Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

Gogol's Taras Bulba (1842) is a milestone in Russian literature. If Pushkin provided a language and inspiration for future Russian writers, than Gogol gave them their own distinct identity. When you're reading Taras Bulba, you recognise so much of what has been written later.

The Romantic Era

Romanticism was the main literary movement in Russia from the end of the eighteenth century until halfway into the nineteenth century. Lermontov and Pushkin are the most famous writers of this period. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in all things pure, natural, past and authentic.

Gogol was an Ukrainian with Cossack blood running through his veins living in Saint Petersburg. When everything to do with Little Russia, as the Ukraine was called back then, became hugely popular there, he cleverly wrote Taras Bulba. The story is full of Ukrainian words, folklore and Cossack customs.

The story

It's a rather violent story. The hero of the story, Taras Bulba, is a Cossack headman, who in order to complete his sons' education, takes them to fight against the catholic Poles. The youngest walks over to the other side for the sake of a Polish girl and for that his father kills him, while the oldest gets tortured to death by the Polish in front of his father. Not for the faint-hearted.

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

The story has often been criticised. Historically it's incorrect and the centuries are mixed up. The Cossacks are so violent that they would make the average Isis soldier look away. A Polish servant girl escapes through a secret tunnel from the city that has been besieged by the Cossacks. She wakes up the youngest son to tell him that his sweetheart is among the starving in the city. Together the go through the tunnel into the city, where indeed the people are dying in the streets. Why didn't they just all escape through that tunnel?! The love story is not at all plausible. Gogol talks about the unspoiled Steppe, 'upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers', and 'the air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds', and more of this.

Its' Follow-ups

Dostoevsky apparently said once that every Russian writer came from underneath Gogol's Overcoat. He was a huge fan of his work and found him very inspiring. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) there is a rather painful scene that appears in Taras Bulba too: an emaciated woman with a infant clutched to her dried out breasts. Just like Gogol, Dostoevsky was fascinated by the excesses of human existence.

Turgenev most definitely took inspiration from Taras Bulba. Especially the striking nature scenes resound even more beautifully in Turgenev's work. His Acia (1858) contains many Romantic elements and there too the protagonist falls in love with a lively dark-eyed girl.

And in Tolstoy's Cossacks (1863) too: it starts more or less the same. The protagonist is traveling to the Caucasus and thinks about his past and future. The scene is reminiscent of Taras Bulba departing with his sons, each with their own thoughts. Tolstoy's protagonist is very much attracted by the Cossack way of life and he too falls in love with a spirited dark-eyed girl. Tolstoy's Cossacks are not as violent, though.

Hadji Murat (1904) is most similar. Both stories are named after their hero, and both heroes are exotic leaders, feared and admired by all. It breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces. Tolstoy's last fictional story would appear to be an homage to Gogol.

Conclusion

Gogol used a lot of humour in his work. Although it is not always clear if he meant something as humorous or if he was genuinely exaggerating, I'm more inclined to consider the former. If Taras Bulba slays six enemies with one sway with his sword, surely that is meant to be funny. All in all it's a pretty good story, just like Pulp Fiction is a pretty good film. Is it one of the ten best books ever written, like Hemingway once claimed? No, that really is exaggerated. But it is definitely a milestone well worth reading.



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

50 thoughts on “Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

  1. You’ve done it again, Elisabeth. Great post. Very interesting and informative.

    “[Taras Bulba”] breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces.” What a beautiful sentence, illustrating beautifully how to make a general point using specific details. Should be used in writing classes.

    Thanks again .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve never read “Taras Bulba”, but I do have read many of Gogol’s short stories, and I became absolutely amazed by them. “The Overcoat”, to which Dostoievsky refers to, is one of greatest tales ever written! And “The Nose” is surely the strangest and most, haunting of all nineteen-century pieces of writing. “The Nevsky Prospect” is stunning too… Gogol is ultimately responsible for some of the most troubling dreams put on paper after him; Kafka’s Metamorphosis to begin with… So, I think that he was quite beyond exaggeration and much beyond humor when he wrote weird things; he enjoyed the grotesque and the unbelievable and, to an extent, prefigured the 20th century surrealism, dadaism, the theater of the absurd (Ionesco, Beckett…) Gogol was one of a kind among all the great Russian writers.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you, Li. Gogol was definitely an original and well ahead of his time. It’s always a pleasure reading him. Your comparison to surrealism is quite accurate. I agree with you that he was beyond exaggerating, but I do believe he had a great sense of humour. He used the humour to address issues that he could not write about freely. It is a bit difficult to put your finger on, it would certainly be interesting to discuss it a bit more. Mind you, this is an early story, written before the Petersburg Stories, but revised in 1842.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Of course, Elisabeth 🙂 But as far as I have read by him, his humour is rather sardonic; even demonic. I perceive hysteria and darkness under his comic efforts. It seems he had a terrible life…, and the fact is that, generally speaking, his works frighten me (as much as I admire them). I’ve never dared to read Dead Souls for this very reason. I don’t wish to have nightmares afterwards :/
    As for your post (all posts I’ve already read on your blog), I’ve liked it much. All of them are very interesting and plenty of things I ignored, so I look forward to reading the next ones 🙂 Best wishes! 💐 ✨

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much, Li! I really enjoy discussing this with you. It’s always good to hear another perspective. I agree, Gogol definitely had a sardonic humour and his work can be a bit scary. As you say his humour and exaggeration have a purpose beyond the first glance. With the exaggeration for instance, I feel that that is some sort of personification with the character, if you understand what I mean., I think you do. His humour definitely has a hysterical element sometimes. Perhaps that is characteristic of Gogol himself, he did burn some of his works after all..

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gogol seems to have had a good sense of humor, indeed! For “Taras Bulba” to be heralded so highly by Hemingway is praise indeed. The line you paraphrased about the overcoat was great too. So much to take away from this post, Elisabeth!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You are very welcome, Elisabeth 🙂 But I do not think I have another perspective, since I have not read Taras Bulba. Just felt like participating in your blog (as I heartily appreciate when somebody participates in mine 🙂 I like it in part because my father loved all these Russian authors and had read all the works you talk about (mostly in French or Catalan translations -he never learned enough Russian to read them directly). So, reading about Pushkin and Tolstoy and Chekov brings to me nice vibes and very dear memories of my late dad.
    And yes, I understand what you mean with that personification, and I agree with it. That Gogol burned the second part of Dead Souls is just terrible; a great loss!
    A hug, and my best wishes for you ✨

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks again, Li, for me that’s the good thing about blogging too, when other people participate. Interesting that your father read all those Russian authors, my father did too! So we have that in common.
    It is really sad that Gogol burned the second part of Dead Souls. Did you ever read The Master and Margarita from Bulgakov? There is a famous saying in it: “manuscripts do not burn “, it refers, of course, to Gogol.
    Big hug from Amsterdam to you in Catalonia? Take care, Li, wherever you are 🌷🌷🌷

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have read a few Hemingway books, including A Farewell to Arms. His endings, it seems, are harsh and unpredictable. Some of it, like in the Arms book, was tough to read because of the male-dominated society. I would like to read more of his work one day. What are your thoughts on Hemingway?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Same here, I read a few, including A Farewell to Arms, and agree that it is quite macho, although that’s to be expected at the front, I suppose 😄 I did, however, thoroughly enjoy The Old Man and the Sea. He read a lot of Russian writers, and apparently struggled to write a novel about war, when after all, Tolstoy had already written the ultimate novel about war, War and Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes I enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea too. I didn’t realize he read a lot of the Russian classics. Oh War and Peace, that’s on my to-read list one day! Great conversation with you today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. :)) We have that in common, yes; being so fortunate to have lived in homes with books and been raised by cultivated parents. I feel grateful for it.
    There are a couple of copies of the novel by Bulgakov in my library, but I’ve not read this one, either. I will leave it on my nightstand in order to start reading it when I finish the book I’m in right now. Thanks a lot for the mention 🙂
    I’m living in Catalunya, yes. In a very little village near the Pyrenees; quite isolated -which is good for mind and soul, but also a bit frustrating due to the old-fashioned, traditional thinking of my neighbours, since I’m a weirdo to them and not seen with friendly eyes… Barcelona, where I resided for years and, of course, Amsterdam are much more open and accepting of LGTB+ persons like me. I have made very few friends here. But I love the wonderful scenery, the silence and the peace all around. And in the end, I’m a lone person and a bit of a hermit 🙂 I have always been, as much as my father was and also my sister… It’s a family trait.
    Warm hugs and best wishes, Elisabeth 💐 💋 ✨

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Li! Yes, that is a great fortune indeed. My father was very well read and took a great interest in art too, always taking us to the museum. The modern art museum, het Stedelijk Museum, was our favourite. I definitely inherited his love for books, especially Russian books.
    I think you will enjoy Bulgakov, there is also some element of magic realism in it.
    I can imagine that living in a small town has its’ advantages and disadvantages. Being surrounded by beautiful nature is very inspirational and good for the soul. But of course people are much more tolerant in the big city! I have in a way the best of both, frequently staying with my boyfriend, who lives in a small town. Nothing wrong with being a bit of a loner, as long as it’s by choice 😉
    Take care, dear, and happy reading. And let me know if you’ve enjoyed The Master and Margarita! 😈😺 Hugs from Amsterdam ☀️💛😊

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Elisabeth, I wanted to let you know I stopped by for a visit. I love your passion and sense of humor. While I must confess I have not read the book, I did see Hollywood’s take on it. I even enjoyed it more than “Pulp Fiction.” Take care and thank you for stopping by to read my musings. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi Keith, thanks for stopping by. Russian literature is not everyone’s favourite subject, but I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it anyway. I have never seen the film, but I’ll look it up on YouTube. Anything starring Yul Brynner is worth seeing. I tried to explain how the violence plays a part in the story, and Pulp Fiction came to mind.
    Nice hearing from you, Keith, have a good day!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My dear friend, I do enjoy your posts – this is my third time around. This time I read your post to my husband over a Starbucks coffee. (I know others were listening in) My husband read Gogal’s Taras Bulba many years ago in his younger days and thought it a great read. Alas, I have not read it so have benefited from your well researched overview. You have a marvelous writing style that fully engages readers.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I really enjoyed reading this. You also mentioned Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat which is on my list to read.. It sounds so very interesting but I have to get through this huge Romanov book first. Thanks for this brilliant post

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Dear Rebecca, you’re making me blush! I’m genuinely happy to read that you enjoy reading my posts, and that you even read them to your husband.
    Thank you for letting me know. Have a great day, big hugs from Finland.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hey Prin! Are you reading the Romanov book from Simon Sebag Montefiore? I have it, but so far I have only used it to look things up. Hadji Murat and The Cossacks are both great Tolstoy stories. Happy reading, dear!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Yes that’s the book I’m reading and its so very long but each page is absolutely intriguing. Ive made a promise to myself to read atleast 3-4 pages a day even if I’m super busy lol

    Like

  21. Two years ago I started to read the great all time classics and the Russion works are really amazing. I know that nobody would say that Russian literature is boring, though. So many true and sometimes painful thoughts are collected together. A full encyclopedia for human nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Actually I have rather favorite books. The Brother Karamazov has been the best one, although Fathers and Sons has strong messages as well. I am sure that there are less known but great works. I hope I will have enough time to read them. And you?

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Ah, I love Fathers and Sons. War and Peace is my favourite. Because it’s so full of life and it sends a very positive message. It is amazing that there were so many fantastic books written in Russia at that time, don’t you think?

    Like

  24. Somehow I missed reading this wonderful review of yours. Sadly, the last time I read Taras Bulba was back in college…many, many years ago. Your review has inspired me to visit it once again. thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  25. You make me want to return to the Russians! It’s been years since I read Taras Bulba. I shall have to take it off the shelf.

    Like

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