Gogol's Revisor




[Harvard Monthly  2.1 (March, 1886), 26-35]



We must always bear in mind when we read about Russia, Russian literature, and the Russians, that the awakening to enlightenment began very much later among them than among any other of the peoples of whom we are accustomed to speak as European. Let us remember that not a century and a half have passed since the first beginnings of a literature were made in Russia by Lomonosov, and even then we must pass over three-quarters of a century more before we find traces of a really Russian literature. Until the beginning of the second decade of this century, that is, until Poushkin appears, we search in vain for anything that is Russian in literature. We do find profound, pompous, God-intoxicated odes, with which Bowring has made us acquainted, and all of which might as well be called Chinese literature, were they not written and construed in Russian. One of them, Derzhavin’s ode God, is actually said to be inscribed in gold on the walls of the imperial palace of his Celestial Majesty. Anything like spontaneous expression of a people become aware of its own existence, we do not find before Poushkin; and, indeed, in the sense that we find such an expression in England, in France, in Germany, in Italy even, we can not find it yet, nor are we likely to find it for a long period to come.

            Not only has the awakening in Russia been very late in its beginning, but it has been exceedingly slow and unpermeating. This has resulted in dividing the Russian people into two portions: a very small class of well educated, though by no means cultivated people, and the huge mass, counting some eighty millions, of the altogether unawakened peasantry. It is quite evident that until these classes are more nearly equalized, we can not expect a really Russian literature, one that will have its roots in the heart of every true son of Russia.

            When the awakening did begin, in the second decade of this century, what was the sight that greeted, and continued to attract the attention of the awakened? Was it an awakening to a wonderfully glorious and beautiful past, as in Italy; to a consciousness of boundless power, and joyousness, and delight in living, as in England; to a profound insight into [27] the world of thought, and to a tender, inspiring sympathy with the mystic and enchanting that it discovered within itself, as in Germany? It was none of these visions that the few who were roused were greeted with in Russia. They awoke in the midst of the profound and unlovely sleep of Slavo-Tartarism. Outside of their own country, there was little at the time to give them healthy inspiration. There was Byron, to be sure; and his influence was great upon the few awakened. There was enough wretchedness in the dull, dreary skies and scrubby, sandy steppes that extended all about them to inspire them with far more of Weltschmerz,—the woe of existence,—than ever Byron had honest cause for. But despair should never be more than a stage in the development of the writer. The Dioscuri of Russian literature, Poushkin and Gogol, succeeded in extricating themselves from Byronism, thanks to the guidance of the writer whose immediate influence has been greater than of any other belletrist of recent times, Scott. These two,—Poushkin and Gogol,—turned their attention to what was heroic, if not always beautiful, in their own past; and to the study of the state of society in which they were living, which was the result of the contact of the few awakened with the many unawakened.

            A nature that is at all accessible to the humorous and to the ludicrous finds the humorous and the ludicrous overflowing its whole mind, when it wakes to realized that all its ideals, if, indeed, it had any, all its aspirations, all its occupations of the past, were trivial, low, and soulless. When that nature sees all the world about it, so earnestly, so dutifully intent upon the triviality, the commonplace, the soullessness which it has already discarded; and especially when that very same nature happens to contain within itself some extraordinary contradiction that makes one side of itself seem unspeakably ludicrous to the other side of itself; then, in such a nature, the sense of the humorous, of the comic, is augmented to such a degree that it must, and will, find expression. Such a nature was that of Gogol, and it found expression in all of his writings, and to the greatest degree, perhaps, in the work which we are specially to consider, his comedy The Revisor.

            In 1836, when he completed his Revisor, Gogol had already attained his twenty-sixth year. He was born in the government of Poltova, [28] in the Ukraine. It is well to remember that the Ukraine was for centuries the battle-field of Russian, Pole, Lithuanian, Tartar, and Cossack; and that consequently it really possessed, though to a limited extent, fold-songs and popular traditions. Gogol afterwards studied these popular traditions very carefully, and made good use of them in his writings. He spent his school-days at Poltova, and at a gymnasium in a neighboring town. He accomplished little in either place. His dislike for study was complemented by his passion for reading and theatricals. He began to write at an early age, following the models of Shukovski, a pompous idealist and favorite of the time. Gogol found himself in St. Petersburg before he was twenty, with no profession, and in great want. His first book was a complete failure; and his success began only when he had given up idealism and Byronism, and turned his mind to his native songs and legends. As a result of his studies he wrote Evenings at a Farm House, Tarass Boulba, and Old Fashioned Farmers, all of which merited the success they obtained. There is in them a pathos, a delicacy, a sympathy with nature, an insight into the human heart, a humor, and a wonderful power of description that are, if not extraordinary, at least peculiar, and comparable with what we have in other literaures. His specially satirical and humorous writings began with sketches of official life at St. Petersburg. His laughter is always hearty, to be sure; but it often ends in weeping. The tears on his cheeks do not come from his hearty laughter alone. They are tears of real woe and pity. He laughs as a man would laugh who in the midst of a pitiful and woeful situation , is so overcome by the ludicrous side of it that he cannot restrain his laughter. Finally came his comedy, The Revisor, a model of what a play meant for the stage should be.

            All who witnessed the exhibition of Mr. Elihu Vedder’s illustrations to Omar Khayyam at the Art Club in Boston, remember, no doubt, the peculiar symbol that was so plainly visible in the draping and the hanging of the plates, as well as on the plates themselves: a strong, decided swirl, converging into a heavy, whirling point of involution, and emerging from that in ever broadening evolution. The symbol has numberless applications. Let us make use of it as a formulating and descriptive symbol of [29] every artistic work in literature. An artistic literary work should be the whirl of involution of such a swirl. It should be the point of convergence and divergence for everything that bears upon the events and characters under consideration.

            Applying this formula to The Revisor, we find that it fits it remarkably well. Gogol in this comedy puts his characters into a situation that shows in the clearest possible way all that they have been, and all that they are. The unexpected visit of a revisor—a supervising and auditing officer—is the event most likely to bring to light the fraud and corruption of a Russian town, through the very effort that would be made by those in power, to smooth over and whitewash things. The letter of a friend informs the prefect of the town of X. that a revisor is to be sent to his prefecture. He assembles the chief authorities of the city, the district judge, the director of the hospital, the rector of the gymnasium, the inspector of police, and the postmaster, to consult with him on this expected emergency. In the opening scene of the play, we find them assembled at the prefect’s house. The prefect, who shows himself from the very first to be a coarse, brutal fellow, who has fought his way up, step by step, from the lowest ranks, reads aloud the letter than informs them, to their great surprise and terror, of the intended visit of the revisor. Their city is not worse than others, God knows. Yet it will be a good thing to take all possible measures of precaution. They must, for the time being, stop taking even those little gifts which were given to them by various townsmen as signs of good-will. The judge protests he never takes anything. But he is a great hunter. He talks dogs from morning till night. Indeed, it is the only thing he can talk about. He has read just six books. What they are we are not told. But they seem to have confused his mind in matters of cosmology, and in making precise distinctions between right and wrong, as the prefect things. The latter knows at this moment of terror that it is wrong for a judge to receive gifts even though they be hunting dogs. This is the same prefect, by the way, who has just levied a heavy blackmail upon all merchants of the neighborhood; the same prefect who has appropriated a fund sent by the government for the building of a chapel, which he reported to have been built, and burnt down. Alas! the old times were gone. It was no [30] longer possible for a prefect to act the villain and tyrant. The accursed Voltairians had changed everything. Indeed, a man would be unceremoniously exiled to Siberia, who made any use of his personal discretion in the application of government funds. They must all be on their guard. The judge, Lapkin-Sapkin—what an appropriate name for a Russian judge! It may be translated “Slasher-Dasher”—must not only give up taking gifts of dogs, but keep his court-room clean. It was not quite seemly, also, to keep his hunting whip on the bench. It was a laudable example of economy, the prefect said, to keep geese; but it was not quite the thing to have them running under people’s feet in the court-room.

            The director of the hospital must give his hospital a good cleaning. The patients smoked so much, and the place smelt so bad, that it prejudiced one against it. Then the patients must have clean night-caps. Besides, there were altogether too many patients. It was not a good sign to have so many in the hospital. Some must be sent home.

            The rector must keep his school in better order. One of his teachers was continually making grimaces, and that would never do. Then, the teacher of history was too enthusiastic. He could keep cool enough when he spoke of the Assyrians and Babylonians; but, when he came to Alexander his enthusiasm would reach such a pitch that he would smash the chairs that were near him.

            The postmaster, who came in later than the others, is of the opinion that war is about to be declared with Turkey, and that that accounts for the mission of the revisor. Few things, indeed, can happen in a Russian town, no matter how distant from the frontier, which do not in some mysterious way portend war with Turkey. The prefect calls the postmaster aside, and requests him to open letters at arrival and before departure, just to see—“I know it all, I know it all,” the postmaster answers, interrupting him. “You do not need to teach me my business. I have been doing it for a long time. No state reasons, though! Pure curiosity, I assure you.” It is such interesting reading. He has one or two with him that he has kept in his pockets for some time. They were so entertaining. Would not the prefect like to hear one of them read?

            In the midst of this consultation, enter, or rather, fall in, Dobchinski, and Bobchinski, breathless with excitement, tumbling over each other in [31] their desire to be foremost in telling the news, stuttering and ever interrupting each other. They are inseparable companions, created to supplement each other in telling a piece of news. Their assonant and rhyming names, of which, by the by, Russian writers are quite fond, seem, in themselves to indicate their spiritual kinship. They are guileless innocents. Their only vice is gossiping; but it is a boundless vice. They are just coming from the inn, they prevail upon themselves to tell, after interrupting and supplementing each other a countless number of times. They saw there a young man of extraordinary appearance. He had such a mien, such a carriage. And his eyes! They pierced through everything. He even looked into their plates to see what they were eating. He comes from St. Petersburg, as his dress would sufficiently indicate. Then he has everything charged; and although he had been there a fortnight already, he had not yet shown a farthing. Such a person must be some high government functionary. Who should he be but the expected revisor? It need hardly be said that Bobchinski and Dobchinski had heard of the expected revisor long before other people. 

            The poor prefect, woe is him, what will he do! The revisor in town for a fortnight! He remembers only too well what he has done during that time: the outrages on the merchants; the corporal’s widow who was whipped through the town, because she would not sell herself to him; the streets that had not been swept during that whole time. Something must be done at once. He commands the streets to be swept immediately. His subordinates must attend strictly to his orders. He himself, accompanied by Dobchinski in his droshki, and followed by Bobchinski on foot, repairs to the inn to meet the revisor.

            Chlestakov, the hero of the play, whose acquaintance we now make, was a character common enough through Russia in 1836, and yet more common today, perhaps, than at that time. He is on his way home from St. Petersburg, where he has been sent by his hopeful papa to attain rank and riches. He attains neither of them, of course; but he has attained to a wonderful love of gambling and boasting. Indeed, he was of that calibre of mind that ends by believing its own stories. He has some petty government position at the capital, which hardly suffices to keep him in cravats. His education is of the most superficial kind. He has barely heard of Poushkin, but he boasts of his acquaintance. He knows the names of a few novels, and an opera or two, as Fra Diavolo and The Marriage of Figaro, and boasts to the benighted provincials of being their author. His papa cannot afford to keep him in the capital spending his fortune, and orders his immediate return. On his way home, Chlestakov gambles away all his money, and is left high and dry in the town of X., without a farthing in his pocket. He has now been here a fortnight; and the inn-keeper will not have anything further charged to his account. Indeed, he has eaten nothing all day, and is at last breaking his fast on some food, not from the first table, that the waiter favors him with. It is at that point that the prefect enters his room to see, as he pretends, that strangers passing through the town are properly treated. Chlestakov is terrified. The inn-keeper had no doubt complained of him as a vagabond, and the prefect has certainly come to arrest him. He protests that he is an official. He will not go to prison on the prefect’s account. He storms, and easily terrifies the frightened prefect. The latter begs of him to show mercy to him; to remember that he has a wife, a wife and little children. He protests his inexperience, his innocence. He cannot afford to refuse gifts. His salary is so small. As to the corporal’s widow, it was all a lie; and of course he should not believe what the traders, rascally Jews and Tartars, charge against him. Chlestakov is dumbfounded. He naturally does not see what his own connection is with the widow and the merchants. The prefect is cunning, however. The revisor wishes to keep incognito of course, and he shall be humored. He succeeds in pacifying Chlestakov, lends him two hundred rubles to pay his bills, and easily prevails upon him to accept quarters in his own house. The prefect was delighted. He had succeeded better than he expected in cheating the revisor.

            After spending a great part of the day in visiting the institutions of the city—Chlestakov would not go near the prison, however—they arrived at the prefect’s house, where Chlestakov’s coming was already expected. Anna Andrayevna and Maria Antonovna, the prefect’s wife and daughter, had made minute inquiries of Dobchinski, regarding Chlestakov’s eyes, and hair, and general appearance. Then [33] they spend hours in a discordant consultation over the dresses they were to wear.

            After dinner, at which he drank quite unsparingly, Chlestakov began to talk to the credulant provincials. He told them of his numerous friends at St. Petersburg. He was on most intimate terms, he said, with the minister of state. His influence in the capital was extraordinary. And as to literature and music, was he not the author of numerous novels, and the composer of Fra Diavolo? If half he says is true, thinks the prefect, Chlestakov must be the most remarkable man living.

            On the next day he is visited by the chief officials of the city, who come “to grease his paw,” to use an expressive vulgarism. Their terror is amusing. The judge approaches Chlestakov first. He makes a military salute, holding the little finger of his left hand on the seam of his trousers. He introduces himself, trembling and shivering, as Lapkin-Sapkin, the district judge, at service. In his fright, he drops the money, a good round sum, which he held in his palm, on the carpet. Now, he is lost. No; to his intense relief, Chlestakov demands it as a loan. The other officials follow, and the scene is repeated.

            Chlestakov does not know what to make of this. It must be the Fates at last recognize his merits, and are rewarding him accordingly. His servant Ossip, however, an old peasant, much the superior of his master, sees the situation, and advises him to leave while the coast is free. Chlestakov accedes, but will stay another day, to amuse himself, and to write his wonderful adventure to a friend, a journalist at St. Petersburg. During the time he makes love to the daughter, being on his knees, protesting that, if he does not accept him, he will blow his brains out, when the mother enters, and the daughter retires in confusion. Chlestakov had no doubt heard of idealism. Love is a passion, working from within outward. Its object is a matter of accident. The daughter gone, the mother would do as well; and, while yet on his knees, he makes avowals of his love to the mother. She sorrowfully protests that she is married. But love knows no law, Chlestakov replies. He ends, however, by engaging himself to Maria, to the chagrin of her mamma, to the delight of the prefect, and to the envy of all their friends. Chlestakov then departs on the best horses [34] the post can afford, to return tomorrow, he says, after he has taken a look at his estates.

            The prefect’s exultation is boundless. What good fortune! He would now become a general, and reside in the capital, honored, and revered as the father-in-law of a great man. He has the merchants brought to him, who, in spite of all his efforts, succeeded in bringing a petition to the supposed revisor; and reads them a lecture on their impudence. Let us not pity them too much. They are not a whit better than the prefect. Many of them are contractors who have defrauded the government of thousands of rubles. Meanwhile friends are assembling to congratulate him on his daughter’s engagement; and last, comes the postmaster, on a different errand. His curiosity led him to open the letter that Chlestakov mailed to his friend at St. Petersburg; and how he reads it aloud to the prefect and the assembled guests. In it a vivid description is given of the prefect, and his friends, in terms that are not always charitable. The scene that follows, I will not attempt to describe; nor the closing tableau, when a gendarme enters announcing the arrival of the true revisor.

            “Blame not the glass; the grimaces are all yours” says an old Russian folk-saw that Gogol prefixed to his Revisor. The public, that is, the public of St. Petersburg, recognized the grimaces. But it was shameful and exasperating, they thought, that the glass should exist at all. Against a man who exhibited them to the world in the clear light that Gogol used, nothing too bad could be said. They would have been glad enough to prevent the appearance of The Revisor on the stage. But the Quixote of the North, Nicholas, the possessor of so many of the virtues as well as the follies of the knight of La Mancha, insisted that it be brought on the state. Its success was remarkable, in spite of the failure of the actor to comprehend the part of Chlestakov. And since then The Revisor has kept the foremost place on the Russian stage. Indeed, it would be hard to find a better example of the stage-drama as opposed to the closet-drama. Here collectors may hunt in vain for epigrams, gnomic sentences, and “rhetorical Caryatides,” to add them to their cabinet. There is not a phrase, there is hardly a word here that is unessential to the play.

            [35] The strong opposition made to his comedy by the official classes, and the poor performance of the part of Chlestakov, gave Gogol a disgust for his country, that was, however, not to last long; and he left it for Italy. At Rome he wrote what would have been his greatest work had he finished it. Dead Souls, the book I have in mind, had a like aim with the memoirs of a Sportsman, which was to appear thirteen years later: the emancipation of the serfs. As it is we have only the first half of the work. Gogol, indeed, had completed it; but in a fit of asceticism, penitence and mysticism, he threw it into the flames. The mention of his fits of ascetism reminds me that I must say a word in explanation of the reference I made to a vital contradiction in Gogol’s character; and with that I shall close the article.

            As I finished reading Mr. Stevenson’s recent story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, it occurred to me that if we desired further proof for it, we could find it with startling clearness in the character of Nicholas Gogol. From his earliest boyhood, his inner life inspired him with morbid feelings and terrors of future punishment, while the outward world produced in him bursts of ceaseless laughter. One shudders as he reads some of Gogol’s letters written as early as his sixteenth year. Later in life he said that he made a special effort to see the ludicrous side of life, to relieve himself of the terrors that opposed his soul. He had succeeded in separating the comic from the tragic element of his being. In his early youth it needed a strong outside force to transfer him from the happier to the gloomier state. But as he grew older, the change became easier, and at last the gloomy and tragic elements became the possessors of his whole existence; the last ten years of Gogol’s life were spent in the most torturing penance for imagined sins; in continuous introspection and in ecstatic visions. Well, he had for his reward his faith in a Reality. And would not many of us, at times, be glad to live Gogol’s life, if we could have as definite a vision as he did, no matter what the vision be? His death occurred in 1852, at Moscow.