In which a gluttonous philosophy student has an unfortunate series of encounters with a most determined witch.
First published in 1835
Available online at Project Gutenberg (Claud Field, translator)
The tone of this story is odd. That’s not a negative criticism. After all, Gogol was working in a literary tradition quite different from that of the English-speaking world. He was also a satirist, the author of Dead Souls and The Inspector General, and there’s more that a touch of this in “The Vij.”
Certainly this story begins satirically. Gogol introduces us to the various types of students in Kiev: grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers, and theologians. After sketching the traits of the different factions, Gogol shows them as united by their twin loves: chow and fistfights. This segues into a description of the entire student body on the move in July, fanning out across the countryside and cadging food and lodging as they work their ways home for the summer holidays.
During one such trip, the philosopher Thomas Brutus* becomes lost on the steppes and is forced to take shelter at the farmhouse of an old lady. Although this initially seems like a stroke of good fortune, Brutus soon learns that it comes at a price when the old lady bursts in on him:
“He jumped up in order to rush out, but she placed herself before the door, fixed her glowing eyes upon him, and again approached him. The philosopher tried to push her away with his hands, but to his astonishment he found that he could neither lift his hands nor move his legs, nor utter an audible word. He only heard his heart beating, and saw the old woman approach him, place his hands crosswise on his breast, and bend his head down. Then with the agility of a cat she sprang on his shoulders, struck him on the side with a broom, and he began to run like a race-horse, carrying her on his shoulders.”
Under a magic spell, Brutus flees into the night, the old lady astride his shoulders. He runs for hours, until nearly dawn. In desperation, he attempts an exorcism as he speeds along, and eventually gains the upper hand. Brutus is able to get out from under the witch, and flails her with a stick he finds nearby. He thrashes her until she collapses, at which point it’s bright enough that he can see what she actually looks like:
“He knelt beside her, and looked in her eyes. The dawn was red in the sky, and in the distance glimmered the gilt domes of the churches of Kieff. Before him lay a beautiful maiden with thick, dishevelled hair and long eyelashes. Unconsciously she had stretched out her white, bare arms, and her tear-filled eyes gazed at the sky.”
Brutus’s reaction to this turn of events is to scarper back to Kiev. He isn’t there long, however, before certain news reaches him:
“About this time a report spread about that the daughter of a rich colonel, whose estate lay about fifty versts distant from Kieff, had returned home one day from a walk in a quite broken-down condition. She had scarcely enough strength to reach her father’s house; now she lay dying, and had expressed a wish that for three days after her death the prayers for the dead should be recited by a Kieff seminarist named Thomas Brutus.”
(Note that Brutus is no longer a philosopher. Versatile guy!)
It spoils nothing to state that this is actually the witch that Brutus had the run-in with; he doesn’t connect those dots for quite some time, however.
Much of the dark comedy in the second half derives from (a) Brutus’s attempts to evade the Cossacks who’ve been charged with keeping an eye on him, and (b) the attempts of the only sorta-dead witch to wreak revenge from beyond the grave. The end result is an amalgam of Brueghel-like rusticity and Bosch-like monstrosity.
It occurred to me while reading this story how cut off we are from Gogol’s world, and how easy it is for us to look at “The Vij” with 21st-century eyes rather than 19th-century ones.
For example, steeped as we are in Freud and Kinsey, it’s a simple thing for us to tag “The Vij” as purely an expression of sexual anxiety. After all, the witch wants to ride Brutus (and has ridden others, it’s later revealed). In addition, she’s shown to have been highly attractive in her actual form. The underlying symbolism seems plain.
We should be careful in rushing to such judgements, however. Perhaps Gogol was a heterosexual man who had deep-seated problems in dealing with the opposite sex, but by all accounts he was what we would now call an asexual. In the end, all we have are his writings and the accounts of his contemporaries, none of which are enough to draw a conclusion from.
Similarly, it’s hard to say what Gogol was getting at in writing “The Vij.” It is neither pure satire nor pure horror, and, in fact, I find that these two elements vitiate each other — the satire isn’t highly satirical, and the horror isn’t especially horrific (the latter despite Edmund Wilson‘s characterization of “The Vij” as “one of the most terrific things of its kind ever written.”).
Still, I do recommend “The Vij” as an example of supernatural fiction that’s quite different from what we’re used to. And no matter how it’s classified, or what the author’s intentions were, the story is extremely entertaining.
A final note: In 1960, “The Vij” provided the basis for the Italian film La Maschera del Demonio, AKA Black Sunday. It’s a loose adaptation at best — only the Russian setting is retained — but the film makes up for this by being absolutely brilliant. It launched the careers of director Mario Bava, the Orson Welles of Italian horror cinema, and Barbara Steele, who throughout her acting career managed to balance sexiness and menace. An influence on both Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton, I cannot recommend Black Sunday highly enough.
*The name of the main character is translated as “Khoma Brut” in some versions of the story.