Remembering Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol

By Emily Catenzaro

“It is well-known that there are many faces in the world over the finishing of which nature did not take much trouble, did not employ any fine tools such as files, gimlets, and so on, but simply hacked them out with round strokes: one chop-a nose appears; another chop-lips appear; eyes are scooped out with a big drill; and she lets it go into the world rough-hewn, saying: “ALIVE!”
― Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Fyodor Moller (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Fyodor Moller (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Today marks the 164th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol’s death. Perhaps it may be more appropriate to write about Gogol next year, on a more prominent deathday anniversary. But in my experience with reading Gogol’s work, any year is a good year to acknowledge his accomplishments.

Gogol is known for many things: his eccentric realism, his terrifying folk tales, and his social commentary. To this day, his instantly recognizable style—filled with dark references to heaven and hell, imagery steeped in nature, and caustic imagination—remains an influence on horror writers and writers of stylish prose alike. Gogol was very connected to his Russian and Ukrainian background, and his childhood influences played a big a role in his adult writing, as did his relationship with St. Petersburg.

The father of Russia’s Golden Age of prose realism1 was born on March 20, 1809 in Ukraine, to a very religious working-class family. He was his parents’ first surviving child, and the result of what his family believed to be a divine union. As the story goes, his deeply religious father saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at thirteen. The Virgin Mary pointed to a baby girl and told Gogol’s father they would someday be married. The baby was his neighbor’s seven-month old daughter. Years later they did indeed marry, and had six children together.

Growing up, Gogol was fragile and sickly, and as such, was often bullied by other children over his eccentric looks. His family did not have much by way of money, but they gave much in the way of knowledge. Gogol’s later work was very reminiscent of the wild stories of heaven and hell told to him by his mother, the Cossack legends and frightening folk tales shared with him by his grandmother, and an appreciation for the countryside given to him by his father.

It was not uncommon for Gogol’s work to contain witches, evil spirits, and the supernatural. Stories like “The Portrait” and “Viy” also contained a heavy dose of social commentary within their framework. “The Portrait” is the story of a poor artist who buys a portrait of an old moneylender. The portrait is imbued with some sort of spirit; looking at the painting, Chartkov (the artist) senses a supernatural presence behind the subject’s eyes:

“[The eyes] actually destroyed the harmony of the portrait. They were alive, human! It was as if they had been cut from a living man and inserted in the canvas. Here was none of that sublime feeling of enjoyment which imbued the spirit at the sight of an artist’s endeavors, regardless of how terrible the subject he may have put on canvas. Instead, there was a painful, joyless sense of anxiety.”2

A spell produces gold coins from the broken portrait’s frame, and instead of using the money to finance his artistic ambition, Chartkov finds himself with the financial means to indulge in a materialist lifestyle. He ends up as a sycophantic portrait painter for high society, his artistic integrity utterly lost to a shallow existence. In one story, Gogol tells of the horrors of squandered artistic talents and supernatural evil.

“Viy” is one of Gogol’s stories influenced by the Ukrainian folk tales he heard as a child. Witches and evil spirits are abound in “Viy,” and a pervasive fear of feminine power reverberates through the story. Like many folk tales, “Viy” begins with a protagonist looking for lodging in a forest. A young philosophy student named Khoma finds a place to stay with an old woman. The old woman, who is really a witch, mesmerizes Khoma. She sits astride his back as Khoma rides through the night sky like some sort of bizarre four-legged animal. Khoma is disgusted by the old woman but also experiences some degree of eroticism during the adventure. Khoma is so distressed by the event that he beats the old woman, but during the beating she transforms into a beautiful young woman: “before him lay a beautiful girl with luxuriant, tangled tresses and eyelashes as long as arrows.”3

The young woman dies from her injuries, and Khoma is locked in a church with her body for three days. The corpse rises and tries to curse Khoma, but Khoma protects himself by drawing a ritualistic circle reciting exorcisms. On the third night, the frustrated corpse summons Viy, a horrific forest gnome whose eyelids touch the ground. As long as Khoma does not look directly at Viy he is safe, but the moment he does the circle will cease to protect him. Naturally, Khoma cannot keep himself from looking at the horrifying beast. As soon as the circle’s powers are vanquished, Khoma dies from fright caused by the evil spirits, and Gogol concludes his terrifying folk tale about feminine powers.

A final example of Gogol’s varied, supernatural stories is “The Nose.” “The Nose” is a satire of a man preoccupied with social rank and hierarchy. This man, whose name is Major Kovalev, wakes up one day missing his nose—and if that wasn’t distressing enough for the poor major, later that day he encounters his nose on the street dressed in a gentleman’s uniform. When the major approaches his nose to inquire about why it is not on his face, the nose replies that it is of more advanced rank than the major and therefore does not have to be concerned with his problems.

Kovalev becomes hysterical and shares his plight with anyone who will listen: the clerk at the newspaper office, the police inspector, and a doctor, all of who laugh at Kovalev and question his respectability and social reputation. The story ends when Kovalev wakes up one day to find his nose inexplicably returned to his face. He is then free to resume his former social life, which he found formerly impossible to partake in without a nose.

Gogol’s bizarre, eccentric stories are worth remembering for their creativity and uniqueness, as well as the skill with which they were told. He tried to bridge the gap between the surreal and the ordinary with his writing, an ambition that ultimately ended his life. Gogol died trying to purify his body through fasting, a compulsion brought on by a priest who condemned his writing. Gogol’s tragic end was for the sake of his craft, and his career continued having long-lasting effects on Russian writers even after his death. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky was quoted saying in reference to another Gogol story, he and his fellow Russian authors “all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’”4

End Notes:

  1. Adams, Amy Singleton. “Nikolai (Vasilyevich) Gogol.”Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose. Ed. Christine Rydel. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 198. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
  2. Gogol, Nikolai. “The Mysterious Portrait.” The University of Adelaide. The University of Adelaide Library, n.d. Web. 1 March 2016.
  3. Gogol, Nikolai. “Viy Summary.” eNotes. eNotes.com, Inc., n.d. Web. 1 March 2016.
  4. Adams, Amy Singleton. “Nikolai (Vasilyevich) Gogol.”Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose. Ed. Christine Rydel. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 198. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

Emily Catenzaro is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut. She spends way too much time at ice skating rinks.


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