The Ukrainian Morality Play as Gogol's Didactic Compass in Dead Souls

Colleen McQuillen, Columbia University

Gogol’s intense engagement with moral questions in the last decade of his life, his historical interest in the Middle Ages and his familiarity with the literary tradition of his native Ukraine (including the works of his distant relatives Tansky and Konisky), suggest the profitability of examining the influence of European medieval and Ukrainian baroque morality plays on his later literary works, especially Dead Souls. Ever since Vyacheslav Ivanov noted in his essay "The Inspector General and Aristophanes" that The Inspector General embodies qualities of a morality play, scholars have widely embraced the idea. While Ivanov makes no mention of Dead Souls in his discussion of Gogol and medieval drama, I will propose in this paper that the emphasis on “defaming vice” and the traits of medieval drama visible in The Inspector General also permeate Gogol’s poema and prompt us to consider the morality play as an underlying source of thematic and stylistic inspiration. Specifically, I’ll submit that Gogol’s familiarity with Ukrainian morality plays and their interludes—and his likely familiarity with one in particular, Georgy Konisky’s Resurrection of the Dead (Voskresenie mertvykh, 1746)—can serve as a valuable lens through which to read the moralizing strain in Dead Souls. By recognizing and appreciating the underlying current of moral instruction in the poema, we have yet a greater motivation to accept that Chichikov’s peregrinations constitute a spiritual journey and that Gogol wanted to lead his hero, himself and his reader to spiritual redemption. Perhaps more important, however, is the insight we gain into a writer who often seems something of an anomaly in the Russian literary tradition. In acknowledging the deep imprint of Ukrainian literature on Gogol’s literary consciousness, we frame his work in its native context and find more continuity than incongruity in Gogol’s writings.