The Overcoat (Shinel') by Nikolai Gogol, 1841

views updated

by Nikolai Gogol, 1841

Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" ("Shinel"'), the story of a lowly clerk in a government office, marks an important stage in the development of nineteenth-century realism. Gogol wrote it in 1840 in Vienna while undergoing a religious crisis. His account of Akaky's suffering translates his own spiritual unrest into the simplest and most universal terms. Using a fussily pedantic narrator whose outlook is not far removed from Akaky's, Gogol expresses moral urgency and at the same time distances himself from his character, thus avoiding self-pity and special pleading. This is a satirical mode that has influenced both Russian and world literature.

Gogol's style is digressive and sometimes arbitrary, as at the beginning of Akaky's search for a new overcoat when the narrator offers a sketch of the tailor because, as he says, it is fashionable to describe every character in a story. He mimics the historian or reporter: "We'd better say a word about [the tailor's] wife, but unfortunately very little is known about her." This mock objectivity contrasts with the story's charged, almost surreal atmosphere. The Russian formalist critic Boris Eichenbaum calls this mode the literary grotesque. The grotesque style, he says, requires that the action "should be enclosed in a fantastically small world" that is removed from ordinary reality. This estrangement allows the author to play with and rearrange experience in accordance with his artistic aims. In this artificial reality "any trifle can grow to colossal proportions," as Akaky's overcoat does in this story.

The underlying fantastic element surfaces explicitly with the appearance of Akaky's ghost in the story's final scenes. Since this is Gogol's only reference to the supernatural, some readers regard these scenes as an awkward coda that impairs the story's unity. For others, however, they grow logically out of the grotesque mode and confirm the story's spiritual implications.

Some critics see Akaky's love of the overcoat as a religious parable, though they draw varying conclusions about its meaning. Anthony Hippisley, for example, argues that the overcoat stands for Akaky's spiritual regeneration, the putting on of a new man. On the other hand, Dmitri Chizhevsky believes that Akaky is guilty of loving the things of this world too much, which results in his final fall from grace. The story is resonant enough to carry the reader beyond such competing views and to offer the overcoat as an inclusive symbol of human passions and needs. The story's universality is founded on Gogol's skillful evocation of a specific historical time and place. For all its mysterious atmosphere, "The Overcoat" is filled with concrete, familiar details that keep the reader grounded in everyday life and that account for the story's role in the development of literary realism. It is the most powerful of the many Russian works—more than 200, according to one count—on the theme of the downtrodden civil servant or poor clerk. Tolstoi's often quoted remark about the writers of his generation—"We all come out of 'The Overcoat"'—refers to Gogol's pioneering realism.

Akaky is one of the humblest and most insignificant of protagonists. Only Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who turns into an insect, can challenge him as the quintessential human without qualities, but Akaky is too vacant to turn into an insect. This absence of personal traits enables Gogol to focus on Akaky's humanness plain and simple. He is hardly more, Sean O'Faolain remarked, than an old overcoat. While maintaining his emphasis on the grotesque, the narrator describes in detail just how much Akaky, like all poor folk, suffers from the Russian winter. He paints this picture with compelling realism. When the hard freeze sets in, the wind whips through Akaky's threadbare clothes, and his short walk to the office becomes a daily torment that leaves him shaken. In the arctic Russian climate Akaky's overcoat can make the difference between life and death. The narrator is appropriately exact about how much it costs to buy this necessity—one-fifth of a clerk's annual salary. Additional details realistically define the meaning of poverty, for Akaky must give up other necessities—a candle in his room—and such things as his evening cup of tea in order to pay for the new overcoat.

The story reminds us that the cold can be deadly, and it does kill Akaky in the end. Having been abused by a callous bureaucrat, an "important personage," he gives up and dies, but his health has already been undermined by cold and deprivation.

Akaky's overcoat, as Eichenbaum suggested, takes on colossal proportions, symbolizing the human need to cover one's nakedness as Adam and Eve covered theirs after the Fall. Not only clothes but also houses, families, and civilization itself emerge from and merge into the overcoat. Akaky's biblical complaint, only half of which he speaks aloud—"Let me be. Why do you do this to me?… I am your brother"—echoes Cain's speech—"Am I my brother's keeper?"—and Jesus' last words about his tormentors—"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The discipline and self-sacrifice Akaky displays in order to buy the overcoat reveal a certain dignity, though of a humble and qualified kind. For Akaky even the breezy congratulations of the other clerks, who use the overcoat as an excuse to throw a party, represent a break with his ordinarily faceless anonymity. Like worldly success, the party dazzles and befuddles him. He allows himself to be lured into drinking champagne, strolls unfamiliar streets, lusts after a fascinating woman, and so wanders to his downfall. Having lost his overcoat to thieves, he turns to the bureaucratic official for help, a quest that destroys him.

Akaky's illness and death seem preordained, and, like his life, they are marked by obscurity and insignificance. But the ghost at the end, wresting his overcoat from the smug official, reverses the balance of terror between oppressor and oppressed. In the light of later Russian history it seems a prophetic act. Through it Gogol amplifies the universal message implied by Akaky's unspoken words, "I am your brother." No sufferer's claim may be ignored, and no human being may be dismissed as insignificant. The humanist vision as exemplified by "The Overcoat" provided the moral foundation of nineteenth-century realism and inspired later writers to portray humble and neglected lives.

—Herbert Marder