Nikolai Gogol:

The Other 19th Century Narrator

“…only then did he realize he was not in the middle of a sentence, but in the middle of the street”
The Overcoat, (1842)

When deliberating over a writer or a particular literary work to write an appreciation of, the first thoughts for me were artists from within the ‘European Existential’ tradition. I take this term from James Kelman’s essay “And the judges said…” where he cited this as the tradition in literature that he has identified most closely with – and chooses to write within when creating his own fiction.

Kelman’s affinity with the European Existential appears to originate, at least in part, from its repudiation of the aesthetic values of the 19th century novel – specifically the grand narratives of the Victorian age. This movement is generally regarded as beginning with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground in 1864, and can be said to apply to such novels as Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Camus’ The Outsider (1942), and Kelman’s own How Late It Was, How Late (1994). In a 2013 article on Kelman, the American critic James Wood cited Hamsun, Kafka, and Beckett as being the central figures of this tradition.

From the existentialist perspective, novels such as the aforementioned three are united by a set of artistic principles which were established in Notes from Underground, and have been implemented in various ways since. These principles were discussed by Jean Paul Sartre in an essay in 1947:

“…if we wished to give an account of our age… we had to people our books with minds that were half lucid and half overcast... but none of which would have a privileged point of view either upon the event or upon itself… We had to leave doubts, expectations, and the unachieved throughout our works, leaving it up to the reader to conjecture for himself by giving him the feeling, without giving him or letting him guess our feeling, that his view of the plot and the characters was merely one among many others…

…The novels of our elders related the event as having taken place in the past. Chronological order permitted the reader to see the logical and universal relationship, the eternal verities. The slightest change was already understood. A past was delivered to us which had already been thought through…

…We did not want to delight our public with its superiority to a dead world – we wanted to take it by the throat. Let every character be a trap, let the reader be caught in it, and let him be tossed from one consciousness to another as from one absolute and irremediable universe to another similarly absolute; let him be uncertain of the very uncertainty of the heroes…” Sartre pp165-67

It is from these rudimentary aesthetic principles – that can be easily derived from this short passage (ie, what they oppose and how they may operate in prose) – that I came to an understanding of a writer who lies outside of this tradition, Nikolai Gogol. By examining certain aspects of his writing with reference to the Sartre excerpt above, I hope to demonstrate the correlations between the existential and the ‘Gogolian’. Although Gogol’s methods of execution are very different, there are similarities in intention and outcome that are interesting to explore. His bizarre and wonderful short stories of the 1830s and 40s combat many of the same aesthetic problems as occupied Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, and more in the decades that followed. And although Gogol was working with surreality and comedy in a way these writers were not, he can be viewed as having ‘solved’ many of the same problems – via alternative solutions to those provided by existentialism.

Gogol’s love of folk tales as rendered by the wandering storytellers of Russia and the Ukraine meant he was operating within an oral tradition that pre-dates what we know as ‘existentialism’ in fiction, but it is a medium which permitted him to register some of the same achievements that a writer such as Kafka would also manage later. Although Gogol did not ‘slay’ the Victorian narrator by anchoring ‘him’ to a single character’s consciousness, he still succeeds in having a text that is largely free from the façade of false objectivity, and from the omniscient authority and moralizing voice that the Victorian narrator would wield. Gogol’s narrators had an equal power and range, but it was used in an entirely different fashion and toward a different end. His “heedless disregard of all literary schools” and “complete disdain for form” (Setchkarev p132) were not mere aimless surrealism, but qualities which manifest themselves in several distinct ways (that I’ll go on to discuss), and which make him so intriguing to the contemporary reader who, like Kelman, is drawn to existentialist literature.

The classic nineteenth century narrator, as found in so many novels of the times (particularly in Victorian England), possesses a handful of key characteristics. Invariably, the narrator is omniscient, retrospectively controlling a story and its characters from a secure vantage-point in the future – most likely the armchair next to the one occupied by Thackeray in whichever gentlemans’ club he frequented.

Such a narrator can not only infiltrate the mind of any character, major or minor, at any time and scoop out their innermost (yet usually highly pertinent and convenient) thoughts, but will also nudge the reader towards a particular opinion or moral through kindly colouring the narrative to suit the authorial agenda.

This was the dominant narrative mode, certainly throughout the mid-nineteenth century, and it isn't really till the more neutral, subtle narrators of Chekhov in the 1890s that there starts to be a decisive move away from the 'God-voice', the seemingly objective, all-knowing guiding hand of The Narrator (a move that was greatly accelerated by many modernist writers after the turn of the century).

Gogol, writing in the 1830s, chose not to utilize this form of narrator in his short fiction. As has been mentioned, Gogol's connection to an oral tradition of folk tales and popular myths is said to have motivated his use of a mode known as 'skaz' instead – a mode which relied on real people as the vessels for the story, as progenitors and performers, and may also explain his consistent refusal to imbue his narrators with Victorian infallibility. A definition of 'skaz' is given in an article on Gogol's The Overcoat, written by Daniel Rancour-Laferriere:

“[skaz]… replaces the author with a fictional narrator who tells the story in his, the narrator's, own words. With respect to the telling of the story, skaz is conceived to be specifically oral in its stylistic organization, ie. designed to produce the illusion of spontaneous, 'living' speech. With respect to the teller of the story, it is conceived to be individualized, ie. it reproduces or imitates speech characteristic for a given individual human being.” Rancour-Laferriere p17

This definition is refined (or corrected, in my view) by Elizabeth Trahan, who makes the informed distinction that 'skaz' does not equate to an attempt at transcription:

“Skaz… is commonly defined as the written reproduction of an individualized oral narration… skaz is for Eikhenbaum a highly complex and ingenious verbal game, contrived and artificial, rather than an attempt at conveying the illusion of a faithful reproduction of oral narration.” Trahan p34

Examples of how Gogol employs skaz will elucidate his choice of narrative style:

“'What a shame! Don't worry, I won't lose any sleep over it!' Ivan Nikiforovich replied.

He was lying, lying. God, how he was lying! He was really very upset.” The Two Ivans, p42

“Whom all this went to, God only knows, and the author of this story confesses that he is not even interested.” The Overcoat, p168

“However, if anyone really wants to know what happened in the end, all he has to do is go to Gadyach and ask Stepan Ivanovich” Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt, p4

“It's a great pity I haven't time to describe it in detail” Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt, p24

What is immediately striking from these brief excerpts are the informality of the register, the explicit commentary on the act of storytelling/writing, and the extent to which this is a characterized narrator whose personality shapes the direction of the tale (ie, no pretence of detached neutrality). Of particular value is the first quotation cited, which serves to underline the difference between the standard 19th century third-person narrator and Gogol's 'skaz' equivalent. When this narrator states 'God how he was lying! He was really very upset', this does not carry the same intended weight of 'truth' or the same appearance of concrete fact, as a formal statement to that effect made by the narrator of Vanity Fair would. This remark has the impression of emanating from the narratorial consciousness, of being a perception or an assumption, simply a strong opinion on the matter at hand. Actually, it could be taken in context to imply that the narrator knows this to be true from subsequent conversation with Ivan Nikiforovich, or from hearsay/majority opinion, so immersed within the fabric of the story-world are these narrators.

Although Gogol's skaz-storytellers do hold the same level of authority over the text as an omniscient and (apparently) non-characterized narrator, a cardinal point of difference is that the Gogolian narrator, as in the comment on Ivan Nikiforovich, is only trying to give the truth of that story, and even then it is a highly subjective ‘truth’. They do not attempt to give the truth of a country or a people, nor a universal truth of any sort (the type of authorial intervention summarily made in the classic 19th century novel, where even the best novelists of the times will often lean into the text and ‘make points’). Narrative statements do not appear to be constructed with an authorial agenda in mind, and so are not delivered to the reader as a fact for his/her unquestioning consumption. Gogol's narrators are our bumbling, forgetful, biased, loquacious guides through his worlds, and they’re one of the features which make his fiction so innovative:

“ of the ironies of the genre is that a tale told by an 'inept' narrator posits the need for a sophisticated reader.” Peace p147

The sophisticated reader is required, not just for interpreting the various behaviours of narrators and their impact on the events and characters of the story, but also to engage with how Gogol uses narration to subtly give his characters life over and above the literal, and to play with both language and with reader expectations. Rancour-Laferriere cited the work of Vinogradov in considering this issue:

“(Vinogradov [1926,66] spoke of speech peculiarities and defects constantly oscillating back and forth between the narrator and the characters in Gogol's writing). Speech features of Akaky Akakievich's direct discourse 'contaminate' the indirect discourse in such a way as to convince us that it is really Akaky Akakievich speaking, without however actually subjecting us to Akaky's painfully stumbling speech habits.” Rancour-Laferriere p108

Unfortunately, some of this 'contamination' has been eradicated by translators (see Addendum), but there is still some evidence to be found. That which remains leads Gogol to something akin to free indirect discourse – a style of narration often used by Kafka and by Kelman.

“...he would sit down at the table, quickly swallow his cabbage soup, and eat some beef and onions, tasting absolutely nothing and gulping everything down, together with whatever the Good Lord happened to provide at the time, flies included.” p144

“Early next morning he went to the Superintendent's house but was told that he was asleep. He returned at ten o'clock, but was informed that he was still asleep. He came back at eleven, and was told that he had gone out.” p161

“...that he had come to ask the Important Person's help, so that through his influence, or by doing this or that, by writing to the Chief of Police or someone else (whoever it might be), the Important Person might get his overcoat back for him.” p165

In each instance, a different narrative nuance is shown, in accordance with Vinogradov's observation. On page 144, it is not certain whether the 'Good Lord' is the narrator's phrase or Akaky's, but it does have the feel of the character's voice and vernacular inflecting upon the narrative and giving an insight into Akaky's benevolent, unthinking ways. His lack of articulation, lack of presence, and docility are conveyed by the muted, repetitious, ineffectual sentences on p161. And his odd, stunted style of speech which the narrator comments on elsewhere, is being demonstrated indirectly by the rambling, indirect clauses that string together at the end of the extract from p165 - 'doing this or that', 'someone else (whoever that might be)'.

Gogol's only story written in the first-person is Diary of a Madman, a complex, layered narrative, where the premise is that the reader must infer from the diary-writer Poprishchin's statements, what the reality of the story actually is. This story will be considered in more detail elsewhere in this study, but some points on the narrative style are essential to note.

The foremost distinguishing feature of this first-person Gogolian narrative (as set against his third-person style) is that we no longer have the chatty and opinionated narrator to pass comment on characters and events. Where there would be conjecture and bias, there are now blanks, and actions being taken without the stimuli for them being noted at all. Without a committed storyteller between the story and the recipient, there is only the void of complete subjectivity.

Consider this section from the diary entry of November 6th, near the beginning of the story:

“The head of the department was in a terrible mood. When I got to the office he called me in and took this line with me: 'Will you please tell me what your game is?' 'Why, nothing,' I answered. 'Are you sure? Think hard! You're past forty now, and it's time you had a bit more sense. Who do you think you are? Do you imagine I haven't heard about your tricks?'” p179

There is no mention in the diary of what precipitated this incident what Poprishchin's understanding is of the 'tricks' mentioned, nor what his reaction to this confrontation was at the time. After the Head of Dept's monologue ends, Poprishchin is immediately back in the present of the act of diary-writing, retrospectively ridiculing him in return: 'the way he holds his head up and smothers his hair in pomade!' p179.

Gogol later uses this technique even more effectively: “The cloak is ready now. Mavra screamed when I put it on.” (p192) This omission of any description or explication allows the reader to see the truth via the gap between the focalizing character's knowledge and the 'actual' reality in the story-world. We cannot know what the cloak looks like and although the narrator is oblivious, Mavra's reaction is an obvious and powerful signifier of the state that has been reached in the real world that surrounds this diary. As Sartre stated, great fiction is populated by 'minds that were half lucid and half overcast', exactly like our pompous diary scribe, who is unwilling or unable (or both) to confront the truths of his situation.

Movement is another interesting feature to consider in Gogol's fiction, the methods he employs in moving from paragraph to paragraph, his temporal shifts, “scene changes”, and switches in perspective. One of the things advocated by Sartre in the introductory quotation is an increase in the vividness, autonomy, and importance of character ('Let every character be a trap, let the reader be caught in it'). If the story is drawn closer to character, it means pulling away further from authorial control, from the presence of the writer in the work. It necessitates the narrative having a strong sense of being predicated on the consciousness and emotions and motivations of a character, as opposed to the more purposeful, manipulating hand of an author. This preference for the character-led narrative was to combat the problem, found so often in nineteenth century writing, of the plotted novel, where artfully-manufactured “scenes” are enacted, and then departed from at the optimum moment of high drama – ensuring a rapid, contrived shift of setting, which is intended to build suspense. The more overtly that narrative movements are controlled by a supposedly objective third-person narrator, the more a work of fiction strays from the existential ideal of true experiential rendering of a lived life. This is a topic which still piques great contemporary writers:

“We zoom away from the lived consciousness of the character for the sake of some greater dramatic effect in the narrative. The form conspires to make falseness. It's a sort of inhuman denial of the character. Essentially it's a pose, it's the narrative voice adapting the great, pseudo/ahistorical, supposedly neutral reporting of facts. It comes from 19th century narrative… 'On Tuesday it rained and she did not leave the house but on Wednesday she decided to cross the moor and visit him again. She set off...” Alan Warner, thi wurd issue #2

“I never write 'set-pieces' and I object to the use of the term in my work.” James Kelman, Edinburgh Review 71

“...suddenly you have this sort of nice switch – well, not a switch – it's a written from the wee girl, right, the daughter. For instance the father goes away and you get the next chapter beginning, 'When he came back…' and you think 'Fuck, what happened with all the amazing bit.'” James Kelman, Edinburgh Review 71

Movement is of the utmost importance to the truth and the effectiveness of a prose narrative, and as both writers note, it is a distinguishing feature of much past fiction that third-person narrators, through their “pose” of sincere depiction, contrive stories and serve to damage the artistic integrity of the narrative.

Gogol, writing 150 years or so earlier than Kelman and Warner, seemed acutely aware of the same issues, the same contrivances, the same pretence. In an era before recognizably ‘existential’ concepts were to make their way into popular fiction, Gogol did not respond to this issue by anchoring his narratives tightly to their focalizing characters, as in the fashion of Warner's Morvern Callar or Kelman's Patrick Doyle. Instead he elected to confront these conventions directly and poke fun at the conventions themselves, their frivolity and their falseness. Rather than labour over the creation of a narrative movement which would succeed in smooth transition and maintain a solemn presentation of the ‘facts’ of the story, Gogol uses his characterized narrator to make a joke of the concept, and of the reader, with brazenly ludicrous switches.

An example is from one of the lesser-known stories, The Carriage, as identified and analysed by Setchkarev:

“ introduce into the story unmotivated new elements; in this way his transitions become much more natural. When he wants to switch from description to narrative action he writes: 'It is very regrettable that I cannot recall for what reason the brigadier general had to give a great dinner; the preparation for it were tremendous…' Instead of thinking up a reason and thus ponderously delaying the development of the events, Gogol usually achieves an effortless transition, with a brief reference to his forgetfulness, which makes it possible for him to immediately continue with the story in the new mode; moreover, there is no doubt about the insufficiency of the 'reason' given.” Setchkarev p163

Although Gogol has not pulled the narrative closer to the character as the existential writers would later do, the outcome is the same in that the obvious hand of the classic third-person narrator has been removed, and now the story is seemingly in the more haphazard control of a character/characterized narrator.

A more famous instance of this occurs several times in The Nose:

“Ivan Yakovlevich turned pale… But at this point everything became so completely enveloped in mist it is really impossible to say what happened afterwards.” p116

This may seem like simply a brilliant, humorous movement of Gogol's invention, but it can surely be regarded as a critique, a ridiculing, an attack once more on the nature of popular fiction. If writers were insisting on the facade, the “pose” to again use Warner’s phrase, of realism while the author was implementing switches for “greater dramatic effect” between what Kelman called “set-pieces”, then Gogol would attack this by making the most fantastic, heavy-handed, absurd movement possible – only a step away from the classic joke ending, 'then he woke up and it had all been a dream' (which was actually the original conclusion to The Nose before Gogol culled it in an edit!).

This can be perceived as Gogol fighting the same narrative battle as the likes of Sartre and Camus, except by utilizing very different weapons. Robert Maguire stated that:

“This fog, or the impossibility of providing a logical explanation and motivation for the story, shows us the resistance to rationality which Gogol, with extraordinary skill, introduces as an active element in the story.” Yermakov p184, Maguire(ed)

The 'fog' transitions were a structural manifestation of this 'resistance to rationality', and this ‘resistance’ was a principle of Gogol's that was often of wider and more immediate concern in his narratives. As has been established, Gogol almost exclusively refrained from having his tales' protagonists as their narrators. Only in one of the major stories is a first-person narrator used, Diary of a Madman. However it is surely telling that even within the direct closeness of this narrative style, critics have still asserted that the work is very clearly borne of Gogol's approach to psychology:

“...the phenomenon of Poprishchin's inner world are reminiscent of the bizarre kaleidoscope of objects which Gogol elsewhere seeks to present as outward reality… In Gogol the external world is always to some degree 'psychological'”. Peace p130

This terrain, the inner and outer worlds, will be discussed in more detail with regard to Gogol's characterization; itself a 'bizarre kaleidoscope'.

Character is the most radical point of divergence between the work of Gogol and existential fiction. Each of the three novels cited in the introduction ('Hunger', 'The Outsider', 'How Late It Was, How Late') are models for how an existential novel works with character – the narrative comes from within, or very close to, the protagonist, therefore the protagonist is revealed through inner thoughts, emotions, and outward interactions, leading to a sophisticated psychological depiction of depth, of voice, of contradiction – in short, of a human in the immediate act of 'being'.

Other characters certainly feature in these novels and are developed through interaction and via the protagonist's perception of them, but these secondary characters can never be “known” in the same way; as in life, all access is denied to a competing consciousness (a theory known as the ‘Unknowability of the Other’, hereafter referred to as ‘Unknowability’). The reader must struggle onwards without the tentacles of the 19th century narrator, who could reach over and pluck out some thoughts from the periphery at the most opportune moments.

Like Hamsun's unnamed narrator, like the stranger Mersault, like the blind Samuels, Gogol's main characters were often those on the margins of society, wanderers lost in a world that wasn't making sense – Akaky Akakievich, the muted clerk of The Overcoat, and the lonely young artist Piskaryov who dreams of saving a prostitute from herself (Nevsky Prospekt) to name but two.

However, Gogol rarely ventures into the confines of a character's skull, and when he does, it is almost always via the subjective filter of a characterized yet remote narrator, simultaneously a person and a disembodied voice who does not interact in the story, in tune with the oral storytellers of his heritage (Diary of a Madman being the exception, as mentioned). Whenever such a voyage is made into a character's consciousness, it doesn’t elevate that character above others on account of the greater understanding given by this psychic access as in the existential tradition, but the narrator, the teller of stories, will summarily tell of the feelings of another central character within the same section – a style which is, on a surface level, more in alignment with the great omniscient novels of the 19th century.

It may be valuable to note the culture in which Gogol was writing, in order to understand why he chose to utilize characters in such a fashion:

“Russia had not experienced the Renaissance. There had been no Russian Shakespeare or Montaigne to proclaim the richness and complexity of the human personality and its superiority to the rigid abstractions of medieval dogma… protagonists were not ordinary human beings, but exemplars of a caste: princes, heroes, saints; and the same is true of the oral tradition… the dominant ethic promulgated by literature was not the sanctity of the human individual, but the inviolability of higher, more eternal laws. Literature reflected the values of the literate, which meant, in effect, the landowning classes, who, through economic necessity, were debarred from regarding the vast majority of their fellow countrymen as full human beings” Peace pp2-3

It is evident that Gogol lived in a time and place where beliefs in humanity, equality, and psychology did not hold the same importance as they would in the generations to come. Gogol's family owned serfs when he was growing up, and he was known as a political conservative, favouring a traditional way of life.

Yet it would be wrong to assume on this basis that Gogol viewed those on the lower socio-economic rungs or on the outskirts of mainstream society as unworthy of cognitive exploration. Not only are many of the characters he paints most harshly some of his most comparatively successful and well-adjusted people (the buffoon Kovalyov from The Nose, the pompous Ivan Ivanovich of The Two Ivans), but there are various moments in the short fiction where Gogol emphasizes that assumptions can never be made about the interior workings of anyone's mind:

“You think that the enthusiastic character waving his arms about is telling of how his wife threw a ball out of the window at some officer who was a complete stranger to him? Not a bit of it… he’s discussing Lafayette.” Nevsky Prospekt, p112

This quotation has a parallel with Unrelated Incidents, a poem by Tom Leonard, where the narrator is enjoying what is perceived as the pleasures of the working-class man (ale and football) while listening to what is perceived as the music of the 'higher' class, a classical symphony.

Gogol may not have focused his narratives on the mental processes of his central characters, but nor does he relegate them to the status of stereotyped and convenient authorial chess-pieces. Richard Peace has elaborated on this point with reference to the Russian critic Likhachev – Likhachev's remark on the baroque style of the 17th century which is known to have heavily influenced Gogol:

“The inner life of man interested the writer only in its outward manifestations” Likhachev p10, Peace

Whereas Peace himself noted:

“...he, too, shows concern for external features but very little interest in the inner life of most of his characters. It would, however, be completely erroneous to think that Gogol shuns all psychology… His method is, as Likhachev puts it: ‘psychology without psychology’ (psikhologiya bez psikhologii)” Peace, p11

Gogol's approach to psychological revelation in his writing has already been discussed with respect to his narrators (the reactions of others to Poprishchin being powerful signifiers of his psychological state), but it is also important to consider how this impacts on his more direct forms of characterization. An apt summation of psikhologiya bez psikhologii could be ably defined as characters who are “..without psychological processes, yet subjected to grave psychological stress.” (Peace p282) Gogol consistently thrusts his characters into difficult, dark, demeaning, emotionally-charged life situations (often in similar predicaments to the characters of Kafka) and these situations are then examined through external action and reaction, via the perceptions of the opinionated narrator.

A point to note is that Gogol's refusal to focus on the internal does not appear to stem from a plan to simply move his 'chess-pieces' around a plot with a minimum consideration for their faculties and feelings. It can be argued this style actually aligns him quite forcefully with existential thought – though rather than ‘Unknowability of the Other’, his theory could be distilled more accurately as the Unknowability of the Self, of Anyone, even of the Human. The narrator of The Overcoat states (regarding the main/focalizing character Akaky Akakievich):

“Perhaps he was not thinking this at all, for it is impossible to probe deep into a man’s soul and discover all his thoughts” The Overcoat, p158

The reader has to wonder if this is not a rare and fleeting moment of direct authorial expression within Gogol, rather than the usual narratorial musing, as this statement could certainly be said to apply to the vast majority of his work. Gogol appears to be respecting the inviolability, the sovereignty, of his character’s interior, which is radically different from allowing an almighty narrator’s mentality to dominate the narrative above and beyond the characters’ inferior, smaller minds.

Another essential component of Gogol's characters is in the way he used and the emphasis he placed on holding up the common devices of characterization for critique and ridicule. The subject of his derision seems to be not only conventions of fiction and their expression on the page, but also the implication that such devices are part of a 'realism' where people are satisfactorily defined by a few 'telling' details. I'm not aware of whether Gogol was a reader of Goethe, but it does appear that Gogol was building on Goethe's statement in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), regarding the inability of words to adequately represent a person:

“Everything I am telling you about her is fearful twaddle, tiresome abstractions that do not express a single trait of her being.” p36

Of course, rather than merely state this as Goethe's Werther did, the Gogolian narrator is more playful and more acerbic regarding these 'tiresome abstractions', and those who use them. Readers of fiction, especially 19th century novels, are familiar with the tropes of conventional characterization, where a character is introduced by the narrator, and briefly described so that their physical characteristics will bear a direct (stereotyped) correlation to their personality type (eg: small frail woman with mousey-brown hair = submissive yet compassionate wife, large man with red hair = a fiery temper and flying fists, and other such dull, reductive rubbish), along with perhaps a quirky, telling detail that succinctly defines their character and comes to bear within the story (eg: the person who talks over others continually is later found to have no confidence and nothing to say), etc.

Although this style may seem slightly antiquated now (though not in all genres of course), it was certainly a primary mode of characterization in the fiction of the times. Gogol's version of this can be seen in The Nose:

“This doctor was a handsome man with fine whiskers as black as pitch, and a fresh-looking, healthy wife. Every morning he used to eat apples and was terribly meticulous about keeping his mouth clean, spending at least three quarters of an hour rinsing it out every day and using five different varieties of toothbrush to polish his teeth. He came right away.” The Nose, p132

The doctor's involvement in the story lasts one page. He examines Kovalyov's face, advises him his nose cannot be reattached, and leaves. His physical appearance and the vigour of his wife have no relevance to or effect on the text whatsoever. The details of his apple-eating and oral hygiene are well-chosen, in that they tell us absolutely nothing of value about a character who is not developed or involved other than a perfunctory medical examination. It would appear that Gogol is deliberately inserting ludicrous details in the style and manner of classic fiction, posing questions about the validity of using such methods to represent a person within a text.

This is done more directly in The Overcoat :

“Of course, there is not much point in wasting our time describing this tailor, but since it has become the accepted thing to give full details about every single character in a story, there is nothing for it but to take a look at this man Petrovich… As we have now brought his wife up we might as well say a couple of words about her. Unfortunately, little is known about her except that she was Petrovich’s wife and she wore a bonnet instead of a shawl.” The Overcoat, p147

A section which was interpreted very astutely by the Russian critic Setchkarev:

“The narrator is now obliged to describe the wife – he had inadvertently revealed the fact of her existence by a slip of the tongue. We are told that she did exist, that she wore bonnets, that she apparently could not boast of her beauty, and that she had trouble bringing the low prices of her husband up to a normal level – a strange sort of realism! It is always the same in Gogol: he knows how to arrange details in such a way that they awaken the impression of realism – he is not at all concerned with the exact reproduction of reality at which the realists aimed.” Setchkarev p219

The obligation to give a couple of details of the wife, and the reluctant recognition of having to fulfil this obligation despite the inanity of doing so are very clear signs of Gogol's critique of the modes of fictive characterization popular in that era.

Indeed, his emphasis on these details and their ultimate lack of resonance or success in actually conveying a real, full-bodied human being can be viewed as motivating Gogol's reduction of people within his stories to literally nothing more than such details.

“Here you will encounter waists beyond your wildest dreams – slender and narrow, no thicker than the neck of a bottle, at the sight of which you step respectfully to one side for fear of inadvertently nudging them with an impolite elbow.” Nevsky Prospekt, p81

“These moustaches were everywhere in view. If the women of the town gathered at the market with their jugs, a moustache was always to be glimpsed behind their shoulders.” The Carriage, p198

The first quotation is from Nevsky Prospekt, and Gogol's reduction of people to details and objects in this story has been the subject of some sustained analysis within Gogolian criticism:

“It is not people who throng the street, it appears, but shoes, boots, sleeves, moustaches, whiskers, swords. It is not merely that such objects characterise people: they have actually replaced them… The use of synecdoche says much about Gogol’s attitude to characterisation: people in the story are presented in a purely external way; they are assessed by their exteriors. The narrator’s imagination sees objects instead of human beings… His imagination, however, does not strive to penetrate; it does not treat the façade as a key to unlock the inner personality of the wearer of these clothes, these swords, these whiskers etc., quite the reverse: the narrator’s imagination uses such externals as a starting point to move outwards towards fantasy, towards a view of the world which becomes increasingly more grotesque.” Peace p98

It is suggested here that Gogol's purpose for characterization was something very different from verisimilitude. The constant appearance of disembodied human attributes in Gogol's writing could well have had root in the view that people are multifarious, troubled, inexplicable entities, driven by both the conscious and the subconscious, the rational and the biological, as demonstrated by the teacher in Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt:

“After this he gave Ivan Fyodorovich a severe and very painful caning on the hands. According to his reasoning the hands alone were guilty, since they had taken the pancake and no other part of the body should therefore be punished.” pp5-6

There is also the possibility that Gogol was not making a reasoned decision to reduce people in this way in order to make any specific point, but that he, as a person and not just as an artist, simply felt unable to indulge in serious, sustained, realistic evaluations of the human psyche. Gogol never demonstrated any concerted effort in crafting stories which touched on the vagaries of human relationships, but The Overcoat has been perceived as somewhat of a love story (despite the lack of a female lead):

“Only by making the woman an inanimate object was Gogol able to write his tender and affecting romance between a man and a garment.” p140, ‘The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol’

There is quite a leap in attesting that The Overcoat is a romance, but the assertion here that it's the only way in which Gogol could even come close to such a story is indicative of why he remains such a strange, perplexing, brilliant writer to consider. A love story by its very nature demands two people, and the scepticism with which Gogol treats methods of characterization suggests a feeling that these methods are, if insufficient to permit the genuine expression of one human soul, most certainly not equipped for the task of adequately presenting two in unison.

Diary of a Madman is the story where Gogol does venture inside the mind of the character, Poprishchin, and this is why the story is cited as a model for Dostoyevsky, who can be seen as the initiator of existentialist fiction (there are various similarities between Diary of a Madman and Notes from Underground). It is in Poprishchin we do see fully-realized aspects of a character that seem all too human – the ego, the delusion, the suppressed desires, the emotions, the hopes. Here the reader doesn't know if Poprishchin has black or red whiskers on his face or whether he brushes his teeth five times a day or not, the conventional tropes are replaced by the rendering of a consciousness.

Gogol commits to this rendering to the extent that it borders on an examination of the schizophrenic mind:

“Not the least remarkable thing about Diary of a Madman is that this tale, told by a madman and a dog, contains some of Gogol’s most believable and real human beings, including the dogs.”
Karlinsky, p122

The dogs narrate the story briefly via Poprishchin copying the contents of letters supposedly written by them, in an attempt to keep a comprehensive account of all that is ocurring. The voices and opinions of the dogs are of course aspects and projections of Poprishchin's mind; a mind that may be deteriorating rapidly but is doing so in the fashion of an imploding star, producing ever more fantastical entries.

In my view, it is the closing section of 'Diary' that remains the most significant moment of characterization for Gogol. In the final entry (with its garbled nonsense of a date title), Poprishchin at last snaps into lucidity, realizing he has been imprisoned and tortured, and calls for his mother:

“No, I haven't the strength to endure it any longer! Good God, what are they doing to me? They're pouring cold water over my head! They don't heed me, see me or listen to me. What have I done to them? Why do they torture me so? … Mother save your poor son! Shed a tear on his aching head! See how they're torturing him!… Mother, have pity on your poor little child!

And did you know that the Dhey of Algiers has a lump right under his nose?” p196

The reversion in the last line to his comic lack of awareness, the essence of his madness, can be read as Gogol's rejection of fiction where the characters 'learn' pre-conceived lessons through the events of the story. It is his understated and humorous means of asserting that man cannot be understood, defined, safely observed, cured of all ills. It could be argued that Gogol is in conflict with much of the fiction of the times in this regard, as the 19th century was an era where characters were often found to be caricatures with predictably consistent emotions and actions , moved around the plot like chess pieces, by an author who refused them the perspective and the humanity of a character like Poprishchin. Yet through the use of this very troubled first-party narrator, Gogol is certainly in alignment with Sartre's hopes and pleas for modern characterization: “...Let every character be a trap, let the reader be caught in it...”

Plot is perhaps the central feature of Gogol’s writing that sets him so far apart from his fellow writers of the first-half of the 19th century. Robert Maguire noted in the preface to his book, Exploring Gogol, that within the Gogol canon: “There were virtually no exciting or even very interesting plots of the kind that take us back again and again to Pushkin, Poe, and Dickens.” (Maguire, page ix) It is known that Gogol asked Pushkin and other friends to send him news of events from their lives, incidents, gossip, so that he could work them into stories. But these anecdotes were rarely developed into anything resembling a coherent literary ‘plot’ with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, and a linear progression through each.

Gogol’s stories all have the same basic structure – an existing peace is broken by a strange intervention, and afterwards a return to that previous state of stasis is found to be impossible. Within this structure, Gogol plays with traditional notions of plot, presumably to see if a piece of fiction could succeed as prose-art while refusing to conform – indeed Boris Eikhenbaum believed that Gogol used “one single comic situation… as a mere impetus or pretext for an elaboration of comic devices” (Trahan p21). This suggests that it is the mode of telling the story that holds the importance over and above the actual content of the story itself – a value present throughout much of 20th/21st century narrative.

Considering some of these plots should provide an insight into how little credence Gogol gave to the contemporary view of ‘story’. In Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt, the narrator begins the tale by explaining that this rendering of a story he had written down will be incomplete because his cook ripped out and used some of the later pages in the kitchen, but advises the reader to go and ask an acquaintance of his, Stepan Ivanovich, for the rest, as he has a better memory and so will recall the concluding part (as quoted on p6 of this article). The story ends on the line: “Meanwhile Auntie had hatched a new plan which you will learn more about in the next chapter” – which stands as the closing sentence of the last page that was not destroyed by the cook. This isn’t just a minimal plot, it is very clearly a wilful subversion of what fiction was at that time. Rather than simply being open to interpretation (as Sartre advocated), Gogol is going a step further and calling into question the validity of presenting something which can be readily interpreted, and what the value of such an interpretation would be. This story is incomplete, but the question of whether it will still work as a piece of fiction is posited by its half-formed plot.

Gogol’s other stories do not possess the same manufactured lack of closure, but his plots never have the feeling of being complete, rounded, concluded narratives, and certainly could never be perceived as being complex plots, in the 19th century novelistic fashion. The famous story, The Overcoat, is said to have been adapted from an anecdote that Gogol heard about a civil servant who lost his prized hunting rifle, spent time saving up the money for a replacement, then went duck shooting with the new piece and lost it immediately in the water (an alternative point of origin is said to derive from the story The Demon by Pavlov) [Karlinsky p138]. In Gogol's story the object of the incident is a coat rather than a rifle, and the search leads to the death of the subject, the lowly clerk Akaky Akakievich, who passes away after his attempts to regain his stolen garment are brutally rebuffed by an ‘Important Person’. Gogol closes the story by turning this apparently realistic account of Akaky’s life into a supernatural ghost story, as a spectre roams around St Petersburg stealing overcoats. The narrator even remarks upon the “fantastic turn this otherwise authentic story has taken.” (p170)

It seems apparent that Gogol was waging a personal artistic assault on the mock-sincerity and solemnity of the logical trajectory built into works of fiction, and similar inferences can be drawn from other stories, from the nonsensical nature of The Nose, the triviality of The Carriage, and so on.

However, it would not be accurate to assert that Gogol’s rejection of conventional plotlines meant that his short fiction was merely a series of formless absurdities. Victor Erlich identified How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich as having a distinct purpose in its design, stating that the “flimsy” plot perfectly conveyed the “pointlessness” (Erlich p71) of provincial Russian life, and that only the desire for a petty vengeance motivated these men out of their stupor – an interpretation of the ‘meaning’ of the plot originating from the form, but which is not unambiguously built into the story, nor articulated and explicated by an intrusive, infallible guiding voice.

A fundamental point to the Sartre extract given earlier is his belief that the modern novel, the novel of the existential experience, could no longer present to the reader a pre-programmed, fixed meaning; that a novel should be exploration as opposed to a didactic medium used to deliver a message directly from the author’s subjectivity.

This is without question a tenet that Gogol considered of absolute importance to his work, long before writers like Chekhov and Kafka led a determined move away from the implanted ‘meaning’ within the novel. In spite of how Gogol worked with the fantastic and the ridiculous in his fiction, originally he was considered a Realist by readers in 19th century Russia, who used the famous ‘I am your brother’ section of The Overcoat to claim Gogol as a fervent defender of the rights of man and of social equality. Later generations of critics rounded on this assumption, declaring that “nothing was further from his mind” (Setchkarev p218).

In fact, it has been proposed that the apparently humane content of that section (where the focalizing character, Akaky Akakievich, muses on how there is no feeling of brotherhood among men) is no more than a deception on the reader:

“An artistic device which transforms the comic story into a grotesque and which prepares the way for the ‘fantastic’ ending is accepted as the sincere intervention of the ‘soul’. Such deception may be a ‘triumph of art’ as Karamzin put it… [Eikhenbaum p31, Trahan]

…The pathetic passage had only a structural function: ‘In the midst of this unrestrained flow of words this solemnity stands as a stylistic source of tension that prepares the way for the fantastic conclusion’” [Nilsson p61, Trahan]

Gogol gives the impression of a story that is to have an inherent theme or message, but modern analysts assess this as being used as a device to facilitate the dark twists of the story to come. The sobering effect of Akaky’s last direct involvement in the narrative is surely heightened, if the reader does have the premonition of an affirming tale of the brotherhood of man in mind:

“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on without its Akaky Akakievich just as though he had never even existed.” The Overcoat, p168

There are not many phrases (or moments) in literature less reassuring than a hero being ‘carted away and buried’. And the subsequent shift towards a supernatural story further wrong-foots the reader, leaving a sense of incomprehensibility and irresolution once the ghost has disappeared into the night. The structure of the story and the techniques utilized have the appearance of a rejection of ‘meaning’, a rejection of the type of literary analysis that can reduce any fiction to a kernel of well-defined, well-worn meaning, such as ‘I am your brother’.

In other stories, a more philosophical meaning has been discerned through the struggles of Gogol’s characters. Heinz Wissemann wrote in an essay on The Overcoat that Gogol’s intention was: “to develop a theme intrinsic to his philosophy of life, the problem of man’s ‘own place’” (Wissemann p86, Trahan). Various critics at different times have elaborated on this notion – Robert Maguire quotes Richard Peace as stating that the argument over possession of an ornamental rifle, the basis of the story The Two Ivans, is actually a conflict over “one’s fundamental place in the world” (in this case, which man merits the lustre of a military connection) (p48 Maguire). Maguire goes on to say:

“As Gogol sees madness, it means a failure to find one’s proper place, or the compulsion to occupy a place to which one is not entitled.” Maguire p49

This statement leads Maguire to focus on Gogol’s great tale of a man without a place, Diary of a Madman. Maguire’s formalist reading of the story touches on several interesting areas:

“...he is a mere copyist, doing what everyone else of his rank does. Were he to resign or die, he would be instantly replaced. His replaceability shows that his official place is not a true place in the Gogolian sense; for… true place is unique place. The diary, however, is his own creation, in his own language, a record of a private self… he is chronically dissatisfied, indeed acutely wretched most of the time. This is evidence of his awareness that a world does exist independently of what he is capable of registering in his diary. He fears it, tries to flee it, but knows that it is essential to finding his proper place. He acknowledges its presence in various ways, most notably through the device of letters written by the dog Madgie to her friend Fido.” Maguire pp52-3

If we view this excerpt in terms of 'meaning', the parallels with Sartre's statement are very clear. The first point, echoing the lack of importance of the death of Akaky Akakievich, reinforces the absence of a 'grand narrative' here, as there is no real significance to the protagonist or his existence. He is no 'hero' figure, his life does not flow with the resonance or meaning of any grand design – he is a loner, scuttling around this modern world, overlooked and useless, until death means only that the desk will be occupied with another clerk. The solitary feature that makes the account of his life into a 'story' is how the diary functions to allow a view into the character's mind. There isn't a kind and sagacious narrator explaining his psychological decline, instead it is rendered on the page, for the reader to decode and interpret. If there is a meaning to be deciphered from this account, it is in how Poprishchin struggles to understand the process by which ‘places’ are conferred in this world, his uncertainty over how ‘meaning’ can be attached to a human being:

“And what if he is a gentleman of the court? It’s only a kind of distinction conferred on you, not something that you can see, or touch with your hands. A court chamberlain doesn’t have a third eye in the middle of his forehead, and his nose isn’t made of gold either. It’s just like mine or anyone else’s: he uses it to sneeze or sniff with, but not for eating or coughing. Several times I’ve tried to discover the reason for these differences. Why am I just a titular counsellor? Perhaps I’m really a count or a general and am merely imagining I’m a titular counsellor?” Diary of a Madman, p187

It is this questioning of the meaning of titles, how these words define him in the real world and whether he could force a change to 'being' something else entirely, that precipitates his disintegration in which, to my mind, may be Gogol's funniest, most tragic, most brilliantly-constructed work.

Stories such as Diary of a Madman and The Overcoat are viewed by many as the “initiation of the great modern tradition of writing about the solitary and vulnerable individual being rejected or threatened by a dehumanized collective” (Karlinsky p144). Karlinsky noted this subject-matter is “one of the main themes of Franz Kafka” (p47), and links The Overcoat to existentialist works such as Notes from Underground and The Trial. Although again it is important to note that readings such as Karlinsky's are his interpretation of the form of the work, and of broad thematic concerns, not of specific literal or explicit elements of the stories: ie, at no point does a narrator openly lament the plight of the solitary, struggling worker. Readings of Diary of a Madman as a light-hearted farce or as a psychological profile of a man suffering an acute mental illness , or of The Overcoat as an exercise in the grotesque or even as a piece written in pursuit of social equality (as mentioned earlier) are also to be found, competing for credence within the body of Gogolian criticism.

The only real 'theme' or meaning that I felt arose in concrete form in Gogol's short fiction was his critique of the culture of rank and its centrality to that society. The basis for this feeling comes from a seemingly innocuous passage in The Nose:

“Kovalyov stretched himself and asked for the small mirror that stood on the table to be brought over to him… In a terrible panic Kovalyov asked for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel. No mistake about it: his nose had gone… He asked for his clothes and off he dashed straight to the Head of Police” pp146-7

What is striking about this section is the lack of response from sentences which would normally flow as Question – Response – Outcome, but in each case here the middle segment is omitted: “He asked for his clothes (Question) and off he dashed… (Outcome)”. Who provides the clothes, the mirror, the water here? Who is responding to these requests, and why are the interactions not recorded? This occurs on pp116-7 of the Penguin edition, and it was not until page 136 that a potential meaning for this odd phrasing emerged. On p136, Kovalyov's nose has reattached itself, and in the midst of asking for water to wash his face, he asks for the servant Ivan to confirm its sudden reappearance. It is clear that Ivan is present in Kovalyov's chamber, it is he who responds to these requests, but unless there is a special need for interaction with Ivan, he does not filter into Kovalyov's consciousness (and therefore not into the narrative either). When Ivan is 'in his place', he is a servant only, a muted hand to provide required objects, a stagehand in the production of Kovalyov's life.

I feel my interpretation of this technique is bolstered by other moments within Gogol's work where he draws out the ludicrous concept of rank in the Russia of the times. In The Overcoat, the 'Important Person' will not speak to anyone of lower rank, even though he would like to, as he finds the power disparity too confusing and awkward to negotiate. Considerations of rank are explored most often and most thoroughly through Kovalyov: he mentions the prestige of the ladies that he knows personally when arguing his need for a nose (p120), he notes that he doesn't mind insults directed at him personally but can't tolerate remarks against his rank (p128) and even after the servant Ivan has confirmed his nose is back in place, he still seeks the second opinion of a gentleman of his own class before he can feel assured that what Ivan says is true (p138). These instances of the focus on rank certainly exist within the texts, but assuming a fixed ‘position’ on the issue from Gogol is dangerous – it does remain possible that Gogol was merely invoking such moments for the purposes of characterization of his protagonists, for purely comic or stylistic ends. Indeed, Kovalyov's obsession with status and his overpowering pomposity may simply exist to mark him out as a figure of ridicule, not representative of anything other than his own stupidity, roaming the same streets as Akaky Akakievich, equally alone and dislocated. At the end of The Nose, p138, Kovalyov has patently learned nothing from his ordeal. The return of the nose is accepted as readily as its loss, and Kovalyov returns to congratulating himself on the calibre of people he knows:

“…Gogol’s, or his narrator’s, chatter implicitly calls into question the underlying assumption of realistic fiction that social reality ‘makes sense’, that human behaviour yields a discernible pattern, a stable structure of causation.” Erlich p88

In the Gogolian world, the dots cannot be joined, lessons are not learned. Neither the character nor the reader will emerge with a pearl of wisdom that was popped in the story for us by the author, as snugly as a severed nose fits into a bread roll in the world of The Nose.

It is through these four aspects of his work that Gogol sought to subvert and even ridicule many of the conventions of 18th and 19th century fiction. In his reactions to convention, he created a very singular body of work, radically individual and ceaselessly joyous to explore. I believe he does, to borrow the terms of Sartre, leave us with only conjecture, wholly uncertain of the verities in a way that the bulk of nineteenth century writers did not, and could not.

What Gogol stood for and what he really was as an artist are more difficult questions to answer than what he railed against and worked to diverge from. Perhaps there can be no answer – as the great novelist Andrej Bely noted in 1909:

“We have not the means of measuring all the possibilities he has exhausted… [Gogol’s work is] narrowed by our wretched perceptual faculties.” Rowe p2

While this may be the case, what draws me to Gogol’s fiction is his refusal to imbue his texts with any easy ‘lessons’ that could be pontificated over and ‘defined’ by scholars. In this regard, The Nose stands as particularly important:

“the beautiful consistency with which the runaway nose remains both a person and an object throughout makes mincemeat of any such reductionist interpretation of the story. Like all works of authentically surrealistic art, The Nose stubbornly resists paraphrase or conversion into an allegory.” Karlinsky p130

It’s clear from sections in some of the stories discussed here that Gogol was passionate about the eternal possibility and the open range of the oral folk tale, of psychological playfulness, of the absurdity of people, and the lack of a comfortable narrative thread to guide us through life. In this last aspect, I see the connection from Gogol, to Sartre and the existential novelists, and on to contemporary readers such as myself. ●

Several of the sources consulted make reference to the fact that Gogol is often translated in a way in which his own use of language is distorted or negated:

“Verbal mimicry becomes a matter of helpless stumbling into what Eikhenbaum aptly calls ‘articulatory gestures’ – a quality, I may add, which is only dimly perceptible in the English translation… The recurrence of ‘certain’ and ‘rather’ in the English version is but a faint echo of the original with its obsessive repetitions ‘neskolko’, of mockingly rhyming ‘-ish’ type adjectives” pp146-7, ‘Gogol’ by Victor Erlich [referencing story The Overcoat]

“The legal comedy, with its quotations from official documents couched in a jargon that progressively makes less and less sense (English translators of Gogol invariably doctor these passages so that they make some kind of sense, thereby undermining the effect of Gogol’s original text)” p75, ‘The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol’ [referencing story How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich]

“(It is amusing to compare the ways in which some translators have tried to insert their own meanings into these intentionally meaningless sentences)” p152, ‘Gogol, His Life and Works’ by Setchkarev

Primary Source
'Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector, & Selected Stories' Nikolai Gogol, Penguin Classics 2005 edition

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Kelman, J (2002) 'And the judges said…', Secker & Warburg
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Wood, J (2014) Away thinking about things, The New Yorker, August 2014 issue
Wood, J (2008) How Fiction Works, Vintage