A Devil in the Belly’: Gluttony in Gogol'

Christopher R. Putney, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Gogol'’s fiction bodies forth some of the most delicious, funny, and extravagant orgies of gluttony in all world literature: how could one not relish moments such as breakfast at Korobochka’s, dinner at Sobakevich’s, the endless consumption of food at the Old-World Landowners’ estate, the plump and dripping dumplings that propel themselves through the air into the mouth of the taciturn tub-shaped sorcerer in “Christmas Eve”? Indeed, Gogol'’s own tendency toward extreme gastronomic indulgence was well known among his associates: according to one eyewitness in Rome, it was the writer’s habit, even after eating a hearty meal, to go ahead and order a second dinner for himself if a late arrival showed up at the table.

Gogol'’s personal quirks and singular brand of literary comicality aside, however, it is a fact that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, one that warrants its own chapter (Step 14) on the “ladder of divine ascent” of St. John Climacus, whose seventh-century guidebook to the monastic ideal Gogol' came to know very well. Climacus wrote this about the sin: “The fallen Lucifer is the prince of the demons, and gluttony is the prince of the passions” (169); echoing St. John Chrysostom’s words from three centuries earlier, Climacus describes gluttony as “the fall of Adam,” the sin that “bares the shame of Noah,” insisting that the vice is the “guide to every uncleanness” (169), from which “flow[s] a sea of Dirty Thoughts, waves of Filth, floods of unknown and unspeakable impurities,” including fornication, laziness, stubbornness, contempt, boastfulness, acquisitiveness, and, finally, despair (170).

What ramifications might the rich tradition of complex theological speculation into gluttony have for that vice’s role in Gogol'’s fiction? The extent to which gluttony gives form to Gogol'’s characters’ attraction to poshlost’, their pursuit of the earthly and perishable as if it were transcendent and salvific, is in fact remarkable. Remarkable too is how tightly Gogol'’s conception of gluttony squares with the way in which the sin has been traditionally understood in Christian theology.

This paper will consider abundant textual evidence that, between his early work and his last published fiction, Gogol'’s literary representation of gluttony and its attendant consequences becomes increasingly conditioned by his developing religious fanaticism and immersion in the works of the Church Fathers. In conclusion, we will take a brief look at what the circumstances of Gogol'’s death by fasting can tell us about the evolution of his understanding of the sin and appropriate treatments against it.

Work Cited

Climacus, Saint John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.