Lessons From Nikolai Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect
By Seth Rose
The story begins with a dramatic description of the Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg: the hustle and bustle, the fanfare, the luxury, the raucous street vendors, and of course the women. Then, both Lieutenant Pirogov, the dashing military officer, and Piskaryov the romantic artist, are introduced as Pirogov spots a beauty:
“Stop!” called put Lt. Pirogov, tugging at his young companion…”Did you see her?”
“I did indeed: what a beauty, the very image of Perugino’s Bianca”
“Which one are you talking about?”
“That one there, the one with the dark hair…”
“Well, I’m talking about the blonde who was walking behind her in that direction. Why don’t you go after the dark one, if she so took your fancy?”
“What a preposterous idea…It’s hardly as if she’s one of those women who flaunt themselves on Nevsky Prospect at night! She must be an extremely distinguished lady,” he continued with a sigh… “her coat alone must have cost 80 rubles!”
“Dunderhead!” shouted Pirogov, pushing him in the direction…” Get a move on, you dolt, or you’ll lose her! And I’ll go for the blonde.”
The difference between these two is striking within the first few paragraphs of dialogue. Pirogov is licking his chops at the prospect of approaching this buxom blonde—he doesn’t hesitate one bit! He knows what he likes and isn’t afraid to go after it. Piskaryov on the other hand is already showing reservations about approaching the sultry brunette. He immediately suggests that she is not “That type of girl” and Pirogov should be ashamed for thinking so about her.
External Values Are Not Indicative Of Inner Worth
Piskaryov gives this stranger the benefit of the doubt and believes her to be an innocent and “fair maiden,” based solely on the fact that she is beautiful. He follows this woman down the street for some time, still frightened by the prospect of approaching:
“His heart pounded as he involuntarily quickened his step. He dared not even entertain the possibility of attracting the attention of this elusive beauty, let alone admit such lewd thoughts as those Lieutenant Pirogov had been suggesting; he wished only to see the house, to discover the abode of this divine creature, who, it had seemed, had descended directly from heaven on to Nevsky Prospect and was now floating away to some unknown destination.”
He sees her walk into a building and decides to seize this opportunity. He enters the building and runs up several flights of stairs. He knocks on a door and is disturbed by what he sees:
“For this was one of those establishments where man sacrilegiously suppresses and reviles everything pure and sacred, everything which adorns life, where woman, the beauty of this world, the pearl of creation, is degraded into something strange and equivocal, where she loses all purity of spirit and all femininity…”
This fair maiden, this divine creature, is nothing more than a prostitute. Piskaryov is shocked. He would have never guessed a beautiful woman could have been capable of such things. The reason he is not able to comprehend the brunette’s true nature is because he is an artist, and his character is supposed to represent idealism. As an artist and idealist, the aesthetic value of something is what counts. Piskaryov cannot comprehend that something beautiful could possibly be bereft of morality. While not consciously aware of it, most men in society adhere to this as well.
“Examine and study everything that you see, submit all to your brush, but learn to seek the inner meaning to everything, and above all endeavor to fathom the great mystery of creation. Blessed are the chosen few who hold the secret.”
After he runs away from the brothel, he returns home and thinks about his experience. He thinks so much that his mind is now consumed by this event. He has a dream about this woman being of a virtuous and pure nature. He continues to dream about her, but develops insomnia and is forced to use opium to regain his ability to sleep and dream about this woman, whose name he does not even know; her face is simply enough to captivate him. His dreams are no longer fulfilling and he decides he wants to marry her.
He returns to the brothel to propose to her, but has his offer laughed off. His rejection was too much to handle—he is found in his apartment several days later with lacerations on his throat.
The story then returns to Pirogov, who Gogol describes as:
“…[having] a large number of talents…”, “…adept at relating anecdotes…and it would be hard to list all the talents with which nature had endowed Pirogov.”
Pirogov relentlessly pesters the blonde with questions. She ignores his questions and begins to move faster and farther away; Pirogov pursues her.
“His [prey] flew through a side door. Pirogov hesitated for a moment but, acting true to his Russian nature, resolved to press forward.”
She runs into a shabby building and Pirogov follows behind. He enters a workshop and discovers that she is married to a German tinsmith. The husband is drunk and livid and tells Pirogov to “Get out!”
Thus far this woman has not displayed any interest whatsoever and she is married to an angry, drunk German. But no problem! Pirogov returns to the shop the next day and spots the blonde:
“Aha, good day my darling! Don’t you recognize me! You little minx what lovely eyes you have!”
She still shows no interest. His plan isn’t working so he requests that the tinsmith build him some spurs, a ploy to see the blonde again. As he leaves he squeezes her arm, but still no luck. It didn’t make sense to him:
“He could not understand how anyone could be able to resist him; especially since his personal charms and exalted rank gave him every right to attention.”
Pirogov endures blow after blow, but he still continues his pursuit of the woman despite all the obstacles.
Persistence Is Greatly Rewarded
He then figured out how to get her. He took note that she:
“…for all her comeliness, was very stupid. All the same, stupidity is a great asset for a pretty wife.”
To get this girl, he needed to exploit her ‘greatest’ asset: stupidity. Pirogov strolls by the workshop one day and spies the blonde in the window. He calls out to her:
“Say is your husband at home?’
“He is” answered the blonde.
“And when is he not at home?”
“He’s not at home on Sundays” said the foolish blonde.
“We must turn that to our advantage.” And the following Sunday, like a bolt from the blue, he appeared before the object of his desire.
Jackpot! He then begins to dance with her and kisses her. They embrace. Just then the German and his pals walk in. They are livid and beat Pirogov senseless.
Pirogov is at first enraged by his beating as no officer of his rank should be ever subjected to that. He is determined to take revenge, but his mind is changed by eating pastries, reading a reactionary newspaper and spending an evening dancing at a party.
Perception Is Greater Than Reality
Pirogov could have reacted differently and followed the path of Piskaryov, but he chose not to. For you see:
“Both [characters] have been deceived by the surface of reality, but the blows of disillusionment are far more deadly for the idealist than for the smug, self satisfied philistine; indeed for an artist, failure is to perceive discord between outward form and inner content betrays an aesthetic which is essentially flawed.”
Piskaryov believed his reality to be much more horrific than it really was. His unwavering belief in idealism was what brought about his demise. Pirogov suffered too, but his suffering was physical; not spiritual like Piskaryov’s. Pirogov didn’t have much invested in this woman and was able to brush off such trivial matters. At the party, he then regales the party goers with his thoughts, essentially serving as a platform for Gogol:
“What an amazing world we live in!” I thought to myself the other day as I walked along Nevsky musing over these two stories: ‘How strange, how inscrutable the games fate plays with us! Do we ever attain the object of our desires? Do we ever achieve that to which all our efforts seem to be directed? Everything happens the wrong way round. To one Providence has given a pair of splendid horses, and he rides along indifferently, oblivious of their beauty, while another, whose heart is fired with a passion for horses, is forced to go on foot and must content himself with licking his tongue at the handsome beasts which gallop past. One fellow has an excellent cook, but, alas, is unlucky enough to possess such a small mouth that it cannot accommodate more than two pieces of meat, while another has a big mouth…but, alas, has to content himself with some sort of German concoction of potatoes. What strange games fate plays with us!”
What strange games fate plays with us indeed. There are many things in this world that occur that often make no sense. Like the examples Pirogov lays out, sometimes people just get the short end of the stick in life. We can choose to let these things affect our outlook, or we can change our perception of these events to have a more positive outlook.
Read More: Life Lessons From Niccolò Machiavelli