Gogol's Art was published in paperback in 1997 by Bati Publishers, PO Box 263, Leverett, MA 01054. (Price $15). You can reach the author at that address or by email at Tikos@slavic.umass.edu.
Permission is granted to make and distribute complete verbatim electronic copies of this text for non-commercial purposes provided the copyright information and this permission notice are preserved on all copies. All other rights reserved.
book CD "Gogol and Russian Literature" is built around Gogol's Art:
a Search for Identity by Laszlo Tikos, the best book ever written about
Russia's most enigmatic and intriguing author. Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852)
created a new direction in Russian letters, which was further developed
in the 19th century by writers like Dostoyevsky and Rozanov, and in the
20th century by Bely, Bulgakov and Sinyavsky. In addition to Gogol's
Art, this CD includes the full text of Dead Souls, Tara Bulba, The
Inspector General, and St. John's Eve by Gogol, plus great books by Dostoeyevsky,
Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Turgenev, Andreyev, Gorky, Kuprin, and Lermontov,
plus works on Russian history, plus two "Country Studies" -- Russia and
Belarus (birthplace of Gogol) -- which were originally published as printed
books by the Library of Congress between 1987 and 1995. For details, see
our online store http://store.yahoo.com/samizdat/russian.html
A first look raises the question of the role of the fictional story-teller -- or story-tellers if we include the sexton as a separate narrator in "St. John's Eve ". We know from critical literature that Gogol did not originally have a fictional narrator for the volume as a whole. It was suggested to him by Pletnev, and Gogol obliged. the arrangement clearly had its advantages, since it allows the "real" narrator to hide behind the invented story-teller. It was, however, also a literary mannerism of the period -- we remember Hoffmann's tales like " The Sandman " or Pushkin's Belkin's Tales.
The first story, "St.John's Eve", published in 1831, offers such a fictional storyteller in Foma Grigorevic. The device must have made it easier for Gogol to supply another invented narrator for the entire series. He is Rudi Panko, a "beekeeper" (are there similarities to Gogol's father?), a talkative, provincial good-natured simpleton, who converses in a barely literate, colloquial language which is permeated with strange humor. But the Introduction itself is not just gossipy chatter, piling nonsense upon nonsense: Gogol has a definite goal in mind for the fictional narrator. Through him, Gogol explains to the "foreign" Russian readers -- that is, the audience in St. Petersburg -- Rudi Panko's stories are "legitimate" literature, as much so as the literature familiar to high society. Their styles are similar, they are told at evening gatherings in the Ukrainian countryside after work is done -- when people settle down to recount stories for each others' amusement in just the same ways that stories are told in the circles of Russian society at their own social gatherings. Funny stories, scary stories are the staple of this "oral literature", as well as folk songs, riddles, jokes and just plain babble, exuberant linguistic nonsense. Thus it should be obvious that Gogol's aim is not just a "realistic" retelling of some Ukrainian fables (some critics scolded him for not being true to the real folklore of the Ukraine) but rather discovering within them the "original source "of all mankind's literary, narrative activity. We are thus prepared for Gogol's excitement over the Iliad in Zhukovsky's translation and see why Rudi Panko spends so much time in the Introduction explaining the art of narration: a story must be told in the right place at the right time, using the right language and the right subject-matter. As an example of "bad" narration, he recalls the case of an "educated" young Cossack's telling school jokes (very much as in Gogol's own experience) to his village audience. The narration was unsuccessful because it violated these principles. Gogol presents the "right " way by introducing the second narrator: the village Sexton, Foma Grigorevic. A lesser writer would have given us an "exemplary tale", thus probably killing the reader's interest in the rest of the volume. But Gogol cleverly postpones our expectations through long preparation, never leading to what is expected -- since something more important comes up. The fresh rolls are simply taken out of the oven and everybody, including the narrator, falls for the rolls instead of listening to his tales.
Several elements are interesting here: even at this early age, and in these folklore-like stories, Gogol shows a serious interest in the art of story-telling as such -- in the ars poetica as well the personality of an artist. He spends a page in describing Foma Grigorevic's appearance: his character, habits, his coat, his boots, the fine handkerchief he uses to blow his nose, his tobacco box. "He took out his round lacquered snuffbox, flicked his finger on the mug of some Mussulman general..." 2 But, alas, he could not get to his story because of the freshly baked rolls. We see here the onset, noted so perceptively by Obolensky 3 of Gogol's preoccupation with food -- and this coming from a man who practically starved himself to death at the end and who all his life complained about pain in his stomach.
But quite apart from psycho-somatic phenomena, we also see that Gogol has already established a hierarchy in human values: narration is one thing; food is another as (or as Berthold Brecht expressed it: "Erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral!"--First stuff your belly and then talk about morals! ) 4 The topic recurs in Gogol's fiction, and as we shall see later, here he jocularly established the primacy of matter over spiritual considerations. This concept lies at the root of some of the most serious philosophical and religious challenges and in the crises of both Gogol's life and his fiction.
Beside Foma Grigorevic, Gogol -- or rather Rudi Panko --mentions another story-teller. This one remains mysterious, unnamed, because his stories are said to be horrible: "He has such a store of frightening tales that it makes the hair stand up on one's head." We are not told the identity of this mysterious story-teller: Can it be Gogol himself? Or does this anonymity rather represent Gogol's eternal urge for mystification, for a later "explanation", thus keeping his readers always on edge, awaiting the de´nouement which never comes?
Clearly, confessions about the art of story-telling are as important as the stories themselves. they show a Gogol fully aware of his artistic achievement: his tales are by no means simple folk tales narrated by village bumpkins and transcribed by an illiterate scribe, but rather the Kunstmaerchen of the German Romantic age known to Gogol from the works of Hoffmann , 5 Tieck and others. With his Ukrainian tales, Gogol has followed one of the main literary trends of the period and has domesticated a foreign influence to his own visionary purposes.
Chronologically, the first story to be published was " St. John's Eve ", but when the stories were collected, this slipped to second place, to be replaced by "The Fair at Sorocints". The reasons for this change Gogol does not explain, but the internal logic of the sequence makes it clear that the change was significant. Why? For one thing, "The Fair at Sorocints" introduces the underlying philosophical vision that connects them all, namely, that the world is a topsy-turvy place to live in. At stake here are not just the usual human motives -- passions, love, greed, foolishness -- but also a transcendental interference in the form of the machinations of the Devil. Not since Medieval times was there a Russian writer who portrayed this world view with so much gusto, humor, fear and credibility as Gogol.
In "The Fair at Sorocints" , this view is offered in what we might call an Apocrypha to the known lore of the Devil (Chapter VII), for instance, in the tale where the " devil was kicked out of Hell...just as a peasant turns a dog out of his hut. Perhaps a whim came over him to do a good deed...and the poor devil was so homesick for Hell that he was ready to hang himself." 6
Sure enough, the Devil in his loneliness takes to drink and when he is broke, he pawns his "red jacket" to the Jewish innkeeper who, naturally, double-crosses him, selling the jacket before the Devil can redeem his pledge. The jacket has been sold to a "gentleman" who happened along opportunely, but who is subsequently robbed on the road by a gypsy who "... sold it to a peddler woman", who in turn, takes it back to Sorochints to the fair. Since she cannot sell it there, she thrusts it into a peasant's cart. It brings him bad luck as well, and he finally gets so angry at it that he chops it into pieces with an axe and casts the bits abroad. "But ever since, just at the time of the fair, the Devil walks all over the market place with a pig-face, grunting and collecting the pieces of his jacket." 7
This complex apocryphal narrative, with its far - reaching implications, ostensibly about the casting of the Devil from Hell, provides the "mythological" background to the "realistic" part of Gogol's story: a low-level peasant tale about the Cossack Solopy, who goes to the fair purportedly to sell his grain, but actually to have a good time without the supervision of his querulous wife, Khivrya. She is his second wife, and just like Tolstoy's Akula in the Power of Darkness 8is a sensuous, coarse, and, as we will discover, adulterous woman, immediately recognized by the young lads on the road as a "witch". She is fully aware of her husband's real intentions and certainly has no desire to let him go to the fair alone. She joins him so that she, too, can have a good time, in her own way. A good time for Solopy means getting drunk with like-minded buddies, while Khivrya has other things on her mind, namely, illicit sex. This sort of distribution of "earthly delights" is an important element in Gogol's presentation of the "inconstancy of the human condition" ("die Unzunlaenglichkeit menschlicher Verhaltnisse" -- as Brecht called it) 9 where corrupt, adulterous, sensuous sex takes the lowest rung on the hierarchy of human sinfulness, to be followed some way behind by drunkenness at the same level as gluttony. The paintings of Breugel of Hieronymus Bosch 10 or Dante's Divine Comedy 11 as well as Andrei Sinyavsky's The Fantastic Stories of Abram Tertz 13 spring to mind. Indeed, we can already observe an important element of Gogol's palette: a "medieval world view" (Mochulsky) replete with sins and horrible punishments which await sinners here and in the after life. God and, especially, the Devil, are direct participants in this world, present in an ever-confusing variety of manifestations, just as in a Medieval mystery play. Thus "realistic" occurrences appear to be so "alienated" from "everyday reality": everything that happens does so imperceptibly, on many levels -- not just on the here and now, but, also on the "heavenly" a-historical plane. Conversations only sound real, but they are actually distant echoes of "conversations" from other worlds, from "other dimensions". Actions appear almost dream-like, and "reality" and "fantasy" interact without any significant distinction. Doubtless, the reader will recognize in some of these phenomena, the standard Romantic sense of alienation from the perceptible world.
In"The Fair at Sorocints" ,the piggish actions of the adult sinners erupting in sex and drunkenness are appropriately matched by the Devil's appearances on earth: Pig snouts in all sizes and shapes wreck havoc on human desires, interrupting human interactions, be they the drunken parties of the men in the tavern or the amorous adventures of Khivrya and her would-be lover, Afanasi Ivanovic, son of the local priest. The conversation between the two is one of the funniest of Gogol's inventions: the hypocrisy of the priest's son is presented through an hilarious combination of ostentatious Old-Church Slavonic, colloquial Ukrainian and phrases from Russian languages.
In contrast to this corrupt debauchery is the innocent love of the young people, between Paraska, Solopy's daughter by his first wife, and a youth from the neighboring village, Gritsko Golopupenko. The etymology of the latter's name, by the way, is also hilariously funny: it is the composite of (goly ) naked, and (pupa ) backside. Love occurs at first sight, and a marriage proposal follows on the first moment. Is it any wonder, then, that their wedding closes the story as the victory of innocent love over the corrupt behavior of the step-mother and all the evil she represents ? Here, surely, is the Cinderella story in Ukrainian garb!
Thus, sex in itself is not the evil force. Sex, as a matter of fact, is symbolic of pure "earthly delight" manifest also in nature, as it is seen in the opening paragraphs where Gogol sings a hymn to the beauty of the Ukrainian countryside. As critics have noticed (Setchkarev, Karlinsky) , 14 Gogol has presented a primordial vision of Mother Nature, of fertility personified, in a Ukrainian Garden of Eden, where everything radiates with the joy of creation. The celebration of the wedding, therefore, is the most appropriate means for humanity to participate in the mystery of God's glorious design of the Universe.
It would be logical to assume that the story will close with this happy event, but Gogol ends it on a dark and mysteriously tragic foreboding note: the grotesque sight of old women, dancing at the wedding: "the old women, whose ancient faces breathed the in-difference of the tomb.Caring for nothing, indifferent, long removed from the joy of childhood, wanting only to drink and get drunk, it was as if a puppeteer were tugging the strings that held his wooden puppets, making them do things that seemed human; yet they slowly wagged their drunken heads, dancing after the rejoicing crowd, not once glancing at the young couple." 15
If this is a rather melancholy picture, indicative of Gogol's morbid preoccupation with the unavoidable nature of death and decay, the final sentences of the story extend this world-weariness (skuka ) to the narrator himself: "Is it not thus that joy, that lovely and fleeting guest, flies from us? In vain, the last solitary note tries to express gaiety; in its echo it hears melancholy and emptiness and listens to it, bewildered. Is it not thus that those who have been playful friends in their free and stormy youth stray one by one, lost, lost in the world, and leave their old comrade lonely and forlorn at last? Sad is the lot of the one left behind! Heavy and sorrowful is this heart and nothing can help him." 16
Here ends the first of the three love stories in Volume One. The others are more intricate and weave in more complex threads. "St.John's Eve ( Ivan Kupala )" derives its complexity from the philosophical problem of buying happiness at the price of the suffering of the Innocents. The identical problem tormented Ivan of Dostoevsky's Karamazov brothers. Gogol's version masks this question in all sorts of witchcraft, but it boils down basically to the question of whether the young lovers, Petro and Pidurka, can be happy at the cost of the life of Pidurka's innocent brother, the six year-old Ivas. Unwittingly, and under the influence of witchcraft via a "stranger" in the village called Basavriuk, (the word is an obvious form of the Slavic "bes", the Devil), Petro kills the boy and marries Pidurka. But the marriage is not blessed: Petro soon falls into a melancholy mood, and finally burns to ashes, before Pidurka's eyes. Pidurka in turn becomes a nun.
Quite apart from its moral skeleton, the story is a little jewel of narration. Gogol startes out again by creating some confusion as to the identity of the narrator and the origin of the story. In the first, half-page paragraph, at least five different narrators are identified . A narrator in the first person singular introduces another source: Foma Grigorevic, whose stories have been published by some "shady characters" : "...it happened that one of those people -- it is hard for us simple folk to know what to call them, for scriveners they are not, but they are like the artists at our fairs" they beg, they grab, they filch all sorts of things and bring out a little book, no thicker than a child's reader, every month or every week..." 17 If this were not confusing enough, Gogol thickens the plot, as one of these characters' publications which includes the story of Foma Grigorevic gets to Dikanka via Narrator Number Four: "that young gentleman in the pea-green coat of whom I have already told you and whose story I believe you have read, arrives from Poltava, brings with him a little book, and, opening it up in the middle, shows it to us." 18
Thus, having started with narrator Number One, we move to Foma Grigorevic, then to the scriveners, and finally to that young gentleman from Poltava in the pea-green coat. Four different narrators! But these are not all, for there is still one more, Foma Grigorevic's grandfather, whose story is the "true story".
It is not difficult to see that the young gentleman in the pea-green coat (and perhaps the scriveners, too) has much in common with Gogol himself. It is probably safe to say that we have caught Gogol in the process of writing himself into the stories , not unlike Gauguin's painting himself in the form of a brooding Devil in his idylls from Tahiti. 19
The story's structure is also remarkable: We are transferred to the long-forgotten depths of Ukrainian history, to a world similar to the Homeric world of Greece; but now, in Gogol's hands, it becomes a Ukrainian variant. All kinds of things, usually considered impossible, can "realistically" happen here, just as in Pushkin's fairytale world of Russian folklore in his Ruslan and Lyudmila. 20 - except that Gogol's folklore is Ukrainian history, his favorite hunting ground. It does not matter that Gogol identifies the action as having happened in the 16th Century (in accordance with accepted norms). For Gogol, these are a-historical times, in which he can freely create his reality according to his own image, just as God created the world "in His own image " ( po obrazu i podobiyu ). Therefore, in such an environment, Gogol can plainly state, "In this village there often appeared a man, or rather, the Devil in human shape." 21 No further explanation is necessary --Once the Devil appears, he goes about his own business like everybody else in the village. And what is the Devil's business? In Dostoyevesky's words, it is to be "...the necessary X in every indeterminate equation" 22 or, to put it differently, to make the impossible happen, to have people overstep social and moral limits, to commit a "transgression" (prestuplenie ).
Sex becomes the great temptation and, in contradistinction to the previous story, the young lover's innocent love cannot escape the damned consequences of the consummation of love. The fulfillment of desire comes with a price: the death of the innocent and the Devil cashes in on his investment: he takes the hero, Petro, soul and body, and sends his Pidurka to a nunnery.
There are other archetypal elements in the story of Petro and Pidurka. Petro is a servant at Pidurka's father's house -- a "kinless" person ( bezrodnyj 23 ) to boot, and thus an ineligible suitor for at least two reasons. Pidurka is the first beauty in the village and the daughter of the richest and most powerful man in the community. This social and almost transcendental inequality of the lovers is a recurring feature in Gogol's writing and serves as the source of many reckless and irrational actions.
The reason that the protagonists fall in love is explained: "Well, if a boy and a girl live near each other ... you all know what is bound to happen." 24 But, a sentence later , the "realistic" motivation is added: "Clearly, it was the Devil's prompting." 25
In another element of the archetypal situation, a "real, eligible" suitor appears: ".A Pole, all in gold braid, with mustaches, a saber, spurs, and pockets jingling like the bell on a bag." 26 Sure enough, he is mortally repulsive to Pidurka, but the wedding with the Pole has already been set, and the loving pair will need superhuman help to foil the Pole's evil design. At this point, the Devil obligingly steps in and offers his help. As can be predicted, the Devil is devious and has his own agenda: to destroy the innocent. This is what is going to happen to Petro and Pidurka. They achieve their aim but the price they pay ultimately destroys their happiness. The dilemma evolves from the classic conflict between ends and means.
The next story in this volume:" A May Night or the Drowned Maiden " 27 - has a wonderful epitaph in Ukrainian which sums up its essence: "The Devil only knows what to make of it! If Christian folk begin any task, they fret and fret like dogs after a hare, and all to no purpose; but as soon as the Devil comes into it -- lo and behold, the thing is done."28
And, indeed, we have here again a love story, but in a lighter vein than in "St.John's Eve" . Also about the classic lovers' predica-ment , it depicts the need to outwit the older generation; this time, as in "The Fair at Sorocints ", the older generation competes for the sexual favors of the young, and corrupt sex is pitted against innocent love. Through the intercession of the Devil, willy-nilly, the young lovers are united so that the Devil has involuntarily done a good deed--as in the apocryphal tale related in "The Fair at Sorocints "
"May Night "features yet another apocryphal addition to the considerations of witchcraft. Hence the double title "May Night " and "The Drowned Maiden" . "May Night "refers in a round-about way to the night before Easter and therefore to Christian values; while the second title, "The Drowned Maiden" refers to ancient beliefs about the revels of pagan witches -- just as in "St.John's Eve" , which supplies both Christian and Pagan time references: St.John's Eve (June 14), according to the Christian calendar and Ivan Kupala, according to the ritual of the pagan world.
This apocryphal addition to the Christian legend is told by the young lovers, Ganna and Levko, on a beautiful Easter night in May. She begins by saying, "Look there, far away, the stars are twinkling: one, two, three, four, five. It's the angels of God, opening the windows of their bright dwellings in the sky and looking out at us, isn't it? Yes, Levko! They are looking at our earth, aren't they? If only people had wings like birds, they could fly, there, high up, high up.Oh, It's dreadful! Not one oak here reaches the sky. But they do say there is some tree in a distant land whose top reaches right to heaven and that God descends on it to earth the night before Easter." 29
Levko completes this apocryphal tale: "No, Galya, god has a ladder, reaching from heaven right down to earth. The holy archangels put it up before Easter Sunday and as soon as god steps on the first rung, all the evil spirits fall headlong and sink down in heaps to hell. And that is why at Easter there is not one evil spirit on earth." Clearly, the underlying philosophical, religious concern here isto provide an illustration of God's manifestation on earth.
The fairy tale runs counter to the religious one. Ganna begins telling the story, but it is left up to Levko to complete it. Ganna's story tells of an evil stepmother who alienates a recently widowed, loving father from his daughter -- and who in just five days after her wedding manages to get him to expel his daughter from his house. The daughter drowns herself in a nearby pond next to an enchanted house. But the evil stepmother pursues her even there: She turns herself into a mermaid in the pond who looks like all drowned maidens, so that she cannot be distinguished from them. But the finishing act on Levko's part, is the victory, in the Apocrypha to the Christian story of Easter, over the machinations of the evil pagan witch, who will be identified in Levko's dream; and the drowned maiden is vindicated. In the de´nouement, she gives Levko a note which he finds in his pocket on awakening. This subsequently leads to his long-desired wedding.
Thus the two mysterious stories, fighting as it were a duel over the soul of the innocent lovers, provide the transcendental background for the events on earth. And they are a topsy-turvy cascading flow of events, in which many elements are similar to a Ukrainian puppet theater's uproarious slapstick comedy: Levko is in love with Ganna, but Levko's father, the village mayor, has also cast an eye on her, literally one eye, because he is a "one-eyed" Devil. The trick is then how to save the innocent young lovers from the powerful seducer and, even more important, to achieve the support and blessing of an unworthy father. All kinds of comedy of error, slapstick, deviltry and witchcraft are needed to reach this end, though finally and mysteriously, it is accomplished and the loving pair are united.
The forms of evil here are basic human vices: lust, debauchery, drunkenness, gluttony, lying, bragging, piggishness, unfaithfulness, deception and the oppression of the defenseless orphans -- in short, Ukrainian versions of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Levko's father is the greatest offender: A "one-eyed devil", he anticipates the evil figure of the tailor in " The Overcoat ". His one eye is the hallmark of evil, since it can see only one side of reality, the side which holds the greatest value for him. Gogol presents a whole register (nine of them, actually) of his sins. He is a braggart; when he tells how he accompanied the Tsarina Catherine II on her trip to the Crimea, he humiliates -- one could say, castrates -- the other males in the village by helping himself to their snuff-boxes and tobacco: these function as important symbols for manliness not only here, but in general in Gogol's fiction, in the form of smoking, sniffing tobacco, or taking snuff and, by extension, in forcing one's way into the snuff-boxes of others. As the narrator tells us, "he was free to help himself to every one's snuff, and the sturdy peasant would stand respectfully, cap in hand, while the mayor fumbled with his bat, coarse fingers in the peasant's birch-bark snuffbox," 30 tyrannizing everybody in the village. "At the Council, although his votes were limited to a few, he always took the upper hand and on his own authority, sent whom he pleased to level and repair roads or dig ditches." 31 He was a slob; he always wore the same long coat, with a sash around his waist; he was a womanizer, the very essence of corrupt sex, and even the youngest girls in the village-greeted him respectfully. He was a widower, but lived with his "sister-in-law": They said in the village that " she was not his sister-in-law at all." The mayor allowed no female to pass without accosting her; indeed, at the outset of the story, the mayor is courting Ganna, thus finding himself in competition with his own son. His partner's (sister-in-law's) sexual promiscuity is also more than hinted at: she inquires carefully whether the visitor in the mayor's house has a wife, and whether his wife will live with him while he conducts his business in the village.
Sexual promiscuity also gets the father of the drowned maiden into trouble: His second wife is clearly a witch. She appears in her step-daughter's bedroom the first night she spends in the new house as a "black cat with steel claws" who will not tolerate any competition for her newly won husband's affection. Sex is also the source of further suffering, especially for the young: Sexual grief and the sorrow of unfulfilled love will supply the village pond with drowned maidens.
By contrast, Nature is lush and sexual, breathing the joy of creation and -- since it is Easter time -- of resurrection as well. The love of Levko and Ganna surely fits this positive message of the universe, and their victory over the forces of evil is not only the happy ending of a well-spun love story but also the happy ending of the religious apocrypha, as we have termed it.
Drunkenness and Gluttony are exemplified by the middle-aged peasant Kalenik, who adds to the general confusion of the Devil's making by coming home from the village pub drunk and stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time as he hunts for his home. Indeed, at the end, Kalenik is still looking fruitlessly for his own house.
The sin of Gluttony has even its own coda in this tale: a "visitor" to the mayor, a coarse, money-hungry peasant -- perhaps the Devil himself in disguise , wants to set up a wine distillery in the village. He tells a tale about his mother-in-law: one night, her family was visited by a stranger at dinner-time as dumplings were being served. The stranger was offered food, but he ate so fast and so much that finally his host exclaimed, "Oh, that you may choke on that dumpling!" Sure enough, he choked, and then sat on the top of the chimney, "howling like a dog". 32 The characterization of the devil as glutton, choking on a dumpling and unable to get away from the site of his sins, reminds us that the dumpling, an old Ukrainian staple, can serve as a sort of litmus test which separates the good man from the bad, as in The Terrible Vengeance , where Katerina's father becomes suspect when he does not like dumplings (and doesn't drink vodka!).
The story has some other recurring elements as well, which are to become part of a permanent set of devices in Gogol's work. The corrupt mayor (glava here, though later he will reappear as the mayor gorodnichiy in "The Inspector General "),who terrorizes the community he is supposed to lead, takes bribes and abuses the population (sexually in the case of women). The drunken peasant, who represents sexual corruption in the older generation, especially older women -- who most frequently appear as witches; and the almost mythical higher authority, in this case the Commissioner (in "The Inspector General "the threatening news of his arrival as the "real" Inspector petrifies the characters of the play in a pose of frozen terror). Like a deus ex machina, he will set things to rights, or would, should he ever appear. Here we already anticipate the problem central to Gogol's fiction: Gogol's constant desire to present a mythical higher authority who will restore order and set everything in its "own place" (svoe mesto ) , coupled with Gogol's inability -- or unwillingness -- to allow the appearance of such an authority . Gogol surely understood that such a desired intervention would undermine the credibility of the story, even though 18th Century writers such as Fonvizin were able to portray such an outcome (see his play The Minor , where Mr. Pravdin [ Truth ], appears to save the day ) .
In general, the story has potential for a great stage play: It is a farce replete with a confusion of secondary story lines and set characters and the happy ending of a great wedding. No wonder, having found these so useful, Gogol later was to avail himself again of many of the same situations, conversations, characters, devices and structure.
The final story, "The Lost Letter : A Tale Told by the Sexton of the N...Church " 33 is the first not to include a love intrigue as its central organizing force. Instead, it is the story of "Grandfather", as told by the Sexton, his grandson, and his bouts with the Devil. The story is actually rather simple and straightforward: Grandfather, who is a regular Cossack, is selected as a messenger to carry a letter from the Hetman, the military leader of the Cossacks, to the Czarina. We do not know the contents of the letter, but obviously there must have been something in it that interests the Devil, since on the way he steals it, together with Grandfather's horse. In order to retrieve the stolen goods, the Cossack messenger descends into Hell and beats the Devil, or rather Devils, at their game of cards (duraki ). Thereupon, he finds himself on the roof of his own house, so that one wonders whether Grandfather has ever undertaken the journey at all -- or whether it was only a figment of his probably drunken imagination. Nevertheless, after the journey to Hell, Grandfather jumps on his horse and delivers the letter to the Czarina's palace.
The story ends in a non-sequitur: after the supposed journey to Hell, Grandmother appears in a trance, dancing against her will. Upon coming to, she tells of a vision of the Devil's machinations in their house. Her tale serves as a "realistic" explanation of the mystical events that have visited Grandfather. To give the reader further proof that the narration is a "true" story, Gogol presents a long list of evidence: Grandfather had not taken further precautions against the Devil. Their house had not been cleansed nor blessed by the Church. He has been given a strange annual reminder of his Descent into Hell: his wife's legs begin to dance involuntary on its anniversary and there is no stopping her.
Aside from its bare fairy-tale framework, the story is full of the narrative elements from folklore so characteristic of Gogol's Ukrainian tales. It begins with the identification of the Narrator and of the nature of Narration: Foma Grigorevic is the ostensible Narrator but he serves only as a conduit in retelling a story told by his grandfather, which must therefore be nothing really new or extraordinary since it is planted in "fact". On the other hand, Gogol emphasizes a magical relationship which is developing between the two different narrators and which figures as an important aspect of Gogol's quest for his "own place", the involuntary identification of his own world view with the identification of a new narrator with a previous one. Gogol tells us: "And when some kinsmen of one's own are mixed up in it [the story], a grandfather or a great-grandfather, then i'm done for. May I choke while praying to St. Varvara if I don't think that I am doing it all myself, as though I had crept into my great-grandfather's soul, or my great-grandfather's soul were playing tricks on me..." 34
Tricks are played not only by the great-grandfather's soul, but also by the narrators themselves. The grandfather's story, in a sober light, looks suspiciously like a self-justification after a drunken bout at the fair, where both the letter and the horse were lost or sold for drinks. Yet the grandson-narrator has second-guessed his grandfather's motives and so leaves enough non-sequiturs to explain his grandfather's motivations and to create the impression the he is merely an unreliable narrator.
The same could be said about the narrative time: we find ourselves again in the mythical Ukrainian past, Gogol's variant on Homeric time, when God, the Devil, and other mystical creatures existed side by side with man and when anything could happen, as the "true" story of the narrator has proven.
Considering further narrative elements, we might take a look at the selection of a grandfather as hero. Why has he been picked for that ill-fated task? It seems that his "education" got him into trouble: he was a "literate" man, literate enough to have memorized many of the Lives of the Saints (Zhitiya Svyatykh ) .
The situation is acceptable, except that in Gogol's world, anything that alters one's standing, ("one's own place"), or adds something to it that is out of the ordinary, can have fatal consequences. After all, a "real" Cossack has no business reciting by heart such things as the miraculous self-sacrifice of meek saints, whose very life story is the denial of everything that a "real" Cossack stands for. One might add, on the other hand, that Grandfather's story can also be read as an improvement, or a variation upon the podvig, (the heroic Christian action of the saints), where the hero defeats satanic forces not because of an idiosyncratic, "monkish" action, but because of his steadfastness, bravery and -- almost as an afterthought -- his having shown the Sign of the Cross to the Devil. Here, this aspect of the hero's character is not implicit, but the hero's identity and tribulations are to be further developed in other characters in the Second Volume in Taras' sons, who, were educated in Kiev, or in Katherina's father in "The Terrible Vengeance" .
As to the "realistic" details, upon a closer examination it becomes clear that there is as much real realism in this story as in the details of Dante's Divine Comedy. Realism is clearly of a visionary kind. Already, the first leg of the journey has announced evil foreboding: Grandfather has arrived at a place called Konotop -- The etymology may have to do with, kon', horse, and tonut" to drown, or cause to drown, thus providing a sturdy hint as to the ill-fated nature of the place. Here a fair is in progress. But strangely, everybody is lying about as if dead. The picture is alien, strange, and as foreboding as details in the Divine Comedy, or in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or, in modern times, of Picasso. Gogol, of course, provides a "realistic" explanation: everybody is drunk. But animals, too?
Against this background a mysterious figure appears: a Cossack from Dniepr (he is unprovided with a name), the very figure of quintessential manliness, and the personification of an heroic past. He is dressed in "Trousers red as fire" (remember the red vest in "The Fair at Sorocints" ?), "a full-skirted blue coat and bright flowered sash, a saber at his side and a pipe with a fine brass chain dangling right down to his heels, a regular Dniepr Cossack. Yes, the good old days are over; you don't see many Cossacks nowadays." This Dniepr Cossack, a figure alien to grandfather's Cossacks, plays a fatal role in future developments. Grandfather meets him when he runs out of tobacco and is looking for the opportunity to borrow some. Unsurprisingly, the Dniepr Cossack materializes as if from thin air.
Thus, it is his passion for tobacco, Gogol's symbol for manliness, that waylays Grandfather as it will others of Gogol's heroes, who are led astray from the strait and narrow path of virtue by a petty temptation offered by that enemy of mankind, the Devil. Indeed, the Dniepr Cossack causes Grandfather to stop dead at the fair, drinking and carousing as if he had no further business in hand. This disastrous "friendship" does not stop here: The Dniepr Cossack and another mysterious companion join the hero on his further journey.
The companions continue carousing and drinking in a more remote place where the Dniepr Cossack confesses to the hero that he has sold his soul to the Devil and that the hour of paying up is at hand. Here, clearly, is the Faust story in Ukrainian garb. Indeed, next morning, the Dniepr Cossack, as well as Grandfather's hat (onto which the letter was sewed) and his horse are gone, as well as the mysterious companion. In order to retrieve them, Grandfather has to go through a journey into Hell in a Ukrainian version of Dante's vision.The devils and their consorts celebrate a version of the Walpurgisnacht (the Dark Night of the Soul) where else but in a dark forest, close to a place where gypsies live? In order to get there, one must follow a narrow path that leads to a brook, cross a bridge, and, once over the water and the bridge, one reaches one's destination, which proves to be none other than Dante's Cocytus or Goethe's Walpurgisnacht.
The creatures there have animal snouts: "pig faces, dog faces, goat faces, bird faces and horse faces". 35 They invite the hero to eat a gluttonous meal with them; but there is a problem: the food never reaches the hero's mouth; it always ends up in the mouth of another. Finally, Grandfather is offered a deal: if he wants to retrieve his cap, letter and horse, he must play cards with the monsters. If he wins one game, his wishes will be fulfilled; if he loses, "It's no use your fuming. You'll never see your cap nor maybe the world again." 36 The game is as bewitched as the food, yet Grandfather is finally saved when he remembers that all he has to do is make the sign of the Cross. He does so, and everything turns out all right: "Thunder boomed in Hell, the witch went into convulsions, and all of a sudden, the cap flew smack into Grandfather's face". 37 Nothing remains of the horse but a skeleton, but the hero is given another horse -- by the Devil -- which flies away with him and leaves him lying on the roof of his own house.
Gogol closes the first Volume of his Ukrainian Tales with this account of a descent into Hell together with some practical advice as to how to deal with the Devil. In the three previous tales, it was the power of innocent love that overcame the Devil's machinations. Here are neither innocent love nor innocent lovers; only the lone male who is apparently beyond sexual temptations. His steadfastness, determination, his Christian faith, have beaten the Devil at his own game. We see the repetition of a convention, and at the same time a reduction of religious intellectual or cerebral commitment to plain advice as to how to smoke tobacco, eat dumplings, or drink vodka.
We shall have much to say later about Gogol's faith, but now wish only to underline his realism in depicting the "other" world: the here-and-now are only local colors applied to the universal theme which sees Man as poised between Heaven and Hell, precariously holding onto, or in search of, "his own place".
The second volume provides further opportunities to witness the development of Gogol's mind. Again, a preface dwells on the problem of the Narrator. Gogol mentions four narrators, or would-be narrators: the "old fellow", who, of course, is Rudi Panko; then some new narrators, who will be introduced later; Foma Grigorevic; and finally, the "Gentleman with the pea-green coat" from Poltava, whose name is mentioned here for the only time as Makar Nazarovic.
But before any of them can tell their stories, Rudi Panko remembers his seventieth birthday, when seven people came to celebrate (as he has been celebrating for the last fifty years). They ruffle each other's tempers over the best way of pickling apples. Two particularly antagonistic voices speak, Foma Grigorevic's and the voice of the "gentleman with the pea-green coat" whose uncle was once a commissioner. It is agreed by those present, however, that the "gentleman with the pea-green coat" is not up to Foma Grigorevic's narrative talents.
If we recall that in the discussion of the first Preface we suspected that the "Gentleman with the pea-green coat" was Gogol himself, our suspicion is further corroborated. Gogol still retains the same fictional identity as an "outsider" in the fictive Cossack world, even though his "Uncle" , too, was once an authority, a commissioner. The "Gentleman's" authority is somewhat precariously supported by his uncle's authority as a commissioner, so he willingly cedes place to Grigorevic. Rudi Panko remains the principal narrator. His wistful remarks have permeated the Preface: once the narration is done, the narrator will be forgotten and "no one will remember the old beekeeper."
Aside from the nostalgic notes of leave-taking and the evocation of the transitory nature of things, even art, in an echo of Derzhavin's and Pushkin's preoccupation, the artist will not be spared by the merciless passage of time. The Preface offers some other fictional names of "those who came to celebrate Rudi Panko's birthday", and who, by the way, do not reappear anywhere in the stories and who deserve mention here only as an example of Gogol's linguistic inventiveness: Zakhr Ivanovic Khokhopupenko (..the laughing Ass); Stepan Ivanovic Kurocka (or the Little Chicken), Taras Ivanovic Smacnenki (the Tasty Little Morsel, or perhaps the Little glutton) and Kharlamy Kirilovic Khlest (or the Whip, which later in "The Inspector General " turns into Khlestakov).
These are all witness an artistic competition, like a duel of Minnesa"ngers, between Foma Grigorevic and the Gentleman with the Pea-green coat. All agree that the Gentleman is less skilled and less trustworthy than Foma Grigorevic -- is Gogol eternally playing hide-and-seek with his readers? Or is he himself really not quite sure of his proper role as narrator? We are face to face again with the issue of "one's rightful place" (svoe mesto.)
The first story in Volume Two is another of the Seasonal tales and is tied to significant dates in the Russian Church calendar. It narrates events by way of a wedding that illustrate the significance of the calendar in which every event of the year is a demonstration of the relentless march of Christian principles. Significantly, in accordance with the symbolism of numbers, this is the third in the cycle: "Christmas Eve " follows after " St. John's Eve " and "May Night" . Remarkably, all three focus on the night as the symbol of darkness and the pagan world, in contradistinction to the shining sun of daylight which represents the Christian world. In " St. John's Eve" Gogol dealt with the evil consequences of following a pagan philosophy in which the end justifies the means, in contrast to the Christian world view of God's retribution for the suffering of the innocents. This latter presupposes a change of heart resulting from Baptism -- St. John the Baptist's name carries with it the optimism of Christian theory in direct contrast to the view of the pagan Ivan Kupala (the etymology of the word is from kupatsya - to take a bath). In "May Night", the narrator focuses on the miracle of Resurrection celebrated at Easter time which makes the wedding of the innocent young lovers possible. In the third and final Christian story, the cycle is logically completed through its presentation of the victory of Christian principles on earth through the birth of Christ.
Again, pagan and Christian traditions clash.The pagan tradition is symbolized by an Apocrypha which posits the mysterious nature of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. In this case, the nature of God's justice is questioned: Why does God allow evil to exist, or, as Gogol puts the question: Why is God giving permission to the Devil to roam the world and seduce whomever he can? The answer in the Book of Job is here modified and the faithful are given ironclad assurances that all happens for a good purpose, and that the Devil's freedom of action is strictly limited: he can do his misdeeds only until the birth of Christ, when a New Age will begin. Then all deviltry must stop, and the true relationship between Man and God will be established. Therefore, the night before Christmas provides the Devil with his last chance to do mischief, and by Christmas morning, he and his evil deeds must be gone. This is the general apocryryphal view. The localized version, which as we shall see is a Ukrainian version of Greek/ pagan myths, connects with the general Apocrypha which the story provides.
Here, then are the standard, classical characters of the human comedy, translated into Ukrainian terms: The middle-aged, rich widower Chub (or, according to the etymology of the word, forelock) is a vain, aggressive He-Man; his beautiful, seventeen year-old daughter, a haughty, capricious but moldable girl; her future lover, and husband-to-be, the village blacksmith Vakula (who, by curious coincidence, is also a painter of icons); Vakula's middle-aged, widowed mother Solokha who, in keeping with the laws of the gogolian universe, is sexually promiscuous and therefore probably a witch. Add to these the cast of earthly players, the villagers who fall into two categories: the middle-aged males, out to win and enjoy Solokha's favors, and the young people intent on enjoying their innocent merry-making (like caroling). These young people have to establish and defend their own identity, especially sexually, against the corruption of the older generation. On the other planes there is only one player, the Devil. His counterpart, God or Christ, does not appear in person, even though both are manifest in the results of their action, the complete destruction of the Devil's purposes and the victory of innocent love despite his machinations.
The earthly Apocrypha focuses upon Vakula, the blacksmith and icon-painter, like his greek counterpart, Vulcan (Hephaistos). (Gogol's scrambling of the consonants should not lead us astray). His Ukrainian version of the Greek god is a good-natured, hard-working youth who, like his counterpart, is rather ugly among all the beautiful young Ukrainians, and is also madly in love with the most beautiful Oksana, a Ukrainian version of Aphrodite. Again the issue is the happiness of the young people, which runs into seemingly insurmountable obstacles because of the sexual and material corruption of the older generation. The agent and beneficiary in all the confusion is, unsurprisingly, the Devil,we recall Dostoyevsky's Devil's comment: "I am the necessary X in every indeterminate equation!" The Devil does not like what Vakula has done as an icon-painter since one of his murals depicted the downfall of Evil and the victory of God. Gogol tells us that : "He (Vakula) was a God-fearing man, and often painted icons of the saints; even now you may find his Luke the Evangelist in the church of T...But the triumph of his art was a picture painted on the church wall in the chapel to the right. In this he depicted St. Peter on the Day of Judgment with the keys of Heaven in his hand driving the Evil Spirit out of Hell." 38 And he concludes, "...from that day on the Devil has sworn to avenge himself on the blacksmith!" Clearly, the Devil has a Logical reason for his hatred.
In order to take revenge on Vakula, the Devil devises a fairly simple plan, namely, that Chub is not to permit the marriage of his daughter Oksana. The easiest way to achieve this purpose is for Chub and Solokha to get married, thus making Oksana and Vakula step-sister and brother, who, according to Orthodox law, cannot marry. The timing of the plan is for the last night before Christmas: the Devil steals the moon, while the witch Solokha steals the stars so that Chub and the rest of the villagers can be confused out of their minds with the desired result.Chub stays at home instead of going to a drinking party at the Sexton's house, and prevents the young couple's marriage. A magnificent deviltry, a carefully woven web of confusion follows, with most of the village dignitaries (including Chub) arriving at Solokha's where,in order to hide them from one another,she stuffs them into empty coal bags which her son Vakula had left behind. Vakula, on the other hand, stumbles over to Oksana's house. Later that night, in a breath-taking space flight on the Devils' back, he visits the court of Catherine II and gets her golden slippers which are part of the price set by Oksana as a condition for marrying him.
Finally, we see Oksana already holding a baby in her arms,in imitation of the picture Vakula had so much admired at the Czarina's palace, an icon of the Virgin and Child. Vakula is painting another mural for the church, this time depicting the Devil in hell, whose figure is so loathsome that everyone spits as they pass. And the women take their crying children up to the picture and say: "There, look what a kaka ! And the child, restraining its tears, would steal a glance at the picture and nestle closer to its mother" 39 The story overflows with fun, with exuberant playfulness in a sure-handed weaving of confusion and profound philosophical and religious implications. Gogol is already reaching the heights of his later works like in "The Nose "or "The Diary of a Madman".
All the details of the story are carefully crafted and coordinated. It is difficult to single out any for consideration, but in view of later developments, some still need special mention. For example, the detail that Vakula is not just a blacksmith but an icon-painter as well, so that the legend of Vulcan/Hephaistos has been transformed to Gogol's own needs, though the Greek god's weapon-making is de-emphasized -- and though, of course, as blacksmith, Vakula is fashioning all manner of artifacts for everyone in the village. His artistry, on the other hand, is a focus: in Gogol's Ukrainian world, it turns him into an icon-painter, so that the Heavenly Armorer of Greece is transformed. Not arms, but tools and icons are his trade, bearing witness to the reality of God's visible world (cf. Florinski: The Iconostasis ). 40 The icon-painter is thus not merely an artist creating out of his own, human mind and intuition, but rather a priest through whom god is incarnated to the faithful. In this manner, Vakula's paintings are truly a prophecy of the final damnation of the Devil and the victory of God on Earth. This promise makes of him a messenger, a go-between of the two worlds and therefore, an Angel. And his marriage to Oksana, the Christian (Ukrainian) Aphrodite, provides a connecting link between Man and God -- who, of course, is also Ukrainian.
Another detail deserving of comment is the form in which the Devil appears, his essence and modus operandi. If God's people are Ukrainian, then the Devil is a foreigner, of the worst kind, a German. He is also a ladies' man, trafficking with witches: Solokha is "neither beautiful nor ugly", "neither old nor young", but she is a promiscuous hypocrite and a suitable companion. The Devil's essence resides in tricks, temptations and lies. When he is finally overcome, Gogol comments: "And so, instead of tricking, tempting and fooling others, the Enemy of mankind has fooled himself." He operates by appealing to the basest human instincts, like promiscuity, as opposed to the selfless idealism of the young; also by prosaic manipulation of power, as opposed to the magnanimous egalitarianism and friendship of the young. But he is not victorious: his downfall is predicted, or rather, predetermined and comes about through some minor accident, a miscalculation as to some detail. Here, for example, the Devil overlooked the fact that Chub, confused in the darkness generated by him, will not ,as the Devil had planned go home, to meet Vakula, should he turn up. Instead, driven by promiscuous temptation, he stumbles straight into Solokha's house, where the Devil himself has settled down to while away the night pleasantly. Needless to say, neither Chub nor the Devil will reap the desired harvest; instead, they will have to witness the piling up of would-be lovers in Solskha's coal bags, to their great discomfort and dismay. Indeed, a feeling of disgust will be generated overall by the participants, and it is logical that Chub will give up the very idea of marrying Solokha as disgusting. Feelings of revulsion, ugliness and filth are left over when the Devil's tricks are unmasked. Thus it is highly significant that the final paragraph, depicting a mother's correction of her unruly child be expressed through the most basic childish world for disgust, kaka an almost universal term for excrement, as elementary in all languages as mama and papa. This definition of the Devil as kaka is one which Gogol will further develop.
The two other stories of the Second Volume are not connected to The Russian Orthodox calendar, nor are they connected to the theme of "The Fair at Sorocints" . The fictitious narrator is also missing.
"A Terrible Vengeance" 41 looks like a straightforward narration about the olden times, the mythical significance and possibilities of which Gogol was so fond. It begins in medias res: the wedding which provides the de´nouement in the other tales is here at the outset. The Cossack captain, Gorobets (from gora -mountain- the etymology probably has something to do with mountains or being on the top of things), celebrates the wedding of his son to which all kinds of important people are invited. His adopted brother (nazvannyj brat ) Danilo Burul'bas accompanied by his young and beautiful wife, brings their one year-old son who is the visible symbol of their marital happiness. The child is also the surest sign of young love's victory over the Devil's manipulations. Someone has not come -- as Donald Fanger has so perceptively pointed out, in Gogol's work there is always an "absence of things" that is significant.
Hints abound that Katherina's father, a venerable old Cossack, has something oddly mysterious about him: he has been absent from the Cossack lands for twenty years; nobody knows where he has been before his strange return the previous year. Thus he was absent from his daughter's wedding, but the date of his return is significant since it neatly coincides with the birth of Katherina's and Danilo's son. Now he is absent from the wedding of his adopted brother's son or, at least, so it at first seems.
íhe tensely crafted text moves ahead with great force; soon we find ourselves in the middle of an uproar: As the groom's father holds up two miracle-working icons to the celebrants, the women and children notice an unexpected change in one of the Cossacks: He has turned into a monster, into a koldun, or sorcerer: He is none other than Katherina's father, who has a single secret passion, the desire for incestuous relations with his own daughter. In the stories previously discussed the sexual corruption of the older generation has been a manifestation of the Devil's influence.Here Gogol develops the topic to its logical extreme of incest. Twelve of the sixteen short chapters (or rather, thirteen, with the addition of a philosophical cadenza) are devoted to the presentation of the desperate efforts of the wayward father to achieve his desired goal:
Dreams and foreboding and now strange dream events follow in horrifying confusion. The characters behave as if they were acting out a Greek tragedy, and as if their fate had been predestined. Danilo, for example, the quintessential heroic, straightforward, and therefore doomed Cossack male, is devoted to his Cossack values, which are to fight the infidels, to defend the Christian faith, to drink vodka and eat dumplings, and to love his wife and son truly.
Of course, he is hopelessly outmaneuvered by Katherina's father, and his ultimate demise comes as no surprise. Nor does the death of his son and finally, Katherina's, both the result of the dealings of her merciless father. As the father changes his appearance, he uses devious tricks and magical events to fight the uneven battle. Gogol is at his best in portraying the relentless, mysterious, predetermined drive of the sorcerer to achieve his ends.The sorcerer father nevertheless, remains unsuccessful, as he never manages to possess Katherine, though his effort to do so destroys his entire family.
The mystery of this strange passion is explained in the remaining three chapters: the sorcerer finds himself trapped as he tries to flee the scene of his crimes, going always in the opposite direction and finally, when his horse turns his head back at him and "laughs at him", he realizes that some mysterious force has been driving him towards a strange and fated place, the Carpathian mountains. Here he stumbles upon a hermit, whom he asks to pray for him. The hermit refuses, saying that God would not allow him to pray for such a terrible sinner, whereupon the sorcerer commits his final misdeed and kills the hermit.With this sorcerer's destiny is completed: a mysterious giant rider arises above the mountains, picks him up and casts his dead body down into the abyss. There, the dead rise up, throw themselves at him, and begin to gnaw at him with their long and horrible teeth.
Chapter Sixteen (divided into smaller chapters) provides an explanation. An outside narrator, a bandurist -- a medieval lute player -- takes over. He sings of Ivan and Petro, two knights from the "long bygone times". Their story is the Ukrainized version of the Biblical legend of Cain and Abel. Just as in the Bible, the two brothers, here Ivan and Petro , act as symbols for Man's murderous instincts prompted by vanity and greed. Under King Stephen, the brothers have become mortal enemies, because Ivan, 'after an important battle, is thought to be favored over Petro. Petro, pushes Ivan and his young son off the mountain into a precipice in order to claim his brother's advantage. But he, too, dies and comes to God's final Judgment. God calls in his treacherously murdered brother and asks him to think of a punishment for Ivan since He himself is at a loss as to what the appropriate punishment should be. And Ivan obliges: in three short chapters he demands a punishment which amazes even God: It consists of seven points, which ultimately lead to eternal suffering of the guilty, that is, not the seventh, but the seven-times seventh generation. It also includes the complete annihilation of his own offspring, to be accomplished by Petro himself, in different guises and different generations. Finally, Ivan exults, "I shall rejoice looking at his sufferings!" Whereupon God pronounces: "A terrible punishment hast thou devised, O man , All shall be as thou hast said, but thou shalt forever sit on thy horse and shalt not enter the Kingdom of Heaven." 43The story closes with a further explanation: Petro's dead descendants are growing under the mountains and gnawing on each other. Their underground commotion is the cause of earthquakes.
We are dealing once again with an apocryphal parable of the eternal questions as to the unfathomable justice and the enigma of Judgment Day. From this perspective, we retroactively understand the story's title, "A Terrible Vengeance ". The English translation does not truly mirror the original Russian title: Strashnaya mest', which in Russian is literally " The Terrible Judgment" . We have already had the opportunity to observe Gogol hiding behind linguistic approximations, just as he has been hiding behind his different narrators. We propose, therefore, that the Terrible Judgment refers not only to the religious concept of the Last Day when God will pronounce Judgment, casting some away and choosing some, but also the moment when the Seventh Seal will be broken and all will be explained. We remember Marmaladov's saying that on that Day "we will understand everything, everybody... even my wife will understand everything" -- and we realize that Gogol is referring to the mystery of the entire concept of Divine Justice which will torture him increasingly. Was God shirking His responsibility in not punishing Petro and instead asking Ivan to devise a punishment for his treacherous brother? was God hiding behind Ivan (as Gogol hid behind his fictional narrators)? Or was He doing Ivan a favor -- or was He setting him up in allowing him to devise his own punishment? Or was it right that He should allow the revenge to be carried out, but then punish the innocent by barring him from Paradise and ordering him eternally to watch the suffering of the guilty: Or was it right to expect misericordia, divine compassion and forgiveness, from the victim of crimes which God himself will not forgive?
And, to return to the story, why did God allow the suffering and the destruction of the innocents, of brave Danilo, and chaste Katherina, who had to choose between filial duty and an almost transcendental disgust over her father's incestuous desires? Or why did God allow the death of their young son just for the sake of proving an abstract philosophical point? And finally, why did God deny the prayer of the sorcerer and his request for absolution when he asked the hermit to intercede on his behalf with God?
The questions could be further multiplied, but they would all point to the same basic dilemma and the sad realization that God's actions are unfathomable and that the further we explore them, the less intelligible they become. Furthermore, what we understand turns out to be grotesquely trivial as in the complicated explanation for earthquakes.
Gogol's religious questions are getting more and more serious. His so-called "religious crisis" some four years down the road (ca. 1836 and later) will not so much be the result of some kind of sudden or unexpected development, but rather the logical extension of these youthful preoccupation.
The final story in the Dikanka cycle, "Ivan Fedorovic Sponka and his Aunt", is introduced by a narrator who in his turn is hiding behind the authority of yet another narrator, Stepan Ivanovic Kurochka, whose story is retold here. The narrator excuses himself from the very outset, explaining that he has a poor memory ,we recognize the device of the unreliable narrator,and, to make things worse, that he does not know the ending of the story because his wife used the unguarded papers of the manuscript in baking a pie so that they were lost forever..
Gogol offers familiar excuses for the purportedly unreliable nature of the narration: as usual, first, it is told by a second narrator from hearsay, one with a bad memory at that; then the end is missing and finally, womenfolk think so little of the stories, seeing them as the foolish occupation of male loafers, that they can use the manuscript pages for more essential human activity like baking pies. Stories versus pies -- we recognize a Gogolian formulation of the basic human contradictions of mind and body.
The story of Ivan Fedorovic Sponka is told in five brief chapters about the quintessential Gogolian poslost ' the word that Nabokov defined among other things in his famous essay on Gogol as "self-satisfied mediocrity". 44 The word could also be translated as "smugness", or portentous stupidity. Everything in this tale breathes the air of poslost.'
It begins by introducing Ivan Fedorovic Sponka, the etymology of whose names suggests a "small hook", or even the sharp claws of a bird of prey (but some critics say it has something to do with a word in dialect indicating a diminutive phallus). We suspect that it might have some connection also with the etymology of the very name of Gogol, which in Ukrainian can also mean gander.
The focus is on the presentation of a strange life, one could almost say a perverted version of the Lives of the Saints. What makes one think in such terms is particularly the hero's awkwardness, throughout his life he has been considered harmless but weird and has never met with any approval from his peers and relatives, a misfit -- in other words, the sort of hero usually celebrated in the Lives of the Saints. We realize, of course, an immediate objection, that the Lives portray holy men whose strange behavior has to do with their being a yurodivy (or "holy fool"), for what is there holy about Ivan Fedorovic Sponka? Nothing, at least at the the point where the story stops. But we should remember that it is unfinished. Take any legend from the Lives of the Saints and stop it somewhere in the middle, where the strangeness of the hero has been recorded, and leave it without the final resolution, after the saint's death, when his strange behavior is explained and justified as the humble, self-effacing behavior of a hero who is destined for sainthood. The result would be the tale of a peculiar hero who behaves oddly in the eyes of normal people. He may walk in the snow barefoot, may torture his body in unimaginable ways, may fast outrageously, may spend his time chanting or mumbling strange, incoherent sentences. Only his sanctified end justifies his otherwise abnormal behavior.
Gogol's interest in medieval literature, especially in the Lives of the Saints, will be dealt with later. At this juncture, it seems sufficient to explain many of the story's strange features as well as the odd behavior of its hero.
The story begins with the Sponka's life in school. His teacher's name is recorded as Nikifor Ivanovich Deeprichastie or "Nikifor Ivanovich Participle". He is one of those morons who populate Gogol's pages and whom we plan to consider as the "wrong authority" when we explain Gogol's later crisis of belief. His teaching is based on guess-work, as we deduce from the name of the local school at Gadyac (gadat: 'from the word, guessing). His activity is focused not so much on implanting intellectual curiosity in his pupils as on beating and abusing them.During the hero's school years he was called by his nickname Vanyusha, (the proverbial Ivan, or Vanya, the Ivanuska Durachok of Russian folk-tales). These years were remarkable for only one thing: he started out as a model pupil and so was made a monitor by his Latin teacher. But when fellow-pupils who had not prepared their lessons wanted to bribe him with "a pancake soaked in butter", he could not resist the temptation: "He took the pancake...and began eating it." He did so at the very moment when the teacher entered the classroom, noticed his model pupil's unseemly behavior, took away the pancake, and beat the unworthy monitor. The characteristic features of this incident are that Ivan was naturally good but was unable to resist the material temptation of a slippery, buttery pancake; and finally, his fall from grace was punished by his teacher. The effect on him is terror and fear of punishment. As Gogol says, "the timidity which has always been characteristic of him, was more marked from that time forward." There follows a further generalization: "Possibly this incident was the explanation of his feeling no desire to enter the civil service, having learned by experience that one is not always successful in hiding one's misdeeds." 45 If, by the way, we look carefully at these details, it appears that we are not justgiven a glimpse of Gogol's personal reminiscences of his own school years (Chichikov's school memories will parallel Sponka's), but that salient features can again be related to The Lives of the Saints in the incident's individual steps.
In Gogol's assertion that Ivan was naturally good, that he could not resist temptation, that he sacrificed duty and a spiritual calling for some tempting food, and that, finally, sin is quickly followed by punishment which terrifies the sinner and renders him impotent, unable to face the further adventures of life, we have an opportunity to observe the operation of this psychological approach which will characterize the heroes of Gogol's later work.
Next, Ivan Sponka's military service is tapped. It was as undistinguished as his school years. As he was once a model student, he became a model officer, except in one thing: he did not do what most of the officers did,he did not carouse, drink, nor go wenching. He abstained not by choice but by virtue of an inborn inferiority complex. In other words, he displayed strange behavior, he was a yurodivyj a "fool in Christ" in the midst of the normal life swirling around him. His life is interrupted " only " after fourteen years of service.
The number fourteen by the way, is two times seven years, or, in religious terms, an unfinished, incomplete stretch of time which has ended with a letter from his aunt asking him to come home and take over the family farm. Now begins the third episode of his unfinished life-story, this time in his native environment. Sponka, have agreed immediately to his aunt's request, now finds that he enjoys being a landowner. Some of the tales's most lyrical passages are devoted to descriptions of Sponka's watching the peasants at work. (These, perhaps, foreshadow Gogol's practical advice to Russian landowners which we shall observe later in Selected Passages...) We see him watching sunsets and other of Nature's aesthetic displays, but the mood does not last long. In an inn on the way home, Sponka meets his neighbor,Grigory Grigorevic Storchenko, a landowner from the village of Khortyshce: the meeting is to have fatal consequences. The name of the village, in accordance with Gogol's predilections for suiting name to character,may have de- rived from the Polish word sztorcowac, or curse. Storchenko is described as a fat, foul-mouthed bully, a precursor of similar characters in gogol's later work.
Further details appear, almost as preliminary studies for Gogol's plays (e.g. "The Marriage " or for the Dead Souls ). Aunt Vasilisa Kasporovna Tsupcevska is a masculine, dominating, bossy woman who lacks any feminine charm or interest in sexual matters, even though her motivation to get Sponka to come home and take over the farm was dominated by grandmotherly feelings. She wants to see "grandchildren " around her. The topsy-turvy, run-down family farm, the peasants and their children, the village slum, Storchenko's invitation to a dinner where Sponka meets another neighbor, Ivan Ivanovich who is a habitual liar, and Storchenko's strange family -- all these are straight out of the traditions of a puppet theater and are important components of Gogol's poslost.
We note especially that Ivan Ivanovich , in an attempt to show off his education, mentions a late medieval Apocrypha "The Travels of a Moscow Merchant, Trifon Korobevnikov and His Comrades to Jerusalem, Egypt and Mount Sinai in 1838 ", as the latest in literary entertainment. Further, this Apocrypha speaks of the merits of monastic life, which appear to relate to Sponka's own history.
The same can be said of the two love intrigues. One is a murky passion of the older generation, while the other should have been the happy love affair of two young people leading to probable marriage. The older love intrigue concerns Sponka's deceased mother and her one-time neighbor, Stepan Kuzmic, who seem to have enjoyed an extramarital affair "before Sponka was born." This relationship seems also to be confirmed by Stepan Kuzmic's generosity, for he is suspected of having deeded some land to Sponka, the only trouble being that the deed has been frittered (swindled) away by the present owner of the land, Stepan Kuzmic's nephew, Storchenko. In order to resolve the complexity of a need for grandchildren combined with getting the land back to its rightful owners, Sponka's aunt suggests a marriage between him and Storchenko's daughter, Masha. The desired visit takes place and produces the famous, "romantic" dialogue between the would-be lovers about the "multitude of flies" which have appeared that summer. The irrelevance of their reaction is much like Sponka's inappropriate terror when he was caught eating pancakes in school and threatened with a mysterious punishment.
The unfinished story ends as Sponka realizes how dangerously close he has been to getting married, an idea which had not crossed his mind up to that point at all. His surprise may seem strange, since he was "only 37 years old", as his aunt so lovingly remarks. Instead of embracing the idea of marriage, he has a nightmare. This nightmare, consisting of twelve individual details, has been analyzed in critical literature -- with many Freudian overtones -- as indicating Gogol's fear of marriage, his distrust of women, or even probable homosexual tendencies. But from our point of view, it can be viewed as yet another case of the odd behavior we have traced, of the estrangement of the hero from "normal" life. As such, it can easily be related to similar details in The Lives of the Saints, in the temptation of Saint Anthony (251-356 AD.) by monsters who proffer their sexual blandishments. Anthony, known as Antonii the Great in the Russian Orthodox Church, was the founding father of monastic life. His name was later adopted by Antonii Pecerski (982-1073 AD.) the founder of the Kiev-Pecersk Monastery and of Russian monastic life in general.St. Anthony's struggles against the monsters of sexual-temptation were vividly depicted by medieval artists -- especially by Mathias Gruenewald (1460-1528) in his famous altarpiece at Isenheim in Germany. Could Gogol have had St. Anthony in mind as a model (podlinnik , or original, in the language of iconography) for Sponka's nightmare? We cannot say for sure, but the very fact that the nightmare consists of twelve episodes suggests the sacred nature of the vision. That Gogol practiced this secular handling of religious tradition is certainly a feature of his later fiction, as we shall see in our discussion of" The Overcoat" and "The Nose".
Should we accept the possibility of this interpretation, then the question as to why Gogol stopped the story here, apparently in medias res when the story is as yet incomplete, may be easier to answer. For one thing, the unfinished nature of the story comes into question: Can we be sure that we are not up against Gogol's usual bag of tricks, his hiding, relinquishing his "own place" behind issues secondary to the main argument and declaring a story unfinished when actually it has reached its logical end, as far as the argument is concerned? Perhaps in its tri-partite structure it is finished as it is.
If it were only a story about some strange Ukrainian character, then one could certainly see it as unfinished; but if the narrative was really moving in the direction of a legend from the Lives of the Saints, as we propose, then the first three incidents in Sponka's life, testifying to his peculiar nature, could just as well-be illustrations of a development which leads to the spiritual consequences of unconventional life and the hero's being recognized as a saint. Possible religious issues are the question of temptation, resisting temptation, and the nature of monastic life. This last was already an issue in the Dikanka cycle in "The Terrible Vengeance" , and will grow in importance both in Gogol's later fiction and in his real life as well.
What Gogol's intentions may have been, of course, it is hard to say, even though the general development of his work clearly moves in the direction here indicated. One thing is sure: The tale of Sponka parallels one of the first in the Dikanka cycle, where marriage, or the proposed marriage of a young couple does not solve the complex social and existential issues raised.Onthe contrary, the fear of commitment produces one of the most memorable of Gogol's nightmares.
The second volume of the Dikanka cycle closes with an eerily puzzling story, "A Bewitched Place-A True Story Told by the Sexton". Here again, a narrator retells one of his Grandfather's stories. It is a strange tale, without any love intrigue, and the subject is quickly defined: How to fool the Devil. "Well, we were talking about a man's being able to get the better, as the saying is, of the Devil. To be sure, if it comes to that, all sorts of things do happen in this world." 46This is a complicated narrative about Grandfather's planting a melon patch along the roadside in order to sell his harvest to passing travelers. One day, when a group of drivers, old buddies of his, stop, the conversation and merry-making reach a point where he orders his grandchildren to show off their dancing. Dissatisfied with their performance, he starts to dance himself. At a certain moment, however, toward the center of the circle, his legs stop functioning. He cannot go on and assumes that the Devil is interfering. After this preamble, he goes through several experiences with the Devil who takes him to a place he barely recognizes, makes his friends disappear, and finally shows him a site where he says a treasure is buried. This deviltry lasts three days. Grandfather returns home after these adventures, "wheeling like a barrel", and holding what he thinks is a pot of gold -- This, on closer inspection, turns out to contain only dirt and dung.
The story comes to rest here, with Grandfather delivering a sermon to his grandchildren: "Don't you believe it" , he would often say to us. " Whatever the foe of our Lord Christ says, he is always lying, the son of a bitch !There isn't a kopeck's worth of truth in him." 47 Foma Grigorevic ends the story with a sort of cadenza: "So you see how the Devil fools Man," and adds in explanation, "the Devil only knows what to make of it." 48
This ending is indeed dumbfounding. We ask why the Devil felt the need to interfere with Grandfather's harmless showing off: Why on earth was he irritated by Grandfather's dance? We do not know, but there seem to be certain parallels to "The Lost Letter ", which closes the first volume of the Dikanka cycle. The hero of both tales is a Grandfather who has done something unusual, something out of the ordinary. In "The Lost Letter ", he knows the holy texts by heart, for which reason, perhaps, he was sent on a mission to the Tsarina. Here, the Devil's irritation is triggered by Grandfather's dancing, which can be seen as out of the ordinary, as he wants to show off his strength and skill at an age inappropriate in the eyes of proper Cossack folk. Parallel lines can be detected in the fact that both grandfathers fight back, undeterred by the Devil's tricks. In their fight, they are both greatly helped by their habit of using tobacco -- sniffing or smoking tobacco, as we have indicated, plays an important role in the life of a man. Since it is a manly occupation, the Devil cannot tolerate it, reacting to it as a sign of independence and insubordination. Finally, there is a verbal recognition in both cases that the Devil can be conquered with manly determination; he can be shown up as a liar and not at all a powerful enemy, provided one knows how to resist him.
In surveying the stories in this cycle, we cannot help but recognize a somewhat surprising sequence. At first, even though the Devil is omnipresent, he can be defeated by the pure love of the younger generation. As the stories proceed, however, the Devil is shown to be more and more cunning. Even young lovers can lose to him if they make the wrong move somewhere along the road. And finally, young lovers disappear altogether and their place is taken over by tough old men, successfully fighting their lonely battle against the twisted forces of evil.
Footnotes to Chapter Three:
1. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch., t. 1, str. 103-309. Vechera na khutorye bliz Dikan'ki; in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.
2. .N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1. p.6.
3. A.Obolensky: Food-Notes to Gogol. op.cit.
4. Bertold Brecht: op.cit.p.111
5 The Tales of Hoffmann ( E.T.A. Hofmann) ed. tr. Michael Bullock. Ungar Publishing. 1963 See: Postscript p.245-passim
6. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.22.
7. .L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.22.
8. The Portable Tolstoy. ed.tr. John Bauley . Penguin Books. 1978.p.747-827
9. Bertold Brecht: op.cit.p.111
10. .Mario Bussagli, ed.: Bosch. Sadea/Sansoni.Ed. Firenze.1966.p.5
11. .Dante : The Divine Comedy. v.1.Hell. tr. Dorothy Sayers. Penguine Books.N.Y. 1949. p.104
13. .Abram Tertz: Fantastic Stories. Panheon Books.N.Y.1963. p.1-33.
14. .Setschkarev:op.cit. Karlinsky: op cit.
15. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.32.
16. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.33
19. Fezzi, Elda: Paul Gaugin:The Complete Paintings. v.1-2.N.Y.1981.
20.A.S. Pushkin: Sochineniya v trekh tomakh. M-L. 1978, str. 7. (Prolog k Ruslanu i Lyudmilye).
21. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.35
22. Dostoyevskij: The Brothers Karamazov, op.cit.
23. Synonym to " bezdomnyy " = homeless.
24. .N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.37
29. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.49
31. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p.49
33. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 52
34. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 62
35. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 77
36. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 86
37. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 85
39. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 94
40. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1.p 94
41. Svyashch. Pavel Plorinskiy: U vodoradelovmysli. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. YMCA Prtess. Parizh. 1985. str. 111 passim.
43. N.V. Gogol: Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English:L. Kent: op. cit. vol. 1 p. 94
44. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1. p 94
45. V.Nabokov: N.V.Gogol. op. cit. p .65
46. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1. p 173
47. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309. in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1. p 176
48 N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. t. 1. str. 103-309.
in English :L.Kent: op. cit. vol. 1. p 198
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Epilogue, Bibliography
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