It has been suggested that realist interpretations in general put all their emphasis onto the first part of the story disregarding the fantastic elements of the writing which are particularly apparent in the ending. Ought the ending to be ignored however due to the very fact it creates ambiguity in finalizing interpretations? Some such as Hofmann have gone so far as to say that the story is unsuccessful and spoilt by the fantastic elements of it (Hofmann 1946: 162). Critics going down this social route have suggested that the ending is just an addition, added arbitrarily to satisfy some moral feeling, and it can therefore be generally disregarded. However, Gogol’s method of working was incredibly thorough, and he explained how he amended and copied the text up to 8 times, constantly refining and perfecting his language (Tschizewsky 1982: 37). It therefore seems incredibly unlikely that such an ending was attached without intention or significant thought. Moreover, manuscripts have shown that the original title of The Overcoat was intended to be “The Clerk Who Stole Overcoats” (Gippius 1981: 107). The ending can therefore be considered fundamental in Gogol’s story, and despite its ambiguity, it would seem that it must therefore be included in any attempts to interpret the text.
What is most uncertain is whether the conclusion is meant to be considered fantastic or not. While some critics have veered towards a supernatural understanding of the ending, such as Gippius who claims “it must in fact be regarded as fantastic” (Gippius 1981: 110), others such as Karlinsky have pointed to the mundane (Karlinsky 1976: 141). It seems, therefore, that interpreting the ending is made exceedingly complex by the ambiguous use of a doubly encoded text. It is clear that Gogol was working within the tradition of the supernatural tale in this writing, like many other authors of the supernatural, Gogol makes interpreting the text and its significance complicated through the use of clues which offer a psychological, as well as fantastic, motivation for character behaviour. The description of the thieves, Peppard has argued, suggests that there were two thieves, one big moustached one who stole from Akaky, the other a shorter one, who was then responsible for stealing the coat from the ‘important personage’ and was mistaken for Akaky’s ghost (Peppard 1990: 65). In a similar way to Pushkin’s use of the supernatural as a cover for guilt in the Queen of Spades, it has be suggested that Gogol has used the fantastic ending as a cover for psychological basis of characters behaviour, both cases being related to guilty consciences and consumption of alcohol (Peppard 1990: 69). Overall it can be said that the disagreement amoungst critics in interpretations points to the powerful and continued success of Gogol’s doubly encoded technique.
So what is Gogol’s overcoat all about? There is no doubt that within Gogol’s Overcoat lay a series of complex thoughts and ideas, open to different and often vastly contradictory interpretations, depending on which aspect of the text one focuses. The Overcoat is clearly not devoid of all moral meaning. Neither, however, is it a purely sentimentalist piece of writing. What makes The Overcoat so ambiguous and open to varying interpretations, is the incredible use of detail in the authors narrative technique which is apparent throughout the text, be it social commentaries on censorship, rank, or religious imagery; combined with the use of mocking skaz techniques in juxtaposition to the sentimental passages. Finally, the doubly encoded creates ambiguity not only in the meaning and message, but even in the basic understanding of the plot. It is clear that Gogol’s narrative technique was intended to create a decisively ambiguous story and therefore that any interpretation must be significantly nuanced. Never mind emerging from Gogol’s Overcoat, it seems likely that critics will continue to drown in it for many years to come.
How did you interpret The Overcoat? Religious exploration? Social Criticism? Or something else?
By The Russian Student
Gippius, V. V, (1981) Gogol, Trans. and ed. Robert A. Maguire. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis
Hofmann, M. and R. (1946), Gogol, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris.
Karlinsky, Simon (1976), The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.
Peppard, Victor, ‘Who Stole Whose Overcoat and Whose Text Is It’? South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 63-80
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