Nikolai Gogol (1809-52)



Short Biography: (

Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. In his anatomy of the dangers of poshlust (puffed up egoism), Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature.

Nikolay Gogol was born in Sorochintsi, Ukraine, and grew up on his parents' country estate. His real surname was Ianovskii, but the writer's grandfather had taken the name 'Gogol' to claim a noble Cossack ancestry. Gogol's father was an educated and gifted man, who wrote plays, poems, and sketches for puppet theatre in Ukrainian.

Gogol started writing while in high school. He attended Poltava boarding school (1819-21) and then Nezhin high school (1821-28). In 1828 Gogol, an aspiring writer, settled in St. Petersburg, with a certificate attesting his right to 'the rank of the 14th class'. To support himself. Gogol worked at minor governmental jobs and wrote occasionally for periodicals. Although he was interested in literature, he also dreamed of becoming an actor. However, the capital of Russia did not welcome him with open arms, and his early narrative poem, Hans Küchelgarten (1829), turned out to be a disaster.

Between the years 1831 and 1834 Gogol taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor. In 1831 he met Aleksandr Pushkin who greatly influenced his choice of literary material, especially his "Dikinka Tales", which were based on Ukrainian folklore. Their friendship lasted until the great poet's death. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka from 1831-32 was Gogol's breakthrough work, showing his skill in mixing fantastic with macabre.

After failure as an assistant lecturer of world history at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a collection of stories, beginning with 'Old-World Landowners', which described the decay of the old way of estate life. The book also included the famous historical tale 'Taras Bulba', which showed the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels. The protagonist is a strong, heroic character, not very typical for the author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and humiliated losers. One hostile critic described his city dwellers as the "scum of Petersburg".

"I am destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes," wrote Gogol once, "viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it." St. Petersburg Stories (1835) examined social relationships and disorders of mind; Gogol's influence can be seen among others in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and the Punishment (1866). Gogolian tradition continued into the 20th century in the stories of Franz Kafka and the plays of Harold Pinter.

“The Nose” is about a minor official in the St. Petersburg bureaucracy who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is gone! (Gogol himself had a long nose.)  This Collegiate Assessor Kovalev is even more horrified to learn that his nose has assumed a new identity, posing as a high state official. The central plot circles around Kovalev's quest to recapture his runaway proboscis - he has arrived in St. Petersburg to climb the social ladder but without a proper face that is impossible. Without an arm or leg it is not unbearable, thinks the Major, but without a nose a man is, the devil knows what...'In “Nevsky Prospect” a talented artist falls in love with a tender poetic beauty. She turns out to be a prostitute,  and the artist commits suicide when his romantic illusions are shattered. “The Diary of a Madman” asks why it is that "all the best things in life, they all go to the butlers or the generals?"

“The Overcoat” is Gogol's most famous story. Its central character is Akakii Akakievich, a lowly government clerk. When winter begins, he notices that his old overcoat has become worn beyond repair. Over a period of months, he manages to save enough money to have a new, luxurious coat made for him. His colleagues at the office arrange a party to celebrate his acquisition. But his happiness proves to be short-lived. On his way home from the party Akakii is attacked by thieves and robbed of his coat. To recover his lost possession, Akakii pleads for help from a Very Important Person, a director of a department, but this Very Important Person dismisses Akakii out of hand, and the lowly scribe stumbles home in the cold, quickly catches a fever, and descends into madness. He dies within three days. But the story is not over! One night when the General is returning home, he is attacked by the ghost of the late Akakii, who steals his overcoat. A rash of similar spectral crimes spreads throughout the city. Pigs are seen dashing out of drawing rooms! Mustachioed ghosts with enormous fists assault fashionable gentry on Nevsky Prospect! Then, just as suddenly, the attacks end.

In 1836 Gogol published several stories in Pushkin's journal Sovremennik, and in the same year his famous play, The Inspector General, opened. It tells the tale of a young civil servant, Khlestakov, who finds himself stranded and broke in a small provincial town. By mistake, the local officials take him for a government inspector who is due to visit their province incognito. Khlestakov happily adapts to his new role and exploits the situation, extracting bribes while seducing the Mayor’s wife and daughter. All is good until the final moments of the action when the real inspector reveals his identity.

Its first stage production was in St Petersburg, given in the presence of the tsar. The tsar, as he left his box after the premičre, dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reaction to his work, fled Russia for Western Europe. He visited Germany, Switzerland, and France and settled then in Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848.

In Rome Gogol wrote his last major work, Dead Souls.  Gogol claimed that the story was suggested by Pushkin in a conversation in 1835. This novel depicts the adventures of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who arrives in a provincial town to buy the 'dead souls' of local landowners. (he has figured out a way to leverage loans from banks and funds by purchasing the souls of peasants who have died since the last census and still possess a spectral (speculative?) existence in the government tax records. By leveraging these 'souls' as collateral for cheaply-bought lands, Chichikov makes huge profits. He meets local landowners, purchases expired souls and then departs in a hurry when rumors start to spread about him.

During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to finish the story and depict Chichikov's final fall and eventual redemption, but he never completed the work.

Except for short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected works was published in 1842. It made him one of the most popular Russian writers. Two years before his return, Gogol had published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he upheld the autocratic tsarist regime and the patriarchal Russian way of life. The book provoked furious charges of betrayal from the radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism.

In his later life Gogol came under influence of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovskii, and burned the sequels for Dead Souls just ten days before he died.  Gogol had refused to take any food and various remedies were employed to make him eat - spirits were poured over his head, hot loaves applied to his person and leeches attached to his nose. Rumors arise from time to time that Gogol was buried alive: he died on the 4th of March 1852.


“The Overcoat” (1842)


Study Guide


 “The Overcoat” is a St. Petersburg morality tale, one of those strange parables of life in the most Westernized of Russian cities. In “The Nose”, a vain, status-obsessed petty bureaucrat is given the opportunity to truly see himself through the prism of a dream. He is nothing more than a ‘nose’, literally led around by his obsession with climbing the social ladder. Then his whole life plunges into crisis when he awakens one morning to discover that his nose has fallen off.


In “The Overcoat”, a poor little clerk makes a great decision and orders a new overcoat. While in the making, the coat becomes the dream of his life. On the very first night that he wears it, he is robbed of it on a dark street. He dies of grief and his ghost haunts the city.


Gogol’s art is so rich and ambiguous that his stories have been embraced by critics across the political spectrum as the definitive expression of their particular ideologies.



p. 79 (71) (1)         Notice how the syntax of the story’s first sentences veers off subject on a tangent about the frustrations of censorship and the injustices of the Imperial system. What is Gogol’s purpose? How is it for us to lose track of our own selves and veer off course?




p. 79 (72) (1)         Can you guess the meaning in Russian of our hero’s name, Akakii Akakievich Baschmachin?




p. 80 (73) (1)         To what extent has Akakii’s course in life been determined for him from the moment of his birth? Was Akakii destined to assume the low place of a humble titular counselor, or has he been victimized by an inflexible caste system?



pp. 80-81(73-74) (2)     What precisely is Akakii’s job? How is he treated by his co-workers?


p. 81 (74) (2)         Read  the famous ‘pathetic passage’ carefully. Later in the century leftist critics cited it as evidence of Gogol’s overt criticism of the Tsarist system. Do you agree? Should we too pity Akakii? Does he pity himself?



p. 81 (74-75) (2-3)    Why does Akakii love his job? What peculiar imaginative universe does he inhabit?    

                                (What happened to him when he was asked to revise instead of copy a document?)



p. 82 (76) (3)         What does Akaii do with his leisure time?




p. 83 (77) (4)         What is the one terrible foe of Akakii’s contented lifestyle? How should we interpret the reasons for  this turning point in Akakii’s life? What philosophical point is Gogol making?





pp. 83–84 ((77-78) What meaning do you attribute to the gradual disintegration of Akakii’s overcoat over the years?

Is Gogol’s purpose to criticize the social and political order? Or is he describing how Akakii’s personality has been stretched to the breaking point as his situation in life has changed?




pp. 84-85 (78-79) Describe Petrovich the tailor and his home. What do you make of his many attributes? Is Petrovich another brutalized victim of social oppression, or is Gogol interested in another purpose altogether?



p. 86 (81)               (Why does Gogol give such attention to Petrovich’s snuff-box? What does this weird detail suggest to you?)




pp. 86-87 (81-82)                  Petrovich says that there is nothing for it!  Akakii must have a completely new overcoat!

Why is Akakii so distraught?




pp. 88-89 (84-87) How is Akakii’s life transformed during the next few months as he saves enough money to buy the new overcoat? Is this marked change in Akakii’s life style a good thing or a bad thing? What point is Gogol making in his allegory?




pp. 90- 91(87-90) How does Akakii behave differently when he wears his new overcoat for the very first time? How do his co-workers treat him differently? Has he really changed?




p. 92 (91)               What does Akakii notice in shop windows on his walk through the more fashionable section of town                                 enroute to the party?




pp. 92-93 (91-92)  Does Akakii have a good time at the party?




pp. 93-94 (93)      Describe the Square in which Akakii is assaulted. What is Gogol’s symbolic purpose?




pp. 96-97 (97-100) How has the Important Person (to whom Akakii addresses his complaint) been unhinged by his new position of authority? How does he treat Akakii?




p. 99 (101-02)      What visions possess Akakii in his death throes?




pp. 100-03 (103-08)  How does Akakii’s Ghost wreak his revenge on the citizens of St. Petersburg?

                                Contrast the status he achieves in death with the nullity of his life.

                                What is Gogol’s point?




Thesis Statement:


What do you make of Gogol’s strange parable?


A poor little clerk makes a great decision and orders a new overcoat. The coat while in the making becomes the dream of his life. On the very first night that he wears it, he is robbed of it on a dark street. He dies of grief and his ghost haunts the city.