31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 27: “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol

May 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Gogol’s story – widely anthologized, analyzed, and imitated – has become a touchstone of 19th-century Russian naturalism, but the story is not entirely naturalistic, and in fact serves as a kind of pivot between a 19th-century realist aesthetic and the 20th-century modernism of Mikhail Bulgakov. On the subject of Gogol’s fiction, Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest prose stylists, opined, “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 the immortal ‘The Overcoat,’ he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.”

“The Overcoat” is the story of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a copyist who toils in an anonymous department for an anonymous chief clerk. Akaky Akakievich is happy with his lot in life, and is in no way ambitious; when his supervisor suggests that he should be given a more intellectually demanding task than simply copying out documents, Akaky Akakievich demurs: “No, better let me copy something.” The only thing that preys on his mind is his threadbare overcoat, which has been mended so many times that it can no longer withstand the brutal Russian frost. Akaky Akakievich goes to his tailor, Petrovich, asking to have the overcoat mended once more, but Petrovich insists that only a new overcoat will do. Although he balks at the cost, Akaky Akakievich skimps and saves during the warm weather, and finally has enough money to pay for a new overcoat. Once outfitted with this garment, he becomes the toast of his office – mockingly, but also with a degree of envy at the elegance of the new overcoat. Leaving a party one night, Akaky Akakievich is set upon by thieves who assault him and steal his overcoat. Left subject to the harsh elements of the Russian winter, and with no financial means to secure a new overcoat, Akaky Akakievich succumbs to a fever and dies.

This bare-bones description of the first three quarters of Gogol’s story does not in any way convey the author’s fidelity to a careful presentation of Akaky Akakievich’s straitened circumstances, nor does it sufficiently express the pathos in the depiction of his utilitarian lifestyle. The narrator’s reticence to identify the specific department that Akaky Akakievich works in, or to identify any of the state officials in the story by name, is indicative of the suspicion that Russian workers had for the bureaucracy and machinery of government that operated at the time. The heavy hand of the state is personified in the “important person” Akaky Akakievich goes to see following his assault; when he makes his report, instead of sympathy, he is rebuffed for not following the proper protocol:

“What, my dear sir?” he continued curtly. “Do you not know the order? What are you doing here? Do you not know how cases are conducted? You ought to have filed a petition about it in the chancellery; it would pass to the chief clerk, to the section chief, then be conveyed to my secretary, and my secretary would deliver it to me …”

The knee-jerk response of the high-ranking bureaucrat to the lowly copyist belies what we have been told about him: “[H]e was a kind man at heart, good to his comrades, obliging, but the rank of general had completely bewildered him.” This “bewilderment” is a mild descriptor given the man’s immediate response to anyone he considers an underling or of a lesser station: “How dare you? Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you realize who is standing before you?” The anonymous “important person” Akaky Akakievich consults represents the apparently unbreachable divide between the Russian gentry and the regular people; Akaky Akakievich goes to the man seeking justice and is presented with indignation and barely concealed disgust.

All of this is fairly typical of Russian realist literature; the reader is unprepared for the story’s final two pages, which involve what the narrator acknowledges to be “a fantastic ending.” Briefly, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost resurfaces and begins to steal the overcoats of people in the neighbourhood where he used to live and work. Finally, the ghost accosts the “important person” to whom he had gone for help following his assault, and steals his overcoat. After this, we are told, the phantasm “vanished completely into the darkness of the night.”

This frankly supernatural ending appears to come out of nowhere, but has actually been prepared for in the language of the story’s previous sections. When Akaky Akakievich is set upon, we are told that his assailant “put a fist the size of a clerk’s head right to his mouth.” This absurd image is not in keeping with the realistic presentation elsewhere in the story, and signals a stylistic shift in approach. When Akaky Akakievich succumbs to his fever, we are told in the English translation that he “gave up the ghost”; this turn of phrase is easily glossed over, but takes on a different tenor once the story’s climax has unfolded.

There is a certain amount of utopian wish fulfillment in the finale of Gogol’s story; after his death, the put-upon clerk gets his revenge upon the faceless bureaucrat who exists as a symbol of all the oppression rampant in Russian society at the time. It is interesting to note that in the final scene the phantasm sports “an enormous mustache,” which explicitly links it to the “mustached people” who attacked Akaky Akakievich and stole his new overcoat. Is Gogol suggesting that Russian society is so corrupt that only criminals can achieve anything resembling justice or a comfortable existence? This is one potential reading. It could also be argued that the story’s conclusion presents a longed-for reversal of fortune in which state oppression falls at the hands of the people. In any event, Gogol’s story represents an important step forward, for both Russian literature, and the short story in general.