The Ridiculous Jew: The Exploitation and Transformation of a Stereotype in Gogol, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky

By Gary Rosenshield | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Taras Bulba
Gogol's Ridiculous Jew, Form and Function

One of the most notable ironies concerning the image of Jews in European literature is that the most influential portraits of Jews were anomalies for their creators. Marlowe and Shakespeare each wrote only one play where Jews figure prominently, and aside from The Merchant of Venice, which includes the most famous Jewish character in Western literature, Jewish references in Shakespeare are rare.1 This is no less true of Dickens. Oliver Twist would probably have been Dickens's sole work in which a Jew figured prominently had he not thought to compensate for the medieval Fagan by creating the positive Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865). In conformity with the general European pattern, Nikolay Gogol, who penned in Taras Bulba the most influential portrait of Jews in nineteenth-century Russian literature, also wrote relatively little about Jews.

Since Jews had, by the 1830s, lived in Western Ukraine for centuries, it is not surprising that writers there, such as the early ethnographer, lexicographer, and author of comic sketches, Vladimir Dal, included them in their works. Gogol's early stories derived from Ukrainian life and folklore appeared in 1831–1832 in the collection Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which included the stories “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” “St. John's Eve,” “A May Night, or The Drowned Maiden,” “The Lost Letter,” “Christmas Eve,” “A Terrible Vengeance,” “Ivan Fedorovich Shponka and His Aunt,” and “A Bewitched Place.” In these stories, there are few Jewish characters, and none

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