Only works of truly talented writers become a part of international literary heritage through translations into different languages. The genius of the author enables him to portray some situations and persons that will be understood by everyone regardless of nationality, no matter how far they live from the homeland of the writer. Besides, works of the gifted ones are timeless, and it makes them even more valuable to the world of literature. One of such writers is Nikolai Gogol, a prominent Russian novelist born in Ukraine. He lived a short life (he died at the age of 42), yet his creations managed to prolong it for a lot of generations. His unsurpassed portrayals of routine reality seasoned with a touch of wonder and mysticism have not lost their topicality and are still enjoyed in the 21st century.
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Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was born on March 19, 1809 in Sorochyntsi market town, Russian Empire (now Province of Poltava, Ukraine) in the family of ancestors of Ukrainian Cossack gentry. His father was a squire and a playwright. The family was not of a rich type, and it contributed to Nikolai’s ambitions to achieve something more and escape from a dull provincial town. The boy, being reserved and mostly kept to himself since early childhood, came to Petersburg. There he began working as a civil servant in one of the Ministry of the Interior’s department. This was the place where his bright characters stem from – routine monotonous life of officials struggling to survive or pursuing higher career goals. Then Gogol took up teaching and studying history. His first work – narrative poem Hans Kuechelgarten – appeared in 1829 and was not a success to the mind of critics. He switched to prose fiction and started his remarkable Ukrainian cycle. His volumes of short stories published in 1835 are entitled Arabesques and Mirgorod. Harold Bloom, an American critic, mentions that alongside with the subsequent play The Inspector General these creations “established him as a major Russian writer”. The setting also played a great role for Gogol. His tales of urban bureaucratic life of St. Petersburg contrast with those of the Dikanka collection featuring regular rural peasants’ life of picturesque Ukraine, a reminiscing outlet of childhood years. Then, tired and disappointed with the Russian reality Gogol travels abroad, to be specific, to Rome. The period coming after that is characterized by a deep self-searching and self-perfection of the writer. The infamous extremely reactionary (a specifically Russian term describing a counter-progress mode of thinking) Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends (1947) cost Gogol a lot of well-wishers. Having become even gloomier after such a critical reception, Nikolai Gogol ventures a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Returning to Russia in 1951 he assesses it, once again, as a spiritually unsatisfying and disappointing experience – because he had not found all the answers he was expecting to – the writer settled in Moscow where he lived until his death a year later. Bloom describes the last year of his life in terms of “agonizing death” being a sad but logical result of “a life filled with both physical and mental suffering, with these two categories often blending together”. Bloom mentions Gogol’s stomach ailment, emotional depression and hypochondria. He died on February 21, 1852. His death was largely caused by self-inflicted malnutrition and general debilitation. It was a tragic death of the inwardly unsettled and confused man that left Russian literature devoid from potential future masterpieces. A peace of mind is what Gogol searched for but failed to find.
Concerning creative life of Gogol, it really deserves to be called prolific. The range of his works is impressive because of the diversity of genre. He wrote poems, short stories, essays, tracts, plays and novels. Harold Bloom states that the success of a narrative did not depend on the genre of writing. He exemplifies that “his short stories move from the Ukrainian countryside to the affairs of cosmopolitan St. Petersburg with equal skill”. He continues by telling that “his collection Arabesques is comprised of essays that discuss art, history, poetry and even geography”. Such a wide artistic scale is, no doubt, only an asset to a writer. What is most unexpected about Gogol’s writing is the fact that representatives of a lot of historical literary trends and genres claim him to have relevance to their respective school of thought. Romantics, Realists, Symbolists, Formalists, Structuralists and others interpret him as their representative. Most noted works by Nikolai Gogol include comedy Revisor, novels Dead Souls, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Taras Bulba, short stories Diary of a Madman, The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich, etc. Dead Souls is considered to be the most ambitious undertaking in his career. He planned it as a “new Divine Comedy” (here the traces of Gogol’s staying in Italy are palatable). The much-suffered novel is notorious due to several variants caused by several destructions by the author himself – he committed his manuscripts to fire. His Ukrainian cycle was welcomed because of folkloristic flavor which was then in fashion. Janko Lavrin emphasizes the brightness of Gogol’s language in Dikanka stories: “it is saturated with rhythm, ornament, and music as thought the author had wanted to hypnotize himself by his own verbal flow”. The researcher also mentions the sources of inspiration for the cycle – childhood stories told by the grandfather sequencing in the personal interpretation and also works by European masters Tieck and Hoffmann, the latter being the self-manifested literary example of Gogol. Vasilij Gippius, Russian poet, emphasizes Gogol’s esthetic self-awareness, which remained a decisive force throughout all his years of young manhood. He continues that it “could evince itself indirectly, as a spur of creativity, or directly, as a theme in his writing”. So, aesthetic character of Nikolai Gogol is another facet of his literary talent. Milton Ehre mentions in introduction to a collection of Gogol’s plays that he “pursued a career more like that of Chekhov”. Gogol was not a full-time novelist and made occasional forays into another types of medium. He draws attention to the fact of his life that he was engaged in theatrical activity since childhood both as a director and an actor, staging plays of classical repertoire (he was a talented comic actor and an unsurpassed reader). Subsequently he constituted some minor works to theater (only three complete plays). Ehre defines a common metaphor for Gogol’s work career – comparison to a comet “bursting suddenly upon the landscape, burning itself out quickly, but transforming the transfiguration of Russian literary culture”. Although many of his writings were the results of bursts of inspirations, Gogol was a meticulous craftsman.
It is a debatable question as for whose words should be considered authoritative and whose not. Fellow countrymen have a deeper mentality-based understanding of a creative person, but on the other hand – people from other countries are unbiased and try to see a larger picture. By all means only those, who deal with literature professionally, may give an adequate appraisal of a certain figure. What concerns Nikolai Gogol, it is hard to find any negative criticism about this writer: his legacy is so outstanding and influential that it goes without saying that he is considered to be a great example to writers and an acknowledged positive and prominent figure in literature. One of the most influential literary critics of his days Vissarion Belinsky praised Gogol because the latter filled his works with social value and made them true to life. In his letter to the novelist he wrote: “Yes, I loved you with all the passion with which a man, bound by ties of blood to his native country, can love its hope, its honor, its glory, one of the great leaders on its path of consciousness, development and progress” . The extract is written in the past tense because of the disappointment with Gogol’s loss of naturalism, close connection with the life around him. British journalist Ed Miller quotes one of the Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky: "we all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'". In particular, he gives the “magical Russian talent for writing in different registers, literal and symbolic, at the same time” as an example. Display of such a deep respect to creative work among fellow writers is a rarity and, maybe, the highest praise. Another icon of Russian writing, Vladimir Nabokov, calls Gogol “the strangest prose-poets Russia ever produced”. Here his colleague refers to his unusual lifestyle and creative peculiarities. Speaking about Gogol’s writing, literary critics and historian of literature D.S. Mirsky characterized it as "one of the most marvelous, unexpected — in the strictest sense original — worlds ever created by an artist of words". Approval like this is hard to find. John Cournous in his introduction to The Overcoat and Other Stories mentions that Gogol has done for the Russian novel and prose is what Pushkin has done for Russian poetry”. In such a way the author wants to emphasize his pioneering style and trend-setting theme usage. Gogol “gave the Russian novel its direction to its very day”. Adding his opinion to his colleagues’, Slovenian researcher Janko Lavrin presents Gogol’s influence in metaphorical way pointing out that his activities “inaugurated the great era of Russian fiction”. Harold Bloom draws attention to the fact that two figures – Belinsky and Pushkin – played crucial roles in Gogol’s successful career as a writer. He was acquainted with both of them, they contacted each other, and these acquaintances were highly beneficial for him. It should be mentioned that earlier scholars tended to idealize the relationship between Gogol and Pushkin. In American literature Gogol is also a standard to match with. For example, such artistic writing peculiarities as laconic voice, subtlety of allusions and ability to sketch characters of appealing grotesquerie refer both to postmodernism and realism. The object of comparison is an American author Charles Portis and the representative of the latter direction in literature is Nikolai Gogol. Translator and Gogol scholar, Professor of Language and Literature and Chairman of Department of Slavic Languages in Columbia University Robert Maguire performed a comprehensive study of the thought and work of the author, giving a thoughtful, clever and imaginative analysis of Gogol’s art and contributing to Anglo-American Gogol criticism. Maguire unexpectedly characterizes Gogol calling him “the one great Russian writer who has most puzzled English-speaking readers”. He explains it by mentioning that Gogol needs placing, explaining and interpreting of a high order . Not only was the Russian writer a prominent figure for literature. Gogol is acclaimed to have contributed to the development of Russian language greatly. Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, referring to a play by Gogol The Inspector General (1842), states that Russians speak of this play as of a crucial moment in theatre history, “the play that brought a realistic sense of national identity into Russian literature”. Dostoyevsky and Nabokov explained that Gogol was the first to bring literary Russian language closer to everyday speech. That is what keeps his work from being left unnoticed.
American historian of art Kerry Kubilius pays attention to national affiliation of Nikolai Gogol. Particularly, she specifies that at the times when Gogol was writing, Ukraine and Russia were more closely connected than nowadays since both countries were parts of the Russian empire. Mentioning the so called battle over Gogol she also states that regardless of assertions about Gogol either country may make, the writer cannot completely become a legacy of either one. It is impossible, because through his creations and in his life he belonged to both. Kubilius gives arguments that his early writings (for instance, Viy, a tale about an ugly demon with heavy eyelids) are taken from Ukrainian folklore. And his novel Taras Bulba presents to readers a depiction of Ukrainian Cossacks. However, it is worth mentioning that already during Gogol's life, Russians began to identify him as a “Russian” writer. It was the capital city of Russia that Gogol lived in his last years and had written his famous Dead Souls. He burned the second part of Dead Souls when he was in a state of spiritual torment. The house, where the second part of the novel was burnt in the spiritual fit, is turned into the Gogol Museum. Gogol’s burial place is also in Russia. Kerry Kubilius summarizes that neither Ukraine nor Russia should underestimate the belonging of Gogol to both cultures. She claims that this national duality is one of the constituents of his rich and unique writing style and overall success. It may seem a reasonable idea of ending this controversy lasting for more than 150 years.
The Overcoat (in other translations – The Cloak) was written in 1842. It is one of the most well-known stories presenting his literary style in full scope and beauty. The plot centers on a copyist Akaky Akakiyevich Bashmachkin who earns little money. His overcoat, which was sewn with much effort, is stolen. He does not want to leave the case unsolved (because a cold St. Petersburg season demands a warm outerwear) and turns for help to an important official in order to enliven a police investigation. The latter treats him very rude and acts arrogantly. Bearing in mind an utter shock from such a reception and having completely lost hope, shortly afterwards the poor copyist dies. But his ghost finishes the revenge, attacking people on the streets and stealing their coats. The last robbery victim is the important official himself. The Overcoat, according to Belinsky, was one of the works calling attention to unjust political conditions in Russia which were “important steps in the direction of progress”. Ed Miller managed to find parallels between the modern Britain and 19th-century Russia depicted in the short story: “impersonality and casual cruelty of office life; vanity and self-delusion”. He also mentions that having lived in Russia for some time he realized how much the story was insightful in regard to the country’s situation. D.S. Mirskty mentions that “The Overcoat gave rise to a whole literature of philanthropic stories about the poor clerk, of which the most significant is Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk”. Once again we may be convinced of the extraordinary influence of Gogol on the Russian literature.
The fact that the story is called after a piece of clothing may already imply some subtext. It is a narration of complex relations between a man and his overcoat. But a reader should see more than meets the eye: the greatcoat is a symbol of a man’s proud, of all his accomplishment and hard work. A piece of clothing – in the same way as nowadays – is an indicator of social status, a badge of a certain class’s membership. For Akaky, totally devoid of professional ambitions and not accustomed to any kind of pleasant spare time, his coat is the only means of displaying his rank. He is ready to economize and sacrifice for the sake of a new article of clothing. Very bright and fresh is the author’s comparison of the overcoat with a life companion. Hallmark of Gogol – his mysticism – also finds a reflection in The Overcoat in the image of a ghost of the late Akaky Akakiyevich. Apart from that the content of the short story is simultaneously very plain and very deep, which is one of indicators of pure talent.
For some readers situations like the one described in The Overcoat might seem comical, but on the other hand it is clearly understandable that at those times it was nothing funny in this. Everything depends on the angle of view. Gogol manages to describe lives of ordinary people making their images very vivid and true to life. The reader develops an interest for truly common events. The reason behind such a ‘Gogol effect’ may be that people see themselves or somebody they know behind those speaking names, clumsy gestures and predictable reactions. Of course, nowadays the style of the Russian author is perceived as an elevated and somewhat outdated one, yet his unsurpassed mundane humor remains an expressive means to state our flaws and imperfections as a society. The writer is also famous for resorting to mysticism in his works. He is popular among children who like to tickle their nerves with such jumpy stories full of unnatural events and personages. It must be a surprise for young minds to find thrilling narratives among works of classical writers. Regarding this aspect Nikolai Gogol resembles the American mystic Edgar Allan Poe. My personal attitude to this author is very positive and respectful. I am firmly convinced that Gogol must be read, admired and analyzed, because his many-sided talent still allows numerous interpretations, and there are a lot of white spots in his life.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is an acknowledged classical writer of Russian literature and a prominent literary figure in a lot of other countries. Creative and personal life of Gogol has been researched by scholars of many generation and they still remain popular. His works give us an opportunity to get acquainted with Russia of the 19thcentury in all aspects. Unique, yet so commonplace personages by Gogol reveal both virtues and mostly vices of the society which has been subject to not so many changes through 150 years. Praised not only by ordinary readers, but also by fellow writers, Nikolai Gogol became an inspirer for a range of successors. The phenomenon of Gogol even expands beyond the domain of literature. Gogol has become a cultural brand through ages and penetrated into other spheres of social life.