were still on the census lists. It was this
purpose which had sent him on his current tour.
While the townsfolk debated his identity, Chiehikov. having caught a
cold, was confined to his bed. When at last he had recovered
sufficiently to go out, he found himself no longer welcome at the houses
of his former friends. He was, in fact, turned away by servants at the
door. Chiehikov realized that it would be best for him to leave town.
According to extant fragments, unpublished by Gogol, that have been
assembled as part 2 of Dead Souls, Chiehikov turned up next on the
estate of Andrey Ivanovich Tentetnikov, a thirty-three-year-old bachelor
who had retired from public life to vegetate in the country. Learning
that Tentetnikov was in love with the daughter of his neighbor, General
Betrishchev, Chichikov went to see the general and won his consent to
Tentetnikov's suit. He brought the conversation around to a point where
he could offer to buy dead souls from the general. He gave as his reason
the story that his old uncle would not leave him an estate unless he
himself already owned some property. The scheme so delighted the general
that he gladly made the transaction.
Chichikov's next stop was with Petukh, a generous glutton whose table
Chichikov enjoyed. There he met a young man named Platonov, whom
Chichikov persuaded to travel with him and see Russia. The two stopped
to see Platonov's sister and brother-in-law, Kostanjoglo, a prosperous
landholder. Chichikov so impressed his host that Kostanjoglo agreed to
lend him ten thousand rubles to buy the estate of a neighboring
spendthrift named Khlobuyev. Khlobuyev said he had a rich old aunt who
would give great gifts to churches and monasteries but would not help
her destitute relatives. Chichikov proceeded to the town where the old
woman resided and forged a will to his own advantage, but he forgot to
insert a clause canceling all previous wills. On her death, he went to
interview His Excellency Alexey Ivanovich Len-itsyn, who told him that
two wills had been discovered, each contradicting the other. Chichikov
was accused of forging the second will and was thrown into prison. In
the interpretation of this mix-up, Chichikov learned a valuable lesson
in deception from the crafty lawyer he consulted. The lawyer managed to
confuse the affair with every public and private scandal in the
province, so that the officials were soon willing to drop the whole
matter if Chichikov would leave town immediately. The ruined adventurer
was only too glad to comply.
When part 1 of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol's most ambitious work, was
first published in 1842, its author had already written such distinctive
miniatures as "Diary of a Madman," "The Nose," and "The Overcoat," as
well as his play The Inspector General. According to legend, the great
poet Aleksandr Pushkin supplied Gogol with the book's premise, urging
his younger compatriot to create an epic that would ensure him the same
place in literature that Don Quixote had secured for Cervantes. In
contrast with the Spanish author, who had completed the second part of
his masterpiece a decade after the first was published, Gogol never
finished the second and third portions, which he dreamed would somehow
encompass all of Russia. Thus, despite the survival of fragments tracing
Chichikov's adventures after escaping the town
of N------, the masterpiece that is Dead Souls represents
only the first part of an unfinished epic. The author's tortured
attempts to complete it, culminating with his death by fasting in 1852,
brought Gogol and Dead Souls added notoriety.
Critics are quick to point out that, since contemporary landowners
commonly bartered their living serfs, Chi-chikov's paper trade in "dead
souls" (the Russian word for "soul" also carried the meaning of "serf")
is more of an ingenious literary device than an unforgivable crime.
Pushkin's plot line, focusing on a smooth-talking stranger who tries to
take advantage of a provincial town's inhabitants, afforded Gogol an
opportunity to invent an unforgettable gallery of grotesques stepped in
poshlust (utter banality and worthlessness of character). The deadbeats,
ignoramuses, brutes, liars, and misers populating the
vicinity of N------embody various manifestations of this
characteristic so well that some of their names have been incorporated
into the Russian language. Gogol's depictions of these landowners
suggest richly colored literary portraits in their skillful employment
of dialogue and revealing details. In contrast, his portrayals of lesser
figures, such as the town's bureaucrats (described as anonymous laboring
jackets) and the gossips of the ninth chapter (coyly introduced as "a
lady agreeable in ail respects" and "a lady who was simply agreeable"),
invite comparisons to clever caricatures.
In his extended essay Nikolai Gogal, Vladimir Nabokov voices a
particular predilection for the many characters and situations created
by Gogol via similes. Rather than briefly alighting on such descriptive
conceits, Gogol expands upon them, punctuating his narrative, for
example, with sketches of a man polishing his boots deep into the night
and a police sentry who, awakened by the noisy arrival of Korobochka 's
carriage at the other end of town, crushes an insect on his thumbnail
before falling asleep again.
The most audacious of Gogol's digressions is the interpolated tale of
Captain Kopeikin, which the author thought so essential that he
repeatedly implored his censors to have mercy on it. The story is
introduced when the town postmaster, believing Chichikov to be Kopeikin,
relates the double-amputee outlaw's exploits, only to be informed at the
end of the tale that, since Chichikov is in full possession of all of
his limbs, the two could not possibly be the same individual. In a
letter to the censor Alexander Nikitenko, Gogol wrote that this tale was
"essential not for the connection of events, but in order to distract
the reader for a moment, to replace one impression with another,"
showing that the artist was conscious of the effect his digressions
would have on his audience. Other notable excursions are those relating
to the narrator's feelings about his book and his readers, as well as
meditations on travel and the Russian state. Most famous of these is the
concluding passage that follows Chichikov as he flees N------.
Alternately a spellbinding raconteur, a pedant, and an apologist, Gogol
assumed an elaborate succession of narrative voices to carry his story
forward. Apparent to readers of the original Russian is the facility
with which he employed his homeland's still nascent literary language.
The work's lush lyrical passages are virtually unprecedented in Russian
prose, and names such as Nozdryov (nostril), Sobakevich (dog),
Korobochka (little box), and Manilov (combining "mannerism,"
"mistiness," and "dreamy attraction") are fully exploited for their
comedic and symbolic potential.
After the publication of Dead Souls, Gogol struggled with chronic
illness, insecurity, and, many believe, incipient insanity. Troubled by
the possibility that his story might be considered too frivolous, the
moralistic Gogol had established his tripartite plan (echoing the
structure of Dante's The Divine Comedy) with the hope that it would
imbue his epic with a moral context and thereby confirm the first book's
"absolute usefulness and necessity." Yet he was never satisfied with his
work on the second and third parts. Seeking to cure his physical,
spiritual, and creative woes, he traveled compulsively throughout
Europe, burning his work on the second part in 1845 before publishing
Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends in 1847. The abrasive
harangues of this edition earned Gogol widespread criticism, most
notably in a letter by the literary critic and journalist Vissarion
Belinsky. When Fyodor Dostoevski was arrested in 1849, he was accused of
having read this banned document.
Returning to Russia after a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848, Gogol
continued his struggles with Dead Souls until February 11, 1852. Told by
the fanatical Father Matthew Konstantinovsky that his life's work had
been mired in sin, the repentant and frustrated Gogol again incinerated
his manuscript and then took to bed, refusing food. Suffering the
agonies of contemporary medical practices as well as his own profound
hunger, he died soon thereafter, on the morning of March 4.
Type of work: Story
Author: Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
Òyðå of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
Locale: St. Petersburg, Russia
First published: "Shinel," 1842 (English translation, 1923)
Having worked briefly as a civil servant, Gogol had no fondness
for bureaucratic officialdom, and in his long tale he uses the wretched,
ill-paid government clerk, Akakii Akakiievich Bashmachkin, to dramatize
his view of the system and its effects on people. Gogol, often
considered the father of nineteenth century Russian realism, achieves
realistic description that avoids both bitterness and pathos.
Akakii Akakiievich Bashmachkin (a-ka'kly a-ka' kiye-vlch bash-ma'hin), a
humble, poorly paid, aging government clerk, short, pock-marked, with
reddish, balding hair, dim and bleary eyes, and wrinkled cheeks.
Possessing a high-sounding government grade of perpetual titular
councilor, he is a mere copyist of documents. He loves his work, which
he does with neat and painstaking thoroughness, and he even takes some
of it home to do at night. Badly needing an overcoat to replace his old
one, which the tailor refuses to repair, he plans to have a new one
made, and for several months he lives in happy anticipation of getting
it. When he wears it to the office he is pleased over the attention it
gains him from his fellow clerks; but he is desolated when it is stolen
after a party. Stammering and frightened by the domineering manner of a
certain important personage to whom he applies for help in finding his
coat, he goes home in a snowstorm, becomes ill, and dies in delirium.
His ghost, after snatching overcoats from various people, finds the
person of consequence wearing a fine overcoat and seizes it. Apparently
the garment is a perfect fit, for Akakii never reappears to seize more
Petrovich (pet-ro'vlch), a one-eyed, pock-marked tailor given to heavy
drinking, quoting high prices to his clients, and slyly watching to see
what effects he has achieved.
A Certain Important Personage, a bureaucrat recently promoted to a
position of consequence. With his equals he is pleasant, gentlemanly,
and obliging, but with those below him he is reticent, rude, and very
conscious of his superiority. Strict and a stickler for form, he
tyrannizes his subordinates. The ghost of Akakii steals his overcoat.
In one of the bureaus of the government, there was a clerk named Akakii
Akakiievich Bashmachkin. He was a short, pockmarked man with dim, watery
eyes and reddish hair beginning to show spots of baldness. His grade in
the service was that of perpetual titular councilor, a resounding title
for his humble clerkship.
He had been in the bureau for so many years that no one remembered when
he had entered it or who had appointed him to the post. Directors and
other officials came and went, but Akakii Akakiievich was always to be
seen in the same place, in the same position, doing the same work, which
was the copying of documents. No one ever treated him with respect. His
superiors regarded him with disdain; his fellow clerks made him the butt
of their rude jokes and horseplay.
Akakii Akakiievich lived only for his work, without thought for pleasure
or his dress. His frock coat was no longer the prescribed green but a
faded rusty color. Usually it had sticking to it wisps of hay or thread
or bits of litter someone had thrown into the street as he was passing
by, for he walked to and from work in complete oblivion of his
surroundings. Reaching home, he would gulp his cabbage soup and perhaps
a bit of beef, in a hurry to begin transcribing papers he had brought
with him from the office. His labors finished, he would go to bed. Such
was the life of Akakii Akakiievich, satisfied with his pittance of four
hundred rubles a year.
Even clerks on four hundred a year, however, must protect themselves
against the harsh cold of northern winters. Akakii Akakiievich owned an
overcoat so old and threadbare that over the back and shoulders one
could see through the material to the torn lining beneath. At last he
decided to take it to Petrovich, a tailor who did a large business
repairing the garments of petty bureaucrats. Petrovich shook his head
over the worn overcoat and announced that it was beyond mending, fit
only for footcloths. For one hundred and fifty rubles, he said, he would
make Akakii Akakiievich a new overcoat, but he would not touch the old
When he left the tailor's shop, the clerk was in a sad predicament: He
had no money for an overcoat and little prospect of raising so large a
sum. Walking blindly down the street, he failed to notice the sooty
chimney sweep who jostled him, blacking one shoulder, or the lime that
fell on him from a building under construction. The next Sunday he went
to see Petrovich again and begged the tailor to mend his old garment.
The tailor surlily refused. Then Akakii Akakiievich realized that he
must yield to the inevitable. He knew that Petrovich would do the work
for eighty rubles. Half of that amount he could pay with money he had
saved, one kopeck at a time, over a period of years. Perhaps in another
year he could put aside a like amount by doing without tea and candles
at night and by walking as carefully as possible to save his shoe
leather. He began that very day to go without the small comforts he had
previously allowed himself.
In the next year Akakii Akakiievich had some unexpected luck when he
received a holiday bonus of sixty rubles instead of the expected forty
which he had already budgeted for other necessities. With the extra
twenty rubles and his meager savings, he and Petrovich bought the cloth
for the new overcoat—good, durable stuff with calico for the lining and
catskin for the collar. After some haggling it was decided that
Petrovich was to get twelve rubles for his labor.
At last the overcoat was finished. Petrovich delivered it early one
morning, and opportunely, for the season of hard frosts had already
begun. Akakii Akakiievich wore the garment triumphantly to work. Hearing
of his new finery, the other clerks ran into the vestibule to inspect
it. Some suggested that the owner ought to give a party to celebrate the
event. Akakii Akakiievich hesitated but was saved from embarrassment
when a minor official invited the clerks, including Akakii, to drink tea
with him that evening.
Wrapped in his warm coat, Akakii Akakiievich started off to the party.
It had been years since he had walked out at night, and he enjoyed the
novelty of seeing the strollers on the streets and looking into lighted
The hour was past midnight when he left the party; the streets were
deserted. His way took him into a desolate square, with only the
flickering light of a police sentry box visible in the distance.
Suddenly two strangers confronted him and with threats of violence
snatched off his overcoat. When he came to himself, in the snowbank
where they had kicked him, the clerk ran to the policeman's box to
denounce the thieves. The policeman merely told him to report the theft
to the district inspector the next morning. Almost out of his mind with
worry, Akakii Akakiievich ran all the way home.
His landlady advised him not to go to the police but to lay the matter
before a commissioner whom she knew. That official gave him little
satisfaction. The next day his fellow clerks took up a collection for
him. but the amount was so small that they decided to give him advice
instead. They told him to go to a certain important personage who would
speed up the efforts of the police. Finally Akakii Akakiievich secured
an interview, but the very important person was so outraged by the
clerk's unimportance that he never gave the caller an opportunity to
explain his errand. Akakii Akakiievich went home through a blizzard,
which gave him a quinsy requiring bed rest. After several days of
delirium, in which he babbled about his lost overcoat and a certain
important person, he died. A few days later another clerk sat in his
place and began doing the same work at the bureau.
Before long rumors began to spread through the city that the ghost of a
government clerk seeking a stolen overcoat had been seen near Kalinkin
Bridge. One night a clerk from the bureau saw him and almost died of
fright. After Akakii Akakiievich began stripping overcoats from
passersby, the police were ordered to capture the dead man. Once the
police came near arresting him, but the ghost vanished so miraculously
that thereafter the police were afraid to lay hands on any malefactors,
living or dead.
One night, after a sociable evening, a certain important personage was
on his way to visit a lady friend about whom his wife knew nothing. As
he relaxed comfortably in his sleigh, he felt a firm grip on his collar.
Turning, he found himself eye to eye with a wan Akakii Akakiievich. In
his fright he threw off his overcoat and ordered his coachman to drive
him home at once. The ghost of Akakii Akakiievich must have liked the
important person's warm greatcoat: From that time on he never again
molested passersby or snatched away their overcoats.
With "The Diary of a Madman" (1835) and "The Nose" (1836), "The
Overcoat" forms Gogol's St. Petersburg cycle of stories. They are united
in four important ways. The setting is the depressing crowdedness of St.
Petersburg; the protagonist of each tale is a petty bureaucrat in
government service; the common theme is the importance of appearance in
determining social status; and the distinguishing method is fantasy. All
the stories reflect Gogol's perception that modern urban life is
inhospitable to the individual. The city's size, complexity, and
impersonality disorder the individual and destroy the sense of
community. The St. Petersburg stories are the antithesis of Gogol's
stories of Ukranian life, Evenings on a Farm, in which lords and serfs
inhabit a stable, integrated environment.
Gogol's sources for "The Overcoat" indicate that he intended the tale as
a parable of city life. He merged two stories of contemporary events in
St. Petersburg with a sixteenth century hagiographical account. The idea
of a clerk whose mental and physical health depends upon a valued
possession came from an anecdote Gogol heard: A young clerk lost the
shotgun he had scrimped to purchase and was roused from his grief only
when friends purchased him another. The idea of a ghost stalking a
certain important personage originated in newspaper accounts from the
early 1830s of two nobles robbed on the street. The name for his
protagonist Gogol apparently took from the legend of St. Akaky, who
suffered humiliation, without protest, from his monastic superior till
he died. His memory taught his haughty tormentor the virtue of humility.
Akakii Akakiievich experiences all the humiliation the complex,
impersonal capital city can offer. He is a ninth-class clerk in a rigid
bureaucracy, a pen-pusher doomed to run forever like one of Dante's
sinners in the same circle of Hell. At the government office, even
porters ignore him, and other copyists tease him. His pay is a pittance
of four hundred rubles a month, insufficient to buy him—without
sacrifice—a decent coat against the cold. Petrovich the tailor drives a
hard bargain for a new overcoat with the poor clerk, reducing the price
from exorbitant to merely inflated after Akakii beseeches him
repeatedly. The new coat wins Akakii momentary respect from his fellow
clerks and an invitation to a party, where the ninth-class clerk feels
ill at ease amid the artificial camaraderie. The thieves who rob Akakii
of his coat beat him painfully. A watchman who witnesses the mugging is
no help: He pretends the hulking hoodlums are Akakii's playful friends.
When Akakii reports the crime to the police commissioner, he is
questioned about being out late rather than about the crime. Seeking the
aid of a certain important personage, Akakii is kept waiting, though the
personage actually has nothing to do, for decorum demands that clerks
wait a sufficient time to see an important personage. During the
interview the important personage shows no interest in the overcoat but
does berate Akakii for violating proper bureaucratic channels.
Frightened into a faint by the official's manner, the clerk is carried
to his bed. In a few days, a fever brings death to Akakii, who murmurs
"Your Excellency" at the last, as if he needed a superior's permission
For exposing the callousness of czarist bureaucracy and exhibiting
sympathy for an underdog, Gogol maintains a high reputation among modern
Soviet critics. Yet many nineteenth century writers who exposed the
poverty and oppression accompanying urbanization have slipped into
obscurity, while Gogol remains actively read. What distinguishes Gogol
is not so much his theme as his technique.
"The Overcoat" delights because of its narrative complexity. It is a
tale of humiliation, but sympathy is not the only emotion the narrator
conjures up. In fact, Gogol keeps the reader riveted by skillful changes
of pace and perspective. Like a juggler who makes his repetitive feat
more interesting by changing the objects he tosses. Gogol manipulates
several perspectives in rapid succession.
The first juggling occurs after only four words. Using a standard
opening, "Once in a department . . . ," the narrator immediately
digresses into an argument with himself: Should he name the department?
He can cite reasons to do so but also knows that bureaucracies are
jealous of one another. Rather than cause trouble, the narrator decides
not to mention the specific department.
As the narrator tells of Akakii's birth, he clearly has little sympathy
for the protagonist, like the parents who name him after his father out
of sheer boredom. The narrator does sympathize with Akakii because of
the way his fellow clerks treat him, yet he confesses that Akakii
deserves some of the blame. Though he copies documents well enough, he
panics when asked to originate one. For relaxation he copies over that
day's documents that he especially liked. Genetics and environment
conspire to make Akakii the quintessential ninth-class clerk.
The narrator's introduction of the tailor Petrovich begins with a comic
description, because this is the literary fashion of the day, The
description is distinctive since it comes from Akakii's point of view.
The copyist notices unusual things: the tailor's calloused big toe, his
snuffbox on the table, his penchant for routinely insulting Germans.
Through the description, the reader senses Akakii's anxiety that
Petrovich controls his fate. Akakii faces a dilemma; he cannot go
without a new overcoat, but he cannot afford one without sacrificing his
few comforts. When the overcoat is finally finished, the narrative
viewpoint switches to observers of the new garment: Petrovich and the
other clerks. They admire the coat even more perhaps than Akakii does.
Once Akakii leaves the party, events are again recorded as his
impressions. Tipsy with champagne, Akakii senses everything in a
heightened fashion. A prostitute flashes past him like "a streak of
lightning." A large open square possesses a "sinister emptiness." The
hoodlum who robs him has a fist "as big as the clerk's head."
Akakii's visits to the commissioner and the certain important personage
reflect their outlooks. The narrator records the pleasure they receive
from making Akakii wait, putting him in his place, and observing his
growing agitation. His despair is the measure of their importance: Even
receptionists grow in stature when trembling ninth-class clerks approach
obsequiously. Akakii is a completely insignificant person in this world.
It is a reality of modern urban life, not a cause for lament. Yet the
certain important personage later feels a twinge of regret that he
dismissed the clerk so abruptly. That twinge grows into guilt that
causes the certain important personage to believe that the man who
steals his coat is Akakii's ghost. There is no ghost, of course, except
in a moral sense.
By switching perspectives subtly and without formal transitions, Gogol
enables the reader to perceive St. Petersburg as a cruel complex, but
one constructed out of human hopes, fears, kindnesses, and humiliations.
Akakii's story is pathetic, but it is also laughable. "The Overcoat" is
not simply either sentimental or satirical; it hangs somewhere in
between. The narrator controls the swing of the reader's reactions,
never allowing them to stray too far to one side or to linger at one
point. The constant motion creates a complex of reactions appropriate to
the complex of the modern city.
Like other nineteenth century writers—for example, James Hogg and Edgar
Allan Ðîå—Gogol explores how the psychological state of the perceiver
influences the construct of reality. Gogol's genius is the ability to
move from the storyteller's traditional "objective" perceptions to
altered perceptions of characters without readers being conscious of the
change until they are already entrapped.