Friday, May 2, 2008

Gogol's The Overcoat - a rather peculiar sound

Poor Akaky Akakievich. First, his name is ridiculous (it seems to have the same scatological associations in Russian that it does in English, plus it’s a humble saint’s name). Second, he himself is ridiculous. He’s a government clerk, a sort of anti-Bartleby. Akaky is barely more than a human photocopier. He takes copying work home with him because he has no other interests. Poor Akaky.

Akaky needs a new overcoat – this is winter in St. Petersburg, so that's no small thing. After some scraping, and some luck, he finds the money to order a new coat. When he does, his life changes, everything changes, in expectation of the new overcoat:

"His whole existence had in a sense become fuller, as though he had married, as though some other person were present with him, as though he were no longer alone but an agreeable companion had consented to walk the path of life hand in hand with him, and that companion was none other than the new overcoat with its thick padding and its strong, durable lining." (317)

As though he had married!

By the time Akaky acquires his new coat, we’re at page 16 of a 31 page story. Nothing whatsoever has happened besides this: a clerk gets a new coat. If the story were merely a moral parable (which it is, in part) or a ghost story (ditto), Gogol could have begun the story here. But then we would miss this horse:

"Whatever Akaky Akakievich looked at, he saw nothing but his clear, evenly written lines, and it was only perhaps when a horse suddenly appeared from nowhere and placed its head on his shoulder, and with its nostrils blew a real gale on his cheek, that he would notice that he was not in the middle of his writing, but in the middle of the street." (308)

And this tailor's wife:

"Since we have now mentioned the wife, it will be necessary to say a few words about her, too, but unfortunately not much is known about her, except indeed that Petrovich had a wife and that she wore a cap and not a kerchief, but apparently she could not boast of beauty; anyway none but soldiers of the guard peered under her cap when they met her, and they twitched their mustaches and gave vent to a rather peculiar sound." (311)

And a dozen other Gogolian delights. Those soldiers and their mustaches are a sort of Gogol specialty. They're not characters in any sense, just a part of the description of the tailor's wife, but Gogol somehow invests them with a little life of their own.

The Overcoat is, along with The Nose,* a pinnacle of Gogol’s art.

I would be remiss if I failed to point readers to the fine description of The Overcoat at Lizok's Bookshelf.

References are to the University of Chicago Press Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol.

Also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.

* And Dead Souls, and The Government Inspector.


  1. I loved Gogol in my Russian Lit. class. Thanks for reminding me that I need to seek more of his work and that I do like some short stories.

  2. One of my favorite writers is a guy named Denis Johnson -- a relatively underread writer for many years, until he won the National Book Award this past year.

    Anyway, Johnson's masterpiece is a short story collection called Jesus' Son. For my money, it has to be one of the best short story collections ever written -- and I believe someone told me that Johnson drew a connection between his collection and Gogol's Dead Souls.

    I'm thinking of taking a detour into some Russian Lit this summer, and you make Gogol sound fascinating; I already have a copy of Dead Souls laying around, so I think I'll pick it up soon.

  3. Gogol is one of the greats, and it's a treat to spend time with him.

    I read Denis Johnson's "Fiskadoro" many years, enjoyed it ("enjoyed" is not quite the right word), and have meant to read more without ever quite doing it. Maybe your nudge will help.

  4. I read "The Nose" today-really liked it a lot-I hope to post on it soon-I needed a slight change of pace from Mansfield!-I enjoyed your post a lot and hope to read Dead Souls very soon