"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.