Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976
Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” was the inspiration for many major nineteenth century Russian authors. The impact of this work was summarized by Fyodor Dostoevski in a now-famous statement: “We all come from under Gogol’s ’Overcoat.’” Gogol’s fiction, his life (particularly in his social origins), his orientation toward Russian society, and his literary aspirations anticipated experiences common to many of his literary followers.
Gogol’s life was aristocratic to the core, containing at the same time many of the most venerable and lackluster elements of this dominant Russian social class. He was the son of a Ukrainian noble who enjoyed some prestige and little wealth. Gogol early abandoned any thought of leading a bucolic life. Instead, he moved to St. Petersburg, the capital of czarist Russia, and attended a school designed to prepare him for a profession in the department of justice. A career in the Russian civil service was entirely in keeping with one of the most esteemed values of the nobility, service to society. Gogol hoped to achieve this goal as a bureaucrat rather than as an agronomist.
After less than a year, however, Gogol became intolerant of the tedium of the bureaucratic life and began to write. He led a dissident and cavalier life, wrote an epic poem and, after borrowing money from his mother, published his own work. The poem was unsuccessful. Distraught, Gogol purchased all the copies he could locate and burned them. Ironically, he framed his literary life with the burning of his work. Shortly before his death, he spent an entire evening casually tossing a manuscript of the second part of Myortvye dushi (1842, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887) into a stove.
Disenchanted with St. Petersburg, with his literature, and with his career, Gogol again borrowed from his nearly penniless mother and left Russia for Western Europe. Like other Russian writers who followed, Gogol spent most of his productive life in Western Europe. He died in Russia in 1852. At the time of his death, he had become a religious fanatic, and his death was the result of a grotesque religious fast. Even in his death, he was a model for future writers, such as Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom became religious zealots in their later lives.
Gogol’s published works are relatively few in number. He is best remembered for Dead Souls and for the comedic drama Revizor (pr., pb. 1836; The Inspector General, 1890). The latter was Gogol’s most successful work to appear during his lifetime. Spoofing the Russian bureaucracy, it brought cascades of laughter from the otherwise sober Czar Nicholas I. Of his shorter works, “The Overcoat” is the best known. Although Gogol rejected a career as a Russian bureaucrat, he never deviated from his commitment to the aristocratic ideal of service to society. In fact, age intensified his desire to better Russia, and he became convinced that he was chosen to deliver a great message to his countryfolk.
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol tailors a trenchant and unmistakable, and often repeated, statement. The Russian bureaucracy, once the agent and symbol of enlightenment and change in Russia, had become in Gogol’s time the instrument of oppression and sterility for both those it purported to serve and those who functioned within it. Akakii Akakiievich, possessing neither an inclination toward agriculture nor an ability therein, is a model bureaucrat: loyal and conscientious. He is faceless, too; his days are spent as a copier of government documents, each day exactly like all the others. Underpaid and unpraised, Akakii Akakiievich is like all of his bureaucratic contemporaries, the foundation on which the nineteenth century Russian state stands. He rarely comes in contact with the public. His vapid, tedious, and impersonal professional existence eradicates his personal life. Akakii Akakiievich is virtually isolated from society and from his own humanity.
When Akakii Akakiievich’s overcoat is stolen, he is forced into the role of Ivan Q. Public, confronting an irritated and disinterested police magistrate who scolds him for his lack of respect and sends him away and unaided. In the end, Akakii’s death can be attributed as much to the newly acquired knowledge that the Russian bureaucracy is cold and unfeeling as to the loss of his coat.
It was precisely bureaucracy’s icy inability to serve Russian society that forced Gogol to forsake a life as a civil servant. Yet, he could not divorce himself from his own, however poorly practiced, aristocratic ideal to serve society. Unable to serve from within the state, Gogol left Russia for Western Europe; unable to serve as a bureaucrat, Gogol left justice for literature. Service through literature was difficult, and Gogol knew it. This perhaps irreconcilable problem accounts for an aspect of Gogol’s literature that is unique—his humor.
Gogol fashions in “The Overcoat” a literary pattern ideally suited to the needs of Russian writers. The unique Gogolian technique is a mix of scathing satire and gentle humor; such a combination was conspicuously missing in Russian literature. While Dead Souls remains the author’s humorous magnum opus, “The Overcoat” contains ample evidence of Gogol’s gift of satire. Dostoevski’s dictum is correct—Russian literature did come from Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” No Russian writer ever duplicated Gogol’s sense of humor. Maybe other Russian authors did not need to, but when Gogol lined his works with humor, he was shielding himself from what he considered to be the insanities and the difficulties of his literary mission.
The difficulty, or even the impossibility, of service to Russia is one message contained in “The Overcoat.” Gogol, like all premier writers, identified a social problem the resolution of which became a mission for future Russian authors. After Gogol, writers did not hesitate to challenge the inadequacy of the Russian state and society even when, as was frequently the case, they were censored or incarcerated for doing so.