The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol,
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, named after Saint Nikolai, was born in 1809, in the small town of Velikie Sorochintsy, in the Ukraine, then part of Russia. His parents, Maria Ivanovna and Vasily Afanasevich Gogol-Yanovsky, were landowners. Gogol enrolled in the High School for Advanced Study in Nezhin, in 1821, where his classmates, observing his various physical and social peculiarities, nicknamed him “the mysterious dwarf.” In school, he developed an interest in literature and acting. In 1825, when Gogol was sixteen years old, his father died. In 1828, Gogol arrived in Saint Petersburg, intent on becoming a civil servant. Obtaining a disappointingly low-level,
low-paying post in the government bureaucracy, Gogol focused his ambitions on writing.
His very first publication, in 1829, was mostly ignored; it was given scathing reviews by the critics who did, however, make note of it. Humiliated and discouraged by this
reception, Gogol purchased all the remaining copies of his work and burned them. After an equally unrewarding stint at a second government post, Gogol began teaching
history at a girl’s boarding school in 1831. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Gogol’s two-volume collection of stories derived from Ukrainian folklore, was published in
1831 and 1832. The collection was instantly well received. Gogol soon gained the attention of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s leading literary figure, who provided him with ideas for two of his most important works.
In 1834, he began a position as assistant professor of medieval history at Saint Petersburg University. Gogol quickly proved himself a resounding failure as a professor, in part because he was not sufficiently knowledgeable in his subject, and left this post after only one year. During that year, Gogol, while generally neglecting
his teaching duties, published two books of short stories, Mirgorod and Arabesques; a collection of essays; as well as two plays, Marriage and The Government Inspector
(also translated variously as The Inspector General, and The Inspector). The Government Inspector was brought to the attention of the tsar, who liked it so much
that he requested the first theatrical production, which was performed in 1836.
Gogol, reacting to heavy criticism by the government officials his play lampooned,
declared that “everyone is against me” and left Russia. He spent the next twelve years
in self-imposed exile. During this time, Gogol traveled extensively throughout Europe,
staying in Germany, Switzerland, and Paris, eventually settling primarily in Rome.
After Pushkin died in 1837, Gogol inherited the mantle of the leading Russian writer
of the day. Gogol’s literary masterpiece Dead Souls and the first edition of his
collected works were published in 1842. In 1848, he returned to Russia, settling in
Gogol became increasingly preoccupied with religious concerns, eventually taking
council from a fanatical priest who influenced him to burn his manuscript for the
second volume of Dead Souls. Gogol died at the age of forty-two in 1852 as the result
of a religious fast.
The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol,
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The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol, has also been translated into English
under the titles The Inspector General, and The Inspector. The written play was
brought to the attention of the Tsar Nicholas I, who liked it so much that he insisted on
its production. The Government Inspector premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, in
Saint Petersburg, in 1836. The tsar, who was among the first to see the play, was said
to have commented that the play ridiculed everyone–most of all himself.
The plot of The Government Inspector hinges on a case of mistaken identity, when a
lowly impoverished young civil servant from Saint Petersburg, Hlestakov, is mistaken
by the members of a small provincial town for a high-ranking government inspector.
The town’s governor, as well as the leading government officials, fear the
consequences of a visit by a government inspector, should he observe the extent of
their corruption. Hlestakov makes the most of this misconception, weaving elaborate
tales of his life as a high-ranking government official and accepting generous bribes
from the town officials. After insincerely proposing to the governor’s daughter,
Hlestakov flees before his true identity is discovered. The townspeople do not
discover their mistake until after he is long gone and moments before the
announcement of the arrival of the real government inspector.
The Government Inspector ridicules the extensive bureaucracy of the Russian
government under the tsar as a thoroughly corrupt system. Universal themes of human
corruption and the folly of self-deception are explored through this drama of Russian
life. The governor’s famous line, as he turns to address the audience directly, “What
are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves,” illustrates this theme, which is
summed up in the play’s epigraph, “If your face is crooked, don’t blame the mirror.”