Paradise Lost: Mirgorod

Chapter four from Gogol's Art : A Search for Identity by Laszlo Tikos

Copyright © 1996 Laszlo Tikos

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

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.

The 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

Chapter Four --

Paradise Lost: Mirgorod

Soon after the publication of the Dikanka tales, Gogol published two new volumes, The Mirgorod 1 and Arabesques 2 .The Mirgorod, as it subtitle indicates, was to be understood as a continuation of the Evenings at the Farm near Dikanka. It has four stories: "The Old-World Landowners ', 3 Taras Bul'ba in volume I and "Vii " and the "Tale of How Ivan Ivanovic Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovic " 4 in volume II. Written between 1832 and 1834, they were published early in 1835. Gogol was just 26.

The genesis of the first to be published, the "Two Old World Landowners ", has been well established by critics. We know that in the summer of 1832, Gogol visited his own village, Vasilevka, for the first time since moving to St. Petersburg. On his journey home, he also stopped at the small provincial town of Mirgorod. The title of this new collection therefore springs from an actual place near Gogol's homeland.

The Mirgorod is made up of Ukrainian stories, but in contradistinction to the Dikanka cycle, they sound an elegiac note reflecting a nostalgic afterglow. "The Old World Landowners" has been understood by various critics as a tribute to either Gogol's own grandparents or to some other old people whom Gogol visited in Mirgorod on the way home. Certainly, it is a tribute to a generation of Ukrainians whom Gogol admired, people living in that Golden Age of Ukrainian history which plays such an important role in his writing.

That Golden Age, like the Ovidian aura prima, is clearly evoked from literature with the introduction of the heroes, Afanasii Ivanovic Tovstogubov and his wife Pulxeria Ivanovna, whom Gogol compares to Philemon and Baucis of Greek mythology. The comparison of the Ukrainian past with the Homeric age produces certain recurring elements: In making the comparison, Gogol exclaims: "If I were a painter and wanted to portray Philemon and Baucis on canvas, I could chose no other models." 5 His interest in how other art forms would deal with his topic was to remain a permanent preoccupation (as we shall see when we come to the Arabeski ). Greek mythology, indeed, serves as the underlying philosophical current and heightens our perception of Gogol's concern with the interrelationship of past and present, of the vanishing Golden Age in the face of the advance of the Iron Age. In this manner, he elevated the homely folk-tale to an idyll, a sentimental, bucolic which assumes idosyncronic flavor of Gogol's own philosophical outlook. A nostalgic view of the present here moves with biblical overtones as well, toward the Preacher's mourning over the vanitatum vanitas of all earthly joy.

Afanasii Ivanovic and Pulcheria Ivanovna live in the happy homestead of two people growing old together. Childless, they devote themselves completely to one another. He is the spoiled, but kind, child in the household, while his motherly wife abets her only darling and sees that the "child" is fed and clothed and pampered in every way. Food, especially, is the central issue in their lives and Gogol has a veritable feast in describing the variety of delicacies that Afanasii Ivanovic consumes at all possible and impossible times of the day and night.The couple's conversation is limited, indeed, to food; the entire operation of the farm is centered around preparing, storing and organizing all that is needed to keep Afanasii Ivanovic eating and drinking most of the time.If Afanasii Ivanovic's passion is eating, Pulxeria Ivanovna's is not only to keep the household machinery humming, but also to keep the rooms of the house as warm as a tropical forest.

The somewhat dull but happy and, for the loving couple, meaningful life is interrupted by Pulxeria Ivanovna's death, which brings the whole edifice tumbling sown. Her death is not sudden, but well prepared by the introduction of an anecdote which we know Gogol heard on the way to Vasilevka, perhaps in Mirgorod: An old lady had a favorite cat who ran away. She saw his disappearance as an omen of her own impending death. He speedy demise confirmed her fears.

Gogol seized on this anecdote as he had the fable on the cinovnik who craved a hunting gun but lost it on his first hunting trip by dropping it accidentally into the water -- the incident which became the prototype of Akaki Akakievic's adventures in "The Overcoat". But what a difference there is between the prototype and Gogol's handling here! Pulcheria Ivanovna too, has a small gray cat which one day gets lost in the "thick forest" surrounding the house. True that while the cat returns after three days of vagabonding, Pulcheria Ivanovna has taken its disappearance as a sign of her impending death. Indeed, soon thereafter she dies. Gogol weaves this story of superstition into the internal logic of the narration which runs throughout as a mysterious undercurrent: the simultaneous absence and all-permeating presence of sex.We have already seen that the couple is childless and that they have reproduced the parent-child relationship in their behavior toward one another but the inexplicable yet paradoxical absence and presence of sex is omnipresent. Even though there are no other males in the household, the multitude of maid-servants are pregnant most of the time; the little gray cat did not just run away but was seduced by the horrible wild toms roaming in the wilderness that surrounds the house. She was abducted: " a company of soldiers seduces a silly peasant woman". And the cat has run away from the warm, pleasant home to exchange her petted life for the harsh reality of life in the forest, because "she had adopted to romantic principle that poverty with love is better than life in the palace." The irrational ingratitude of this little creature foreshadows similar unreasonable and ungrateful behavior in such other stories as Taras' Bul'ba. Gogol has turned the superstitious anecdote which he had heard by accident into a major philosophical insight into human psychology, his vision of the dialectical pull between life and reason. Thus, Pulcheria Ivanovna's preoccupation with her death and the preparations for her funeral, the precautions she takes for caring for her "child", who is her husband, after her death, elevate the story from the incidental and the superstitious to the level of medieval narratives of the Lives of the Saints (cf. L. Tolstoy's description of Natalya Savishna in Childhood.).

We may now ask, did the stray cat's sexual experiences remind Pulcheria Ivanovna of the transitory nature of all human love, be it sexual, platonic or rather, did it indicate to her that the only permanence of physical existence is in the children we leave behind, and that Afanasii Ivanovic, left on his own, will make for a very fragile and helpless offspring? We do not know; Gogol does not answer, and in general does not stray from the humorous treatment of the heroic couple; but the underlying and serious philosophical implications were recognized by Pushkin and Belinski, as well as other early critics and admirers of his art. They especially recognized Gogol's genius in his ability to combine mutually exclusive feelings of humor and tragedy: of superstition and the most profound philosophical and religious questions, of bombastic historical commonplace with and original and disturbing philosophy of history.

Pulcheria Ivanovna's death, of course, has a devastating effect on Afanasii Ivanovic he soon turns into a child-like imbecile unable to perform even the most simple chores, until death relieves him of living out the life of an orphan.

But to return to Philemon and Baucis: the devoted couple, as we know, play unwitting host to Zeus and Hermes who have visited them incognito. For their warm hospitality the gods reward them not with gold nor material goods -- though they offer these - but rather with their dying together so that the survivor will not suffer the agony of loneliness. This blessing is not granted to Gogol's holy couple. In his times and his fiction, the gods -- or later the Christian God, are less gracious and forgiving. It is clear that the Golden Age has indeed passed and that we are on the threshold of the crude and ruthless Iron Age.

Interestingly, Gogol himself is not helpless in the course of his inquiry into the causes of this change. It did not come about, for "no reason at all" ( pochemu-to ), as the famous Gogolian formulation has it; it came about because of the way human society is organized, the way the economy is run, the way matters simply get out of hand. Indeed, careful scrutiny reveals another recurrent feature, a social critique on the sad affairs in the then Ukrainian and Russian economies. Afanasii Ivanovic presides over a wasteful household: his stewards rob him blind, the estate upon which his peace and his quiet, Epicurean life rests is in shambles and indeed, the Golden Age has already been worse than undermined during his lifetime. It is easy to recognize Gogol as a much maligned and political reformer in the much debated political and economic thesis inherent in the Selected Passages...later we shall see that his religious crisis did not burst suddenly upon him, but had been in preparation from the very outset of his activities..

The final destruction of the Golden Age comes on rapidly after Pulcheria Ivanovna's death, and the story ends on a melancholy note about the petty "banality" (poshlost' ) of the poverty-stricken wasteland, which was formerly the Ukrainian Garden of Eden. Both nevertheless reappear in the final story of volume I, the Taras Bul'ba 6. This represents Gogol's excursion into the Golden Age of Ukrainian history, the 16th Century, when the Ukraine was an independent nation not yet attached to Russia, and fighting for its existence against the strong Polish state.

Critics have often viewed this novella ( some 130 pages in 12 chapters --11in the first version ) as a romantic work on history, as Gogol's glorification of the Cossacks, especially abhorrent for their cruelty and crude male camaraderie. Particularly vehement is the negative criticism in Simon Karlinsky's work, where Gogol's novel is treated as a youthful aberration, a nationalistic, jingoistic warmongering, a worship of the worst features of Ukrainian history. Yet this view misses the continuous development of Gogol's thought of the distant past, a legendary Golden Age in his native land existing only in legends and fairy tales, as he clearly understood. How do we know ? Frequent asides, author's comments dispersed throughout, tell us that Gogol treated Ukrainian history in the same way that Homer treated Greek history. Indeed, there are lengthy passages in Taras Bul'ba where the Iliad is clearly presented as progenitor.

As in the Greek legend, the story deals with the final, decisive events in the life of a Ukrainian legendary hero, Taras Bul'ba, a 16-th century Hetman of the Dnieper Cossacks, though this chronology does not stand up to historical scrutiny. No matter: Gogol is not writing history ( even though he was a professor of history at the time the story was written ). He is dealing with the rise and decline of the hero and the hero's family. We first see Taras Bul'ba as he welcomes his sons, Osta and Andrei, on their return from the Latin school where they had been sent several years ago to receive an education. Now, their education completed, they are back home and ready to start "real" life. Real life is different from school: In school they were supposed to learn the humanistic values of the western Middle ages: Gogol offers a nostalgic picture of humanistic studies in the Kiev school which provided the Ukraine with a window onto western values through Polish intermediaries. Now, on their return to the Ukraine, their first order from their doting father is to forget what they have learned. Life for the "real" Cossack is not humanism but war, not the worship of the "beautiful lady" but male comradeship and hard drinking in the Cossack camps, killing and gathering booty -- all, of course, on behalf of Orthodox Christianity which must be defended against the Infidel, that is, the Polish Catholics who have subverted Orthodox Christianity.This heady mixture of values is bound to be a recipe for trouble.

The second motif runs like a contrapuntal fugue under the sadness of human folly. Offering a typical example, Gogol sighs: "But the future is unknown, and it stands before man like the autumn fog that rises from the swamp: in it the birds fly senselessly up and down, flapping their wings, not recognizing one another. The dove does not see the hawk, the hawk does not see the dove; and no one knows how far he is flying from his doom". 7

Taras takes his sons to the Cossack camp, vividly described in its confusion and male roughhousing: Gogol had a keen eye for the political structure of the Cossack camp of the Golden Age, noting its elective democracy and its adherence to the supremacy of the vox pouli as the vox dei .In this democratic society, the people demand a military campaign against the infidel Poles, a call which the leaders gladly obey.

The campaign launched, the Cossacks reach a fortified town held by the Poles. A siege follows, and it looks like a matter of time before the Cossacks will take the city, loot it, kill the enemy, and finish the campaign victoriously. Not surprisingly, disaster strikes: Taras' younger son, Andrei, on sentry duty, is hailed by a Tartar woman who is a messenger from the beleaguered city. Her news is disturbing: the Polish governor's daughter ( gubernatorskaya dochka ), whom Andrei has known and with whom he was once in love during his student days in Kiev, is in the city. She has learned that Andrei is among the Cossack troops and now wants to let him know that she is suffering and that she wants him to help her; "Go and tell him" the Tartar woman reports her saying, "if he remembers me, he must come to me; and if he does not, he must give a piece of bread for my old mother, for I do not want to see her die before my eyes. Let me die first, and her after me. Clasp his knees and entreat him. He, too, has an old mother; let him give us bread for her sake". 8 (The injunction "to clasp his knees" is interesting, as it is a familiar gesture of supplication in the Iliad, and unknown to the Ukrainian Cossacks.)

Masterfully, Gogol moves the story towards the anticipated tragedy: Andrei is still talking to the Tartar woman when he is caught by his father, who has been dozing in a nearby tent and now warns him: "Andrei", said old Bul'ba "there is a woman with you. I'll skin you when I get up. Women will bring you to no good." 9

The idea is recurrent in Gogol's stories. The elements now fall into place: the younger son, his mother's favorite and the more sensitive of the two brothers, follows the call of the Polish governor's daughter, the eternal feminine in Gogol's terms, all the way to his perdition. It is a forgone conclusion that he will leave the Cossack camp, that he will rob his own brother for food in order to carry it to the Governor's daughter. Worse is to follow on the heels of this single, but dangerous sidestep, this daring trafficking with the enemy: as soon as Andrei gets into the town, two unexpected things occur. First, he sees the real and ugly effect of war on the starving, suffering city dwellers, not the manliness and glory of war in which he has been led to believe. If Gogol's aim had been to glorify war, and the marauding Cossacks in general as some critics would have us believe, the scene would not have been included in the story. But obviously, Gogol's aim is different, as was Homer's, or other great epic writers': to show a man caught up in the moment of agony and having to make the unaccustomed, the most unwelcome, the most painful decision in his life on his realization of the right path of action.

This realization also prepares for the second jolt: he sees the woman he has loved since his student days in Kiev now reduced to suffering "for no reason at all" (pochemu to ), or for the simple reason of her having been born on the wrong side of history -- and he, Andrei, is the cause of her suffering! We recognize a new version of the Shakespearean story of the Capulets and Montagues in Ukrainian garb in yet another variant of Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.

The tragedy unfolds in Chapter Six (the evil number). The tender confession of the lovers is equivalent to a rebellion against their father's orders and will result in their death sentence. As Andrei cries, his heart breaking: "And what are father, comrades and country to me?...He tosses his head and draws his figure erect like a poplar..."Who says that my country is the Ukraine? Our country is what our souls seek, what is most precious of all hinges to it. You are my country! Here is my country!" 10 The chapter closes with Gogol's comment: "And ruined is the Cossack! He is lost to Cossack chivalry. He will see the camp no more -- nor his father's farms, nor the Church of God. No more will the Ukraine see the bravest of her sons who undertook to defend her. Old Taras will tear the gray hair from his head and curse the day and the hour he begot such a son to shame him."The events are chronologically foreordained, or, in Pasternak's formulation in the poem, "Hamlet", at the end of Doktor Zhivago:

Not only will Andrei not return to the Cossack camp, but he will become a highly motivated turncoat who volunteers his services to the Polish governor in order to fight the Cossacks who are ravishing the governor's daughter and her fellow Poles. In the next battle between the Poles and the Cossacks, we find Andrei leading the Polish troops. His bravery and military prowess are unsurpassed --but,of course, he is on the wrong side in the battle line. The next step in the tragedy is inevitable: Taras has his son captured alive and shoots him himself, shouting: "I begot you, and now I shall kill you".

Gogol's comment slows down the action: "Andrei was pale as a sheet, he lips could be seen to move and he uttered a name, but it was not the name of his country, nor of his mother nor of his brother; it was the name of the Polish beauty. Taras fired ." 12

Need one say that this is but the beginning of the downfall of the house of Bul'ba, of the unfolding of an Ukrainian Oresteia ? That Osip, the elder son, soon will be taken prisoner by the Poles during a cruel raid of vengeance of the Cossacks, and that Taras will have to witness the execution of his first-born after excruciating torture -- and that, finally, Taras himself will be killed, roasted alive, after further raids upon Poland?

Gogol's pen frequently reaches existentialist heights, showing human folly as a fated, permanent aspect of human, and perhaps even divine, history. What else can one call the conversation between Taras and the itinerant Jewish merchant, Jankel, after Taras has discovered that his son Andrei is in the besieged city by his own volition? The conversation is Shakespearean in its tragic insights into the nature of human blindness and the mechanism of the moving forces of history; blind ideological conformity has been pitted against the free choice of the individual. Taras can understand his son's defection only as an enemy act, while Jankel presents him with the unheard of, sacrilegious idea that Andrei switched sides as a result of his own free choice --- as in a quasi-biblical freedom of choice which inevitably causes the downfall of the mighty, a freedom of choice pitted against the ideologically correct "one's own place" (svoe mesto ), a freedom of choice bound by family and other loyalties and therefore fated.

Equally strong are the religious and perhaps sacrilegious overtones and implications of the scene which describes Osip's execution by the Poles. The fact that an innocent son is sacrificed by his father for "the father's idea" has serious religious implications in Christian doctrine, as does the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son, suggesting perhaps heretical and agonizing doubts as to the basic paradoxes implicit in Orthodox doctrine. When Osip in his final agony calls out for his father's help, the resemblance to Christ's final words on the cross are uncanny. To Christ's final words: "Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?", the Bible reports no answer, Gogol's Taras speaks out: "I hear you, my son!" 13

Taras' words are prophetic: "Farewell comrades ! he shouted to them. Remember me and come here next spring, and have a fine time of it! What have you gained, you Polish bastards? Think you that there is anything in the world that a Cossack would fear? Wait a while; the time is coming, the time is at hand, when you will learn what the Orthodox faith can do! Already nations far and near have an inkling that their ruler will rise up from Russia and that there will be no power on earth that will not submit to him..." 14

The prediction of Russia's ultimate victory in world history is expressed again in similar terms at the end of the first volume of Dead Souls in the well known troika scene. It is, of course, a non sequitur in this story but it insists on a permanent feature of Gogol's view of history. Whether he meant the actual, historical empire of Russia, or the Heavenly Jerusalem is an important question whose ambiguity foreshadows many of the disappointments, disagreements and angry exchanges between Gogol and his contemporaries after the publication of the Selected Passages... The question has also divided Gogol's admirers into two camps: those who could be described as Russian imperialists and the critics who are religious or philosophically minded. The first camp envisions Gogol as a protagonist of Russian imperialism -- for this reason he was dear to Stalinist Russia. The second, sees him in opposite terms as a critic deeply committed to the denial of the here and now on behalf of our heavenly mansions, the unattainable but unforgettable Holy Grail.We hope to be right in thinking that Gogol had the ideal Russia,in mind, eventough the two Russias were easily confused and overlapping in his own psyche.

Volume Two of the Mirgorod adds two stories to the sage,"Vii " and "How Ivan Ivanovic Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovic ".

" Vii " is one of Gogol's last witch stories and can be understood in many respects as a continuation of certain elements of the Taras Bul'ba , especially in its description of student life in the Ukrainian Latin School in Kiev, from which Osip and Andrei Bul'ba graduated, and which, very likely, resembles Gogol's own school experiences. It also contains the preoccupation with fairly tales that Gogol exploited in the Dikanka cycle. Indeed, the very title of the story is given a footnote which states that "Vii is a colossal creature of the popular imagination. It is the name among Little Russians for the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids droop down to earth... The tale is folklore. I was unwilling to change it", Gogol tells us, and " I tell it almost in the simple words in which I heard it".

An American translator, Leonard Kent, comments on this note: "Gogol probably never heard it at all. No discovery has been made of the folklore source of Vii." Simon Karlinsky also has vehemently denied the validity of Gogol's statement, and it is accepted generally that Gogol's note is pure invention that Gogol is here showing himself at his best -- or worst -- like many of his characters who are " devious and cunning liars " .

As there is no proof that Gogol was not freely exercising his imagination in inventing both title and story, we believe that more credit should be given to Gogol's own statement, that " Vii ", or whatever the original name is of this "chief of the gnomes", seems clearly to belong to popular folklore, but to a corpus different from the standard Russian or Ukrainian catalogue within which researchers are delving. Gogol's may have originated with students, whose life is so vividly portrayed. Indeed, the entire narration begins with their going home after the end of a semester, traveling on the road -- sometimes for days and nights together -- passing time by telling "scary" stories to each other, as children might were they not spoiled now by more modern distractions. Thus the story may truly be of folk origin, and Gogol may have been telling the truth in his footnote.

School life here presented has much in common with the school we saw in "Spon'ka ". The teachers are undistinguished by erudition. Their method consists mainly of administering various kinds of punishments, making use of any instrument handy. These punishments are stoically tolerated by the student population as normal to teaching. The students are divided by age into four classes and also the school's four subjects matters. Gogol provides a nostalgic but bitingly grotesque picture of the students' virtues which have to do as much with learning as with fooling around, roughhousing, smoking and stealing food.

Particularly interesting are their remarks, surely reflecting Gogol's own school experiences, about the students' constant preoccupation with food. Food indeed, serves as the great temptation as the story moves in the direction of demonic. Food and the Devil are frequently connected in Gogol's mind as we have seen in the Dikanka stories -- or, for that matter, as we know from the tragic consequences of the obsession in Gogol's own life.

The hungry students devise all sorts of ingenious ways to get food for themselves and to wrench financial support. Besides thievery, Gogol lists other ways of obtaining food and money to support them at school. Perhaps these may again reflect Gogol's own experiences (or, if not, then perhaps they are part of the student folklore at the base of the story.) The students organize puppet shows ( vertep ), go caroling to the houses of the rich, and perform plays, comedies mostly, on biblical themes, e.g. the stories of Herodias and of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. It is easy to move further, as Gogol does, to dealing with an image of itinerant students well-known to western Europe n the Middle Ages, and also to the westernized Ukrainian tradition of the student as the Devil's familiar. Goethe's Faust is, of course, a point in case: the student on the road, the student alchemist, the student magician are essential components of the tradition. Unknown to Russia proper, for lack of similar student establishments, nevertheless this aspect of intellectual life was well known to Gogol as a result of his studies.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the three students on their way home for a summer vacation have an encounter with the Devil or rather, with his feminine counterpart, a witch in the guise of an old woman. The theologian, Khalva, the philosopher Khoma Brut, and the student of rhetoric, Tiberi Gorobets, are involved in this adventure. After wandering on the road for days, hungry and tired, they arrive at a remote village and ask at the first house on the road to be admitted for the night. The adventure begins with ominous signs: everything seems to indicate that they are in a haunted house and that they are encountering the Evil One. An old woman answers the door. Unfriendly at first, she finally lets them in and puts them up in different places, since, as she says, she mistrusts them should they all stay together. Khoma Brut is accommodated in an empty sheep stall. In the middle of the night, he is paid a visit by the old woman. Although he does not understand what she wants, if soon becomes obvious that she is interested in sex. Khoma, recognizing her as a witch, tries to resist, but is unsuccessful, and the old woman jumps on his back. A breathtaking ride follows, which is also one of the most outspoken sexual passages in Gogol's fiction. At first, it is the witch who is riding Khoma, but as soon as he remembers his prayers and religious instructions as to how to resist the Evil One, the position changes and now it is Khoma who will ride the witch. At this point, a miraculous transformation occurs: the witch turns into a beautiful young girl and Khoma is left bewildered by the experience.

So completely do the miracle and the magic event transform Khoma, he is unable to continue traveling with his fellow students and he returns to Kiev. In Kiev, hungry and with nothing to do during the semester break, he undergoes another perplexing experience: the "baker's widow" takes pity on him and takes him home to feed his visceral as well as his sexual appetite. As a result, a third sexual encounter is to follow -- all three are somehow interconnected. everything is fated, or appears to be so, and under the guise of a lazily flowing realism lurks a growing streak of predetermination.

Just as Khoma returned to Kiev apparently against his own will, now he is sent away from Kiev to parts of the country he never wanted to see. The rector of the college calls Khoma one day, and explains that the college is sending him to the house of a very influential, rich Cossack whose daughter has fallen seriously ill; she has requested that Khoma Brut come to her bedside and read to her from the Bible, especially the Psalms. Khoma has a premonition (we remember that premonitions figure importantly in this fairytale world) that she must be the witch whom he thought he had killed. The reader, fascinated by this non-sequitur hardly notices it, unless he is willing to retrace his steps to the passage where Gogol described the witch turning into a young girl, moaning and "dying" -- one would think of sexual ecstasy. No, Gogol decided that Khoma Brut has actually killed her and the story becomes meaningful: the witch now seeks revenge on Khoma's ability to resist her power , to turn around the sexual game and to force her to reveal her true identity as a beautiful young vampire.

Though Khoma Brut balks every step of the way to the rich Cossack's house, there is nothing he can do. Irresistible forces suck him ever deeper into the whirlwind of events. As soon as he arrives at the house, he is informed, that the maiden, the pannochka , has already died. Instead of reading the Psalms at her bedside, he is now supposed to hold a three night vigil in the chapel at her coffin-side. Khoma immediately recognizes the dead girl as the witch. Masterfully, Gogol retards the action with a colorful fairytale of Ukrainian village life where Paradise was taken over by the Evil One. Different narrators tell their hair-raising stories, as in the Dikanka cycle, all of them about the pannochka who was a witch. Everyone adds his two cents -- they tell seven stories all told. Old Dorosh was ridden by her, just as Khoma was; the wife of another Cossack, Sheptun, saw her as a werewolf, who one day ran into her house and killed her year-old baby and drank the baby's blood. The stable hand and hunter, Mikita, has experienced evenworse ills: "One day the young mistress comes into the stables where he is rubbing down his horse. "Mikita" says she, "Let me put my little foot on you." And the foolish fellow, delighted, responded, "Not your foot only" says he "you may sit on me altogether ".The young mistress lifts her foot, and as soon as he sees her bare, plump white leg, he goes crazy." 15 The incident ended with a wild ride, not unlike Khoma's, following which Mikita fell sick and one day just "burned up entirely, burned up by himself" and turned into " a pile of ashes". 16

But as Gogol informs us, the villagers were fascinated by the subject matter: "Each in turn hastened to tell some tale about her. One had seen the witch in the form of a haystack come right up to the door of his cottage; another had his cap or pipe stolen by her, many of the village girls had their hair cut off; other had lost several pints of blood which she had sucked from them." 17 This masterful preparation of the expected denouement retards the main story line still further with an account of Khoma's hair-raising three nights in Church. Khoma survives the first terrifying night by remembering his prayers. The second night is still more frightening, while the third does him in. The mounting tension is exacerbated by such issues as the beauty and horror of the dead pannochka ' s face, her desire to overcome Khoma's resistance, and Khoma's remaining steadfast in his prayers and not being carried away by fear and curiosity. But desire to see, to experience the horrible, proves to be his final undoing. Had he stuck to his prayers, he could have escaped. But Gogol would have us realize that we are made in such a paradoxical fashion that we are unable to withstand the irrational desire to witness the horrible, or to suppress our desire to experience the taboo.We see here the Ukrainian version of the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent. As soon as Khoma Brut lifts his eyes from the prayer book, the witch brings out the monster to overcome his resistance. The Vii has penetrated Khoma's circle of charms and succeeded in killing him.

As soon as the witch claims Khoma's body and soul, the monsters disappear and the defiled church is swallowed up by a dense thicket. Khoma Brut and his happy student life also disappear as if they had never existed.

A final in memoriam is then provided in a casual conversation in a tavern between Khoma's two former friends, Khalva and Gorobets, who by now have graduated from the school: "He was a fine man , " one says, "And he came to grief for nothing." Whereupon his partner interjects , "I know why he came to grief; it was because he was afraid. Had he not been afraid, the witch could not have hone anything to him. You have only to cross yourself and spit right on her tail, and nothing will happen. I know all about it. Why, the old women who sit in our market place in Kiev are all witches." 18

Many aspects of this tale reflect Gogol's permanent preoccupation. As we have already pointed out, the ominous sentence about "burning to ashes" reflects Gogol's grotesquely comic but simultaneously nostalgic view of a glorious past. Ukrainian Eden is but a strange and legendary memory. Gone, too, are the glorious student days as are the old traditions of Cossack bravery depicted in Taras Bul'ba, not to mention the vicious beauty of the pannochka. The charm of the "governor's daughter" has been the downfall of yet another deserving Cossack, since the tenacious destructiveness of the Evil One is ultimately stronger than any Christian remedy, be it in form of prayers or even of personal bravery. Last, but not least, since sexual temptations come from the devil, it is better to have nothing to do with them. Not only has poor Khoma been seduced so catastrophically by the fair sex, but he was not opposed to them either. Once the Devil discovered his weakness, the poor student was defenseless against his machinations. The beautiful, bucolic Ukraine, Gogol's Garden of Eden, on this side of the Ural mountains, has now been taken over by the Evil One, and Gogol and his characters go about desperately trying to figure out how to deal with him.

The final story of the Mirgorod perpetuates some of the concerns Gogol has dealt with in the previous stories, and also advances some new ideas which will resurface in his later fiction. If Taras Bul'ba and "Vii " reflect Gogol's journey to a legendary period in Ukrainian history, the first and final tales, "The Old World Landowners " and the "Tale of How Ivan Ivanovic Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovic " deal directly with the village of Mirgorod and therefore explain the collection title..

Mirgorod stands not just for a particular place, but also for Gogol's transformation of this geography into a nostalgic picture of the destruction and moral deterioration of his Ukrainian Paradise, the harmonious "svoe mesto " , which had previously been witnessed by the Narrator.

This story is realistic in tone, a matter-of-fact description of the changes witnessed by the Narrator during some dozen years which can be seen as equal to Gogol's absence from his native Ukraine and his move to St. Petersburg. As the title indicates, in the village of Mirgorod live two respected Cossacks, Ivan Ivanovic and Ivan Nikiforovic, who are next-door neighbors. Both are middle-aged, single men, and Gogol takes great pains to describe the details of their having arrived at their present state. Ivan Ivanovic has been a widower for the past ten years while Ivan Nikiforovic claims never to have married. Closer scrutiny reveals that the two bachelors do not lack female companions; Ivan Ivanovic has a sturdy young peasant girl named Gapka living in his house and running the household; hints as to their relationship indicate that "Ivan Iavnovic did not have any children, but Gapka did ",while the children running around the house call Ivan Ivanovic "daddy". As to Ivan Nikiforovic, the situation is less cozy: he is visited from time to time by the energetic Agafya Fedoseevna who not only keeps matters under control while she is there, but actually serves as the catalyst for the ghastly developments to follow.

The story is actually a mock heroic epic, written in the form of a heroic medieval hero tale, and piles marvelously funny nonsense upon nonsense as if the banality (poshlost') of the neighbors; everyday life reflected the harmony of life in the bygone years of the Ukrainian Eden. All is cozy, warm and satisfied in this world, or, as Ivan Ivanovic wonders in one of the internal monologues as he surveys his blessed life."What is it that I don't have?" (Chego u menya net?)

It turns out that he has everything he needs, except that one day he witnesses a change in the routine of household chores in his neighbor's house. His neighbor's old military uniform and some other clothes -- not to mention a beautiful gun which he has never seen before -- are being aired by one of the servants. His query as to what it is that he does not have has been answered, possible by the Evil One, in that display of military paraphernalia: He doesn't have a gun! And the desire to have it becomes a passion overpowering every other desire, it will prove to be the stumbling block in their friendship and the seed of Eden's destruction. Are we again, perhaps, in the presence of a Ukrainian version of the story of Cain and Abel?

Gogol wonderfully mimics the opening negotiations between the two friends and neighbors over the gun. The coveting of his neighbor's "gun", which, as we know is the classic symbol of power, gets between the friends, who lose control of their words and deeds. The conversation is typical of others in Gogol's oeuvre, as we shall see, especially in "The Inspector General"and other later works, especially Dead Souls. When people possessed by the Evil One lose control over their words, and language takes over, it leads into the unpredictable. The two friends insult each other, cursing and rekindling old grievances. But the fatal word is one that sounds harmless enough: gander (gusak ). Why this particular word should be taken as a mortal insult by Ivan Ivanovic is a riddle, though certain critics, like Simon Karlinsky have constructed around it a homosexual import.We believe, instead, that the insult is quite in line with the general tone of the narration, of mock heroic, nonsensical fun, in which words do not really describe actual things or situations, but rather describe the atmosphere of the banality of everyday life, in other words, poshlost'. Reason and human intellect, or for that matter, good taste have been replaced by self-complacent empty forms. The fatal word gander is further driven home by Ivan Ivanovic's neighbor's constructing a goose pan on their boundary line, actually somewhat over the boundary line that separates their properties. The fight enters a new stage. Hatred and insults are further hardened by the appearance of Ivan Nikiforovic's visitor, Agafya Fedorovna. She is the serpent who will finish off the friendship and will cause the actual physical destruction of the friend's goods and even their health. Both neighbors run to the courts, lawsuits follow lawsuits, with all sorts of topsy turvy turns: Ivan Ivanovic's gray sow runs one day into the courthouse and chews up Ivan Nikifirivic's latest petition -- the insult is again mortal. The final result is predictable. They have spent all their lives and their money on fighting lawsuit after lawsuit, and ruining each other in the process.

In the courts, the judge, and the various court officials, we recognize prototypes for later characters. They are the same who run the town in "The Inspector General": corrupt, incompetent, greedy, pushy and blissfully ignorant of any wrongdoing. They also appear in Dead Souls, even though by then, Gogol's pen will have matured and added richly to the youthful sketches of their characters.The same provincial darkness of mind and of the streets, a literal and metaphoric wallowing in mud and in fat, and their crazy prejudices are the very essence of this riotously funny, profoundly sad story in which lies shattered the Garden of Eden of Ukraine's Golden Age.

It is destroyed "for no reason at all" (pochemu to ) . The destruction begins with an object of desire and moves to verbal demolition through such nonsensical insults as" gander", and then with the help of the conniving Agafya Fedorovna, to mutual destruction. It is yet another parable, this time of the ruinous consequences of coveting one's neighbor's goods, in a warning of the Ten Commandments.The narrator,sighing, ends the tale with the famous words: "It's a dreary world, Gentleman ! " (Skuchno na svete, gospoda ! ) 19

But who is this Narrator? He refers to himself in the first person singular, as opposed to all the fanciful, fictitious narrators in the Dikanka cycle -- we can be certain that he is none other that Gogol himself, Just as Khoma Brut recognizes the witch as soon as he sees the beautiful "pannochka " even though she was dead, we realize it is Gogol hiding in that carriage. And driving with him through rain, slush and fog, over the ruined Ukrainian landscape, we see the former Garden of Eden, the Paradise of male friendship: "The lean steeds known in Mirgorod as post express horses, set off, making an unpleasant sound as their hoofs sank into the gray mass of mud. The rain poured in streams onto the Jew who sat on the box covered with a sack. The damp pierced me through and through. The gloomy gate with its sentry box, at which a veteran was cleaning his gray equipment, passed slowly by. Again the same fields, in places black and furrowed and in places covered with green, the drenched cows and crows, the monotonous rain, the tearful sky with a single gleam of light -- it is a dreary world, Gentlemen!" 20

The new glimpse is remarkable: we see the weary traveler, visiting the ruined Ukrainian landscape, and the realistic gloom which accompanies the vicissitudes of travel. Gogol was later in his life to travel a great deal. This road, with its traveling observer, imbued with the sadness of a realization that nothing remains the same (tempora mutantur et nos mutamur ) permeates the story's finale. It is a far cry from the ending which also includes a well-known traveler and his observations, the ecstatic and visionary ending of the first volume of the Dead Souls foreshadowed in Gogol's early work. We remember the poem about Italy which ended with the glorification of country. Yet this ending is the opposite of ecstatic: it is downcast, gloomy and closes on a note of despair over the destruction of earthly Paradise. But the two visions, of Paradise destroyed and Paradise foretold, are organically interconnected. The downfall of the Ukrainian Paradise will necessitate the projection of a new Paradise, the building of the New Jerusalem that William Blake had foreseen in his lovely poem a few years earlier. Hence Gogol's later interest in preaching concrete steps toward social improvements in his homeland. Hence also the political and religious advice and prophecies so controversial in the eyes of many of Gogol's critics.

Footnotes for Chapter Four:

1. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2, str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.

2. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch (Arabeski) t. 2 str. 11-219; in English: K.Proffer: Arabesques.op.cit.

3. Starosvetskiye Pomeshchiki.

4. Kak possorilis' Ivan Ivanovich s Ivanom Nikiforovichem?

5. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.3.

6. S.Karlinsky:Gogol's Sexual Labyrinth, op.cit. p.78

7. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.61

8. ibid.p.63.

9. ibid.p.65.

10. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.66.

11. Boris Pasternak : Doktor Zhivago. Pantheon, 1958.p. 527

12. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.76.

13. 5. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.77.

14. ibid.p.108

15. (nachal'nik gnomov ! ) how strange to call a gnome thus as if he were something of a cinovnik L.T.

16. Kent. op. cit. p. 132

17. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.154.

18. ibid.p.156

19. ibid.p.168

20. N.V. Gogol': Poln. Sobr. Soch. (Mirgorod) t. 2. str. 11-219; in English: Kent: op.cit.v.II.p.168.

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Epilogue, Bibliography

The 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

What do Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Gogol, Machiavelli, Tasso, Luther, Ibsen, and Goethe have in common? They are all on the same World Literature CD with over 600 books, in plain text, with software that lets you listen as well as read.

Return to Writers' Showcase
Return to The Reader's Room

Return to Samizdat Express