Nicolai Gogol’s works are known for their elements of fantasy and the supernatural. The function of these fantastic tales and stories is the subject of this paper. I will focus on several of the short stories contained in his early work Village Evenings Near Dikanka, primarily on “Sorochintsy Fair,” “St. John’s Eve,” “The Lost Dispatch,” “Christmas Eve,” and “The Terrible Vengeance.” Though it may seem that Gogol mastery of the genre implies countless interpretations of this function, my essay will focus only on the intrusion of the supernatural, its function as absolution of responsibility, humor, and social criticism.
In the second part of this paper I will focus on Gogol’s tales about St. Petersburg which were written a decade after Village Evenings. The scenery has changed in the Petersburg tales from the village setting to a city setting, yet the function of the supernatural remains similar. In this part I will deal mostly with “The Overcoat” because of the story’s highly debated supernatural conclusion.
Village Evenings Near Dikanka
Village Evenings Near Dikanka are Gogol’s early collection of stories written between 1830-1832 in a clearly medieval strain (Peace 13), while also borrowing much from popular literature, Ukrainian folk tales, superstitions, but just as much from German romanticism (Dreissen 60).
They are grouped into two parts, each with four short stories written by a beekeeper Rudy Pan’ko. All of these stories deal with supernatural forces which could appear and pounce at any moment. The Ukrainian towns and fairs in this collection are haunted by witches, gypsies, wizards, and the most often the devil. In Village Evenings the combination of an ominous, supernatural spirit world and realistically detailed pictures of Ukrainian life gives his stories a bizarre, exotic flavor (Setchkarev 95).
The first story “Sorochintsy Fair” is a magnificent example of a grotesque (Dreissen 74). Gogol’s introduction is beautiful lyrically and eerie:
O, the intoxication, the luxuriance of a summer’s day in Little Russia! And the unbearable swelter of the midday hours when the very air sparkles with stillness and heat and the infinite ocean of the sky, arched into a voluptuous dome over the earth, appears to have fallen asleep, sated with sweetness, closed in an ethereal embrace with the beauty beneath it! There is not a single cloud to be seen. No sound can be heard from the fields. It is as if there is no life below; only from above can you hear the trilling of a skylark, its silver-tongued song skipping down the staircase of heaven to the enthralled earth, punctuated by the occasional call of a gull or the strident cry of a quail from the steppe (Gogol 8).
Though there is “intoxication” and “luxuriance” to this scene, there is also something of death about it, “as if no life below.” While very romantic and lyrical, this exclamatory opening of “Sorochintsy Fair” has a strange un-earthly aura to it, which sets the tone for the series of stories marked by a strong demoniac presence.
In “Sorichintsy Fair” Cherevik has arrived in Sorochintsy with his beautiful daughter (symbolically angelic) and his ugly wife (symbolically demonic), they are later told a story by his cousin about how the devil is walking throughout the fair looking for the red svitka that he had pawned in order to get drunk after he was “booted” out of hell. Since the time he had pawned it, the svitka had gone through a number of owners in the town, each owner suffering some misfortune, until its last owner had cut it to shreds. The devil returns each year during the fair to search for his red svitka, and now all he has left to find is the svitka’s red sleeve. When the guests are informed that the devil often takes the form of a pig and in a matter of moments they see a pig’s snout outside the window “all those present in the hut were transfixed with terror.” Here the supernatural assumes a rather comedic function:
With a crash of breaking glass the window caved in and the hideous snout of a pig was thrust into the room, its eyes darting from side to side, as if to say: “So what are you doing here, good people?” (25).
Thus what would be a normal occurrence of a loose pig is turned into a supernatural force intruding into the private life of ordinary people. This “supernatural” intrusion however is the interpretation of the frightened people, not a stated fact in the story. The narrator does not claim that the devil is in the form of a pig, therefore the devil is in the frightened mind. What follows is a strange and somewhat comedic episode of contagious fear:
The cousin, his mouth agape, was turned to stone; his eyes started from his head; his stretched-out fingers remained frozen in mid-air . . . Meanwhile Cherevik, sticking a pot on his head instead of his hat, fled headlong through the door and ran down the street like a madman until sheer exhaustion eventually forced him to slow his pace . . . He went numb with fear . . “The devil! The devil!” he cried, beside himself with fear . . . (25-26).
The second story in the Village Evenings “St. John’s Eve,” uses the supernatural as a method of relating a morality tale about the tragic results of pursuing worldly riches (Rowe 22). As in “Sorochintsy” the main character is the devil, and he is the first to be introduced: “There was a frequent visitor to this village, a man – or rather, a devil in the guise of man” (37). This man is called Basavryuk, and this “devil man” frequently “haunts” the village every year around St. John’s eve. The story involves a poor and orphaned farmhand Petro who works for the wealthy Korzh, and is in love with his beautiful daughter Pidorka, and the two often sneak out for love trysts. After Korzh catches Petro and Pidorka he threatens Petro to never kiss his daughter again for Korzh has plans on marrying his daughter to a rich Pole. This news is soon delivered to Petro by Pidorka’s younger brother Ivas. Knowing he is too poor to marry Pidorka, Petro heads to a tavern to get drunk. There the evil Basavryuk makes a deal with Petro: if Petro were to pluck the first blossom at midnight on St. John’s eve then he would have more gold then Korzh could dream of, and thus be able to wed Pidorka. When Petro is forced by a witch to decapitate Ivas first, Petro acts swiftly. An old mythic theme reappears here: in order to gain power and riches one must shed innocent blood. But the riches acquired by evil means do not last and finally bring destruction upon their owner (Setchkarev 99).
Two days later Petro wakes up with two sacks of gold, however he cannot remember anything. With more riches then the Pole the wedding is planned to take place, yet Petro is haunted by doubts, depression, and a strange guilt, despite not being able to remember a thing. Eventually, a year later on St. John’s eve Pidorka seeks the help of a witch. When the witch enters, Petro remembers everything and he and his gold turn into ash.
The story is filled with supernatural elements – the devil, witches, holy water. However, it is interesting that the story is told by a village verger, Foma Grigorievich. Though Foma Grigorievich had never personally experienced any of the stories, instead all of these events were somehow witnessed by his trustworthy grandfather. Thus once again as in “Sorochintsy” the supernatural events that occurred acquire a level of non-existence, for they exist only in memory and in tales, and to add to their lack of truth, we are informed that Foma Grigorievich had “one strange quirk: he hated telling the same story more than once. If you really begged him to tell a story again you’d hear something quite different or he’d rehash the story so you couldn’t much recognize it” (35).
In “St. John’s Eve” we see the supernatural spurring people onto evil deeds, in a way becoming the motivation behind their sins, and thus absolving them of responsibility. The troubles between Korzh and Petro start when he catches Petro and his daughter kissing, a kiss that was “goaded by the devil no doubt” (39). Richard Peace addresses this element of the supernatural in Gogol’s Village Evenings: “in story after story motivation and responsibility seem to be taken away from the characters and ascribed to supernatural forces they find difficult to control” (Gogol ix).
In “The Lost Dispatch,” the last story in the first part of the Village Evenings, the hero is Foma Grigorievich’s grandfather, a Cossack who meets a host of supernatural beings in his adventure. The grandfather has been issued an important letter from the Cossacks which he must deliver to the Empress. Understanding its importance he sows it into his cap, however along the way he stops at a fair, gets drunk with a fellow Cossack, and in the morning he finds that his cap and his horse have been stolen.
In the “Lost Dispatch” we again see the supernatural functioning as absolution of responsibility. The Cossack with whom the grandfather gets drunk with must be a “devil in disguise.” Richard Peace describes this diabolic responsibility:
The grandfather has been entrusted with conveying an important dispatch from the Cossacks to the empress. He sews it into his hat for safety, but almost loses it through diabolic intervention, and has to return home to begin his mission anew. On the level of byl’ it is not difficult to deduce what really happens: on his way to deliver the dispatch he comes across a fair at Konotop, falls in with a man who has “sold his soul to the devil,” and engages in heavy drinking. . . . The idea that the scapegrace companion has “sold his soul to the devil” is taken literally, and his absence the following morning is explained as the devil having claimed his own. (Gogol ix)
Once again, as in “Sorochintsy” and “St. John’s Eve” the supernatural intrudes into the private life, but only through the vision or supposed act of those who believe in the supernatural, or who can use the supernatural as a method of absolving sins. In “The Lost Dispatch” the grandfather supposedly sees the devil in the middle of the night after heavy drinking:
Suddenly he could swear that some grey creature was poking its horns out from behind the neighboring cart . . . Then his eyelids started to droop so heavily that every few seconds he had to rub his eyes with his fist and rinse his throat with the remains of the vodka. But as soon as the mist lifted from his eyes this strange apparition was gone. Then, after a little while he saw the creature re-emerge from under the cart . . . Grandad strained his eyes as hard as he could; but his cursed sleepiness covered everything in a fog . . . (83-84).
Of course Foma Grigorievich does not blame the vision of this “creature” on the fact that “Grandad” had engaged in heavy drinking with fellow Cossacks. For the narrator the vision of the devil is real or at least in this version of the story. Once again in the Village Evenings the supernatural is only real to those who believe it to be so, or who chose to find fault not with themselves or their ancestors.
The inn-keeper, who resembles Basavryuk from “St. John’s Eve,” guides the Grandfather into the forest, where witches are conducting a ritual and where he will attempt to get his cap back. Outwitting the witches by making the sign of the cross, he is eventually sent home by the witches and awakes on his roof, trying to remember what had occurred. Again we are not sure if the supernatural is truly present, or in the mind of those believing in it:
Was the whole thing only a dream after an overly energetic farewell celebration, or was it reality? Gogol purposely tells the story in such a way that indications of one and the other are both present and in the end one understands nothing but the fact that the story was very suspenseful and that the grandfather is a full, living character (Setchkarev 105).
In the second part of the Village Evenings in “Christmas Eve” realistic and fantastic elements are blended here completely as a matter of course, as if there were no diving line between them at all (Setchkarev 106). In this tale, however the devil is very much real and the supernatural serves the function of humor and the creation of positive mood.
If “Christmas Eve” has notes of positive humor and an outwitted devil with love trysts, then “The Terrible Vengeance” is perhaps Gogol’s most disturbing and darkest tale in the collection. Dressien has described “The Terrible Vengeance” as Gogol’s most heaviest and most terrible work from his youth (216). The story is one of the longest in the collection, and its “potency,” according to Andrei Bely, “is rivaled only by Dead Souls” (65). At first the story seems to be divided into two separate parts. The first is about the young Cossack Danilo, his young wife Katerina, and Katerina’s father who appears to be a foreigner and a wizard. Katerina’s father, whom Danilo believes to be the Anti-Christ, is both evil and degenerate – he wishes to wed his own daughter, and eventually is responsible for the death of her husband and child. Throughout the story the wizard sees a knight on a horse following him.
The second part is a terrible tale of revenge told by a bandurist about the Cossacks Petro and Ivan. Petro is jealous of his friend Ivan who is known for his glorious victory over the Turkish Pasha, thus Petro kills Ivan and his small son. After disposing of the bodies he leads a normal life; however God not knowing how to punish Petro allowed Ivan to think of a punishment. Dreissen sums up Ivan’s terrible vengeance:
Ivan’s demand was terrible. Petro’s whole progeny was to be laden with a curse and his last descendant was to be a criminal, the like of whom the world had never seen before. Each of his atrocities was to startle his forefathers out of the peace of death, so that, tormented, they would rise up from their graves. Only the Judas, Petro would lack the strength for this and would write under the earth like on possessed And when the measure of the misdeeds of this last betrayer was full, then God might allow Ivan to rise from his grave and place him by that same abyss. Then the criminal should come to him and be thrown by Ivan into the abyss, and all his ancestors would gnaw his body, all except Petro. He would not be able tor raise himself, even if he wanted to, but would grow larger and larger under the earth and gnaw at himself. “For there is no greater torture for a man than to long for revenge and be unable to take it.” God found the punishment so terrible that he condemned Ivan to sit there on his horse for ever. So it was all fulfilled. That strange horseman is still standing there on the Krivan and revels in the gnawing by the dead at a corpse; under him, the great sufferer is still growing and makes the earth quake from his unbearable tortures (91).
It is here, towards the end of the second part, where the facts re-group and everything falls into place. The wizard was the last descendant of Petro. Thus again we see the supernatural absolving the sins of the guilty. Katerina’s father is not evil because he has chosen to be evil, but because he was destined to be. The guilt lays in his ancestor’s betrayal of his fellow Cossack.
Here too the function of the supernatural can be perceived as a method of relating morals. Richard Peace has observed that this tale can be interpreted not only as a morality tale about personal friendships, but as a tale about the degeneration of a nation.
The degeneration of Cossack descendants can be seen as a national as well as a personal punishment. Thus Petro’s crime is also interpreted as breaking the bond of comradeship with a Cossack warrior brother, and for this his heirs are doomed to fall further and further away from the Cossack ideal, until we have the wizard who fights with the Poles against his own son-in-law. To this extent “A Terrible Vengeance” is also a parable which points a moral for the decline of a nation (25).
The supernatural degeneration might have been Gogol’s method of pointing to the degeneration of Ukrainian, and specifically Cossack, independence. The stories in Village Evenings are set in a Ukrainian legendary past, unified by Ukrainian customs and superstitions. More importantly, the Cossacks and Ukrainians are portrayed as a free and important group when the reality at the time was the opposite.
Throughout “The Terrible Vengeance” there is a blend of horror and lyricism. The method by which Gogol describes the countryside creates this strange un-earthly aura:
How lovely is the Dnieper in calm weather, when its full water glide freely and smoothly through the forests and mountains. Not a murmur, not a rustle can be heard. As you look you cannot tell whether its magnificent broad surface is moving or not; it seems entirely molded from glass, like a mirror-smooth, blue road, immeasurably wide, infinitely long, which weaves and winds through a green world (Gogol 167).
As in the beginning opening of “Sorochintsy,” in Section X of “Vengeance” Gogol again embraces this similar technique. Though the Ukrainian countryside appears to be lovely and beautiful, it is actually unintelligible, the viewer is not certain at what he is looking at – a river or a mirror, there is something unreal about it. The world is not concrete. As Setchkarev observed: “Gogol views the picture from the perspective of a bird in flight and achieves it with such dazzling hyperboles that the splendor of the words he chooses smoothly glosses over the impossibility of what being said” (112).
St. Petersburg Tales
The function of the supernatural is obvious in the most fantastic of Gogol’s stories, “The Nose.” The function is that of humor and the absurdity of modern urban reality. However it is the function of the supernatural in “The Overcoat” that has inspired much interesting debate amongst literary scholars and authors. “The Overcoat” is probably the most famous story in the Russian language and therefore my summarization will be brief.
The story revolves around the clerk Akaky Akakyevich, whose name and mode of life are just as absurd as the level of pomp and self-assuredness in the Russian clerical hierarchy. Akaky Akakyevich leads a sullen and cheap life in which meaning and happiness are found in his clerical work of copying. When it is time to purchase a new overcoat his life seems to acquire a new meaning and a new source of happiness – the overcoat. The new overcoat attracts attention at work where he is always teased. He is invited by a higher official to a party where he enjoys himself moderately. On his way home from the party he is robbed of his precious overcoat and thus loses the source of his newfound happiness.
The police are not helpful and so is the high official who chooses to verbally humiliate and degrade Akaky Akakyevich. On his way home Akaky gets a cold and dies shortly thereafter. Soon there are rumors about a corpse that haunts St. Petersburg at night and robs people of their overcoats without regard to person and even to rank (Peace 184). When the high official who had previously scolded the poor Akaky is robbed by the corpse and realizes that the corpse is Akaky he stops being so insulting to people of lower rank and the corpse supposedly no longer haunts the streets of capital.
Though most of the story is written in a realistic, almost tragic, manner, it has a fantastic and supernatural element. It is the function of this supernatural ending that interests us in the context of this paper. Why the sudden supernatural element? Why the ghost? What does it mean? The strange ending has had many interpretations. Amongst them, was the theory that Gogol had failed to compose a brilliant conclusion and therefore decided to finish the story with a fantastic element (see Dreissen 187-89). This argument has been called the “classical view,” and if we follow this we will come to view the fantastic elements as lacking any importance in the story. Thus the “classical view” explains the function of the supernatural element in “The Overcoat” in a very simple and rather mundane way – it only serves to conclude the story. It is like a bandage on a wound.
However Driessen argues that
it is highly improbable that he [Gogol] would have attached the fantastic conclusion on to a realistic short story without any intention. It is also difficult to accept that these two heterogeneous pars were not closely connected in Gogol’s mind and formed a significant unity (188).
Dreissen notes that the Gogol-scholar B. Eichenbaum argues that the fantastic ending is in fact just as fantastic as the opening scene of Akaky’s mother choosing the ridiculous name for her child: “The final section is the apotheosis of the grotesque and nothing more fantastic than the beginning” (199) Dreissen also notes that the Gogol-scholar Chizshevsky’s position is that the story is “really a demonstration of the idea that the devil can also bring man into temptation and to ruin by the slightest means” (203). In Chizshevsky’s explanation, we see the supernatural functioning, again, as an intrusive element.
Dreissen however does not believe this to be true and concludes that the story is really about “unhappy love, through which the hero discovers himself and comes to life. He is a borderline case of what is human, the departmental world around his mechanical and dead” (213). He concludes that the supernatural functions as “the revenge of the living on the dead” (ibid).
While we can look at the story as only having one supernatural element towards the very end in a rather realistic story, Vladimir Nabokov supposes that Akaky was a ghost all along who by chance takes on the role of a human clerk. Nabokov’s interpretation seems somewhat justified, for Akaky is often described as a “being,” his overcoat as a “bright [exulted] guest,” and after Akaky’s death Gogol writes: “at last poor Akaky Akakyevich gave up the ghost.” As Rowe explains:
both ‘ghost’ and ‘guest’ are born in other dimensions (the worlds of the supernatural and the imagination), and both presumably return thereto. Even in this world their deaths (or departures) seem to touch off an eerie rumor-like chaos of coats and ghosts in a sort of beclouded twilight zone where the “real” world seems a grotesque projection of Perovich’s snuffbox and its faceless general, the only thing that Akaky could see clearly when the new coat was fatefully suggested. (117)
Thus the supposedly realistic tale can be read from a completely different prism, in which the entire tale is fantastic. From this point of view the supernatural permeates throughout the entire tale, distorting reality, and thus assuming a completely different function. This function, much like in the village stories, is that of intrusion. Here the intrusion is not a devil however; it is a spiritual being which by works as a clerk in St. Petersburg, thus explaining his social awkwardness and pathetic nature, as well as his strange obsession with an object of temptation, an object that seemingly brings about his demise, releasing his “ghost” into the streets to seek revenge.
Yet we cannot compare the village stories and the city tales completely. Obviously there are major differences. In Village Evenings the main characters are presented without the psychological depth that the characters in Petersburg are. Richard Pearce explains that they are portrayed “as though their inner forces have been translated into external powers, and their psychology has been turned inside-out like the sheepskin coat of Levko in his role of diabolic prankster in “A Night in May.” (Gogol ix).
A common theme within Gogol’s work in the supernatural element is that of revenge. In “The Terrible Vengeance” the characters are affected by Ivan’s almost demonic (even though allowed by God) thirst for revenge. In “The Overcoat” the ghost who had once inhabited the body of Akaky Akakyevich seeks revenge by stealing overcoats on the streets of St. Petersburg. Even Taras Bul’ba seeks revenge upon his son (the traitor) and though there apparently is no supernatural element to this, it does have a less subtle supernatural aspect in the symbolism of God having the ability to bring His “children” into the world as well as take them from it. Rowe has noticed how I.F. Annensky
has suggested, somewhat facetiously, that the nose is the real hero of the story. As co-villains, Annensky casts the barber and Kovalyov: they have abused the nose (for example, by seizing it with foul-smelling fingers), and it therefore seeks revenge (105).
Rowe expands on Annensky’s “intriguing interpretation”:
Do other unlikely entities also avenge themselves in Gogol’s uncanny world? Does the devil’s red jacket (in “Sorochintsy”) seek revenge for being stolen and chopped to pieces? Does the overcoat help to avenge its own abuse? Does the rake (in the Preface to Evenings) avenge the forgetting of its own name? Does the deck of cards, Adelaida Ivanovna, avenge herself for being used by Ikharev? Does the carriage hold and expose the man who has boastfully lied about it? And do Chichhikov’s purchases, angry at being disturbed, partially contribute to his unmasking? (106).
Rowe’s interesting observations exhibits how easily the works of Gogol are prone for interpretation. In this paper we have seen that the function of the supernatural is not as simple as it seems – there are several functions, and, as in the case of “The Overcoat” these functions change in regards to how one reads and interprets the story. In this paper I have concluded that the supernatural assumes the function of intrusion both physically and spiritually. In Village Evenings, if the devil wishes to come for you he will do so, often in the guise of a pig or a man.
We have seen how evil deeds can be absolved by the belief in the supernatural even when it is only alive in the hearts and minds. Petro kisses Pidorka because the devil urges him to do so, the “Grandad” loses his hat because a fellow Cossack has sold his soul, drunken visions are excused by a supernatural explanation, a wizard’s degradation is excused by a supernatural destiny.
The most visible function of the supernatural appears to be humor and social commentary. In “Sorochintsy” the characters believe that the pig is the devil, and thus we have an extremely humorous scene. “The Nose” gives the reader both a humor and social criticism about the absurdity of social rankings and the irrationality of modern urban reality. Whereas Gogol is somewhat criticizing the superstitious nature of the Ukrainian countryside, in the same manner the supernatural serves to mock the absurd elements of pomp, pretentiousness, and class in Petersburg.
Gogol’s works are overwhelmingly symbolic and the more one reads them, the more one finds within them. Thus an essay as such could only deal with a limited number of functions within the supernatural aspects of Gogol’s works. For example an entire essay could be written just on the relationship between the Ukrainian characters versus the Russian characters in the way they are portrayed in the context of the supernatural. Since his works can be read from different points of view his works assume a supernatural quality of their own. Are they the works of romanticism, realism, or surrealism? How important are signs and symbols, phrases, colors, names? It seems very little is incidental in his work, and thus a final judgment is difficult to come upon. The most celebrated stories of Gogol continue to defy the most strenuous and ingenious efforts of critics to produce interpretations which account plausibly for the oddities of their content and structure (Woodward 7).
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