In every story there is a battle of good and evil, the extent of which depends on the characters, the story, and the author. In Nicolai Gogol’s The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil, the small things illuminate the good, the evil, and the grey between. Gogol’s mastery lies in devilish details which skillfully strengthen the dichotomy of darkness and light. This leads to an informed progression of events in an inevitable, but not predictable, way.
In “The Terrible Vengeance,” a short story about family relationships and the lure of evil, there is an interesting push-pull between Katherine, her husband, and her father. Gogol establishes the evil nature of her father in a dream, but offers a moment of hope: Katherine asks her father to forgive her husband, and the father replies, “for your sake only I forgive him,” with “a strange glitter in his eyes” which “seemed uncanny to her” (24). Katherine plays the peacemaker between her husband and father in the dream, but is “restless and vaguely alarmed” and has “tear-stained” eyes when she wakes (24). Gogol echoes the strangeness of dreams in the character’s reality. Her husband imprisons her father for sorcery and for killing her mother, then Katherine releases her father from prison in an attempt to save his soul (30-37). The most interesting part is the father’s dialogue:
“But your husband does not know what walls these are. They were built by a holy hermit and no evil power can release any one from this prison without unlocking the doors with the very same key with which the saint used to lock his cell.” (37)
Gogol’s use of push-and-pull through Katherine shows the sway evil can have over humans. Katherine thinks she has “saved his soul” and that she committed “a good deed which cannot but please God” (38). Through the sway of good and evil, Katherine isn’t sure if it is okay to commit a bad act for a good reason; with any action comes consequences is what Gogol is saying, and the husband is killed as a result (43).
As in the plotting of “The Terrible Vengeance,” Gogol uses similar writing techniques to plot “The Portrait.” First, the figure moves in a dream: “the old man began moving, and presently he pressed both his hands against the frame. Then he raises himself on his hands and, thrusting out his legs, jumped out of the frame” (105). But the dream that Gogol sets up has implications in the artist’s life: the artist finds coins hidden in the frame (111-113). Because the artist uses the coins to improve his situation, consequences arise.
The scales suddenly fell from his eyes. O Lord, and to have ruined, so pitilessly ruined, the best years of his life, to have stamped out, to have quenched the spark of divine fire that perhaps glowed in his breast and that would perhaps by now have developed into greatness and beauty which, too, might have wrung tears of admiration and gratitude. And to have ruined it all, to have ruined it all without pity! (132-133).
Gogol shows the procession from artist to hack to madman in such a way that it is inevitable, but not predictable. The artist realizes he devoted his life, not to talent, but to ego. The fall of the artist is more vivid because he was a successful hack. Gogol could have stopped there, but he doesn’t; instead, he shows the self-destruction of the artist:
He began buying up all the best works of art that came into the market. Having spent a fortune on a picture, he took it up carefully into his studio and there he flung himself upon it with the fury of a tiger, slashing it, tearing it, cutting it to pieces, stamping on it, and roaring with delighted laughter as he did so. The vast wealth he had amassed provided him with all the means for gratifying this fiendish passion. He opened his bags of gold. He unlocked his chests. No monster of ignorance ever destroyed so many wonderful works of art as were destroyed by this fierce avenger. (135)
This passage demonstrates how Gogol arranges the varying length of sentences—short, long, medium, short, short, medium. Writers vary sentences to keep attention and to mix it up. He paces it out so the second sentence, the longest one, is the most impactful with its specific verbs and the repetition of the word it, which reinforces the idea that the artist saw the painting as an object and not as art—he sees it as the vindication of everything wrong in his life. Gogol unlocks the artist’s heart. Gogol enforces it with chests. Gogol then ties up the section with a line that puts the artist on a level eviler than any dictator.
One line echoes throughout all the stories in the book: “she doesn’t know as much as her soul knows, does she?” (32) this line is from dialogue in “The Terrible Vengeance.” The link between the stories is the theme of good versus evil, but it is more than that. It also conveys the idea that a soul knows more than an awake person, and the idea that actions have consequences. Gogol is a Ukrainian writer, but is also linked with Russian writers and the Golden Era of Russian literature.
This book is fantastic. Four Stars.
Gogol, Nicolai V. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965. Trans. David Magarshack. Print.