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An Investigation Into The Structure Of Gogol Essay, Research Paper
An Investigation into the Structure of Gogol’s The Portrait
Gogol’s The Portrait, is a short story which examined through a formalistic approach, can be understood beyond its
obvious storyline and plot. Formalism is the literary theory that literature is not simply a mass of words, but
comprised of individual words that each may possess a social stereotype, a spiritual aspect or convey a physical
response in the reader. Formalism asserts that the world is full of codes that need to be decoded. By investigating
these codes, one can understand the world or in this scenario, the literary message better. These codes in
literature, must appear as defamiliarzied or distorted in literature. Everyday aspects of life outside of their average
element, still maintain their same definition but bring that very definition to a different context, thus enabling one to
see that original definition in a new light and indeed, apply it to elucidate other situations similar or completely
dislike to the primary one. The Portrait can be completely and logically dissected by formalistic methods. I will
concentrate on Part I of this short story (solely concerning Chartkov), to produce a more concentrated and concise
investigation of the story.
Formalists took the power of the word to the next level, by seeing that the word can be used as a tool, to educate
and better the masses, or for pure propagandist purposes. Art, according to the formalists, “not only bears
meaning, it forces an awareness upon the reader.” This awareness is dependent upon the accepted and expected
produced images of the words in literature. These images transcend time and place;” images change little, from
century to century . . . they flow on without changing . . . images belong to no one.”
Thereby, in making these familiar images seem strange, the reader perceives it in an entirely new way. A formalist
approach to the opening of The Portrait, entails the story’s usage of a semi-immediate exposition as opposed to an
immediate exposition . Within the latter exposition, “the author opens by acquainting us with the elements of the
story material.” The beginning of The Portrait is very close to being defined as purely immediate but the storyline
is not as simple. Therefore it would be characterized as a semi-exposition. The reader is presented with the
character of the artist, a poor young idealist man and his environment, which sets the scene for the development of
the story. The artist is described as having an “old overcoat and unfashionable . . . he was a man who devoted
himself to his work with self-denying zeal.” The poverty of the artist, invokes feelings of sympathy in the reader.
These emotions of sympathy are expected and are manipulated by the author for his own use. In particular, the
choice of the author for a poor character, resulting in sympathetic emotions is a purposeful one, from a formalist
perspective. “The function of sympathy is primarily to direct interest and maintain attention-to call forth, as it were,
the personal interest of the reader in the development of the theme.” The reader, in having emotionally invested in
the character, is irrevocably attracted to the story.
Chartkov purchases a portrait, which the reader knows he cannot afford, for its glaring eyes with its “unnatural
loveliness.” Already the reader knows the unusual importance of this portrait, if anything merely by the
implications created by the semi-exposition itself. Indeed, this portrait and namely its eyes, develops into the
dynamic motif of the story. But for the moment, Gogol puts the portrait aside and concentrates more upon the
persons of the artist himself.
After the purchase of the portrait, Chartkov is dismayed by the knowledge that his landlord came earlier that day
with a policeman, to collect his overdue rent. At this point in the story, Gogol chooses to introduce a new and
current emotional predicament. The reader, now educated as to the emotional and intellectual state of the
character, can now be subjected to new emotional situations concerning Chartkov. The reader can infer the
limitations and capabilities of his emotional state and therefore share some psychological insight into Chartkov’s
further actions and words.
The relationship between Chartkov and the reader, can be observed as direct characterization at the outset of the
story, and indirect characterization during the latter part. This direct characterization is demonstrated by Gogol’s
usage of the stereotypical image of an artist; one is who is impoverished, idealistic and somewhat disillusioned.
Indirect characterization is the display of Chartkov’s persona through conversations and specific situations, i.e. the
interaction with the man in the portrait and the usage of money he finds later is.
Chartkov’s bound motif of his struggle of what is right and what is wrong concerning his artwork, indeed involves
the reader’s feelings . He is faced with the predicament of producing art for economic gain and fame, or pursuing
art for the pure desire of wanting to enhance his abilities. Chartkov exclaims his frustration by exclaiming, “Why
do I trouble myself and burden myself like a student learning his (his professor’s) ABC’s when I might be no less
famous than the rest of them and make as much money as they do?” The reader sees this struggle of character and
personal ideology. The reader can philosophize as to the benefits of living one’s life according to idealistic
purposes. The formalist, here, has triumphed in asserting the literature can be used as a tool to educate the
One of the greatest examples of defamiliarization occurs during the dream sequence which occurs directly after the
purchasing of the portrait. Chartkov has a series of dreams in which he repeatedly wakes up, tries too discern if he
is awake and dreams again. Gogol makes the line between dreams and reality hazy. This defamiliarization causes
the reader to not perceive what is real and not real anymore. Indeed, “because he dreams he is awakes, the horror
of the dream becomes reality itself.” This confusion, however, serves a dual purpose by not only establishing the
scene for the next event, but in conditioning the reader to accept more of these bizarre occurrences with greater
ease. In essence, it is desensitizing the reader to further abstractions.
Gogol returns to the dynamic motif of the portrait by having Chartkov interact with the man in the portrait and
confiscating a portion of the man’s fortune, which in itself is a dream, but is discovered later in reality inside the
picture frame. The discovery of the money, becomes the dynamic motif of the story, since “it destroys the initial
peaceful situation.” Perhaps the initial situation here was not peaceful, but the resulting greed, destruction off
Chartkov’s artistic ability and his eventual demise, demonstrate the disruptive attributes of the fortune. Indeed, the
portrait, those mysterious eyes and the money, all are one combined dynamic motif . The clash of his new found
fortune with the societal idealistic portrayal of an impoverished artist, creates an exciting force which inevitably
results in perpiety. The money moves Chartkov from one economic circumstance to another elevated one. He buys
a new apartment and extravagantly furnishes it. His life changes as he advertises himself in the paper, achieves a
social life and a place for himself in society.
His life outside of his apartment can be termed a free motif , but the composition of the apartment itself is
important to the story. A formalist would deem this description as a free motif, but I assert that such detail can be
most helpful in engendering a firm foundation for the theme to continue its development.
The struggle of Chartkov’s past absence of money and his decision as to how to use those funds creates intrigue.
The intrigue extends to his painting not what he sees but what his clients want. This intrigue is clearly demonstrated
by his commission to paint the portrait of an aristocratic girl. He paints, however, two portraits; one portrait that
the mother of the girl approves of and one of an altered picture of psyche. The mother discovers the psyche version
and believing it to be the original, extols it greatly. Chartkov and the mother consequently engage in a conversation
of the deaf, where “one interlocutor keeps repeating a word or phrase that the other hears imperfectly or not at
all.” This device used by Gogol, certainly has a humorous aspect, but it alerts the reader as to how people can be
discussing the same object but really are not. Thus defamiliarization has great intellectual ramifications indeed.
This device demonstrates how the reader is not merely spoon fed information but are left to make sense of the
abstract and devise their own answers. This method of abstractions and distortions, indeed allow readers to think
for themselves. therefore it is not surprising that by 1930, the formalist writer’s were silenced since it easier to
dominate a people who do not think for themselves but instead absorb propaganda.
At this point in the story, the reader and/or formalist critic can observe that this is a story of omniscient narration,
where the narrator “knows everything, including the hidden thoughts of the characters.” Despite the omniscience
of the narrator, The Portrait is an objective tale. The narrator does not act as a character in the story. The style of
narration here is complicated and similar to The Brothers Karamazov, where “the narrator is presented as a
witness . . . does not appear in the novel and the entire story is told objectively.” This objectivity further allows the
reader to become an active participant in the intellectual process through every new development which creates
compositional motivation. In this story, compositional motivation serves as the connecting thread of its motifs. This
motivation is recurrent throughout the story, since “no episode is without influence on the situation.” Indeed, the
content of The Portrait strongly depends and develops upon its themes and actions.
This compositional motivation is fostered accordingly by the dynamic place of action. A dynamic place of action, is
one in which the setting for the story is altered. The “rags to riches,” motif certainly can be deemed as dynamic
whereas the direct characterization of Chartkov results in a mostly static character. He is aware of how money
would effect his career, but he still chooses to use it. Chartkov’s static nature, implements the mask device as all
developments coincide with his persona. This device elucidates three major motifs I observed in the story being:
gold (money), misconception of reality and obsession.
The advantages and disadvantages of wealth, whether it be a moral statement by Gogol or not, is recurrent
throughout the story. Chartkov’s misconceptions of reality surface within his perceptions of success, during the
dream sequence and towards the end of his life, when he believes that he can gain back a long expired talent and
destroy all other works that surpass his. Finally, the motif of obsession ties the other two motifs together in that he
desires that which is detrimental and will destroy him. The summation of the motifs in The Portrait, create one
common leitmotif in modern literature. This leitmotif is of a human’s tendency to worship that which is nonsensical
or worthless which result in one’s personal shortcomings or a life tainted by evil.
This leitmotif is found in The Nose, by the worship of vanity, prestige, and in The Overcoat, by the worship of social
acceptance and success. Certainly, this leitmotif is one of the most commonly found in literature. Gogol absolutely
left his everlasting mark upon literature. His innovation of adding psychological factors into his literature, not only
developed a new literary style for Russian literature, but for the literature of the world.
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