Theses Doctoral

Doomed to Irony, Condemned to Laughter: The Structure and Function of Irony in the Prose Fiction of Nikolai Gogol

Shaklan, Steven

This dissertation characterizes the particular brands of irony at work in Gogol's fiction over the course of his career and analyzes how they are generated, how they act upon readers, and how they relate to the broader aesthetic and ideological project to which Gogol ultimately dedicated himself - namely, his attempt to rid Russian literary efforts of their dependence upon narrative as their organizing principle. This dissertation also argues that Gogol's use of irony is so extreme in form that it provides an excellent case study for an evaluation of the nature of irony itself. Thus, Gogol's fiction is analyzed with an eye toward how the concept of irony illuminates the structure and function of his prose, and conversely, how the operations of that prose challenge received notions of how irony functions in a literary work. Taking as a starting point Wayne Booth's notion that the perception of irony is dependent upon the image of the narrator, the first part of this dissertation traces the development of the Gogolian narrator in chronological fashion, tracing a distinct evolutionary pattern. Through close readings of the short stories contained in Volume I (1831) and Volume II (1832) of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka -- "The Fair at Sorochintsy," "St. John's Eve," "A May Night, or the Drowned Maiden, "The Lost Letter," "Christmas Eve," "A Terrible Vengeance," "Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Auntie," and "A Bewitched Place" - the first stage of that evolution is mapped out. Here Gogol's initial narrators challenge our innate tendency to assume that one integrated speaker is responsible for a given tale, but ultimately, they accommodate that tendency by revealing themselves as convincing character-narrators with unorthodox, but perceptible, profiles. As a result, these works constitute a series of "ironic portraits." By the time Gogol has reached the apex of his creative powers in the latter half of the 1830s he learns to manipulate the various discourses he includes in his tales such that we sense the lurking presence of Gogol himself (as implied author). Once we recognize this we interpret the massive abrogations of narrative sense he weaves through his tales as being intended by the "speaker." The result is the emergence of "ironic discourse." This transition is illustrated through close readings of the "Petersburg Stories" -- "Nevsky Prospect" (1835), "The Nose" (1836), and "The Overcoat" (1842). The place of Mirgorod (1835) as an anomalous experiment in "sincere" prose forms is also addressed. By the time of the publication of the first volume of Dead Souls (1842), ironic discourse allowed Gogol to both mock the expectations his readers brought (and continue to bring) to the experience of reading a "story" and provide a structure that would let them in on the joke. According to Michael Kaufer, solidarity is built by the very process through with the reader recognizes that the author is "being ironic." In recognizing that there is irony at work, the reader feels himself part of a select few, at one with the author, and essentially "in the know," even if the butt of the literary joke is the reader himself. The final part of this dissertation considers the implications of a brand of irony that seems resistant to received notions of irony that posit it as a means of generating some form of resultant meaning. Gogol's use of irony is significant not in terms of what it means, but in terms of what it does to the reader. Donald Davidson's formulation of the concept of metaphor is invoked as a useful means of re-characterizing irony. According to Davidson, a metaphor enjoins the reader to view seemingly disparate things comparatively, to hold the disparate elements in his or her field of vision. As Gogol demonstrates, an ironic utterance enjoins the reader to view the textual and extra-textual incongruities the utterance presents. The qualitative nature of metaphoric vision and of ironic vision are different, but both depend on the "use" of language, and not upon the development of resultant meaning. Irony, like metaphor, is not concerned with what an author eventually means beyond what is literally said, but how he or she means what is literally said and what this does to the reader in terms of his or her relationship to the text.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Thesis Advisors
Popkin, Cathy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 30, 2013