Nevsky Prospect by Nikolai Gogol, 1835
The magic trick:
A symmetrical story structure that finds the narrator describing the setting both at the beginning and the end of the text
Welcome to Petersburg, Russia of the 1830s. It’s kind of a scary place. We’re going to be here all week, though, thanks to Nikolai Gogol, whose stories are always insightful, always funny and incredibly modern and relevant.
“Nevsky Prospect” is a perfect place to start as it finds Gogol showing off all of his magic tricks all at once. We have the narrator addressing the reader in the second person with the main narratives tucked within layers within layers. We have the sense of outrage over society’s ills mixed with laugh-out-loud funny characters and situations.
The showcase magic trick lies in the descriptions of Nevsky Prospect that bookend the two narratives at the heart of the story. Our narrator spends a lot of time introducing us to the scene. He’s so amazed by the scene and the culture and wants so badly for you the reader to share in his passion. Ah, but the conclusion is a little different. After recounting the two men’s stories our narrator sees Nevsky Prospect in a much darker light. Everything is tainted. All that is good is a lie hiding the evil beneath.
So we get the narrator’s fairly reasonable criticism of the society, but maybe more importantly we see the folly in the narrator. The format has doubled down on the social commentary. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.
There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. What does this street – the beauty of our capital – not shine with! I know that not one of its pale and clerical inhabitants would trade Nevsky Prospect for anything in the world. Not only the one who is twenty-five years old, has an excellent mustache and a frock coat of an amazing cut, but even the one who has white hair sprouting on his chin and a head as smooth as a silver dish, he, too, is enchanted with Nevsky Prospect. And the ladies! Oh, the ladies find Nevsky Prospect still more pleasing. And who does not find it pleasing? The moment you enter Nevsky Prospect, it already smells of nothing but festivity.