Nicolai Gogol
Nicolai Gogol; drawing by David Levine

Simon Karlinsky is convinced that Gogol’s “emotional orientation” was homosexual, and this is what his book is about. In his opinion the topic is of first importance, a “neglected area in Gogol’s life and work,” taboo even in universities. So much so that, as one is shocked to learn, some twenty years ago in Berlin Vsevolod Setchkarev, now of Harvard, was prevented from mentioning it in his study of Gogol by a senior colleague who threatened to ruin his academic career if he did so. Subsequently, several Freudian critics delved into other aspects of Gogol’s sexuality but left this one untouched. So that in the name of scholarship and intellectual freedom alone, the question should be brought to light and examined. But Professor Karlinsky has other reasons as well. He considers the matter to be crucial for an understanding of Gogol’s puzzling nature. “It may provide,” he thinks, “the missing key to the riddle of his personality”; it is “the source and the cause of Gogol’s personal and literary tragedy.”

With Gogol, who seems to be concealed rather than revealed in his writings, it is much more difficult than with other writers to see the link between the man and the work. He has always been a puzzle. Like Chichikov and Khlestakov, the devious heroes of Dead Souls and The Inspector General, galloping off in their troikas, Gogol escapes from you just as you are about to catch hold of him, or he tries to hide away in some secluded corner of his property like his Pifagor Chertokutsky in “The Carriage.” He is indeed more evasive than his creatures. After all, we do know a good deal about Chichikov and Khlestakov, and the unfortunate Chertokutsky is traced to his hiding place and discovered. Gogol, on the other hand, remains secreted and impenetrable. His writings float free of himself, as if he had deliberately snapped the cord of his inspiration and, having set his invented world in motion, had retreated from it, the deus absconditus of his creation.

Professor Karlinsky claims to have solved the mystery, to have tracked Gogol down to the secluded lair of his homosexuality, as Chertokutsky was tracked down to the refuge of his carriage. His thesis, in brief outline, is that Gogol, unable to be himself in a world where homosexuality was proscribed, concealed his inclinations, attempted to suppress his emotions, projected his secretiveness unconsciously in the deceptions, mystifications, and symbols of his stories and plays, and ultimately broke down under the strain, ruining his art and destroying himself. The analysis proceeds not so much from the man to the work, although some relevant biographical data is put to use, as from the work to the man, so that the work takes on the shape and function of hieroglyphics that must be deciphered so the man might be read.

It has long been noticed that “love interest,” which is customary in fiction, is markedly absent from Gogol’s work, and that the women in it are either fairy-tale beauties, or witches, or caricatures, empty-headed figurines or formidable harridans, which has led to the plausible conclusion that Gogol disliked and feared women and was repelled by the idea of marriage. Karlinsky, accepting this view, proceeds to an interpretation that is predictable in its main line of argument but not in the elaborate ingenuity of its development.

When some of Gogol’s stories end in happy marriages, as three of them do in his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the anomaly must be explained away. This is done without much difficulty: “May Night” is conventionally operatic; “The Fair at Sorochintsy” ends on a mournful note that cancels its mood of happiness; and in “Christmas Eve” the heroine is “perhaps the most detailed portrait of a female narcissist anywhere in Russian literature.” Forgetting, unaccountably, Pushkin’s charming Ludmilla, Karlinsky wonders where, since narcissistic women were “not at all common in the literature of Gogol’s time,” Gogol could have taken his idea for her, and why there was not so much as “a tinge of condemnation in Gogol’s depiction” of her and of others like her in his later stories. The reason, he decides, is that a man need not fear a woman who loves herself: she will make no demands on him and is, therefore, “safe.”

More cunning still is Karlinsky’s analysis of “Woman,” a very early piece that predated even the Dikanka stories, a youthful exercise in Germanic romanticism, in which Plato is made to discourse on woman as an ideal: “She is the language of the gods…. She is poetry, she is thought, and we are only her incarnation in reality.” In Karlinsky’s reading, this “paean to woman’s beauty” turns out to be, on close examination, an encomium of homosexuality. “Woman’s beauty provides men with a yardstick necessary for appreciating the beauty of other men,” and “the physical possession of a woman during the love act” becomes “a vehicle for a divine union of males with other male entities,” an argument that strikes me as a case of special pleading and too clever by half.


But this is nothing to what Karlinsky makes of the nature imagery in “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” “May Night,” and “A. Terrible Vengeance,” the celebrated prose lyrics that depict a languorous summer day, a starry night in spring, a shining little stream, and the dark stretches of a great river. In true romantic tradition, the elements of nature are here personified and, since Russian is an inflected language, are grammatically distinguished by gender: the sky clasps “the fair earth” and holds her “close in his ethereal embrace”; a deeply shadowed pond, in which stars are dimly reflected, is compared to “a feeble old man,” holding “the dark and distant sky in his cold embrace, covering the flashing stars with his icy kisses.”

Karlinsky perceives in these descriptions that Gogol “is careful to see to it than no congress can take place” between the heterosexual components of earth and sky, pond and stars. (What, one wonders, did he expect from images of perfect stillness?) Then there are the rivers, the Psyol in “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” a “self-enamoured beauty who narcissistically bares her ‘silvery bosom,”‘ and in “A Terrible Vengeance,”‘ the mighty, male Dnieper who “muttered and grumbled, finding nothing that pleased him.” These romantic passages, not so much descriptions as musical tone poems that set a mood, become in Karlinsky’s rendition “a sleeping man, an impotent man, and a grouchy old grumbler…contrasted with…the wide-awake, self-fulfilled and satisfied images of the beautiful summer earth and the beautiful river.” Gogol, prohibited by convention from manifesting his homosexual feelings, obliged to “convey his visualization of sexualized nature in heterosexual terms,” could not keep himself from expressing unconsciously the aversion of which he was not allowed to speak openly.

So too in the very shape of Gogol’s stories and plays, their plots and leitmotifs, Karlinsky unearths a consistent pattern that reveals the hidden, unmistakable foundation of Gogol’s structures. “It is surely significant,” he writes, that in “Saint John’s Eve,” the very first of his horror stories, Gogol “already connected the desire for love and marriage with punishment, retribution, and loss of life.” The rest of the early tales do not contain this theme, but beginning with Mirgorod, the second collection, we find that

Gogol’s male characters who seek love, marriage, or sexual conquest are swiftly and inevitably punished with death, humiliation, and assorted other catastrophes. Andry Bulba is shot by his father; Homa Brut in “Viy” is vanquished by demonic powers; a hopeless infatuation with an unattainable woman drives the hero of “Diary of a Madman” to insanity; Lieutenant Pirogov in “Nevsky Prospect” is humiliated and flogged, his friend Piskaryov loses his life; and the poor, meek Akaky Akakievich in “The Overcoat,” who would not even presume to aspire to love or the possession of another human being, still perishes for daring to desire a substitute wife in the form of a feminine-gender overcoat.

By contrast to these tragic stories, the happy ones end in a man’s escaping either from marriage or from some amorous entanglement: Major Kovalyov, in “The Nose,” manages to get across the border; in Marriage, Podkolyosin, on the verge of his wedding, makes his getaway by jumping from a second-story window, while the scoundrels Khlestakov and Chichikov, although fleeing from arrest, are also escaping possible matrimonial entrapments. “The pattern,” says Karlinsky, “is too significant and too persistent to be accidental.” To which one might reply that, however real and persistent, the pattern is not fundamental, that except for the farcical Marriage, the sexual theme is subordinate in all these fictions to Gogol’s major preoccupations: human helplessness, failure, and humiliation, which are tragic; and the ubiquity of pettiness, which is comic.

That is what, intrinsically, they are about, all of them, even the profoundly erotic “Viy,” which is in essence a tale of superhuman, malign power, in the face of which man’s great, though unavailing, spiritual fortitude is tested, just as, in “Taras Bulba,” by contrast, his physical courage is tested. Even “The Overcoat,” which, as Karlinsky rightly points out, is “the most genuine, touching, and honest” of Gogol’s love stories, is actually but another instance—the most heartbreaking of them all—of a frequently repeated scheme that shows happiness, however undemanding, or aspiration, however humble, to be either out of reach or, if attained, quickly and irretrievably lost. “Diary of a Madman,” as Dostoevsky realized, has to do with human pride and the disaster of humiliation, while “Nevsky Prospect” is about deception, misplaced ideals, rejected desires—the theme is always unavoidable failure and doom.


Karlinsky makes Gogol out to be a man preoccupied with sex, the more intensely so for being unaware of this preoccupation. But Gogol was afflicted by a more profound agony, a burden that, from childhood, oppressed him like an incubus and that he was never able to shake off. This agonizing burden was a constant, pervasive fear of death. And death is constantly prowling about in his stories or lurking in the wings. Karlinsky has ignored it.

But it is very important, as Vladimir Korolenko showed most convincingly in “The Tragedy of a Great Humorist,” an essay which he wrote in 1909 in honor of Gogol’s centenary. He ascribed Gogol’s frequent, puzzling alternations of mood—the finale to “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” with its sudden intrusion of loneliness and melancholy on a scene of joyous merrymaking, is a striking and characteristic example—to an innate predisposition inherited from his father. There was something strange about Vasily Nikolaevich. Happily married, comfortably off, a gifted, good-natured raconteur and writer of Ukrainian comedies, enjoyed by his neighbors for the amusing anecdotes with which he liked to entertain them, he was subject to unaccountable, debilitating states of gloom, attacks of “strange imaginings” and “fierce despair,” as he himself described them. He died in his forty-fifth year, when Gogol was sixteen.

“Gogol wrote subsequently that his father died not of any specific ailment but solely and entirely ‘of his fear of death,”‘ Korolenko remarks, adding that “this ‘fear of death’ Nikolay Vassilievich Gogol received from his father as a fateful inheritance,” and that indeed the father’s temperament was reflected in the son with remarkable accuracy, though “in a greatly enlarged and more vivid form, just as a small picture, locked in the drawer of a magic lantern, shines enlarged on a huge screen.”

Whether or not temperament can be inherited, there is no question but that in its basic configuration Gogol’s character had much in common with his father’s. He too suffered from inexplicable spells of gloom and he died at the age of forty-three, like his father, of no recognizable physical illness. With him, however, the fits of depression became a tool of his genius, the source of his humor. So he wrote in later life, recalling how he used to distract himself from the dreadful onslaughts of depression by inventing “funny characters and placing them in the funniest situations.” These inventions amused others as well as himself. And in school, the sickly, physically repulsive boy—as he is described by his contemporaries—made his mark by virtue of his comic gift. At home, he pontificated and lorded it over his mother, a sentimental, superstitious woman who adored him, and his two younger sisters.

The pattern of clowning and preaching, established in boyhood, remained throughout his life. It was his way of communicating with others, both in his friendships and in his writings—a mode of dominance, in either case, that was insatiable and essential to him. He aspired to great heights and was terrified that death might keep him from attaining them. So he once wrote in a letter to his uncle. Even in his boyhood, he said, he was fired by the desire to “make [his] life useful” and would break into a cold sweat at the thought that he might perish without achieving fame. His relations with others were conditioned by this desire; the world was his audience or his congregation, and he spent his life entertaining, instructing, preaching—always with the restless intensity of one who feels himself to be constantly under threat of death.

Surely it is this, a towering ambition perpetually beset and imperiled by malevolent forces that are not to be propitiated or appeased and by onsets of dejection—it is surely this, rather than disappointments in individuals, male or female, that must be held accountable for those violent fluctuations of mood, those deceptions, deprivations, attempted escapes, those colossal absurdities out of which Gogol’s work is fashioned, “the typical situation” of which, as Edmund Wilson has remarked, is “the sudden falling out of the bottom of some impressive construction that we have watched being elaborately built.”

Something like this, though with a different emphasis, is what Abram Tertz says in his recent book, In the Shadow of Gogol,* a brilliantly perceptive, imaginative study, in which he presents Gogol as an artist wholly and exclusively committed to his art, and sees his art (which has much in common with his own) as a form of magic that reflects life for what life really is, a magical, illogical state of being, ruled only by absurdity, comic when no suffering is involved and tragic when it is.

Karlinsky’s approach is very different. His attention is focused not on Gogol the artist but on Gogol the man, and Gogol’s art is for him an instrument for probing the man. He does not consider himself Freudian. But it is evident that he is so utterly hypnotized by the psychoanalytic wizard that he does not realize how much his assumptions and procedures belong to Freud, the basic assumption, for example, that homo is not sapiens but erotikos and that the products of imagination are unconscious images of sexual drives. Who but a Freudian disciple would make his way through Gogol’s work, as Karlinsky does, like a sleepwalker through a forest of phallic symbols? To him a gun, a pointed finger, a pig’s snout, whatever their ostensible functions may be in a story, are nothing but symbols of male aggression.

Thus, for example, when Afanasy Ivanovich, the touching old hero of “Old-World Landowners,” chases geese off his porch, he is not just chasing geese but affirming his unwillingness to have sexual intercourse with Pulcheria Ivanovna, his dearly loved wife. And gentle Pulcheria fades away and dies, not through an uncanny fear of death, as Gogol himself has suggested in a very personal and moving passage at the end of the story, but because she has suddenly realized, through the behavior of her pet cat who has bolted away from her cozy house to live painfully but adventurously in the woods with a pack of wild cats, how much she has missed and how deprived she has been in her sexually restricted existence. It is in the light of such observations as these that Gogol’s work is passed in review.

Without being intentionally misleading, Karlinsky is often unaware that in taking a piece out of context he has misrepresented it to suit his purpose. Let me give two examples. In a footnote with reference to “Viy,” he quotes a passage from Abram Tertz that strikes him “as especially perceptive” and corroborates what he himself has said about the gruesome ending of this tale of horror, when Viy, the gnome-like, iron-faced monster, orders his attendant demons to lift his eyelids, which hang down to the ground, sees his victim, points him out, and has him slain. Karlinsky comments:

…few things could be as phallic as eyelids that hang to the ground. He causes others to lift these eyelids for him in what seems to be an unmistakable erection, a double one, which with the pointing iron finger becomes a triple one—a triple whammy, as Al Capp would have put it.

And Tertz:

Viy’s elongated eyelids, which see right through and kill, and which combine utter subterranean blindness with clairvoyance, cast their shadow over the entire text of the story, which is possessed by a lust to see what is concealed and prohibited, and which is suffused with eroticism and, if you will, a state of erection of the sense of sight.

Although these passages seem to be alike, they are very different in intent and meaning. Karlinsky is speaking of sex, Tertz of art in the imagery of sex. His fragment is part of a major discourse that is central in his book and has to do with the special quality of Gogol’s creative impulse, with Gogol’s view, so much like his own, that visual observation is fatal to art, that art “lusts” after “the concealed and prohibited,” which is its proper concern, after the disturbing, tantalizing secrets of magic, of all that is incomprehensible to physical perception and open to the artistic imagination alone. Tertz is talking about realism and the nature of art; “erection of the sense of sight” has an aesthetic connotation.

Elsewhere, Karlinsky quotes an excerpt on passions from Dead Souls and a later marginal comment of Gogol’s that repudiates it. The passage reads:

Innumerable like the sands of the sea [the translation is Karlinsky’s] are the varieties of human passions, and none of them resemble one another and all of them, lowly or beautiful, are first obedient to man and only later become his terrifying masters…. But there exist passions whose choice does not depend on man. They were already born with him the moment he was born into this world and he has no power to reject them….

And the disclaimer:

I wrote that in a state of delusion; it is nonsense. Inborn passions are an evil and every effort of man’s rational will should be directed toward their eradication.

This introduces an account of Gogol in the final period of his life when he was engrossed in “the eradication of his inborn passions,” which Karlinsky, of course, assumes to be homosexual. But here is the passage in Dead Souls that immediately precedes the one that he has quoted (the translation is B.G. Guerney’s):

Everything transforms itself quickly in man; before one has a chance to turn around there has already grown up within him a fearful cankerworm that has imperiously diverted all his life-sap to itself. And more than once, some passion—not merely some sweeping, grand longing, but a mean, sneaky itch for something insignificant—has developed in a man born for great deeds, making him forget great and sacred obligations and see something great and sacred in insignificant gewgaws.

These two sentences throw a different light on the whole discourse and are more appropriate not only to Chichikov but to Gogol himself, intent his whole life long on the dreadful chasm between the soul-destroying pettiness of daily existence and the “great deeds” for which man, and especially he himself, was divinely intended. But Karlinsky has concentrated on his goal so exclusively and with such blinding ardor that his vision has been impaired, making it impossible for him to see anything that might complicate or refute his thesis.

Similarly, Gogol’s biography is sifted for evidence to back up the literary findings in support of the central thesis. There are actually just two well-authenticated attachments in Gogol’s life. He loved his little brother, three years his junior, who died at the age of seven; and twenty years later, thirty years old and a celebrated author, living in Rome, he loved the consumptive young Joseph Vyelhorsky and nursed him through the last stages of his fatal illness. There were other men whom he liked, friends who accompanied him in his travels, who shared apartments with him in Italy, Germany, France. Karlinsky thinks he was in love with some of them, adducing in proof the highly emotional tone of his letters to them. To my eye and ear, these pieces of inflated rhetoric, if they are anything more than samples of current fashion (one recalls Herzen’s youthful effusions), express a desire, or a pretense, to love rather than any genuine feeling. Of course, I may be wrong.

But there are other instances, when on evidence even more tenuous than letters, only reports of moods, of strange behavior, of peculiar dress, Karlinsky hints at clandestine affairs, in speculations that are about as credible as those of gossip columns. Most offensive in this respect are the pages devoted to Gogol’s last days, the details of which have been recounted many times, and never better than by Vasily Gippius, whose sober, scrupulous, and well-balanced study Karlinsky greatly admires but, unfortunately, does not emulate.

In these last days, Gogol is supposed to have fallen under the sinister influence of an ascetic monk, Father Matthew Konstantinovsky, whom he had chosen to be his spiritual adviser and who is presumed to have induced him to burn the second part of Dead Souls, on which he had been laboring for nine years. But Gippius has pointed out that neither the character of Father Matthew nor the nature of his influence on Gogol has been clearly established, and that the manuscript of Dead Souls may have been destroyed not intentionally but by accident. Karlinsky, however, disregarding all uncertainties, builds up, on the basis of his surmises, a lurid tale of sadomasochistic horror: Gogol, in love with Father Matthew, confessed to him the “innermost secret” which he had never confessed to anybody else and could not “bring himself to confide…even to his personal notebook”; the monk imposed a severe penance and reduced Gogol to such an abject state of fear that he was heard to scream “Enough! Stop it! I cannot listen any more, it is too terrifying”; then refused food, burned his work, and was finished off by well-meaning but ignorant doctors, who bled him when he was weakened by starvation.

Nobody knows what precisely was said in that last interview between the penitent and his confessor. But considering the hierarchy of sins in Christian theology, it is more likely that a confession, not of sodomy, which is a sin of the flesh, but of pride, the deadliest of the sins of the spirit, would have brought down the monk’s great wrath. And it was for pride that Gogol had been universally denounced ever since the publication of his Selected Passages of Correspondence with Friends, and it was pride he had vainly sought to expiate on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To this last, tragic episode the whole of Karlinsky’s study has been directed; it was to clinch his view that Gogol’s “fear of his homosexual inclinations and his suppression of them [was] one of the principal themes of his writings, one of the main causes of his personal tragedy, and a contributing factor to his death.”

In his zeal to prove this hypothesis, Professor Karlinsky has shot beyond the province of scholarly investigation. Although he has taken to task Henri Troyat for pretending, in his biography of Gogol, that there is a way “of getting inside Gogol’s mind” and “of tracing his mental processes,” he himself has presumed to get not just into Gogol’s mind but to its secret roots in the most recondite niches of his deeply buried emotions. In discussing “The Two Ivans” he has acknowledged that Gogol “would of course have reacted with horror and indignation” to what he has made of the story, but has justified his interpretation on the ground that it validates the design he has subsumed. A work of art, in other words, is a puzzle. The trick is, given a frame, to place in it, forming a design, the scattered pieces of the dismembered work, trimming or discarding the parts that do not fit. The same with Gogol’s life. When a pattern is formed, the puzzle is solved.

Long ago Freud gave the signal for such activity in his fantasies about Dostoevsky and Leonardo; and, unfortunately, his method continues to be popular, especially in academic circles. It is a pity that a scholar of Karlinsky’s ability should have been won over to this approach, which is nothing but an intellectual game that in the guise of scholarship requires, and achieves, no more than cleverness. His study has merit; it shows that Gogol’s inspiration was intensely personal, that his writing emerged from the depths of his being and not from a detached contemplation of his world. Nor is his thesis intrinsically wrong, and his passionate denunciation of a society that makes life difficult or impossible for its Prousts, Tchaikovskys, and Oscar Wildes is highly laudable. It may be entirely true that Gogol was emotionally attracted to men and was indifferent, and even hostile, to women, and that this preference can be detected in his work. There needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. But what difference does it make? It does not touch the quality of his stories. They still remain the uproariously funny, horrifying, fantastic, and heartbreaking inventions they have always been. And their intentional absurdity defies rational explanations; the more it is explained, the more incomprehensible it becomes; the rationality itself becomes absurd.

Finally, whether Gogol does or does not belong in the company of our Prousts and Wildes, to describe his death as martyrdom and “ritual murder” is a gross exaggeration. Indeed the whole study suffers through exaggeration. It ignores too much of what is characteristic and vital in the work and the personality of this devious, intricate, tormented genius, warding off with laughter and wonderful fantasies the ever looming specter of death and eternal damnation. The simplistic postulate of sexual unfulfillment cannot explain him. It is a slanted, narrow mirror in which Gogol’s image appears reduced, distorted, and grotesque. In blowing it up out of all proportion, Karlinsky has been straining at a gnat. He is like the man in the Russian fable who on a visit to the zoo observed attentively each bird and small beast, but failed to notice the elephant.

This Issue

March 31, 1977