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Discuss the significance of genre in one of the literary works we have read and in the corresponding film adaptation – The Government Inspector. Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol is widely regarded as one of the best Russian writers in history, and his influence can be seen within the works of several other great Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Petrov1. His play ‘The Government Inspector’ caused a furore following its first performance in 1836, forcing Gogol to take up voluntary exile for the following twelve years2.
Several film adaptations have been made of the play, though they are usually only loosely based on the plot. The 1949 film ‘The Inspector General’ directed by Henry Koster is one of these adaptations, citing the Gogol play as an influence. Genre plays an important role in both Gogol’s play and in the corresponding film adaptation, prompting discussion of its effect in both versions. ‘The Government Inspector’ is a satirical comedy of errors, the original idea of which was supposedly conceived by Pushkin, who claimed he had once been mistaken for a government inspector in the provinces3.
Gogol took this simple anecdote of Pushkin’s and made it into a five-act play, satirising the extreme level of bureaucracy in Tsarist Russia. The plot of the play revolves around a corrupt group of officials in an unnamed town mistaking the identity of a pompous low-ranking official from St Petersburg, labeling him with the badge of government inspector despite a distinct lack of supporting evidence. The play is a comedy of situation; the situation being mistaken identity, both for the townspeople and for Khlestakov, with the townspeople mistaking Khlestakov’s identity, and Khlestakov at first misinterpreting their hospitality as typical4.
A great deal of miscommunication between characters leads to the townspeople treating low-ranking traveling official Khlestakov like a king, whilst he simply laps it up rather than correcting their mistake upon realisation. On a few occasions, Khlestakov almost gives himself away as a fraud, though the other characters fail to notice. As De Jonge perfectly encapsulates in ‘Nineteenth Century Russian Literature’, “So obsessed with his own problems is each character that he is unable to grasp what the other is saying.”5. With the plot laid down, the notion of genre in the play may now be explored.
The genre of ‘The Government Inspector’ is comedy, more specifically satire. During the 19th Century, the period in which the play was written, Russia was an extremely hierarchical society and the bureaucracy could be very petty. According to Duffield White, the play includes all of Russia’s social estates: peasants, poor townspeople, merchants, landowners, provincial bureaucrats, the superintendent of schools, the director of charitable institutions, the postmaster and lower-ranking provincial functionaries, with the only social estate missing being the clergy6. This means the play can be seen as almost a cross-section of society at the time, and adding to the fact the town the play is set in is unnamed, could almost be applied anywhere the reader desired.
The play focuses on the entire debacle around the mistaken identity of Khlestakov, involving a great number of characters who all end up tied up in the situation in one way or another. The play is satirical from the very beginning, when the Mayor first announces the imminent arrival of a government inspector. Rather than considering the town’s faults and how to rectify them, the Mayor launches a plan of action to cover up the corruption. One by one he tells the officials of the town what they must do to hide the town’s failings for the inspection, and not once do any of the officials object to these plans, showing that every last one of them is in on it.
The subject of rank is extremely prominent in the play, showing the hyper consciousness of rank at the time of writing. Some of the most negative aspects of Khlestakov’s personality, such as not paying for anything upon arrival, are interpreted by the town officials as demonstrative of his rank. When Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky tell the Mayor about Khlestakov, Dobchinsky confirms his identity by saying “He must be. Hangs around the town. Never pays cash. Who else could he be?”7 (Act One, Scene One) The officials have no real reason to believe Khlestakov is the government inspector, they merely label him in a desperate act. The satire continues throughout the play, with the bad traits of the town officials’ characters shown at every opportunity.
According to Vyacheslav Ivanov, ‘The Government Inspector’ has many parallels with Greek comedies. He saw the similarities between the ways Greek comedies presented personal relationships as part of a collective life, embracing a whole self-contained and self-sufficient microcosm and Gogol’s play8. The collective persona used within the play, that being focusing on no one single character, rather the group of characters as a whole, is comparable to that of the Greek comedy.
Another comedic aspect within the play ‘The Government Inspector’ is the use of names with double meanings. Some of the names are “comic without being crudely explicit”9 whilst others are more direct in their approach. Zemlyanika, for example, the name of the charity commissioner, means ‘wild strawberry’, an entertaining name, and Lyapkin-Tyapkin, the judge, whose name translates into English as ‘slap-dash’ or ‘higgledy-piggledy’, suggesting some of his character traits.
This is a common feature of Gogol’s works, and is also present in his ‘Petersburg Tales’ stories, in which the characters are also named accordingly, or sometimes ironically. Though this probably does not occur to non-Russian speaking readers, it is of course intentional and used by Gogol to create an opinion of a character merely from their name. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, though their names do not mean anything in particular, are comedic characters. Their surnames are strikingly similar, and they share the same forename and patronymic: Pyotr Ivanovich. The pair is basically a double act within the play, and are very entertaining, as well as being an example of Gogol’s use of doubles within his work.
Overall, the key genre within the play ‘The Government Inspector’ is satire. The work plays on the extreme hierarchy at its time of writing, mocking the Tsarist regime and its petty bureaucracy. The suggestions Gogol was making about the political system were rather daring, and it is interesting that he himself chose to go into exile, rather than be forced. The play displays many common satirical elements, and is an extremely intelligent piece of writing, using several methods to cement its genre.
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