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"The Structure of Gogol's The Overcoat,'" translated by Beth Paul and Muriel Nesbitt in Russian Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1963, pp. 377-99.
[In this essay, which was first published in Russian in 1919, Eichenbaum examines the narrative devices of "The Overcoat" and discusses their relationship to the structure of the story. He argues that the comic and pathetic elements work together to create a grotesque style.]
The structure of a short story depends in large part on the kind of role which the author's personal tone plays in it, i.e., on whether this tone is an organizing principle, creating more or less the illusion of a narrative in the first person, or whether it serves only as a formal tying together of events, and thus occupies an auxiliary position. The primitive short story and the novel of adventure have nothing to do with the first-person narrative, nor do they need it because their whole interest and their whole movement are determined by a rapid and diverse succession of events and situations. The interlacement of motifs and their motivation—such is the organic principle of a primitive short story. This is also true as regards the comic short story—its basis is an anecdote, in itself full of comical connotations, quite apart from the first-person narrative.
Completely different does the composition become if the subject as such, the interweaving of themes supported by their motivation, ceases to play an organizing role, i.e., if the narrator, in one way or another, puts himself in the foreground, as though making use of the subject only to interweave separate stylistic devices. The center of gravity is transferred from the theme (which is here reduced to a minimum) to the narrative devices, the most important comic role is given to puns, which are now restricted to a simple playing on words, now to developing small anecdotes. Comical effects are achieved by the manner of narration. Therefore, for the study of such a genre of composition, those very minutiae which are scattered throughout the exposition prove to be important—so that if they are removed the structure of the story disintegrates. In this connection two kinds of comic tale may be distinguished: (1) the narrative and (2) the creative. The first is limited to jokes, plays on meaning, and so on; the second introduces devices of verbal mimicry and gesture, inventing special comical ways of speech, sound effects, whimsical word order, etc. The first gives the impression of an even flow of speech; with the second, it is often as if an actor were concealed in back, so that the tale takes on the character of play-acting, and the composition is determined not by a simple series of jokes, but by a certain system of varied gestures mimetically articulated.
Many of Gogol's short stories or their separate parts present interesting material for an analysis of this kind of tale. Composition for Gogol is not determined by plot—plot for him is always scanty—rather, there is no plot, but only some comic situation (and sometimes even it is not in itself comic at all), serving, as it were, only as an impetus or pretext for the elaboration of comic devices. Thus "The Nose" is developed from a single anecdotal event; "The Wedding" and The Inspector General also grow out of a specific, fixed, existent situation; Dead Souls is put together by means of a simple accumulation of separate scenes, unified only by the travels of Chichikov. It is known that the necessity of always having something resembling a plot hampered Gogol. P. V. Annenkov tells about him: "He used to say that for the success of a tale and in general of a narrative it is enough that the author describe a room and a street which are familiar to him." In a letter to Pushkin in 1835 Gogol writes: "Do me a favor, give me a plot of some kind, any kind, ridiculous or serious, but a purely Russian anecdote . . . Do me a favor, give me a plot; in spirit it [i.e., the work he has in hand] is to be a comedy in five acts and, I swear, funnier than the devil!" He often begs for anecdotes; thus, in a letter to Prokopovich (1837): "Ask Jules (i.e., Annenkov) most particularly to write to me. He does have things to write about. Surely, some kind of anecdote must have occurred in the office."
On the other hand, Gogol was distinguished by his special skill in reading his own works, as many of his contemporaries attest. In this connection it is possible to single out two chief methods in his reading: the one—a poignant, melodious declamation; the other—a special manner of performance, a mimetic narrative, which nonetheless, as I. S. Turgenev pointed out, never passed into a theatrical reading of roles. The account of I. I. Panaev is well known, about how Gogol surprised all those present, changing directly from conversation to play-acting, so that at first his belching and the corresponding phrases were thought to be real. Prince D. A. Obolensky recalls: "Gogol read masterfully: not only did his every word come out clearly, but, often changing the intonation of his speech, he varied it and compelled the listener to assimilate the most minute shadings of thought. I remember how he began in a hollow and somehow funereal voice: 'Why depict the poverty of our life and our melancholy imperfection, . . . and here we are again in the wilderness, again we have come upon an out-of-the-way corner.' After these words Gogol raised his head, shook his hair, and continued now in a loud and triumphant voice: 'But what a wilderness and what a corner!' Here he began the magnificent description of Tentenikov's village which, in Gogol's reading, came out as if it were written in a kind of metric form . . . I was struck most especially by the unusual harmony of his speech. Here I saw how beautifully Gogol took advantage of the local names of grasses and flowers, which he collected so carefully. Sometimes he obviously introduced some sonorous word solely for its harmonious effect." I. I. Panaev describes Gogol's reading in the following manner: "Gogol read inimitably. Among contemporary men of letters Ostrovsky and Pisemsky are considered the best readers of their works; Ostrovsky reads without any dramatic affectations, with the greatest simplicity, lending meanwhile the proper shading to each character; Pisemsky reads like an actor—he, so to speak, acts out his play in reading . . . Gogol's reading was somehow a mean between these two methods. He read more dramatically than Ostrovsky, and with a great deal more simplicity than Pisemsky." Even dictation was transferred by Gogol into a special kind of declamation. Of this, P. V. Annenkov recounts: "Nicholas Vassilevich, opening his notebook in front of him, . . . would enter into it completely, and would begin to dictate regularly, solemnly, and with such feeling and fullness of expression that the chapters of the first volume of Dead Souls acquired a special coloration in my memory. This resembled a peaceful, evenly flowing inspiration, such as is usually produced by the profound contemplation of an object. N. V. would await my last word patiently and would continue the new sentence in the same voice, imbued with concentrated feeling and thought . . . Never yet had the pathos of dictation, I remember, reached such heights with Gogol, preserving all artistic naturalness, as in this place (the description of Plyushkin's garden). Gogol even rose from his armchair . . . and accompanied his dictation with a proud, somewhat imperious, gesture."
Altogether this indicates that the basis of the Gogolian text is the first-person narrative, and that his text is composed of the presentation of live speech and verbalized emotion. Moreover: this narrative has the tendency not simply to relate, not simply to talk, but to reproduce words mimetically and by means of articulation, with sentences chosen and joined not according to the principle of logical speech alone, but rather on the principle of expressive speech, in which a special role belongs to articulation, mimicry, sound-gestures, etc. Hence the appearance in his language of the semantics of sound: the casing of the verbal sound, its acoustic characteristic becomes significant in Gogol's speech, independently of logical or factual meaning. Articulation and its acoustic effect are brought out into the foreground, as an expressive device. That is why he loves titles, surnames, given names, etc.—This gives scope for this kind of articulated play. Furthermore, his speech is often accompanied by gestures (see above) and passes into a state of creativity, which is also noticeable in its written form. The testimony of contemporaries points to these peculiarities also. D. A. Obolensky recalls: "At the station I found a book of fines and read in it a rather ridiculous grievance of some gentleman or other. Having heard it, Gogol asked me: 'Now what do you think, who is that gentleman? What are the man's habits and character?' Truly, I don't know,' I answered.—'Well, I will tell you.'—And here he first started to describe in the funniest and most original way, the appearance of that gentleman, then he told me all about his career as a civil servant, even acting out certain episodes of his life. I remember, that I laughed like mad, but he went through it all with complete seriousness. Thereupon he told me that at one time he had lived with N. M. Yazikov (the poet) and in the evening, going to bed, they used to amuse themselves with descriptions of different characters and would invent suitable names for each of them." About surnames in Gogol, O. N. Smirnova reports: "He gave an extraordinary amount of attention to the names of his characters; he looked for them everywhere; they became typical; he found them on posters (the name of the hero Chichikov in volume I was found on a house—formerly there were no numbers, but
only the surname of the owner), on signs; beginning the second volume of Dead Souls, he found the name of General Betrishchev in a book in a postal station and said to one of his friends that at the sight of that name, there appeared before him the general's figure and his grey moustache." The special attitude of Gogol to given names and surnames and his inventiveness in this sphere have already been noted in literature—for example in the book of Prof. I. Mandelshtam:
To the period in which Gogol is still amusing himself belong, in the first place, the invention of names, composed apparently without regard to 'laughter through tears' . . . Pupopuz, Golopuz, Dovgochkhun, Golopupenko, Sverbyguza, Kizyakolupenko, Pereperchikha, Krutotryshchenko, Pecherytsia, Zakrutyguba, etc. This manner of concocting amusing names remained, however, with Gogol even later: Yaichnitsa ('The Wedding') and Neuvazhai Koryto, and Belobryushkova, and Bashmachkin ('The Overcoat'), the last name, in addition, providing an occasion for a play on words. Sometimes he selects existing names on purpose: Akakii Akakievich, Trifilii, Dula, Varakhasiv, Pavsikakhii, Vakhtisii, and so on . . . In other instances he uses names as puns (the indicated method has been used from time immemorial by all humorous writers. Molière amuses his audience with names such as Pourceugnac, Diafoiras, Purgon, Macroton, Desfonandres, Vilebrequin; Rabelais to an infinitely greater extent uses unbelievable combinations of sounds, which provide material for laughter just because they have a remote resemblance to words, like Solmigonbinoys, Trinquamelie, Trouillogan, and so on) [On the Character of Gogol's Style. A Chapter in the History of the Russian Literary Language, 1902].
And so plot in Gogol has only an external significance, and because of this, is in itself static; not without reason does The Inspector General end with a mute scene, in relation to which everything that went before is, as it were, only a preparation. The real dynamism, and thence also the composition of his things, lies in the construction of the tale, in a playing with language. His characters are petrified poses. Above them, in the form of stage manager and real hero, rules the ever merry and ever playful spirit of the artist himself.
On the basis of these general propositions about composition and relying on the given material about Gogol, we shall try to clarify the fundamental structure stratum of "The Overcoat." This tale is especially interesting for this type of analysis, because in it a purely comical tale, with all the modes of verbal play peculiar to Gogol, is united with a declamation full of pathos, forming, as it were, a second stratum. This second stratum was taken by our critics as the basis, and all the complex "labyrinth of links" (L. Tolstoy's expression) resulted in a certain idea, traditionally repeated down to our own day, even in "investigations" of Gogol. Gogol might have answered such critics and scholars in the same way as L. Tolstoy answered the critics of Anna Karenina: "I congratulate them and can assure them boldly qu'ils en savent plus long que moi. "
First let us examine separately the basic narrative devices in "The Overcoat," then let us trace the system by which they are linked.
A significant role, especially in the beginning, is played by puns of various kinds. They are constructed either on similarity of sounds, or on an etymological play on words, or on a hidden absurdity. The first sentence of the tale in the rough draft was supplied with a pun on sounds: "In the department of assessment and collections" (sborov)—which, incidentally, is sometimes called the department of baseness and nonsense (zdorov)." In the second rough redaction a note was added to this pun indicating a further play on it:
But may the readers not think that this name was actually based on some kind of truth—not at all. Here the whole matter lies only in the etymological similarity of words. Owing to this the department of metallurgical (gornykh) and salt (solianykh) affairs is called the department of bitter (gorkykh) and salty (solenykh) affairs. Many things sometimes enter the minds of civil servants in the time left between service and whist.
This pun did not enter into the final version. Puns of the etymological variety were special favorites of Gogol and for them he often devised special surnames. Thus, the surname of Akakii Akakievich was at first Tishkevich, which was not in itself conducive to puns; next Gogol wavered between two other forms—Bashmachkevich (cf. Sobakevich) and Bashmakov—and finally settled on the form of Bashmachkin. The change from Tishkevich to Bashmachkin was prompted, of course, by the desire to create an occasion for puns, the selection of the form Bashmachkin can be explained both as a predilection for diminutive suffixes, a characteristic of the Gogolian style, and a more distinctive expressiveness (the power of imitative pronunciation) of this form, creating its own type of sound-gesture. The pun, created with the help of this surname, is complicated by comical devices, which give it the appearance of complete seriousness: "From this it can be clearly inferred that it had once upon a time originated from the Russian word bashmak, to wit, a shoe. But when, at what precise date, and under what circumstances the metamorphosis took place, must forever remain a mystery. His father, grandfather, and, why, even his brother-in-law (the pun is imperceptibly carried to absurdity—a frequent device of Gogol's), as well as all the rest of the Bashmachkins, always walked about in boots having their soles repaired no more than three times a year." The pun is, as it were, destroyed by this type of commentary—all the more so, since details which are not at all connected with it (e.g., the soles) are introduced incidentally; in reality there emerges a complex, as it were, dual pun. The device of leading into absurdity or an illogical combination of words is often met with in Gogol, and it is usually masked by strictly logical syntax, giving thereby the impression that it is unintentional; thus, in the words about Petrovich, who, "in spite of the disadvantage of having only one eye and pock marks all over his face, carried on a rather successful trade mending the trousers and frock coats of government clerks and other gentlemen." Here the logical absurdity is further masked by an abundance of details, drawing attention aside; the pun is not put on display, but on the contrary, is concealed in every way, and thence its comical strength increases. One encounters purely etymological puns rather frequently: "calamities which beset the lives not only of titular, but also of privy, actual, court, and any other councillors, even those who give no counsel to any man, nor take any from any one, either."
Such are the chief forms of Gogolian puns in "The Overcoat." Let us add to this another device, that of sound effects. Gogol's love of designations and names which have no meaning has been mentioned above; such "meaningless" words give scope for an original semantics of sound. Akakii Akakievich—that is a definite selection of sounds; not without reason was the giving of this name accompanied by a whole anecdote, and in the rough draft Gogol makes a significant remark: "Of course it might have been possible, in a certain way, to avoid the frequent juxtaposition of the letter k, but the circumstances were such that it was impossible to do this." In addition, the meaning of the sound in this name was prepared for by a whole series of other names, possessing also a special expressiveness of sound and evidently selected, "searched out," for this purpose; in the rough draft this selection was somewhat different:
- Yevvul, Mokkii, Yevlogii;
- Varakhasii, Dula, Trefilii; (Varadat, Farmufii)
- Pavsikakhii, Frumentii.
In the finished form:
- Mokii, Sossii, Khozdazat;
- Trifilii, Dula, Varakhasii; (Varadat, Varukh)
- Pavsikakhii, Vakhtisii, and Akakii
In comparison of these two tables, the second gives the impression, as far as articulation is concerned, of greater selectiveness, of an original sound-system. The comic sound effect of these names is not contained simply in their strangeness (strangeness in itself cannot be comic), but in the selection, which prepares for the comic jarring monotony of the name Akakii, which, added to Akakievich, sounds in this form more like a nickname, concealing in itself the semantics of sound. The comic is further increased by the fact that the names preferred by the mother do not in any way depart from the general scheme. The result is, on the whole, an original mimicry of articulation, a sound-gesture. Interesting in this connection is still another passage in "The Overcoat," in which a description of Akakii Akakievich's appearance is given: "And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk—a clerk whom one could hardly style very remarkable: quite low of stature, somewhat rusty-hued of hair, even somewhat purblind, at first glance; with a bald patch over his forehead, with wrinkles along both cheeks, and his face of that complexion which is usually called hemorrhoidal." The last word is so placed as to make its phonetic shape assume special emotionally expressive force and is perceptible as a comic sound-gesture independently of meaning. It is prepared, on the one hand, by the device of rhythmic accretion, and on the other, by the concordant endings of several words, attuning the ear to the perception of sound impressions (ryabovat—ryzhevat—podslepovat) and therefore it sounds grandiose, fantastic, beyond and connection with meaning. It is interesting that in the rough draft this sentence was much simpler: "and so, in this department there worked a civil servant, not very noticeable in appearance, short, bald, pock-marked, ruddy, even it seemed a bit on the blind side." In the final form this sentence is not so much a description of appearance, as a reproduction of it in an imitative verbal gesture: The words are chosen and placed in a certain order not on the principle of character delineation, but on the principle of sound-meaning. The internal vision remains untouched (nothing is more difficult, I think, than to draw Gogolian heroes);—from the entire sentence, there remains in memory, more than anything else, an impression of a kind of progression of sounds, ending in the rolling, and, logically, almost senseless, but in its articulative expressiveness the unusually powerful word—hemorrhoidal. Here is fully applicable the observation of D. A. Obolensky that Gogol would sometimes "introduce a sonorous word of some kind, entirely for a harmonious effect." The whole sentence has the appearance of a complete whole, a kind of a system of sound-gestures for the realization of which the words were selected. That is why these words, like logical units, like tokens of concepts, are almost intangible—they are distributed and collected anew according to the principle of the sound of speech. This is one of the remarkable effects of Gogol's language. Some of his sentences have the effect of sound-inscriptions, so much are articulation and acoustics brought out to the forefront. The most commonplace word is sometimes presented by him in such a manner that its logical or material meaning fades away while sound-meaning is put in its place, and the simple name receives the appearance of a nickname: "He ran across a policeman on duty who, keeping his halberd near at hand, was shaking some tobacco from a hornlet into a calloused fist," or: "Might even while we're about it, sir, and seeing as how it's now the fashion, get a silver-plated clasp [lapki pod apliké] for the collar." The last case is an obvious game with sound-effects. (The lpk is repeated as plk.)
Gogol's speech has no median—no simple psychological or material concepts logically united into ordinary sentences. The distinctively imitative sound-speech is changed to a tense intonation, which shapes the sentences. His works are often constructed on this kind of change. In "The Overcoat" there is a vivid example of such an intonational influence, a declamatory period of rhetorical pathos:
Even at those hours when all the light has faded from the grey St. Petersburg sky, and the Civil Service folk have taken their fill of food and dined each as best he could, according to his salary and his personal taste; when all have had their rest after the departmental scraping of pens, after all the rush and hustle, after their own and other people's indispensable business had been brought to a conclusion, and anything else which restless man imposes on himself of his own free will had been done, and even much more than is necessary.
An enormous sentence, building up the intonation to great tenseness at the end, is resolved with unexpected simplicity: ". . . in short, even while every government official in the capital was doing his best to enjoy himself, Akakii Akakievich made no attempt to woo the fair goddess of mirth and jollity." One receives the impression of a comic disparity between syntactical tenseness of intonation, beginning obscurely and mysteriously, and its resolution in meaning. This impression is further increased by the combination of words, as if expressly contradicting the syntactical character of the period: little hats, a pretty girl, sipping tea from glasses with penny biscuits; finally, the anecdote about Falkonet's monument brought up in passing. This contradiction or disparity has such an effect on the words themselves that they become strange, enigmatic, sounding unusual, astonishing the ear, as if dismembered or thought up by Gogol for the first time. There is also in "The Overcoat" a different kind of declamation, penetrating unexpectedly the general punning style—sentimentally melodramatic; it is the celebrated "humane" passage which has been so fortunate in Russian criticism that from an accessory artistic device it has become the "idea" of the whole story:
"Leave me alone, gentlemen. Why do you pester me?" And something strange was implied in the words and in the voice in which they were pronounced. In it could be heard something so pitiable that one young man . . . And for a long time afterwards, in the midst of gayest moments, there would appear before him the little office worker with the bald spot on his brow . . . And in these penetrating words rang other words . . . And he would cover his face with his hand . . . ,
etc. The rough drafts do not contain this passage—it comes later and undoubtedly belongs to the second stratum, complicating the purely anecdotal style of the original drafts with elements of pathetic declamation.
Gogol allows his characters in "The Overcoat" to speak very little, and as always with him, their speech is molded in a special way, so that, in spite of individual differences, it is always stylized, and never produces the impression of everyday speech, as does, for example, Ostrovsky's dialogue. (Not without reason did Gogol read differently.) The speech of Akakii Akakievich belongs to the general system of Gogolian "sound-speech" and of mimetic articulation. It is especially constructed and furnished with a commentary: "It might be as well to explain at once that Akakii mostly talked in prepositions, adverbs, and lastly, such parts of speech as have no meaning whatsoever." The speech of Petrovich, as opposed to the fragmentary articulation of Akakii Akakievich, is condensed, severe, hard, and it acts by way of contrast; there are no ordinary nuances in it—everyday intonation is not appropriate to it; it is as "contrived" and as conditional as the speech of Akakii Akakievich. As always in Gogol (cf. "Old Fashioned Landowners," "The Tale of How . . . ," Dead Souls, and his plays) these sentences stand outside of time, outside the moment—motionless and once and for all: language in which puppets might talk. Equally contrived is Gogol's own language—his narration. In "The Overcoat," this narration is stylized to resemble a special kind of careless, naive chatter. As if "unnecessary" details leapt out involuntarily: ". . . on his right stood the godfather, Ivan Ivanovich Yeroshkin, a most admirable man, who was a head clerk at the Supreme Court, and the god mother, Arina Semyonovna Byelobrushkina, the wife of the district police inspector, a most worthy woman." Or his narration acquires the character of familiar verbosity: "We really ought not to waste much time over this tailor; since, however, it is now the fashion that the character of every person in a story must be delineated fully, then by all means let us have Petrovich, too." The comic device in this instance lies in the fact that after such a declaration the "characterization" of Petrovich consists merely of the remark that he drinks every holiday indiscriminately. The same is repeated concerning his wife:
Having mentioned his wife, we had better say a word or two about her also; but unfortunately, we know very little about her, except that Petrovich had a wife who wore a bonnet, and not a kerchief; there appears to be some doubt as to whether she was good-looking or not but on the whole it does not seem likely that she had very much to boast of in that respect; at any rate, only guardsmen were ever known to peer under her bonnet when meeting her in the street, twitching their moustaches and emitting a curious kind of grunt at the same time.
There is one sentence in which this style of speaking is very sharply marked. "Unfortunately we cannot say where precisely the Civil Servant who was giving the party lived. Our memory is beginning to fail us rather badly and everything in St. Petersburg, all the streets and houses, has become so blurred and mixed up in our head that we find it very difficult indeed to get anything out of it in proper order." If one joins to this sentence all the numerous uses of "some kind of it," "unfortunately very little is known," "nothing is known." "I do not remember," etc., then one gets an idea of the narrative method, which lends the whole story the illusion of its being a real history, told as a fact,
but not known to the teller in every small detail. He willingly disgresses from the main anecdote and introduces at intervals "they say that"; thus, in the beginning, about the petition from some district police captain ("I do not remember of what town"), thus also about Bashmachkin's ancestors, about the tail of the horse of the Falkonet statue, about the titular counselor who was made director, after which he partitioned off a special room for himself and called it "the presence chamber," etc. It is known that the story itself grew out of an "office anecdote" about a poor clerk who lost his gun, for which for a long time he had been saving money: "This anecdote was the first idea for his wonderful tale 'The Overcoat,'" reports P. V. Annenkov. Its original title was "The Tale of a Clerk Who Stole Coats" and the general character of the narrative in the rough drafts is distinguished by an even greater stylization in the guise of careless chatter and familiarity: "Truly, I don't remember his surname," "In its essence it was a kindly beast," etc. In its final form, Gogol somewhat smoothed out this kind of device, garnished the story with puns and anecdotes, but then introduced declamation, complicating thereby the original compositional stratum. A grotesque resulted in which the mimcry of laughter is replaced by mimicry of sorrow, and both the one and the other have the appearance of a game, with a contrived alteration of gestures and intonation.
Let us now trace this change itself with the aim of catching the very manner of linking the separate devices. At the basis of linkage or composition lies the narration, the traits of which are defined above. It has been shown that this narration is not related but acted and declaimed: not a narrator but a performer, almost a comedian, hides behind the printed text of "The Overcoat." What then is the "scenario" of this role, what is its outline?
The very beginning presents in itself a collision, a break—a sharp shift in tone. The business-like introduction ("In the Department") suddenly breaks off, and the epic intonation of the narrator, which might be expected, changes to another tone—one of exaggerated irritation and sarcasm. One gets the impression of improvisation—the original composition immediately gives way to digressions of some kind. Nothing has been said as yet, but an anecdote is already there, carelessly and hastily related ("I don't remember from what town," "some kind of romantic piece of writing.") But after this, the tone noted in the beginning apparently returns. "And so in a certain department there served a certain civil servant.'" However, this new approach to an epic narrative is immediately replaced by the sentence which was discussed above, so contrived, so tonal through and through, that nothing whatever is left of the business-like tale. Gogol steps into his role—and, having concluded this whimsical, amazing selection of words with the grandiose-sounding and almost meaningless word "hemorrhoidal," he closes this passage with a mimetic gesture: "There is nothing we can do about it: it is all the fault of the St. Petersburg climate." A personal tone, with all the devices of Gogolian narration, definitely takes root in the story and assumes the character of a grotesque gesture or grimace. Thereby the transition is already prepared for the pun on the surname and the anecdote about Akakii Akakievich's birth and christening. The business-like sentences closing this anecdote ("It was in this way that he came to be called Akakii," and "Anyway, that is how it all came to pass") produce an impression of playing with the narrative form, and not in vain is there a slight pun concealed in them, giving them the appearance of awkward repetition. There ensues a stream of mockery—in this style the tale continues right up to the sentence: "But never a word did Akakii say to it all . . ." when the comical narrative is suddenly interrupted by a sentimentally melodramatic digression with the characteristic devices of a sentimental style. By means of this device "The Overcoat" is successfully raised from simple anecdote to grotesque. The sentimental and intentionally primitive content of this excerpt (in this the grotesque coincides with melodrama) is conveyed with the aid of a tensely growing intonation, having a solemn, pathetic character (the introductory "ands" and the peculiar word order: "A kind of unseen power . . . and for a long time afterwards . . . he would see . . . And in those pathetic words . . . And the poor young man used to bury his face in his hands, and many a time in his life he would shudder . . .") There results something like the device of "theatrical illusion," when an actor seems suddenly to step out of his role and begins to talk like a human being. (Cf. in The Inspector General: "At whom are you laughing? It's yourselves you're laughing at!" or the famous "It's a tedious world, gentlemen!" "The Tale of How . . .") It is customary with us to take this passage literally—an artistic device, converting a comic short story into a grotesque and preparing a "fantastic" ending, is taken as a sincere intervention of "the soul." If such deception is "a triumph of art," in the words of Karamzin, if the naiveté of the audience may be charming, then for scholarship such naiveté. is altogether not a triumph, because it reveals its helplessness. In this interpretation the entire structure of "The Overcoat" is destroyed, its whole artistic intent. Proceeding on the basic proposition that in a work of art, not a single sentence can be in itself a simple "reflection" of the personal feelings of the author, but is always a construction and a performance, we cannot and have no right to see in such an excerpt anything other than a definite artistic device. The habitual manner of identifying some separate judgment with the psychological content of the author's soul is a false method for scholarship. In this sense the artist's soul, like that of a man experiencing various moods, always remains and must remain outside the limits of his creation. A work of art is always something made, designed, invented—not merely skilful, but also artificial in a good connotation of this word, and therefore there neither is nor can there be a place in it for the reflection of the empiricism of the soul. The skill and artificiality of Gogol's devices in this fragment of "The Overcoat" are most notably revealed in the construction of its clearly melodramatic cadence, in the shape of a primitively sentimental maxim, used by Gogol with the aim of confirming the grotesque:
And the poor young man used to bury his face in his hands and many a time in his life he would shudder when he perceived how much inhumanity there was in man, how much savage brutality lurked beneath the most refined, cultured manners, and, dear Lord, even in the man the world regarded as upright and honourable . . .
The melodramatic episode is used as a contrast to the comic narration. The more skilful the puns, the more pathetic and stylized, of course, in the direction of sentimental primitivism, must be the device which violates the comic game. A seriously meditative form would not provide a contrast and would not be able to communicate a grotesque character to the whole composition at once. It is not surprising, therefore, that immediately after this episode, Gogol returns to what preceded it—now an artificially factual tone, now a carelessly gossipy one, with plays on words, such as: ". . . did he become aware of the fact that he was not in the middle of a line but rather in the middle of the street." Having related how Akakii Akakievich would eat and how he would stop eating when his stomach began to "bulge," Gogol again enters upon declamation, but of a somewhat different sort: "Even at those hours when . . ." etc. Here for the purpose of the same grotesque a "mute," mysteriously serious intonation is used, slowly building up in the form of a colossal period and resolving itself with unexpected simplicity; that which was expected, through the syntactical type of sentence, a balance in the energy of meaning between the protracted ascent ("when . . . , when . . . , when") and the cadence is not realized, for which the very selection of words and expressions has been a preparation. The lack of correspondence between the solemnly serious intonation in itself and the meaningful content is again used as a grotesque device. In place of this new "deception" of the comedian there naturally appears a new play on words concerning counselors, with which the first part of "The Overcoat" closes: "So passed the peaceful life of a man . . . ," etc.
This pattern, noted in the first part, in which the purely anecdotal narrative is interwoven with a melodramatic and solemn declamation, determines indeed the entire composition of "The Overcoat" as a grotesque. The style of the grotesque demands, in the first place, that the described situation or event be contained in a world small to the point of the fantastic, of artificial experiences (as it is both in "Old Fashioned Landowners" and in "The Tale of How . . .") completely cut off from the large reality, from the real fullness of spiritual life, and in the second place, that this be done not with a didactic or satirical intent, but with the aim of giving scope for a playing with reality, for breaking up and freely displacing its elements, so that the usual correlations and connections (psychological and logical) turn out, in this newly constructed world, to be unreal, and each trifle can grow to colossal dimensions. Only against the background of such a style as this does the slightest gleam of real feeling acquire the appearance of something staggering. In the anecdote about the office worker Gogol valued just this fantastically limited, closed-in structure of thoughts, feelings and desires within the narrow boundaries of which the artist is at liberty to exaggerate details and upset the usual proportions of the world. It was on this basis that the sketch of "The Overcoat" was made. Here the point is certainly not in the "insignificance" of Akakii Akakievich nor in a sermon on "humaneness" to one's lowly brother, but in the fact that, having fenced off the whole realm of the story from large reality, Gogol can unite the incompatible, exaggerate the small and minimize the great. In a word, he can play with all the norms and laws of the real life of the spirit. And so indeed he does. The spiritual world of Akakii Akakievich (if only such an expression be permitted) is not insignificant (this has been introduced by our naive and sentimental historians of literature who have been mesmerized by Belinsky), but a fantasy-limited world, his own: "There, in that copying of his, he seemed to see a multifarious (!) and pleasant world of his own . . . Outside this copying nothing seemed to exist for him." This world has its own laws, its own proportions. The new overcoat, according to the laws of his world turns out to be a grandiose event, and Gogol provides a grotesque formula: ". . . for spiritually he was nourished well enough, since his thoughts were full of the great idea of his future overcoat." And again: ". . . as though he was never alone, but some agreeable helpmate had consented to share the joys and sorrows of his life, and this sweet helpmate, this dear wife of his, was no other than the selfsame overcoat with its thick padding of cotton-wool and its strong lining . . ." The small details move to the forefront like Petrovich's toe ". . . thick and hard as the shell of a tortoise," or his snuff box—"with a portrait of some general, though which particular general it was impossible to say, for the place where the face should have been had been poked in by a finger and then pasted over with a square bit of paper." This grotesque hyperbolism unfolds as before against the background of comic narration with puns, ridiculous words and expressions, funny stories, etc.: "They did not buy marten for a fur collar, for as a matter of fact it was rather expensive, but they chose cat fur instead, the best cat they could find in the shop, cat which from a distance could always be mistaken for marten." Or: "What position the Very Important Person occupied and what his job actually was has never been properly ascertained and still remains unknown. Suffice it to say that one Very Important Person had become a Very Important Person only quite recently, and that until then he was quite an unimportant person." Or again:
The story is even told of some titular councillor who, on being made chief of some small office, immediately partitioned off a special room for himself, calling it 'the presence chamber,' and placed two commissionaires in coats with red collars and galloons at the door with instructions to take hold of the door handle and open the door to any person who came to see him, though there was hardly room in 'the presence chamber' for an ordinary writingdesk.
Along with these there are statements "from the author" in the careless tone established in the beginning, behind which a grimace seems concealed: "But perhaps he never even said anything at all to himself. How indeed is one to delve into a man's soul (here also is a kind of word play, if one bears in mind the general treatment of the figure of Akakii Akakievich) and find out what he is thinking about?" (a play on the anecdote, as though it were a question of reality). The death of Akakii Akakievich is related just as grotesquely as his birth—with an alternation of comic and tragic details, with the sudden "At length poor Akakii Akakievich gave up the ghost," with the immediate transition to every kind of trifle (the enumeration of the inheritance: ". . . a bundle of quills, a quire of white Government paper, three pairs of socks, a few buttons that had come off his trousers, and the capote with which the reader has already made his acquaintance.") and finally, with the conclusion in the ordinary style: "Who finally came into all this property, goodness only knows, and I must confess that the author of this story was not sufficiently interested to find out." And after all this—a new melodramatic declamation, as is customary, of course, after the presentation of so sad a scene, taking us back to the "humane" passage:
And St. Petersburg carried on without Akakii, as though he had never lived there. A human being just disappeared and left no trace, a human being whom no one ever dreamed of protecting, who was not dear to anyone, whom no one thought of taking any interest in, who did not attract the attention even of a naturalist who never fails to stick a pin through an ordinary fly to examine it under the microscope . . .
The end of "The Overcoat" is an effective apotheosis of the grotesque, something like the mute scene in The Inspector General Naive scholars, having perceived in the "humane" passage the whole point of the story, stop in perplexity before this unexpected and incomprehensible intrusion of "romanticism" into "realism." Gogol himself prompts them:
But who could have forseen that this was not the last of Akakii Akakievich and that he was destined to be the talk of the town for a few days after his death, as though in recompense for having remained unnoticed all through his life. But so it fell out, and our rather poor story quite unexpectedly acquired a most fantastic ending.
In reality, this ending is not in the least more fantastic or "romantic" than the whole story. On the contrary, there we had a really grotesque fantasy, communicated as a playing with reality; here the story emerges into a world of more usual concepts and facts, but everything is treated in the style of a playing with fantasy. This is a new "deception," a device of the grotesque in reverse:
. . . it [the ghost] suddenly looked round and, stopping dead in its tracks, asked, 'What do you want?' at the same time displaying a fist of a size that was never seen among the living. The police constable said, 'Nothing,' and turned back at once. This ghost, however, was much taller; it had a pair of huge moustachios, and walking apparently in the direction of Obukhov Bridge, it disappeared into the darkness of the night.
The anecdote, developed in the finale, leads away from the "poor history" with its melodramatic episodes. The initial, purely comic, narration returns with all its devices. Together with the moustached ghost the entire grotesquery disappears into the darkness, dissolved in laughter. Just so does Khlestakov vanish in The Inspector General, and the mute scene takes the audience back to the beginning of the play.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663
"The Overcoat" Nikolai Gogol
The following entry presents criticism of Gogol's short story "Shinel'" ("The Overcoat"), first published in 1842 in Sochinenya (The Works of Nikolai Gogol). See also Nos Criticism.
Considered one of Russia's greatest prose stylists, Gogol was an important influence on his country's literature. His short story "The Overcoat" has been deemed by many critics as the greatest story in the Russian language and a key work in the evolution of Russian literature toward realism. A quote long attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, that "We all come from Gogol's 'Overcoat'," has often been employed by critics to summarize the importance of this story to Russian literature. "The Overcoat" epitomizes Gogol's writing style, combining elements of realism, fantasy, comedy, and the grotesque.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Overcoat" tells the story of Akaky Akakyevich, an impoverished government clerk who lives a solitary life. One day he realizes that his winter overcoat has become worn out. He takes it to the tailor to be mended but is told that it cannot be repaired and that he will have to have a new one made. Akaky undergoes extreme deprivation in order to save money for a new overcoat. In the process, the coat begins to take a central role in his life and he begins to view the garment as the key to his future happiness. After he finally acquires the new garment, it is stolen. His calls for help and his subsequent pleas for justice go unheeded, and he falls ill with a fever and dies. After his death a ghost resembling Akaky roams the city stealing overcoats.
Major ThemesGogol's blending of comic, grotesque, realist, and fantastic elements in "The Overcoat" has led to a wide range of opinions concerning the story's themes and the significance of its ending. The work has been interpreted variously as a story of social injustice, as tale of urban alienation and human isolation, and as a love story, with the coat serving as a metaphor for the love interest. The theme of the "little man" against "the system" was a popular one among Russian writers in the nineteenth century, and "The Overcoat" is one of many stories featuring the figure of the impoverished and mistreated government clerk. One significant way in which Gogol's story differs from others of this type, however, is its presentation of the main character. It is unclear whether the reader should feel sympathy for the poor clerk—the typical response toward such characters—or whether one should regard this as ultimately a comic tale with fun being made at Akaky Akakyevich's expense. It is also not precisely clear whether Akaky is victorious against the system. Despite such ambiguity, critics have consistently noted the resonant irony and lyrical power with which Gogol invested this story.
Gogol's contemporaries focused on the lyricism of "The Overcoat" and lauded what they considered the story's ground-breaking social realism which evoked sympathy for the main character (or at least for his situation). Some critics continue to hold the opinion that this is a story of social protest and that Akaky Akakyevich is the quintessential little man. Others, however, find evidence to the contrary. Early twentieth-century critics such as Boris Eichenbaum and Dmitry Chizhevsky became interested in the structure and unique narrative style of the story and in how these aspects affect the overall theme. Eichenbaum argued that Gogol's use of puns, word play, and narrative devices creates a comic and grotesque effect that makes the story a mockery of a social protest. Chizhevsky, in his formalist study, found the story to be about spiritual poverty and the dangers of worldly obsessions and passions. Later scholars have viewed the story from a psychological perspective, asserting that the overcoat symbolizes a mask that enables Akaky to disguise his spiritual destitution. Others have taken a metaphysical approach, interpreting the final loss of the coat and Akaky's futile pleas for help as emblematic of humanity's spiritual desolation in an indifferent cosmos.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9452
"On Gogol's The Overcoat,'" translated by Priscilla Meyer and Steven Rudy, in Dostoevsky & Gogol: Texts and Criticism, edited by Priscilla Meyer and Steven Rudy, Ardis, 1979, pp. 137-60.
[The excerpt below was originally published in Russian in 1938 in the journal Sovremennye zapiski. Here, Chizhevsky looks at the frequent use of the word dazhe, "even," and argues that this textual detail helps establish the narrative style and tone of the story as well as providing a key to interpreting the main theme of "The Overcoat."]
Is it necessary to write more about "The Overcoat"? We all know Gogol's tale from our school days, and if we have later happened to read books and articles about Gogol—whether they were works following the "social approach" typical of Russian literary criticism and Russian literary history or the works of "formalists"—we always find one and the same thing in reading them: "The Overcoat" is one of the steps in Gogol's development as a writer in the direction of realism. Its theme, one of the "insulted and injured," the "poor clerk," is a theme cultivated in more than a hundred Russian stories and tales, for example, in Poor Folk, "A Faint Heart" and other early tales of Dostoevsky, by Gogol himself in "The Diary of a Madman," the theme of Veinberg—
He was a titular councillor,
she—a general's daughter . . .
Critics usually find the central idea of "The Overcoat" in the famous "humane" passage, which comes immediately after the words of Akaky Akakievich, whom the clerks are teasing:
"Leave me alone, why do you insult me?" And something strange was contained in the words and in the voice in which they were pronounced. In it resounded something so evoking of pity that one recently appointed young man who, by the example of the others, was on the verge of permitting himself to laugh at Akaky, suddenly stopped as if transfixed, and from that time on it was as if everything had changed for him and appeared in another form. Some preternatural force alienated him from the comrades he had become acquainted with, having taken them for decent, well-bred people. And long after, at the gayest moments, the short little clerk with the baldspot on top would appear to him with his penetrating words; "Leave me alone, why do you insult me?" and in these penetrating words rang other words: "I am your brother." And the poor young man would cover his face with his hands, and many times later in his life he would shudder, seeing how much inhumanity there is in man . . .
There is no doubt that this passage contains thoughts that are essential for Gogol. But isn't it strange that such a central passage stands at the very beginning of the tale, as though anticipating and making unnecessary all the subsequent development of events? But the tragic story of Akaky Akakievich only begins further on, a story which at first sight one could sooner call tragi-comic and in which such a discriminating connoisseur of the Russian classics as Dostoevsky saw mockery and derision of the hero, whose first human feeling is directed at . . . an overcoat. Did not Gogol spoil the beginning with such a continuation? Did he not weaken its effect? Did he not declare Akaky Akakievich our brother only to laugh at him spitefully later?
Such a strange disjunction in the tale's composition forces us to seek the meaning Gogol placed in it elsewhere than in the exclamation "I am your brother!"—in this thought which, with all its pathos and Christian character, smells of vulgar morality and recalls the celebrated phrase of Karamzin, "even peasants are able to feel," a phrase which we are now unable, recognizing all its justness, to read without a smile.
We will try to approach Gogol's story more closely by means of the method of "close reading," the only correct method of reading the classics, a method from which we have been weaned by newspapers, the detective novel, other "light reading," and even in school, where our own reflections on a work were made unnecessary by the explanations of textbook and teacher—yes, were we on the school bench mature enough really to understand the meaning of an artistic work?
In "close reading," in the enjoyment of Gogol's story "by bits," we notice many trifling details that seem to be insignificant features . . . Perhaps it is worthwhile to begin an analysis of "The Overcoat" with one of these "insignificant details." In "The Overcoat" one and the same insignificant little word is repeated extraordinarily often: dazhe, "even"! On the 32-40 pages which "The Overcoat" occupies in the usual editions of Gogol this little word "even" is met with neither more nor less than 73 times! Moreover, its use on several pages is particularly dense: in the space of a single page we meet it three, four, even five times! Is this an accident? Does Gogol simply repeat an unnecessary word because it happened to come to his pen?
According to everything we know about Gogol's method of work on his writings, such an explanation should seem to us hardly likely, in fact simply impossible. As is well known, Gogol endlessly polished and reworked the text of his works, reworked separate words, changing and varying them, until he achieved a final perfection, the final polish. We know from the words of S. T. Aksakov how Gogol in 1850 twice read aloud a chapter from the second part of Dead Souls. The Aksakovs were surprised by the second reading:
We were struck with amazement: the chapter seemed to us even better, as if it had been written anew. The corrections were to all appearances quite insignificant: there one word was removed, here added, and there transposed—and it all came out differently.
If we had doubts about the testimony of such a judge as Aksakov,—didn't he, too much carried away with Gogol as writer, man and "prophet," overestimate him? (and, in any case, the elder Aksakov was hardly so totally captivated by Gogol as were the young Aksakovs)—there is still sufficient evidence in Gogol's published reworkings of his own works ("The Portrait," The Inspector General, "Taras Bulba") and in Gogol's manuscripts. These materials fully corroborate what Gogol himself said (in the same years), according to Berg, about his method of work as a writer:
At first it is necessary to jot everything down as it comes to you, even if it is bad, insipid, absolutely everything, and then forget about this notebook. Then, after a month, after two, sometimes even more (this happens by itself), take what you have written and reread it: you will see that much is not what it should be, there is much that is superfluous and something that is lacking. Make corrections and marginal notes, and again discard the notebook. At the next inspection—new marginal notes—and where there is not enough room, take a separate scrap of paper and glue it in on the side. When everything is thus covered with writing, take the notebook and copy it yourself. At this point new illuminations, cuts, additions, refinements of style will appear by themselves. Between former words new ones will jump up, words which necessarily should be there but which for some reason don't appear at first. And again put the notebook down. Travel, amuse yourself, don't do anything, or at least write something else. The hour will come, the abandoned notebook will be remembered: take it, reread it, correct it in the same way, and when it is again used up, copy it in your own hand. You will notice in doing this that, together with a strengthening of style, with finishing, refinement of sentences, your hand, as it were, also strengthens: the letters place themselves more firmly and resolutely. It is necessary to do this, in my opinion, eight times. For someone else, perhaps, fewer times are needed, and even more for yet another. I do it eight times. Only after the eighth copying, without fail in my own hand, does the work seem in full artistically finished, does it achieve the pearl of creation. Further corrections and revisions will perhaps spoil the matter; what artists call "overdrawing." Of course, to follow such rules constantly is impossible, difficult. I am speaking of the ideal. Another will let it go at that sooner. A man is after all a man and not a machine.
One could hardly suppose that a writer who worked in this way left, on account of simple mental inertia, an unnecessary little word in such excessive profusion in a work to which he assigned so important a role! Obviously, "even" has some meaning in this work, it "carries a certain function," or rather, several functions. This is always the case with Gogol: his artistic devices are many-sided, many-functional . . . Is this the role of "even" in "The Overcoat"? Let us consider it more closely.
Above all, the repetition of one and the same word characterizes, in Gogol and other writers, colloquial speech or the skaz, as literary historians now term it. In "The Overcoat"—and one should pay attention to this—the story is narrated as if not from the person of Gogol, not by Gogol himself, but by a definite narrator whom Gogol quite carefully keeps at a certain remove, at a distance from himself. Gogol is still continuing the tradition of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Mirgorod with their narrators. He emphasizes the fact that the story is being narrated by a specific, though not more closely characterized, narrator with the help of parenthetic phrases of the sort: "nothing is known about this," "I don't remember from which town," "Akaky Akakievich was born, if only my memory doesn't deceive me, in the early hours of March 23rd," "it's hard to say on exactly what day," "where exactly the clerk who had invited him lived, unfortunately, we cannot say: our memory begins to deceive us greatly," "what was precisely and in what consisted the duty of the important personage, that has remained unknown to this day," "who got all this (Akaky Akakievich's legacy) God knows; even the narrator of this tale, I admit, wasn't interested in this," and so on. Gogol uses digressions for this very aim. For example, at the very beginning of the tale: "In the department . . . ," the narrator breaks in: "But it's better not to say in which department," and there follow twenty (!) lines of digression, after which the story starts all over again: "And so, in a certain department served a certain clerk . . ." In the Ukrainian stories Gogol uses words and phrases in Ukrainian to remind the reader of the presence of a narrator. In "The Overcoat" and "The Diary of a Madman" Gogol brings his speech closest to the colloquial. In "The Diary of a Madman" this was simpler, the author had his hero keep a diary; Akaky Akakievich would hardly have been able to keep a diary! But the narrator is in some sense brought close to Akaky Akakievich. This approximation is achieved by the repetition of several unnecessary words, for instance, by substituting attributes which mean nothing for attributes which fill the nouns to which they refer with content: "a certain" ("a certain police inspector," "a certain director," and so on), "some sort of ("some sort of relation," "some sort of town" and so on), "something or other," "some kind of," and so on. Gogol himself draws attention to the nature of his hero's speech:
One should know that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself for the most part in prepositions, adverbs, and finally, in such particles as have absolutely no meaning whatever. And if the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the sentence at all, so that quite often, having begun a speech with the words: "That, really, is completely sort of . . . ," but then there was nothing, and he himself would forget, thinking he had already said everything.
And even the Important Personage, the tale's secondary hero,
remained eternally in one and the same silent state, only occasionally emitting some monosyllabic sounds . . . His usual conversation with inferiors smacked of strictness and almost entirely consisted of three sentences . . .
Thus, the "impoverishment" of the narrator's speech is hardly accidental. Gogol obviously could not bring this impoverishment to the level of speech of Akaky Akakievich or of the Important Personage. If the narrator were also to "express himself . . . in prepositions, adverbs, and finally, such particles as have absolutely no meaning whatever" or "remain eternally in one and the same silent state," then there would be no story! However, Gogol does in some measure bring his narrator's speech close to the speech of his heroes: the strange "impoverishment" of language in "The Overcoat" serves exactly this end, though it might seem to stand in contradiction to the fundamental internal laws of any artistic work, which of necessity strives for the greatest richness and splendor within the limits of the possible. Obviously, the possibilities for richness and fullness of speech are limited here by just this peculiar "tongue-tied" quality of the narrator and heroes. . . .
But the numerous "even's" in "The Overcoat" carry not only the above-mentioned function of stylizing the story's speech as that of a skaz; they are connected as well with the most essential features of Gogol's humor, of the comic in Gogol.
Gogol's humor is a unique play of oppositions, of antitheses of the sensible and the senseless, a play in which the meaningful and meaningless replace each other by turns. A phrase, word or thought seems to make sense, but suddenly turns out to be an absurdity; or vice versa, what seemed nonsense turns out to be meaningful. The use of "even" relates precisely to this play of oppositions: "even" introduces an intensification, an ascent, it signifies and marks a tension, an expectation, and if the ascent is not realized, if what is expected does not appear, we are disappointed, surprised, and Gogol has achieved a comic effect! Gogol often introduces instead of an intensification after "even" that "zero meaning" so characteristic of his work (nonsensical phrases are very frequent in Gogol's writings), and sometimes instead of an intensification we are struck by a slackening of tension. Thus the serious and the humorous alternate, and if the rising line is particularly underscored by pathetic intonation, then even simple speech seems to be nonsense: the rising line of speech, having begun to rise too high into pathos, suddenly breaks off and it all ends in nothing, in trifles or with the exact opposite of what the reader expected.
In such passages one often finds the word "even." Both before and after "The Overcoat." Let us take an example from Dead Souls. Gogol is speaking about the "enlightenment" of "the town NN":
the others were also enlightened people—those who read Karamzin, those who read The Moscow Record, and even (!) those who read nothing at all.
Or another celebrated phrase with "even" in the same role:
(The Governor) was, however, a good-hearted fellow and even occasionally embroidered fancywork on tulle with his own hands.
We come across similar passages already in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, a work which undoubtedly influenced Gogol (a fact which literary historians haven't gotten around to paying attention to): the portrayal of Lensky's second, Zaretsky—
. . . a kind and simple bachelor paterfamilias, a steadfast friend, a peaceful landowner and even an honest man . . .
As though honesty were the rarest and most unusual mark of a man!
The function of "even" in "The Overcoat" is quite often the same: "even" introduces phrases and thoughts which don't stand in an expected logical connection with what precedes them, or rather, which don't have any sort of connection with the preceding at all. Examples:
The clerk's surname was Bashmachkin. By the very name it is already apparent that it at one time came from bashmak, shoe; but when, at what time and in what way it came from bashmak, nothing is known about this. The father and the grandfather and even the brother-in-law, and absolutely all the Bashmachkins went around in boots, only changing the soles about three times a year.
After the first logical break, the transition to the brother-in-law, who actually has no genetic tie to Akaky Akakievich, there follows yet a second break, the transition to "soles," which have nothing at all in common with the name "Bashmachkin." A whole series of similar "even's" introducing breaks in the logical train of thought are grouped around the peculiar notions of the narrator about the relation of nature and fate to the higher levels of the Russian "Table of Ranks": the Petersburg cold causes
the foreheads of even those who occupy higher posts [to] ache from the frost and tears [to] come to their eyes . . .
various disasters strewn along the path of life not only of titular but even of privy, actual, court and all sorts of councillors, even those who don't give anyone counsel or take it from anyone themselves . . .
(a double break: "councillor" does not signify one who gives advice or counsel). When the "ghost" starts pulling the overcoats from the shoulders of Petersburg inhabitants,
complaints came incessantly from all sides that backs and shoulders, if it were only of titular, but even of the most privy councillors, were subjected to absolute chills because of the
nightly pulling-off of overcoats.
Another phrase in the same style:
the mistress, preparing some fish, had filled the kitchen with so much smoke that it was impossible to see even the very cockroaches.
Gogol "plays" in a similar way not only with "even" but with other words as well: Petrovich the tailor
despite his one eye and the pockmarks all over his face, engaged rather successfully in the repair of clerks' and all other sorts of trousers and tailcoats, of course, when he was in a sober state and not nourishing some other notion in his head.
And here there are plenty of parallels from Gogol's other works: such an ending concludes the contrast of Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich:
Ivan Nikiforovich, on the other hand, wears trouser with such ample folds that if they were blown out you could put the whole courtyard with the barns and outhouses into them.
Or the scene from "Taras Bulba" in which Bulba, with several friends, takes it upon himself to sound the kettle-drums which convene a Cossack "Rada" (general assembly):
At the sound of the drums, the first to arrive was the drummer, a tall man with one eye, in spite of however it being terribly bleary [from just having awakened].
Such is the technique which Gogol uses to reduce the reader to utter amazement! But often, and particularly in "The Overcoat," Gogol also uses the opposite method: the reader expects something usual, understandable, positive, but instead of this Gogol startles him with something fanciful, unusual, negative. Here are some examples from "The Overcoat": the names Mokkiya, Sossiya, Khozdazat are found in the Church Calendar for Akaky Akakievich, then Trifily, Duly, and Varakhisy turn up—
"What an affliction," said the old lady, "what names they all are, I really never heard the like. At least if it were . . . "
We expect, after this "At least if it were," some fairly everyday names, but Gogol is merely setting us up for the startling:
"At least if it were Varadat or Varukh, but Trifily and Varakhisy!"
As he climbed the stairway to Petrovich's—which, to do it justice . . .
here the reader expects to hear something positive about the stairway, but is doubly amazed to read—
which, to do it justice, was all soaked with water and slops and saturated through and through with that ammoniac smell which eats at the eyes and, as is well known, is inevitably present on all the backstairs of Petersburg houses . . .
Gogol's play with the word "even" belongs to precisely this technique of amazing the reader.
But "even" is repeated so often in the tale not merely as a technical device. "Even" is vital as well for one of the main aspects of the tale, it half opens up this aspect to us, if we are attentive enough.
We already spoke about the way in which "even" introduces an intensification, an increase, a tension which, however, Gogol goes back upon, disappointing and at the same time astounding the reader. This is a means of revealing the pettiness of the circle, of the "slice of life," depicted. What precedes "even" turns out to be pettiness, a trifle: which is to say that in this sphere of life what is insignificant, empty, what is in fact "nothing," seems meaningful and vital. It is not that easy to depict and understand "nothing"; philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger have had no small struggle with this difficulty. Gogol attempts to overcome it with his use of the word "even." The content and goals of life turn out to be insignificant, contentless; they are actually "nothing whatever."
To this sphere of the use of "even" belong those passages already cited in which Gogol gives the impression that, according to his tale's narrator, nature, fate and even the extrasensory world—a "ghost"—are oriented on the "Table of Ranks," that nature normally spares the freezing bodies, shoulders and "life paths" of clerks of the higher ranks.
The highest, strongest feeling of Akaky Akakievich, his passion for the new overcoat, is portrayed with the help of the same device. The clerk's feelings are presented by Gogol with a pathetic intonation, but their disclosure is rendered by insignificant, everyday trivialities. Akaky Akakievich "even" laughs or smiles, he is "even" inattentive at work, "almost" makes a slip of the pen while copying, he "even" takes notice of a pretty lady.
At times a fire would show in his eyes, the most daring and audacious thoughts even flashed through his head: shouldn't he actually put marten on the collar?
But actually, Akaky Akakievich's whole life is portrayed in the same style: his devotion on the job is such that
If they had rewarded him in proportion to effort, he, to his own amazement, perhaps might have even landed among the state councillors . . .
His own desires, however, are still more modest:
and even if the director were to be so kind as to designate, instead of a forty ruble bonus, forty-five or fifty . . .
Only his new life task creates something akin to character in him, makes him alive, animated:
He became somehow livelier, even firmer in character, like a man who has already defined and set a goal for himself.
On the street at night for the first time. Akaky Akakievich
walked along in a gay state of mind, he was even suddenly, for some unknown reason, about to dart after some lady . . . However, he stopped right away and again set out very quietly as before, even wondering himself at his gallop which came from who knows where.
And after the catastrophe (and one shouldn't forget that the entire catastrophe consists of the loss of an overcoat!), as Akaky Akakievich is struggling with death,
finally, he was even foulmouthing, saying the most terrible words, so that the old lady, the landlady, even crossed herself, never having heard anything of the sort from him in her life, all the more since these words followed directly after the word "your Excellency."
Such is the highest possible stage of the "poor clerk's" protest!
But it is not only the basic line of plot development that is bespeckled with these "evens" which reveal the pettiness of the main hero's life and experiences. The secondary characters—the "Important Personage" to whom Akaky Akakievich brings his complaints against life and fate, Akaky Akakievich's colleagues, indeed the entire surroundings in which he lives, or rather, "exists,"—are no better. Even Akaky Akakievich's fatal invitation to the party is prompted not by the human closeness to him of his colleagues—such closeness between people may indeed arise transitorily, but it does not arise at all in "The Overcoat"!—
one of the clerks, some assistant, even, of the head clerk, probably in order to show that he wasn't a snob in the least and even associated with those inferior to himself, said "So be it, I will give a party instead of Akaky Akakievich and request everyone to come to my house for tea: today, as if by plan, is my name day."
The company at the assistant's was the most brilliant: in the anteroom "hung overcoats and cloaks among which some even had beaver collars or velvet lapels." The characterization of the "Important Personage" is built by Gogol entirely on "even" and on "breaks." The Important Personage was "in all respects even no fool" and "even himself felt" some of his shortcomings. The scene in which Akaky Akakievich is scolded by the Important Personage is full of "evens:"
Here he stamped his foot, raising his voice to such a loud pitch that even a better man than Akaky Akakievich would have been terrified;
and when Akaky Akakievich is about ready to faint,
the important personage was satisfied that the effect had exceeded even his expectations, and completely intoxicated by the thought that his word could even deprive a man of consciousness.
The Important Personage's remorse is depicted with the help of the same device: "he even got to thinking about poor Akaky Akakievich" and "the thought of Akaky distressed him to such a degree that a week later (!) he even decided to send a clerk to find out . . . how he was." Having learned that Akaky Akakievich "had died suddenly in a fever," the important personage "was even left stunned, feeling pangs of conscience, and was out of sorts all day." After spending an agreeable evening with friends, he decides to visit a lady of his acquaintance, a certain Karolina Ivanovna, "a lady, it seems, of German extraction"; the appearance of the corpse drives him into "a dead fright"—manly and heroic in appearance, he
felt such terror, that not without reason he even began to fear some kind of morbid attack. He even quickly took off his overcoat from his shoulders himself and cried to the coachman in a voice not his own: "Drive home as fast as you can!" The coachman, hearing a voice which was usually used at critical moments and would even be accompanied by something much the most effective . . . shot off like an arrow.
This event made such a deep impression on the important personage that "he even began much less often to say to his subordinates, "How dare you? Do you understand who is standing before you?"
In the fight against the dead Akaky Akakievich the police too suffer a defeat, and their heroism is characterized with the same word, "even":
An order was given to the police to catch the corpse, no matter what, dead or alive . . . and they even almost succeeded in this.
But when the ghost was already in the hands of the police,
the policeman on duty . . . burrowed just for a minute in his boot to get out a snuffbox . . . but the snuff was probably of the sort that even a corpse couldn't bear;
the ghost of Akaky Akakievich sneezed so violently that "he splattered all three of them right in the eye." "From that time on the policemen had such a terror of the dead that they were even afraid to seize the living . . ." and "the clerk-corpse began to appear even beyond the Kalink in Bridge."
In this aspect of "even," in the continual "breaks" of the narrative line into pettiness, into "nothingness," Gogol thus reveals the whole vain emptiness of a great love . . . for an overcoat. Thus, the pettiness of the entire surroundings of the "poor clerk," of Akaky Akakievich's colleagues, of the "Important Personage," who salves his conscience in the company of several friends "of the same rank," is revealed as well, and even the "heroism" of the police, wiped away by a pinch of vile snuff, amounts to "nothing."
The psychological aspect of the story is heightened by the approximation of the author to the hero. It is exactly with the goal of "approximating" himself to the hero that Gogol introduces a narrator who takes everything so seriously. Such an approximation is achieved in "The Diary of a Madman" by the diary form, which allows the reader a glimpse into Poprishchin's soul. Dostoevsky achieves the same result in Poor Folk by having his hero write letters. In the Ukrainian tales Gogol approximates his heroes with amazing ease, even to the point of blending with them, through the mediation of his "storytellers" (Foma Grigorievich) and with the help of a mixture of two linguistic strata, the Russian literary language saturated with Ukrainianisms. But, in some cases ("A Terrible Vengeance," "Taras Bulba," "St. John's Eve," etc.), the internal significance of what is narrated or, in others ("Christmas Eve," "A May Night," "Old-World Landowners," etc.), the lyrical relation of the author to the "little world" (mirok. described by him make the author's task substantially easier. The task of approximating the hero and his internal world is much more difficult in "The Overcoat." As was already mentioned, it is much harder to depict the empty and the insignificant, to portray "nothingness," than it is to show the elevated or the sublime. To force Akaky Akakievich himself to tell the story of his adventures and experiences would be completely impossible, and it is not so simple to create a type of narrator close to Akaky Akakievich.
All the same, Gogol tries where possible in "The Overcoat" to take us into his hero's "internal world," to show us how Akaky Akakievich looks at the world. The perspective from which the world appears to Akaky Akakievich is to a significant degree revealed to us by Gogol with the help of continual repetitions of "even." "Even" points out how many things and people in the world the poor clerk sees from below. The logical sense of "even" actually consists in this: it indicates things and objects that are "high," "lofty," "significant," "inaccessible" . . . And so much belongs, for Akaky Akakievich and for the narrator of the story, to this higher sphere: overcoats with beaver collars and velvet lapels, state, court and other councillors, who are not subject to the action of those laws of nature and fate under whose power the "poor man" finds himself. Such is the world, as well, of the other characters in the tale: a new overcoat is a most unusual event not only for Akaky Akakievich, but also for his tailor.
The "little world" of the poor clerk appears to him as a great world precisely because it is full of objects which he looks at "from below"! Gogol wanted to make precisely this form of existence understandable to us, hence the innumerable "evens" characterizing the hero's internal orientation, his spiritual posture. The little world is the great world: in this contradiction is based the whole tale and all of its action. "The Overcoat" is built on oscillations between contrasting experiences. Gogol takes us into Akaky Akakievich's little world, but we are unable to remain in it, for to be reincarnated into Akaky Akakievich is not easy; therefore, our own conception of his world as a "little world" again and again destroys the illusion that we are in the "great" world experiencing a serious tragedy which decides a question of life or death for the hero. We leave Akaky Akakievich's little world, but Gogol takes us back into it again and again—to a considerable extent with the help of his "even" . . . The essence of the artistic structure of "The Overcoat" lies in these oscillations between evaluations of the "little," "tiny," "insignificant" (for us, for the reader) and the "huge," "great," "meaningful" (for Akaky Akakievich and for the narrator).
"The Overcoat" is one of the links in the development of the characteristic theme of the "poor clerk" in Russian literature. The better-known examples of this theme include, along with "The Overcoat," the tales of Dostoevsky already mentioned several times, Poor Folk, The Double, "A Faint Heart," "Mr. Prokharchin," etc.
Gogol's plot is the most successful and effective of all the plots used in such tales, calculated by literary historians to number around 200. Later, the "social point of view" ruled exclusively in tales about the "poor clerk." Belinsky understood even Gogol's tale as social protest, a protest against the situation of "poor clerks". . . . However, if the center of Gogol's tale were actually to consist in this, in a social protest, then wouldn't it have been much more effective to portray a fully worthwhile human being of some depth trapped in a lower grade of the civil service? We shouldn't forget that Gogol himself had, in his youth, to take time from his literary works for fruitless, petty office work. . . . Of course, the understanding of Gogol's tale as a moral, "ethical" protest ("I am your brother") corresponds more to his own moralistic tendencies, but is Akaky Akakievich really a successful literary type for demonstrating this idea to the reader? One would hardly need to be a particularly proud person to refuse to see in Akaky Akakievich, with his pitiful and comic tragedy, one's "brother." Mustn't Gogol have understood that the plot of "The Overcoat" and the specific nature of Akaky Akakievich's psychology would sooner lead many, so many, readers to recognize Akaky Akakievich not as a brother, but rather, at best, as some sort of distant relative? Are not other tales about the "poor clerk" much more effective, for example, Dostoevsky's Poor Folk or "Yakov Yakovlevich," one of the best tales on this theme, by the first biographer of Gogol, P.A. Kulish?
We are unable to pause here to show in detail that the social aspect was one of the least important for Gogol himself. The idea that every human being is "our brother" was for Gogol's Christian world view an axiom which he considered it necessary to remind the reader of, in passing, at the beginning of the tale. But actually, even in this passage, if we read it without preconceived notions, the person who acts like a "man," opposing the "inhumanity" of Akaky Akakievich's colleagues, is hardly Akaky Akakievich himself, but that "young man" for whom "everything changed"! The plot of "The Overcoat" is more vitally connected with the problem of "one's own place" so central to Gogol's world view, a problem later vulgarized in its social aspect into the pseudo-problem of the "superfluous man." (No one noticed the remarkable—ideologically and artistically—answer of Leskov to this pseudo-problem in his story "Righteous Men," where he tried to show that there are no superfluous people.) But in connection with our analysis of "The Overcoat" given above, we shall now approach the tale's ideological content from a different point of view.
The source of "The Overcoat" is by chance known to us. It is an anecdote heard by Gogol long before the creation of the tale and related by one of Gogol's friends, Annenkov:
Once, in Gogol's presence, someone told an office joke about some poor clerk who, by extraordinary economizing and unflagging, ceaseless work outside of his official duties, accumulated a large enough sum of money to buy a good Le Page rifle for about two hundred rubles. The first time he went out in his little boat on the Gulf of Finland to hunt, he put the precious rifle in front of him on the bow, and then, according to his own assertion, found himself in a state of oblivion; he came to his senses only upon glancing at the bow without seeing his new acquisition. The rifle had been pulled off into the water by a thick clump of rushes through which he had passed, and all his efforts to find it were unavailing. The clerk returned home, went to bed, and couldn't get up: he had come down with a fever. Only by a general subscription on the part of his comrades, who had learned of the accident and bought him a new rifle, was he restored to life, but he could never recall that terrible accident without a deathly pallor covering his face. . . . Everybody laughed at the anecdote, which was based on a true event, excepting Gogol, who listened thoughtfully and let his head sink onto his chest. . . .
What did Gogol make out of this anecdote? He replaced the object of the "noble" sport of hunting, a rifle, by a prosaic object of primary necessity. Yet all the same—no doubt, intentionally—he speaks about this object of primary necessity with the language of passion, of love, with erotic language:
. . . he even entirely mastered going hungry in the evenings; but on the other hand he was nourished spiritually, carrying in his thoughts the idea of the future overcoat. From this time on it was as if his very existence had become somehow fuller, as if he had gotten married, as if some other person were with him, as if he were not alone, but some pleasant female life companion had agreed to travel life's road together with him—and that companion was none other than that same overcoat with the thick quilting, with the strong lining which wouldn't wear out.
. . . but for whom all the same, albeit before the very end of his life, there had flashed a radiant quest in the form of an overcoat, which had enlivened his poor life for an instant. . . .
The reader is prepared to take such lines more as mockery directed at the poor clerk than as the expression of a real sympathy for him or as the uncovering of a consciousness of brotherhood with him. But several details in Gogol's tale become comprehensible only in terms of this "erotic" aspect. For example, the thief doesn't simply strip Akaky Akakievich of his overcoat but also says "But that's my overcoat!" Is not this night robber some sort of variation on the "strong rival" of traditional love plots? Only Akaky Akakievich's love for the overcoat awakens in him generally erotic experiences: he runs after a charming lady, looks at an erotic picture in the window of a store. . . . And the very appearance of the ghost in search of the overcoat (Gogol entitled the first draft of his story "The Tale of the Clerk Who Stole Overcoats," which indicates that the final pages are essential and central to the work, and not merely some sort of mischievous, unnecessary ending)—is it not a unique parody of the romantic "dead lover," who leaves the grave in search of his beloved? In this sense, the plot of "The Overcoat" is the famous plot of Bürger's "Lenore," of Zhukovsky's "Lyudmila" and "Svetlana," the theme of stanzas from Eugene Onegin (VII, 11 and the variants), of Pushkin's poems ("The Incantation," etc.), of Lermontov's "A Dead Man's Love." It is the theme of the all-conquering power of love, of a love which overcomes even death.
The fine—and, of course, forgotten—literary critic N. N. Strakhov focussed attention on the fact that Dostoevsky's Poor Folk is an original "retort," an answer to Gogol's "The Overcoat." This question has recently been beautifully illuminated by A.L. Bern. The overcoat is a meaningless, dead object, replaced in Dostoevsky's work by a live person, a girl, Varenka Dobroselova. The disinterested and timid love of the poor clerk Makar Devushkin is portrayed without a scornful glance from above, without scathing laughter, and without the slightest elements of mockery. The human honor of the "poor clerk" is restored in full!
But did Dostoevsky really understand Gogol's intention? He understood it as little as did Belinsky. As we have already stated, both the "social aspect" and the moral message ("I am your brother") are only accessory motifs in "The Overcoat." The Gogol who wrote "The Overcoat" is the very same Gogol who read the writings of the Church Fathers and the Philokalia [expanded in Russian as the Dobrotoliubie] and in whom a number of his friends saw a prophet or at least a teacher of life. It is gradually becoming clear to investigators (Zenkovsky, Gippius, Mikolaenko) what a fundamental role religious problems play in the thematics of Gogol's artistic work, and particularly the problems of "spiritual works," the feat of "spiritual combat," as presented in the writings of the Church Fathers. Gogol's letters (and not just his Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, but his actual letters—which, of course, no one reads!) are not an idle whim of "didacticism," but rather a serious, even if unsuccessful, attempt to gain a real hold on human souls, an attempt at spiritual leadership. The psychological subtlety with which the writings of the Church Fathers elaborated the problems of spiritual combat, the amazing psychological insights of the Dobrotoliubie, could they have remained unnoticed by Gogol? Of course not! But we don't want to give here an interpretation of "The Overcoat" taking the writings of the Church Fathers as a point of departure. The immanent critical examination of "The Overcoat" itself brings us to the problems of "spiritual combat." Our observations are merely aimed at emphasizing, above all, that one must expect from Gogol's artistic works attempts to solve complex psychological questions and not a simple repetition of axioms ("I am your brother") and truisms ("even peasants"—and "poor clerks"—"can feel").
The theme of "The Overcoat" is the stirring of the human soul, its regeneration under the influence of a—granted, very peculiar—love. The possibility of the soul's stirring becomes manifest from contact with a love object, and not only with something great, elevated, or significant (an heroic exploit, one's fatherland, a live person—a friend, a loved woman, etc.), but also in meeting something everyday or prosaic. The hero's relation to the overcoat is depicted, as we have seen, with the language of eros. And a man can be ruined, led to the abyss, not only by love for something great or meaningful, but also by love for an insignificant object, if only it becomes the subject of passion, of love.
One of the central ideas of Gogol's artistic works is that each man has his own "infatuation," his own passion, something he is "carried away with." The theme is ancient: it is the theme of Horace, of the poetry of the European and Ukrainian Baroque, of one of the virshi of the Ukrainian mystic Grigoriya Skovoroda, a poem probably known to Gogol even if only from "Natalka Poltavka" by Kotlyarevsky (a writer from whom Gogol takes part of the epigraph to "The Fair at Sorochintsy"). Skovoroda was an exact contemporary and fellow-countryman of the compiler of the Slavonic Dobrotoliubie, Paisiya Velichkovsky (1722-1794). In one of his virsha (a spiritual song or devotional verse, sung at Ukrainian country fairs—in Gogol's time, as they still were sung at the beginning of the XXth century—by blind "lyricists"), Skovoroda begins by juxtaposing the gaudiness and sordidness of society's interests and amusements ("Every head has its mind, every heart has its love, every throat has its taste") to the "single-mindedness" of his own spiritual passion ("But I have only one thought in the world, but I alone will not lose my mind"), and concludes with the motley picture of the variety of human "infatuations," to speak in the style of Gogol. In a passage of Dead Souls which V. Gippius rightly recognized as one of the ideologically most important parts of the "poem," Gogol takes us back to the humorous formulation of his fellow-countryman, Skovoroda:
Every man has his own enthusiasm: one man's enthusiasm is turned to wolf-hounds; to another it seems that he is a great lover of music and amazingly sensitive to all the profound passages therein; a third may be a great hand at putting away a huge dinner; a fourth feels that he can play a better part in this world, even though that part be but a fraction above the one assigned to him; a fifth fellow, whose aspiration is more circumscribed, sleeps and dreams of how he might promenade on a gala occasion with some aide-de-camp, showing off before his friends, his acquaintances, and even those who aren't acquainted with him. . . .
Passions, attractions, "infatuations" are here all directed (except for the love for music, but even that is actually only a "seeming" love!) toward insignificant objects. In the beginning of "Nevsky Prospect" Gogol depicts the "display" of the daily stroll on the Nevsky:
One displays a smart overcoat with the best beaver on it, another—a fine Greek nose, the third—superb whiskers, the fourth—a pair of pretty eyes and a marvelous hat, the fifth—a signet ring on a jaunty finger, the sixth—a foot in a bewitching shoe. . . .
This "display" is a show of the objects of "infatuation"; what we have here are not even shadows of serious interests.
But in "The Overcoat" the hero's infatuation is lower than anything we come across in Gogol's prose. Nevertheless, Akaky Akakievich does have an infatuation and he puts its object, his overcoat, on display: he shows it to his colleagues, rejoices that he can, "even in the evening," show himself off in his new overcoat. Akaky Akakievich is so passionately carried away with the object of his infatuation that he can, in a way, be included among Gogol's other—serious and humorous—heroes. He has something in common not only with Gogol's "dandies," but also with his "hoarders" and with his "unhappy lovers." The type of the dandy first appears already in Gogol's Ukrainian stories:
In the old days in Mirgorod it used to be that only the judge and the mayor went around in cloth overcoats lined with sheepskin in the winter and the whole petty bureaucracy simply wore rawhides: now both the assessor and the judge for land disputes have prepared themselves new cloth overcoats lined with astrakhan pelts. The year before last the clerk and the district scribe got dark blue crepe de chine at 60 kopeks a yard. The sexton made himself nankeen trousers for the summer and a vest of striped worsted. In a word, everyone's becoming a gentleman!
But even this "infatuation" is, in the case of Akaky Akakievich, reduced to a minimum; he dreams, strictly speaking, only of a necessary bodily covering. In the process of acquiring the overcoat, Akaky Akakievich has taken the road of hoarding or acquisitiveness, thus joining the ranks of Gogol's acquisitive characters. We come across different variants of this type throughout Gogol's work, from the Ukrainian heroes (in the tradition of "buried treasure": "A Bewitched Place," "St. John's Eve") to Chartkov, Chichikov, and the "gamblers." But even here Akaky Akakievich is infinitely lower than all of his fellows: his "hoarding" is hoarding with a limited, practical goal. Akaky Akakievich perishes, strictly speaking, from love; in this respect, he is a strange variant of Gogol's tragically ruined lovers, a type to which Gogol continually returns, from Peter ("St. John's Eve") and Andrey ("Taras Bulba") to Poprishchin and the unfortunate Piskaryov. Even Chichikov's fleeting attraction to the Governor's daughter turns out to be fatal. . . . In terms of this type Akaky Akakievich appears as a parody, a caricature, with his ardent love, overcoming death itself, for . . . an overcoat!
The meaning of this "reduction" of "passions" to the lowest possible minimum becomes clearer to us, perhaps, if we turn to Gogol's correspondence during the period when "The Overcoat" was written. One of the most important themes of Gogol's letters of 1840-42 is the question: is it possible to attach one's being to things of the "external world"? It is a question which Dostoevsky was also to pose to himself ("fixed ideas," a phrase which can be traced back to Pushkin's "Queen of Spades"). For Gogol it wasn't really even a question: he decides it categorically from the first. In a letter to Danilevsky of June 20, 1843, Gogol sharply contrasts the external to the internal life. One must have a "fixed anchor"; since all things of the world are doomed to destruction, a man should have an internal "center to fall back on, by which he could overcome even the very sufferings and grief of life." "The external life is opposed to the internal when a man, under the influence of passionate attractions, is carried away without struggle by the currents of life."
The "center" of which Gogol speaks is the centrum securitatis of Christian mysticism, God. Only in the Divine Being are certainty and firmness to be found. It is He who shows a man "his own place" (and every man has one) in the world; God is the "Supreme Commander" for whom we all work. The loss of connection with this center is the loss of one's own place in the world and of life's goal (its "command"). And the surrender of one's self to the external world by binding one's fate with the objects of this world is both the loss of one's center and, at the same time, the loss of one's self. "External life is outside of God, the internal life is in God," Gogol writes; therefore, knowledge of God (as it is traditionally in Christian mysticism) is self-knowledge:
It is necessary to go deeply into oneself, to question oneself and learn which of our hidden sides are useful and necessary to the world, for there is no unnecessary link in all the world.
In his "Petersburg Tales" Gogol depicts people who are in the process of "losing themselves," or surrendering to the power of the external world. He himself says this about the artist Chartkov ("The Portrait"), who perishes from a yearning for money and fame, from a neglect of the "command" given him by God. The clerk Poprishchin ("The Diary of a Madman") and the artist Piskaryov ("Nevsky Prospect") perish from love for women. Akaky Akakievich perishes from "nothing"! His passionate attraction is directed at an insignificant, worthless object, and he has no center to fall back on whereby he might have opposed the world, or "overcome even the very sufferings and grief of life." A man's ruination is tragic and possible not only from grand passions, from passions directed towards the elevated, sublime or significant, but also from passions directed towards the insignificant and the petty. The whole of the world is rotten and carries man away with it into ruin by attaching onto him its existence, regardless of whether this worldly existence is in the form of something great or—an overcoat.
Even if we were to delineate (which Gogol, as we saw, does not) a "worldly" sphere limited to objects of "legitimate," "permissible" or even simply "intelligible" passions, of passions directed towards the "great" or simply the "large," even in this case Gogol's example in "The Overcoat" would nevertheless remain indisputable. It is probably for just this reason that Gogol chose such an extreme, paradoxical example—for us, for the "public," for the reader. In his letter to Danilevsky the question is one of grave experiences which Gogol himself takes seriously; if even in such a case Gogol considers it possible to speak about the loss of the "internal world," about a concession made to the "external world," then what is Gogol's appraisal of Akaky Akakievich! The world and the devil snare men not only with the great and lofty, but also with trifles, not only with ardent love for a woman, not only with a dream of unearthly happiness, not only with mountains of gold, but even with everyday trivialities, with pitiful sums saved up out of pitiful salaries, with an overcoat. If a man's entire soul becomes entangled in such details, there is no salvation for him. The plot of "The Overcoat" is an original treatment of the Gospel parable of "the window's mite": as a mite, a penny, can be a great sacrifice, so a trifle, an overcoat, can be a great temptation (a thought from the Dobrotoliubie). Not only God, but the Devil as well, values such a "mite" correspondingly.
The main hero of almost all Gogol's works, a hero whose name we meet in practically every work, is the Devil In "The Overcoat," the Devil is apparently not mentioned. But, perhaps, only "apparently." The Devil is mentioned several times, but only in one passage relating to Petrovich. It is Petrovich who gives Akaky Akakievich the idea of the new overcoat by refusing to mend his "housecoat" and, by the same token, puts the plot into motion. Perhaps it is only a verbal play on the word "devil" when Gogol relates that Petrovich's wife called him a "one-eyed devil" when he was drunk: "he's glutted with rotgut, the one-eyed devil." But Petrovich was sober when Akaky Akakievich came to see him, "and therefore curt, intractable and eager to demand the devil knows what prices." Generally, "Petrovich was subject to the whim of suddenly asking the devil knows what exhorbitant price. . . ." Perhaps it is also an accident that Petrovich is the owner of a snuffbox "with the portrait of some general, precisely which is not known, because the place where the face was had been punched out with a finger and then pasted over with a square scrap of paper." It is just this faceless general whom Akaky Akakievich sees at the moment when the question of the new overcoat is being decided. The Devil is faceless! Well-read in religious literature, a connoisseur and collector of folklore material, of folk songs and legends, Gogol of course knew that the devil appears faceless in the Christian and folklore traditions. And indeed, Petrovich fans the flames of passion, "the most daring and audacious thoughts" of a new overcoat, in Akaky Akakievich's soul. At Akaky Akakievich's second visit Petrovich is drunk, "but despite all this, as soon as he learned what the matter was, it was just as if the devil had given him a push. 'Impossible,' he said, 'kindly order a new one.'"
Gogol did not want merely to present Akaky Akakievich as our "brother." The main task of "The Overcoat" was rather to indicate the danger that is inherent even in details, in everyday trivialities, the danger, the ruin of passions, of "passionate attractions," regardless of their object, even if their object were as seemingly inconsequential as an overcoat. "Even" is for Gogol a means of emphasizing his basic idea: like an arrow, like an unrestrained passionate impulse, "even" takes our thought into the heights only so that it will fall more helplessly, descending back into everyday triviality. Akaky Akakievich's helpless impulse, directed at a worthless object, is "cast down" from an imaginary height ("even") by the Devil, who had actually set such a prosaically fantastic goal for this urge in the first place.
And that this urge, this "earthly" love of Akaky Akakievich, overcomes death itself means, for Gogol, the full loss of self, the loss even in life beyond the grave. Returning from the world beyond the grave to the cold streets of Petersburg, Akaky Akakievich by the same token demonstrates that he has found no peace beyond the grave, that he is still attached with his entire soul to his earthly love. . . . The sham victory of an earthly love over death is thus in reality the victory of the "killer from time immemorial," of the evil spirit, over a human soul. The Gogolian story of the "poor clerk" is hardly funny: it is terrifying.
We began our analysis with an obvious "detail," a verbal detail in "The Overcoat," the word "even." We saw how important this "detail" is for Gogol, how it is a means of stylizing the tale as colloquial speech, as a skaz. We saw that Gogol adapts the same "detail" as a device in the game of his humor and that humor is for Gogol a means of fighting the "pettiness," the devilish "nothingness," of this world, a fact which it is hardly necessary to repeat. We saw that this very same verbal detail is a means of approximating the hero, of understanding him psychologically, of conveying the unique view of the tale's hero "from below." We saw, finally, that this "detail" helps us to understand the idea of the work. The further development of "The Overcoat" in Russian literature (Dostoevsky is reputed to have said, "we all came out of 'The Overcoat'") could be sketched. It would involve tracing the evolution of the skaz, the history of "antithetical" humor, so characteristic for Gogol, the changes in the means of the naturalistic and psychological characterization of the "insignificant" hero, and finally, the evolution of the plot of the "poor clerk" tale (the vulgarization of Gogol's psychological depth into the "social tale"). But here we can only point out these various themes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38391
The blessed John Climacus writes in his book about this holy monk Acacius thus: The most revered John Sabbaites informed me of this incident, truthful and worthy of hearing, saying: There was a certain elder who was very lazy and evil, whom I shall mention only and not judge, yet I shall reveal the suffering endured by this holy one. I shall tell you about this one. The elder had a young disciple named Acacius, who was simple of manner and chaste of mind and who endured so much evil from the elder that there are many who cannot believe it to be true. Not only was he tormented by the elder's humiliations and reproaches, but for days on end he was tormented by wounds inflicted by the elder. He did not endure his torment unthinkingly, for by his uncomplaining endurance and innocent sufferings he secured the grace of God which would save him from eternal torment. I saw him (said John Sabbaites to John Climacus) every day, and he looked like someone who had been bought for a slave or a captive, suffering the greatest hardships. I went on purpose to see him and asked, "How are you brother Acacius, how are you faring today?" He an-swered me, saying, "I am well, and God is my witness." And he showed me at times his blackened eyes, at times his neck, and at times his lacerated face. Knowing that he was a doer of good, I said to him, "Good, good, endure, brother, and you will be saved." Thus the blessed Acacius lived nine years under that harsh elder, and having been ill very little before his end, went to the Lord. They buried the deceased in a monk's sepulcher. His elder after five days went to one of the priests who was important there and said to him, "Father, brother Acacius my disciple has died." The reverend, when he heard this, answered, "I do not believe you, elder, for Acacius did not die." The elder said, "Father, if you do not believe this, then come yourself and see his grave." The most reverend father arose quickly and went with the elder to the sepulcher of that blessed toiler and spoke over Acacius' grave as if he were living, saying, "Brother Acacius, are you dead?" The wise and obedient servant even in death showed obedience and answered, "I have not died, father. He who is an obedient toiler cannot die." Having heard this, Acacius' elder became frightened, and fell prostrate to the ground in tears, and having begged the bishop for a cell near the grave and having shut himself up in it, lived a good life, cared for the salvation of his soul, and having progressed greatly, went to the Lord God, to whom glory forever, Amen.
This account is more an excerpt than a complete vita, which typically was introduced with declarations of sincerity and humility on the part of the hagiographer, emphasizing the gravity of the undertaking and setting the tone for the work. Gogol at the outset expresses his attitude toward his work, but just as Akakij Akakievi may be seen as a travesty of St. Acacius of Sinai, so the introduction to "The Overcoat" is instead a satirical digression: "In the department—but perhaps it is better not to say in which department. There is nothing touchier than departments, regiments, bureaus, in a word, any kind of officialdom."
Following this digression, Gogol observes the hagiographical tradition of generality, the tendency to avoid specific names and places, though here emphasized and inverted according to his humorous purposes. 'In a certain department there served a certain civil servant." Subsequently, only one character other than Akakij Akakievi is mentioned by name, Petrovi the tailor. People are classified rather than referred to by name: civil servant, official, director, landlady, police inspector, Very Important Person. Geographical references are also vague. Although we know that Akakij Akakievi lives in St. Petersburg, locations within the city are obscure: "Unfortunately we cannot say exactly where the civil servant who had invited Akakij Akakievi lived. Our memory is beginning to fail us rather badly, and everything in St. Petersburg, all the streets and houses, have become so blurred and mixed up in our head that we find it very difficult to find anything up there in order." Correspondingly, the anonymous scribe who recorded the account of the life of St. Acacius of Sinai refers by name only to other hagiographers; all others are described by classification (brother, elder, holy father, bishop). Moreover, we do not know where the events occurred, only that the vita passage is taken from the Sinai paterikon (a collection of monks' lives, to be distinguished from saints' lives) which in turn were drawn from several monasteries.
Beyond these stylistic points are the many connections between Akakij Akakievi and the subject of a typical hagiography. While a saint traditionally exhibits the most noteworthy and exemplary behavior, Akakij Akakievi is "a civil servant who is impossible to describe as remarkable." His insignificant future is foreshadowed at his christening ceremony, where a saints' calendar is consulted for a name. Akakij Akakievi "began to cry and made such a grimace that it seemed he had a premonition that he would be a titular councilor."
Not infrequently a saint is born into a family of high social position. This is ironically mirrored in the description of those present at Akakij Akakievič's christening. His mother is described as "most excellent in every respect"; the godfather, a head clerk, as a "most admirable man"; and the godmother, the wife of the district police inspector, as a "most worthy woman." Akakij Akakievič's rank as titular councilor qualifies him, marginally, as nobility and is roughly equivalent to a captaincy in the military. It entitles him to be addressed as "your honor." But only a young man could be proud of this title; a man of Akakij Akakievič's years should have advanced to a higher rank. St. Acacius of Melitina, on the other hand, became a bishop, and was instrumental in the ousting of Nestor at the third ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431, while St. Acacius of Sinai was apparently significant enough to have had his likeness rendered in an ikon by Theophanes.
The tasks daily performed by a monk such as St. Acacius of Sinai and by Akakij Akakievič are identical. Akakij Akakievi "was seen in exactly the same place, in exactly the same position, doing exactly the same kind of work, as a copier of documents." Traditionally, the chief occupation of Orthodox monks was the copying of church documents. We find here a travesty of the monk who praises God by his humble service, for Akakij Akakievič is devoted to the act of copying itself. Bolting down whatever food was placed before him (flies and all) Akakij Akakievič would "get up from the table, take out his inkwell, and start copying the papers he brought home with him. If, however, there were no more papers to copy, he would make another copy for his own pleasure."
It is Akakij Akakievič's acceptance of suffering that unites him with most saints, particularly with St. Acacius of Sinai. In hagiography it sometimes happened that a saint was tormented by his brethren or by demons disguised as messengers of God. Akakij Akakievič suffered ill treatment at the hands of his fellow workers: "The young clerks laughed and cracked jokes about him. . . . They told made-up stories about him in his presence. . . . They showered bits of paper on his head and called it snow. But never a word did Akakij Akakievič say to this, as if there were no one there." St. Acacius of Sinai showed this same quiet perseverance under the cruel torments of his elder. However, as we noted in his vita, "He did not endure his torment unthinkingly, for by his uncomplaining endurance and innocent sufferings he secured the grace of God which would save him from eternal torment." Akakij Akakievič, on the other hand, did not persevere because of an exalted idea. He is an insignificant man performing a small task with no thought as to why he does so. "It would be hard to find a person who lived his job as much as he. That's not all: he served ardently—nay, with love." Indeed, he saw a varied and pleasant world in his copying, so much so that he had certain favorite letters.
Although no philosophy underlay Akakij Akakievič's diligence, he ultimately had the same effect upon certain of his tormentors as did St. Acacius of Sinai upon the cruel elder. A new clerk, attempting to have some fun at Akakij Akakievič's expense, desisted suddenly ("as though pierced through the heart") upon hearing the latter's mild plea, "Leave me alone, why do you pester me?" "And from that time on everything changed for him and took on a different appearance. A kind of unnatural force repelled him from his colleagues, whom he had taken for decent, well-bred men." Moreover, Akakij Akakievič's pathetic plea becomes a Christian message, for in it the young clerk thought he heard the words, "I am your brother." And as the words of St. Acacius of Sinai from the grave caused his elder to prostrate himself in tears, Akakij Akakievič's specter made a "deep impression" on the Very Important Person. To be sure, Akakij Akakievič's "conversions" were on a lower level: it was not his example that led others onto the righteous path, but rather their realization that they had taken advantage of a pathetic nonentity.
In his clothing Akakij Akakievič resembles a monk. Yet travesty is in evidence here also, since he did not neglect his clothing for ascetic reasons. His tattered clothes simply reflect his meager salary, which in turn reflects his capabilities.
In hagiography, a saint shunned the activities of his contemporaries and occupied himself with spiritual pursuits. Akakij Akakievič "had not once in his life paid attention to what goes on every day in the street." Gogol emphasizes the introverted and inconsequential nature of Akakij Akakievič's thoughts, contrasted to the elevated thoughts of a saint, with the following example: "If a horse's muzzle, appearing from some unknown place, came to rest on his shoulder and blew a gale on his cheek from its nostrils, only then did he notice that he was not in the middle of a line, but rather in the middle of the street."
The hagiographer frequently places an eloquent prayer on the lips of a saint in an attempt to illustrate the saint's spiritual elevation. Akakij Akakievič, however, "for the most part expressed himself in prepositions, adverbs, and such particles as have decidedly no meaning whatsoever." Rather than illustrating a lofty mind, Akakij Akakievič's words bear witness to an empty mind. The words of St. Acacius of Sinai, on the other hand, are those of one who has consciously accepted suffering and regards it as one of the most important steps toward his goal.
Only when Akakij Akakievič is provided with a definite goal (which, it should be noted, was not of his own choosing, but a matter of necessity) do his acts begin to approximate the conscious ascetic conduct of a monk. The overcoat becomes for Akakij Akakievič an object of veneration worthy of great personal sacrifices. For the overcoat he cuts down his already minimal expenses, omits his evening tea, does away with candles and walks carefully to avoid wearing out his shoes. "He even got used to going hungry in the evenings, for he was nourished spiritually, ever bearing in his thoughts the idea of his future overcoat." Akakij Akakievič's character at this point becomes more fully delineated along the lines of a saint: "His whole existence seemed now somehow to have become fuller, as if he had gotten married. . . . He became more lively, and even firmer in character, like a man who had already defined and set himself a goal. Doubt vanished from his face and his actions as did indecision, and so did all of his vague and vacillating characteristics. At times a gleam would appear in his eyes. . . ."
Five days after his burial in the monastery, St. Acacius of Sinai spoke from beyond the grave, causing his elder to fall prostrate in tears, repenting his cruel treatment of his disciple, and to devote himself to the salvation of his soul. A few days after his interment in the municipal cementery, Akakij Akakievič appears in the streets of St. Petersburg, disappearing only after he has stolen an overcoat from the Very Important Person, a symbolic divestment which frightens the latter out of his wits and causes him to become much more considerate of his subordinates. Akakij Akakievič's "miracle" is immediately undercut with the following: "The police were given orders to catch the dead man at all costs, dead or alive, and to punish him most severely as an example to others." The events themselves, however, provide perhaps the most structurally significant link between Akakij Akakievič Bašmačkin and St. Acacius of Sinai: without them we would not have the miracle which is required for sainthood. Furthermore, the treatment of them by Gogol is consistent with the intent to travesty which it has been the purpose of this paper to demonstrate.
Elizabeth C. Shepard (essay date 1974)
"Pavlov's 'Demon' and Gogol's Overcoat'," in Slavic Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, June, 1974, pp. 288-301.
[Below, Shepard postulates that "The Demon" by N. F. Pavlov inspired "The Overcoat" and that in some ways Gogol's story is a response to Pavlov's.]
On Sunday, February 24, 1852, the epilogue to the tragicomedy which was N. V. Gogol's life was played out in the University Chapel in Moscow. Curiosity seekers, government officials, members of high society—"people who had not wanted to know Gogol during his lifetime," Khomiakov bitterly remarked later—thronged the final rites performed over the writer's emaciated body. Among the crowd in the chapel was Gogol's old acquaintance, N. F. Pavlov (1803-64), a former serf, actor, university student, law clerk, and journalist who had made his way into Moscow's beau monde and had married a wealthy heiress. Several days after the funeral, Pavlov set down his reaction to it in a letter to A. V. Venevitinov:
He was buried with due respect and with all possible honors. . . . The deceased's body was brought to the university chapel. Students stood watch day and night. Zakrevsky [the governor general of Moscow] came to the funeral service with his ribbon on. In farewell, a laurel wreath was torn to bits; everyone wanted some of it, if only a leaf, as a keepsake. Khomiakov and those of his mind were displeased; they had opposed holding the funeral service in the university chapel, asserting that it was too much like a salon, that the class of people which Gogol had most esteemed would not enter it, and that this funeral was a civil, not a religious act. All the others and I were of a completely opposite opinion. Gogol's funeral should have had the social character which it did. The beggars, footmen, and tradespeople whom they [Khomiakov et al.] wanted would not have come even to a parish church, because to appreciate a writer one has to be literate, and anyway that class of people has always preferred an affected literature to a literature of genius. Count Zakrevsky hasn't read Gogol, but he came to the funeral, whereas the Moscow merchants, who also haven't read him and who consequently have the same rights, did not come. . . . Most curious and striking of all was the gossip among the populace during the service. There was a swarm of anecdotes. They all were trying to find out what the rank of the deceased had been. The policemen speculated that he was some kind of important count or prince. No one could imagine that it was a writer whose funeral was being held. One cart driver finally assured them that it was the chief clerk at the university who had died; that is, not the one who makes copies, but the one who knows how to address each person in writing—the sovereign, some general or other, whomsoever.
Witty, urbane, even cynical, Pavlov must have enjoyed embriodering upon a basic situation which offered such an opportunity to poke fun at the Slavophile enthusiasms of his Muscovite friends and to indulge in a bit of discreet irony at "their" writer's expense: the rumors, the speculation, and the confusion, the policemen and the driver, and the ironic pointe of the boldly asserted mistaken identity—a clerk. What could be a more fitting encomium to the creator of Akakii Akakievich? But perhaps a deeper irony was intended.
In 1835, while Gogol was privately complaining about the slow sales of his Arabesques and Mirgorod, Pavlov's first collection of stories, Three Stories, was sold out within a few weeks of its publication, and Pavlov was riding the crest of a literary notoriety which shortly was enhanced by official censure of the book. Amidst a welter of travel accounts, philosophic, fantastic, historical, and neosentimental stories, and tales with Caucasian, Eastern, and Ukrainian settings, Pavlov's stories struck their readers as refreshingly contemporary, a quality which was all the more titillating in view of their evident dependence on the most recent French models. Frequently compared with Balzac, of whose works he was the first Russian translator, Pavlov shared with his great French contemporary a piercing insight into the mechanisms of social power and an overriding interest in the themes of money and social mobility. A pragmatist whose later political thought would owe a debt to English utilitarianism, Pavlov conceived of human nature in terms of self-interest. In his society stories, vanity (samoliubie), as both an innate and an acquired trait, was exposed as the major moving force in human events. Starting from the premise that by masking self-interest with idealism people are consciously or unconsciously dishonest with themselves and with others, Pavlov probed the quality of that dishonesty, and dramatized its consequences. The tsar and Count Uvarov were not alone among Pavlov's contemporaries in finding this viewpoint offensive. S. P. Shevyrev, for example, found Pavlov's unidealized treatment of his female protagonists "impermissible." And V. G. Belinsky, although he included Pavlov on the list he compiled in 1835 of the six writers who constituted the "full circle of the history of the Russian short story," was suspicious of the kind of "truth" which he found in Pavlov's stories, and which he contrasted by implication with the truth embodied in Gogol's works.
Pavlov's second volume of three stories, New Stories, appeared in 1839. Here, in "The Masquerade" and "A Million," Pavlov continued his investigation of high society and its "domestic secrets." But in "The Demon" Pavlov focused on a plebeian protagonist who was increasingly commanding the attention of Russian writers—the "unfortunate petty clerk" (bednyi chinovnik).
Andrei Ivanovich, the middle-aged hero of "The Demon," is a clerk of unspecified rank who works in an unnamed department of the immense imperial bureaucracy in St. Petersburg. The one incongruous note in his modest existence is his wife, a nineteen-year-old beauty whose taste for luxury he indulges insofar as he is able, but from whom he is in fact as estranged as he is from his fellow workers and society at large. Andrei Ivanovich's tedious work as a copyist had colored his entire existence: "the regular flow of his life, and his habitual regularity, formality and sense of order had saved him from developing unrealizable desires, and from making dangerous comparisons between himself and others." But late one night, as he sits gazing out over the "enchanted" capital, "incorporeal inspiration, like an invisible sprite" descends upon him, and he is "re-born." Invested with demonic vision, he suddenly perceives the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and questions why this must be so. The following night he conceives a plan (which is not revealed to the reader), and falteringly writes out a petition. Early the next morning he calls at the office a General, where, by means of a bribe, he succeeds in having the document accepted. He returns several days later, and after a prolonged wait is admitted into that inner sanctum of bureaucratic power, the private office of a General. Here, the story's climactic confrontation between the Little Man and the System takes place. Tongue-tied by years of silent humility, Andrei Ivanovich gropingly describes his lifelong devotion to duty, and at last blurts out the reason for his visit: the General has "offended" him by stealing his wife's affections, he claims. Outraged, the General orders him to leave. But Andrei Ivanovich's plan works as he knew it would. After several minutes, the General summons a clerk and casually obtains the information that Andrei Ivanovich's wife is indeed beautiful. Sometime later, Andrei Ivanovich is discovered in a new apartment, with a servant in attendance, a carriage and pair at the door, and an Anna (the Order of Saint Anne) around his neck. No longer obliged to go to the office, he receives callers and affably responds to their admiration of his success: "True, true, my dear fellow. Where there's a will, there's a way."
This brief précis does not begin to convey the thoroughness with which the Petersburg thematic complex is exploited in "The Demon." As is typical of Pavlov's technique, the relatively uneventful plot is heavily overlaid with descriptive and psychological detail. But the précis does suggest an important way in which Pavlov's treatment of the unfortunate petty clerk ran counter to the prevailing mode of that figure's portrayal in Russian fiction of the time. While apparently responding to the advent of what Belinsky had announced to be the "popular" era in Russian literature, Pavlov retained in "The Demon" the detached and skeptical narrative tone of the "urbane" (svetskii) persona which had informed his society stories. And it is evident that such a narrative tone violated the existing generic norms of the chinovnik story. Indeed, in the opinion of a Soviet scholar, this is the chief difference between the two story forms: "But the most important difference of the chinovnik story [from the society story]—its basic pathos—consists of the author's palpitating sympathy for the little man . . ." [M. A. Belkina, "'Svetskaia povest" 30-kh godov i 'Kniaginia Ligovskaia' Lermontova," Zhizn' i tvorchestvo M. lu. Lermontova, 1941]. This sympathy may be evidenced in interpolated authorial commentary, and in the weighting of descriptive detail to evoke compassion for the protagonist. The narrative's central conflict may be structured around a collision of the Individual and the State. The more modest the Little Man's attempt to extract any benefit from the System, the more pathetic his failure to do so may be made to appear. The inevitability of his failure is a central premise. An ethical evaluation may therefore be implicit in the outcome of the narrative: although he is defeated, the clerk-protagonist wins a moral victory, since by the very fact of his inability to confront the System on its terms, he demonstrates his moral superiority to it.
Elaborated during the 1820s and early 1830s, the conventions of the chinovnik story were authoritatively established in the mid-1830s by Gogol's "Notes of a Madman" (1835) and Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman" (1837). But the exemplary chinovnik story in Russian fiction is Gogol's "The Overcoat" (1842). It is a story which is curiously reminiscent of Pavlov's "The Demon." At the end of September 1839, Gogol arrived in Russia after spending over three years abroad. He brought sketches for "The Overcoat" with him. His arrival thus coincided with the time when interest in Pavlov's New Stories was at its height. These considerations suggest the possibility that, as at least two of their contemporaries seem to have thought (see below), Pavlov's story may have contributed in some way to the creation of Gogol's masterpiece. What can be discovered that might link Gogol's writing of "The Overcoat" with a knowledge of "The Demon"? What interactions between the two texts point to "The Demon" as a putative source for "The Overcoat," and what might have motivated this hypothetical relationship?
Scholars have concluded that Gogol began work on "The Overcoat" in July 1839, while in Marienbad. M. P. Pogodin arrived in Marienbad on July 9, and sometime during the month he spent there he took down the preliminary sketch from Gogol's dictation. Gogol resumed work on it a month later in Vienna, where he spent the better part of August and September, leaving for Moscow with Pogodin (who had rejoined him) on September 22. This second sketch represents a reworking of the beginning of the story, plus the addition of the episode concerning the clerk's birth and an outline of his visit to the tailor. Thus when Gogol returned to Russia, the story was still in a very fragmentary state (in print the fragment amounts to three pages of a quarto volume).
Several clues to the genesis of "The Overcoat" have been cited by literary historians, who have been especially inclined to entertain any plausible evidence concerning the sources of Gogol's works, since his chronic inability to think up story ideas is well attested. One of these clues is Annenkov's well-known statement about the chinovnik anecdote, which he says Gogol heard sometime in the mid-1830s. Another is the suggestion offered by the editors of the Academy edition of Gogol's works (but not repeated in subsequent editions), that Gogol was intrigued by one or more anecdotes told by a companion in Marienbad. A third clue, which is frequently cited, is contained in a letter Gogol wrote to his mother in 1830, in which he relates how, for lack of funds, he had to make do that winter with his summer overcoat. But what about "The Demon"? Could Gogol have been acquainted with it before he began work on "The Overcoat"? Or could his subsequent reading of "The Demon" have had some effect on the way the initial story idea was elaborated?
Initially, the first suggestion seems unlikely. Not only is it doubtful that Gogol (who had been abroad since the summer of 1836) could have heard anything substantive about "The Demon," but also, in view of the fact that New Stories could not have appeared before the end of June 1839 (and probably not until the second half of July), a copy could not have reached him until well after he had begun "The Overcoat." But there was another, indirect route by which the story could have reached him. It is only natural to assume that when Pogodin arrived in Marienbad, Gogol would have been anxious to hear news of his old circle of Moscow acquaintances and their literary activities. The imminent publication of a volume by one of Gogol's "close friends" would surely have been interesting to him. All the more so since one story in the book, "The Demon," represented an incursion into the territory of Gogol's own writing. Pogodin not only knew of the stories, but, as his diary shows, he had already read them.
Gogol and Pogodin arrived in Moscow on September 26, just before New Stories became available there. A month later Gogol left for St. Petersburg, traveling with S. T. Aksakov, who reports that Gogol read Pavlov's new volume at this time, and reread it shortly thereafter—that is, at the time when he resumed work on "The Overcoat." Thus, not only could Gogol have known Pavlov's story before he began "The Overcoat," but he certainly knew it well before more than a few pages of his story were written.
The two stories present similar structural profiles. Of the same length (some thirty-one pages of a crown octavo volume), they include casts of characters who fulfill similar plot functions: the clerks; the wife ("The Demon"), the tailor and his wife ("The Overcoat"); the Generals; various episodic clerks and functionaries; and the fantastic city itself. The events of "The Demon" are distributed among five chapters, a narrative schema with which the events of "The Overcoat" can be made to coincide, as it were, fortuitously.
Both narratives open with a portrait of the clerk-protagonist whose monotonous existence is depicted against a background of the bustling life of his department and the surrounding city. Middle-aged copy clerks (Andrei is forty-five, Akakii over fifty), they are superannuated fixtures in the offices where they have served for decades. . . .
Their offices are filled with much younger men who either ignore them or occasionally tease them, and neither Andrei nor Akakii choose to participate in the limited social life available to them, which in both stories includes going to clerks' parties, eating in restaurants, and looking in shop windows (a particularly dangerous activity, associated with sexual fantasies). The city itself is hostile territory where inimical forces lie in wait for Andrei and Akakii. This perilous passage, which must be braved twice a day, links office with home, public with private life, and work with leisure. But these two sectors are barely distinguishable, since they encompass the same activity—copying. . . .
Thus the chief mode of existence for both clerks is isolation—a state of nearly total social exclusion which in both stories is conveyed through an inability to communicate verbally (a handicap which Andrei finally overcomes, but which Akakii only overcomes in afterlife). The "calm flow" of their isolated lives is not, however, destined to last. External reality intrudes on their closed worlds, introducing the necessity for change: Andrei realizes that his wife's material wants outstrip his ability to provide for them, and Akakii realizes that his overcoat is inadequate to withstand the rigors of the Petersburg winter. Both face the problem of money; and, for both, what the money is needed for becomes an obsession.
Ensuing events involve fantasy, through the association of the protagonists' new material concerns with supernatural (diabolic) forces. This association is realized in the following sections of both works: in "The Demon" in the nocturnal scene during which Andrei is possessed by the demonic spirit of his newly raised consciousness, and in "The Overcoat" in Akakii's dealings with the tailor.
Having "awakened" to reality, the two clerks have acquired a new purposefulness, which is then tested in confrontations with the city and with the bureaucracy. Carrying his petition, Pavlov's clerk makes his harrowing trip across Petersburg, assaulted from all sides by the sights and sounds of "egotism" and "greed." Reaching the General's residence, he has his initial encounter with the System. Clothed in his new overcoat, Gogol's clerk makes his trip across Petersburg, and is assaulted by robbers who take his coat. He also seeks official redress for a wrong, and, like Andrei, finds that his way to the authorities is momentarily blocked by an equivocating underling.
These preliminary encounters are followed by the climactic scene of the interview between the clerk and the General (the rank of Gogol's Very Important Person is revealed once). Gogol's treatment of this scene closely parallels Pavlov's: the wait in the antechamber, the clerk's tongue-tied state, the General's sense of power, the hyperbolization of the distance separating the adversaries, the General's taking offense at a mild verbal impropriety, and the enraged order to leave, uttered in a shout. The epilogues of the two narratives reflect their opposite resolution of the Little Man's confrontation with the System. His obsession fulfilled by means of a fictitious injury, Andrei Ivanovich emerges into the daytime world of the capital and sheds his nocturnal aspect, his "spirit" self. The fulfillment of his obsession thwarted by a very real injury, Akakii Akakievich dies, and reappears to haunt the Petersburg nights as a "phantom."
Although these similarities are suggestive of a relationship between "The Demon" and "The Overcoat" which goes beyond their generic kinship, the present argument would be strengthened if their equally obvious differences were discovered to correlate with their similarities. In short, what in Pavlov's story might have prompted a response from Gogol?
It is apparent that Pavlov's resolution of the confrontation between the Little Man and the System is unconventional and, furthermore, is predicated on a cynical view of human nature and society (Reality) which is the antithesis of the idealist world view embodied in the conventions of the chinovnik story. Pavlov's clerk is the image of self-interest, and this petty demon triumphs through his accommodation to, and masterful manipulation of, the System and its values. "The Demon" is a travesty of the chinovnik story, a comic quid pro quo which mocks the reader's expectations of philanthropic pathos. Just as in Pavlov's society stories, where stereotypes of upper-class characters such as the Byronic Hero and the Idealized Heroine are unmasked (cf. in particular the companion pieces of "The Demon" in New Stories. "The Masquerade" and "A Million"), in "The Demon" Pavlov offers a critique of the stereotyped features then coalescing in the figure of the unfortunate petty clerk.
Pavlov's satiric intent is signaled in the opening paragraph of the story: "Andrei Ivanovich was either not educated or not rich enough to use a wax candle, but at the same time he clearly had such nobility of soul that he did not spare tallow. A small room served as his study. It was cleaner than any clerk's study in the whole rest of Russia." Having pointed the joke with Gogolian hyperbole, Pavlov continues in the same vein with a description of the room's modest accessories:
Moreover, several objects demonstrated that the owner [of the room] was not always swimming in ink, was not always occupied with work, but permitted himself to enjoy life, to diversify his interests, and was sensible to the need of enlightenment and thirsted for poetry. It was particularly evident that, fortunately, he did not read foreign languages, but nourished himself solely on the works of his native land. Consequently, he was in the fortunate position of the Turk who does not see other men's wives. A nice little Alexandrine column made of bronze, several lithographs of Russian manufacture, one issue of some journal or other, two or three volumes of some sorts of stories, and a nightingale in a cage satisfied the whims of mind and heart. . . . I almost forgot the room's most important ornament—a pile of business papers.
Thus, wherever Andrei Ivanovich might turn, he was confronted with the familiar, with the native: a book by a Russian writer, a picture by a Russian artist, a case from a Russian court, and a nightingale from a Russian grove.
At this point, certain of Pavlov's Muscovite friends must have begun to suspect that in this portrait of "patriarchal custom" their witty friend was preparing a trap for their proto-Slavophile sensibilities. They would have been right. For while "The Demon" is a demonstration of the universality of human self-interestedness, its protagonist is not simply Everyman, he is emphatically a Russian Everyman. Andrei Ivanovich, the quintessentially Russian Little Man, the "sleepy, patient, useful, virtuous" clerk, will "awaken" to life as it really is, and will demand his share. Most significantly, in terms of the developing controversies between Slavophiles and Westernizers, the rebellion of the clerk is pointedly not the result of contagion by foreign notions. Rather, Pavlov's story implies that the true foreign notions are those which are projected on the Little Man by the idealistic Russian intelligentsia.
The thrust of Pavlov's argument did not escape his informed contemporaries, progressives and conservatives alike. Ivan Panaev, Belinsky's close companion at the time, asserted in 1839 that "owing to the strained quality of its content . . . The Demon' had to be told in the most extremely strained manner, thereby exposing its author's most unpleasant view of life." That unpleasantness—a worldly, morally detached skepticism—also provoked Shevyrev. An erstwhile intimate of Pavlov who in the 1840s had become almost a "disciple" of Gogol, Shevyrev commented in 1846: "In an outburst of irritable satire . . . Pavlov described in 'The Demon' the total moral abasement to which that victim [the chinovnik] of social conditions could descend. . . . Perhaps The Demon' gave rise to Gogol's 'The Overcoat.'" Shevyrev's comments clearly spring from a consideration of the moral action of the respective stories, and it is evident that from this point of view "The Overcoat" can be read as a direct reply to "The Demon," as a refutation of Pavlov's view of human, or at least Russian, nature.
Pavlov's story presents a harsh picture of human nature as innately and incorrigibly materialistic, and of life as an unceasing round of deception and "oppression of one's neighbors" in the struggle for advantages—"money, power, women"—which are distributed by the "injustice of fate." Gogol's story, on the other hand, seems to offer the assurance that although human nature and the world itself are tainted with corruption, they are, to some degree at least, perfectible. Where Gogol's narrative holds out the hope of a higher moral law, or otherworldly retribution, Pavlov's narrative is thoroughly secular, and he notes only that the efficacy of moral restraints imposed by traditional religious beliefs is subverted by hypocrisy. Pavlov's General gains the favors of a young mistress. Nothing occurs which would alter his relations with others; indeed, his vanity and sense of power have been enhanced. Gogol's General, accosted by Akakii's ghost, abandons his plan to visit his mistress, and rushes home to his family. From then on he thinks twice before shouting at his subordinates. Pavlov's clerk, who has deliberately gone about losing his wife, is recompensed for this loss by a large share of life's advantages: a spacious apartment in the fashionable quarter of the city, servants, new status, and leisure. His former coworkers gape admiringly at his success, as totally undisconcerted as he himself is by the means of its accomplishment. Gogol's clerk, whose coat was torn from him, dies brokenhearted and delirious, and is shoved into a pine coffin. He leaves an estate of quill pens, copy paper, socks, buttons, and a threadbare garment. His death is almost overlooked by his coworkers, and within a week another faceless clerk sits in his place.
Andrei Ivanovich's success is assured by the discovery he makes in the antechamber to the General's office, where he "corrects the false opinions" that he had held of others. He sees that self-interest and obsequiousness before superior rank are concealed beneath the polished exteriors of all those who had formerly seemed so worldly and powerful; he sees that they are all the "same sorts of Andrei Ivanoviches"; and he therefore "recognizes his neighbors as his brothers" (italics added). But Gogol's reader is led through pathos to a different discovery. For although there can be no denying that "savage coarseness . . . is even to be discovered in the man whom the world considers noble and honorable," this falls away at the sudden recognition of the communality of humankind:
"Leave me alone. Why do you insult me?" And there was a strange ring in those words and in the voice in which they were uttered. In that voice could be heard something that moved one to compassion—so much so that one young man, recently appointed, who followed the example set by the rest and permitted himself to ridicule him, suddenly stopped as though pierced to the quick, and from that time on, everything seemed to change for him and to appear in a different light; some unknown force seemed to repel him from the comrades with whom he had become acquainted because he thought they were decent, well-bred men. And for a long time afterward, during his happiest moments, he could visualize the little clerk with the bald spot on his forehead, and hear his heartrending words: "Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?" And in those heartrending words, he caught the ringing sound of others: "I am your brother" (italics added).
Pavlov's chinovnik story breaks with convention most markedly in its avoidance of pathos, in its view of the Little Man as a shrewd opportunist rather than as a helpless victim. Pavlov's uncompromising rejection of the philanthropism and neosentimentalism which are prominent in popular Russian fiction at the close of the romantic era was yet another "impermissible" act on his part:
For example, compare "The Overcoat" with a story that has a basic situation which is almost identical to it—"The Demon," by the talented writer N. F. Pavlov. Just compare the scene with the superior officer in each man's story! And by the way, reading 'The Demon" you cannot help but acknowledge that talent is clearly present here, that the analysis here is extraordinarily deep. Perhaps it is precisely because the analysis tries too hard to be deep that the talent takes the monsters of its fantastically attuned imagination for real, living creations, and the sufferings of poor Andrei Petrovich [sic], who has been possessed by the idea that a poor existence will wear out the life of his pretty little better half, grow to unbelievably colossal proportions, and what is strange is that the more they try to grow, the less capable you become of sympathizing with them, and the whole of the author's pathos is wasted. On the other hand, how simply told is the clerks' behavior with Akakii Akakievich, and his grief at the loss of his overcoat. Your heart is wrung, and at the same time, in a transport of ecstasy, you revel in that truthful artistic analysis [Apollon Grigor'ev, Literaturnaia kritika, 1967; italics added].
Thus, in the nationalistically oriented mainstream of post-1840 Russian criticism, "The Overcoat" could be viewed as a standard against which works by writers such as Pavlov could be measured in the continuing process of discrediting elitism, cosmopolitanism, and lack of "truth" in Russian prose fiction. But Gogol himself appears to reveal a polemical lining in his garment when he implies at the outset of "The Overcoat" that he is coming to the defense of the chinovnik, "a person who, as everyone knows, has been sneered at and joked about at will by various writers who have the praiseworthy habit of setting upon those who cannot stand up for themselves." For whom besides N. F. Pavlov could this gibe have been tailor-made?
Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1976)
The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Harvard University Press, 1976, 333 p.
[In this thematic study the critic argues that Gogol's story is a romantic tale with the overcoat representing the love interest.]
The single most famous short story in the whole of Russian literature, "The Overcoat" is also the most widely misunderstood. Russian critics of the nineteenth century enveloped it in a thick fog of sentimentalization. It was credited with being the beginning of the philanthropic trend in Russian literature, the first depiction of the "insulted and injured" little man, the first realistic depiction of poverty and any number of other literary firsts, to which historically it did not have the slightest claim. The celebrated and oft-quoted maxim "We all emerged from under Gogol's overcoat," long incorrectly attributed to Dostoyevsky and ultimately traced to the turn-of-the-century French critic Melchior de Vogüé, implied that Russian realism in its totality grew out of this one story. Such a view remains widespread to this day, despite the availability of the epoch-making studies of this story by Boris Eichenbaum and Dmitry Čiževsky, who conclusively proved decades ago just how wrong and historically unfounded the traditional reputation of "The Overcoat" is.
Humanitarian concerns, philanthropic sympathy for the downtrodden, and concern for the "little people" had been a part of Russian literature since the Sentimentalist tales Nikolai Karamzin wrote in the 1790s; oppressed and exploited peasants were featured in comic operas with texts by Nikolev and Kniazhnin that Catherine the Great herself warmly applauded back in the 1770s. A poor, insignificant mail carrier, depicted with great sympathy and compassion, was the protagonist of Pogorelsky's "The Poppy Seed Cake Woman of Lafertovo" (1825); realistically portrayed poor and humble government clerks are found in Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman" (1833), in Lermontov's unfinished novel Princess Ligovskaya (1836), and in a host of works by their lesser contemporaries. Even the archreactionary government flunky and spy Faddei Bulgarin published in the late 1820s a story about a poor and virtuous cab driver. By 1841, when "The Overcoat" was completed, there was absolutely nothing left to pioneer along these lines—Gogol was simply offering his own treatment of one of the most widespread themes and situations in the literature of his time.
Sociologically, what is remarkable about "The Overcoat" is not its portrayal of poverty, which was ordinary enough at the time, but its description of urban alienation. It is this aspect of the story that firmly places it within the context of the other stories of the St. Petersburg cycle, written some five years before it. But while the heroes of the other St. Petersburg stories chafe under the burden of loneliness and alienation, the hero of "The Overcoat" seems to have chosen them of his own free will as his natural mode of existence. The real literary triumph of "The Overcoat" is neither the rather obvious sentimentalist episode of the young man who taunts Akaky Akakievich and then realizes with dismay that he has been hurting a fellow human being nor the moving little requiem that Gogol sings after his protagonist's death, but the sympathy the story arouses in the reader for the least human and least prepossessing character in all literature, a man whom the author, furthermore, systematically undercuts and ridicules.
The very name Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is calculated to invite contempt and derision. The original Greek name Acacius (it occurs in Voltaire as Akakiah) means "immaculate" or "without blemish," but its Russian version sounds in pronunciation suspiciously as if it might be derived from okakat or obkakat', "to beshit," "to cover with excrement." Russian adults, who have been familiar with "The Overcoat" and its hero for most of their lives, fail to perceive the connection, but Russian children who hear the name Akaky Akakievich for the first time usually giggle and look embarrassed. With his hemorrhoidal complexion, his untidy clothes always bespattered with garbage, with watermelon rinds and melon peelings clinging to his hat, and the flies in his soup he eats without noticing them, to say nothing of his excremental name, Akaky Akakievich is a character who would hardly seem calculated to arouse the reader's sympathy or to be appealing.
Gogol downgrades the man's mentality and his personal character with equal ruthlessness. An incoherent, almost mindless loner, on the verge of muteness and mental retardation, Akaky Akakievich speaks "for the most part in prepositions, adverbs, and, finally, such particles as have absolutely no meaning." He has no interest in the surrounding world, of which he takes notice only as much as is necessary to insure his bare survival. Compared to him, even the withdrawn Ivan Shponka is a model of awareness and involvement. His life is reduced to copying documents, which he does for a living at work and for his own amusement at home—a copying machine in human form that is unaware of the contents of the documents and is concerned solely with the written characters it copies. There are no other dimensions to Akaky Akakievich's character and no other interests in his life. Poprishchin in "Diary of a Madman" suffers from being at the bottom of the social and administrative ladder; Akaky Akakievich remains there by choice, stubbornly resisting all efforts to promote him to a higher rung and deliberately excluding himself from all human contact and all sociability, because this is the only way he is able to exist. In this manner he survives to the age of fifty, although his withdrawn mode of existence resembles that of a clam or an oyster more than that of a human being. All this needs to be said not in order to belittle Akaky Akakievich, which would be inhuman, but to point out, in view of the story's stubborn reputation as a paragon of compassionate humanitarianism, just who this person in the center of the story is and just what Gogol does to him and with him.
Several accounts of the origin of "The Overcoat" are cited in the literature about Gogol. The most frequently quoted version stems from the memoirs of Pavel Annenkov, not always the most reliable source, despite its author's one-time close association with Gogol. According to Annenkov, the story evolved from an anecdote Gogol heard about a poor civil servant who coveted a hunting rifle, got one by scraping and saving, and lost it by dropping it into the water the very first time he went duck shooting. Far more likely is the derivation of this story from a literary source, "The Demon" (1839) by Nikolai Pavlov, a prose writer whose work Gogol vastly admired and publicly championed on several recorded occasions. The connection between these two works, first pointed out by the nineteenth-century critics Stepan Shevyryov (in 1846) and Apollon Grigoryev (in 1859), has recently been conclusively demonstrated by Elizabeth C. Shepard [in "Pavlov's 'Demon' and Gogol's 'Overcoat,' Slavic Review, June 1974]. What unites the two stories is not only the several close textual parallels cited by Shepard in her essay, but also the basic love triangle between the poor and humble elderly government clerk, the haughty and pompous high official who is the clerk's superior, and the clerk's pretty young wife. Gogol's device of replacing the human wife with a feminine-gender object, while typical of him in general, became a highly original stroke when it was introduced into the situation borrowed from Pavlov's story. In order to make his point, Gogol had to reject the usual Russian word for overcoat, which is neuter, and name his story after a special model with a cape and fur collar, shinel' (this style was called a "carrick" in English, according to the findings of Vladimir Nabokov) that is feminine in gender. The textual references to the overcoat as Akaky Akakievich's "life's companion" and "the radiant guest" who shares his earthly existence are also all in the feminine gender in Russian (this very essential dimension of the story is lost in the English translations). The Soviet film based on "The Overcoat," which starred Roland Bykov and was shown on American television, drove this point home still further by having Akaky Akakievich hold a lighted candle and place another next to the overcoat that is spread on his bed—a clear reference to the Orthodox wedding ceremony.
"The Overcoat" is thus in essence a love story, the most genuine, touching, and honest one in Gogol's entire oeuvre. This fact, although not noticed by Gogol scholars until Dmitry Čiževsky, demonstrated it in 1937, had been intuitively understood by two of Gogol's important younger contemporaries who wrote what were meant as ripostes and correctives to "The Overcoat." Dostoyevsky's first novel, Poor Folk, written in 1845 (four years after the publication of Gogol's story) and Ivan Turgenev's play The Bachelor (1849) both depicted elderly, poor, and lonely government clerks living in situations similar to that of Akaky Akakievich. However, instead of becoming sentimentally attached to an overcoat, Dostoyevsky's and Turgenev's characters become involved with real young women and find fulfillment in helping these women cope with the problems and difficulties they face. Dostoyevsky's protagonist (who reads "The Overcoat" in the course of the novel and protests vehemently that it distorts reality and slanders people like himself) loses the companionship of the young woman he befriends as heartbreakingly as Akaky Akakievich loses his overcoat. But Turgenev's kindly and resourceful elderly clerk (it was a role Turgenev wrote especially for Gogol's actor-friend Shchepkin) is actually preferred by the young woman to the superficial and heartless young man with whom she is involved at the beginning of the play. The desire on Dostoyevsky's and Turgenev's part to correct the Gogolian situation in "The Overcoat," their urge to bring things closer to what is probable and possible in real life, shows their penetrating understanding of the basic mechanics of Gogol's masterpiece. But it also betrays their inability to grasp that, given his basic character, Gogol simply could not have handled the amorous involvement between an older man and a younger woman in a way that appeared normal and natural to them. "Diary of a Madman" was his other approach to this situation and there the man's yearning for the young woman is seen as hopeless and ridiculous. Only by making the woman an inanimate object was Gogol able to write his tender and affecting romance between a man and a garment.
The love-story dimension of "The Overcoat," though semisubmerged, is nonetheless a sure-fire ingredient to which every reader of the story responds without fail. Another, equally sure-fire ingredient is the comeuppance that the character known simply as "a very important person" gets at the hands of Akaky Akakievich's ghost for having mistreated and humiliated the poor clerk when he was alive. Here, for once, Gogol deliberately undercuts the supernatural element by revealing at the very end that what the "important person" saw as a ghost was in actuality the same robber who stole Akaky Akakievich's overcoat earlier. The revenge of the ghost strikes a responsive chord in all of us, because it is always satisfactory to see the hurt underdog retaliate against his persecutor. But Gogol would not be Gogol if he did not manage to connect both the lesson taught the "important person" and the downfall of Akaky Akakievich himself with punishment for yielding to a heterosexual amorous impulse. The "important person" has his frightening encounter with the supposed ghost just as he is leaving for an evening of dalliance at the home of the German lady he keeps. Terrified by the ghost, the "important person" gives up his plans for the evening and goes straight home. As for Akaky Akakievich, his chaste amorous involvement with his overcoat gradually leads him to do something he has apparently never done in the entire half century he has spent in this world: he starts noticing real women and responding to their sexual potential. The sequence of events is gradual, but unmistakable. After acquiring his longed-for "pleasant, life-long helpmeet," his next step is to take an unprecedented interest in a painting he sees in a shop window on his way to the party his colleague gives in honor of his new overcoat: "He stopped with curiosity before a lighted shop window to look at a painting in which a beautiful woman was shown removing her shoe and thereby baring her entire leg, which did not look at all bad, while behind her back a man with sideburns and a handsome goatee was peeking at her from the door." From the woman in the painting (this same painting, incidentally, had already appeared in "The Nose," where it had an entirely different function), it is but a step to involvement with real women, and this indeed happens as Akaky Akakievich is returning home from the party: "Akaky Akakievich was walking along in a cheerful state of mind; he even started running, for no discernible reason, after a lady who walked past him like a streak of lightning and every part of whose body was in extraordinary agitation."
Akaky Akakievich quickly checks his impulse, but the retribution mechanism has already been set in motion by this violently physical female by her mere presence. It is immediately after his encounter with her that he is robbed of his most precious possession, the overcoat. He is handicapped in fighting for the return of his beloved object by his sense of being tainted, which others seem to be aware of as well: when he is received by the police official to whom he wants to report the robbery, he is asked whether he had visited a bawdy house (neporyadochnyi dorn) at the time of the robbery. "Akaky Akakievich was totally embarrassed and went out, not knowing whether the authorities were going to look into the matter of his overcoat or not." He has the humiliating encounter with the "important person," falls ill, and resorts to profanity to express his state of mind as he lies dying, mourning to the end the loss of his overcoat and, possibly, of his innocence. "The Overcoat" ends the way so many other love stories involving a man and a woman end in Gogol—with the death of the male participant.
"The Overcoat" is the most perfect artistic embodiment of the two constant, cardinal Gogolian themes: the lethal nature of love and the destructive potential of change—any kind of change. The happiest environments in his work are always the ones in which time stands still and each succeeding generation follows the same familiar and patriarchal mode of existence that the earlier ones did. Such is the world of "Hanz Küchelgarten," of the light opera stories in the Dikanka cycle ("Fair at Sorochintsy," "May Night," "Christmas Eve"), of "Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt" and of "Old-World Landowners." This was also the world inhabited by the protagonists of "Terrible Vengeance," "Taras Bulba," and "Viy" until the intervention of evil forces made a shambles of their well-adjusted lives. In his reclusive, bivalvelike existence, Akaky Akakievich was perfectly adjusted and happy. "It would be hard to find a man whose life was so totally devoted to his work," we are told at the beginning of the story. "To say that he worked with zeal is not enough—no, he worked with love. There, in his copying, he discerned a whole world of his own, varied and agreeable." Fate cannot touch Akaky Akakievich until he becomes involved with his overcoat. Overcoat spells love and love brings on change, and it is at this point that Akaky Akakievich becomes just as vulnerable as the other protagonists of the St. Petersburg cycle of stories. Acquisition of the overcoat takes him out of his routine, out of his own part of town, and even threatens to take him out of the safety of his social isolation. The underlying idea is of course that safety lies only in withdrawal from current life and in lack of action, an essentially ultra-conservative idea that is basic to all of Gogol's social and political thinking. It is odd indeed that the so-called progressive Russian critics, from Belinsky and Chernyshevsky to their present-day self-styled disciples in the Soviet Union, should extol "The Overcoat" and deplore Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends as an incomprehensible aberration on Gogol's part, for the basic philosophical idea of these two works is one and the same: the desirability of total social stasis.
Like all major masterpieces, "The Overcoat" is capable of conveying new and different meanings to each succeeding epoch. The sentimentalist tirades that so impressed Gogol's contemporaries can now be seen for the literary convention they are. The theme of human solitude and of urban alienation that the story so powerfully sounds can speak much more eloquently to the twentieth-century imagination than it could have to the people of Gogol's time, since we know much more about such things than the nineteenth century ever did. After Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, Chekhov's "Heartache" and "My Life," after Kafka's The Trial and Nabokov's The Defense and Invitation to a Beheading, we can see that "The Overcoat" was the initiator of the great modern tradition of writing about the solitary and vulnerable individual human being rejected or threatened by a dehumanized collective. This theme is important and appealing on many levels of modern consciousness and it has implications for many present-day societies. Bulat Okudzhava's song "The Last Trolley" was a big underground hit in the Soviet Union at about the time when the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" was a big commercial success in the West. Both of these songs deal in essence with the theme that Gogol developed in his story about a lonely man's loss of his overcoat, a story which was written in 1841.
Edward Proffitt (essay date 1977)
"Gogol's 'Perfectly True' Tale: The Overcoat' and Its Mode of Closure," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 35-40.
[Here, Proffitt examines the purpose of the "fantastic ending" of "The Overcoat," concluding that it was intended by the author as a parody of poetic justice.]
Gogol's "The Overcoat" has recently been called "one of the most elusive as well as one of the greatest of literary creations" [Charles Bernheimer, "Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's 'Overcoat,'" PMLA 90, January, 1975]. That it is great few would deny. And that it has proven elusive none could dispute. But wherein lies its elusiveness—in the twists and turns of the text itself or in the habitual evasions of the mind of the beholder? I suggest the latter, at least when it comes to the work's "fantastic ending," as Gogol would trick us into believing.
But before we continue, it might be best to have the key facts of the ending clearly in mind. The story comes to a natural (and naturalistic) conclusion with the fact of Akaky's death, or with the belated arrival of news to that effect at his department, and the fact—presented chillingly in a short co-ordinate clause—of his mechanical replacement. Then we are plunged into a sort of coda, one which startles after so naturalistic a tale because of its seemingly fantastic goings on. We are told that rumors have spread all over St. Petersburg to the effect that "a ghost in the shape of a Government clerk had begun appearing" and that, "under the pretext of recovering this lost overcoat, [it] was stripping overcoats off the backs of all sorts of people." In fact, one of Akaky's fellow clerks, we are told, though too frightened "to get a better view of the ghost," "had seen the ghost with his own eyes and at once recognized Akaky Akakyevich." Then we hear that the police caught the ghost or corpse "by the collar," but lost hold because of its violent sneeze, and thereafter "were in such terror of the dead that they were even afraid to arrest the living."
Next, the Very Important Person is reintroduced, and we are given much seemingly tangential if not downright irrelevant information. His troubled conscience having been underscored, he is shown at a dinner with friends, at which "he drank a few glasses of champagne, which, as is generally acknowledged, is quite an excellent way of getting rid of gloomy thoughts." Leaving the dinner in good spirits, he decides to pay a visit to his mistress, who, we are informed, "was not a bit younger or better-looking than his wife." In his coach now, he gives "himself up completely to the enjoyment of his pleasant mood," though he is disturbed by a wind of "supernatural force." Then, "with a face white as snow," the ghost appears and demands the overcoat of the VIP: "Aha! So here you are! I've—er—collared you at last! . . . It's your overcoat I want, sir!" The VIP, who "nearly died of fright" and who "began, not without reason, to apprehend a heart attack," throws his coat off and shouts to the driver "in a panic-stricken voice, 'Home, quick!'" The last thing that we hear of the VIP is that the incident had a humanizing effect on him and that subsequently he at least heard out what subordinates had to say.
Finally, there is that last paragraph, so seemingly gratuitous, but not more so, surely, than much of what we have been given about the VIP. At any rate, the ghost, Gogol tells us, "completely ceased" to appear after the theft of the VIP's coat, though some held that "the ghost of the Civil Servant was still appearing in the more outlying parts of the town." The tale concludes with one such manifestation, with the sighting by an oafish constable of a ghost "displaying a fist of a size that was never seen among the living." Terrified, the constable turns and the ghost disappears into the darkness.
Now, what are we to make of all of this? Why the startling shift from the naturalistic to the fantastic? Why the ghost? Why the final shift in the last paragraph? Most naive readers as well as many sophisticated ones write off the "fantastic ending" as fantastic: that is, it is taken to be a ghost story in which Akaky's misery is meliorated by a splurge of poetic justice. Even Leon Stilman, speaking of the tale's "paradoxical morality," holds "that Akaky Akakievich suffered injustice and that at least posthumously he found redress when the important personage in his turn became victim of a street robbery," ["Afterword" to Nikolai Gogol, The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, trans. Andrew MacAndrew, 1960]. And Victor Erlich, though he qualifies himself by saying that "the satisfaction is, or ought to be, short-lived" because of the marked shift in the last paragraph, nevertheless has it that "a compassionate reader is bound to derive a measure of emotional satisfaction from the clerk's belated assertiveness and the well-deserved fright of the arrogant 'Person of Consequence'" [Victor Erlich, Gogol, 1969]. Finally, in his recent and brilliant study of "The Overcoat," Charles Bernheimer, holding that "the nonconclusion of the story denies any notion of factuality," states that, "reabsorbed into literary freeplay after his foolhardy excursion into the material world, Akaky Akakyevich becomes the agent of what is aptly called 'poetic justice.'"
To be sure, Mr. Bernheimer's "aptly" suggests that he holds such justice to be illusory with respect to Gogol's story. But I would go much further: there is not even a specter of it in the tale itself. Gogol has so shaped the end of "The Overcoat" as to play upon the reader's conventionality while maintaining the integrity or complete factuality of his "perfectly true" story. Indeed, the end of "The Overcoat" is in part a parody of literary convention—specifically, that of poetic justice—and a joke at the expense of the mind that would find it.
What kind of justice—poetic or otherwise—is it that involves "the stripping of overcoats off the backs of all sorts of people, irrespective of their rank or calling?" These surely are innocent victims themselves. Had his story been that of some other clerk, Akaky himself might have been one of them. And poetic justice, at least as I understand it, must involve grief and loss on the part of the person against whom it is directed. But the VIP, it should be noted, derives genuine benefit from the theft of his coat. Early in the story we see that he is not such a bad sort. But his notion of his position keeps him from being himself. The theft, then, frees him from his own stifling conventions and allows him to be more nearly himself. In other words, on the score of poetic justice, at least, the text is not elusive; rather, the mind of the reader is evasive, finding what it wishes where it does not really exist.
We are trapped by the conventionality of our own conventions. This Gogol conveys dramatically. He wishes us to desire poetic justice, indeed, to find it momentarily. But then we must see that the text does not allow for it, and in so seeing, feel how mere convention keeps us from reality. Should we persist in our superimposing, well the joke is on us. (In this regard one can perhaps gain insight into Nabokov's almost extravagant admiration of Gogol and "The Overcoat" in particular) [Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 1944].
But it is not just on the score of poetic justice that "The Overcoat" concerns conventionality and its unrealities and imprisonments. Detail after detail underscores how our ingrained conventions—whether literary or social—are at odds with freedom and humanity. For example, when introducing Petrovich, the tailor, the narrator—himself a parody of convention, since he is not the reliable narrator of nineteenth-century fame—the narrator says: "We really ought not to waste much time over this tailor; since, however, it is now the fashion that the character of every person in a story must be delineated fully, then by all means let us have Petrovich, too." Realism, too, has its conventions, though they are not as readily perceived by us as those of fantasy; and too often they are in the saddle. Or take the VIP. He is a creature trapped and dehumanized by convention—in his work entirely, but in his private life as well. Thus, his mistress. Though she has nothing to offer him more than his wife, with whom he is quite content, he has one. Why? Because "he thought it right to," because he serves the conventions of his class. It is in the present context, I think, that the marvelous twists and turns of the story and its famous (at least since Nabokov) shifts of tone and texture should be placed. Such shocks as the gratuitous introduction of "Petrovich's big toe" or the "ordinary young pig, rushing out of a house" are not [as Bernheimer suggests] the vibrations of "a fluid world of shifting metamorphoses" so much as the emanations of simple factuality, or plain reality, so wonderful and various, but what we insulate ourselves against with our systems and conventions (especially, perhaps, in the modern world), what we miss because of our habitual evasions—whether those of routine or of superstition.
Most of all, the end of the story—the coda, as I have called it—in its narrative line and detail, speaks of and to our blindness and consequent vulnerability. Everything in those last few pages speaks that there is no ghost. "Under the pretext" says all. Do ghosts have collars that can be caught, and do they emit mucus? It is obvious that the "ghost" seen by the oaf at the very end is no ghost, but only the product of a superstitious mind caught in a waning rumor. With that last paragraph in mind, we must read back and recognize that there never was a ghost. The clerk who thought he saw Akaky was too petrified "to get a better view of the ghost." Surely, then, we cannot credit what he asserts to be true. He sees only what rumor and his clerky superstition would have him see. And shouldn't a ghost, bent on specific revenge, be more authoritative in its actions than to strip overcoats indiscriminately in hopes of getting the one it wants? (Here, as elsewhere, Gogol brilliantly plays on and with literary convention: he makes use of what literary convention has trained us to expect of ghosts both to underscore the conventionality of our expectation and to suggest that here we are dealing with a very substantial ghost indeed.)
As to the witness of the VIP, Gogol is careful to underpin his sighting with psychological portraiture. Thus we find the proliferation of details in the last pages concerning the VIP, details that otherwise would be irrelevant indeed. What is his state of mind when he sees the ghost of Akaky? We know that he has felt much guilt. But that is not the only underpinning that we are given for his identification. We can infer that he, like most highly routinized men, is somewhat superstitious. Then, too, the night of the theft he has had a bit too much to drink, enough, at least, to throw him off guard. Note also that he lapses into a state of free association, the only thing disturbing his vacancy being the wind, which, with "super-natural force," causes his collar to blow up and momentarily blind him. All in all, given the rumors that have been afoot, he is ready to see the ghost of Akaky. His mind is off guard, free to let guilt and superstition be acted upon by the going convention—the ghost story—to produce the ghost itself. So, chilled by the wind, which itself brings the supernatural to mind; momentarily blinded by his collar, which must bring his overcoat at least to the periphery of his thought, and thus his guilt; fearful of a heart attack, and "not without reason"—that phrase alone suggests his susceptibility; and terrified, he sees a "face . . . white as snow." But a face white as snow could hardly be unknown in Petersburg in the middle of winter. And what does this snow-blown face say? "So here you are! I've—er—collared you at last! It's your overcoat I want, sir!" Catch the melodrama of that last sentence: this is a rather stagey ghost. But it is the stammer that is triumphant. Do ghosts stammer, even ghosts of people who—like Akaky—stammered in life? Not in literature they don't, especially not when they affect such melodrama. (Again, Gogol parodies literary convention and simultaneously makes use of it, a doubleness that at least one critic holds basic to the work of the greatest English romantics of a generation before Gogol and their quest for spontaneity and self) [Edward Duffy, "The Cunning Spontaneities of Romanticism," The Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 1972]. No, that is no ghost. We are dealing with nothing more than an ordinary thief, one of many, no doubt, who have found it possible to exploit the superstitious and guilt-ridden minds of their fellows and done so. Trapped by their superstitions as much as they are by their governmental modes, the law-abiding citizens of Petersburg cannot see what is before their eyes. Especially given that the police "were in such a terror of the dead that they were even afraid to arrest the living," the residents of Petersburg are easy prey, at least until that last coat is stolen. Then, of course, given how rumor spreads around Petersburg, the ghost story has run its course and come to an end for the practical purposes of thieves, though many a citizen retains his ghost long after the crime wave has ceased. Surely, too, the overcoat market of Petersburg has been surfeited in any case.
But we should not laugh too hard at the denizens of Petersburg, for the joke has proven to be on us, we who have desired poetic justice, we who have felt there to be a shift in modes at the end of the tale from the naturalistic to the fantastic. Gogol's use of the word "fantastic" is bitingly ironic. There is no shift. The end is as mundanely naturalistic as the rest of the tale, "perfectly true" (—note the adverb) from beginning to end. We have wanted ghosts, we have wanted poetic justice, and, in varying degrees, we have found both. But Gogol gives us neither. He gives us plain fact with marvelous flashes from the great reservoir of mystery—reality itself, the perfectly true. But we have preferred the poverty of our own conventional projections. Gogol is elusive only because we cannot see what is in front of us. To modify what Brenden Gill has said of Edmund Wilson, we elevate our blindness to a principle and then congratulate ourselves upon practicing it. Or perhaps one should say that Gogol is deeply elusive, with the elusiveness of reality itself. And if we don't see that, we don't because our own minds are deeply evasive.
Donald Fanger (essay date 1979)
"Epic Intentions," in The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979, pp. 145-63.
[In the following excerpt the critic outlines the techniques which he argues make the theme of "The Overcoat" elusive.]
"The Overcoat" both draws on and transcends the best of Gogol's previous work. "In terms of plot," as one of his critics has observed, it is "the same sort of sentimental tale . . . as Old-World Landowners,' only with a more pronounced comic coloration" [Alexander Slonimsky, "The Technique of the Comic in Gogol," in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, edited by Robert A. Maguire, 1974]. (The title, however, already indicates a broader symbolic intention.) In terms of setting, theme and manner, "The Overcoat" clearly belongs to the world of the earlier Petersburg Tales. It extends the ironic tone of the overture to "Nevsky Prospect," and in the image of Akaky Akakievich who sees only office texts before him, uncertain "whether he is in the middle of a sentence or the middle of a street," it develops the earlier image of bureaucrats so preoccupied with office matters that "instead of shop signs they see filing boxes, or the round face of the chief of their department." Like "Diary of a Madman," it deals with the privations of a petty clerk and with his pathetic rebellion; like "The Nose," it is filled with spurious logic and shot through with absurdity. Like all the stories, it deals with displacement.
But there is a new depth and breadth; the story is more richly problematic than any of its predecessors—and in new ways. The complex of narrative attitudes is more devious than in "Old-World Landowners," the narrator himself more elusive. Where in that story he had voiced personal attitudes and claimed involvement in the events, here he is a disembodied voice, shifting levels bewilderingly, so that as a source of perspective he resembles the Petersburg wind he describes as blowing from all four directions at once. Like "Nevsky Prospect," "The Overcoat" is saturated with irony, but only a part of it is satirical; surveying the whole spectrum, one is struck by how much of it appears to be normless, lacking any single implied basis for judgment—which is to say any consistent rationale for the multiplicity of tones and attitudes. As in "Diary of a Madman," the motif of bureaucratic formalism dominates, enclosing the solitary protagonist. But Poprishchin suffered from frustrated ambition; the opposite is the case with Akaky Akakievich, whose very name derives from the Greek for "innocuous": he is as meekly content and as fundamentally inarticulate as Poprishchin is restless and garrulous. And where Poprishchin's progress is from a kind of normality to madness, Akaky's, heavily caricatured, is from an absolutely minimal resemblance to a human being (the critic Grigoriev saw him as existing "on the very edge of nonentity") to a simply minimal degree of the same condition—and even that progress accounts for only a portion of "The Overcoat."
The result is a text enigmatic like that of "The Nose," but differently and more fundamentally. The earlier story had involved a puffed-up officer with all-too-human desires in an absurd, surreal adventure from which he emerged unscathed and unchanged, leaving the bemused reader to ponder the question of "why authors write such stories" and what use they serve. The ultimate answer, as we have seen, is that such stories put language to luminously poetic use, making art of nonsense, playing with the reader's expectations of literature and rewarding the desirous with hints of an additional significance—satirical and psychological—which are as frosting to an already rich cake.
"The Overcoat" differs in its parable-like plot line: the reader is made to react less to the central character than to his situation (which, up to his death, has nothing fantastic about it). But even that reaction is unstable, because Akaky Akakievich's situation is presented now on one, now on another of three distinct levels. He is shown in the world of Petersburg, in a network of relations involving his fellow workers, his tailor, his overcoat, the Important Personage who denies him sympathy and help, his landlady, the thieves who rob him. This is the world that goes on without him "as if he had never been there," failing to perceive the disappearance of
a creature defended by none, dear to no one, of interest to no one, who failed even to attract the attention of the naturalist-observer who doesn't overlook an ordinary fly but sticks a pin through it to observe it under a microscope; a creature who humbly submitted to office jokes and went to the grave without any particular to-do—but for whom, all the same, though it happened at the very end of his life, there appeared a bright visitant in the form of an overcoat to enliven his poor life for a moment; and on whom insupportable catastrophe then descended, as it has descended on kings and the potentates of this world.
The corrective to such neglect, however, is offered not on the level of the neglect but on the level of a comic-grotesque narration—and it depends for its realization on yet another level: that of the audience invited to reflect on the meaning of both the others. As Bakhtin summarizes the situation: "The (fictitious) event which is Akaky Akakievich's life and the event which is the actual story about him merge in the distinctive unity of the historical event which is Gogol's 'Overcoat.' It is in precisely this way that 'The Overcoat' entered the historical life of Russia and proved an effective factor in it" [M.M. Bakhtin, writing under the name P.N. Medvedev, Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii, 1928]. Here is one key to the elusiveness of the story: it rests on a blurring of ontological boundaries, in somewhat the way The Inspector General does when the Mayor's words echo as a challenge to the spectators: "What are you laughing at? You're laughing at yourselves!"
Akaky Akakievich's "life," then, is inseparable from the narrative that contains it and partakes of the radical novelty of that narrative. To call him a character is already to assume too much, just as it is to speak of the narrator as if he had a deducible "personality" or to seek the import of the story in any single perspective or stable pattern. Once more, three general discriminations can help us to grasp the special functioning of Gogol's text.
The blurring effect of assertion. This feature, which has been widely remarked, underlies the aspect of the story as comic performance. At issue in the first place are the recurrent qualifiers—the "leitmotifs of filler words," as Biely called them, that create a kind of unremovable "dotted veil" over the text: "certain," "somehow," "some," "even," "a sort of," "all the same," "it seems." To the comedy of reported events, they add the constant comedy of speech events and supply the shifts from clarity to vagueness, one of the indices of malproportion on which the grotesque effect of the story rests. (They also, incidentally, establish the license for the larger shifts that give the story its capaciousness of thematic implication, by asserting the range of narrative freedom—from nonsensical chatter to lyrical pathos, from the Bashmachkin inlaws who only went around in boots to "the kings and potentates of this world.") As an example of the "grotesque sentence" typical of this story one critic [S.G. Bočarov] has cited the following, from the protagonist's first visit to the tailor Petrovich: "The door was open, because the lady of the house, preparing some fish or other, had filled the kitchen with so much smoke that you couldn't see even the cockroaches themselves." The whole effect is undercut, he comments, if one removes the filler words ["Puskin i Gogol," Problemy tipologii russkogo realizma, 1969].
There is, however, a further dimension to this blurring on the non-comic side. At the point when, through serious deprivation, Akaky Akakievich has accumulated enough money to purchase the cloth for his new overcoat, the narrator reports: "His heart, generally quite tranquil, began to beat"—a hint of a literal coming to life that was not present in an earlier draft: "Akaky Akakievich's heart, which always went on almost without any beating, began to beat more strongly." Later, when he has been robbed of his own overcoat, the terrified and conscience-stricken Important Personage undergoes a change of his own: "He even took to saying, 'How dare you? Do you understand to whom you're speaking?' much less often to subordinates; and if he did utter these words, it was not until he had first listened long enough to grasp the point."
The qualification in that last clause indicates the pitfalls of paraphrase, calling into question as it does the assertion it follows (which has already been rendered shaky by the ironic "even"). More precisely, what is called into question is the significance of what Gogol reports; and this question—of the inferences that the narration intends or permits—is the central critical question. The ubiquitous qualifications ("even," "perhaps," "probably," "if my memory does not deceive me," "it seemed") leave unclear exactly what is being asserted; how the narrator regards it; and how the reader is meant (or allowed) to understand what he is reading.
Relativity. The import of the story is rendered elusive not only by the ambiguous assertions or shifting tones, the "orchestra of voices" that constitutes the narration; it is grounded in a deeper relatively, since even where the pattern of presentation shows a clear connectedness, it leaves uncertain the significance of that connectedness.
This can be seen first of all in the relationship of the two principal characters, the faceless Akaky Akakievich and the nameless Important Personage (literally, "Important Face")—"the main reason for the whole disaster," as he is identified in a draft.
Akaky Akakievich is introduced as being inherently static (even at his christening he grimaces "as if he had a foreboding that he would be an eternal titular councillor")—a creature without a self, existing timelessly in the pleasant little world of his own mechanical copying:
One director, being a good man and wishing to reward him for his long service, ordered that he be given something a little more important than ordinary copying; namely, that he be instructed to take an already prepared paper and make of it some document for another office; the job consisted only in changing the title page and changing the verbs here and there from the first person to the third. This gave him such trouble that he broke out in a sweat all over, rubbed his forehead, and finally said: "No, better let me copy something." From that time on they left him to copy forever.
It is the need to protect himself from the cold that propels him into the world of contingency; his development begins with his first exploratory visit to the tailor. Marked by a series of unprecedented events, that development is toward normality. He cries out "perhaps for the first time in his life" when told he must buy a new coat; finally reconciled to the idea, he becomes "somehow more alive." The overcoat for which he is saving is pictured as a bride-to-be, the day of its delivery "probably the most solemn day in [his] life." He goes out in the evening "for the first time in years," drinks champagne with his colleagues, feels the first stirrings of erotic attraction. After being robbed, he decides "for once in his life to show character" and demands to see the police captain; he misses work that day—"the only [such] event in his life." It is at this point that catastrophe strikes and the Important Personage is introduced—the instrument of Akaky Akakievich's only hope and so the agent of his death, which swiftly follows.
The development thus arrested appears as a touchingly "positive" one. The reader instinctively sympathizes with the increasing if derisory "fullness" of the poor clerk's life and realizes the crushing extent of his loss when the overcoat is taken from him. But though the relationship with the Important Personage is presented in moral-psychological terms, there are larger parallels that call into question this first sympathetic view, raising the suspicion that what looks like a relative liberation into selfhood may at the same time spell moral diminution. The Important Personage speaks only in formulas—a counterpart of Akaky's own tendency to stylized incoherence. He is, Gogol suggests, as much a product of position on the bureaucratic ladder as Akaky Akakievich is. Just as Akaky has drunk champagne and felt sexual desire before the catastrophe, so the Important Personage, troubled by the news that Akaky has died, seeks diversion in champagne with friends and a visit to his mistress. Just as the Important Personage appears to Akaky in his delirium, so Akaky appears to the Important Personage in his twinges of guilt. These and other parallels, in short, enforce a socially distant but unmistakable family resemblance—raising, in turn, the specter of a quite different trajectory for the poor clerk's abortive development. We have, after all, been told at the beginning that "if he had been given rewards commensurate with his zeal, [Akaky Akakievich] might even, perhaps, to his own astonishment, have found himself a State Councillor."
In this light, the overcoat appears as the symbol of false development, and its moral role in the story becomes a warning, in Victor Erlich's phrase, of the pitfalls of petty passions. Far from sympathizing with Akaky's development, then, the reader may be entitled to find it ultimately deplorable—and to find the predevelopmental Akaky, for all his apparent ludicrousness, more than preferable: ideal. As Charles Bernheimer observes:
In true Bergsonian manner, we laugh at the unresponsive, mechanically repetitive quality of Akaky's existence, at his self-absorbed blindness and mute hesitancy, exulting thereby in our own flexibility and freedom. But the joke is really on us. We feel superior to Akaky in our adaptability to this world, but he has found a mode of being that eschews all such degrading compromises . . . [by being] undefined as an individual ["Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's 'Overcoat,'" PMLA, January 1975].
Which view of Akaky Akakievich does the narrative ultimately enforce? If we regard the question as legitimate, the answer must be neither. Both remain as presences in the text, unresolved. But the text in fact does not legitimize such a question (though it teases the reader's traditional expectation that a story should). Before we can speak of what it "ultimately" does, one final discrimination needs to be made. This concerns the progress of the narrative on the most important experiential level—that of the reader.
Dynamics: the kaleidoscope. The relativity discussed above means that on the level of theme the same ambiguity obtains as on the level of statement; and both are subsumed by the larger tendency of the narration to move on rather than to resolve. The unmotivated shifts of tone, like the undeveloped introduction of disparate themes, makes reading the story like looking through a kaleidoscope. One can identify the discrete constituents of the changing patterns but no single, dominant pattern; movement is the crux.
Nabokov emphasizes this in his own whimsical terms: "The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived" ["Vladimir Nabakov, Nikolai Gogol, 1944]. Alexander Slonimsky, in his brilliant monograph, The Technique of the Comic in Gogol, spells the process out in rather more useful terms, tracing the alternations of comic and serious to show how "the entire story takes on a double meaning, as it were" ["The Technique of the Comic in Gogol," in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. by Robert A. Maguire, 1974]. But Slonimsky, alive to the novelty that allows two contrary views of the same matter to coexist in the work without canceling each other out, fails to discern the multiplicity of meanings that lies beyond this doubleness.
These, as critics have remarked them over the years, fall into four overlapping categories: the social, the ethical, the religious, and the esthetic. The social emphasizes the pathetic side of the story, Akaky Akakievich—the quintessential little man—as victim of bureaucratic inhumanity and the indifferent city in general; it sees a realistic intent behind the story and has been the dominant view in Russia, particularly in the nineteenth century. The ethical builds on the passage where an unnamed, transitory character is haunted by the affirmation of human brotherhood he hears behind Akaky's protests at office pranks that turn into persecutions. The religious sees the main theme of the story, in Chizhevsky's words, as "the kindling of the human soul, its rebirth under the influence of love (albeit of a very special kind)" [Dmitry Chizhevsky, "About Gogol's Overcoat," in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. by Robert A. Maguire, 1974]. (More recently, scholars have noted the presence of several Saints Acacius in the Orthodox calendar, and one in particular who was a paragon of meek service; in light of these findings, "The Overcoat" becomes "a travesty of hagiography" [John Schillinger, "Gogol's 'The Overcoat' as a Travesty of Hagiography," Slavic and East European Journal, Spring 1972].) Finally, the esthetic—which has been the main contribution of the twentieth century—sees the form of the story as at the same time the locus of value. The Formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum identifies the work as less a story than a performance, a celebration of the artist's freedom to "violate the normal proportions of the world [and] join together what cannot be joined" ["How Gogol's 'Overcoat' is Made," in Maguire]. Building on this view the Structuralists have found still further levels of meaning in "The Overcoat." Sergei Bocharov has seen the structure of the story as resting on the fact that Akaky Akakievich "has no relation to life in the first person." Because he could not conceivably tell his own story, he is enclosed as an alien being within the word play of the narration, which dramatizes (beyond and apart from the events of the story) "his position in life and life's relation to him" ["Puskin i Gogol," Problemy tipologii russkogo realizma, 1969].
What these analyses have in common is a respect for the idiosyncrasy of the form that allows full appreciation of the capaciousness of Gogol's story, its legitimate transcendence of singleness of message—the way it "triumphantly asserts literature's independence from the repressive forces of reality and gleefully demonstrates its freedom to play with the realms of matter and spirit, life and death, to which it refers but by which it is not bound" [Charles Bernheimer, "Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's Overcoat," PMLA, January 1975].
The purpose of this selective sketch is not to give a full account of Gogol's story but to suggest how it epitomizes the new stage of his artistic practice. What is new and salient in the story is, to a large extent, also found in the novel—and both have proved unusually resistant to critical definition for similar reasons. More precisely, both have shown a tendency to serve as trampolines for critical discussions which in their very pursuit of cogency run the risk of being unfaithful to texts that manifest a very low degree of cogency in thematic terms, even as they evince the highest kind of artistic cogency in the guise of a dense and constantly eventful narrative discourse (where the events are, paradoxically, speech events). Such discourse uses the traditional license of comedy, for comedy offers the broadest sanctions and is, of all the artistic modes, the most nearly self-justifying. Thus the works in question are first of all performances, comic poems. But they are comic poems tending to transcendance: of Gogol's intention here, that alone is clear. His ambitious quest is to prove that "the high and the low can equally serve as means to the beautiful and good," that laughter can be serious because morally liberating.
Gogol's art at its most "Gogolian" does this with a tact unrivaled in Russian prose: the comic discourse never slips to mere instrumentality (hence the impossibility of paraphrase), but in its very authority turns problematic, prompting reflections in the reader that inevitably leave the text behind and that can never, no matter how often he returns to that text, find more than the original teasing cue. This process is itself encoded within the text of "The Overcoat," through the fleeting appearance of the young newcomer who witnesses the teasing of Akaky Akakievich at work: "And long afterward, amid the gayest moments, the short little clerk with the bald spot on his forehead would appear to him with his piercing words, 'Leave me alone, why do you insult me?'—and in these piercing words there rang other words: 'I am thy brother.'" This is not, as it has so often been taken to be, a statement of the author's position but of the reader's, at one of those points when "everything, as it were, changes before him and appears in a different guise." It is an example of the way "the gay can momentarily turn into the sad if only one stand contemplating it too long, and then God knows what may not wander into your head"—of the way that, in "gay and carefree moments, another, wondrous strain of thought may suddenly and spontaneously flash by."
The verbs (wander, flash) themselves are significant: they suggest how the most significant themes make their tantalizing appearance in Gogol's text, with a recurrence that makes them more than fortuitous but less than primary. In the kaleidoscope's successive patterns we see images that prompt reflection; and in less arresting ones we may come to recognize their echoes, until each turn sets us to searching for another "key," and a growing familiarity with the separately meaningless shapes leads to a search for the perpetually elusive, constantly potential pattern that would fix them all in positions of analyzable beauty.
The metaphor is only approximate, but to the extent that it is valid it may suggest why those who claim "The Overcoat" is not about Christian charity and arbitrary authority, meekness and pride, poverty and comfort, justice, bureaucracy, city life, even literature itself—why such readers are as mistaken as those who assert that it is about these things. Respecting the peculiar mode of its being, it would be more accurate to say that the story is ultimately about significance and insignificance as such, in literature no less than in life. It embraces these particular instances to use them. For—as the title already indicates—the novelty of this problematic text lies in the quest it dramatizes and provokes: for serious significance, for the sense in which humble phenomena may contain it, for the criteria by which it may be identified, for the unriddling of a world. This quest is the more tantalizing because it is presented with seeming randomness, like a game of blind-man's buff, the arbitrary shifts of level and perspective in the presentation symbolizing the obstacles in that search. Gogol's best art had always avoided clarity of message to pose self-regarding questions in the form of riddles. Here and in Dead Souls he raises the level of those riddles in line with his new conception of the comic writer as servant of the vaguest but highest ideals: ethical, moral, religious, civic, taken precisely in their ideality. "The Overcoat," in its range of tones and themes, is Gogol's amplest story, manifesting in little the qualities that inform his novel. A hermeneutic challenge, endlessly evocative, intrinsically elusive, it is his monument to the capacity of art—not to "reflect" the great realities of life but to join them.
L. Michael O'Toole (essay date 1982)
"Narrative Structure," in Structure, Style and Interpretation in the Russian Short Story, Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 20-36.
[In this excerpt, O'Toole examines several structural elements that he finds determining factors in the ultimate theme of the story.]
['The Overcoat' is] perhaps the most well-known and elaborately analyzed story in the whole of Russian literature. Many critics, from Belinsky onwards, have taken the theme to be similar to that which can be found on a first reading of Leskov's The Man on Sentry Duty: the plight of the 'little man' in the face of an impersonal and inhumane society prevailing under the autocratic rule of Nicholas I. But if an analysis of the narrative structure ultimately proved this theme inadequate in the case of Leskov's story, in the case of Gogol's it makes such a theme appear a travesty of the story's real essence.
The basic plot of 'The Overcoat' appears straightforward: a poor and pathetically limited copying clerk, Akakiy Akakiyevich, finds his old coat inadequate protection against the cold of the St Petersburg winter, skimps and saves to have a new one made, has a brief moment of triumph as the toast of his colleagues but is robbed of the prized overcoat as he makes his way home from the celebration. He summons up the confidence to ask a certain Person of Consequence to intercede with the chief of pòlice and help to recover the stolen coat, only to be shouted at and sent packing into the street where he catches cold, goes home to bed and dies. After his death, rumours are rife about a ghost resembling Akakiy who snatches overcoats from the backs of citizens with so little respect for rank that he finally appears in the carriage of the Person of Consequence and demands back 'his' overcoat.
These bare bones yield a nicely symmetrical structure:
|General Prologue:||the St Petersburg background and Akakiy's past|
|Special Prologue:||Akakiy's present job, private life and poverty|
|Complication:||the lack of a coat and gradual acquisition of the new one|
|Peripeteia:||the theft of the new coat|
|Dénouement:||attempts to recover the coat and death|
|Special Epilogue:||'revenge' by Akakiy's ghost|
|General Epilogue:||a widening circle of rumour about ghosts in St Petersburg|
But such a naive narrative structure, while accounting for the socio-humanitarian theme, leaves almost completely out of the account several important elements in the story: the complex pattern of digressions, including the so-called 'lyrical digressions', the strategic importance of the Person of Consequence, the richness of Akakiy's inner life, the recurrent interventions by supernatural forces and the intricate verbal play which becomes a dynamic force in the story in its own right. We must consider each of these elements in turn before finally committing ourselves to a final statement of the narrative structure which (by definition) is a dynamic working out of the story's deep theme.
The digressions in 'The Overcoat' fulfil many functions. Moreover it is rare for any digression to have only one function. Some of them operate as elements in the narrative structure: the comment about the hero's surname, Bashmachkin, and the long anecdote about the choice of his Christian name contribute to a rather piecemeal general prologue whereby we learn some vital facts about Akakiy's past through a series of flashbacks. Vital? Well, in so far as the fate of Gogol's characters is partly determined by their names (or lack of a name, as with the Person of Consequence), the naming of Akakiy is important: as Gogol assures us, it was through this bizarre naming procedure that Akakiy 'came into being' (Takim obrazom i prozoshet Akakiy Akakiyevich). So the fantastic account of how he received such a very pedestrian name turns out to be more significant than a straightforward account of significant moments in his earlier life. But this flashback is also an exercise in Shandyesque digression for its own sake, part of an elaborate effort on the part of the author to downgrade plot, narrative structure and characterization as important aspects of narrative and present the fortuitous recollection as if it were logically motivated. As many of Gogol's most brilliant critics have shown, the naming episodes are as much elaborate games with words and sounds as anything else. The rather idiotic etymological pun about the surname Bashmachkin not implying that his forefathers wore 'shoes' (bashmaki) prepares the way for another etymological pun whereby the narrator assures us that despite its 'recherché' (vyiskannym) strangeness, the name Akakiy was not 'sought' (yego ne iskali)—and then goes on to relate the frantic search through the calendar of saints' names which led to his 'late' mother choosing Akakiy in desperation. Even 'the late' (pokoinitsa) is a rather gruesome temporal pun, since his mother is referred to as recently expired all the time she is struggling to choose. Not that the boundary between living and not living is so very clearly defined for Gogol, since this digression ends with two matching sentences where an animate masculine verb-ending only too easily slips into an inanimate neuter ending (this time a grammatical pun!): 'So this is how Akakiy Akakiyevich came about' (Takim obrazom i proizoshel Akakiy Akakiyevich). Then a short account of Akakiy's first signs of animation—tears and a grimace of fearful foreboding, then: 'And so this is how all this came about' (Itak, vot kakim obrazom proizoshlo vse eto).
We are in a grotesque world where names, puns, rumours and reputations become reality and the real is diminished, distorted or magnified to fantastic proportions. The very archaic and exotic sonority of all the alternative possible names gives way to the flat and unsonorous 'Akakiy' which manages to combine a Russian child's word for faeces, the Greek word for humility, a humbly obedient sixth-century saint, and the anguished repetition of the existential question kak? (How?) A detailed analysis of this infinitely rich word play of this passage would show to what extent the kak root, or its answer tak figures in the frantic search for a name:
Kakoye ona khochet vybrat' . . .
which she wanted to choose . . .
Net, imena-to vse takiye . . .
No, the names were all the sort . . .
kakiye vse imena, ya, pravo,
What sort of names they all were
nikogda ne slykhivala takikh . . .
I really never heard such a sort . . .
vidno, yego takaya sud'ba . . .
obviously such was his fate . . .
kak i otets yego . . . Takim obrazom . . .
like his father . . . And so
In one digression, then, Gogol has succeeded in combining apparent plot motivation, temporality, philosophical import, etymological, lexical and grammatical puns and pure phonetic sound play, to say nothing of the syntactic rhythms and intonation curves. And these functions are not fulfilled separately. They are fused so inextricably that the verbal play becomes part of the narrative structure: life is not separable from the act of talking about life: like Akakiy himself, life is a verbal coincidence. In the same way, digressions which appear to function primarily as a mode of characterization, such as the descriptions (despite the author's intentions!) of Petrovich and his wife, of Akakiy's speech mannerisms or the family life of the Person of Consequence, or those where the prime intention appears to be the depiction of social setting, such as the vignette of how the clerks of St Petersburg spend their evening or the tale of the titular councillor who made himself a waiting-room around his desk to ape his superiors, are equally examples of verbal play in their own right. As Boris Eikhenbaum pointed out [in 'The Structure of Gogol's "The Overcoat,'" in The Russian Review 22, No. 4, October, 1963], there is no neutral intonation in Gogol. The description of the clerks' evening pursuits makes its impact less through the accuracy or vividness of social detail than through the fact that it is conveyed in a single sentence nearly a page long which sets up syntactic-intonational expectations which are thwarted by the bathos of the negative reference to Akakiy's way of spending his evenings: 'in a word even at the time when everything is striving to enjoy itself,—Akakiy did not give himself over to any enjoyment.'
While some of the digressions clearly serve to convey the framing elements of narrative structure, then, this is far from being their primary function. By their vigour, verbosity and virtuosity they have become more important than the story itself. . . . [T]he reader begins almost to resent the way anything as prosaic as plot distracts from the poetry of the digressions. The so-called 'lyrical digressions'—for there are at least two—are not different in kind from the other digressions in 'The Overcoat.' Only critics (from Belinsky onwards), who feel reassured if they can find a prominent and explicit moral or political motif in a work, have given the lyrical digressions in 'The Overcoat' a particular significance for the theme of the story. If, however, we see them as excursions into an emotional-moral dimension, comparable with the excursion into a 'sociology-of-literature' dimension of the digression with which the story opens, or the excursion into the dimension of naming rites and word-play of the digression concerning Akakiy's christening, then we may recognize that they are on a par with the other gambits Gogol uses to amuse and distract his readers. Naturally, the degree of emotionality expressed is different, but the manner in which the digressions are constructed is not. As so often, Gogol allows a phrase to generate the digression: 'something could be heard in him of the sort that inclines one to pity' and the abstract notion of something inclining one to pity inevitably brings into being a person thus inclined: 'so that one young man suddenly pulled up sharp as if pierced through . . .' This is the same mechanism as that whereby the general proposition about every private citizen considering the whole of society insulted generates a police superintendent who does feel insulted, and whereby the pun on iskat (to search) in vyiskannym (recherché) generates the desperate search for a Christian name by Akakiy's mother and godmother.
Moreover, the stylistic mannerisms of the 'lyrical' digressions are not significantly different from those which sustain or vary the tone of the other digressions: (1) the vagueness: 'one young man who had recently been appointed' (odin molodoi chelovek, nedavno opredelivshiisya), 'all but permitted himself (pozvolil bylo), 'as if pierced through' (kak budto pronzennyi), 'as if everything had changed before him' (kak budto vse peremenilos' pered nim), 'some kind of unnatural force' (kakaya-to neyestestvennaya sila); (2) hyperbole: 'suddenly' (vdrug ostanovilsya), 'everything' (vse peremenilos), 'unnatural' (neyestestvennaya sila), 'for a long time after at the merriest moments' (dolgo potom, sredi samykh veselykh minut) 'many times' (mnogo raz sodrogalsya on potom na svoyemveku), 'how many' (kak mnogo) . . . 'and even in that man' (kak mnogo . . . i bozhe! dazhe v torn cheloveke). Of course, the emotional tone of the vocabulary, the inversions (predstavlyalsya, zakryval sebya rukoyu bednyi molodoi chelovek, sodrogalsya on) the diminutives (nizen'kii,'s lysinkoyu) and the exclamatory 'bozhe!' are distinctive to the 'lyrical' digression, but our sensitive young clerk has no greater claims to credibility as representative of the author's views than the touchy captain or Akakiy's godmother. All the digressions in the story, whether 'lyrical', 'linguistic', 'sociological' or 'philosphical' contribute to the story's rich verbal texture and to the flirtatious relationship between the author/narrator and his readers; none can claim any priority as 'thematic'.
In our search for the essential theme of 'The Overcoat' we will have to return to the narrative structure and in particular the role of the Person of Consequence in that structure. In our schematic analysis of the narrative structure we assigned the role of the Person of Consequence only to the dénouement and the special epilogue, i.e.
Akakiy's attempts to recover the coat lead him to beg the Person of Consequence to help and the latter's arrogant refusal leads Akakiy (or leaves him no option but) to catch cold and die. The threads of this injustice then get nicely tied up in the epilogue where Akakiy's ghost robs the Person of Consequence of his overcoat and changes his way of life and attitudes. But as Frederick Driessen pointed out in his subtle analysis of The Overcoat, there are important parallels between the Person of Consequence and both Petrovich and Akakiy which make his role a much more prominent one [F.C. Dreissen, Gogol as a Short Story Writer, 1965].
Both Petrovich and the Person of Consequence are tyrants in their own sphere who boost their own morale by browbeating and disheartening the weak and dependent like Akakiy who turn to them for help. Significantly, the same phrases are used about them: Petrovich is pleased not to have let himself down by giving in to Akakiy's pleas: 'satisfied that he had both not let himself down and had also not betrayed his tailor's art . . .' while the Person of Consequence is always held back from being sociable by the thought of 'letting down his consequence': 'he used to be pulled up sharply by the thought of whether he might through this be letting down his consequence.' And, of course, they are both much concerned with the effect their words have, as they look sideways (iskosa) at their hearers: 'He (Petrovich) was very fond of powerful effects, loved suddenly to throw a person into confusion in some way and then glance sideways at what sort of funny face the person would pull after such words.' 'While the Person of Consequence, satisfied that the effect had exceeded even his expectations . . . glanced sideways at his friend to discover how he viewed the matter.' Such parallelism of the syntax of these two quotations and the very words used could not be a coincidence. Moreover, Petrovich and the Person of Consequence are the only characters in the story whose early life, background and rise to their present position of authority are related (in flashbacks), and whose wives are described (accidentally, as it were, in digressions). There is even much playful discussion of the way they have acquired their present titles. Would it be too fanciful to see the general portrayed on Petrovich's snuffbox—albeit with his face pasted over with a scrap of paper—as the General of Consequence, ('face' or 'personnage') the litso who has become 'faceless' through bureaucracy and rank? As Driessen points out, Gogol was well aware of the parallel and wished to highlight it further in his penultimate version of the story where Akakiy dreams about Petrovich making a pistol-coat which will frighten the general. Fortunately he saw that such proximity would reduce the impact of the parallel and omitted it in the story's final version.
Structurally, then, Petrovich and the Person of Consequence represent Akakiy's encounters with authority. They frame the episode of his life with his coat: his new life begins to take shape with his visits to Petrovich; it loses all shape and meaning with his visit to the Person of Consequence. Matching complication and dénouement? Yes, but while Petrovich is not changed by his encounter with Akakiy, the Person of Consequence is. For him the conversation has as far-reaching consequences as Akakiy's first visit to Petrovich had for Akakiy. The parallels and contrasts between the Person of Consequence and Akakiy are even more striking and significant.
The Person of Consequence is introduced first by one of Gogol's negative throw-away lines: 'Exactly what the Person of Consequence's official position was and what it involved has remained unknown to this day.' which is not unlike the 'Bashmachkins who always wore boots' in tone. Then by a long digression on how he acquired his title, having started as a 'Person of No Consequence'. This digression depends on some elaborate punning and morphological word-play with the word znachitel'nyi which, outside the set phrase znachitel'noye litso, means 'significant' . This is a mirror image of the digression concerning how Akakiy came by his pathetically insignificant name. The mirror-image contrast continues with an account of the general's abuse of his supposed power at his office. Even the three phrases he uses to browbeat his subordinates: 'How dare you? Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you realize who is standing before you?' although so different in tone, seem to echo rhythmically and in their insistence on the second person Akakiy's haunting question: 'Leave me alone, why do you insult me?' Their speech habits in general are remarkably similar: as soon as the Person of Consequence finds himself in the company of anyone just one rank below him, he is prone to lapse into a pitiful silence and utter only occasional unclear and monosyllabic noises (cf. Akakiy's reaction to anyone faintly superior when 'he would express himself mostly in prepositions, adverbs and the sort of particles which have absolutely no meaning'). Both, it is made clear, are prisoners of rank at their respective ends of the hierarchy in bearing, behaviour and speech
Seeing Akakiy's humble look and ancient uniform, he suddenly turned to him and said: 'What do you want?' in a sharp, firm voice, that he had deliberately practised previously in his room at home, alone in front of the mirror, a whole week before he even got his present post and general's rank. Akakiy promptly experienced the appropriate shyness, got a bit embarrassed and, as best he could, insofar as his tongue would allow him, explained with the addition of the particle 'um' even more than usual, that there had been this overcoat which was quite new . . .
Two further details: as Driessen points out, Akakiy never even glances in the mirror, whereas the Person of Consequence studies himself in the mirror (almost as if Akakiy is too faint an object to have a reflection, while the general is almost nothing but reflected image, as the quotation above and the scene with his old acquaintance show); while Akakiy's entry to the office is never noticed, even by the doorkeepers, the Person of Consequence deliberately engineers meetings on the stairs. As with the mirrors, they both seem to stand on a line between reality and imagination, with Akakiy constantly trying to fade out and the Person of Consequence constantly trying to fade in.
We have needed to enumerate many details of the story here which would properly be analyzed on the level of characterization, but the parallels between these two characters are crucial for the narrative structure. (In any case, as we have pointed out, the analytical 'levels' are constructs to aid the systematic analysis: within the work itself they have no separate meaning and interact constantly.) The point is that the Person of Consequence is of considerable consequence for our interpretation of 'The Overcoat.' I want to argue that our earlier schema of the narrative structure, the one which most commentators assume implicitly to be accurate, is in fact quite inadequate, offers only an impoverished interpretation of the theme, and fails to integrate many of the features we are considering: the digressions, the role of the Person of Consequence, the inner life of Akakiy, the role of the supernatural and, above all, the style.
'The Overcoat' falls clearly into two parallel parts, each with its own narrative structure:
|Akakiy||Person of Consequence|
|Prologue||(Underdog) Naming, background, present life||(Top dog)|
|Complication||Acquisition of coat||Acquisition of Akakiy's problem|
|Peripeteia||Loss of coat||Loss of coat|
|Denouement||Failure to find coat; death||Change of heart; humility|
|Epilogue||The supernatural takes over|
Thus the turning-point in each part of the story is the robbery of a coat, which for both Akakiy and the Person of Consequence is an object essential to their confidence and self-esteem, a buttress to their personality. What is more, the robbery takes place in both cases after a supper-party at which the central characters had drunk two glasses of champagne which make them 'merry' and when both of them were motivated by erotic plans, however subconscious: the general, though happily married, plans to visit his mistress; Akakiy, though wearing his 'life's companion', the new coat, 'even made as if to run, for no known reason, up to some lady or other who rushed past him like lightning, every part of her body filled with extraordinary movement'. Both react to the robbery by going home and shutting themselves away, greatly chastened.
By stressing all these parallels we must not, however, obscure the crucial contrasts between the two narrative structures: for the Person of Consequence status, respect from others, self-respect, family-life and a love-life on the side are real aspects of life, underwritten by the prevailing social order and social attitudes. For Akakiy all these things are temporary figments of an imagination which has been inspired by the acquisition of the overcoat, that symbol of status, companionship and love. Yet is the objective reality of the general's authority, power, family and mistress any more real than the subjective reality of these elements which the coat conjures up for Akakiy?
The story may divide up rather readily, as we have shown, into two distinct episodes, each with a clearly defined narrative structure. But they do relate. In terms of character, plot and setting, the two episodes are mirror images of each other. They meet in the visit of Akakiy to the Person of Consequence which resolves (however tragically) Akakiy's crisis and initiates the general's crisis. This scene, I would maintain, becomes the peripeteia of an overarching metastructure in the narrative where Akakiy's subjective reality and the general's objective reality clash. Which is more real: the live Akakiy's wraith-like figure suffering every indignity that fate and his fellow-men inflict on him or the dead Akakiy's sturdy ghost wreaking vengeance on the mighty of this world? Which is more real: a little clerk's pride and dignity in doing his chosen job to perfection, virtually living his sad little vocation, or a bumptious general's status and 'consequence' which depend on rehearsals in the mirror, a chain of command at the office and three fierce but meaningless phrases? Which is more real: the love Akakiy feels for his coat which raises his whole life to a new plane and even makes him capable of an erotic awareness as he gazes at a saucy painting in a shop window or glimpses a lively young woman passing, or the cynical way the Person of Consequence takes his wife and family for granted and subscribes to the prevailing morality by keeping a mistress on the side?
Reality is on the borderline between life and death, between the objective and the subjective. For that matter, it is on the borderline between the real and the supernatural. James Holquist and Victor Erlich have both demonstrated decisively the extent to which Gogol's world is balanced on a tight-rope between the real and the supernatural. Erlich puts it well: 'An Akakiy Akakiyevich-like specter starts haunting the city. At one point he seems to confront the "Person of Consequence" and brusquely to claim "his" overcoat—an experience which allegedly both frightens and chastens the overbearing official. I'm saying "seems", since we cannot be absolutely sure that this is what actually happens. So fluid is the boundary between reality and delusion in the murky world of this St Petersburg tale, so dense the fog of absurd rumors which thrive on the metropolitan muddle, that the "ghostly clerk" might well be a figment of the overbearing bureaucrat's frightened imagination, a phantom emerging from the vapors of his bad conscience' [Gogol, 1969]. For Gogol the supernatural is characteristically demonic in form. The devil is clearly at large in the fantastic scenes at the end of the story where a policeman in Kolomna is prevented from giving chase to a ghost by a pig which rushes out and knocks him off his feet (like the demonic pig in the story of the two Ivans which steals the deposition), and when he catches up with the ghost is threatened by a monstrous fist of inhuman size belonging to a tall figure with enormous moustaches who disappears without trace into the darkness. No doubt the wind which bothers the Person of Consequence ('suddenly springing up from God knows where and for no earthly reason') is the same one which whistled along the streets from all four directions and blew the tonsillitis germ into Akakiy's throat. But the devil is lurking in wait for Akakiy from the very beginning. He cannot walk along the street without a chimney-sweep (from Hell?) brushing soot on him, or a builder spilling lime (for burning corpses?) on him. It is the devil that prompts Petrovich to ask such a fiendish price for a new coat, perhaps a devil who lurks in Petrovich's snuff-box with the obliterated general on the lid, for in Gogol's world snuff-boxes are coffins, sneezing really does warrant a 'God bless you!' and every lonely square is inhabited by a policeman who, despite his protective halberd, is usually caught in the act of taking snuff on his calloused fist, which, like Petrovich's tortoise-shell toe-nail, may evoke the Devil's hooves.
As Holquist sums up: 'The devil, the "unnatural power", is still at work, but he is now a symbol for the cruel, impersonal disorder of the city' [The Devil in Mufti: The Marchenwelt in Gogol's Short Stories,' PMLA 82, October 1967]. This element is certainly present in the story, yet to make it central is once again to stress a narrowly socio-moral theme. Holquist's earlier remarks about the St Petersburg setting are far more convincing in the light of our interpretation here
The setting is again the fantastic city Gogol called Petersburg. It is once again a place where things get lost; but this time it is not a nose, or even just an overcoat, that disappears, but the 'hero' himself. He is lost not only in the sense of losing his way (although he does this, too), but also in the sense that his very being is brought into question . . . Lest it be objected that such confusion is explainable due to the simple nature and lowly rank of Akakiy, it should be remembered that the 'exalted personage' to whom he appeals after his coat is stolen is no more secure.
The demonic setting brings us once more to our theme of the blurring of boundaries between the real and the supernatural, between the 'dead' world of bureaucratic ritual and the 'living' world of human hopes and aspirations, between 'objective' and 'subjective' views of reality, between the physical and the spiritual, between the two halves of a 'looking-glass' world.
But the boundary that Gogol blurs most brilliantly of all is that between the actual and the verbal, between what is said and the way it is said. [In his book Nikolai Gogol] Vladimir Nabokov has overstressed the point: 'The real plot (as always with Gogol) lies in the style', which sounds good, but ignores the notion of linear development which is essential to the plot. It would be more accurate to say that what impinges most on the reader is the verbal play, pushing the more conventional mechanisms of plot and narrative structure into the background. As we observed earlier of the digressions, so linguistic invention itself has become more important than the mere story: histoire turns to discours in a special way—the plot usually depends on some verbal association, a pun, a syntactic twist or a switch of intonation to advance at all. Nabokov again sums up the process in a memorable phrase about Dead Souls: 'In this dizzyingly centrifugal orgy of subordinate clauses, language is on the rampage.'
Language in Gogol's stories becomes an independent, impersonal force which takes over the personality and will of mere human beings. This is made explicit in the descriptions of the two 'protagonists' of 'The Overcoat,' Akakiy and the Person of Consequence. Akakiy is totally dominated by his inability to express himself meaningfully or even to finish a sentence he has started
The reader should know that Akakiy expressed himself for the most part in prepositions, adverbs and, finally, the kind of particles that have absolutely no meaning. But if the subject was very difficult he even had a habit of not ending his sentences at all, so that quite often, having begun his speech with the words: 'That's really absolutely sort of . . .' there would be nothing further, and he himself would forget, thinking that he had already said everything.
A demonic force, a kind of incipient chaos, lurks in wait for Akakiy not only behind every corner of the St Petersburg labyrinth, but behind every thought that begins to shape itself in the mists of his mind. Nor does the Person of Consequence fare better with words. Despite his ability (and need) to inspire awe and obedience in all his subordinates, with a whole range of bureaucratic power gambits and three terrifying, but meaningless questions, he becomes pathetically speechless in the company of anyone below him in rank
If he happened to be with his equals he was just as one should be, quite a decent chap and in many ways not even stupid; but as soon as he happened to be in company where there were people just one rank below him he would get quite out of control: he would fall silent and his state would arouse pity, particularly since he himself would even feel that he might have been spending the time incomparably better. Sometimes you could see in his eyes a powerful desire to join in some interesting conversation and circle, but he would be pulled up sharp by the thought: wouldn't this be just a bit much on his part, wouldn't it be too familiar, and wouldn't he be letting down through this his consequence? And as a result of these considerations he would remain all the time in the same silent state, only occasionally pronouncing some monosyllabic sounds, and thus he acquired the reputation of being the most tedious of men.
Not only the social conventions and bureaucratic hierarchies, then, but real linguistic impotence reduce both Akakiy and the Person of Consequence to a state of monosyllabic gibbering.
But they are not the only characters in 'The Overcoat' to be dominated by language; the narrator himself seems to be as much at risk from the verbal torrent which threatens all the time to sweep away out of control his plot, his characters and his narrative structure. If Akakiy and the Person of Consequence are victims of linguistic drought, however, the narrator is a victim of sheer intoxication with words. Our last quotation provides some good examples: 1. Balance and rhythm: the two halves of the first sentence combine similarity and contrast: 'If he happened to be with his equals . . . ; but as soon as he happened to be in company . . .' (Yesli yemu sluchalos' byt's rovnymi sebe . . . ; no kak tol'ko sluchalos' yemu byt'v obschestve . . . ). Similarly the three 'thoughts' that disturb the Person of Consequence in the second sentence are beautifully matched: 'wouldn't this be just a bit much on his part, wouldn't it be too familiar, and wouldn't he be letting down through this his consequence?' (ne budet li eto uzh ochen' mnogo syego storony, ne budet li famil'yarno, i ne uronit li on chrez to svoyego zhacheniya?). While the conditional clause in the first sentence appears to end quite logically and appropriately, however, the main clause combines at least three features which are absolutely crucial to Gogol's style: 2. alogism, 3. hyperbole, 4. bathos. In this case the three are inextricably linked: the hyperbolic 'he simply got totally out of control' is not logically related to the absurd illustration of his uncontrolled state—'he kept silent'. But if we look more closely, we find a similar, if less startling play with alogism, hyperbole and bathos in the apparently logical first clause: after 'very decent' and 'in many respects' we might have expected something more positive than 'not a stupid man'. Gogol typically heightens the bathos of this alogism by throwing in the word 'even' (dazhe) which, as Chizhevskiy pointed out in a famous article ['On Gogol's "The Overcoat,'" in Dostoevsky and Gogol: Texts and Criticisms, Priscilla Meyer and Stephen Rudy, 1979] is the key word underlying a whole range of effects in 'The Overcoat'. The tendency towards colloquialism in the narrator's choice of language—which Chizhevskiy refers to as an impoverishment but which we would rather view as an enrichment of the prevailing literary norm—is well illustrated by the particles in the phrase 'simply got totally out of control' (prosto khot' iz ruk von), in the self-interrogation of the free indirect questions in the second sentence quoted above. The shift in point of view signified by this increased colloquialism is, of course, made explicit by the shift to the supposed internal monologue or thoughts of the character contained within the narrative mode, but the pun with which the sentence ends involves a more typically unmotivated Gogolian shift, recalling the narrator's long digression on the word 'significant' (znachitel'noye), set in train by the first mention of the Person of Consequence
What exactly the official position of the Person of Consequence was and what it involved has remained unknown to this day. The reader should know that a certain person of consequence recently became consequential, and up to then had been a person of no consequence. However, his post even now has not been counted as of any consequence in comparison with others far more consequential. But a group of people is always to be found for whom whatever is inconsequential in others' eyes is for that reason consequential. However, he strove to bolster up his consequence by many other means . . .
Here sheer verbosity, a sort of intoxication with the endlessly expanding morphological and semantic frontiers of the pun, has driven out rational linear narrative. Language has become a demonic force in the story in its own right: it is indeed 'on the rampage'. The pun, like the alogism and the hyperbole-bathos mechanism offers a sort of verbal mirror dividing the 'real'-world of denotational meaning from the looking-glass world of infinitely receding connotations into which the reader risks falling with the narrator at every turn in the syntax. . . .
Boris Eikhenbaum, in perhaps the most famous study of 'The Overcoat,' concluded from his analysis of . . . stylistic devices that, with the plot reduced to a minimum and the centre of gravity switched to the devices of quasioral narration (skaz), the personal tone becomes the organizing principle for the story. Eikhenbaum was taken to task by his fellow Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, for his error in separating the style from the plot ['Shinel,' in Povesti o proze II, 1966]. The plot, says Shklovsky, is not reduced to a minimum. It is small-scale, but highly complex. The value of the skaz is in preserving the scale: the author uses it to examine all the details through a magnifying glass. He accepts Akakiy's thought system and at the same time never loses sight of the triviality of that system. The skaz discourse has the same random, alogical, spasmodic rhythm as Akakiy's thought and speech processes. Despite the somewhat tendentious socio-political conclusion this leads Shklovsky to draw, his view of the relationship between the plot and the narrative mode seems to have a richer potential.
Our own analysis of the narrative structure of 'The Overcoat' has revealed the central shift in the story from the dead world of the living Akakiy to the lively world of his ghost; from an impersonal world which dominates the little man to a world of personalities dominated by his spirit; from a 'real' world constantly threatened by demonic forces to a world of rumours where the demon spirits have taken over. We are in the realm of the 'grotesque' which, according to [wolfgang] Kayser, is 'Not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one—a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals and human beings and where the laws of statics, symmetry and proportion are no longer valid' [The Grotesque in Literature and Art, 1963]. The metaphor which has presented itself time and again to describe this turning-point is the surface of a mirror. But we are never sure, ultimately, whether the original object or its reflection in the distorting glass is more real. As with narrative structure, so with plot: which are more real—the episodes which advance the action or the digressions which retard it? So with character: who is more real—Akakiy Akakiyevich, the named protagonist who acquired his name by a quirk of fate or the anonymous Person of Consequence, whose 'consequence' is constantly threatened by a pun? So with setting: which is more real—the mirage-like St Petersburg peopled by faceless bureaucrats or the rather solid city through which Akakiy's ghost pursues his vengeful course? So, finally, with narrative mode and style: which is more real—the story or the manner in which it is told, the denotational meaning of the words or their infinitely receding or demonaically interacting connotations? For in Gogol's grotesque world language is as much at risk as causality, personality and action.
R. A. Peace (essay date 1985)
"Gogol: The Greatcoat," in The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics, edited by Roger Cockrell and David Richards, University of Exeter, 1985, pp. 27-40.
[In this essay Peace examines the role of word play in "The Overcoat," which, he argues, elucidates Gogol's central device of having the external world act as a metaphor for the internal world of the main character.]
"The Greatcoat" is the story of an impoverished civil service clerk, in St Petersburg, who by dint of great sacrifices manages to buy himself a new coat, but is robbed of it the very first evening he wears it. He tries to get it back by going to see a highly-placed official who gives him such a reprimand that the poor clerk falls ill and dies. Later his ghost haunts St Petersburg, stealing coats; it is only laid to rest when it has taken the greatcoat of the highly-placed official himself.
The story is often regarded as having initiated a whole tradition of Russian realism. 'We have all come out of Gogol's greatcoat' is a remark allegedly uttered by Dostoevsky (though this attribution is suspect). Yet in what sense can a story with a ghost sequence be called realistic? By realism Russian critics in the nineteenth century often meant 'critical realism', implying that a writer by portraying society 'realistically' was thereby expressing criticism of it. On the face of it the plot of "The Greatcoat," as outlined, does suggest a social theme and it cannot be denied that criticism is implicit in Gogol's treatment of the police (in particular his laughter at the inept constables). Veneration of rank and the insolence of authority (the 'Important Person') are presented with implied censure. Yet, as regards his poverty, the authorities in Akakii Akakievich's own department are not responsible for his plight. The director gives him a much higher bonus than he had expected when he needs the money for his coat. Afterwards the assistant chief clerk invites him to a party, partly in honour of his coat. Nor can it be argued that the civil service has turned Akakii Akakievich into the automaton that he undoubtedly is. Indeed, he seems to have been born to his role and we learn that he had once been given more interesting work but had proved incapable of it.
Nor is it entirely true that he is portrayed sympathetically. If the other clerks poke fun at him, they do little more than the narrator of the story himself; for in spite of his strictures on those writers who mock titular councillors, he nevertheless constantly presents his own hero as a figure of fun, with a neck that reminds him of a toy plasterkitten, and the strange ability always to find himself under a window when rubbish is being thrown out.
Moreover the poverty of Akakii Akakievich, which is the corner-stone for any social interpretation of the work, cannot be taken at its face value; it is always presented with hyperbole. In the first place, Akakii Akakievich is by no means at the bottom of the hierarchy of ranks—he is in the ninth grade, which means there were another five grades below his. Other titular councillors in Gogol do not appear to be in such financial straits. Poprishchin, for instance, in "The Diary of a Madman" goes to the theatre, reads the journal The Northern Bee and orders a new uniform. Nor in "The Greatcoat" itself is poverty stressed in the lives of the other minor civil servants, whose leisure time is full of theatre-going, card-playing and tea-drinking. Indeed, all their various activities are used as a contrast to set off the absolute lack of any outside activity on the part of Akakii Akakievich himself.
A contrast can also be seen in the figure of the assistant chief clerk who, if Akakii Akakievich seems incredibly poor, appears on the other hand to be exaggeratedly affluent. He is, after all, only the assistant chief clerk, yet he not only lives in the better part of St Petersburg, but occupies the best part of the house—the first floor. He has servants, is able to throw a lavish party without any difficulty and invites guests whose coats have beaver-fur collars and velvet lapels.
Akakii Akakievich has absolutely no social life and no dependents, is over fifty and has been in the department for longer than anyone can remember, yet he is apparently unable to afford something as essential as a proper coat to keep out the St Petersburg frost. It is not as though he is incompetent in monetary affairs. For every rouble which he spends he always puts half a copeck away in a money box. By this means he has already accumulated half the sum necessary for his new coat—forty roubles. According to Akakii Akakievich's system of saving, this must represent a total of eight thousand roubles which he has spent 'in the course of several years', so that, as he receives four hundred roubles per year, it represents twenty years' salary. (The actual period of saving might not be as long as this, since we know that he gets bonuses from the director.)
He is expecting a bonus for the holiday, but it is allotted in advance for other clothing:
It was necessary to get some new trousers, to pay the bootmaker an old debt for vamping old boot-tops, and he also had to order three shirts from the seamstress, and a couple of items of that underwear which it is unseemly to mention by name in print.
The coyness of the comic tone suggests that this is not to be taken at its face value, and indeed after his death none of this other clothing is mentioned:
They did not seal his room, nor any of his things, because in the first place there were no heirs, and in the second place, very little inheritance had been left, to be precise—a bunch of goose quills, a quire of white official paper, three pairs of socks, two or three buttons which had dropped off his trousers, and the dressing-gown, already well known to the reader.
Yet the boots and the underclothing had earlier figured prominently in his budget, for he had resolved:
when walking along the streets, to step on the stones and paving as lightly and carefully as possible, almost on tiptoe, so that by these means he would not wear out his soles quickly; to give his undergarments to be washed by the laundress as seldom as possible; and in order to prevent them getting too dirty from wear, to take them off every time he came home, and wear only a fustian dressing-gown, which was very ancient and had been spared even by time itself.
All this is grotesque: the poverty of Akakii Akakievich is not credible in real terms. If all the titular councillors of Tsar Nicholas I were as inexplicably indigent, he would never have had a civil service. Yet although the material poverty of Akakii Akakievich is open to question, what is not in doubt is his spiritual poverty: it is not Akakii Akakievich's lack of material resources which is striking, but the paucity of his spiritual resources. Gogol is here employing a device central to his portrayal of psychological states: the external world reflects an inner world and in Akakii Akakievich's outward indigence we have a metaphor of his inner poverty.
Akakii Akakievich's inner world is completely obsessive. He has only one passion—the copying out of words:
One could scarcely find a man who lived so much in his job. It is not enough to say that he worked with zeal, no, he worked with love. In his copying he was aware of a world of his own which was pleasant and full of variety.
His love of writing is not merely a job; his leisure hours, spent at home, are devoted to his one great passion. Even when walking about the streets he is incapable of thinking about anything else:
But if Akakii Akakievich looked at anything, then everywhere he saw his own clear lines, written in an even hand, and only if a horse's muzzle sprang out of nowhere, lodged itself on his shoulder and blew out through its nostrils a whole wind on to his cheek, only then would he notice that he was not in the middle of a line, but rather in the middle of the street.
This day-dream quality associated with Akakii Akakievich's copying is suggestive of 'writing' of a different order. Our hero might almost be a writer in a more fundamental sense—a man obsessed by words like Gogol himself. But Akakii Akakievich's imagination is caught not by the content and significance of words, but by their outward form; their most palpable material expression. Even in his inner world surface has ousted content.
Akakii Akakievich's obsession with words is understandable: communication is his central problem. When he is given a job which entails the alteration and the use of words rather than merely copying them, he is at a complete loss. In daily life too, communication is difficult because of his lack of words:
It must be explained that Akakii Akakievich expressed himself for the most part in prepositions, adverbs, and ultimately in particles which had absolutely no meaning whatever. If, indeed, it were a very difficult matter, he even had the habit of leaving his phrases unfinished, so that very frequently he would begin his utterance with the words: 'It, indeed, is absolutely, and that,' and then there was just nothing else at all, and he himself would have forgotten, believing that he had already said everything.
Akakii Akakievich not only lacks words himself, he is at the mercy of the words of others, even of the rhetorical effects of Petrovich, the one-eyed tailor, who, we are told:
. . . was very fond of powerful effects. He liked in some way or other suddenly to take people completely aback and then look sideways to see what sort of face the bewildered person would pull at such words.
The 'powerful effect' of Petrovich, the price he quotes for a new coat, is the device of hyperbole. It challenges the indigence of Akakii Akakievich on both its levels: the material and the verbal.
In all Akakii Akakievich's obsessive copying of words, what he seeks to make his own is not beauty of style but communication with someone unknown or someone important:
. . . he would purposely take a copy for himself, for his own pleasure, particularly if the document was distinguished, not by the beauty of its style, but by the fact that it was addressed to some new or important person.
When, however, in real life he tries to communicate with a 'new and important person' (the general to whom he is advised to turn for help), he is a second time devastated by words:
But the important person, pleased by the fact that the effect had even surpassed all expectations and completely intoxicated by the thought that a word from him could even deprive a man of his senses, glanced sideways at his friend to find out how he looked on the matter.
Here the interview with the general seems consciously to be likened to the earlier visit to the tailor: both love effekty, and both look sideways to see what reaction there is to their words. The interview with Petrovich ends: '. . . and Akakii Akakievich went out, completely annihilated after such words'. With the general, however, the 'annihilation' is no longer metaphorical: after his words Akakii Akakievich takes to his bed and dies.
Akakii Akakievich's obsession with the outer form of words, with their well-executed graphic clothing, is a mark of his desire to be master of them, and at the same time it is a sad comment on his inability to capture their content. He is thus a character in a well-known Gogolian mould, caught between the 'visible laughter' of the outer surface and the 'unseen tears' of the inner world. Yet there is one person with whom he does appear to be able to communicate. On collecting his wits in the street after his first visit to Petrovich, we are told that he:
. . . began to converse with himself, not jerkily any more, but reasonably and frankly, as though with a sensible friend, with whom one could have a chat about something intimate and near to one's heart.
Communication which is difficult with others seems easy with himself—the one friend he has. Nevertheless there is another 'friend' who comes into his life, a friend who significantly has his own outward form—his new greatcoat. He must endure privations if he is to gain it. He must go without food. Eating for him previously had been the act of an insentient creature (he only realised that it was time to stop when he saw that his stomach had swollen) but now the idea of the coat represents a new 'spiritual' sustenance:
He even trained himself to go without food in the evenings, but on the other hand he had spiritual food, for he bore in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future coat. From that time on it was as though his very existence had become somehow fuller, as though he had got married, as though some other person were present alongside him, as though he were not alone, as though some congenial life-long lady-friend had agreed to go together with him along life's way—and this lady-friend was none other than that very overcoat with its thick padding and strong lining that would not wear out.
The 'eternal titular councillor' has found his mate not in the 'external feminine' but in the 'eternal idea' of his new coat. A man without content has fallen in love with his new facade. The effect the coat has on his personality is remarkable:
He became somehow livelier, even firmer in character, like a man who had determined and set himself a goal. Doubt and indecision, in a word all wavering and vague traits, disappeared of their own accord from his face and his behaviour. From time to time fire showed in his eyes, and the most daring and bold thoughts flashed through his mind: 'Should I not really put marten on the collar?'
The entertaining of 'the most daring and bold thoughts' in respect of the coat seems to be carrying on the sexual motif, and certainly the coat has replaced his old love: 'Once, when copying a document, he nearly even made a mistake, so that he exclaimed "ugh!" almost audibly and crossed himself.'
When he has enough money to buy the material for his coat, 'his heart usually quite quiet, began to beat'; and the day on which the coat was actually brought to him is given almost ceremonial importance by one of the narrator's verbal formulae:
It was . . . it is difficult to say on what precise day, but probably on the most solemn of days in Akakii Akakievich's life, that Petrovich finally brought the coat.
This most solemn of days in the life of Akakii Akakievich might almost be a wedding. Certainly the festive occasion is linked to an awakening of feeling: 'In the meantime, Akakii Akakievich went along in the most festive disposition of all his feelings', and this new outward form has even brought him 'inner happiness'.
This sense of a special occasion is carried on in the treatment Akakii Akakievich receives at the office. It is suggested that he should throw a party that evening so that his colleagues can drink to the coat. Akakii Akakievich is saved from further embarrassment only by the intervention of the assistant chief clerk who invites everybody round to his apartment instead, as it so happens that it is his name-day:
The whole of that day was for Akakii Akakievich just like the greatest solemn festival. He returned home in the happiest frame of mind.
His whole way of life appears to be changing:
He dined cheerfully and after dinner he did not write anything, not a single document, but just lay like a sybarite on the bed, until it got dark.
He then puts on his greatcoat and sets out for the party.
The section which follows is one of the key sections of the story. The narrator loses his memory when he wishes to give the precise location in St Petersburg of the apartment of the assistant chief clerk. (It does not matter that he has not bothered to tell us where Akakii Akakievich lives, nor where he works.) The problem of where the assistant chief clerk lives, however, is solved by one of the narrator's verbal formulae:
What is at least certain is that the civil servant lived in the better part of the town, therefore not at all near to Akakii Akakievich.
The formula seeks to emphasise the social distance between two worlds, but the distance is also psychological. The physical landmarks of the route, as the narrator confesses by way of excuse, are all confused in his head:
. . . and everything that there is in St Petersburg, all the streets and the houses have become so fused and jumbled in one's head that it is difficult to get anything out of there in a decent form.
Certainly, there seems to be a parallel between what is going on in the streets of St Petersburg and what is going on in another head—that of Akakii Akakievich. His movement into greater life is not merely a physical progression, but reflects a process going on within Akakii Akakievich himself. Once more we have an example of Gogol's central device; the outer world is a metaphor for the inner:
At first Akakii Akakievich had to pass through several desolate streets with feeble lighting, but the more he drew near to the apartment of the civil servant, the livelier the streets became, the more populated and the more powerfully illuminated.
His progress is from desolation to life—from darkness to light, and now the former automaton, who never used to notice anything in the street, seems to have his eyes open for the first time: 'He looked at all this as though it were something new.'
An even more amazing awakening seems to be taking place:
He stopped with curiosity before the lighted window of a shop to look at a picture which depicted a beautiful woman, who was throwing off her shoe, and thus exposing her whole leg, and not a bad one at that, while behind her back a man with side whiskers and a beautiful goatee beard below his lip had stuck his head through the doorway from another room. Akakii Akakievich shook his head from side to side, grinned, and then went on his way. Why did he grin? Was it because he had encountered a thing that was completely unknown to him, but about which each one of us has retained some sort of sixth sense, or like many other civil servants, did he think the following: 'Well, those French! If they take a fancy to something like that, then it is, indeed, just as it were . . .' ? But perhaps he did not even think that—it is after all impossible to get inside the soul of another man and find out everything that he thinks.
Thus the narrator disclaims all attempt at psychological analysis. Yet his own speculations, before his assertion that it is impossible to get inside another man, not only call attention to Akakii Akakievich's state of mind, they suggest his ambiguity of response in an evocative way. A similarly effective denial of psychological insight occurs after the loss of the coat when Akakii Akakievich has returned home and gone to bed:
. . . and how he spent the night there may be judged by those who are capable to any extent of imagining the situation of another man.
Gogol, in rejecting any possibility of getting inside his characters, is not abandoning the attempt to portray their psychology. He merely proceeds by different means. Akakii Akakievich wears his new greatcoat like a different frame of mind; his brand-new outward form is his new self. At the same time the greatcoat also has for him associations of a new relationship, a 'life-long lady-friend', so that when in his progress through the 'streets' of St Petersburg, he encounters sexual titillation, perhaps for the first time, his reactions are ambiguous—but not as ambiguous as the narrator would have us believe.
The opening paragraph of "The Greatcoat" should be a warning to the reader. It is long, involved and absolutely irrelevant to the story itself. In fact the opening paragraph is a sort of verbal arabesque which goes nowhere, except back to its original starting point: from 'In one of our government departments' to '. . . a certain department.'
It is typical of Gogol to take his reader on a long aside which will go nowhere. As a form of humour it may be compared to the shaggy dog story, where the joke is not for the listener but on the listener. It is, of course, a dangerous game to play with a reader, who can always terminate the joke by putting the book down. Moreover, such a joke implies a latent hostility towards the reader. Yet if the anecdote in the opening paragraph about the police inspector has any point at all, it is to suggest quite the reverse, namely that readers (especially those in official positions) are only too prone to show hostility towards authors.
The narrator of the story is, of course, not Gogol himself. It is someone who is very naive, not at all well educated, and who as a teller of a story is incredibly inept. He repeatedly concentrates on inessential and often absurd details, at the expense of the plot itself—and in this sense the opening paragraph is a foretaste of what is to come. (The inept narrator is a favourite device with Gogol, and this type of tale—a story told by an illiterate narrator—is quite common in Russian literature).
But although the narrator is naive, the narrative, in effect, is not: it is full of hints, innuendoes, puns and verbal tricks of all sorts. It is through these that the tale really unfolds, and in a way which gives hidden depth to a seemingly shallow surface.
One of the great ironies of this style is that the naive narrator requires a sophisticated reader, a reader who is sensitive, not to the possibilities of personal libel, as those whom Gogol mocks in the opening paragraph, but one who is sensitive to words and tone and word-play.
Naive ambiguity is a constant feature of the narrative technique in "The Greatcoat." There are many puns which communicate a waywardness and playfulness of tone to the narrative, yet their contribution is not so much to the humour of the story as to the external presentation of the inner world of the central character, a man who is himself obsessed by the outward form of words, their graphic contours, only because their real content and function eludes him. The pun is precisely this: a word taken at face value which nevertheless has a hidden content beneath its deceptive surface. The verbal play has more meaning than is at first apparent, and the relationship between facade and interior is not only the central 'device' of "The Greatcoat," it is the architectural principle which informs its shape.
There is a great deal of verbal play at the opening of the story, (i.e. the whole of the introductory section ending with the play on the word 'councillor'). In introducing Akakii Akakievich the narrator places exaggerated importance on the naming of his hero, whereas his formative years are merely bridged by a verbal formula: 'The child was christened. At which he began to cry and he pulled such a face as though he sensed beforehand that he would be a titular councillor.' Almost immediately after this we find him already long established in the office as a copy clerk: '. . . so that later people became convinced that he had obviously been born into the world ready-made, in a uniform and a bald patch on his head'. His christening seems to pre-ordain his profession and his profession seems to have been entered on at birth.
This emphasis on his christening and lack of interest in his formative years suggests that his name is far more important than his life in determining his character. In particular the origin of the surname is treated with naive seriousness:
The civil servant's name was Bashmachkin. From the very name itself one can see that at some time it had been derived from a shoe; but when, at what particular time and in what way it was derived from a shoe—nothing of this is known. Both his father and his grandfather, and even his brother-in-law, all Bash-machkins through and through, used to walk about in boots, changing the soles only three times a year.
The whole of this explanation is patently absurd, if taken at its surface meaning. Yet, on another level, it suggests a whole train of semantic ambiguities which are picked up and developed later in the story, and in such a way as to reveal the psychological problems of Akakii Akakievich himself.
In the first place the verb 'derived' is taken quite literally, (the all important qualification 'word' which ought to precede 'shoe' is omitted) so that our hero's name appears to have come directly from an article of footwear—a shoe (just as later it will be suggested that he has almost got married to a greatcoat). Through his surname the hero is thus directly identified with a mere casing of the human body.
The narrator compounds the absurdity by asserting that all Akakii Akakievich's family wore boots, and gives the irrelevant information that they had the soles replaced only three times a year. (The saving of his soles will later figure prominently in Akakii Akakievich's economies needed to acquire the coat.) The list of Akakii Akakievich's relatives, who, according to the narrator, are all genuine Bashmachkins includes 'even a brother-in-law' (i dazhe shurin) despite the fact that, as this is a relationship by marriage, he could not possibly be a genuine Bashmachkin as the narrator claims. Yet the inclusion of this brother-in-law is absurd in an even more profound sense. Russian relationships by marriage are very precise, and shurin can only mean 'wife's brother'. For Akakii Akakievich to have a 'shurin', he must also have a wife, but a wife is no more in evidence than these other relatives with whom he is here credited. Akakii Akakievich is completely alone. This little verbal puzzle, therefore, tangles the 'shoe' from which his name is derived, with the relatives from whom he is actually derived (his father and his grandfather) and ties them in with a figure to whom he can only be related by a sexual bond (the brother-in-law).
The theme of the wife, who is non-existent but implied, appears again when the narrator gives examples of his 'down-trodden' existence, such as the teasing to which he is subjected at the office:
They would relate, right in front of him, various stories concocted about him. They said about his landlady, an old woman of seventy, that she beat him, and they would ask him when their wedding would be. They would scatter paper on his head, calling it snow.
The motif of the 'shoe' is prominent in the picture which stirs a vague sexual awakening in Akakii Akakievich, and the detail seems intentional, for virtually the same picture is described at the end of "The Nose," but without the mention of a shoe. At a later stage a shoe will also link this picture with his landlady. Thus the 'shoe', from which his outward identification (his name) is derived, suggests a latent sexual motif in much the same way as does that other item of apparel, his other outward form, the greatcoat.
Akakii Akakievich's progress through St Petersburg may be interpreted as a journey in self-exploration: it is certainly a progress towards light. He moves away from his own badly-lit part of the city, past the lighted window with its erotic picture to the apartment of the civil servant who has invited him; 'the assistant chief clerk lived in great style; there was a lantern shining on the staircase'.
The fact that Akakii Akakievich is at first overawed is again suggested by Gogol's external method of psychological portrayal. Akakii Akakievich is reduced to the status of an object among other objects:
On entering the hall Akakii Akakievich saw on the floor a whole row of galoshes. Among them in the middle of the room stood a samovar, noisily emitting clouds of steam. On the walls hung nothing but greatcoats and capes, among which there were several which even had beaver collars or velvet lapels.
It seems significant that he is confronted with footwear and greatcoats. The only thing which appears to have life in this ante-room is another inanimate object—the samovar. Real life once more, it seems, is going on elsewhere: for on the other side of the wall he can hear the noise of the party. The guests have already been assembled for some time.
Nevertheless the occasion has been held partly to honour Akakii Akakievich's new coat. He is accepted by this society, and his greatcoat is rapturously admired, even though there are better ones hanging up in the hall. 'Then, of course, everybody dropped him and his coat and turned, as is the custom, to the whist-tables.' After all, Akakii Akakievich is not really at home in these surroundings. He tries to creep away, but is made to stay for supper and two festive glasses of champagne. It is after midnight when he escapes. He finds his coat, 'which, not without regret, he perceived was lying on the floor'. He carefully shakes it, and goes down to a still lighted street. Here, sexual promptings (inexplicable to the narrator) once more well up within him:
Akakii Akakievich went along in a gay mood, and for some unknown reason he was even almost on the point of running up behind some lady or other, who went past like lightning, and every part of whose body was full of unusual movement. However, he stopped at once and went on as before very slowly, amazed himself at this unaccountable burst of speed.
His progress now, however, is away from light and conviviality towards the dark, shuttered emptiness of his own quarter of the town.
On his outward journey he had been looking for the first time in his life. Now, as he crosses a dark square, where a light seems 'at the world's end' and 'it is as though there is a sea around him', our explorer closes his eyes—and is robbed of his greatcoat by men with moustaches. Thus he is brutally deprived of the promise of that fuller life which had been offered to him so briefly and so tenuously.
He goes home to his landlady and the details of his return seem to reproduce in ironical terms the elements of the picture in the lighted window which had earlier aroused such strange stirrings within him:
The old lady, the landlady of his apartment, hearing the terrible knocking at the door, hurriedly jumped out of bed and with a shoe on only one foot, ran to open the door, holding her nightshirt to her bosom out of modesty.
The landlady, as we know, has already been associated with the marital status of Akakii Akakievich by the clerks at the office, who teased him about marrying her and scattered 'snow' on his head. Now, when he comes back covered in real snow, his landlady, like the woman in the picture, confronts him with 'a shoe on one foot' and a hint of sexual titillation ('holding her nightshirt to her bosom, out of modesty'). But the 'man at the door' is not the dandy with the side whiskers and beautiful beard; it is the dishevelled Akakii Akakievich, with what little hair he has in complete disarray.
So Akakii Akakievich is thrown back on his seventy-year-old landlady, by the 'light' of whose candle he used to work in the evenings (after first having taken off his underwear to economise on laundry!). On her advice he goes to the police, but the district superintendent seems to think that the loss of the coat is in some way connected with its owner's dissolute life:
The district superintendent received the story of the theft of the coat somehow in an exceedingly strange way. Instead of turning his attention to the main point of the matter, he began to question Akakii Akakievich as to why he was returning home so late, and hadn't he called in at some disorderly house or other?
Here, as elsewhere in the story, the significance of the coat is interpreted not in terms of the obvious, but in terms of a suggested sexual theme. The hint is present even on his death-bed, for he keeps asking his landlady to drag a coat-thief out from under his blankets.
If in the opening section of "The Greatcoat" verbal play is an important device for establishing motifs which are to be developed in the central section of the story, now in the final section (the ghost sequence) verbal play has a similar function. There is a recurring pun on the concepts of 'dead' and 'alive'. The police are ordered to apprehend the 'dead man dead or alive'. One of them apparently succeeds, but loses the ghost because he pauses to take snuff of a quality 'which even a dead man couldn't stand', and from that time on the police 'got so frightened of dead men, that they were even fearful of arresting the living'. Finally, there is an 'apparition' at the end of the story, who when challenged by a policeman, shows him a huge fist 'such as you would not find on the living'.
All this seems like humour directed at the police, who throughout the story have shown themselves to be particularly inept, but there is also a serious intention behind the word-play. The ghost is first introduced as 'a dead man in the form of a civil servant' (mertvets v vide chinovnika). Later he is simply referred to as the 'dead mancivil servant' (chinovnik-mertvets). The verbal play on 'dead' and 'alive' is therefore a motif pointing to the artistic function of the story's fantastic ending; it raises the whole question of 'chinovnik-mertvets'.
When he was alive, Akakii Akakievich was in reality more like a 'civil servant in the form of a dead man'. The promise of an awakening into life, flimsy though it may have been, was cruelly taken from him by men with moustaches. When he has died he returns as a 'dead man in the form of a civil servant' to avenge himself and, by one of those ironies in which the story abounds, he proves to be more effective as a dead man, than he was when alive.
It is typical of Gogol that this inversion to which the central character is subjected should also be reflected in the external world around him. When earlier Akakii Akakievich was going through the streets of St Petersburg, the narrator was insistent that everything in the city was so muddled in his head that he could not remember names; now, when his hero appears as a ghost, he is very meticulous about giving the precise location of each appearance. In the first instance a real man was going through a spiritual city; in the second a spirit man is haunting a concrete and actual city.
It is only after the ghost has robbed the 'important person' of his greatcoat that this unquiet spirit is finally laid, and the whole incident is presented with the same ironic parallelism of detail which has been noted elsewhere in the story. The important person, having just learned of the death of Akakii Akakievich, goes to a party to cheer himself up. (Akakii Akakievich had been to a party before he lost his coat.) Here (like Akakii Akakievich before him) he has two glasses of champagne. He feels in a gayer mood, and just as Akakii Akakievich had then, for some unknown reason, wanted to chase after a woman in the street, so the important person now entertains thoughts of an amorous nature:
The champagne put him in a mood for special measures; that is he decided not to go home yet, but to call on a certain lady of his acquaintance, Karolina Ivanovna, a lady who appeared to be of German extraction, and for whom he felt an entirely friendly relationship.
Here, as in the earlier incident with Akakii Akakievich, the narrator shows himself to be naively uncomprehending about the sexual motivation of his characters.
Whereas Akakii Akakievich had been making the first tentative gestures in the direction of life, the important person has long had it firmly in his grasp. He takes an active part in the evening gathering as a man among equals; on leaving the party he is going to a real mistress; and moreover, unlike Akakii Akakievich, he also has a family:
But the important person, although he was quite content with the family affection he received at home, considered it fitting to have a lady-friend in another part of town for friendly relationships. This lady-friend was not a whit better or younger than his wife. But such puzzles do exist in the world, and it is not for us to judge them.
It seems poetic justice that the ghost should rob this 'man of substance' of his greatcoat at this precise moment. The effect is cathartic: the ghost is laid, and the general himself becomes a much better person.
The story ends with yet another ironic twist. Another ghost is seen and it is believed to be the ghost of Akakii Akakievich, but it is really an 'apparition' and when challenged by a particularly inept policeman it threatens him with a fist not unlike that of the man who had stolen Akakii Akakievich's greatcoat in the first place and had showed him a fist 'the size of a civil servant's head'. The policeman leaves the apparition alone:
The apparition was, however, much taller and wore really enormous moustaches, and turning its steps, as it seemed, towards the Obukhov Bridge, it completely disappeared in the darkness of the night.
Even Akakii Akakievich's credibility as a ghost, it seems, is being challenged by those men with moustaches and the whole story ends on a note of darkness.
Victor Peppard (essay date 1990)
"Who Stole Whose Overcoat and Whose Text Is It?" in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 63-80.
[In the following essay, Peppard compares "The Overcoat" to stories in the supernatural genre with which Gogol was most likely familiar, in order to determine whether the conclusion is intended by Gogol to be supernatural or mundane.]
The conclusion of "The Overcoat" is usually regarded as absolutely crucial to the story's whole meaning, yet there is no consensus among critics about what actually takes place at the end of the story. Indeed, one of the most fundamental questions that the conclusion poses, namely, who stole whose overcoat, remains very much in a state of doubt and dispute. There are a number of reasons for this anomalous situation. First of all, ambiguity was not only a special forte of Gogol, but an especially important feature of the romantic literature of the period in which he wrote. Specifically, Gogol's use of detail is remarkably ambiguous and filled with traps for seekers after hard facts and certain conclusions. The lack of agreement among critics and scholars over exactly what happens at the end of "The Overcoat" is eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of Gogol's technique.
The ending of the story has given rise to a whole range of interpretations. There are many who believe that it is truly supernatural in that Akaky Akakievich actually returns from the grave to rob the significant personage of his overcoat. As V. V. Gippius says, "in the structure of the story, a special place is occupied by the fantastic ending. (It must in fact be regarded as fantastic)" [Gogol, ed. and trans, by Robert A. Maguire, 1981]. From different points of view, [Dmitry] Chizhevsky, [Henri] Troyat, and [M. B.] Khrapchenko all agree [Chizhevsky, "About Gogol's Overcoat'," Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. and trans. by Robert A. Maguire 1974; Troyat, Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol, trans. Nancy Amphout, 1973; Khrapchenko, Nikola, Gogol Literaturngi put'. Velichie pisatelia, 1984]. Others are absolutely convinced that the ending is in fact completely mundane; according to them, it is not Akaky Akakievich who steals the significant personage's overcoat but, rather, some thieves. In between these two radically opposed analyses there are many critics who are not entirely certain about what takes place; some lean towards the mundane view and some favor the supernatural one.
In all of the many critical analyses of "The Overcoat" one of the things that is most often missing is a recognition that the story, for all of its manifest brilliance and independence as a unique masterpiece, has a definite and tremendously significant relationship to the genre of the supernatural tale, particularly those tales about corpses and ghosts who have, or seem to have, returned from the dead. Therefore, in order better to understand "The Overcoat" it is instructive to examine it in relation to the practice of Gogol's predecessors, such as E. T. A. Hoffmann, Washington Irving, and Pushkin, as well as to Gogol's own treatment of the supernatural. In particular it is helpful to establish to what extent Gogol models his story on the generic requirements of the supernatural tale and to what extent he modifies them for his own purposes.
If some definite conclusions about the ending can be reached, a demonstration of how they reflect on some of the central questions raised by the story as a whole is in order. For example, is there a moral or a message that may be distilled from it, as is often claimed? Also, can the story be used as an instrument with which to measure the psychological and spiritual states of its author? Finally, just for whom has this text been designed, and whom has Gogol designated as the final arbiter of its meaning?
In assessing the relationship of "The Overcoat" to the genre of the supernatural tale it is useful to begin by noting the theories of Gary Saul Morson [as outlined his book, The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's "Diary of a Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, 1981] about how genres relate to one another and how they are formed and reformed. Morson's ideas are particularly relevant to those times when genres are in a state of transition, when literature is on the threshold between eras—exactly the kind of period in which "The Overcoat" was written. For "The Overcoat" (1842) appeared just at the time when Russian literature was moving from an essentially romantic depiction of character motivation to a more psychologically realistic one such as that exemplified in Lermontov's Geroi nashego vremeni (1840; Hero of Our Time, 1958). We also know that Gogol was then himself attempting, as Slonimsky puts it, to give the characters in his sequel to Dead Souls "lifelike, 'realistic,' fullness and richness" [Alexander Slonimsky, "The Technique of the Comic in Gogol," in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. and trans. by Robert A. Maguire, 1974] and thereby create his own version of a psychologically realistic novel.
The first of Morson's concepts that is so illuminating with respect to "The Overcoat" is that of a doubly encoded text. Such a work may contain two fundamentally different texts, each of which may be for a different reader. One of the most graphic examples of this occurs frequently in children's literature, where, as happens in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, one and the same story may contain such a doubly encoded structure that includes one text for the child reader and another for the adult reader. One of the reasons "The Overcoat" has proven so elusive and so resistant to monologizing readings is that the story is a doubly, if not multiply, encoded text.
Morson's other concept that enhances our understanding of "The Overcoat" is found in his description of how one may detect the presence of parody in a work of fiction. As Morson writes, "an especially common technique is the introduction of an element—an incident in the plot, let us say, or an unexpected choice of words—that is incongruous with the tone or generic conventions of the original." Here Morson is in a sense expanding the formalist critic Yury Tynianov's notion that comic motivation plays a decisive role in the creation of parody.
In light of Tynianov's and Morson's theories of parody the following passage, in which Gogol introduces an element of comedy by means of a pun, acquires special significance: "At the police station the order was given to catch the dead man (mertvets) at any cost, dead (mertvogo) or alive, and punish him as an example to others in the severest manner, and they almost even succeeded in this."
The comic tone becomes even more pronounced in a scene that could be a precursor to modern slapstick comedy when a watchman grabs hold of the (presumed) corpse, calls for help, and gets out some snuff in order to "freshen up his nose that had been frostbitten six times in his lifetime." The snuff is such strong stuff that it causes the corpse to spray the watchman in the eyes with a sneeze, at which point the corpse makes his getaway. Gogol's compilation of gestures and details may cause the reader to forget that the whole sequence of events is most improbable. Gogol resumes his play with the language when he writes, "The watchmen took such a fright of dead men (mertvetsam) that they were even afraid to take the living (zhivykh)" In this part of the story Gogol builds a network of comedy on two levels: comic gestures and plays on words. Their combined effect is to make the reader wary about this dead man who seems to have returned to haunt the living.
There is another level on which Gogol suggests that there may be an alternate reading to this apparently fantastic tale. This is found in the extensive description of the significant personage's psychological reaction to Akaky Akakievich's death.
Soon after the departure of the poor Akaky Akakievich, who had been severely dressed down, a certain significant personage began to feel something like regret. Compassion was not foreign to him; his heart was accessible to many kind movements, despite the fact that his rank very often prevented them from being manifested. . . . He even began to think about poor Akaky Akakievich. And from that time almost every day the pale Akaky Akakievich . . . would appear to him (predstavlialsia emu). The thought of him disturbed him to such a degree that a week later he decided even to send a clerk to him to find out what was going on and whether there was not indeed some way to help him; and when they reported to him that Akaky Akakievich had died suddenly in a fever, he was even stricken, felt pangs of conscience (upreki sovesti), and was out of sorts all day.
Partly in order to forget the unpleasant impression the news of Akaky Akakievich's death has made on him the significant personage goes out to a social gathering, where he drinks "a couple glasses of champagne." The narrator tells us that the champagne inspired the significant personage to visit his mistress. Before reaching her he is robbed by a man whom he recognizes as Akaky Akakievich and whose face "was white as snow and looked just like a corpse."
What is so striking in the build-up to this last act of robbery is the thorough psychological motivation provided by Gogol, whose characters are otherwise mainly known for their lack of such motivation. Indeed, Gogol gives all of the reasons that are necessary for the reader to conclude that it may well have been a guilty conscience that causes the significant personage to see Akaky Akakievich in his robber. Furthermore, as we shall see shortly, the device of using a character's drinking of alcohol as a stimulus for his apprehension of events as supernatural had already become well-known in the work of Pushkin and others.
For those who do not believe in the fantasticality of the conclusion of "The Overcoat" the description of the ghost (prividenie) who appears at the very end of the story is perhaps even more persuasive than the guilty conscience of the significant personage. This is, by the way, the first ghost to appear in the story, since up to that point the putative corpse (mertvets) of Akaky Akakievich has been the only other visitor to the city from beyond the grave. He has an "enormous moustache" and "such a fist as you won't find among the living," and consequently looks just like one of the men who robbed Akaky Akakievich, who also had a moustache and "a fist the size of a clerk's head." Since this ghost was "much taller in stature" than whoever or whatever it was that robbed the significant personage, a mundane explanation of the conclusion is that there were two thieves, exactly the two who robbed Akaky Akakievich, one of whom is tall and the other of whom is short. If this is so, it is eminently appropriate for Gogol, whose works abound in these carnivalistic pairs, such as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky of Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1964) and the two Ivans of Povest' of torn, kak possorilsia Ivan Ivanovich s Ivanom Nikiforovichem (1834; The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich, 1964). The two Ivans are juxtaposed to each other in approximately the same way as are the thieves of "The Overcoat" in that "Ivan Ivanovich is a bit thin and of tall stature; Ivan Nikiforovich is a little shorter, but to make up for it he spreads out in girth."
Yet, despite the evidence that the ending of "The Overcoat" may contain a spoof of a supernatural tale, many of the most serious critics of the story are not willing to deny that it is fantastic. For example, Bernheimer writes the following: "Even if one grants that the ghost seen by the frail policeman was 'really' the original thief of Akaky's overcoat, that ghost is not necessarily the same as the earlier 'corpse' which, after all, we have been explicitly told has ceased to appear" [Charles C. Bernheimer, "Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's 'Overcoat,'" PMLA 90, 1975]. Bernheimer concludes that Stilman's claim [in his Afterword to "Diary of a Madman" and Other Stories, trans. by Andrew R. MacAndrew, 1966] that the significant personage was robbed by the same man who robbed Akaky Akakievich "cannot be proved."
In order better to assess whether the conclusion of "The Overcoat" contains supernatural occurrences or simply mundane ones, it is helpful to examine how the genre of the supernatural tale had developed up to the time of the story's writing, both in Gogol and in the work of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, and to determine to what extent Gogol is implementing the conventions of such a tale and to what extent he is altering them for his own purposes.
Ghost stories, stories about dead people who have returned to be with the living, and other supernatural tales appear in a number of different forms. In some stories events have a completely supernatural motivation. In others, fantastic apparitions and corpses only seem to take part in the events of the story, but they are in fact the product of a character's dream. There are also tales that deliberately spoof the traditional formulae of a ghost story and are designed so that only the most gullible characters and readers will believe that they are fantastic. Finally, there are stories in which it is difficult to tell whether the events are truly supernatural or only apparently supernatural. Generally speaking, it is only the first category of ghost story that is characterized by the utmost gravity in the presentation of the fantastic. The other kinds of ghost stories contain the possibility for comic and humorous twists and even outright parody of the usual fantastic motifs. It is not uncommon for a single writer to be the author of more than one type of supernatural tale. This circumstance indicates that the treatment of supernatural elements may not be so much a matter of the writer's view of the afterlife as it is of how he decides to implement literary convention.
Gogol is actually one of a very few Russian writers who is the author of fantastic tales in which events have an entirely supernatural basis. Most of the other Russian writers of this period present supernatural phenomena and occurrences either as the products of a dream or as the source of humorous situations. In Gogol's early works, such as the stones of Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (1832-1833; Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, 1964), devils freely interact with people in such a way that there is usually no doubt about their supernatural status. Yet even here, as [Yu. V.] Mann notes [in "Evoliutsiia gogolevskoi fantastiki," K istorii russLogo romantizma, 1973], there is a comic presentation of the fantastic in the stories "Sorochinskaia yarmarka" ("The Fair at Sorochinsky") and "Maiskaia noch'" ("A May Night").
Vladimir Odoevsky's story "Brigadir" (1833; "The Brigadier") is a rare example of a story by a Russian author other than Gogol in which events may be interpreted as taking place as the result of a supernatural force. In this story the narrator describes how he has been visited by the corpse of a deceased friend. Although [Delbert] Phillips has suggested that this visit is actually a dream [in Spook or Spoof? The Structure of the Supernatural in Russian Romantic Tales, 1982], there is no such explicit indication in the story so that the events may be apprehended as supernatural. Odoevsky's "Nasmeshka mertvetsa" (1834; "The Mockery of a Corpse," 1965) and Bestuzhev-Marlinsky's "Strashnoe gadanie" (1831; "The Terrible Divination") are stories in which dreams clearly act to rationalize what at first appears to be a supernatural return from the dead. One of the best known examples of this type of story is Pushkin's "Grobovshchik" (1831; "The Undertaker," 1983), in which Prokhorov has a reunion with some of the people he has buried. At the end of the story it turns out that it was all a drunken dream. Here, as in the case of the dream in "Pikovaia dama" (1834; "The Queen of Spades," 1983) in which the dead countess apparently visits Herman, Pushkin uses copious imbibing as a stimulus for the character's encounter with the seemingly supernatural. In "The Undertaker" what first seems to be a supernatural occurrence takes on a comic aspect when the skeletons begin to crumble and fall apart. Pushkin's humorous treatment of the skeletal remains of Prokhorov's customers serves as a parody of the serious presentation of skeletons, corpses, and specters as genuinely supernatural beings.
Comedy and humor are the means by which supernatural tales are turned into spoofs, parodies, and hoaxes. In Orest Somov's story "Prikaz s togo sveta" (1827; "An Order from the Other World") the apparently fantastic turns out to be a hoax that is played on the gullible Hohenstaufen, who wants to believe that he has been visited by his deceased ancestor (108-19). Odoevsky's "Prividenie" (1838; "The Ghost") is another story that makes fun of traditional ghost stories and people who believe in them. Here an elaborate Chinese box frame structure and an ambiguous surprise ending give the story a tone of wry humor.
In connection with stories where the borderline between the truly fantastic and the apparently fantastic is difficult to determine it is appropriate to mention E. T. A. Hoffmann, both because he is one of the most skillful and influential practitioners of fantastic tales and because he is one of the writers Gogol was brought up on. As it turns out, Hoffmann wrote only a handful of true ghost stories, and in one of these, "Eine Spukgeschichte" (1819; "A Ghost Story"), there is considerable debate among the characters over the exact nature of the apparition one of them, Adelgunde, has seen. In general the borderline between fantasy and reality in Hoffmann is extremely subtle and ambiguous, and in some cases it is possible that, as with Gogol, Hoffmann's reputation as an exponent of the fantastic leads readers to perceive mundane occurrences in a supernatural light. It is in this respect, rather than in any specific work, that Hoffmann is an important precursor to Gogol.
Two other stories deserve special attention because they treat the apparent return of people from the dead with great subtlety. Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1819) and Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades" both contain important models for Gogol's shift from the portrayal of clearly supernatural events to a more complex representation with psychological implications.
Irving is another of the writers Gogol was brought up on, so there is no doubt that Gogol was familiar with his stories. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Irving parodies a ghost story by providing a psychological rationale for the apparently fantastic appearance of the headless horseman. Throughout the story Irving develops the motif of Ichabod Crane's predisposition to believe in witches and ghosts, so that when Brom Bones chases him on a horse, Crane is frightened into believing that it is the legendary headless horseman who supposedly haunts Sleepy Hollow. In addition to this systematic psychological and circumstantial motivation, Irving provides details at the very end of the story that create a surprise ending—a surprise, that is, for the reader who thought he or she was reading a truly supernatural tale. For at the site of the assault on Ichabod Crane a pumpkin is found that indicates to the discerning reader that it was not the horseman who struck Crane with a skull, but Brom Bones who hit him with a pumpkin. The conclusion of "The Overcoat" might well be seen, therefore, as a highly concentrated variation on Irving's technique of strategically planting revealing details and clues and providing a psychological rationale for the seemingly fantastic.
"The Queen of Spades" has a particularly important point of contact with "The Overcoat." As Nathan Rosen has convincingly argued [in "The Magic Cards in The Queen of Spades," Slavic and East European Journal 19 No. 3, 1975], the apparently supernatural in the former story has an underlying rationale in the psychology of Herman's behavior. According to Rosen, the visitation of the old Countess in a dream, her winking from her coffin at her funeral, and her appearance on the card that finally beats Herman are not fantastic occurrences or apparitions, but rather the products of Herman's unresolved guilty conscience for having caused the old Countess' death. The parallel with "The Overcoat" is striking. For in both stories the apparently fantastic may be only a cover for a psychological basis for the characters' behavior, which in both cases is related to a guilty conscience.
Whereas Pushkin's treatment of the supernatural is consistently ironic, Gogol, like Odoevsky, approaches the fantastic in several different ways. This is illustrated well by his stories from the middle of the 1830s. In "Vii" (1835; "Viy," 1979), Gogol's depiction of the supernatural scenes in the church at the end of the story is done in graphic and powerful detail that denies any possibility for a mundane explanation. Yet even in this story the dreams of the seminarian Homa Brut about a witch tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality and thereby introduce the possibility of a rationale for the supernatural. In the same year that "Vii" appeared Gogol published a story, "Portret" (1835; "The Portrait," 1964), that is probably his least effective supernatural tale because its representation of the coming to life of a demonic portrait is thoroughly conventional and in no way provocative. "The Portrait" seems all the more anomalous by comparison with "Nos" ("The Nose," 1964), which was published shortly after it in 1836 and which is one of Gogol's most intriguing treatments of the fantastic. Both at the beginning and at the end of the story Gogol seems to imply that the fantastic appearance of Kovalev's nose as a separate person may actually have taken place in a dream. Kovalev first discovers that his nose is missing when he wakes up one day, and the nose also reattaches itself one day when Kovalev gets up in the morning. There is no explicit indication in the story that there was a dream, however, so that "The Nose," much like "The Overcoat," remains wonderfully ambiguous and marvelously impervious to finalizing interpretations.
Although Gogol's treatment of the fantastic is obviously quite varied and not at all linear, the overall tendency was for it to become increasingly complex and ambiguous over the course of his career. Even the development of "The Overcoat" as it moved through successive drafts indicates that Gogol's technique for presenting the fantastic was still evolving as he wrote the story. Gippius finds support for his assertion that the conclusion of "The Overcoat" is a fantastic one in a late draft of the story. Here Akaky Akakievich threatens on his death bed to take revenge on the significant personage. Thus, the return of Akaky Akakievich's corpse in the story's final form makes good, as it were, on this threat from the earlier draft. In light of the analysis above, however, what must have taken place is that Gogol, who had already moved beyond a straightforward treatment of the supernatural, would not settle for such a conventional ending to "The Overcoat." It appears that sometime in the last stages of the story's composition Gogol decided to use comic absurdities and the depiction of a psychological rationale for the significant personage's behavior as means of greatly complicating the reader's apprehension of events and their significance. In the bewilderment Gogol creates for the reader one thing is certain: "The Overcoat" does not exemplify a continuation of a static representation of the fantastic, as has so often been assumed, but it rather signals an important new departure in Gogol's complex, mercurial employment of supernatural motifs.
Thus it may be seen that many of the motifs and techniques found in "The Overcoat" have precedents and that for the most part Gogol seems to be working within the traditions of the supernatural tale. It also seems clear from the foregoing that the truly supernatural tale is greatly outweighed in practice by the several kinds of spoofs and parodies of supernatural tales. In fact, it appears that the truly supernatural tale exists primarily as a theoretical model or a presumed supernatural tale, while the vast majority of stories either actively undermine that model or at the least make deviations from it. What, then, is the distinctive contribution "The Overcoat" makes to the tradition? Just as Pushkin and Irving do, Gogol makes the solving of the text's plot and its significance into a kind of game by planting clues and suggesting psychological rather than fantastic motivation for character behavior. But Gogol has rewritten the rules of the game to suit himself. He does this by raising the comicality inherent in parodies of supernatural tales to new heights of absurdity and incongruity with his highly developed sequence of interlocking comic gestures and play with the language that is highlighted by his sneezing corpse and the efforts of the police to punish it that "almost even succeeded."
Gogol also takes the ambiguity characteristic of so many supernatural tales and raises it to a new level. Indeed, he creates a text that is for all intents and purposes doubly encoded, since it may be read either as a fantastic tale or a parody of one. The continued lack of agreement among critics and scholars about what actually takes place in the conclusion bears witness to the remarkable and durable success of Gogol's technique in creating this doubly encoded text.
How then does the end of the story relate to what comes before? First of all, the ending epitomizes the basic structure of the story as a whole by recapitulating the elaborate system of reversals and mutually canceling contrapuntal juxtapositions of which it consists. These reversals might be described as a kind of game of give-and-take that Gogol plays with the readers and with the characters. The model for this game is found right in the central events of the story, namely, in Gogol's "giving" Akaky Akakievich a new overcoat and then "taking" it away. In the same way, he gives the significant personage power over Akaky Akakievich only to set him up for a fall when his own coat is stolen. Gogol's skaz narrator engages in a similar procedure that to a large extent mirrors the story's overall structure. In some instances this narrator claims omniscience and gives away all manner of facts about the characters and events, but in others he feigns amnesia and thereby withholds information.
This system of reversals also pervades the story's basic thematics and tonality. For example, on the one hand the famous "humane passage" in which one of Akaky Akakievich's fellow clerks expresses great compassion for him cannot help but elicit sympathy from the reader. On the other hand, Akaky Akakievich's own automaton-like behavior and personality, which is signalled by his mindless copying of letters and his speech that is full of repetitive nonsense, tends to cancel, as it were, the reader's ability to sympathize fully with him. In this way the conclusion can be seen to replicate the basic structure of the story since in it Gogol gives the reader both a fantastic tale and its parodic denial.
Partly because Gogol was wrestling mightily with spiritual questions at the time he wrote "The Overcoat," and partly because the story contains a stark sequence of events in its conclusion, it is often thought that the story must contain the working out of these questions in the form of a moral. Some of the most perceptive analysts of Gogol's story cannot seem to resist the temptation to reduce it to some sort of moral lesson. Chizhevsky argues convincingly that "The Overcoat" is a special kind of love story in which the coat takes the place of a human wife. Yet first he and later [Victor Erlich in his book Gogol, 1969] distill "The Overcoat" into a warning against becoming excessively involved with mundane, trivial, or unworthy matters, such as the acquisition of a piece of clothing.
Gogol's extended game of give-and-take poses major problems for those who are intent on attributing such moralistic meanings to "The Overcoat." One of the questions connected with the ending of "The Overcoat" concerns the reasons, if any, for which Akaky Akakievich and the significant personage are punished. Simon Karlinsky [in The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, 1976] has made a persuasive case that Akaky Akakievich's demise and the comeuppance of the significant personage are a kind of "punishment for yielding to a heterosexual impulse." This interpretation is related to Chizhevsky's idea that "The Overcoat" is a special kind of love story. Before he has actually acquired his new coat Akaky Akakievich's thoughts about it make him feel as though he had been married and that the coat is his "life's companion." Then after Akaky Akakievich's death the narrator characterizes the overcoat as a "radiant guest" who had visited him. Furthermore, the acquisition of the new coat sparks in Akaky Akakievich hitherto dormant erotic impulses. First he notices the legs of a girl in a picture in a store window, and later he briefly chases after a woman he sees on the street. In Karlinsky's analysis the significant personage is also punished for an erotic impulse because he is robbed while on the way to visit his mistress.
Despite the convincing nature of Karlinsky's thesis it does not account for several important circumstances in the story. First, the situations of Akaky Akakievich and the significant personage, although deliberately juxtaposed by Gogol, are not at all identical. Akaky Akakievich's erotic experiences are both extremely limited and fleeting. The significant personage, on the other hand, has long been involved with his mistress. What is more, Gogol indicates that far from being an affair of passion this liaison is more of a longstanding routine. In fact, there is no ostensible reason why the significant personage carries on this affair, since "this lady friend was not a bit prettier or younger than his wife." It is also clear that the punishments inflicted on Akaky Akakievich and the significant personage are hardly comparable. While the significant personage loses only his overcoat. Akaky Akakievich loses both his coat and his life. In the final analysis, therefore, "The Overcoat" is not simply a special variant of a love story, but a grotesque parody of one.
The significant personage is sometimes thought to hold the key to the moral message Gogol is supposed to have invested in "The Overcoat," particularly since the theft of his coat shocks him into repentance for his past arrogant behavior. After the theft of his overcoat he bullies people much less often with the words "How dare you, do you understand who is standing before you?" Andrew Barratt even calls this change in conduct on the part of the significant personage his "resurrection" ["Plot as Paradox: The Case of Gogol's 'Shinel'," New England Slavonic Journal 2, 1979]. Barratt notes that no such resurrection takes place in the case of Akaky Akakievich, but he leaves unresolved the problem of why Gogol singles out the significant personage, but not Akaky Akakievich, for salvation. Barratt believes that the story contains a "grotesque vision of the alienation and depersonalization which Gogol saw as the inevitable product not only of Russian society, but of all 'advanced' civilizations." If, as Barratt suggests, "The Overcoat" is primarily about a vision of society, it follows logically that Gogol should at least give some hint as to why one character is able to transcend the baleful influence of that society and reform himself, but another is not. The fact that Gogol does not give any such indication cancels in effect any moral judgements one might wish to make on the salvation or damnation of the characters.
In Gogol's game of give-and-take he often seems to imply a certain kind of moral with one hand, but he invariably subverts it with the other. This is particularly evident in the case of Akaky Akakievich, who, after receiving a dressing down from the significant personage, goes outside, catches a fever, arrives home, and dies shortly thereafter. The remarkably swift and arbitrary demise of Akaky Akakievich is echoed most poignantly in Chekhov's story "Smert chinovnika" (1883; "The Death of a Civil Servant," 1982) in which a clerk who attempts to apologize to a superior is rebuffed, returns home, lies down on a couch, and dies. In "The Overcoat" Gogol even lays bare the capricious nature of Akaky Akakievich's destruction with the narrator's comment that "a proper dressing down can sometimes be that strong!"
As so often occurs with Gogol, the characters in "The Overcoat" do things and have things happen to them for little apparent cause. Since, as just noted, the significant personage's mistress is little different from his wife, it seems that he conducts an affair over a period of years for no apparent reason. And it is not Akaky Akakievich's culpability for his sudden death that is so striking, but rather the arbitrary manner in which it comes about. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the characters are mere pawns in the game Gogol plays with them.
Charles Bernheimer provides what at first appears to be a rejection of the tendency to draw moral conclusions from "The Overcoat" in his endorsement of Eichenbaum's work as an "antidote to reductive biographical and moralizing criticism." As an alternative to the reductive approach Bernheimer claims that "Gogol's text has a reflexive structure by which it insists on its purely literary status, an insistence that simultaneously operates as a defense mechanism for Gogol himself." Bernheimer concludes that the story contains an "exuberant recapture of freedom and omnipotence," but that "this omnipotence must be viewed as impotence, as self-duplicity, as an irreversible schizoid game."
Bernheimer's assertions about the literary independence and the celebration of power inherent in "The Overcoat" are not only most welcome as counterweights to the moralistic meanings that have regularly been ascribed to the story, but seem especially apt in relation to the story itself. In particular Gogol's game of give-and-take that he plays with both readers and characters amounts to nothing less than an assertion of his own omnipotence. And Gogol's play with, that is, his modifications and rearrangements of the literary canons of the fantastic tale found in the story's conclusion both underlines the principle of play that obtains throughout and highlights its "purely literary status."
Yet it seems that Bernheimer's characterization of Gogol's assertion of omnipotence in "The Overcoat" as "self-duplicity," as an "irreversible schizoid game" brings us full circle to the reductive psychobiographical school stated in up-to-date terms. At the very least it deflects focus from the story itself to the tortured spiritual and psychological state in which Gogol found himself. It also suggests that Gogol's brilliant play with compositional devices, such as the technique of skaz narration that places the telling of the story in the mouth of a dodgy, unreliable persona, is only a psychological avoidance mechanism and perhaps even the product of a deranged mind. The greatest danger of Bernheimer's doubling the story back onto the author, though, is that it denies the story's independent existence as a work of art.
It is time to assert emphatically that however compelling Gogol's psychological state was when he wrote "The Overcoat," and however full of psychological implications the story is, it has nevertheless acquired a status that is in a vital sense not dependent on the psyche of its author for its meaning and its existence. It is time to assert that, although "The Overcoat" undoubtedly contains reflections of the many sexual, spiritual, and psychological obsessions and vagaries of Gogol's personality, the actual presentation of these questions in the story may be explained in purely literary terms just as well or better than it can be in psychoanalytical ones.
As his play with the conventions of the supernatural tale suggests, Gogol is responding primarily to the purely literary questions and demands posed by the genre in his shaping of the story's outcome. Whether he also manages at the same time to satisfy his own inner psychosexual and psychospiritual needs is an interesting but secondary and probably moot point. Gogol's need to remake the genre in his own fashion is at least as great as, if not greater than, his other needs, which are associated with "The Overcoat."
Whose text is "The Overcoat"? Certainly few stories contain such a multiplicity of texts. For many decades "The Overcoat" was viewed primarily as the outstanding example of a special genre of philanthropic tales about poor, lowly clerks. As we have seen, it is related to the love story in that it is a grotesque parody of a love story. "The Overcoat" is also a supernatural tale that includes a kind of co-equal parody of a supernatural tale. Gogol has given the reader a most generous helping of texts or plausible textual encodings. At the same time he has given the reader tremendous responsibility for figuring out what happens in the story and what it means. Yet in concert with the story's other assertions of omnipotence Gogol has retained control over the story's ultimate significance for himself. The doubly encoded supernatural tale/parody of a supernatural tale is therefore at once the epitome of the story's internal structure, the model of its striking multitextuality, and the most dramatic example of Gogol's retention of power over the text that makes him the final arbiter of its meaning.
Victor Brombert (essay date 1992)
"Meaning and Indeterminacy in Gogol's The Overcoat'," in Literary Generations: A Festschrift in Honor of Edward D. Sullivan, edited by Alain Toumayan, French Forum, 1992, pp. 48-54.
[Here, the Brombert examines several possible interpretations of "The Overcoat" and argues that Gogol purposely made the story difficult to interpret because he "delighted in verbal acts as a game . . . that implied the autonomy of narrative style" from plot and meaning.]
Akaky Akakyevich is the central character of Gogol's story "The Overcoat." Although Dostoevsky gave common currency to the term "anti-hero" in Notes from Underground, it is Gogol's Akaky Akakyevich who is the genuine, unmitigated, and seemingly unredeemable anti-hero. For Dostoevsky's antiheroic paradoxalist, afflicted with hypertrophia of the consciousness, is well-read, cerebral, incurably bookish, and talkative. Akaky Akakyevich is hardly aware, and almost inarticulate. Gogol's artistic wager was to try to articulate this inarticulateness.
The story, in its plot line, is simple. A most unremarkable copying clerk in a St. Petersburg ministry—bald, pockmarked, short-sighted, and the scapegoat of his colleagues who invent cruel ways of mocking him—discovers one day that his pathetically threadbare coat no longer protects him against the fierce winter wind. The tailor he consults categorically refuses to repair the coat which is now beyond repair, and tempts Akaky Akakyevich into having a new overcoat made, one totally beyond his means, but which by dint of enormous sacrifices, he manages to acquire and wear with a newly discovered sense of pride. But his happiness lasts only one short day. Crossing a deserted quarter at night, he is attacked by two thieves who knock him to the ground and steal his coat. Drenched, frozen, deeply upset, brutally reprimanded by a superior whose help he dared seek, Akaky develops a fever, becomes delirious, and dies.
One can hardly speak of an interesting plot line. Yet this simple story lends itself to orgies of interpretations. In fact, there may be as many interpretations as there are readers. "The Overcoat" can be read as a parable, a hermeneutic puzzle, an exercise in meaninglessness. But to begin with, there is the temptation to read it seriously as satire with a social and moral message. In "The Nose," Gogol had already made fun of the rank-consciousness and venality of civil servants. In "The Overcoat," he seems to deride systematically the parasitical, lazy, phony, world of Russian officialdom, whose members are the impotent mediators of a hierarchic and ineffectual power structure in which every subordinate fears and apes his superior. Early Russian critics, convinced that literature must have a moral message, read such a denunciatory and corrective satirical intention into the story even though it is clear that Gogol constantly shifts his tone, defends no apparent norm, and systematically ironizes any possible "serious" message.
There is of course the temptation to read "The Overcoat" as a tale of compassion, as a plea for brotherhood. The pathetically defenseless little clerk, taunted and persecuted by the group, remains blissfully oblivious to the cruel pranks of which he is the butt, intent on his humble copying activity. Only when the jokes become too outrageous, or interfere with his work, does he protest ever so mildly.
But here the tone of the story seems to change. For Gogol introduces a young man, recently appointed to the same office, who is on the point of sharing in the general fun, and who is suddenly struck by the strange notes in Akaky's voice which touch his heart with pity and make him suddenly see everything in a very different light. A true revelation emanating from an "unnatural" ("neestestvennyi") power allows him to hear other words behind Akaky's banal entreaty to be left alone. What he hears are the deeply penetrating, unspoken words echoing with poignant significance: "I am thy brother."
And with this voice from behind the voice comes the shocked awareness of how much "inhumanity" there is in human beings, how much brutality lurks in what goes as civilized society and civilized behavior. The apparent lesson in humanity given by the scapegoat victim seems, in the immediate context, to have an almost religious character, especially if one relates it to the narrator's comments, after Akaky's death, on how a man of meekness who bore the sneers and insults of his fellow human beings disappeared from this world, but who, before his agony, had a vision of the bright visitant ("svetluy gost"). The man of meekness, the man of sorrows, like the unspoken but clearly heard "I am thy brother," seems to have a Christian if not Christological, resonance.
But we forget Akaky's name, and that we are now allowed to do. For the patronymic appellation not only stresses the principle of repetition (Akaky's first name being exactly the same as his father's), but the funny sound repetition is even funnier because the syllable kak = like (tak kak = just as) embeds the principle of sameness in Akaky's name, determining, it would seem, his single-minded, life-long activity of copying and implicit condemnation to sameness. Regarding the many years Akaky served in the same department, Gogol observes that he "remained in exactly the same place, in exactly the same position, in exactly the same job, doing exactly the same kind of work, to wit copying official documents." But there is better (or worse) especially to Russian ears, for kakatj (from the Greek cacos = bad, evil) is children's talk for defecate, and caca in many languages refers to human excrement. To be afflicted with such a name clearly relates to the garbage being regularly dumped on Akaky as he walks in the street, and to his being treated with no more respect by the caretakers than a common fly. The cruel verbal fun around the syllable kak extends beyond the character's name, and contaminates Gogol's text. Gogol indulges in seemingly endless variations of the words tak, kak, kakoi, kakoi-to, kakikh-to, vot-kak, neekak, takoi, takaya, kaknibut, (just so, that's how, in no way, somehow, and so on) which in the translation disappear altogether. The exploitations of sound effects or sound meanings clearly correspond to a poet's fascination with the prestigious cacophonic resources of ordinary speech.
One last point about the choice of Akaky's name, specifically the Christian act of "christening": according to custom, the calendar was opened at random and several saints' names (Mokkia, Sossia) including the name of the martyr Khozdazat, were considered, only to be rejected by the mother because they sounded so strange. Akaky was chosen because that was the name of the father. But Acacius, a holy monk of Sinai, was also a saint and martyr, and we find ourselves—especially since the Greek prefix a (Acacius) signifies not bad, therefore good, meek, humble, obedient—back to the religious motif. If Akaky continues to copy for his own pleasure at home, this is in large part because the bliss of copying has a specifically monastic resonance. Gogol does indeed refer to his copying as a "labor of love."
Here a new temptation assails the reader. Should "The Overcoat" not be read as hagiography in a banal modern context, or at the very least as a parody of hagiography? A number of elements seem to lend support to such a reading of the story in or against the perspective of the traditional lives of the saints: the humble task of copying documents, reference to the theme of the martyr ("muchenik"), salvational terminology, sacrificial motifs of communion ("I am thy brother"), Akaky's visions and ecstasies, his own apparitions from beyond the grave. But the most telling analogy with hagiographic lore is the conversion-effect on others, first on the young man who has a revelation of a voice that is not of this world ( "svet "), and toward the end the self-admiring, domineering, Very Important Person on whom Akaky's ghost-like apparition makes a never-to-be-forgotten impression.
The overcoat itself can take on religious connotations because clothing, in the symbology of the Bible and orthodox liturgy, often represents righteousness and salvation. The only trouble with such an interpretation—and Gogol has written Meditations on the Divine Liturgy which refer to the priest's robe of righteousness as a garment of salvation—is that the coat can have an opposite symbolic significance, that of hiding the truth. Hence the traditional image of disrobing to reveal the naked self. In addition, there are many other possible meanings quite remote from the religious sphere: the metonymic displacement of the libido (the Russian word for overcoat—shinel—is appropriately feminine), the effects of virilization (in his new coat, Akaky surprises himself in the act of running after some woman in the street!), loss of innocence and loss of "original celibacy." The coat itself thus turns out to be a form of temptation (material acquisition, vanity, pride), and the devilish tailor is the agent of this temptation just as the writer or narrator (who in fact is he?) "tempts" the reader into a succession of vacuous and mutually canceling interpretations.
This provocative writer-reader relationship, sustained throughout the narration, casts a special light on Akaky's fundamental activity of copying—the act of writing in its purest form. It does not take much imagination (our modern critics discover self-referentiality everywhere) to see in Akaky's copying an analogue of the writer's activity. And like the proverbially absorbed writer or scholar, he is obsessed by his writing to the point of finding himself in the middle of the street while thinking that he is in the middle of a sentence. This self-absorbed and self-referential nature of Gogol's act of writing might be seen to imply a negative attitude toward the referential world, toward all that which is not writing. Much like Flaubert, who dreamt of composing a "book about nothing," and whom contemporary critics like to view as an apostle of self-referential, intransitive literature, Gogol yearns for monastic withdrawal. Flaubert was haunted by the figures of the monk and the saint. Similarly, Gogol explained in a letter: "It is not the poet's business to worm his way into the world's marketplace. Like a silent monk, he lives in the world without belonging to it. . . ."
Pushed to a logical extreme, this sense of the radical deceptiveness of life calls into question worldly authority, and leads to a destabilizing stance that challenges the principle of authority, a subversive gesta of which the real hero is the artist himself. There is indeed something devilish about Gogol's narrative voice. It has already been suggested that the devil makes an appearance in the figure of the tailor who tempts Akaky into buying the coat. This caricature of the sartorial artist who quite literally is the creator of the overcoat, this ex-serf sitting with his legs crossed under him like a Turkish pasha, has diabolical earmarks: he is a "one-eyed devil" living at the end of a black staircase; he has a deformed big toenail, hard and thick as a tortoise shell; he handles a thrice referred to snuff box on which the face of a general has been effaced (the devil is faceless); he seems to be nudged by the devil and charges "the devil knows what prices."
This verbal playfulness seems to extend to the narrator himself, who undercuts his own narration in truly diabolical fashion by means of grotesque hyperbolizing, mixtures of realistic and parodistic elements, sudden shifts from the rational to the irrational, and elliptical displacements from epic triviality to unrestrained fantasy. Indulging in a game of mirages and fog-like uncertainties, the narrator subverts the logical progression of his story. Ultimately, even the ghost is debunked, and we are back in the blackness of quotidian reality. In the Russian text, these shifts in tone and textual instabilities are even more insidious, since everything seems to blur into the undifferentiated flow of seemingly endless paragraphs.
This merging of discontinuities undermines any sense of plot, undercuts the notion of subject, and suggests at every point that what is told is another story, thereby teasing the reader into endless interpretations that can neither be stabilized nor stopped. Some of this is the inevitable result of a mimesis of inarticulateness, a narrative style that is the imitative substitute for Akaky's manner of communicating mostly through prepositions, adverbs, and "such parts of speech as have no meaning whatsoever." But the strategy of destabilization and fragmented diction also has a deeper subversive purpose. The non sequiturs and hesitations reveal the arbitrariness of any fictional structure, and in the last analysis subvert any auctorial authority. The concluding page of "The Nose" represents an authorial critique of the story as incomprehensible and useless. The mediating self-negator is the fictionalized narrator identified in "The Overcoat" as the "raskazyvaiushyi"—the narrating one. And this narrator, occasionally pretending to be ignorant or semi-ignorant (like Cervantes's narrative voice as of the very first sentence of Don Quixote) does not know in what town, on what day, on what street the action takes place—in fact, complains of loss of memory. All this, however, only accentuates the possible importance of the unknowable and the unsayable, while protecting the protagonist's sacred privacy. The narrator clumsily speculates on what Akaky might or might not have said to himself as he stares at an erotic window display in the elegant quarter of St. Petersburg, and he concludes: "But perhaps he never even said anything at all to himself. For it is impossible to delve into a person's mind" (in Russian, literally: to creep into a person's soul).
"The Overcoat" is thus marked by conflicting and enigmatic signals, pointing to oxymoronic textures of meanings. Inversions hint at conversions. What is seemingly up is in fact seen to be down, while the reverse is equally true. The downtrodden creature turns out to be capable of heroic sacrifices, while the powerfully constituted VIP with the appearance of a "bogatyr" (hero) is cut down to human size by fright. On the other hand, when Akaky's fall is likened to a disaster such as destroys the czars and other great ones of this earth, one may well feel that Gogol is ironic about all heroic poses, heroic values, and heroic figures. When Akaky wears the new coat, his pulse beats faster, his bearing seems to indicate a newly discovered sense of purpose ("tzel"), his eyes have an audacious gleam, he appears somehow to have almost become virile. Yet the overcoat is also the emblem of false values, of trivial passion, of a silly reason for a human downfall. One might wish therefore to read a deeper significance into these mutually canceling interpretations. In English, the word passion is fraught with a multiple significance: in the ordinary sense, it denotes intense and even overwhelming emotion, especially of love; yet etymologically, it signifies suffering. Love and suffering are of course linked in a grotesque manner in "The Overcoat". Whether such love and such suffering are commensurate with any objective reality remains unresolved in this story which seems to say that any love is great no matter what its object, that love is all-powerful; and conversely, that any passion can drag one down, that the more intense it seems, the emptier it is. Gogol's style is in itself an admirable instrument of ambivalence: enlarging trivia, and thereby trivializing what we may for a moment be tempted to take as significant.
What complicates Gogol's text for the reader is that it is not a case of simple ambivalence. It will not do to praise Gogol as a compassionate realist with an ethical message or to see him as a playful anti-realist indulging in overwrought imagery and in the reflections of distorting mirrors. The hard fact is that Gogol is a protean writer whose simultaneity of possible meanings allows for no respite and no comfortable univocal message. If the narrator is center stage, it is because ultimately he becomes a performer, a buffoonish actor mimicking incoherence itself. Intelligent readers of Gogol—Boris Eichenbaum, Vladimir Nabokov, Victor Erlich, Charles Bernheimer, Donald Fanger—have in varying degrees and with different emphases, understood that rather than indulging in a feast of ideas to be taken seriously, Gogol delighted in verbal acts as a game—a game that implied the autonomy of narrative style, a declaration of artistic independence, and a thorough deflation of l'esprit de sérieux.
Perhaps there is an underlying autobiographic urge in "The Overcoat," and the verbal clowning and narrative pirouettes are telling a story in which the irrational takes on an exorcising and liberating virtue—much as the idiosyncrasies of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground present a vehement protest against spiritually deadening rationality. What is certain is that Gogol needs to wear a mask. Haunted by the monsters born of his imagination, afraid to be unmasked, Gogol literally disappears in his writing by becoming a multiplicity of voices.
But there is a danger in depicting Gogol as an escape artist struggling against his own demons at the same time as he struggles against the repressive reality he wishes to deny. Similarly, there is the risk of considerable distortion in the determination of formalist and post-structuralist critics to draw Gogol to the camp of radical modernity by seeing him exclusively concerned with speech acts and sheer rhetoricity. Polyvalence does not mean the absence of meaning. The real problem, much as in the case of Flaubert, who complained of the plethora of subjects and inflationary overfill of meanings, is that over-abundance and multiplicity become principles of indeterminacy. Excess is related to emptiness. Similarly, Gogol seems torn between the futility of experience and the futility of writing about it, between the conviction that writing is the only salvation, yet that it is powerless to say the unsayable—aware at all points of the gulf between signifier and signified.
Nabokov may have come closest to the heart of Gogol's dark playfulness when he wrote: "The gaps and black holes in the texture of Gogol's style imply flaws in the texture of life itself . . ." [Vladimir Nabakov, Nikolai Gogol, 1944]. To this one might add, however, that the hollowness of the gaps, the terrifying absence, is also an absence/presence: a void that asks to be filled by the interpretive act. The dialectics of negativity, so dependent on the antiheroic mode embodied by Akaky, displace the production of meaning from the almost nonexistent character and undecidable text to the creative reader.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3227
"The Apotheosis of a Mask," in Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1944, 139-50.
[A Russian-born American man of letters perhaps best known for the novels Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), Nabokov was a prolific contributor to many literary fields. He was fascinated with all aspects of the creative life: in his works, he explored the origins of creativity, the relationships of artists to their work, and the nature of invented reality. In the following essay Nabokov extols Gogol's abstract and highly stylized technique and concludes that "The Overcoat" "is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas."]
Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader's own notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational. Hamlet is the wild dream of a neurotic scholar. Gogol's "The Overcoat" is a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life. The superficial reader of that story will merely see in it the heavy frolics of an extravagant buffoon; the solemn reader will take for granted that Gogol's prime intention was to denounce the horrors of Russian bureaucracy. But neither the person who wants a good laugh, nor the person who craves for books "that make one think" will understand what "The Overcoat" is really about. Give me the creative reader; this is a tale for him.
Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in his immortal "The Overcoat," he really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.
The sudden slanting of the rational plane of life may be accomplished of course in many ways, and every great writer has his own method. With Gogol it was a combination of two movements: a jerk and a glide. Imagine a trapdoor that opens under your feet with absurd suddenness, and a lyrical gust that sweeps you up and then lets you fall with a bump into the next traphole. The absurd was Gogol's favorite muse—but when I say "the absurd," I do not mean the quaint or the comic. The absurd has as many shades and degrees as the tragic has, and moreover, in Gogol's case, it borders upon the latter. It would be wrong to assert that Gogol placed his characters in absurd situations. You cannot place a man in an absurd situation if the whole world he lives in is absurd; you cannot do this if you mean by "absurd" something provoking a chuckle or a shrug. But if you mean the pathetic, the human condition, if you mean all such things that in less weird worlds are linked up with the loftiest aspirations, the deepest sufferings, the strongest passions—then of course the necessary breach is there, and a pathetic human, lost in the midst of Gogol's nightmarish, irresponsible world would be "absurd," by a kind of secondary contrast.
On the lid of the tailor's snuff-box there was "the portrait of a General; I do not know what general because the tailor's thumb had made a hole in the general's face and a square of paper had been gummed over the hole." Thus with the absurdity of Akaky Akakyevich Bashmachkin. We did not expect that, amid the whirling masks, one mask would turn out to be a real face, or at least the place where that face ought to be. The essence of mankind is irrationally derived from the chaos of fakes which form Gogol's world. Akaky Akakyevich, the hero of "The Overcoat," is absurd because he is pathetic, because he is human and because he has been engendered by those very forces which seem to be in such contrast to him.
He is not merely human and pathetic. He is something more, just as the background is not mere burlesque. Somewhere behind the obvious contrast there is a subtle genetic link. His being discloses the same quiver and shimmer as does the dream world to which he belongs. The allusions to something else behind the crudely painted screens, are so artistically combined with the superficial texture of the narration that civic-minded Russians have missed them completely. But a creative reading of Gogol's story reveals that here and there in the most innocent descriptive passage, this or that word, sometimes a mere adverb or a preposition, for instance the word "even" or "almost," is inserted in such a way as to make the harmless sentence explode in a wild display of nightmare fireworks; or else the passage that had started in a rambling colloquial manner all of a sudden leaves the tracks and swerves into the irrational where it really belongs; or again, quite as suddenly, a door bursts open and a mighty wave of foaming poetry rushes in only to dissolve in bathos, or to turn into its own parody, or to be checked by the sentence breaking and reverting to a conjuror's patter, that patter which is such a feature of Gogol's style. It gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar, lurking constantly around the corner—and one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.
So what is that queer world, glimpses of which we keep catching through the gaps of the harmless looking sentences? It is in a way the real one but it looks wildly absurd to us, accustomed as we are to the stage setting that screens it. It is from these glimpses that the main character of "The Overcoat," the meek little clerk, is formed, so that he embodies the spirit of that secret but real world which breaks through Gogol's style. He is, that meek little clerk, a ghost, a visitor from some tragic depths who by chance happened to assume the disguise of a petty official. Russian progressive critics sensed in him the image of the underdog and the whole story impressed them as a social protest. But it is something much more than that. The gaps and black holes in the texture of Gogol's style imply flaws in the texture of life itself. Something is very wrong and all men are mild lunatics engaged in pursuits that seem to them very important while an absurdly logical force keeps them at their futile jobs—this is the real "message" of the story. In this world of utter futility, of futile humility and futile domination, the highest degree that passion, desire, creative urge can attain is a new cloak which both tailors and customers adore on their knees. I am not speaking of the moral point or the moral lesson. There can be no moral lesson in such a world because there are no pupils and no teachers: this world is and it excludes everything that might destory it, so that any improvement, any struggle, any moral purpose or endeavor, are as utterly impossible as changing the course of a star. It is Gogol's world and as such wholly different from Tolstoy's world, or Pushkin's, or Chekhov's or my own. But after reading Gogol one's eyes may become gogolized and one is apt to see bits of his world in the most unexpected places. I have visited many countries, and something like Akaky Akakyevich's overcoat has been the passionate dream of this or that chance acquaintance who never had heard about Gogol.
The plot of "The Overcoat" is very simple. A poor little clerk makes a great decision and orders a new overcoat. The coat while in the making becomes the dream of his life. On the very first night that he wears it he is robbed of it on a dark street. He dies of grief and his ghost haunts the city. This is all in the way of plot, but of course the real plot (as always with Gogol) lies in the style, in the inner structure of this transcendental anecdote. In order to appreciate it at its true worth one must perform a kind of mental somersault so as to get rid of conventional values in literature and follow the author along the dream road of his superhuman imagination. Gogol's world is somewhat related to such conceptions of modern physics as the "Concertina Universe" or the "Explosion Universe"; it is far removed from the comfortably revolving clockwork worlds of the last century. There is a curvature in literary style as there is curvature in space,—but few are the Russian readers who do care to plunge into Gogol's magic chaos head first, with no restraint or regret. The Russian who thinks Turgenev was a great writer, and bases his notion of Pushkin upon Chaïkovsky's vile libretti, will merely paddle into the gentlest wavelets of Gogol's mysterious sea and limit his reaction to an enjoyment of what he takes to be whimsical humor and colorful quips. But the diver, the seeker for black pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in "The Overcoat" shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.
The prose of Pushkin is three-dimensional; that of Gogol is four-dimensional, at least. He may be compared to his contemporary, the mathematician Lobachevsky, who blasted Euclid and discovered a century ago many of the theories which Einstein later developed. If parallel lines do not meet it is not because meet they cannot, but because they have other things to do. Gogol's art as disclosed in "The Overcoat" suggests that parallel lines not only may meet, but that they can wriggle and get most extravagantly entangled, just as two pillars reflected in water indulge in the most wobbly contortions if the necessary ripple is there. Gogol's genius is exactly that ripple—two and two make five, if not the square root of five, and it all happens quite naturally in Gogol's world, where neither rational mathematics nor indeed any of our pseudophysical agreements with ourselves can be seriously said to exist.
The clothing process indulged in by Akaky Akakyevich, the making and the putting on of the cloak, is really his disrobing and his gradual reversion to the stark nakedness of his own ghost. From the very beginning of the story he is in training for his supernaturally high jump—and such harmless looking details as his tiptoeing in the streets to spare his shoes or his not quite knowing whether he is in the middle of the street or in the middle of the sentence, these details gradually dissolve the clerk Akaky Akakyevich so that towards the end of the story his ghost seems to be the most tangible, the most real part of his being. The account of his ghost haunting the streets of St. Petersburg in search of the cloak of which he had been robbed and finally appropriating that of a high official who had refused to help him in his misfortune—this account, which to the unsophisticated may look like an ordinary ghost story, is transformed towards the end into something for which I can find no precise epithet. It is both an apotheosis and a dégringolade. Here it is:
The Important Person almost died of fright. In his office and generally in the presence of subordinates he was a man of strong character, and whoever glanced at his manly appearance and shape used to imagine his kind of temper with something of a shudder; at the present moment however he (as happens in the case of many people of prodigiously powerful appearance) experienced such terror that, not without reason, he even expected to have a fit of some sort. He even threw off his cloak of his own accord and then exhorted the coachman in a wild voice to take him home and drive like mad. Upon hearing tones which were generally used at critical moments and were even [notice the recurrent use of this word] accompanied by something far effective, the coachman thought it wiser to draw his head in; he lashed at the horses, and the carriage sped like an arrow. Six minutes later, or a little more, [according to Gogol's special timepiece] the Important Person was already at the porch of his house. Pale, frightened and cloakless, instead of arriving at Caroline Ivanovna's [a woman he kept] he had thus come home; he staggered to his bedroom and spent an exceedingly troubled night, so that next morning, at breakfast, his daughter said to him straightaway: 'You are quite pale today, papa.' But papa kept silent and [now comes the parody of a Bible parable!] he told none of what had befallen him, nor where he had been, or whither he had wished to go. The whole occurrence made a very strong impression on him [here begins the downhill slide, that spectacular bathos which Gogol uses for his particular needs]. Much more seldom even did he address to his subordinates the words 'How dare you?—Do you know to whom you are speaking?'—or at least if he did talk that way it was not till he had first listened to what they had to tell. But still more remarkable was the fact that from that time on the ghostly clerk quite ceased to appear: evidently the Important Person's overcoat fitted him well; at least no more did one hear of overcoats being snatched from people's shoulders. However, many active and vigilant persons refused to be appeased and kept asserting that in remote parts of the city the ghostly clerk still showed himself. And indeed a suburban policeman saw with his own eyes [the downward slide from the moralistic note to the grotesque is now a tumble] a ghost appear from behind a house. But being by nature somewhat of a weakling (so that once, an ordinary full-grown young pig which had rushed out of some private house knocked him off his feet to the great merriment of a group of cab drivers from whom he demanded, and obtained, as a penalty for this derision, ten coppers from each to buy himself snuff), he did not venture to stop the ghost but just kept on walking behind it in the darkness, until the ghost suddenly turned, stopped and inquired: 'What d'you want, you?'—and showed a fist of a size rarely met with even among the living. 'Nothing,' answered the sentinel and proceeded to go back at once. That ghost, however, was a much taller one and had a huge moustache. It was heading apparently towards Obukhov Bridge and presently disappeared completely in the darkness of the night.
The torrent of "irrelevant" details (such as the bland assumption that "full-grown young pigs" commonly occur in private houses) produces such a hypnotic effect that one almost fails to realize one simple thing (and that is the beauty of the final stroke). A piece of most important information, the main structural idea of the story is here deliberately masked by Gogol (because all reality is a mask). The man taken for Akaky Akakyevich's cloakless ghost is actually the man who stole his cloak. But Akaky Akakyevich's ghost existed solely on the strength of his lacking a cloak, whereas now the policeman, lapsing into the queerest paradox of the story, mistakes for this ghost just the very person who was its antithesis, the man who had stolen the cloak. Thus the story describes a full circle: a vicious circle as all circles are, despite their posing as apples, or planets, or human faces.
So to sum up: the story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.
As one or two patient readers may have gathered by now, this is really the only appeal that interests me. My purpose in jotting these notes on Gogol has, I hope, become perfectly clear. Bluntly speaking it amounts to the following; if you expect to find out something about Russia, if you are eager to know why the blistered Germans bungled their blitz, if you are interested in "ideas" and "facts" and "messages," keep away from Gogol. The awful trouble of learning Russian in order to read him will not be repaid in your kind of hard cash. Keep away, keep away. He has nothing to tell you. Keep off the tracks. High tension. Closed for the duration. Avoid, refrain, don't. I would like to have here a full list of all possible interdictions, vetoes and threats. Hardly necessary of course—as the wrong sort of reader will certainly never get as far as this. But I do welcome the right sort—my brothers, my doubles. My brother is playing the organ. My sister is reading. She is my aunt. You will first learn the alphabet, the labials, the Unguals, the dentals, the letters that buzz, the drone and the bumblebee, and the Tse-tse Fly. One of the vowels will make you say "Ugh!" You will feel mentally stiff and bruised after your first declension of personal pronouns. I see however no other way of getting to Gogol (or to any other Russian writer for that matter). His work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas. "Gaw-gol," not "Go-gall." The final "1" is a soft dissolving "1" which does not exist in English. One cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name. My translations of various passages are the best my poor vocabulary could afford, but even had they been as perfect as those which I hear with my innermost ear, without being able to render their intonation, they still would not replace Gogol. While trying to convey my attitude towards his art I have not produced any tangible proofs of its peculiar existence. I can only place my hand on my heart and affirm that I have not imagined Gogol. He really wrote, he really lived.
Gogol was born on the 1st of April, 1809. According to his mother (who, of course, made up the following dismal anecdote) a poem he had written at the age of five was seen by Kapnist, a well-known writer of sorts. Kapnist embraced the solemn urchin and said to the glad parents: "He will become a writer of genius if only destiny gives him a good Christian for teacher and guide." But the other thing—his having been born on the 1st of April—is true.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214
"Gogol's 'The Overcoat' as a Travesty of Hagiography," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1972, pp. 36-41.
[In this essay Schillinger asserts that "The Overcoat" is "a travesty of the saints' calendar account of St. Acacius of Sinai, and to some extent of hagiography itself ."]
Does the name Akakij Akakievi in Gogol's "The Overcoat" indicate more than Gogol's familiar sense of humor? Quite possibly. Another origin, and this is offered by Gogol himself at Akakij Akakievič's christening, is an Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints. Among the saints in such a calendar are several Saints Acacius, one of whom, sixth-century St. Acacius of Sinai, resembles Akakij Akakievi quite closely. F. C. Driessen has written: "There is no question of chance. It would scarcely be possible to find another name which expressed so strongly the character of its bearer and at the same time embraced the nucleus of his adventures" [Gogol as a Short Story Writer, trans, by Ian F. Finlay, 1965]. I wish to suggest further that the "The Overcoat" may be read as a travesty of the saints' calendar account of St. Acacius of Sinai, and to some extent of hagiography itself.
The hagiographic account in question, available in various compilations during Gogol's time, is here translated in full from the Slavonic.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
Alissandratos, Julia. 'Tilling in Some Holes in Gogol's Not Wholly Unholy Overcoat'." The Slavonic and East European Review 68, No. 1 (January 1990): 22-40.
Looks at structural and narrative similarities between "The Overcoat" and traditional Russian hagiography (idealized biographies of saints).
Bailey, James. "Some Remarks about the Structure of Gogol's Overcoat.'" In Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev, ed. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham, pp. 13-22. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1974.
Gives a detailed structural analysis of "The Overcoat," in order to demonstrate the amount of care Gogol gave to the organization of his story.
Bernheimer, Charles C. "Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's Overcoat'." PMLA 90, No. 1 (January 1975): 53-61.
Contends that the reflexive structure of "The Overcoat" serves as a defense mechanism for Gogol's fear of being annihilated by "the other."
Driessen, F. C. "The Overcoat." In Gogol as a Short Story Writer, trans. Ian F. Finlay, pp. 182-214. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1965.
Critical survey of "The Overcoat," discussing themes and stylistic techniques. Driessen reviews interpretations and analyses of other major critics while providing his own analysis.
Hippisley, Anthony. "Gogol's The Overcoat': A Further Interpretation." Slavic and East European Journal 20, No. 2 (Summer 1976): 121-29.
Discusses the religious and spiritual aspects of "The Overcoat."
Landor, Mikhail. "The Overcoat' and Western Story Tellers." Soviet Literature, No. 4 (1984): 177-85.
Gives an overview of critiques, comments, and interpretations of "The Overcoat" by several Western writers.
Lindstrom, Thaïs S. "The Petersburg Cycle: The Overcoat (Shinel')." In Nikolay Gogol, pp. 88-97. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Stylistic and thematic overview of the story.
Mills, Judith Oloskey. "Gogol's Overcoat': The Pathetic Passages Reconsidered." PMLA 89, No. 5 (October 1974): 1106-111.
Looks at the role and personality of the narrator to elucidate the meaning of the pathetic passages in the story.
Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. Out from under Gogol's Overcoat: A Psychoanalytic Study. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982, 251 p.
Examines "The Overcoat" from a Freudian perspective.
Rowe, William Woodin. "Tales: The Overcoat.'" In his Through Gogol's Looking Glass: Reverse Vision, False Focus, and Precarious Logic, pp. 113-18. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
Examines the role of obscured vision, deceptive appearances, and clouded perception in the story.
Sloane, David. "The Name as Phonetic Icon: A Reconsideration of Onomastic Significance in Gogol's The Overcoat'." Slavic and East European Journal 35, No. 4 (Winter 1991): 473-88.
Argues that the name of the main character of "The Overcoat" is symbolic of "a whole range of verbal behavior—from Akakij's own tongue-tiedness, to the narrator's unpredictable digressiveness, to the Important Personage's clumsy attempts to communicate."
Trahan, Elizabeth, ed. Gogol's "Overcoat": An Anthology of Critical Essays. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982, 105 p.
Includes five essays on "The Overcoat," providing an introduction to the major critical perspectives and approaches to the story.
Additional coverage of Gogol's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Modules—Dramatists Module and Most-Studied Authors Module; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 5, 15, 31; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism.