Gogol, Nikolay (Vasilyevich) (1809-1852)
Gogol: the author of “The Nose”, “Diary of a Madman”, The Government Inspector, Dead Souls, “The Overcoat”, and, alas, another suicide.
The Overcoat (1842):
Like The Queen of Spades, The Overcoat is a St. Petersburg fable which takes a Western fairy tale and retells it from a tough Russian perspective. Remember the story about the puppet that dreamed of becoming a real boy?
Summarize the action of the story:
One day a poor little clerk makes a great decision for the first time in his life and orders a new overcoat to replace the old threadbare rag he has used to protect himself from the cold St. Petersburg wind. The coat, while in the making, becomes the dream of his life, and on the day he wears it to the office, he impresses his co-workers who used to tease him. It is the happiest day of his life. However, on that very night, he is robbed of the coat after wandering into a great snowy square. His attempts to recover the coat are rebuffed by an unsympathetic Very Important Person, and the clerk dies a horrible death, descending into fever and mad rage… but his ghost haunts the city demanding justice.
Gogol’s art is so rich and ambiguous that this story has been embraced by critics across the political spectrum as the definitive expression of their particular ideologies.
What is Gogol’s take on the debate about which direction Russia should take in the mid-19th century?
Let us consider the central character of this drama, Akaky Akakiievich Bashmachin. He has been called Gogol’s vision of the Russian everyman, but what exactly do we mean when we use that term? Is Akaky a creation of his environment, or was he born into his situation? Is he a product of social class (and thus an indictment of 19th c. Russia’s autocratic system), or is he, simply, the most basic representative of our species: man in the state of nature? Of course, the first Akaky, the political football, can be saved, altered, reprogrammed, somehow fixed, but what of the second Akaky, the… dare I say it, existential one: can he, in part, be held responsible for his terrible fate?
Gogol’s father had been a gifted puppeteer. Identity is carved into a puppet’s smiling face…. Pinocchio can only play Pinocchio, and he must grin the same grin no matter the situation. His tragedy? He wants to become a real boy, and in the Western fable, he does become one but only after passing harrowing tests in which other little boys and girls are transformed into swine! By holding fast to his innate sense of right and wrong, despite his desire to be accepted by others, Pinnochio earns character, the ability to create his own destiny. The liberal dream suggests that Pinocchio, Petroushka or Harlequin can cut the puppeteer’s strings, and free themselves. Lovely story, but is it accurate? Gogol’s stories explore the darker potential of puppet theatre. Anyone can seize a puppet’s strings and make the puppet dance the herky-jerky, grotesque steps of some Punch and Judy show, but only a master storyteller can imbue a puppet with life.
What visions of the individual in the state of nature (prior to the creation of civilized society) were current in Europe after the Enlightenment?
For the liberal Westernizer, Akaki Akakievich Basmachin embodies Gogol’s perception of our common human nature reduced to its most basic essentials: he is the greatest common denominator of humanity, and the challenge he faces are those faced by everyman. He is imperfect, but more sinned against than sinning.
For a radical Westernizer (left statist?), Akaki is the humble Russian worker reduced to poverty of such extremity that he nearly loses touch with reality, and when he finally must act, he unfortunately becomes infatuated with bourgeois fashion and is destroyed.
For the radical Slavophile (anarchist?), Akaky’s story demonstrates how Peter’s attempt to westernize Russian identity has only succeeded in jumbling people’s programming. Without the identities imposed on people by social institutions (like nationalist pride or orthodox piety), we run the risk of jumping the tracks and disintegrating into nightmare.
For the conservative Slavophile (right statist?), Akaky’s story tells a parable of self-destructive passion. The Devil angles even for the most insignificant of souls and converts Akaki’s first desire to connect with the rest of humanity into egotism and vanity.
1. the opening paragraph (1)
The story’s first sentence veers off on a tangent, before anything has been said, into a digression about some un-named District Police officer. A subordinate clause takes over the sentence and veers into the surreal. This is Gogol’s narrative method: he communicates by digression and parenthetical expression. The key ideas will be disclosed between the lines, not in a direct fashion. He challenges the reader to open his or her imagination to receive his true message, which is about as subversive as it can get.
The narrator describes a District Police officer who complains to the government about the sullying of his reputation in print! He submits “an absolutely enormous tome…in which nearly every ten pages a police commissioner makes an appearance, sometimes in a very drunken state.” (Can’t you see the pages turning, and this drunken commissioner popping up out of the book itself to sing?)
Gogol’s narrator points out how easily the censors jump on literature and claim it has been written as a scandalous character assassination of actual government personages. Therefore, from the outset Gogol must take pains to avoid giving any occasion for this type of direct allegorical interpretation…. Buy it?
The remarkable tendency of Gogol’s sentences to breed is demonstrated by the way this one spawns a Police Officer whose fertile imagination spawns drunken commissioners. This reality stands adjacent to our own (and others), but its energy threatens to supersede our own. Only a firm sense of self can counteract this dangerous ability of the imagination to impinge on reality Without the stable habits, routines and rituals of daily life, we can easily get lost.
Also, by affirming this story’s artificial nature, Gogol hints at the artificial understanding we have of our own natures. The seemingly unassailable foundation of personality stands on shaky ground in this unflinching depiction of human nature.
What is the political point?
2. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachin (1)
Teatro Milagro, El Capote (2008)
What is the literal meaning of Akaky’s name?
Ka-ka Son of Ka-Ka. Shoesole (Soul?) Eh?
“…he just could not have been called anything else.” (72)
His name is extraordinary in its very plain-ness. A plainer name could not be imagined. His mother chose to name him after his father because all the other ‘saintly’ names proposed sounded far too pretentious. At the moment of his christening, Akaki burst into tears “as if he knew then and there that he was fated to be a titular councilor.” (73)
3. Akaky’s Humble Fate: The Life of an Anonymous, Petty Bureaucrat: Our Life (2)
What is Akaky’s fate? Is Akaky’s fate the evil consequence of an inflexible class system? Was he born this way or has he been made this way by Peter’s caste system?
“Everyone came to believe that he had come into this world already equipped for his job, complete with uniform and bald patch on the top of his head.” (73)
He seems to have hatched from an egg at the age of 50 something, readymade for his function as a cog in the bureaucracy.
What is Akaky’s job, exactly?
He’s a copier, human Xerox machine. What’s worse, Akaky does not protest. He fulfills his function day in and day out, always perfect, despite the jokes and jibes of his co-workers. He’s born to the job! (During the Middle Ages scribes working in the scriptoriums of remote monasteries spent their lives copying religious texts. They were instructed by their superiors not to take any interest in the content of the texts. Instead they focused on accuracy and the beauty of their calligraphy.)
4. The Famous Pathetic Passage (2)
A co-worker is stopped in his tracks after hearing Akaky’s laments about the office pranks against him which have gotten out of control and interfered with his penmanship!
Akaki said, “Leave me alone, why do you have to torment me?” Something in his voice transfixes the co-worker with horror and fills his heart with compassion.
Belinsky, the most prominent critic in Russian letters in the 1840’s took this passage to be direct evidence of Gogol’s political purpose: to evoke compassion for those creatures warped and tormented by the autocracy’s inflexibility. Is that Gogol’s purpose?
Can it be argued instead that this co-worker recognizes a glimpse of something in Akaki’s persona that correlates to his own experience?
5. Akaky’s Gift (2-3)
Should we pity Akaky?
No, he does his work with love! (2)
“In that copying of his he glimpsed a whole varied and pleasant world of his own.”
Akaky’s reason for being is copying. That might seem ridiculous, but it is somehow charming. He is entirely happy and comfortable in his niche.
What happens when Akaky is asked to compose his own sentences for a report?
It is only when he is asked to do something outside of his niche, such as preparing a report of his own or even changing the verb tense in a particular file, that Akaky goes to pieces. (3)
Akaky is humble, but blessed, comfortable, happy, pleased with himself and his job; like some idiot savant, he savors a world of letters divorced from any meaning: sounds before sense. Akaky exists in language’s UR-sense, at the formative base of the composition of identity.
ontology: study of he essential characteristics of Being; the order and structur of Being
epistemology: Where does knowledge come from? innate knowledge or tabula rasa?
6. Akaky on the Street (3)
As Akaky walks down the street, people dump their garbage on him from windows above, yet Akaky wanders on oblivious to everything but his own elemental perception of the world. He behaves like a stick figure in a puppet theatre, and the very architecture of the city appears as the vectors of the Cyrillic alphabet.
“All he ever saw on the street were rows of letters in his own neat, regular handwriting.” (3)
Has Akaky been reduced to this state by poverty and oppression, or is his fundamental response to outward phenomena common to all of us at the very core of our psychology?
Akaky has to stumble into a horse’s head before he realizes that he is not “in the middle of a sentence but in the middle of a street”. He is completely self-contained, on the verge between being and non-being. Piet Mondrian must have read Gogol before painting his abstract compositions in which the visual world is reduced to its component parts: horizontal and vertical lines.
Gogol has pushed his creation to the absolute limits of credibility and in so doing he is asserting a conception of human nature that is very Russian and very different from our Western notion of ‘man in the state of nature’.
What is a human being?
Any being simpler than Akaky would cease to exist as human and either become animal or pure energy. He is the bare minimum, the least common denominator among us all. His being is so fragile that his place in reality is constantly threatened by any ego with even the most tangential relationship to him. Someone like Akaky exists at the ground base of our own ontological relationship to the world around us.
Perhaps, he means to acknowledge the fragility of our common humanity. Even this man who has been granted only the barest whisp of self-hood is one of God’s children with peculiarly human attributes. He takes pleasure in copying; he exists for the mere pleasure of forming the runes of language.
7. The Cold Russian Wind (4)
Akaky needs a new overcoat: to whom does he turn when the exigencies of life (or is it the injustice of his enforced poverty) force him to get a new overcoat?
8. Ivan Petrovich, the Tailor (4-5) Describe Petrovich the tailor. What do you make of his many attributes? Are these naturalistic details or are they symbolic? Is Petrovich another brutalized victim of social oppression?
9. The Facts of Life (6)
Petrovich says that there is nothing for it! Akakii must have a completely new overcoat! (Note the weird detail at this key moment: the snuffbox on p.6)
Why is he so distraught? Is it only the cost?
10. Akaky’s New Economy (7-9)
How is Akakii’s life transformed during the next few months as he saves the money to buy the new overcoat? With what kinds of brazen fantasies does he indulge himself? Is this marked change in Akakii’s lifestyle for the good?
11. Akaky’s New Overcoat (10-11)
How does Akakii behave differently when he wears his new overcoat for the first time? How do his co-workers treat him differently? What does he notice while window shopping? Is Gogol’s purpose to lampoon the bourgeois illusions with which the West beckons the East and Akakii intoxicates himself?
12. The Party (12)
Does Akakii have a good time in this new world of hissing samovars, champagne, cards, laughter, and chatter?
On the way home, Akaky inexplicably breaks into a trot and nearly chases after a lady!
13. The Great Square (13)
Describe the Square in which Akakii is assaulted. What section of town is he in? Who attack him? Is Gogol’s purpose symbolic or political?
What does his landlady suggest he do?
14. The District Police Superintendent (14)
How does Akaky stands up for himself for the first time in his life!
What does the Superintendant tell him?
15. The Prominent Personage (15)
How has the Important Person (to whom Akakii addresses his complaint) been unhinged by his new rank as general? What, in Gogol’s opinion, have been the consequences of a competitive meritocracy?
How does he treat Akakii? (15-17)
16. Akaky’s Death Throes (17)
What visions possess Akakii in his death throes?
15. Akaky’s Ghost Haunts the City (18-19)
How does Akakii’s Ghost wreak his revenge on the citizens of St. Petersburg? Note some of the surreal details of Akaky’s revenge: what terrible crime wave infects St. Petersburg?
Overcoats ripped off regardless of rank!
Police orders to arrest and punish all corpses!
Ghosts escaping in clouds of snuff!
How does the Prominent Personage deal with his feelings of remorse? (19)
16. Spectral Pigs (20-21)
Look carefully at the last image of the story as it spins off into oblivion. Note the recurrence of another bizarre Gogoles-que sentence, one in which a subordinate conjunction rises up to assume control of its meaning. Is Gogol making a political or a psychological point?
What is Gogol’s point? (What is the last image of the story as it spins off into oblivion?
Tschizewskij, Dmitrij, "The Composition of Gogol's 'Overcoat'," in Gogol's 'Overcoat': An Anthology of Critical Essays, ed. Elizabeth Trahan, Ann Arbor, Ardis, 1982, pp. 37-60
Eikhenbaum, Boris, "How Gogol's 'Overcoat' is Made," in Gogol's 'Overcoat': An Anthology of Critical Essays, ed. Elizabeth Trahan, Ann Arbor, Ardis, 1982, pp. 21-36
Holquist, Michael, "The Tyranny
of Difference: Gogol and the Sacred," in Gogol: Exploring
Absence, ed. Sven Spieker,
Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 1999, pp.125-37 (RES)