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Book Review

Absorbedin Fear – the Grotesque in the Play “The Government Inspector”

Absorbedin Fear – the Grotesque in the Play The Government Inspector


Written by: Nikolina Todorović
Translated by: Mihajlo Stojković


Even though the grotesque in Gogol’s work is talked about in the context of Dead Souls, one should not ignore its presence in his short stories (The Nose), as well as in his famous play The Government Inspector. The grotesque in The Government Inspector is all the more interesting because of the very literary genre it appears in – a play. Writing a play means having the intention for that play to be on stage and be delivered to the public. Plays are a demanding and specific art because it always happens here and now, and what the play lacks is evoked by the storyline. A play means having a serious dialogue, and it is undeniable that plays always incorporate serious critique of society. The theatre is a cybernetic machine is a famous statement by Roland Barthes, cybernetic meaning that it can in that sense include every aspect of our life down to the smallest one. Such a definition of a theatre is by itself extremely grotesque and it opens doors to a serious examination of the grotesque in theatres and in plays. G. N. Tamarin takes Pirandello’s plays as examples of key grotesque plays:

In “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, where a stage is depicted on the stage, and the very audience is “dragged” into the plot, the play tackles a to the eye unsolvable question: is the game on the stage “real life” or is it just an improvised lie, or vice versa, is the “real life” just a conventional act full of lies, and the game true life.

While one cannot distinguish whether the game on the stage is the real life of those six characters, or if the real life of those characters is just an improvised act, in The Government Inspector a typical comical element is present – confusion. However, Gogol placing his characters in such a mess in The Government Inspector will cause them to go through radical change during the five acts. A similarity with Pirandello’s case also appears as we start to lose sight of the real attributes of the characters, given the fact that they immersed themselves too much into pretending and sycophancy. The comedy about the government inspector is a simple one:the arrival of a government inspector with a covert task in a small town was announced, a small town dragged into all kinds of deceit, from the mayor’s office to schools and hospitals. The consequences of his arrival could be fatal to all citizens and they are left with no choice but to ready themselves as best they know – using lies and deception. Following this we come to the grotesque in The Government Inspector which manifests itself in two ways: the first is through the characters themselves, and the second is acquired through unifying the play. Gogol’s remarks to the actors help define grotesque characters in The Government Inspector. In his remarks Gogol distinguishes three characters for whom he gives a clear-cut grotesque depiction, especially if we consider the whole course of the play:

KHLESTAKOV. — A skinny young man of about twenty-three, rather stupid, being, as they say, “without a czar in his head,” one of those persons called an “empty vessel” in the government offices. He speaks and acts without stopping to think and utterly lacks the power of concentration. The words burst from his mouth unexpectedly. The more naiveté and ingeniousness the actor puts into the character the better will he sustain the role. Khlestakov is dressed in the latest fashion.1Translation taken from ( Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1916). Translated by Thomas Seltzer February 14th 2010.

This is how Gogol presented Khlestakov who plays a major role in the drama.If we add to that what we find out from the play’s plot development, like the fact that Khalestakov is poor, insatiably greedy and manipulative, that he ridicules everyone he comes into contact, we will realize that there is a discrepancy between Khalestakov’s physical appearance and his capabilities. However, that is not the only grotesque we can talk about regarding Khlestakov. It seems grotesque that a young man such as Khalestakov is able to intimidate and oppress many great gentlemen such as the chief and the various directors.

Luka. I’m scared, your Hon — High — Ex — [Aside.] Done for! My confounded tongue has undone me!2Translation taken from ( Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1916). Translated by Thomas Seltzer February 14th 2010.

Almir Bašović in the text Laughter Through Tears devotes his attention to inquiring about the Khlestapov-Osip relationship, which is particularly interesting from the grotesque standpoint:

In his remarks to the actors Gogol states that Khlestakov is a nitwit, that he speaks and acts with no thought, and he says that Osip is smarter than his man and that he always likes to teach him a lesson. This Khlestakov-Osip relationship is reversed especially if we take into consideration the long master-servant tradition which has endured in European tradition since the Roman comedy and which has always implied that that inward self which takes action is divided into two, the reflection part belonging to the master and the action part belonging to the servant. Osip, conditionally saying, beside being deprived of the action part, in The Government Inspector he differs from the servants of the comedy tradition and because he shows the opposite initiative: he coaxes his boss to leave the city and treat everybody who presents to them in that city.

We see therefore, one completely inverted master and servant relationship which in this play seems quite grotesque. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky are two other characters with which the figure of the grotesque is connected to, and here is how Gogol describes them:

BOBCHINSKY AND DOBCHINSKY. — Short little fellows, strikingly like each other. Both have small paunches, and talk rapidly, with emphatic gestures of their hands, features and bodies. Dobchinsky is slightly the taller and more subdued in manner. Bobchinsky is freer, easier and livelier. They are both exceedingly inquisitive.3Translation taken from ( Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1916). Translated by Thomas Seltzer February 14th 2010.

Gendarme. An official from St. Petersburg sent by imperial order has arrived, and wants to see you all at once. He is stopping at the inn.

(All are struck as by a thunderbolt. A cry of amazement bursts from the ladies simultaneously. The whole group suddenly shifts positions and remains standing as if petrified.)4Translation taken from ( Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1916). Translated by Thomas Seltzer February 14th 2010.

The Government Inspector harbors a specific atmosphere. It is certain by reading this piece we are first stunned by the oncoming tragedy, then we live through the emotion of powerlessness which awaits these characters, and then for a moment we are paralyzed by a strong feeling of fear. That is exactly how we feel every time we face the dark and secretive force of the grotesque. Owing to that, Almir Bašović’s thoughts are interesting. He sees The Government Inspector as a story of a man who has stopped fearing God and started fearing everything else:

Read like this, The Government Inspector could be a story about the relationship of a man with an absent God, and the laughter through tears could bear witness to the lost totality in the twentieth century, a century which has finally “killed God”.


The mute picture at the end of The Government Inspector

When talking about The Government Inspector, Gogol was most absorbed by the question of the final petrified scene. From the remarks he had written regarding this scene we find confirmation about the grotesque premise in The Government Inspector – it appears from the unification of the play: The last scene in The Government Inspector must be executed in an especially clever way. There is no more comedy and the facial expression of many of the faces is almost tragic. The Mayor’s expression is most difficult. Whatever happened, happened, but seeing how you were tricked by an extremely bitter and reticent lad whose very appearance and figure strike no imposition (Khlestakov is, as it is well known, skinny, while the others are fat) – it is no joke. For a man who knew how to lead the thirsty, the smart people, and even the most skilled of tricksters over water to be tricked so easily! The news about the long awaited coming of the real government inspector came out of the blue for him. He turned to stone. His spread arms and backward-tilted head remain motionless and all the faces around him turn into a petrified group in various positions in an instant. That whole scene makes the mute picture and that is why it should be composed as live pictures are composed.

This quote, and the very grotesque scene at the end of The Government Inspector, can be explained by Kaiser’s thoughts on the grotesque. The grotesque – says Keiser –is a world turned completely foreign. Keiser’s insistence on a world which has become foreign must be read in a narrow gap, which was devised by Keiser himself by defining the difference between the grotesque and a fairytale. Owing to that, Keiser says how basic depictions of the grotesque can be read from that difference. It is about the fairytale being, as the world of the grotesque is, foreign and unusual, but it did not become foreign as it is in the case with the grotesque:

In the grotesque the same things which were for us personal, familiar and close, suddenly become unfamiliar and unfriendly. Our world suddenly turns foreign.

Gogol’s characters at the end of The Government Inspector become grotesque, and the whole play acquires the grotesque attribute, because the characters, and the audience along with them, leave the familiar world and enter a new and unfamiliar one, and to use Keiser’s words, enter a foreign world. The characters suddenly enter the unknown and it is quite clear that they are frightened by that coming unknown. Here is how Gogol describes the last scene (the mute scene):

The Governor stands in the center rigid as a post, with outstretched hands and head thrown backward. On his right are his wife and daughter straining toward him. Back of them the Postmaster, turned toward the audience, metamorphosed into a question mark.(…) Next to him, at the edge of the group, are Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, gesticulating at each other, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. The other guests remain standing stiff.5Translation taken from ( Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1916). Translated by Thomas Seltzer February 14th 2010.

However, in this case another characteristic of the ending scene of The Government Inspector is particularly interesting, which even Gogol does not forget in the aforementioned quote, and from which we clearly infer the grotesque notion. Namely, it is about the joining of differences. Tamarin explains it best with his definition of the grotesque:

The grotesque is a compilation of disparate elements.

In The Government Inspector, this is present in the mute scene, when we see the mayor with his head tilted back, his wife and daughter also by leaning towards him with their bodies, and the mailman who was turned into a question mark and opposite him Lukich who is not confused, only to add to all that the presence of Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky whose countenances speak of shock. At the end, it is only necessary to imagine all of these characters on the stage in these positions to visualize the clear grotesque notion:

The grotesque is a compilation of disparate motifs, in which the tragic (with eerie indications) and comic (with senseless indications) elements shift, producing a new quality of the deformed.

This very quote best rounds up the account on the grotesque in Gogol’s novel Dead Souls and the play The Government Inspector, because it suggests at first that the grotesque is the joining of different and foreign motifs, which is analogous with Keiser’s view of the grotesque, only to clearly define that what is tragic in the grotesque is the eeriness we feel, and that all comedy is all the more senseless because it resembles caricature, to finally mention deformity which is one of the main characteristics of the grotesque.

Nikolina TodorovićBorn in 1995 in Sarajevo. Student of Comparative literature master studies in Sarajevo. Graduated in 2018 with her Bachelor thesis “The Grotesque in Gogol’s Novel Dead Souls and play The Government Inspector”. Graduated from the Music high school in Sarajevo and therefore acquired the vocation of General Course Musician. One of her occupations are solo singing and performing various musical genres. She writes poetry, prose and essays. She published her work in all the more notable regional websites and journals. Furthermore, her poetry was incorporated in a few collaborative poetry collections of young authors and authoresses. She is currently occupied with the research for her Master’s thesis “Memory and Photography in Literature”


Translator Mihajlo Stojković – was born on the 20th of March 1998 in Pozarevac where he graduated from the High School of Economics and Commerce. Despite the fact it being a vocational school, he decided to continue his education at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, where he is currently a third-year student of the English Department. He participated and was a finalist in the English Department Short Story Competition. Upon finishing his studies, he wish to become an English language teacher and eventually write a book.

Translation edited by Aleksandra Stojković.

This article was published in March of 2019, within the Russian Libartes topic.

Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.

This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Mihajlo Stojković.

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