Russian Literature is well known for its lifelike characters who usually go through some ordeal and achieve personal growth through that. The base of many a novel, but Russian literature particularly excels in it. The reader is swept along and en passant gains some experience himself. Who has read War and Peace knows that whatever happens, normal life will always take its course again, and happiness will return. Not with Gogol. In his work the end situation is the same as the beginning, the characters are not particularly sympathetic and no-one has learned anything. Yet he is considered one of the founders of the great 19th century Russian literature, together with Pushkin.
Gogol had a particular talent for characterising his protagonists, big and small. We all know the people who walk around in Gogol’s fictional world: frauds, vain creatures, people with big plans that never materialise, scroungers and misers. Surely somewhere a miserable civil servant is dreaming of having a bigger car than his boss. But however recognisable they may be, that are the product of Gogol’s rich fantasy. He took a character trait and built a character around it.
Gogol wrote three plays, all three are still being performed: The Government Inspector, The Gamblers and Marriage.
The Government Inspector
The Government Inspector (1836) is the best known of the three. In a small provincial town a high ranking inspector is expected. The officials in the town are terrified that their deplorable state of affairs will be discovered and they mistake a young man staying in the local inn for the inspector. As soon as he realises that he can profit from the situation, the young man plays along, not hindered by any lack of fantasy, accepting bribes from everyone. After he disappears it soon becomes clear that he was not the real inspector, and everyone tries to shift the blame for the mistaken identity to each other.
In The Gamblers (1840) a card sharp becomes the victim of a cunning scam himself. He has just won a lot of money and arrives in a new town hoping to make some more. Unfortunately he meets a couple of clever conmen and he loses all his money even quicker than he had made it.
In Marriage (1832) the protagonist is planning to get married. He has hired a matchmaker to help him find a suitable bride. She finds him several candidates, but Podkolyosin is terribly indecisive. In order to speed things up his friend forces him to to visit the latest candidate with him. There they find several suitors, but the friend manages to close the deal. They are supposed to get married that same evening, the friend will arrange everything. While the bride gets dressed, Podkolyosin climbs out of the window and goes home as fast as he can.
Gogol had intended to not just entertain the audience with his plays, he also wanted to confront them with what was wrong in society. The audience, however, saw only the satire and humor of the plays and even the tsar himself had a good laugh when he saw The Government Inspector. Gogol was disillusioned. But the society that he depicted was the product of his imagination. He had never visited a Russian provincial town, he wasn’t a civil servant. Hardly a reliable witness exposing all kinds of wrongs.
If we forget about Gogol’s moral intentions, we are left with highly enjoyable pieces of literature. Gogol has a unique sense of humor and his characters are as alive today as when he created them many years ago. He has shown his descendants the importance of details when it comes to characterisation. It’s the details that make the character universal, alive, and memorable. A young man passing through a provincial town is unremarkable, but a young man who has squandered away all his money and is sitting in his room in the inn with an empty stomach and an obstinate servant promises entertainment.
Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019