During the nineteenth century, Russia developed a very interesting cultural identity through the waxing of the Enlightenment and the growth of Romanticism and Nationalism. Writers like Chadaaev sought to bring Russia out of the dark ages and into a time where they could create their own histories and destinies. Chadaaev especially was condemned for his harsh condemnation of Russia’s dependency on the West and therefore brought upon the wrath of the Tsar. It was during this time period that the Russian intelligentsia, the intellectual upper crust, bared its little white teeth against the massive snarl of Russian autocracy. There were many other issues at stake, such as alienation, between the intelligentsia and the common populace. While some writers sought to expound the nature alienation while others stuck with writing about the intelligentsia itself as Gogol did. In his works, Gogol painted a vivid canvas of the intelligentsia and their society, particularly in his short stories. One of the issues he harped on was the psychological tensions faced by the Russian Intelligentsia.
Throughout the three short stories selected for this response, Nevsky Prospekt, The Overcoat, and Diary of a Madman, there are two primary psychological tensions. The first tension is that of the quality of personal appearance and what others think of you which can be found in all three but is best exemplified in Nevsky Prospekt. In this short story there are two young gentlemen, both of the intelligentsia class, who run into the dilemma of meeting two very different but beautiful young women. Piskarev, an artist is encouraged to pursue a beautiful brunette by his companion Pirogov and in this rather comic tale, we find some psychological tension. As he pursues her, his thoughts are kept constantly on her physical appearance (86) and due to his desire for her beauty and companionship; he follows her into an apartment. Here at this apartment he finds that its appearance has betrayed and destroyed his opinion of the beautiful young lady. “It was a den of iniquity, where man sacrilegiously tramples and mocks all that is pure and holy…” (89). Here we see that the intelligentsia seems to take physical appearance for granted and judge by outward appearance. This tension of physical appearance could really then be analyzed as the tension between romanticism and reality where the intelligentsia seems to favor the former over the latter to their detriment.
Class distinction is another psychological tension found in the short stories but more profusely found in The Overcoat. This story expounds the plights of a civil servant in St. Petersburg who lacks the money for a nice overcoat. This idea of class distinction is closely related to the first point I talked about since someone’s physical appearance often dictates someone’s social status. However, in this story, Gogol demonstrates how social status or class distinction messes with someone’s mind and reduces them to a lower psychological state than normal society. Akaky Akakievich is the protagonist in this story as well as the victim. Due to the strict class structure of the times, Akakievich is bound to the same trade his father was: titular counselor. This poor man is the butt of everyone’s jokes once he comes into his hereditary job and receives no respect from anyone. But despite this pressure, Akaky doesn’t feel any pressure and soldiers on contently, “Akaky Akakievich did not make the slightest protest, just as though there were nobody there at all” (142). This dedication to his duty and position inevitably sets Akaky up for disappointment in himself and persecution later in the story. He is persuaded to have a new overcoat made by a tailor but is quite unable to afford it. After finally affording it and showing it off to friends, he is arrested for stealing a coat and goes mental. It would seem to me that the social hierarchy dictates a certain psychological protocol for people of lower class to follow and Akaky’s failure to adhere to it breaks down his sanity.
In the realm of the intelligentsia it seemed there were series of social and cultural protocols which were followed to the letter and the subsequent failure to adhere to them brought the sanity of these people way down. No doubt the ideas of romanticism escalated the reverence for the surreal over the real and hence the Russian intelligentsia could easily lose it. The pressure of higher society and honor codes were so desired and so stressed that they did seem to make one go crazy.