Composition and the Decomposition of the Female Form in Gogol′’s “Vij”

The metamorphosis of the old woman into a beautiful young maiden when she is beaten by the protagonist is a pivotal moment in the final version of Gogol′’s “Vij” (1842) and marks a significant departure from the original Mirgorod text. V. V. Gippius has remarked at the deliberateness with which Gogol′ approached the metamorphosis, noting that it occurs gradually not in the storyline itself, but rather, in the process of Gogol′’s own revisions. Yet in charting the figure’s gradual transformation, Gippius fell short, for the change into a beautiful woman is not final even within the revised storyline. Nor is it the first time the old crone metamorphoses before the hero’s eyes. A closer examination of this metamorphosis, particularly in light of Gogol′’s theoretical work, reveals that the transformation is even more gradual—and probably more deliberate—than Gippius guessed.

Gogol′ began work on “Vij” in 1833, just three years after the publication of “Woman” (“Ženščina”), his programmatic essay on aesthetics in the form of a dialogue between Plato and his student Telecles. At the center of their discussion is Alcinoe, the ethereal beauty who bears a certain resemblance to the water-nymph in “Vij” as well as various other female beauties throughout Gogol′’s work. The ideal conceived in the artist’s mind, Plato tells Telecles, is feminine, while its material representation as a work of art belongs to the masculine sphere. I propose that Gogol′ returned to this theme in “Vij,” where he describes the process whereby an ideal is inevitably perverted as a result of its material representation.

Although many critics have commented upon Xoma Brut’s fleeting vision of the Alcinoe-like water-nymph during his erotic ride with the old woman, few have included it as a step in the woman’s transformation into a beautiful maiden or integrated this moment into a coherent reading of the text. I argue that the description of the water-nymph, which is the lyrical climax of the tale, corresponds to the artist’s creative vision at the moment of its conception—the unembodied feminine ideal of Gogol′’s Romantic aesthetics. I show that as the story progresses, she continues to metamorphose: with each of Xoma Brut’s subsequent encounters with her she is described in increasingly masculine and material terms until she is finally nothing more than a purely bodily—and grammatically masculine—corpse (trup). This transformation is echoed by a shift in Gogol′’s use of verbs of sight that reinforces Xoma’s changing relationship with what begins as his own internal vision and turns into a separate, independent material being, the object of his gaze.

My analysis of these parallel shifts in the text leads to several layers of metaliterary interpretation. First, I compare Xoma’s fear of the dead maiden to a writer’s anxiety over losing the essence of cherished ideas when they are given fixed form in writing: Xoma’s terror grows as he faces ever more concrete, fixed, and masculine versions of his former ideal. While it might appear that Gogol′ presents this as a universal and unresolvable dilemma for the artist, I suggest that he sets up this model only to disprove it. In my conclusion I contrast the unsuccessful “artist” Xoma with Gogol′ himself, hypothesizing that the continual transmogrification of the female body could represent Gogol′’s own method of selecting, appropriating, and exploiting existing folkloric and literary forms as he searched for a new, individual form of expression.