All Russian writers, it has often seemed to me, are at once wonderfully and disturbingly foreign. The dark, snow-encrusted landscapes of Pasternak somehow both reflect and drown the human heart. The nearly inscrutable evil of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment finds its counterpart in the absurd innocence of the Prince in The Idiot. Chekhov’s uncanniness captures modern man’s bewilderment, and Tolstoy’s complex realism, life’s uncanny and often tragic consistencies.
But perhaps no Russian writer is as foreign as Nikolai Gogol. He was even baffling to his own countrymen. “Gogol was a strange creature,” Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote in his idiosyncratic biography of the writer, “but genius is always strange.”
A Tsarist who supported Nicholas I, Gogol nevertheless wrote the farcical The Inspector General, lambasting the greed and corruption of government officials. And while he was a member of the Orthodox Church, he humorously combined the sacred and the profane in his early tales.
Following the production of The Inspector General, Gogol left Russia, living mostly in Switzerland and Italy for the next twelve years. Dead Souls, which was to be the first of three volumes in what Gogol hoped would be a modern Paradise Lost (the subtitle of the novel is “A Poem”), was published in 1842. He became ill in early 1852, and died in March of that same year after he had stopped eating. He burnt the draft of what was to be the second volume of Dead Souls a few days before his death.
At times, Gogol’s humor—which is, perhaps, his most distinguishing characteristic—can be off-putting, but he is rarely merely funny. This is particularly true of his whimsical and unpredictable The Night Before Christmas, which has been reprinted by New Directions in stand-alone paperback for the holidays.
The novella is unlike most Christmas stories. It opens with the devil flying above the small village of Dikanka, enjoying one last night of freedom before he must return to hell, when he decides to steal the moon and put it in his pocket in order to thwart the amorous designs of the local blacksmith, Vakula. In addition to being an excellent blacksmith, Vakula is also a talented painter, and his favorite theme is the vanquishing of Satan. His artistic triumph
was a picture painted on the church wall in the chapel on the right. In it he depicted St. Peter on the Day of Judgment with the keys in his hand driving the Evil Spirit out of hell: the frightened devil was running in all directions, foreseeing his doom, while the sinners, who had been imprisoned before, were chasing him and striking him with whips, blocks of wood and anything they could get hold of.
In stealing the moon, the devil hopes that the father of Vakula’s beloved will stay at home instead of attending a Christmas Eve party at the sacristan’s. And because the father—Tchub is his name—dislikes Vakula, Vakula will be prevented from visiting the daughter.
Things don’t turn out as the devil expects, however. Without giving too much away, Tchub goes out despite his laziness and, before the novella ends, finds himself hiding in a rubbish sack, along with the mayor and the sacristan (at whose party nobody arrives because of the darkness), all at the home of Vakula’s mother, who, for good measure, also happens to be a witch. Vakula does indeed visit his beloved (as well as St. Petersburg on the back of the devil) and outmaneuvers his scheming mother.
The tale first appeared in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and as a number of scholars have pointed out, it contains many staples of the traditional Ukrainian vertep. Victor Erlich notes that the comedy of these tales “rests more often than not on unabashedly farcical, slapstick effects drawn from the traditional repertory of the Ukrainian puppet theater.” The characters of the stories—such as “the shrewish wife, the cunning gypsy, the gullible peasant, the ‘dashing’ Cossak”—are “stock characters.”
While Gogol wears his religious commitments somewhat more lightly in his earlier works than he does in Dead Souls, he nevertheless uses slapstick and stock characters in The Night Before Christmas to serious effect. He reminds us that the devil will be confounded by his own darkness and that God, in his infinite wisdom, will use simple folks, like blacksmiths, with all of their crudeness and selfishness, to participate in his vanquishing of Old Nick. God does not use the self-righteous—the merely pristinely polished life—to further his kingdom. He rarely uses the elite or the religious “pundit.” Most often, he uses the simple, the unrefined, to accomplish his work, because they, at least, will give glory where glory is due.
The Night Before Christmas is not a children’s Christmas story, but if you are looking for something without all of the holiday clichés that is both fun and edifying, pick up Gogol’s classic little tale.
Micah Mattix is Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University.
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas