Many critics have used the author’s religious and personal beliefs to attribute meaning to the characters and objects in The Overcoat. Tschizewsky argued that if intended at all, protests at the social position of minor official is “strangely elusive in the text” (Tschizewsky 1982: 46). His study of the use of the word ‘even’ argued that it was not only a characteristic of the skaz style narrative of the story, but indeed bound up with the plot and ideas of the work (Tschizewsky 1982:50). Instead of the traditional moral message 19th century readers obtained from the text, he suggests that Gogol’s message was a religious one, namely that man must base his existence on God alone and not on worldly things (Tschizewsky 1982:46). In this view, Petrovich, the tailor, is seen as the devil, with his big toe and deformed nail, in addition to the description of him drinking excessively on all Christian holidays, and the lexical field of devil imagery surrounding him in phrases such as “the devil knows what price”. In Tschizewsky’s opinion, The Overcoat is a religious story of temptation and the coat itself is considered to be the worthless love which tempts Akaky and results in his downfall (Tschizewsky 1982:47).
Wisseman on the other hand has argued on the contrary, that Akaky’s main passion is for copying, and instead has a completely normal relationship with clothing as necessary in the given climate (Wisseman 1982: 100). In obtaining the overcoat, he suggests Akaky doesn’t lose himself in the way other religious interpretations have suggested, but instead finds himself, and it is its theft and the protagonist’s treatment by the important person that causes the destruction of the hero.
However, the very fact that two critics, both drawing on the same passage, can argue almost polar opposite interpretations is testimony to the ambiguity in the narration, and suggests neither argument is sufficiently powerful. Therefore, while Gogol’s incredibly careful choice of language in the narrative description of Petrovich has many devilish connotations, it is clear that such detail only creates ambiguity in interpretation. Gogol’s lexical choices are meant to encourage speculation, but are a long way from containing any full meaning in this passage.
By The Russian Student
Wisseman, Henry (1982), ‘The Ideational content of Gogol’s Overcoat’ in
Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 86- 105
Tschiiewskij, Dmitri (1982), ‘The composition of Gogol’s Overcoat’, in
Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 37- 60