Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Themed Reading: The Overcoat


Gogol's goal as a writer was to "extract the extraordinary from the ordinary" and in this story one feels he is perpetually treading the thin line between them. The details are classically Russian: Akakii Akakievich Bashmachkin, an obscure bureaucratic copyist, decides that he must buy a new overcoat, though he can ill afford it. After a long period of extreme frugality to save up the money, and a short period of enjoying his new coat, during which his life and his attitude take a modest turn for the better, Akakii is mugged and the coat is stolen.

Far from a tale of "hard to get, but easy to lose," Gogol uses this simple plot as the starting point for a commentary on the social ills of Russia that could apply to the structure of rich and poor in any nation. The sense of the labor of millions producing wealth for only a few are reminiscent of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (published one year later in 1843). What is uniquely Russian is the sense of fatalism here. Akakii is merely a leaf on the stream of life. Whether he is sailing toward a happy ending or a sad result, there is not much he can do about it, and he is almost never cheerful, only resigned.

This story also contains an element of the fairy-tale, a slight exaggeration of the details that prepare the reader for the rather supernatural events of the ending. Akakii's job as a human Xerox machine is so depersonalized and taken for granted that his supervisors do not even speak to him; they just drop documents on his desk without even a word of kindness. He does not even rate a polite greeting from the janitor. To save money, he walks nearly on his tiptoes, to avoid wearing out the heels of his shoes. He has the knack of arriving under windows just when people are throwing rubbish out of them, so he is always covered with bits of refuse. These realistic-plus details lead us deeper into Gogol's tale.

When Akakii finally acquires his new coat, it is as if it has magical properties. Akakii is invited to a coworkers' party where he is welcomed warmly, drinks champagne, and enjoys a sumptuous meal, all the while feeling that he is something of an impostor. It is too much, too soon. Gogol again uses the details to warn us that fate is going to catch up with Akakii: when he slips away from the party, he finds his beloved coat lying on the floor, a bit dusty, and has to carefully brush it off before heading home. But the coat's benevolent magic has been broken and from that point, a different kind of magic takes over. Gogol smoothly steps over the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and the reader is happy to go along with him.

Excerpt:

It was--it is difficult to say precisely on what day, but it was probably the most glorious day in Akakii Akakievich's life, when Petrovich at length brought home the coat. He brought it in the morning, before the hour when it was necessary to go to the department. Never did a coat arrive so exactly in the nick of time; for the severe cold had set in, and it seemed to threaten increase. Petrovich presented himself with the coat as befits a good tailor. On his countenance was a significant expression, such as Akakii Akakievich had never beheld there. He seemed sensible to the fullest extent that he had done no small deed, and that a gulf had suddenly appeared, separating tailors who only put in linings, and make repairs, from those who make new things.

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