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Political Comedy In 'The Government Inspector'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2561 words Published: 12th May 2017

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The Government Inspector was written by Gogol in 1835 during a time when government surveillance and censorship was at its height. Tsar Nicholas was in power and his fear of revolution forced a lot of writers at the time to limit what they intended to show and in some cases stop altogether in works they were producing. The play has since been interpreted in many different ways but Gogol tells us he simply hoped to ‘collect into one heap everything … that was bad in Russia … and laugh at the whole lot in one go’ [1] . The outcome of the play is no doubt comical, but Gogol himself was very interested in politics and I do not think he set out to denounce the system completely but to pick fun at it, among other things in Russia.

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There are a lot of characters and events in the play which could be interpreted as having underlying meaning to them. It does appear therefore that Gogol was satirising the imperial bureaucracy of Russia by highlighting the corruption and deception that are so apparent in the story. Gogol employed the use of humour in the story for many possible reasons. One reason was to cloud the real message that he was trying to send out, so that he could get The Government Inspector past the censorship regulation that were put in place by tsar Nicholas and enforced by ‘the third section’. The fact that The Government Inspector was allowed to be preformed at the time, despite its apparent mockery of the political system and the hidden messages was surprising. It becomes clear throughout the play that Gogol is criticising more how people treated one another. The final tableau at the end is used to show the audience that the characters in the play resemble them, and that people needed to rethink their moral values. It seems that Gogol thinks that the corruption and deceit which occurs in the play is happening all around him in real life, as he tells us through the governor ‘there’s nobody who hasn’t got some sin on his conscience.’ [2] I believe that Gogol chose to write a comedy but on serious issues, in order to shed some light on the wrongdoings, but also to entertain his audience. The protest that arose after its first night at the Alexandra Theatre in St Petersburg in 1835 was not welcomed by Gogol, who ‘fled from the clamour and went to Rome’ [3] . There remains much debate on Gogol’s intentions in creating The Government Inspector, but nevertheless by making these serious issues and denunciations of the government comical it helped him get his play past the censors and onto the stage.

The political humour is presented in many forms in The Government Inspector. Many of the characters in the play provide the audience with much comedy and not one is depicted as being without fault; indeed there does not seem to be a hero. Instead Gogol presents to us very corrupted town officials, vain, naïve women and the deceitful Khlestakov who is mistaken as the government inspector sent to the country from St. Petersburg. This mistaken identity is particularly humorous, especially when the governor greets Khlestakov in the inn where he is staying following his bankruptcy as a result of gambling. We quickly gather that the governor has the most to fear from an inspector, for his corruption is deep and his neglect of the townspeople is often highlighted. Despite this Gogol tells us in his notes that he ‘has come up on hard work from the lowers rank of the service’, [4] and we can infer that he is not especially a bad man. In acquiring position and status, and perhaps seeing how other men have benefited from it before him, he has been spoiled by greed and luxury. Gogol, renowned for his realism, would have been speaking directly to his audience, criticising their behaviour and their apparent readiness to give into temptation. The governors sycophantic behaviour towards Khlestakov at their first meeting in the inn is comical, and made more so by Khlestakov’s belief that he has come to arrest him for not paying his bills. The use of dramatic irony throughout the play is key to the effectiveness of the humour, but also the ridiculing of the audience, who are essentially laughing at their own ignorance and folly.

The town officials are portrayed by Gogol as fraudulent simpletons, and the effortlessness in which Khlestakov is able to deceive them only highlights this. It can be inferred from this therefore that Gogol is suggesting that perhaps many officials were incompetent and interested only in bettering themselves like the governor. The character of the postmaster is one who is very obviously depicted as abusing his station, as it is revealed that he often opens and reads the mail as a form of entertainment. Like many of the others he accepts bribes but is characterised as being ‘ingenuous to the point of naiveté.’ [5] This character may also be representing the current state of government censorship, as he is disregarding people’s privacy and human rights by reading their private correspondence. Interestingly, it is the postmaster who uncovers Khlestakov’s real identity later in the play, as he reads a letter that Khlestakov has composed to a friend revealing the whole charade in most mocking and humiliating language.

Khlestakov, although deceiving the townsfolk, is portrayed by Gogol in a much better light than the governor and his and web of associates, including his narcissistic wife and immature daughter. The governor, it is revealed, has ignored his responsibilities in the town, taking bribes from various people and therefore allowing all the wrongdoing to continue. It would seem that this disregard of equality and justice is more offensive to Gogol than Khlestakov’s taking advantage of their foolishness. Indeed Khlestakov is presented more as an opportunist than a malevolent deceiver. This criticism directed at the failure of the people in higher ranks to look after those below them is initially hidden from the audience’s immediate understanding by the use of comedy. In this way the comedy utilised in the play could be seen as serving as a smoke-screen, making it more light-hearted by protecting the real messages of corruption and inequality.

It became apparent to me in my study of the play that Gogol was asking his audience to examine their own moral code by presenting them with such dishonest and shady people and events and mocking the intense bureaucracy of the Russian Government at the time of writing. I found the main message was to be introspective of yourself and re-evaluate your moral code, for the characters represent the people who hold the power to protect those below them in rank, but in their greed have become the ones who others need real protection from. Gogol’s derision of the Russian bureaucracy is made most obvious in Act five when the governor, upon realising that he has been duped by Khlestakov, asks the audience directly ‘What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!’ [6] Essentially The Government Inspector serves the audience as a warning about the future of humanity if the government and its officials continue to treat the people they are supposed to be helping with disregard and unfairness. In addition, the epigraph of the play sums up Gogol’s ridiculing of the political structure in nineteenth-century Russia; ‘If your face is crooked, don’t blame the mirror.’ [7] He is saying to his audience that it is your responsibility to be a good person and to uphold your morals, and you can not blame anyone else when you are also taken advantage of and humiliated, like the governor and his other roguish associates are in the play.

There are many examples in the play of Gogol using humour to criticise the contemporary political system. The title itself does not suggest a comedy because Gogol chiefly has a serious point to make, but he achieves the humour by creating ridiculous characters and placing them in laughable situations. It is made even more comical because the themes which are being displayed are so normal in human existence that many can relate it to their own experience. A good example of this is shown by the character of Anna, the governor’s wife. Gogol describes her in his notes as a ‘provincial coquette’ and the audience sees her flirt outrageously with Khlestakov throughout the play, believing him to be a man of power and money. She is vain and uppity and these features provide the audience with much humour. For example in Act Four, after she allows Khlestakov to surround her with false flattery despite her being married, she declares to her daughter that she stands as ‘the kind of example she ought to be following.’ [8] Her vanity and foolishness is also demonstrated in a humorous way when she believes her daughter is to be married to a high ranking government official; she tells her overwhelmed husband that she always knew she would be related to someone as great but he would not because he has ‘have never seen decent people.’ [9] Clearly this statement holds a double-entendre, as Anna’s own statement encompasses herself, pointing out that neither her, nor any of the people in the governor’s company are ‘decent people’.

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The fierce satire of the Russian bureaucracy in the nineteenth century was a common theme for Gogol in his works, and The Government Inspector, interpreted by many in this genre, was only permitted to be staged thanks to the interference of Tsar Nicholas. Although realising that ‘everybody caught it, most of all me’, [10] he managed to observe the light-hearted nature of the play, supposing it to be harmless. It was original in its time of publication as there was no sole character who would wholly entice the sympathy of the audience, as they were all presented as individuals who were flawed by their own making. As a result of Gogol’s explicit criticism, the reactions following its performance were explosive despite the tsar’s approval. Many members of the audience, the majority of whom would themselves have been civil servants, were personally offended by the overt similarities between themselves and the visibly corrupt characters on stage. Gogol imposed upon himself a state of exile and fled to Rome in the late 1930’s following the uproar caused by his play and the themes he chose to incorporate in it. In addition to the play being interpreted as a political comedy, The Government Inspector was seen as a piece of didactic literature, to ask the people to put an end to their own venality.

This satirical approach towards the imperial bureaucracy can also be seen in many of Gogol’s other works, particularly in ‘The Nose’. In this story the protagonist Kovalyov wakes to find his Nose has assumed a life of its own; it refuses to be re-attached to Kovalyov’s face because it now holds a higher rank than him. His vanity is highlighted throughout the play, and his greatest fear in losing his nice is that he might not be able to advance up the social spectrum. Indeed, ‘In the outwardly crazy story lurks a serious idea: what matters is not the person but one’s rank.’ [11] Again we can see evidence of an official most concerned in bettering his own position. The only character who Gogol describes without criticism is Ossip, Khlestakov servant, who we are told is cleverer than his him ‘and therefore quicker on the uptake’ [12] than any of the other characters. He is the only serf in the play, yet he shows much more intellect than any of his superiors, and is the one who warns Khlestakov to leave before he is foiled.

In his private life Gogol was similar to Dostoevsky in his beliefs in politics and religion and I do not think that he set out with the intention of denouncing the role of government. Clearly however the provincial town that is depicted in the play has been neglected by the powers from the city, and the corrupt officials have been allowed to take advantage of the people under their authority. This thought in particular peaks in scene Four, when the townspeople come to appeal to Khlestakov and tell him of the many offences the governor has committed, believing that he will be able to help them receive justice. Gogol was more concerned about the role of the individual, and the ‘dumb tableau’ which appears at the end of the play, capturing the fear and surprise of the characters, helps to convey this message. Gogol’s instructions to hold the tableau ‘for almost a minute and a half’ [13] would have forced the audience to really examine what was been shown to them, and then perhaps examine themselves in relation to it. The play therefore was intended more as a teaching tool, revealing the lack of spiritual guidance and morals in his characters than a complete mocking of politics. The use of comedy in the play was to make the performance more enjoyable for an audience and to avoid it seeming like a lecture or a sermon. In addition to this, the comedy allowed the play to advance past the censors in Tsar Nicholas’ reign. Gogol produced ‘an exposer of grotesque in human nature’ [14] in The Government Inspector, and ‘it was met by enthusiastic praise and virulent obloquy’ confirming his own ‘literary vocation’. [15] 

Word Count: 2, 231


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