Style and Technique

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Gogol’s use of the grotesque and the fantastic to portray his characters in his attacks on society’s ills recalls Charles Dickens on the one hand, and on the other, his use of a narrator with his continual digressions and comments on the expectations of readers recalls Laurence Sterne. Like both Dickens and Sterne, Gogol delights in the use of language for its own sake: idiomatic phrases, phonetic and etymological puns, wordplay in general. The names of his characters, the little idiosyncrasies of their behavior, and the oddities of their physical appearance become major elements in the controlling tone of his fiction. Gogol does not deeply explore complex human motivation; rather, his method is to identify the flaws in people’s social behavior and to hold that behavior up for critical examination. Because his method focuses on people’s social actions, it is not surprising that Gogol also is the author of one of the world’s great comic dramas, Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1890), a satire that also examines men’s actions in bureaucratic organizations. Gogol, who worked as a bureaucrat himself, also wrote an epic novel of satire, Myortvye dushi (1842, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887), which examines provincial avarice and which is based on a bureaucratic flaw in the method of counting serfs for taxing purposes on pre-emancipated Russian estates.

His satiric approach is finally so effective because of his underlying concern with people’s inhumanity to others. In the character of Akaky, Gogol gave the world its first modern common man, a man who is overwhelmed by the complex bureaucracy of which he is a part.

Places Discussed

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*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russian city founded by Czar Peter the Great to replace Moscow as the capital. The city gradually developed a special reputation. On one hand, it was viewed as a utopian, model city of the future, but on the other, it was seen as a realm of dark, unfriendly forces. By the time Gogol wrote “The Overcoat,” the city was rife with stories that highlighted the fantastic and mysterious quality of the place.

After Gogol’s hero, Akaky Akakievich, a meek and lowly clerk in the vast government bureaucracy, is assaulted by the bitterly cold wind of this northern city, he must have a new coat made. Gogol’s narrative suggests that Akaky’s decision may have led him into the clutches of demonic forces, and after his new coat is stolen from him, he strives without success to find a sympathetic figure in the city’s impersonal bureaucracy. Akaky dies from illness and sorrow, but after his death, rumors begin circulating that he has returned as a ghost to steal the coats of other people. The entire narrative, however, ends on a note of confusion or uncertainty, and this strange ending accords well with the enigmatic nature of the St. Petersburg setting. Although the tale evokes different aspects of city life—from the simple apartments of the poor clerks to the more elegant homes of the higher officials—Gogol’s narrator intentionally refuses to provide specific details and locations, thereby heightening the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty that permeates the work.

Historical Context

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Nikolai Gogol lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russian history. It was a time when the strict censorship was imposed on writing and teaching; yet many writers were expressing new ideas that were openly critical of the status quo. Though there were some hostile reviews of Gogol's work, most were favorable and his writings were never actually repressed by censors during his lifetime. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of scrutiny under which writers lived and worked was never comfortable for the sensitive Gogol, and he felt the need to leave his country on two occasions. Though his friends urged him to return, Gogol stayed away for twelve years during the second of these self-imposed exiles.

Events in December of 1825, a few months before Gogol's seventeenth birthday, would be a harbinger of trouble to come. A group of idealistic young aristocrats with vaguely defined notions of democratic reform attempted to overthrow the czarist government. Czar Alexander I had just died from eating poisoned mushrooms in the Crimea and there was some delay before his younger brother Nicholas would be installed as the new leader of the country and the new Czar was able to crush their revolt quickly. Nevertheless, Nicholas I—and the country as a whole—was badly shaken by the incident, and the new Czar would assert his authority with increasing rigidity throughout his thirty-year reign.

After the Decembrist revolt, Nicholas I completely revised the administrative structure of the Russian government. He removed aristocrats from government office and replaced them with professional military men. He established six new government departments, including a secret police that would all report to him and through which he would manage important economic and political matters. The government bureaucracy to which young Gogol applied for a job in 1828 was in turmoil: many of its officials were new in their jobs and there was a great deal of mistrust and fear due to the presence of the zealous new Czar's spies.

Abandoning work as a public servant for a literary career, however, did not remove Gogol from an atmosphere of contentiousness and instability. Despite Nicholas I's tightened control over the press and education, many Russian intellectuals continued to criticize the Czar and to debate amongst themselves, eventually splitting into two main camps. The "Slavophiles,’’ who tended to support autocracy but favored free speech and an end to serfdom, held that the Orthodox Church and other aspects of Russian culture made it unique and superior. "Westernizers," on the other hand, believed Russia's progress to be dependent on liberal government and the adoption of ideas and technology from western Europe. Vissarion Belinsky, a prominent literary critic from the Westernizer's camp, was impressed by Gogol's early work and hailed the young author as a pioneer of a new, progressive aesthetic.

One could argue, however, that Gogol had as much in common with the more conservative Slavophiles as with Belinsky and the Westernizers. While Gogol was interested in western Europe—and lived there for a time—he was very proud of his Ukranian/Russian roots. The work that first attracted Belinsky's attention to Gogol (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanki), for example, was a collection of stories based on traditional Ukranian folktales that had a very Russian flavor. Gogol later became involved with the Russian Orthodox Church, and his growing conservatism eventually alienated Belinsky.

Ultimately, of course, Gogol cannot be assigned entirely to either camp. It is difficult to say whether it was the authoritarian censors of the Czar or the polarized community of Russian dissident intelligentsia that drove Gogol to leave Russia for so long. Gogol wrote ‘‘The Overcoat’’ during the longer of his two self-imposed exiles—in an effort, perhaps, to capture something quintessentially Russian from a perspective outside of Russia.

Literary Style

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Prose
Russian literature before the 1830s had been comprised almost entirely of poetry, while prose was reserved primarily for official documents, correspondence, histories, and journals. So Gogol's use of prose for literary purposes is in many ways one of his most lasting and significant contributions. Prose seems appropriate, of course, for telling the story of a simple clerk like Akaky Akakievich. The long and sometimes rambling sentences used by the narrator reflect Akaky's awkward personality, as well as the dull, bureaucratic milieu around him.

Narrative Perspective and Tone
The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed first person narrator who is not directly involved in the events of the story but is aware of (and, to varying degrees, sympathetic with) the characters' thoughts and emotions. For many present-day readers accustomed to short stories beginning in medias res (i.e., as the action has already begun), "The Overcoat'' seems to adopt a leisurely pace initially as the character of Akaky Akakievich, his family background, and the St. Petersburg setting in which he lives and works are all introduced. Gogol uses the opening section of the story not only to set the scene, but to establish a particular narrative voice as well. By turns sarcastic, humorous, poignant, and disturbing, Gogol's narrator tells the story in a way that both entertains and instructs—with enough distance to provide critical commentary and yet enough dramatic intensity to draw readers in and not seem preachy.

Setting
The story's setting, amongst office-workers in contemporary St. Petersburg, must have seemed startling to Russian readers of Gogol's time, who were used to literature that described adventures amongst noblemen in pastoral and aristocratic settings. The setting in "The Overcoat'' plays a role that is almost more important than that of any of the story's characters. The cold winter weather of St. Petersburg requires Akaky to buy his new coat, and the "cold'' treatment he receives at the hands of the bureaucracy in which he exists finally kills him. The dehumanizing, anonymous and self-conscious atmosphere of the government offices that so dominate St. Petersburg in the story is conveyed in the very first sentence by the narrator's decision not to identify the name of the specific department. Akaky's home is described as cold, dark, and dreary, and his neighborhood, especially in contrast to that of the head clerk at whose home Akaky attends a party, is similarly bleak and dangerous.

Symbolism
For all the story's emphasis on stark realism in its depiction of St. Petersburg, ‘‘The Overcoat’’ operates on a symbolic level as well. Many elements—including the anonymous "everyman'' nature of the character Akaky and the "fantastic" reappearance of his corpse near the end—give the story a fairy tale or dreamlike quality, suggesting that the whole narrative has a kind of symbolic significance. As the story's title indicates, Akaky's overcoat is an important, multilayered symbol. On one level, the coat represents a basic human need common to all residents of St. Petersburg in winter; at the same time, the overcoat in the story also seems to stand for the stifling status-oriented attitudes that envelope Russian society. Akaky is ridiculed for wearing his old threadbare overcoat, and though his new coat gives him entree into his coworkers' social circle, Akaky fails to make any real connection with them. When Akaky's corpse returns to strip an overcoat from ‘‘The Person of Consequence,'' what is taken away is the pretension that had kept "The Person of Consequence'' from acknowledging his common bond with Akaky and the rest of humanity.

Compare and Contrast

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1840s: Russia is impacted by two political factions: the "Slavophiles," who support Russian culture and advocate an isolationist view; and the "Westernizers," who view Russia's future in light of Western Europe.

1990s: With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and the surrounding republics that once made up the Soviet Union look to the United States and the European community. Yet some Russians advocate a return to Communism and isolationism as a result of economic failures and food shortages.

1840s: Gogol and other Russian authors struggle to develop a Russian school of literature.

1990s: Russian authors of the mid- to late-nineteenth centuries are highly regarded all over the world. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and others have had a great influence over subsequent Russian authors and world literature.

1840s: Censorship of literary and journalistic work is commonplace under the Czarist regime.

1990s: Russia is an open society after the fall of Communism and the repeal of harsh repressive laws that had been in place for many years.

Media Adaptations

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"The Overcoat’’ was made into a film of the same title in 1959 by Russian actor Alexei Batalov. This faithful adaptation was shot in black and white and is available in video format with English subtitles. The film represents an important turning point in the history of Soviet film making, as it reflects a shift away from the overtly political/historical films that had been predominant since the revolution. It won a "Best Foreign Film’’ award in 1965.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Maguire, Robert, ed., Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Nikolai Gogol, New York: New Directions, 1944.

O'Connor, Frank, The Lonely Voice, New York: World Publishing Company, 1962.

Stilman, Leon, Afterword to The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, by Nikolai Gogol, New York: New American Library, 1960.

Stone, Wilfred, et al., The Short Story: An Introduction, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.

Further Reading
Ehrlich, Victor, Gogolz, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969.
Excellent overview of Gogol's work and the development of the author's views throughout his life.

Fanger, Donald, The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1979.
Analyzes Gogol in the context of his times and cites interesting evidence from both published and unpublished writings by Gogol in discussing the author's creative genius.

Maguire, Robert, ed. Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
The essays in this book represent the most influential twentieth-century critical assessments of Gogol. Included in the volume are two essays by Russian scholars from the first half of the century which offer very close readings of "The Overcoat,’’ emphasizing the formal aspects of Gogol's technique. The editor's introduction summarizes critical debate about Gogol from its beginnings in the nineteenth century through the 1960s.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Nikolai Gogol, New York: New Directions, 1944.
This mostly biographical study, written before Nabokov became an internationally famous and best-selling author. In addition to information about Gogol's life, the book offers several sections of critical analysis, including some on ‘‘The Overcoat.’’ Nabokov describes Gogol as a strongly visual writer and emphasizes his stylistic excellence, concluding that Gogol's work ‘‘is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas.’’

O'Connor, Frank, The Lonely Voice, New York: World Publishing Company, 1962.
A short story writer himself, O'Connor gives a fascinating critical analysis of the short story genre through history. He devotes considerable attention to Gogol and ‘‘The Overcoat,’’ which he considers an early masterpiece of the short story form.

Stone, Wilfred, et al., The Short Story: An Introduction, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983.
This textbook is an anthology of short stories arranged chronologically, beginning with ancient myths and ending with experimental short fiction from the 1960s. Its introduction and entries entitled ‘‘Nikolai Gogol’’ and ‘‘The Short Story Proper: The First Age’’ offer much insight into "The Overcoat'' and its role in the development of the modern short story form.

Troyat, Henri, Divided Soul, translated by Nancy Amphoux, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
This authoritative study explores the connection between Gogol's life and his work, emphasizing the ways in which Gogol's works reflect the author's lifelong search for spiritual wholeness.

Bibliography

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Alissandratos, Julia. “Filling in Some Holes in Gogol’s Not Wholly Unholy ‘Overcoat.’ ” The Slavonic and East European Review 68, no. 1 (January, 1990): 22-40. Examines the patterns and allusions relating to religious texts in Gogol’s story. Argues that Gogol parodies Russian religious tradition.

Chizhevsky, Dmitry. “About Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ ” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. An insightful essay that shows how Gogol’s seemingly humorous story points to a serious moral vision: The devil ensnares humans into obsession not only with exalted things in life, but also with trivia.

Eichenbaum, Boris. “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Analyzes Gogol’s stylistic technique, highlighting the performative nature of the narrative by focusing on its puns, hyperbole, and abrupt shifts in tone.

Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. Underscores the problematic nature of Gogol’s text. Noting the presence of discrete elements of several thematic patterns, this analysis concludes that “The Overcoat” remains elusive, pointing always to movement rather than resolution.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions, 1944. A dazzling evocation of the stylistic and verbal idiosyncrasies of Gogol’s text. Nabokov’s commentary identifies the salient features of Gogol’s style and suggests what kind of worldview this stylistic display reveals.

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