Mediation of Place: The Stranger in Gogol′’s “Portrait”

Kristin Peterson, Ohio State University

The terms space and place have long histories and bear with them a multiplicity of meanings and connotations which reverberate with other debates. Space may call to mind the realm of the chaos of simultaneity and multiplicity. Place can raise the image of one’s place in the world, which is constructed out of a specific arrangement of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular point. As Robert Maguire has shown, the notions of space and place are extremely prominent among Nikolaj Gogol′’s works and are an essential part of his world view (Maguire, Exploring Gogol). In this paper I seek to define Gogol′’s sense of place by examining the short story “Portrait” through the lens of the rhetorical device of the stranger, a link to the outside, which is nevertheless itself part of what constitutes the conception of place.

Gogol′’s Petersburg stories included in Arabesques are centered on the theme of alienation. In each of the stories alienation from society is seen through the eyes of the stranger. The trope of the stranger functions on three levels --the spatial, temporal and psychological. Gogol′’s strangers are displaced physically, through the portrayal of foreignness, as represented in “Portrait”; temporally, as figured in “Nevskij Prospect,” through the use of dream sequencing; and psychologically, through the image of insanity as portrayed in “Diary of a Madman.” This paper focuses on physical displacement and the theme of alienation as an inseparable element of foreignness in order to outline Gogol′’s rhetorical use of the stranger in “Portrait.”

The Russian terms neznakomec and postoronnij are used to refer to the stranger, although in some cases they are also translated into English as ‘unknown person’ or ‘outsider’. Postoronnij is derived from the word storonnij ‘side’ or ‘direction’, and is related to so storony, ‘from a distance, from another place.’ Postoronnij then can refer to either “that which is outside” or “he/she who remains outside.” Strangers, therefore, are entities who remain outside the society or community where they currently reside. My interpretation of Gogol′’s strangers will include emphasis on the devil-tempter Petromixali, who is able to negotiate cultural boundaries (supernatural—natural) and mediate social categories (he is able to make Čertkov rich). Gogol′’s liminal character occupies a state “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremony” (Victor Turner, The Ritual Process). The liminal location, the gap or hole which the devil has taken up to live, writes Gogol′, “is not like the capital, not like a village, … everything that settles out of the living capital is here.” The artist of Part II designates Petromixali as the Anti-Christ, one who is neither here nor there. I postulate that Gogol′’s devil is related to the founder of St. Petersburg, the artist/creator Petr Alekseevič, who traveled Europe under the name Peter Mixail(ovič).

I conclude that in “Portrait” there is often a metonymic slide from being a stranger to feeling estranged and vice versa. By examining outsideness through the image of the stranger as a locus from which social and physical marginalization may be articulated, I am able to show that Gogol′’s stranger is a liminal character.