Authors: Nikolai Gogol

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Ukrainian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

March 31, 1809

Sorochintsy, Ukraine, Russian Empire (now in Ukraine)

March 4, 1852

Moscow, Russia


Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (GAW-guhl), the son of a Cossack landowner, attended the provincial grammar school in Nyezhin from 1821 until 1828. Being naturally withdrawn, Gogol made few friends, and at an early age he turned to writing, actually finishing a boyish tragedy titled The Brigands. After leaving school he went to St. Petersburg. Shortly after his arrival he published under the pseudonym of V. Alov an idyllic poem titled Hanz Kuechelgarten; this work was so harshly ridiculed by the critics that Gogol destroyed as many copies as he could. Deciding to go to America, he traveled as far as Lübeck, Germany. There, his funds exhausted, he changed his mind about emigration and returned to St. Petersburg. He found a post in a government office, settled down to writing, and made the acquaintance of Aleksandr Pushkin and other writers and editors in the capital. As a minor figure in St. Petersburg literary circles, he found it relatively easy to have his writings published in periodicals. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a two-volume collection of Cossack stories in which he drew upon memories of his childhood, was well received by readers and critics; Aleksandr Borodin used one of the stories as the basis for an opera. In 1835 Gogol published two works. The first, Mirgorod, was a collection of longer tales, among them “Taras Bulba,” a historical romance of fifteenth century Cossack life, which he republished in a considerably expanded version in 1842. Arabesques contained a miscellany of stories and essays. {$I[AN]9810001440} {$I[A]Gogol, Nikolai} {$S[A]Alov, V.;Gogol, Nikolai} {$I[geo]RUSSIA;Gogol, Nikolai} {$I[geo]UKRAINE;Gogol, Nikolai} {$I[tim]1809;Gogol, Nikolai}

Nikolai Gogol

(Library of Congress)

By 1831 Gogol had left the Russian civil service and become a teacher of history at a school for young women. He began to plan a comprehensive history of the medieval period in Little Russia. The work was never written, but on the strength of his plans and through the influence of friends, Gogol was appointed professor of history at the University of St. Petersburg. Gogol was a failure as a lecturer, however, and he resigned in 1835, after less than one year.

Although he had published several volumes of fiction between 1829 and 1835, Gogol does not at that time seem to have thought of devoting himself to the life of a writer. Only after the appearance of his satirical play The Inspector General did he think seriously of a literary career. The play, a mordant satire on the Russian bureaucracy of the times, was produced only because of the friendly aid of Nicholas I in getting it past the censors. Bureaucrats disliked the play, but intellectuals praised it immensely. Shortly after the comedy was produced Gogol went abroad, staying away from Russia, except for brief visits, between 1836 and 1848. After the death of Pushkin, in 1837, Gogol came to be considered the leader of Russian literature. In 1840 the first part of Dead Souls was finished, and Gogol took it to Moscow, where it was published in 1842. That same year he published the first collected edition of his earlier works, which included his most famous tale, The Overcoat.

The publication of Dead Souls marks the apex of Gogol’s career. Like his great comedy The Inspector General, Gogol’s novel is satirical in its account of an unscrupulous rogue who tries, through a loophole in Russian taxation and registration at the time, to buy the names of dead serfs to mortgage their labor to the government.

At this time of his life Gogol became a spokesman for groups who were eager to reform Russia. He himself, however, was convinced that his role as a leader include the use of literature not to expose flaws in the government but to save souls and guide human beings to the right path. In a sense Gogol’s ability as a creative writer fell victim to his sense of a moral mission. He thought of Dead Souls as an epic and planned a second part that would show the regeneration of rogues, but after a great deal of work he destroyed his manuscripts. In 1847 he produced a highly didactic work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, in which he preached a doctrine of conformity. The work aroused resentment, and some of Gogol’s admirers accused him of excessive pride and of falsifying Christianity. In an effort to redeem himself, believing himself damned, Gogol thereupon undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When the trip was a religious failure for him, he believed himself to be hopelessly lost, all his earlier work sinful. In another attempt to redeem himself he set on to the second part of Dead Souls, but his health, both physical and mental, worsened. His physical health was especially damaged by ascetic practices he inflicted upon himself. In an excess of mortification, or perhaps a bout with madness, he destroyed his manuscripts, including the unfinished second part of his novel. Afterward he claimed that Satan had played a joke on him and made him do it. Within a few months, obviously suffering from mental illness, Gogol died.

Gogol was one of the most influential writers in Russian literature (it was Fyodor Dostoevski who said, “We all came out of The Overcoat”) and his work foreshadowed many trends in twentieth century literature, including realism, Surrealism, and the focus on ordinary, even insignificant, human beings.

Author Works Long Fiction: Taras Bulba, 1835 (as short story), 1842 (revised as a novel; English translation, 1886) Myortvye dushi, part 1, 1842, part 2, 1855 (Dead Souls, 1887) Short Fiction: Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki, volume 1, 1831, volume 2, 1832 (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, 1926) Mirgorod, 1835 (English translation, 1928) Arabeski, 1835 (Arabesques, 1982) “Kolyaska,” 1836 (The carriage) “Nos,” 1836 (The nose) “Šinelʹ,” 1842 (“The Cloak,” 1850; Šinelʹ: povestʹ 1897; The Overcoat, 1956) “Rim,” 1842 (Rome) Drama: Vladimir tretey stepeni, wr. 1832, pb. 1842 Zhenit’ba, wr. 1835, pr., pb. 1842 (Marriage: A Quite Incredible Incident, 1926) Revizor, pr., pb. 1836 (The Inspector General, 1890) Utro delovogo cheloveka, pb. 1836 (revision of Vladimir tretey stepeni; An Official’s Morning, 1926) Lakeyskaya, pb. 1842 (revision of Vladimir tretey stepeni; The Servants’ Hall, 1926) Tyazhba, pb. 1842 (revision of Vladimir tretey stepeni; The Lawsuit, 1926) Otryvok, pb. 1842 (revision of Vladimir tretey stepeni; A Fragment, 1926) Igroki, pb. 1842 (The Gamblers, 1926) The Government Inspector, and Other Plays, pb. 1926 Poetry: Hanz Kuechelgarten, 1829 Nonfiction: Razmyshleniya o Bozhestvennoi Liturgii, 1845–47 (Meditations on the Divine Liturgy, 1857) Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druzyami, 1847 (Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1969) Letters of Nikolai Gogol, 1967 Miscellaneous: Sochineniia Nikolaia Gogolia, 1842–43 The Collected Works, 1922–1927 (6 volumes) Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1940–1952 (14 volumes) The Collected Tales and Plays of Nikolai Gogol, 1964 Bibliography Erlich, Victor. Gogol. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. For nonspecialists, this book may be the most accessible and evenhanded. Erlich concentrates on Gogol’s oeuvre without shortchanging the generally disavowed Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. He deals with much of the “myth” of Gogol and supplies interesting background to the making of Gogol’s works. Fanger, Donald L. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. Fanger presses deeply into the background material and includes in his purview works both published and unpublished, in his effort to reveal the genius of Gogol’s creative power. This book is worthwhile in many respects, particularly for the wealth of details about Gogol’s life and milieu. Includes twenty-eight pages of notes and an index. Fusso, Susanne, and Priscilla Meyer, eds. Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1992. A collection of essays on Gogol from a conference at Wesleyan University. Bibliography and index. Gippius, V. V. Gogol. Translated by Robert Maguire. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. Originally written in 1924, this famous monograph supplies not only the view of a fellow countryman but also a vast, informed, and intellectual analysis of both the literary tradition in which Gogol wrote and his innovation and contribution to that tradition. Vastly interesting and easily accessible. Contains notes and a detailed list of Gogol’s works. Hart, Pierre R. “Narrative Oscillation in Gogol’s ‘Nevsky Prospect.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 639–645. Argues that the story is a commentary on the author’s development of strategies to deal with reality; discusses the urban scene in the story, suggesting that the city forces the protagonist into a final defensive position. Jenness, Rosemarie K. Gogol’s Aesthetics Compared to Major Elements of German Romanticism. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. An examination of aesthetics in the works of Gogol and an analysis of German romanticism. Bibliography and index. Karlinsky, Simon. The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol. 1976. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. A look at Gogol’s literature and his relations with men. Contains annotated bibliography of Gogol’s works in English. Index. Luckyj, George Stephen Nestor. The Anguish of Mykola Hohol a.k.a. Nikolai Gogol. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1998. Explores Gogol’s life and how it affected his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. The most comprehensive study in English of Gogol’s entire writing career. Incorporates a chronology, detailed notes, and an extensive bibliography. Maguire, Robert A., ed. Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. This collection of essays, with a lengthy introduction by the editor and translator, represents some of the most famous and influential opinions on Gogol in the twentieth century. Some of the most problematic aspects of Gogol’s stylistics, thematics, and other compositional elements are addressed and well elucidated. Bibliography, index. Rancour-Laferriere, David. Out from Under Gogol’s “Overcoat”: A Psychoanalytic Study. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982. This specialized study proves very exciting to the reader of Gogol. Much of the discussion focuses on the particular usage of words by Gogol. Even students with no command of Russian will find the explication understandable since the examples are clear and self-defining. Much of the discussion comprises very modern literary-analytical technique and may prove of good use to the reader. Contains a bibliography that includes many background works. Robey, Judith. “Modelling the Reading Act: Gogol’s Mute Scene and Its Intertexts.” Slavic Review 56 (Summer, 1997): 233-250. Discusses scenes in which viewers look at paintings in Gogol’s fiction and essays; argues these moments correspond to a metanarrative in Gogol’s works in which reading is depicted as a process that can lead to redemption and salvation. Setchkarev, Vsevolod. Gogol: His Life and Works. Translated by Robert Kramer. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Still often recommended in undergraduate courses, Setchkarev’s monograph concentrates on both the biography and the works, seen individually and as an artistic system. Very straightforward and easily readable, this work might be perhaps the best place for the student to begin. Shapiro, Gavriel. Nikolai Gogol and the Baroque Cultural Heritage. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A scholarly study of the literary style of Gogol, examining its links to Baroque literature. Spieker, Sven, ed. Gogol: Exploring Absence: Negativity in Nineteenth Century Russian Literature. Bloomington, Ind.: Slavica, 1999. A collection of essays on Gogol focusing on negativity in his works and those of other Russian writers. Bibliography and index. Tosi, Alessandra. “Andrei Kropotov’s ‘Istoriia o Smurom Kaftane’: A Thematic Source for Gogol’s ‘Shinel’?” The Slavonic and East European Review 76 (October, 1998): 601-613. Compares Gogol’s “The Overcoat” with Kropotov’s earlier story; in both stories a trivial garment takes on significance for the main characters and ultimately causes their ruin. Discusses the similarity in the twists in the plots; suggests that Kropotov’s story may have been source for Gogol’s. Troyat, Henri. Divided Soul. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. This study provides perhaps the most information on Gogol’s life and demonstrates masterfully how Gogol’s life and work are inextricably intertwined. Troyat does not neglect the important role that “God’s will” played in Gogol’s life, the thread that lends the greatest cohesion to the diverse developments in his creative journey. The volume contains some interesting illustrations, a bibliography, notes, and an index.

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