Interpreting Nikolai Gogol Within Russian Orthodoxy

Author: Stanton, Leonard J. and Hardy Jr., James D.
The authors present a tripartite thesis in this study. They begin with the fundamental position that the Orthodox religion, though not the Russian Orthodox Church, functions as a sub-text throughout all of Nikolai Gogol’s work, whether fiction, comedy, or essays, the last generally being fiction in another form. There exists, therefore, no separate Gogol of Dead Souls and the tales from Dikanka or Mirgorod or Arabesques, and another Gogol of Selected Passages, the first to be admired and the second to be condemned. There is, instead, a single Nikolai Gogol, for whom religion forms the basic unifying theme in his entire corpus. A second part of the thesis is that Gogol, while writing in the comic vein, both light (The Inspector General) and dark (“The Portrait,” “The Overcoat”), worked neither as a humorist (Mark Twain’s short stories) nor as a satirist (Petronius), but as a moralist, who, like Plato, sought to point to the way toward a general social reformation. Ethical disorder and moral “little failings” would certainly amuse because they were recognized, but the purpose of writing about “little failings” was to move toward a more ordered society where all fulfilled their social obligations. The third part of the thesis concerned Gogol’s literary successors. The authors suggest that Gogol’s overcoat descended not to the Russian Orthodox writers of immense and often Christian novels, but to the Jewish authors of Yiddish tales, often written in the comic style about “little failings” and also attempting to show the way and the need for moral reform of the community.

The authors conclude that Gogol’s work formed a coherent and unified whole, animated by a strong sense of the need for religiously-based reform of the existing social order through attention to social obligations, and this attitude of social reform based upon religion would be repeated within the Russian imperial literary context in the Yiddish tradition of tales and stories.


“This study makes a unique and long-needed argument about the integrity of the work of the classic Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, a writer whose work belongs not merely to the corpus of great Russian literature but to world literature. Even when his work has been interpreted and appreciated both as Russian and world literature, however, it has often been misunderstood – sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, but always crucially. Although Gogol enters into dialogue with Pushkin and the Russian tradition, it is not on the same terms as Turgenev and Tolstoy enter the dialogue, for those great authors accepted the basic premise of rationality that underlies the European novel ... – (from the Preface) Professor Bainard Cowen, Louisiana State University

“In this book, the authors have done four things which, within the context of religion and literature, are themselves unusual, and which, brought together into a single book, are close to unique. This is, as general interpretation goes, a radical book ... I suggest publication of a book that diverges so far from standard interpretations, on the general grounds that going over the same stuff in the same way once again is of less value than seeing Gogol in a new and imaginative way ... this book will be an essential element in bringing Drs. Stanton and Hardy’s ideas into the general scholarly discussion.” – Professor Carolyn Jones Medine, The University of Georgia

Table of Contents

Foreword by Bainard Cowen

Part I – Perspectives
1. Iconic Perspective: A Saint Visits: Serafim of Sarov
2. Social Perspective: The Painting of Alexander Ivanov
3. Ironic Perspective: Vranyo

Part II – Fiction
4. The Provinces
5. Dead Souls
6. St. Petersburg Grotesque
7. Four Comedies

Part III – Russia
8. Feminine Virtue
9. Arabesques
10. Religion: Selected Passages

Part IV – Successors
11. Bogoiskateli and Galut
12. The Russian Jewish Literary Tradition