Nikolai Gogol and the Pitfalls of Writing Redemption Stories

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, is up there with Brian Wilson’s Smile as one of the greatest works of art never properly completed. But Dead Souls, at least to me, is so much more troubling because of the circumstances of its failure to launch.

Dead Souls was intended to be a literary trilogy paralleling Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three parts of the divine comedy are Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The first part of Dead Souls, the only part ever completed, pictures the protagonist Chichikov (whose name is meant to remind the reader of a suppressed sneeze) as a sniveling, scheming, petty worm of a man scraping for honors and wealth he never intends to earn or justify. It’s the Inferno portion of Gogol’s piece, and Gogol realized the ugly Chichikov (and the opulently indifferent feudal Russia) masterfully. The second part, what fragments are left of it, was to be Chichikov’s redemption through suffering (the Purgatorio portion of the narrative). Gogol was never satisfied with it. He burned almost every manuscript for it he wrote. Critics have wondered what happened to the project—and Gogol. His fictional output basically ground to a halt before his death. Most critics think the key to the whole thing is Gogol’s conversion to Christianity in 1840. As Robert Maguire explains:

Gogol’s career as a writer of fiction and plays came to an end in 1842, with the publication of his collected works and Part I of Dead Souls. He spent the decade that remained to him in a relentless and fruitless struggle with a sequel to this book, most of which he consigned to the flames shortly before his death. Critics have always been intrigued by such spectacular failure on the part of a writer who had become a classic in his own time, and have ransacked his life and work for explanations. One event that has quickened the critical pulse is the religious “conversion” he experienced in 1840. Before then, he had been a nominal Christian at best. . . . Particularly important was a near-fatal illness in 1840: “Only the wonderful will of God resurrected me.” Thenceforth, he increasingly identified God with Christ, and vowed to serve Him. . . .

Except for what remains of Part 2 of Dead Souls, there are no works of fiction from this period. As a result, many critics, from that day to this, have talked of “the other Gogol,” a self-styled thinker and preacher who supposedly betrayed his true talent: have laid the blame, at least implicitly, on the “conversion”; and have treated the whole question of his religious beliefs with hostility, embarrassment, or indifference. 1

Gogol became a Christian shortly before he attempted to write Part II, and perhaps he never would have attempted a Part II or III if he had not himself been converted. As one of Russia’s first and finest realist authors, he wanted to paint as clear a picture of the reality of redemption as he had managed to paint of sin. So why were Gogol’s attempts to write Chichikov’s conversion story so singularly unsatisfactory? The answer is actually in Maguire’s telling use of quotation marks around the word conversion. Maguire, like so many others, finds conversion to be a dubious and unlikely proposition.

Conversion might be disputable, but sin, as a reality, is a hard thing to deny. As Chesterton wrote:

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.

It is not merely Christians who understand the depravity of man and the problem of evil. Just look at the narratives that have enamored our generation: from Breaking Bad to the Dark Knight. People get sin. They believe without question that we live in a dark world. What they don’t believe, or understand, is redemption. In Chesterton’s terms, the indisputable dirt has been in more or less favor over the generations, and we are in some ways blessed to live in a generation that doesn’t dispute the dirt. But every generation has disputed the water.

People get sin. They believe without question that we live in a dark world. What they don’t believe, or understand, is redemption.

And that is one of the major pitfalls of writing redemption narratives. It is especially difficult for the unbeliever. Think about the movie Precious. The sin in that movie was entirely believable. But the redemption-by-social-worker? Not believable. At all.

And Christians know why any “naturally occurring” transformation will ring false—true and lasting redemption isn’t natural. It’s supernatural. It might have natural effects, but it’s causes are beyond us. You can write sin (both cause and effect) in totally natural terms, but redemption militates against those same natural terms. How can a realist write a believable redemption story, when redemption is fundamentally miraculous? Having established that Chichikov is thoroughly depraved, how does one establish that he is redeemable? Gogol apparently couldn’t do it. And, in fact, most Christian writers have had trouble doing it.

When Dostoevsky got to the end of Crime and Punishment, he basically copped out. He had already established Raskalnikov’s feverish megalomania, his murderous solepsism, and consuming arrogance. Establishing the reality of Raskalnikov’s problem (and by extension, our problem) had taken up the whole book. And it’s truly superb.

At the end of all that, Raskalnikov’s redemption takes up about a paragraph. And Dostoevsky treats the redemption almost as an obscene (in the Greek drama sense) event:

He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.

In his later books, Dostoevsky struggled to achieve a better redemption resolution than that. I don’t think he ever really accomplished it, though he started attacking it on much different terms. (But that is the subject of a new article …)

He’s not alone. At least he had the good sense to employ understatement and indirection. The redemption stories of contemporary Christianity are famously explicit—with tears, much looking up into the heavens, lens flares, and orchestral crescendoes. [Shudder.] Three of the obvious pitfalls of redemption narratives are:

  1. Cheesiness. Many conversions in fiction feel contrived and over-weaning. You are trying to indicate the hugeness of a miraculous intervention by God, and you end up overstraining or even breaking narrative methods in the process. Understatement might go a long way in this process, but sometimes that doesn’t seem to flow with the narrative up to that point. Part of this is because one can write about sin clearly and accurately with the language available. But redemption seems to ask for an unavailable language—some lofty words to reach the seventh heaven of expression.
  2. Preachiness. Often, redemption narratives feel like evangelism tools rather than good story-telling. Why would a fiction writer give a redemption story if it weren’t to convince the reader of something? That nagging question often draws the reader into extra-textual questions that weaken the narrative device.
  3. Abstraction. Especially in realistic narratives, redemption language has a tendency to become abstract. Words like faith and belief seem far more fleshless than words like sin and doubt. How to make redemption concrete is one of the greatest challenges of the Christian narrative writer.

So what is a writer to do about this? For one, don’t get bogged down by the difficulty. It’s okay to write clearly and only about sin, and leave the presentation of a solution to others. That was largely Flannery O’Connor’s tack (unless you count being wrapped in barbed wire and tossed in a gutter as a redemptive resolution). Conviction is an important part of the gospel process. Not every story needs to include the complete arc. Maybe Gogol would have been better off letting Chichikov burn. Well, in a sense, that’s just what Gogol did.

Redemption is about God’s kingdom coming to earth. It’s not an ethereal thing. It’s as real as sweat and blood.

But if you actually want to write a redemption story, you need to study how the Bible does it—patiently and with plenty of suffering before, during, and after. Dostoevsky was on the right track. There is no redemption without suffering, and even temporary resolutions are merely pauses before the beginning of another movement.

Conversion is not easy. Modern conversion tales often tell a lie in that regard. It is not always, or often, the case that conversion solves all of your external problems. Sometimes conversion makes them worse. And that is why the honest author often shies away from a conversion story. Because it feels like tacking “Happily Ever After” onto the end of a fairy tale. And we know life doesn’t really work like that.

But, on the other hand, life does work like that in a sense. We do get to marry the prince in the end. The wicked witch really dies. Paradise really is waiting for us on the other side of the Jordan. God really did save us. How do we express that in a believable narrative while we are still daily mired in the indisputable dirt of sin and futility?

One way is to let our redemption stories be of the dirt as well. Too often, we want our redemption to lift us out of reality. For us, redemption is the means of escape. But that isn’t God’s way. Redemption is about God’s kingdom coming to earth. It’s not an ethereal thing. It’s as real as sweat and blood. When we see redemption in that way, perhaps we’ll be able to write it that way too.

  1. Robert A. Maguire, Exploring Gogol (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 82–83.

2 responses

  1. An author who has done this really well is the Australian Tim Winton, particularly ‘Cloudstreet’ and ‘That Eye the Sky’. He uses the magic realism as a way to express those things that can’t be expressed plainly. Also, his characters are often lead to redemption by characters that are profoundly flawed themselves. I’d encourage you to read some of his work. It’s often critical of the church as an organisation, but not of the Church and of God.

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