When I began this book, I expected to chuckle my way through it, as I did with Gogol's play
The Inspector General. Whoa! Not so! The title story is humorous, but more a pathetic,
tittering type of humor. Nevski Prospect, I suppose, does have some humor in it, too, but it is very dark and morbid. The Portrait is a really creepy,
supernatural story. With or without humor, however, these stories bear witness to Gogol's mastery of capturing Russian society and character, then laying it
out before his readers naked and exposed for all to see. In his brief lifetime (1809-1852), he established himself as Russia's greatest prose writer.
In Diary of a Madman, the writer of the diary is a Titular Councillor, whose main occupation seems to be mending pens for the Director. But he is also in love with the Director's daughter, Sophie. His madness begins to manifest as he watches Sophie and her dog Madgie. They encounter another dog, Fidèle, and he realizes he can hear the dogs conversing. They are speaking about their correspondence. He finds a way to steal their letters, because he wants to know more about Sophie, and he learns that she is to marry a Gentleman of the Chamber. The dogs, he discovers, also say rude things about him. Of course, he is devastated about Sophie, not that she ever noticed him, but something even worse has happened: Spain has lost its king. In his next entry, dated 2000 A.D., April 43, he realizes that he is actually the king of Spain. Of course he no longer goes to work, and when he does, he signs the papers Ferdinand VIII. Soon after, he is taken away. . .
Nevski Prospect begins innocently enough, giving the reader no idea of the tragedy that will occur. A street in bustling St. Petersburg,
Gogol describes in detail how the traffic changes throughout the day. In the early morning it is empty, save for
a few peasants or occasional clerk. At noon it begins to buzz, with people of all nationalities, ladies and little girls with their governesses. By two
o'clock, the ladies and their friends "who have completed their rather important household affairs, who have just spoken with their doctor about the
weather and a small pimple which has happened on the nose, have informed themselves about the health of their horses and their children, have shown great genius,
in fact, reading a theatre or concert announcement and an important article in the paper about the latest arrivals and departures, and, finally, have partaken
of a cup of coffee and of tea; they in turn, are joined by those to whom an enviable fate has assigned the blessed calling of clerks with special
commissions; and these are joined by persons serving in the Foreign Office and distinguished by the nobility of their occupations and habits."
And so he continues throughout the hours of the day until evening, when two friends from two different walks of life happen to see a blonde and a dark-haired lady who interest them. Lieutenant Pirogov wants to go after the blond, and urges his friend, the artist Piskarev, to go after the brunette. And in spite of the delightful picture Gogol paints of the Nevski Prospect as a cheerful and social avenue, the harsh realities of St. Petersburg are juxtaposed in this bizarre, almost surreal tale of what happens to both of the men.
Of the three stories in this collection, The Portrait is my favorite, and even more than surreal—really
paranormal. A starving artist makes his way into a shop where lots of cheap, worthless paintings are being sold. He isn't much interested until he sees a
portrait of a man which captures his attention. Spending his last bit of money, he buys it. When he arrives home, he discovers that the landlord has gone for
the sheriff because he is so late on his rent. But that night something strange happens: the portrait seems to be staring at him. Those eyes! They follow him
around in a creepy way. He tries covering the picture and is finally able to go into an uneasy sleep, though he is not aware he is sleeping. He sees that the
sheet is no longer covering the portrait, and is filled with terror as the man leaps out of the frame. Then the man takes something out of the folds of the
white flowing robe he wears. It is rolls of money—lots of it. He drops one and Tchartkoff grabs it. The man gathers up his money and leaves, but realizes he
is missing a roll, and returns. Tchartkoff shrieks, then awakens, soaking in sweat. But he is not sure if it was a dream, and looks up to see the man climbing
back into the portrait, and he himself is no longer in bed, but near the portrait. The sheet is still not covering it, and he notices that the eyes are
looking straight at him. Then the portrait's lips move, and Tchartkoff awakens—again. With his heart pounding, he still doesn't know if it is a dream.
But now he realizes he is in bed, just as he was when he fell asleep, and looks up to see the sheet, now covering the portrait, begin to be pushed aside. He
jumps out of bed and awakens, goes to the window, and calms down. He really is awake now, and finally is able to go back to sleep. He awakens late, and has to
deal with the landlord and sheriff, but as he is dealing with his landlord, the sheriff begins examining the artwork in his apartment, and when he squeezes the
frame of the portrait, something falls out. Tchartkoff sees that it is a roll of money, and grabs it before anyone else notices. He then promises that by the
end of the day, his rent will be paid and he will be moved out.
He is now wealthy and splurges on all the luxuries he had been denied for so long. And soon after, he becomes famous as a portrait painter, and his wealth only increases. But he has lost his art—his creativity, and though he has money, he begins his spiritual spiral downward.
It is not until the end that we learn the horrid history of the man in the portrait. This short story is a real thriller, and will have you on edge. It also possibly prophesies the downward spiral of Gogol's own life and spiritual fanaticism that gripped him beginning in 1848 when he became involved with a spiritual guru (of the Orthodox Church). He died four years later.
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