Narrative Oscillation in Gogol's 'Nevsky Prospect.'
Hart, Pierre R., Studies in Short Fiction
As though dismayed by his own account, the narrator of "Nevsky Prospect" concludes with an attempt to distance himself from the reality that he has depicted so convincingly: "Oh, do not trust this Nevsky Prospect! I always wrap
myself more tightly in my cloak when I walk along it and absolutely try not to look at the objects which meet me" (43).(1) Such a strategy for self-protection against a curiously dehumanized urban scene anticipates that of the main character in the most famous of Gogol's Petersburg tales, "The Overcoat" and suggests equal peril. At this early point in his encounter with the capital, the author expressed his fear of its pervasive effect upon body and soul. Yet there is an air of ambivalence about his perception of the city, a fascination with the environment that would prompt continued exploration of it.
Gogol's decision to place "Nevsky Prospect" first in the cycle of the urban tales as they appeared in the 1842 edition of his works suggests that he regarded the story as central to his apprehension of the capital. Critics have commented extensively on its thematic ties to the remaining stories without giving great attention to its stylistic complexity. How it is constructed has considerable importance for the remainder of the stories, its mixture of the sentimental and the satiric establishing a tone that would persist, culminating in "The Overcoat." As Vinogradov has observed, theme and style are linked through the distinctive image of the authorial "I": "an image of a constantly changing, fragile emotional structure, an image ceaselessly shifting from one thematic and expressive sphere to another" (97). Stepanov has defined this narrative oscillation more narrowly, the whole of the account being founded upon a "vibration of pathos and irony" (207). The resonance is generated both by the contrast in dominant tone between the story's several segments and by the narrator's changing attitude toward persons and events within a single segment. In its entirety, the work can be read as a commentary on the author's confrontation with reality and his various strategies for dealing with it. The apparent confidence with which the urban scene is initially depicted is, by degrees, surrendered. Rather than affording him the milieu for positive creation, the city impresses itself upon him with its implacable nature, forcing him into his final defensive posture.
The narrative frame for the individual accounts of Piskarev and Pirogov's adventures depends equally upon the lofty rhetoric of the panegyric and the prosaic manner of the feuilleton. In the first instance, the orator seeks, by the force of his delivery, to further enhance a subject inherently grand. Yet comparison of Gogol's work with the opening stanzas of Puskin's "Petersburg tale," The Bronze Horseman, reveals a very different effect, hyperbole being immediately shot through with dubious qualifications: "There is nothing better than the Nevsky Prospect, at least in Petersburg; for the city it is everything" (7). Instead of providing his reader with a sense of some coherent whole, the narrator anticipates his later vision of the city as a demonically shattered reflection, the fragments of people and objects on the avenue lacking any unity. As Hughes suggests, the full value of this introduction derives from the story's conclusion: "If we keep the tone of the epilogue in mind, the opening exalted description of Nevsky Avenue acquires a different meaning. The narrator only pretends to be naive for he knows the value of the beauty and the wealth exhibited on Nevsky Avenue . . ." (78). The particulars that he describes, more the focus of the flaneur than of the orator, detract from an elevated image and serve to remind the reader of the narrator's idiosyncratic vision. In his culminating pronouncement on the official city, he specifically invokes the edifying purpose of the solemn ode to completely opposite effect: "My God! What wonderful offices and services, how they elevate and satisfy the soul! …