Born: 20 March 1809
Died: 21 February 1852
Notable Works: The Government Inspector (1836), Petersburg Tales (1833-1842)
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was a Russian writer of Ukrainian origin. His short stories and plays have been noted for their surrealism, dark humor, and use of the grotesque. A key concept in his work is poshlost, a Russian word that means “triviality, inferiority, and banality.” Poshlost is embodied by his caricatures of everyday people who face moral and spiritual emptiness in their lives.
1.1. Early Life
Nikolai Gogol was born on 20 March 1809 in the Ukrainian Cossack town of Sorochyntsi, in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire. Gogol’s family hailed from the lower ranks of the gentry and his father, Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, was a poet and amateur playwright who staged plays in his theater. His mother was of Polish origin and a descendant of Leonty Kosyarovsky, an officer of the Lubny Regiment.
As was typical of families of the Ukrainian gentry, they spoke both Ukrainian and Russian. The Ukrainian countryside, folklore, and traditions Gogol was exposed to in his boyhood inspired his short story collections, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Mirgorod.
In 1820, Gogol was enrolled in the Gymnasium of Higher Sciences in Nezhin. There, he contributed to a literary magazine and acted in school plays. He was not popular among his schoolmates but managed to make a few good friends. This school is now known as the Nizhyn Gogol State University.
After graduating in 1828, Gogol left for St. Petersburg to pursue his literary ambitions. He wrote a Romantic poem, Hans Küchelgarten, and published it at his own expense. However, the magazines he sent it to criticize the poem harshly. As a result, Gogol bought all the copies of his poem and destroyed them, vowing never to write poetry again.
1.2. Literary Career
After swearing off poetry, Nikolai Gogol turned to prose. His first collection of short stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, was published in two volumes in 1831 and 1832. The stories in this collection were filled with references to Ukrainian culture and folklore, causing Gogol to be viewed as a regional writer by some contemporary critics. Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka was an immediate success and established Gogol’s unique style of blending humor and horror. Gogol entered Russia’s literary circle, meeting and establishing a friendship with Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be the founder of modern Russian literature.
In the early 1830s, Gogol developed a passion for Ukrainian Cossack history. He eventually obtained a position as a Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg. However, he was ill-qualified for the job and resigned in 1835.
That same year, Gogol published his second short story collection, Mirgorod. Like Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, Mirgorod is also inspired by life in the Ukrainian countryside. He started writing the short stories in Mirgorod in 1832 and completed them during his tenure as a professor.
Nikolai Gogol’s third collection, Arabesques, was published in 1835. In Arabesques, he moved away from his Ukrainian origins and wrote stories about life in St. Petersburg. In addition, the collection contained articles on chronicles, geography, and art. Some of Gogol’s most famous works, Nevsky Prospect, Diary of a Madman, and The Portrait, are from this collection.
In 1836, Gogol published his famous play, The Government Inspector, a satire of political corruption in the Russian Empire. The play caused moral outrage in the reactionary press, and it took the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I to have it staged. Despite the play being seen as an attack on the Tsarist system, Gogol was actually a conservative monarchist.
From 1836 to 1848, Gogol traveled across Europe, spending the winter of 1836 – 1837 in Paris and later settling in Rome. Gogol spent most of his twelve years abroad in Italy, a country he grew to love, developing an interest in Italian opera, art, and literature.
The first part of his only novel, Dead Souls, was completed in 1841 and published in 1842. Unlike his short stories, Dead Souls was meant to offer solutions rather than just point out social ills. However, Gogol did not complete the second part, where the protagonist Chichikov undergoes spiritual purification. Gogol burnt most of the novel’s second part shortly before his death, having come to believe that writing fiction was the work of the Devil.
In 1842, Gogol also published his iconic short story, The Overcoat, which had a massive impact on Russian literature.
1.3. Final years and death
Nikolai Gogol’s final years were marked by increased religiosity and fear of damnation. In 1846, he left for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and returned to Russia in 1848. Gogol fell under the influence of a spiritual elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky, who convinced him that writing fiction was the work of the Devil. Extreme asceticism damaged Gogol’s health, and he sank into depression.
Konstantinovsky heightened his fear of damnation, which led him to burn his manuscripts, including most of the second part of Dead Souls, on 24 February 1852. Soon after, he refused all food and took to bed, dying nine days later in agony. He was buried in the Danilov Monastery, with a large stone and a cross marking his grave.
2. Influence and Legacy of Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol has had a massive impact on later generations of Russian writers. He has been recognized by the famed literary critic Belinsky as the originator of the Natural School, a literary movement that arose in Russia in the 1840s. Writers of the Natural School aimed to imitate real life in their work, borrowing ideas from the French Enlightenment. Nekrasov, Turgenev, Grebenka, Dostoyevsky, and Saltykov-Shchedrin, among other writers, were part of this movement.
Belinsky, N.G. Chernyshevsky, and other literary critics interpreted Gogol’s work as social criticism. However, Gogol was not the social critic his liberal admirers imagined, holding a conservative viewpoint throughout his life. Nevertheless, he was able to criticize the corruption of his society by disguising his critique with fantastical elements at a time when authors were bound by heavy censorship. In the 20th century, Soviet writers such as Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov would borrow this technique to circumvent censors.
In the 1920s, a group of Russian writers called the Serapion Brothers took inspiration from Gogol and wrote many short stories that were critical of government policy, but the group later became more mainstream.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov greatly admired Gogol’s Dead Souls, The Government Inspector, and The Overcoat. He has called The Overcoat “The greatest short story in the Russian language.”
Outside of Russia, Gogol’s influence can be seen in the works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and others.
Some writers have highlighted the anti-semitism in Gogol’s stories. Felix Dreizin and David Guaspari, in their book, The Russian Soul and the Jew: Essays in Literary Ethnocentrism, shed light on “the significance of the Jewish characters and the negative image of the Ukrainian Jewish community in Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba.” In Léon Poliakov‘s The History of Antisemitism, the author mentions that the character of Yankel in Taras Bulba incorporates many antisemitic stereotypes, being portrayed as exploitative, greedy, and cowardly.
The Jewish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem borrowed elements from Gogol’s work but removed the antisemitism. Amelia Glaser noted that Aleichem “chose to model much of his writing, and even his appearance, on Gogol… What Sholem Aleichem was borrowing from Gogol was a rural East European landscape that may have been dangerous, but could unite readers through the power of collective memory. He also learned from Gogol to soften this danger through laughter, and he often rewrites Gogol’s Jewish characters, correcting anti-Semitic stereotypes and narrating history from a Jewish perspective.”
2.2. Film and other media
Nikolai Gogol’s stories have been adapted into numerous films, operas, radio serials, and other media. The renowned composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first opera based on Gogol’s short story The Nose, for which he also wrote the libretto. The Government Inspector and The Overcoat, in particular, have received many film adaptations in Russian, German, Polish, English, Indonesian, Hindi, Italian, Greek, and Dutch.
The 1956 British short film The Bespoke Overcoat, directed by Jack Clayton, was based on Gogol’s The Overcoat. The film won an Oscar at the 29th Academy Awards in 1957 for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel).
The latest film adaptation of Gogol’s work is The Girl in the White Coat, a 2011 Canadian film based on The Overcoat and directed by Darell Wasyk. In this film, a poor factory worker tormented by her colleagues becomes determined to buy a new lab coat.
Along Arbatskaya Boulevard, Moscow, there is a sculpture of Nikolai Gogol made by the Soviet Sculptor Nikolai Tomsky. The statue was cast in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gogol’s birth. Tomsky was given instructions to make Gogol look cheerful despite the pessimism in the writer’s work.
Gogol is closely associated with St. Petersburg as many of his famous works, including The Overcoat, Diary of a Madman, Nevsky Prospect, and The Nose, are set there. Along St. Petersburg’s Malaya Konyushennaya street, there is another Gogol statue made by the sculptor Mikhail Belov.
In Kyiv, Ukraine, a sculpture of Gogol’s nose hangs from a building wall on Andriyivsky Uzviz, a historic tourist street. The sculpture is a tribute to Gogol’s short story, The Nose. According to legend, Gogol was walking along the Andriyivsky Uzviz when he caught a cold, which inspired him to write the story.
2.4. Nizhyn Gogol State University
The Nizhyn Gogol State University in Ukraine is named after its most famous alumni, Nikolai Gogol, who studied there from 1821 – 1828. It is one of the oldest tertiary institutions in Ukraine, dating back to 1805 when Count Bezborodko received permission from the Tsar to set up a Gymnasium of Higher Learning in Nizhyn. The university houses the Gogol Museum and the Gogol Research Centre.
Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka – short story collection (1831-1832)
Mirgorod – short story collection (1835)
Arabesques – short story collection (1835)
The Nose – short story (1835)
Taras Bulba – novella (1835)
The Carriage – short story (1836)
Rome – fragment (1842)
The Overcoat – short story (1842)
Dead Souls – novel (1842)
Petersburg Tales – short story collection (1843)
Decoration of Vladimir of the Third Class, unfinished comedy (1832).
The Gamblers (1842)
The Government Inspector, also translated as The Inspector General (1836)
Leaving the Theater, (After the Staging of a New Comedy) (1836)
4. Quotes from Nikolai Gogol
“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.”from The Government Inspector
“But nothing is lasting in this world. Even joy begins to fade after only one minute. Two minutes later, and it is weaker still, until finally it is swallowed up in our everyday, prosaic state of mind, just as a ripple made by a pebble gradually merges with the smooth surface of the water.”from The Nose
“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.”Nikolai Gogol
“Countless as the sands of sea are human passions, and not all of them are alike, and all of them, base and noble alike, are at first obedient to man and only later on become his terrible masters.”from Dead Souls
“Everything resembles the truth, everything can happen to a man.”from Dead Souls
5. Frequently Asked Questions about Nikolai Gogol
What was Nikolai Gogol known for?
Gogol was a Russian writer of Ukrainian heritage known for being one of the founders of modern Russian literature. His unique style blends dark humor, realism, and surrealism; he shows verbal skill in unusual metaphors, puns, and expressions.
What was Nikolai Gogol influenced by?
In his early stories, Gogol was inspired by Ukrainian folklore, traditions, and his Ukrainian upbringing. His later stories satirized the political corruption in Imperial Russia. Many are steeped in the cold, urban atmosphere of St. Petersburg and feature landmarks from the city.
Why did Gogol burn Dead Souls?
It is unclear why Gogol burned Dead Souls, but some have speculated that it was either he was dissatisfied with the novel’s second part or due to his religious convictions. In “Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends,” he wrote, “The publication of the second volume the way it is would do more harm than good……Creating a few beautiful characters who reveal the generosity of spirit of our breed will lead nowhere. It will only arouse hollow pride and boasting….”
Towards the end of his life, Gogol became influenced by a religious leader known as Matvey Konstantinovsky, who convinced him that writing fiction was the work of the devil. This conviction caused him to fall into depression, which may have had something to do with burning the second part of the Dead Souls’ manuscript.
6. Books about Nikolai Gogol for further reading
Nabokov, Vladimir. (1961). Nikolai Gogol. New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Bojanowska, Edyta M. (2007). “Introduction.” Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fanger, Donald (2009). The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Harvard University Press.
Nechiporenko, Yuri, Korablev, Alexander, Tikos, Laszlo. (2017) Gogol’s Art: A Search for Identity.