Parable in Nikolai Gogol’s works: specifics of the author's presentation


The parable of the works of N.V. Gogol as one of the most important elements of the writer's strategy is analyzed. Emphasis is placed both on its formal and content embodiment in the author's works. The formal part shows the important connection between the parable and the artistic detail of the literary work and the composition on the whole. The content part deals with the writer, who builds a complex system of conflicts and their role in the plot scheme. For the study, researchers consider it necessary to warn against a shallow analysis of Gogol's parable as a kind of vulgar form of reasonableness or teaching. Reading the author's texts shows that the parable departs from the classical model and resembles “die Parabel”, a form of parable in the literature of European modernism, which complicates and makes the edifying aspect less obvious. The parable element considered in this work should be studied not in general terms, but as an integral part of the poetics and artistic system of the author, which allows us to consider this phenomenon in more detail, as an individually mastered part of the composition of the work of a single author. Using this approach, it is possible to show Gogol as a phenomenon of world literature, and the reason for that is a complex system of parables, implemented in different ways in his literary works. This system absorbs particular elements of poetics using a variety of functions that form a single system of artistic originality of Gogol's texts. Moreover, it emphasizes the originality of texts and their dissimilarity from each other even within the author's collection.

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When studying Gogol’s creative heritage, one faces a difficult question about the parable nature of his texts and poetics in general. This literary, or, in a broader sense, cultural phenomenon itself has firmly secured its independence through long-established and rather rigid features of form and content. This is fraught with a certain danger, but at the same time, it sparks the genuine interest of researchers: one can witness how the well-developed and complex structure of the parable is mastered by such an artist as Gogol. Without resting upon the degree of difficulty of the task, one should warn against a superficial understanding of the parable nature of Gogol's works as some vulgar form of reasoning or sermonizing. There is a difficulty specific to the study of Gogol, when the “tandem” of the tragic and the comic, the sublime with the prosaic and everyday, their close contact, reaching almost their complete indistinguishability, makes it difficult to reconstruct the author's artistic goal, which allows speaking of the very existence of the parable context. Uniform, although correct interpretations of Gogol’s works, dealing with the social and humanistic aspects of the content and setting the realistic paradigm of his works as the center of gravity, only disguise this problem and impoverish Gogol not only at the ideological level but also as a designer of his own texts, as a stylist. Contemporary literary critics incessantly remind of the mystery of Gogol’s works, of the semantic ambivalence of his texts. For example, the famous Czech Russianist Ivo Pospíšil writes that “only rarely do we encounter a completely rationalizing explanation, an absolute minimization; at the same time, Gogol is also no stranger to absolute mystery. Much more appalling is the noetic uncertainty that Gogol’s stories evoke” (Pospíšil, 1994, p. 92). The foregoing leads to the understanding of a rather simple fact: the question under study is more in the realm of form than content, or both content and form are in closer cooperation than it has been commonly assumed.


Gogol and the parable

The encyclopedia of literary terms and concepts edited by A.N. Nikolyukin defines the parable as “an epic genre, which is a short edifying story in an allegorical form” (Nikolyukin, 2001, p. 808). The parable as a literary genre undoubtedly belongs to the epic and (from the point of view of the author's strategy) is attractive to those who aspire to master this genre form, above all, due to the broad generalization of the declared idea (which is reinforced by the general abstraction of reality presented in the parable) with the deliberately sketchy nature of the psychologism of its subject and object and the essential focus of the plot on the factual reproduction of the underlying event without any serious development of the action. The allegory and the plot in the parable are usually balanced. This definition of the parable reflects it not as a separate phenomenon but as an auxiliary genre paradigm, ready for adaptation or creative interpretation by the author. However, the parable does not lose its independence, even though it performs, albeit fundamental, but still service functions; the essence of these functions will be discussed below. It is worth emphasizing that within the framework of this article the main goal is to dwell on the parable and its “tools” in Gogol from a formal, rather than a concept point of view, in order to understand the complex of means of artistic expression and techniques used by the writer to express the parable content (which has been studied more thoroughly so far).

The fact that the author acts as a creator of a certain model of the world can already be considered a truism. However, it is essential that this model is not “dissolved” or embodied in a literary text, but is itself a text. The very delimitation and closed nature of any text, not only a literary one, implies the variability of means for conveying any information. Then what happens to the parable, which is definitely generated by the author's consciousness, when its essential features are taken over by the author of a work having a larger-scale compositional structure? It is either unconsciously perceived by the writer as an archetype, an intertext associated with the problems of the work (which requires an outstanding aesthetic effort due to the fact that the archetype, as an ancient meaning, not only needs to be mechanically reproduced, but must be updated and correlated with the system of artistic and figurative means that is relevant to the author), or it is realized as a grandiose generalization of what the author has already said (a good example here is Gogol's poem Dead Souls). Besides, any literary work, being integral, correlates with metatexts as an abstract embodiment of texts immersed in the cultural space and already existing before the creation of a certain author's text, and the parable as part of the metatextual context experiences a change in various literary movements and, accordingly, becomes requested in different ways. One can note the importance of eternity and the divine absolute for Gogol as the author of Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends and generally the issue of the writer's apocalyptic worldview, which continues to attract the attention of literary critics (Glyantz, 2013, pp. 89–121), the satirical mockery of the vices of society in The Government Inspector, and heroism, contrasted with everyday routine and commonplaceness in the collection Mirgorod. It can be said that the main values of specific texts – that is, the connections of unequal author's intentions with various metatexts of works – also differ among themselves due to the will and personality of the author, who can use the familiar parable triad “Subject – object (usually the surrounding world, reality itself) – absolute (perceived as a strict law, which is higher than man and is obligatory for execution)” differently in the corresponding works. Gogol is not an exception to this rule since he realizes his creative potential based on his contemporary metatext, cultural and socio-historical situations in general, analyzing and comprehending them, being guided by his worldview and ethical attitudes. One can recall the scientific problem concerning the tradition of Homer's Odyssey in Dead Souls, which has been fruitfully discussed in Russian and foreign science (Kelly, 2005, 37–61), when Gogol supports his aesthetic, and, which is more important for the considered topic, moral attitudes with the cultural context that was important and relevant for his contemporaries.

The image of the author in Gogol's texts has been studied very fruitfully, but what is interesting within the framework of this study is the very possibility of looking at him as a narrator of the content, which is based on the parable model, without trying to mechanically transfer the structure of the parable to specific works, which would be a wrong step. It should be recalled that Gogol must be perceived simultaneously on two important levels – comic-satirical and dramatic-tragic, which creates some difficulties when analyzing his poetics. However, Gogol’s works, especially the later ones, are characterized by raising certain observations to a larger scale – in other words, a tendency to generalize. This is surely not a specific feature of the writer or innovation, but it can be used as the most direct and simple way to comprehend the parable nature of his texts. The simplest example is direct statements of a generalizing nature, which can be easily identified by their characteristic beginning, for example: “In Russia, where everything tends to expand rather than shrink...” Another example is the allusion to the gospel parable of the prodigal son, which is implicitly interpreted in the image of Chichikov from the first volume of Dead Souls and explicitly in the image of the landowner Khlobuev from the second volume, which corresponds to the plot of the parable. However, it is revealing that the author, generalizing in Khlobuev the type of a weak-willed and thoughtless person, ruining both himself and the peasants, at the same time cannot do without elements of specification, however unimportant they may seem at first sight. The writer provides gives a brief characteristic of the character’s appearance and a description of his clothes – unsightly, unenviable. In the gospel parable related to the corresponding episode with Khlobuyev, detailing is weakened – the prodigal son should appeal to the most general context, and any person in any epoch can be in his place. The final part of the first volume of Dead Souls, the passage about the “bird-troika”, which presents a poetic image of Russia, is somewhat easier to interpret. The author's definition of the genre of this work as a poem implies not just a clearly visible reference to the metatext – Dante's Divine Comedy as a model of the highest form of artistic construction but also an approach to the ultimate form of generalization as a predetermined strategy for constructing a text – i.e. indications of the systematization of social and spiritual phenomena appear, in fact, even before the creation of the text itself. This implies a reasonable assumption that the narrative itself will be extremely concentrated and will choose as its center a single essential point, while numerous branches of the plot will only serve as a kind of support for the artistic “finishing” of the most important thing. This is precisely what the reader observes in Dead Souls: a relatively small number of characters and events serve as material for discussing the fate of Russia and other most important spiritual and philosophical issues. It may seem that the above is an inadvertent formulation of the classical understanding of the later Russian novel for the 19th century, when a large epic scope is combined with a single protagonist as the “center of gravity” of the whole work. However, in fact, it turns out that the structure of a parable, so successfully embodied in Dead Souls, is common and frequent in many works, as will be shown above, not only in Russian literature. The more so because Gogol’s poem can hardly be called a typical, traditional work of a large form: the writer's narration is not event-driven but of a strictly plot nature, and is not only large-scale and all-encompassing, realized on the all-Russian scale,  but also symbolic, which is ensured by the contrast of “low” content and pathetic lyrical digressions. Taras Bulba could be the representation of generalization, in which author creates monolithic heroic unity. Being somewhat idealized, it depicts the battle for Faith and Fatherland. However, some idealization of the images of Cossacks in the story, inextricably intertwined with folklore stylization, pursues an important goal – advancing an epic, profound generalization and reaching deep understanding of historical implication of Russia. Moreover, despite the apparent simplicity of the content, the uniformity of images and details forms a “mode of artistic”, in which they can be refracted into multiple transfigurations of meanings, thanks to a broad historical and philosophical panorama.

In Nabokov’s published lectures on Russian literature, the chapter on Gogol’s Dead Souls contains such remarkable lines: “Gogol's heroes by chance happened to be Russian landowners and officials, their imaginary environment and social conditions have absolutely no meaning... it is as useless to look for genuine Russian reality in Dead Souls as it is to imagine Denmark on the basis of a private incident in foggy Elsinore” (Nabokov, 2018, p. 47). One can understand these words as one more confirmation of the high “cosmism” of Dead Souls, but behind it, there is an understanding of the complexity of the plot of the poem and its atypical role in the compositional organization of the narrative. In the parable, the most important component in which the object (that is, the reality, within which a person acts) is dissolved is the plot as a simple sequence of certain  events, which does not cause any criticism along with the stable paradigm of this genre (Agranovich, Samorukova, 1997, p. 134). The plot in a work of art, as a sequence of events connected according to certain rules, will be characterized by a freer presentation and will be built according to an individual chronotope established by the author. This well-known theoretical aspect points directly to the fact that the plot is directly associated with the form of the work, is under its “control”. It is important to understand that the plot intersects with the fable in terms of conflict and fact, and these two principles are equally expressed there, the fable being as much a creative beginning as the plot. The only difference is that in the parable, which is entirely fabulist, they are strained to the limit. Correspondingly, in search for the parable trace, rightly pointing to the plot as its main receptor, one should understand how these two elements manifest themselves in the narrative structure of the work. Gogol has many conflicts as the engines of the plot, and it is only by relating them together that they form the conflict of the entire work. At the same time, we would like to note the atypical role of details in the structure of the conflict. The writer kind of pauses his gaze on a certain subject, and then, using descriptions to determine their place in the context of the overall content, moves on to the next object. An example is the well-known description of the interior of Plyushkin's house or the no less well-known episode where two peasants talk about the “wheel” of Chichikov’s britzka – whether it will reach Kazan or Moscow or not. The author's gaze then falls upon an extraneous object – a dandy met near the inn, which has no direct connection with the previous picture, but which along with it is part of the general system of sketching the view and color of the provincial town.

Descriptions and details not only fulfill their customary characterizing function but also take on the role of micro-conflicts, pushing the plot forward. Otherwise, the fable of the poem would have coincided with its plot and would present a chain of Chichikov’s trips for the purpose of buying dead souls, which is fundamentally wrong, as pointed out by Yury Mann, a prominent researcher of Gogol's work (Mann, 2007, p. 744). Any truly brilliant work predicts the life of a plot collision incomparably longer than the life of the fable, and Gogol’s text is no exception. In Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, the plot was driven by the very dynamics of the action, its sharpness, whereas in Dead Souls, the situation is fundamentally different. Details of everyday life and landscapes are conceived as images that are directly elements of the plot, as Andrei Bely pointed out in his book Gogol's Mastery (Bely, 1996, p. 351). Thus, a rather scanty factual sequence of events is superimposed detail by detail. For example, there is such evidence: before Chichikov arrives at Korobochka's house, thunder rumbles, and it starts raining.  It can seem that this is a trifle that has nothing to do with the narrative, even at the level of figurativeness, it is quite primitive, but if it is removed, the plot will crack. The detail turns out to be inextricably linked with the plot, and Gogol’s secrecy, his reluctance to willingly reveal even the most important details, only plays into the work's poetics and allows its meaning to be considered truly inexhaustible. The American researcher Kirsten Lodge in her work The Semiotics of Gogol's Dead Souls emphasizes not only the semantic but also the semiotic load of individual elements of Gogol’s text, which is demonstrated by the writer’s language itself; thus, both content and form (linguistic stylistics) have a significant influence on the complexity of the parable (Lodge, 2002, 69–84).

Continuing the idea of the parable structure embodied within a more complexly structured work, it should be clarified that such a change in the genre strategy kind of prolongs the life of the parable and helps it to establish itself in a work of art: the closed form is replaced by a more open one and suggests a much greater number of interpretations at the expense of the text, in which it is incorporated. It does not even matter how, directly or figuratively (see, for example, the insert novella “The Tale of Captain Kopeikin” in Dead Souls and the priest’s parable in Kafka’s The Trial and the poetics of The Castle as one big novel ‒  parable). One cannot simply say that a direct insertion of a parable makes it the core of the narrative, and its formal extension to the entire space of the text (surely, the degree of meaningfulness and importance of the parable will not change, no matter what method the writer chooses) indicates several content centers of the work. First, a delimited insert, having the character of an insertion into the main text, expresses its moral basis more clearly, no matter, with or without a certain conclusion, and second, this tactic is more interactive than a parable “spilled” through a meaningful channel. The reader will definitely notice it, will not pass by, and thus a dialogue with the author is more likely to take place. The possibility of an ambiguous interpretation is of critical importance for the existential worldview of the authors of the literary modernism era, characterized not by a confident declaration of truth, but by constant doubt (for example, Sartre's Nausea) or desperate search (Kafka's The Castle). Besides, the inner world of the character appears to be more detailed, which is emphasized by his persistent reflection or desire to recreate a certain logical chain of events, but all attempts end in failure – the world is absurd, just as existence itself is absurd. The archaic parable, being a response to reality, which could be explained dogmatically, gave not just a clear and precise answer but a strategy for any turn of life that was predictable in its representation. The specified parable of a new type is called in Russian “parabola” (the difference between it (die Parabel) and the parable of the classical type (das Gleichnis) was first made by the efforts of German literary scholars, for example, Gero von Wilpert (Wilpert, 2001, p. 865).

Unfortunately, in other languages, the distinction between it and the parable of the classical type is blurred. For example, in English, “parable” is used in both senses. The parable of a new type, reacting to an illogical environment, seems to have lost the possibility of responding unambiguously to the turmoil of external events, but, having equated the subject of the parable – a person with what used to be an object – to the world, it has undergone some intimization, which strengthened its original addressability. Structurally, the modern parable looks simpler, but its content becomes more complicated because simple two-dimensional analogies of the classical parable lose their priority. Preserving its binary nature, that is, the connection between the context of the parable and the reality that its edification is aimed at, it links them directly, thus eliminating the explicit didacticism of tone. Seeing the suffering and slow fading of Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis, one imagines too vividly the crisis of the hero’s being – and unsuccessful attempts to cope with it. Psychologism in describing his feelings is to some extent a tactic for dealing with the nightmare in which he is immersed, and this is conveyed very vividly, without answering the worrying question, but what matters here are those subtle differences in reactions, the variety and quantity of which forms the existential person. The existential question that worries the writers of the first half of the 20th century is thus the link that, without significant loss, connected the archaic parable and the parable of the new type, in some cases without abandoning, but reinterpreting the symbolism of the past. A good example is Sartre’s drama The Flies. Without going into analysis, one should note the author's indicative strategy: while preserving the external framework of the genre –  the ancient Greek tragedy and the simplicity of the plot – the image of Orestes as the main protagonist becomes very complicated. The collision with fate is taken to a new level, and the realization of it described above, in fact, can be used as a kind of canon of a work that explores existential issues. This statement is somewhat arbitrary, but it helps to get rid of the prejudice that the parable is an obsolete genre, forever sunk into oblivion. However, as for the relative simplicity of the plot, especially in connection with its above-mentioned specifics in Gogol's works, it should be noted that for modernists, it is not the most fanciful element of the composition. In the absolute majority of the considered works of 20th century modernism, the unfolding of the action provides an alternation of episodes of a collision with the outside world and emerging conflicts that appeal to the hero’s introspection. In Gogol’s works, this is somewhat more complicated, which is connected, taking into account the above-described role of details in composition, with the pre-realistic nature of the writer’s work, which has not yet completely departed from romanticism. Gogol’s characters are presented in a typified manner (though they are not devoid of vivid psychological features that can be shown indirectly), but Gogol's conflict is of a more implicit nature. At the same time, his works also gravitate towards a parabolic beginning due to the frequent appeal to existential problems – which is a true catalyst for parable in the work in general.


Gogol as an artist implements a rather complex parable strategy. It is significant that the way the Russian writer, touching on the topic of death – the highest degree of tragic – consistently moves from the worthy to the less worthy (from the deceased Piskarev to the living Pirogov in Nevsky Prospekt), from the living to the dead (The Overcoat) and achieves meaningful expressiveness of the tragedy of being due to the necessary compositional distribution of episodes and, at the same time, saturating them with individual details. The drama of both Piskarev and Akaky Akakievich as a bitter narrative of cold, cruel injustice is unthinkable without alternating the plans of the antithesis indicated by us and saturating this opposition with the necessary details (it is enough to recall the end of Piskarev's misadventures, the description of his funeral, where everything reflects the lack of empathy for the fate of the character). Gogol significantly complicates the parable content thanks to experiments with form, which amaze with diversity: it includes the hierarchy of narrative plans in the composition of the work that we have just indicated and the tendency to generalization, as well as the special role of details in narrative structure. No matter how mysterious the content of Gogol's works might be, their poetics amazes with the complexity of the formal organization and gives the parable a unique flavor. Such pattern is not too distant from the classical parable (for Gogol, the connection with christianity is significantly important, assuming a clear answer to the issues raised) and it also surpasses the parabolic structure (ambivalence, ambiguity not only at the level of content, but also of form).

Speaking about the function of the parable at further stages of the development of literature, it can be concluded that in modernism, the tone of the well-recognizable structure of the parable, even if it undergoes the above-mentioned changes, is set by the aspect of the content, which, by the generalizing nature of the theme, ensures the stability of the reference to the parable principle. The edifying principle also does not disappear, but undergoes a serious mutation: now this is not a dogmatic view of things, but an agnostic one. Gogol, as it was found out, implements a parable strategy relying above all on the form of a literary work, constructing a complex fictitious reality by scrupulous filling of the artistic world to embody the parable context. Roman Karst, comparing the poetics of Gogol and Kafka, rightly notes that “the basic difference is that Kafka makes illusion real while Gogol makes reality illusory – the former depicts the reality of the absurd, the latter the absurdity of the real” (Karst, 1975, p. 74). Indeed, Kafka observes the absurdity of life as an expression of its extreme ambiguity and tragedy directly, thereby realizing his parable strategy of a parabolic type, making the presence of such a strategy in the text explicit, obvious to the reader. The parable nature of Gogol's works is less obvious in its localization in the writer's texts, it is less concentrated and distributed among different means of artistic expression, which were demonstrated above. This observation, in the authors’ opinion, can also be extended to other representatives of modernism (and existentialism in particular) when they are typologically compared with Gogol.


About the authors

Nikita M. Demidov

Lomonosov Moscow State University

ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8336-4333

postgraduate student, Department of Theory of Literature, Faculty of Philology

1 Leninskiye Gory, Moscow, 119991, Russian Federation

Oleg A. Kling

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0003-1543-5253
Scopus Author ID: 57210864490

Doctor of Philology, Professor, Head of the Department of Theory of Literature, Faculty of Philology

1 Leninskiye Gory, Moscow, 119991, Russian Federation


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