Nikolai Gogol: A Profound Legacy in Grotesque Absurdism

Let’s analyze the absurdly unique writing of this 19th century Ukrainian-born author.

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statue of Nikolai Gogol in St. Petersburg, Russia

Anybody familiar with grotesque techniques in writing and absurdist fiction is liable to name the likes of Franz Kafka, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, or Flannery O’Connor. This begs the question: what authors were they reading that influenced their darker writings? Nikolai Gogol was one such author, leaving a legacy that’s still alive to this day. He passed away on March 4th, 1852, so let’s take a look at some of his unique writing techniques that played a key role in shaping future literature.

A Surreal Style

The use of the grotesque in fiction is typically synonymous with satire and tragicomedy. However, characters in grotesque fiction are portrayed in a way that induces both sympathy and disgust. Gogol’s approach to the grotesque is somewhat unique in his coupling with defamiliarization. Thereby, his writing portrayed people in such salient detail that they become caricatures. Despite this, these characters are still rooted in reality as individually human, and experience exaggerated human emotion similar to a theatrical performance.

Additionally, according to Andrey Bely–another Russian novelist, and poet–Gogol actively set the stage for Gothic romance, Absurdism, and Impressionism. Accordingly, Gogol’s writing style was a big influence. Gogol writes in an extremely surreal way, where details upon detail are piled upon itself. Consequently, this causes the scene to fold back in on itself and become a chaotic mess of things. The worlds and scenes built by Gogol are reminiscent of a circus.

Exemplary Stories

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol - Book Cover
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Perhaps the best example of Gogol’s style is his short story The Overcoat. In this story, Akaky Akakievich is, essentially, an emotionless workaholic, portrayed as a cog that lives to work. Despite this, his coworkers berate him, his threadbare overcoat often the butt of their jokes. Eventually, Akaky decides to get a new overcoat, and his love for it overtakes his life. Through the overcoat, Akaky becomes more human, suddenly exhibiting emotion and beginning to live a normal life with the acceptance of his coworkers.

The Overcoat also shows the philosophical Absurdism prevalent in his works. Gogol’s works often involved the presence of overabundance in an attempt to fill an emptiness that his characters shared. In Akaky’s case, it was his new overcoat. This emptiness, and by extension his characters’ actions in the presence of this emptiness, is then flipped on its head and mocked in a type of divine irony. This dark comedy lends itself to, what most would consider, a type of existential horror very closely related to Absurdism.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol - Book Cover
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Other archetypal stories written by Gogol include The Nose and Dead Souls. In The Nose, a Collegiate Assessor wakes one day to find that his nose is missing. Later on, it’s discovered that his nose has gained sentience, and is not only living a life of its own but has surpassed the protagonist in rank. In Dead Souls, Chichikov roams the Russian countryside, collecting the names of dead serfs in a get-rich-quick scheme. Both of these, in addition to the characteristic caricatures and absurd situations, criticized the Russian government of the time.

The Authors That Followed

The legacy left by Gogol speaks for itself in the names of authors that he influenced. Gogol is often attributed for directly influencing Kafka, who further used grotesque absurdism to criticize humans’ relation to governments. Additionally, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the “father of the Japanese short story,” considered Gogol, along with Edgar Allen Poe, to be his favorite writers. Gogol is also mentioned by name in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. These are but a few of the many authors who looked to Gogol for inspiration. In fact, Gogol’s reach can be easily surmised by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé: “We all came out from under Gogol’s Overcoat.”

Towards the end of his life, Gogol was primarily focused on finishing the Dead Souls series. According to some sources, the series was meant to be a counterpart to Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, in February of 1852, he would burn many of his manuscripts, some of which included the second part of the series. Afterward, he passed away after refusing food for nine days at the age of 42.

We hope you enjoyed our analysis of Gogol’s writing and his legacy! Want to know more about absurdist fiction? Click here!

Featured Image taken by Alexey Komarov, distributed under a CC BY 3.0 license