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Gogol’s Very Russian Overcoat

Updated on August 12, 2018
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Nikolai Gogol produced a number of highly impressive short stories, including The Overcoat, The Nose, Diary of a Madman, and The Portrait.

The Russian Literature's Golden Era

Nikolai Gogol is not the most famous of the 19th century Russian authors; that distinction arguably belongs to Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky or Anton Chekhov. And yet his work is often presenting far more impressive qualities than those of his more internationally celebrated countrymen. His largest creation has been the novel “Lost Souls”, where he describes the general indifference and petty opportunism which was given free rein in the Russian countryside. Yet it is in some of the shorter stories where we can find the most vivid outbursts of this writer’s genius.

There is a reason to single out his novella titled The Overcoat. While Gogol produced a number of lively and dramatic tales – The Nose and Diary of a Madman being two other highly notable examples of his artistry – it is with the Overcoat that he set the foundations for the golden century of Russian literature.

Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol

While Gogol produced a number of lively and dramatic tales – The Nose and Diary of a Madman being two other highly notable examples of his artistry – it is with the Overcoat that he set the foundations for the golden century of Russian literature.

Out of the Overcoat

Dostoevsky commented that all of the renowned Russian authors came "out of the Overcoat”. This statement may well be true, given Gogol played the role of the pioneer for Russian literature, much like Poe did for American literature: in the Overcoat we observe a character who is distinct from the Romanticism of the era, and is routinely victimized by his compatriots. Indeed, here we do not at all see a mimesis of German Romanticism (highly prominent in the era, and represented by authors like Wolfgang Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann) nor of French experimental proto-Realism or the bleak Symbolism of Lautréamont. Gogol was concurrent with those authors, yet he presented his own artistic vision, and the protagonist of The Overcoat is one who bares little to no resemblance to the gentlemen – or adventurous rogues – of 19th century Western literature, nor with their Russian counterparts in the writings of Pushkin and Lermontov.

This protagonist, whose name is Akaky Akakievic (the name comes from the Greek akakia, and signifies that he is truly “harmless”), does not aspire to be anything great. In fact he is quite resigned to being a pawn in the vast bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, never hopes to be promoted, and would have likely spent his entire life occupied with copying documents in his calligraphic style, if he didn’t happen to need to acquire a new overcoat; because his old one was entirely worn-out…

Akaky Akakievic (the name comes from the Greek akakia, and signifies that he is truly “harmless”), does not aspire to be anything great. In fact he is quite resigned to being a pawn in the vast bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, never hopes to be promoted, and would have likely spent his entire life occupied with copying documents in his calligraphic style, if he didn’t happen to need to acquire a new overcoat.

Gogol's Humor

Akaky is poor, downtrodden, and made fun of by virtually all the others in his office. His looks are quite unattractive, and he certainly seems to have withdrawn into a corner, wishing only to be left alone so as to keep existing as he does, with no fanfare or festivity in his life. When he is forced to admit that his overcoat has reached the point of being unusable, he at first intends to just mend it up a little, so as to keep it for a couple more years... But his tailor tells him, in no uncertain terms, that this piece of clothing isn’t even worthy of being termed as an overcoat, and it is entirely beyond repair.

Akaky has to accept this, so he then inquires as to what the cost would be for a new overcoat. The tailor asks for a vast amount of rubbles, which almost makes Akaky faint. Despite the fact that the tailor will later on agree to a considerably smaller price, Akaky still will need to take dramatic measures so as to manage to save enough money – over the course of a few months – so as to finally pay the tailor and have the overcoat ordered…

Akaky is poor, downtrodden, and made fun of (for no reason other than due to being unable to fight back) by virtually all the others in his office. His looks are quite unattractive, and he certainly seems to have withdrawn into a corner, wishing only to be left alone so as to keep existing as he does, with no fanfare or festivity in his life.

A Glimmer of Hope

When the new overcoat is ready, and Akaky wears it as he arrives to his office, all of his working-mates commend him on how beautiful the new element of attire looks. One of them suggests – perhaps half-jokingly – that they should have a party to commemorate the change. Akaky cannot invite them over to his place, so another of the office-workers offers to be the host of the party. Akaky is also invited there, and he cannot refuse the invitation – out of fear of being way too unobliging.

He had never before attended such a party! And while the others there quickly forgot all about him, Akaky did feel that maybe this kind of joyous life could be for him as well. He is intoxicated by this thought, as he starts walking back to his apartment building. He even thinks of the elegant women in the party. But tragedy is very near.

Tragedy strikes...

Akaky was attacked and robbed, while walking back to his place. The overcoat was stolen. He will have to start wearing the old overcoat once more. He does try to get the police to search for the stolen item, but this idea will soon prove to have been disastrous, for it will reveal to him that the gentlemen in the police – much like their counterparts in his office – pay no attention to him, and only identify him as a means to inflate their own ego, by joking at his expense, in front of their friends…

The state official who Akaky approaches reacts in the most vile and insulting way possible, and poor Akaky is petrified. In a characteristic stroke of Gogol’s humor, Akaky soon dies – due to shock and shame – and later on returns to the world; this time as a powerful ghost…

Gogol wrote this ending so as to allow the reader to also laugh a little, after reading so devastating a story. And one can only laugh, and feel a bit happy for Akaky, because now that he is a ghost he can take revenge against the powerful state official. He haunts him at every outing of his luxurious wagon-coach. And he also scolds a policeman who failed to stop the robbery of his overcoat, by towering above him in his new form: of a ghost which sports a mustache that is strikingly big and all-around ominous looking...

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos

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