Nikolai Gogol, born 31 March 1809, would go on to become one of the most renowned and influential Russian writers. Gogol can be claimed as the founder of realist literature, laying the groundwork for Russian prose that would influence great writers after him. However, it was in his surrealist writings that Gogol produced some of his most original and celebrated works that delved deep into the darker side of society by comically combing the fantastic with the grotesque.
Born into a relatively elite Ukrainian family, Gogol’s childhood experiences in the Ukraine would become the foundation for his earliest realistic writings. After school, Gogol left the Ukraine for Saint Petersburg with the hopes of earning literary fame. After failing to earn prestige in social service, and anxious to make a name for himself, Gogol self-published one of his poems only to be met with harsh criticism. With the shame of his first failure, the writer quickly bought and burned every copy, deciding to leave poetry for good in pursuit of prose.
After a short time abroad to recover from his poetic disaster, Gogol published his first work, “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” to high praises from his critics, making Gogol one of Russia’s rising young writers. It was here in Saint Petersburg that the young Gogol met and befriended Alexander Pushkin who would continue to encourage and admire Gogol’s writings.
In 1836, Gogol ascended to the forefront of Russian literature after the production of two specific pieces. “The Government Inspector”—a satirical play about the bureaucratic provincial Russian life, and “The Nose”—a brilliantly absurd surrealism piece about a man who wakes up to find his nose is missing and taken on a persona of its own. With such acclaim, Gogol relocated abroad to continue his writings and satirical commentaries from afar.
In 1842, claimed by his contemporaries and critics as his most unique and brilliant piece, The Overcoat was published. This short story depicts the life of a poor copy clerk who is penny-pinching to replace his threadbare overcoat, only to have this new coat stolen on his way home from a party (in honor of the overcoat) and sending him into despair. The Overcoat, and Gogol’s foundational realistic writings, would have such an impact of the Russian writers after him that Dostoevsky is supposed to have said that “We have all come out from under Gogol’s Overcoat” in reference to himself and fellow Russian Realists.
Undoubtedly, Gogol’s most acknowledged achievement, “Dead Souls,” is an epic prose that craftily, comically, and ironically describes darker aspects of society. The protagonist, Chichikov, is a middle class man who develops a “get-rich-quick” scheme by buying off dead souls from landowners to attain wealth and prestige. Quickly identified as a great satire, it was not widely known at the time that Gogol had intended for it to be the first part in a three-part epic detailing Chichikov’s spiritual transformation through “The Purgatory” and “The Inferno”—truly intended to be on par with Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”
Gogol is known to have believed in the role of literature to bring about spiritual change in its characters as well as its readers. Upon writing part two of Dead Souls, Gogol suffered a “spiritual crisis” of his own causing him to burn his own manuscripts. What followed was depression and years of illness and spiritual torture for the author. A second “spiritual crisis” resulted in the destructions of a second draft and other manuscripts besides.
While Dead Souls never become what Gogol set out to create, Gogol’s influence on Russian literature and the Russia’s greatest writers who followed after him is undeniable.
Gogol in Saint Petersburg:
- Mayor kovalev’s Nose is one of the most unusual monuments in Saint Petersburg based on a character from “Nose”—the very nose of Mayor Kovalev who one day left his owners face and went about the city itself.
- On Malaya Konyshennaya a large bronze Statue of the writer can be found.