Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Devils in the Details: The Role of Evil in the Short Fiction of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Devils in the Details: The Role of Evil in the Short Fiction of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Article excerpt

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) are two writers whose names invariably seem to appear in critical discussion of romantic literature. Given the direct influence on both Gogol and Hawthorne of writers like Ludwig Tieck, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Washington Irving, and other giants of the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century fantastic/romantic school of literature, this should not come as a surprise. What is perhaps surprising is that very few critics have chosen to examine the works of Gogol and Hawthorne in direct comparison with one another, a fact that seems an even more striking oversight given the voluminous amount of criticism produced on both Gogol and Hawthorne in comparison to Hoffmann or Tieck.[1] The close contemporaneity (bordering occasionally on eerie coincidence) of the careers of the two writers makes the oversight even more curious.

In an attempt to remedy this critical shortfall, I will examine the short fiction of Hawthorne and Gogol together, comparing the manner in which each author uses symbolic and physical embodiments of evil in his work. These authors consistently present their audiences, either explicitly or implicitly, with demonic figures, and my intention is to illustrate the ways in which the two authors use these devils[2] in their manuscripts to help further their individual literary and moralistic projects.

Although both writers create their devils and kindred evil spirits within fairly standard (albeit different) Christian moral and ethical frameworks, there are, especially early in their respective careers, significant differences in the ways in which the evil entities they depict go about their nefarious work. Hawthorne's fiends and devils, rarely presented in corporeal form, generally prove to be a force that corrupts mankind in the realm of the psyche, whereas Gogol's devils initially tend to produce their effects in a way that is physically observable (either through bodily harm or otherwise material manifestations of evil), corresponding to their tangibly substantial presentation. Then, as Gogol's authorial aims become more moralistic, his devils become less physical and more symbolic (often being represented or suggested by animals or even inanimate objects like the famous overcoat of Akaky Akakyevich Bashmachkin), resembling Hawthorne's internal devils.

This variance correlates largely with the differences in the religious and cultural background between the two authors. Hawthorne was a member (if a somewhat unwilling one, at times) of the overtly moralistic society of New England, which derived its ethical precepts from seventeenth-century Puritanism and German Calvinist Protestantism, with its doctrine of election, before that. In contrast, Gogol was born and bred into the religious traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, albeit one with some regional variants particular to Ukraine. Coupled with this baseline religion are the idiosyncratic (not to say heretical) additions that Gogol made regarding his relationship to God. These led him, especially in later life, to occasional heights of somewhat hubristic religious ecstasy in which he believed himself to be God's chosen mouthpiece. Both writers' works demonstrate a conflict between personal faith and devotion to the dogma of the religious training they underwent in their younger years. This conflict often manifests itself in their writing in the form of a struggle between a fallible human character and an embodiment of demonic force.

My comparison of demonic themes begins by focusing on several representative short works by Hawthorne, most notably the tale "Young Goodman Brown" from the collection Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). I will then use examples from each of the three types of demonic tales that Gogol wrote during his early career to demonstrate the ways in which the influence of the romantics is idiosyncratically adopted and altered by both writers in order to suit their differing authorial intentions. …

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