Although Dostoevsky has often been wrongly attributed with the quote “We all emerged from Gogol’s Overcoat”, it neatly sums up the 19th century view of the story as the starting point for a distinctive style dominated by social pity, and makes clear the importance of the text in the progression of Russian literature (Driessen 1965: 185). The Overcoat has since, however, been the subject of intense disagreement in interpretation amongst critics, with some arguing that the story is in fact devoid of any social or moral aspect. This is of course due to the ambiguity within both the plot and the narrative. By focussing on varying aspects of the text, including the so called ‘humane passages’, the fantastic ending, the comic devices and skaz, as well as studying the novella and its author from various religious viewpoints, critics have arrived at vastly conflicting interpretations.
The first part of this series of articles will explore the the classical social reading of The Overcoat, which saw it as a piece of social criticism, with Gogol playing the part of protestor at the plight of the poor and minor officials. Following this viewpoint, many critics have pointed to the crucial significance of the two ‘humane passages’, which are seen to emphasise the humiliating destiny of the poor clerk (Driessen 1965: 186). One occurs near the beginning of the story, where a new official joins in with his colleagues teasing of Akaky, but is touched by the language and tone of his protest, hearing the words “я брат твой” in their place. Many times in his life since he shuddered “видя, как много в человеке бесчеловечья” (Gogol 1970: 23). The passage, with its Christian undertones, alludes to the cruelty of all men, even those who pass for civilized. The second, less often quoted humane passage, occurs at the end of this section, lamenting Akaky’s death but noting his lack of impact on society. The language of these passages taken individually does indeed point to a strong social and moral criticism, however, the powerful difference between this language and the mocking, even scathing, narration present in the rest of the text, which seems to seek to consistently undermine and dehumanise Akaky, leads to ambiguity in the way in which we should interpret these sections. By focusing efforts on these two sections, critics have neglected seeing the story as a whole, however Graffy rightly asserted that the range of interpretations of the humane passages reflect in microcosm the variety of interpretations of the whole text (Graffy 2000: 109).
Akaky as a character is also no doubt an ambiguous one, but in analysing his description, it goes some way to clarifying whether we ought to interpret the whole text, as opposed to just the humane passages, as containing a moral message. Akaky, in his mechanical behaviour and robotic existence, lacks almost everything that makes a person human and every element in him is reduced to virtually nothing by Gogol’s narrative. However, the reader continues to see him as human due to his intense love, not of the overcoat which some critics have argued, but of writing (Driessen 1965: 190). As a result of this passion for writing, he is vulnerable and the teasing of his colleagues is particularly cruel as they ‘strike a living being in his purpose in life, in what gives him a right to recognition’ (Driessen 1965: 190). Akaky is systematically undercut and ridiculed, not only by the other characters, but even by the narrator and author. His name, with the “как” sound conjures excremental images, he is described as having garbage on his hat and eating flies, none of which can be claimed create significant sympathy around the character (Karlinsky 1976: 137). However, Karlinsky points to the fact that despite ambiguity in the way in he is consistently ridiculed by not only the society in which he lives, but also by the narrator, the real literary triumph and overwhelming moral message in the text, is the way which Gogol still manages to make the reader feel sympathy for his plight (Karlinsky 1976: 136)
Other aspects of the text have also been studied for their social content. David Sloanes’s analysis highlights an awareness of self-censorship from the narrator throughout the text (Sloane, 1991: 482-3). The constant vague allusions to need for self-censorship in phrases such a ‘один чиновник’, ‘одном департаменте’, ‘какого город’, ‘один директор’ highlight serious political daring (Sloane, 1991: 482-3). Throughout the text, the narrator also shows an enduring obsession with rank and its consequences (Graffy 2000: 104). He insists on discussing it first of all when he states that “ибо у нас прежде всего нужно объявить чин” (Gogol 1970: 20). The narrator also ensures that all characters, however small or irrelevant to the tale, are mentioned by their rank. Akaky’s godparents, therefore, although they don’t actually feature substantially in the plot, are described as being present at the christening. Ivan, the godfather, is noted for being “столоначальником в сенате” while Arina, the godmother,is “жена квартального офицера” (Gogol 1970: 20). While these are examples of excessive mention of rank, the concept plays a more obvious role and is more explicitly condemned with regard to the “значительное лицо” (Gogol 1970: 60). We are told how he was not always important, only recently acquiring the position, and how he has attempted to increase his importance by having other officials meet him on the stairs when he arrives and enforcing the condition that no one should come directly to him, increasing his distance from lowly clerks. Rank is described as the cause of his confusion and lack of good feeling towards inferiors. He struggles in dealing with his rank, not only when it comes to addressing Akaky in an appropriate manner when he has company, but his preoccupation with the concept is also visible in his relief that the party he attends has enough people of his own rank to be able to have an enjoyable time. These details highlight a deep awareness of rank, and its consequences in Russian society, made explicit in the line “так уж на святой руси всё заражено подражанием, всякий дразнит и корчит своего начальника” (Gogol 1970: 49).
This social commentary hides ambiguity however, because the suggestion that these details amount to a genuine social protest seems somewhat too farfetched. There seems to be little effort to resolve the problems of society and indeed Akaky seems, however cruelly, to have very little impact on life in St Petersburg as it continues quite well without him, continuing “как будто в нём его и никогда не было” (Gogol 1970: 55). The cyclical nature of the novel seems therefore to lack any change, which points to the notion that these detailed references to society and rank are intended more as comic devices, heightening Gogol’s humour through the contrast of such excessive detail and the more serious sympathetic commentary as witnessed in the ‘humane passages’. Gogol’s text is therefore not without social awareness, but arguably cannot be seen to extend to any significant protest. Eikhenbaum has continued this analysis suggesting that even the humane passages have little to do with the 19th century sentimentalist interpretation of them, and that instead, they are simply a device motivated by a desire to make contrast with the humorous skaz narration, turning comic into grotesque through their juxtaposition (Eikhenbaum 1982: 30-31)
By The Russian Student
Driessen, F. C, (1965), Gogol as a Short Story Writer, Baarn, Hollandia.
Eikhenbaum, Boris (1982), ‘How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made’ , in Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 21-36
Graffy, Julian (2000), Gogol’s The Overcoat, London, Bristol Classical Press.
Karlinsky, Simon (1976), The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.
Sloane, David, ‘The name as phonetic icon: a reconsideration of onomastic significance in Gogols “The Overcoat”’, Slavic and Eastern European Journal. 35, 1991, 4, pp. 473-88