The Gogol-St. Petersburg Nexus

In: Canadian-American Slavic Studies
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  • 1 University of Arkansas

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From Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century to Andrei Bitov in the twentieth, St. Petersburg functions as a critical element in Russian literature and social thought. The great nineteenth-century prose writer and playwright Nikolai Gogol strikingly embodies motifs and themes associated with Russia’s great yet dysfunctional and, ultimately, erstwhile capital city. Gogol is especially celebrated for his fragmented and surreal images, his sense of a terrifying void lurking beneath an apparently solid surface reality and his dehumanized characters, all of which are linked with the city of St. Petersburg. The reader encounters these elements from Gogol’s first tales, embedded in his native Ukraine. They will figure significantly in such St. Petersburg stories as “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.” Most importantly, even those later works not set in St. Petersburg – his play The Inspector General and his unfinished novel Dead Souls – incorporate features peculiar to Gogol’s reading of a terrifying and, in the end, alien urban environment. For Gogol, St. Petersburg betokens the void, a deceptive superficial reality, and a blurring of the boundaries between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Carried further, Gogol uses his reading of St. Petersburg symbolism to blur the line between the living and the dead, with damnation lying just beneath an illusory surface reality of an evil Westernized city founded by the tsar who led Russia away from traditional values. His characters embody this Westernized capital city and carry it around with themselves even in provincial settings far away from its dangerous glitter.

  • 3

    Dating from 1833, Pushkin’s masterpiece is roughly contemporaneous with Gogol’s earlier Petersburg tales.

  • 6

    As noted in Figes, Natasha’s Dance, pp. 156–157.

  • 8

    Nils Ǻke Nilsson, Gogol et Pétersbourg: recherches sur les antécédents des contes pétersbourgeois (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1954), pp. 34–35.

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  • 10

    Nilsson, Gogol et Pétersbourg, p. 7.

  • 13

    Maguire, “The City,” p. 26.

  • 20

    N.V. Gogol’, “Nevsky Prospekt,” Sobranie sochinenii v vos’mi tomakh, ed. V.R. Shcherbina, vol. 3 (Moscow: Pravda, 1984), pp. 5–30, quote at p. 5.

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  • 21

    See Maguire, Exploring Gogol, pp. 77–78.

  • 22

    Buckler, Mapping St. Petersburg, p. 80.

  • 24

    Gogol’, “Nevskii Prospekt,” pp. 10, 39.

  • 25

    See Iurii Lotman, “Problema khudozhestvennogo prostranstva v proze Gogolia,” Uchenye zapiski – Tartuskii Gosudarstvenyi Universitet, vol. 209 (1968): 5–50 (see especially pp. 11–12, 19).

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  • 26

    Gogol’, “Nevskii Prospekt,” pp. 14, 20.

  • 27

    Ibid., p. 18. The narrator backshadows here to the brothel, p. 15.

  • 28

    Ibid., p. 39.

  • 30

    Setchkarev, Gogol, p. 128.

  • 31

    N.V. Gogol’, “Nos,” Sobranie sochinenii v vos’mi tomakh, ed. R.V. Shcherbina, vol. 3, pp. 40–65, quote at p. 43.

  • 38

    N.V. Gogol’, “Portret,” Sobranie sochinenii v vos’mi tomakh, ed. V.R. Shcherbina, vol. 3, pp. 66–120 (see especially pp. 75–78).

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  • 41

    Harold McFarlin, “ ‘The Overcoat’ as a Civil Service Episode,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 13, no. 3 (Fall 1979): 235–253 (quote at 238, see also pp. 241–242).

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  • 43

    Cited in David Sloane, “The Nose,” p. 482.

  • 44

    N.V. Gogol’, “Shinel’,” Sobranie sochinenii v vos’mi tomakh, ed. R.V. Shcherbina, vol. 3, pp. 121–151 (see especially pp. 124–125).

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  • 45

    Ibid., p. 121.

  • 46

    John Schillinger, “Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ as a Travesty of Hagiography,” The Slavic and East European Journal 16, no. 1 (Spring 1972): 36–41.

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  • 50

    White, “Khlestakov,” p. 91.

  • 52

    White, “Khlestakov,” p. 92.

  • 53

    Ibid., p. 101.

  • 57

    Jones, “Multifaceted Metaphor,” p. 10.

  • 58

    Gogol, Mertvye dushi, p. 30. Vladimir Golstein, “Landowners in Dead Souls: Or the Tale of How Gogol Blessed What He Wanted to Curse,” Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 243–257 (see especially pp. 248–249). Like Chichikov, Manilov and Nozdrev are respectively “neither this nor that” (ni to ni se) or both this and that (i to i se). Golstein, “Landowners,” p. 249.

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  • 59

    Gogol, Mertvye dushi, p. 23. On the tenuousness of Manilov’s “attachment to [his] house,” see Woodward, Gogol’s Dead Souls, p. 57. This weak connection reinforces the sense of Manilov, like Chichikov, as a peripatetic character.

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  • 60

    Maguire, Exploring Gogol, p. 200.

  • 61

    Golstein, “Landowners,” p. 244. See also Maguire, Exploring Gogol, pp. 3–7, on displacement and its significance.

  • 62

    Golstein, “Landowners,” pp. 244–246.

  • 64

    Gogol’, Mertvye dushi, p. 5.

  • 65

    Ibid., p. 23.

  • 68

    Jones, “Realized Metaphor,” pp. 20–21.

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