1902 Encyclopedia > Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol
Russian novelist, dramatist and satirist

NIKOLAI VASILIEVICH GOGOL (1809-1852), was born in the province of Poltava, in South Russia, March 31, 1809. Educated at the Niejin gymnasium, he there started a manuscript periodical, "The Star," and wrote several pieces including a tragedy, The Brigands. Having completed his course at Niejin, he went in 1829 to St Petersburg, where he tried the stage but failed. Next year he obtained a clerkship in the department of appanages, but he soon gave it up.

Nikolai Gogol image

Nikolai Gogol
(Painting by Alexander Ivanov)

In literature, however, he found his true vocation. In 1829 he published anonymously a poem called Italy, and, under the pseudonym of V. Alof, an idyll, Hans Kuchel Garten, which he had written while still at Niejin. The idyll was so ridiculed by a reviewer that its author bought up all the copies he could secure, and burnt them in a room which he hired for the purpose at an inn.

Gogol then fell back upon South Russian popular literature, and especially the tales of Cossackdom on which his boyish fancy had been nursed, his father having occupied the post of "regimental secretary," one of the honorary officials in the Zaporogian Cossack forces.

In 1830 he published in a periodical the first of the stories which appeared next year under the title of Evenings in a Farm near Dikanka by Rudy Panko. This work, containing a series of attractive pictures of that Little-Russian life which lends itself to romance more readily than does the monotony of "Great -Russian" existence, immediately obtained a great success,—its light and colour, its freshness and originality, being hailed with enthusiasm by the principal writers of the day in Russia.

Whereupon Gogol planned, not only a history of Little-Russia, but also one of the Middle Ages, to be completed in eight or nine volumes. This plan he did not carry out, though it led to his being appointed to a professorship in the university of St Petersburg, a post in which he met with small success, and which he resigned in 1835.

Meanwhile he had published his Arabesques, a collection of essays and stories; his Taras Bulba, the chief of the Cossack Tales translated into English by George Tolstoy; and a number of novelettes, which mark his transition from the romantic to the realistic school of fiction, such as the admirable sketch of the tranquil life led in a quiet country house by two kindly specimens of Old-world Gentlefolks, or the description of the petty miseries endured by an ill-paid clerk in a Government office, the great object of whose life is to secure the "cloak" from which his story takes its name.

To the same period belongs his celebrated comedy, The Revizor, or Government Inspector. His aim in writing it was to drag into light "all that was bad in Russia," and to hold it up to contempt. And he succeeded in rendering contemptible and ludicrous the official life of Russia, the, corruption universally prevailing throughout the civil servicel, the alternate arrogance and servility of men in office. The plot of the comedy is very simple. A traveller who arrives with an empty purse at a provincial town is taken for an inspector whose arrival is awaited with fear, and he receives all the attentions and bribes which are meant to propitiate the dreaded investigator of abuses. The play appeared on the stage in the spring'of 1836, and achieved a full success, in spite of the opposition attempted by the official classes whose malpractices it exposed.

The aim which Gogol had in view when writing the Revizor he afterwards fully attained in his great novel, Mertvuiya Dushi, or Dead Souls, the first part of which appeared in 1842. The hero of the story is an adventurer who goes about Russia making fictitious purchases of "dead souls," i.e., of serfs who have died since the last census, with the view of pledging his imaginary property to Government. But his adventures are merely an excuse for drawing a series of pictures, of an unfavourable kind, of Russian provincial life, and of introducing on the scene a number of types of Russian society. Of the force and truth with which these delineations are executed the universal consent of Russian critics in their favour may be taken as a measure.

From the French version of the story a general idea of its merits may be formed, and some knowledge of its plot and its principal characters may be gathered from the English adaptation published in 1854, as an original work, under the title of Home Life in Russia.

But no one seems to be able fully to appreciate Gogol's merits as a humorist, who is not intimate with the language in which he wrote as well as with the society which he depicted.

In 1836 Gogol for the first time went abroad. Subsequently he spent a considerable amount of time out of Russia, chiefly in Italy, where much of his Dead Souls was written. His residence there, especially at Rome, made a deep impression on his mind, which, during his later years, turned towards mysticism.

The last works which he published, his Confession and Correspondence with Friends, offer a painful contrast to the light, bright, vigorous, realistic, humorous writings which had gained and have retained for him his immense popularity in his native land. Asceticism and mystical exaltation had told upon his nervous system, and its feeble condition showed itself in his literary compositions.

In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on his return settled down at Moscow, where he died, March 3, 1852, not having quite completed his forty-third year.

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