Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

When Nikolai Gogol's story ‘‘The Overcoat’’ appeared as part of his multi-volume Collected Works in 1842, Gogol's prestige amongst the contentious Russian literary critics of the day was relatively secure. It was a time of rigid censorship and sometimes vindictive reviews, but Gogol had already won the support of powerful allies, including the famous (though recently deceased) poet Alexander Pushkin and prominent critic Vissarion Belinsky. More importantly perhaps, the Czar himself seemed to look favorably on Gogol's work. In fact, Gogol's harshest critic may have been Gogol himself. Halfway through a self-imposed twelve-year exile from Russia, he was beginning a period of intense self-doubt and spiritual uncertainty that would last for the remaining ten years of his life.

‘‘The Overcoat’’ and most of Gogol's other works have enjoyed both critical and popular success in Russia and elsewhere since their first appearance. Following Belinsky's interpretation, Gogol came to be seen as an originator of Russia's naturalist school of literature. As distinct from a rhetorical or romantic tradition epitomized by Gogol's friend and mentor Pushkin, Belinsky saw in Gogol's work a new approach emphasizing the realistic depiction of social problems as a means to foster progress. This naturalist approach would have tremendous influence on Russian novelists in the second half of the nineteenth century (e.g., Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoy), and then be elevated in the Soviet era to the status of state doctrine—"Socialist Realism.''

Belinsky and other readers of "The Overcoat'' in Gogol's day believed that the author displayed deep sympathy for the story's beleaguered main character and that he hoped to inspire reform on behalf of poor clerks and others. When Gogol appeared to espouse different ideas in his 1847 Selected Passages, Belinsky was especially shocked and disappointed: "Why, if you had made an attempt on my life,’’ he wrote to Gogol,"even then I would not have hated you more than I do for these shameful lines.’’ Belinsky theorized that Gogol's personality somehow contained two separate people: one was a brilliant artist who served the highest humanitarian and political ideas, and the other was a philosopher who, lacking basic intelligence and decency, deserved to be ignored.

Subsequent critics have sought alternatives to Belinsky's ‘‘Two Gogols’’ theory, but most have addressed questions pertaining to which political beliefs are expressed in Gogol's writing, what degree of sympathy he shows for his characters, and whether or not Gogol himself was rational and coherent.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of Russian writers and intellectuals called the "Symbolists'' suggested a new way of understanding Gogol's work. Pointing to the frequent appearance of the "half-fantastic" in Gogol's writing, the Symbolists believed that Gogol was not concerned with depicting external reality or political issues. Rather, they saw his stories as symbolic portraits of internal psychological struggles. Akaky's overcoat, for example, could represent a mask enabling the character to disguise his spiritual destitution. The views of these symbolist writers, however, were not well received by Soviet Marxist literary critics, and soon the only interpretations published in Russia described Gogol as a politically engaged social realist.

On the international scene—particularly in Western Europe and America—Gogol's work has continued to receive a great deal of critical attention and diverse readings. More recent scholars have tended to see more ambivalence expressed in Gogol's work toward characters from the lower classes, like Akaky Akakievich, and to find in his stories suggestions of the conservative religious views he held late in his life. Gogol's work is seen as a major influence on the twentieth-century Austrian writer, Franz Kafka. Early in his career, the American/Russian-expatriate author Vladimir Nabokov devoted himself to writing a major study of Gogol. Gogol's high literary reputation is secure, with his writing seen today as an early inspiration for literary modernism and for the short story form itself.

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