The Overcoat

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For the films based on the story, see The Overcoat (disambiguation).
Cover by Igor Grabar, 1890s

"The Overcoat" (Russian: Шинель, translit. Shinel; sometimes translated as "The Cloak") is a short story by Ukrainian-born Russian author Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842. The story and its author have had great influence on Russian literature, as expressed in a quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky: "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'." The story has been adapted into a variety of stage and film interpretations.

Summary[edit]

A stamp depicting "The Overcoat", from the souvenir sheet of Russia devoted to the 200th birth anniversary of Nikolay V. Gogol, 2009

The story centers on the life and death of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (Акакий Акакиевич Башмачкин), an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Akaky is dedicated to his job as a titular councillor, taking special relish in the hand-copying of documents, though little recognized in his department for his hard work. Instead, the younger clerks tease him and attempt to distract him whenever they can. His threadbare overcoat is often the butt of their jokes. Akaky decides it is necessary to have the coat repaired, so he takes it to his tailor, Petrovich, who declares the coat irreparable, telling Akaky he must buy a new overcoat.

The cost of a new overcoat is beyond Akaky's meager salary, so he forces himself to live within a strict budget to save sufficient money to buy the new overcoat. Meanwhile, he and Petrovich frequently meet to discuss the style of the new coat. During that time, Akaky's zeal for copying is replaced with excitement about his new overcoat, to the point that he thinks of little else. Finally, with the addition of an unexpectedly large holiday salary bonus, Akaky has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.

Akaky and Petrovich go to the shops in St. Petersburg and pick the finest materials they can afford (marten fur is unaffordable, but they buy the best cat fur available for the collar). The new coat is of impressively good quality and appearance and is the talk of Akaky's office on the day he arrives wearing it. His clerk superior decides to host a party honoring the new overcoat, at which the habitually solitary Akaky is out of place; after the event, Akaky goes home from the party, far later than he normally would. En route home, two ruffians confront him, take his coat, kick him down, and leave him in the snow.

Akaky finds no help from the authorities in recovering his lost overcoat. Finally, on the advice of another clerk in his department, he asks for help from a "Very Important Person" (sometimes translated the prominent person, the person of consequence), a high-ranking general. The narrator notes that the general habitually belittles and shouts at subordinates to make himself appear more important than he truly is. After keeping Akaky waiting an unnecessarily long time, the general demands of him exactly why he has brought so trivial a matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary (the procedure for separating the VIP from the lesser clerks).

Socially inept, Akaky makes an unflattering remark concerning departmental secretaries, provoking so powerful a scolding from the general that he nearly faints and must be led from the general's office. Soon afterward, Akaky falls deathly ill with fever. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the VIP, who is again scolding him. At first, Akaky pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.

Soon, Akaky's ghost (Gogol uses "corpse" to describe the ghost of Akaky) is reportedly haunting areas of St. Petersburg, taking overcoats from people; the police are finding it difficult to capture him. Finally, Akaky's ghost catches up with the VIP — who, since Akaky's death, had begun to feel guilt over having mistreated him — and takes his overcoat, frightening him terribly; satisfied, Akaky is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city.

Characters[edit]

Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin: Bureaucrat in one of the departments of the Russian government in St. Petersburg, the nation's capital city. Bashmatchkin, about fifty, is a quiet, self-effacing man with red hair and a receding hairline. His job is to copy documents such as letters. Although he enjoys his work and never makes a mistake, he has no desire to take on more challenging work, realizing that he has limited capabilities. Because he is meek and dresses shabbily, most of his coworkers regard him as a nobody and frequently pick on him. When his cloak becomes so frayed that it can no longer protect him against the bitter cold, he dedicates himself to saving enough money to purchase a new cloak. [1]

Petrovitch: One-eyed, heavy-drinking tailor whom Bashmatchkin hires to make his new cloak. Petrovitch was once a serf. [1]

Wife of Petrovitch: Woman of plain looks whom the narrator says Petrovitch calls "a low female and a German" when they argue. [1]

Bearded Assailants: Men who rob Akakiy of his new cloak. [1]

Landlady of Bashmatchin: Elderly woman who advises Akakiy to report the theft of his cloak to the district police chief. [1]

District Police Chief: Official who hears Akakiy's report about his stolen cloak. The policeman asks Akakiy embarrassing questions, as if he were a criminal. The policeman is of no help. [1]

Employee With Advice: Coworker of Akakiy who advises him to see a certain prominent personage in a government office who will help Akakiy track down his stolen cloak. [1]

Prominent Personage: Bureaucrat mainly concerned with demonstrating the power he wields as a supervisor. He excoriates Akakiy for not going through the proper government channels to get an interview. He is of no help. [1]

Physician: Doctor called after Akakiy develops a throat infection. He tells Akakiy's landlady to order a coffin. [1]

Interpretations[edit]

Gogol makes much of Akaky's name in the opening passages, saying, "Perhaps it may strike the reader as a rather strange and farfetched name, but I can assure him that it was not farfetched at all, that the circumstances were such that it was quite out of the question to give him any other name..." The name Akaky Akakievich is similar to "John Johnson" and has similar comedic value; it also communicates Akaky's role as an everyman. Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the word "obkakat'" in Russian, which means "to smear with excrement,"[2] or kaka, which means "poop", thereby rendering his name "Poop Poopson". In addition to the scatological pun, the literal meaning of the name, derived from the Greek, is "harmless" or "lacking evil", showing the humiliation it must have taken to drive his ghost to violence. His surname Bashmachkin, meanwhile, comes from the word 'bashmak', a type of shoe. It is used in an expression "быть под башмаком" which means to be "under someone's thumb" or to "be henpecked".

Akaky progresses from an introverted and hopeless but functioning non-entity with no expectations of social or material success to one whose self-esteem and thereby expectations are raised by the overcoat. Akaky is not merely introverted, but described as humorously fit for his position as a non-entity. He is not oppressed by the nature of bureaucratic work because he is petty bureaucracy himself. Akaky “labored with love” and longed for nothing but copying. He found it “a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face.”[3] A good contrast with Akaky would be Herman Melville’s Bartleby from the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Bartleby is quite adept at his job as a copyist, but arrives “incurably forlorn” when he is first employed. [4] Bartleby begins rejecting his work saying “I would prefer not to,” gradually rejecting more and more, until he finally dies staring at a wall having rejected life itself. Bartleby’s antisocial, otherworldly and melancholy features make him uncanny and he has been interpreted as a provocateur of existential crisis.[5] Akaky, on the other hand, is presented in a humorous way initially. This is partly because he represents a “type” presented in anecdotal form by Gogol.[6] He enjoys copying because he lacks an inner life. Gogol makes light of his fitness for mundane bureaucratic activities by joking that Akaky was always “to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation; so that it was afterwards affirmed that he had been born in undress uniform with a bald head.” When Akaky is asked to make a minor change in a document instead of merely copying it he cannot do it. [7]

Critics have noted the famous “humane passage” which demonstrates a sudden shift in the narration’s style from comic to tragic.[8] Though Akaky is not oppressed by his task, he is by his coworkers who treat him “in a coolly despotic way” and “laughed at and made fun of him” to which Akaky usually “answered not a word” until finally he is provoked to exclaim “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” in a way “which moved to pity” so that a new worker suddenly “stopped short” as if he had “undergone a transformation” This young man never forgot Akaky and his “heart-rending words” which carried the unspoken message “I am thy brother.” Remembering Akaky he “shuddered at how much inhumanity there is in man.” [9] The narrator’s portrayal of Akaky jars the reader, like the young man himself, from carefree mockery to graven sympathy. Gogol is noted for his instability of style, tone, genre among other literary devices, as Boris Eichenbaum notes. Eichenbaum also notes that Gogol wrote “The Overcoat” Gogol in a skaz—a difficult to translate colloquial language in Russian deriving associated with an oral storytelling tradition.

Co-workers start noticing him and complimenting him on his coat and he ventures out into the social world. His hopes are quickly dashed by the theft of the coat. He attempts to enlist the police in recovery of the coat and employs some inept rank jumping by going to a very important and high ranking individual but his lack of status (perhaps lack of the coat) is obvious and he is treated with disdain. He is plunged into illness (fever) and cannot function. He dies quickly and without putting up much of a fight. The Overcoat is a philosophical tale in the tradition of a stoic philosopher or Schopenhauer.[citation needed]

Akaky’s overcoat allows him to become human instead of a merely bureaucratic tool. An anti-Marxist reading of the text would interpret Akaky’s material desire as granting him humanity. The story does not condemn private acquisition and materialism, but asserts that human beings can have fulfillment from attention to material goods. Material goods, in particular clothing, do not merely mask real human character, but can modify a person’s identity in a positive and liberating way. Akaky’s social alienation and belittlement give way to community inclusion and genuine respect. People are brought together by material goods.

It is also possible to read the text from a psychoanalytic perspective.[10]Akaky’s libido is repressed and sublimated into the task of copying. After he acquires the coat, he expresses sexual interest. Akaky “even started to run, without knowing why, after some lady.”[11] He also “halted out of curiosity before a shop window to look at a picture representing a handsome woman…baring her whole foot in a very pretty way.”[12] He laughs and doesn’t know why because he experiences previously unknown feelings. Akaky also treats the coat with the tenderness and obsession of a lover. When the construction of the coat is first commissioned Akaky feels that his existence became “fuller, as if he were married.”[13]

Akaky's low position in the bureaucratic hierarchy is evident, and the extent to which he looks up the hierarchical ladder is well documented;[14] sometimes forgotten, according to Harold McFarlin, is that he is not the lowest-ranked in the hierarchy and thus in society. He has mastered the bureaucratic language ("bureaucratese") and has internalized it to the extent that he describes and treats the non-civil servants ("only two 'civilians,' the landlady and tailor, play more than incidental roles") as if they are part of the same world—the tailor is described as sitting "like a Turkish Pasha", that is, a government official, and Akaky "treats the self-effacing old landlady just like his bosses treat him at the office ('somehow coldly and despotically')".[15]

Critical assessment[edit]

Vladimir Nabokov, writing in his Lectures on Russian Literature, gave the following appraisal of Gogol and his most famous story: "Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in the immortal The Overcoat, he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced."[16]

Adaptations[edit]

Films[edit]

A number of films have used the story, both in the Soviet Union and in other countries:

One film is currently in the process of being made: animation director Yuriy Norshteyn has been slowly and laboriously working on a (presumably) full-length animated film version of 'The Overcoat' since 1981. A couple of short, low-resolution clips from the project have been made available:.[17]

Radio[edit]

  • Gogol's story was adapted twice on the radio series Theatre Royal, first on October 11, 1953 and then on August 4, 1954, both versions starring Sir Michael Redgrave as Akaky.
  • Hans Conreid starred as Akaky in an adaptation on The CBS Radio Mystery Theater on March 3, 1977.
  • On April 3, 2002, the BBC Radio 4 series Three Ivans, Two Aunts and an Overcoat broadcast an adaptation by Jim Poyser of the story starring Stephen Moore as Akaky. In this version, the Very Important Person whose overcoat Akaky's ghost takes is Akaky's immediate superior Colonel Borzov, and the ending is altered to have Akaky's ghost visit him in his office (rather than on his way home in his sleigh, as in the story) to take both the overcoat and Borzov's Very Important Person medal (and a bag of sugared rusks).

Ballet[edit]

The Russian composer German Okunev was working on a ballet version of 'The Overcoat' at the time of his death in 1973: it was completed and orchestrated by V. Sapozhnikov.

A recent adaptation by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, set to various music by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, was performed by actors using dance and mime.[18] A film version was produced by the CBC.

The Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt created a version for Dennis Nahat and the Clevelend-San Jose Ballet. The principal role was performed by Rudolph Nureyev at the world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1990.

Play[edit]

Marcel Marceau adapted "The Overcoat" as a Mime Play in 1951. He revived his play in 1954 and 1959. His last version of "The Overcoat" toured the United States in 1960.[citation needed]

THE OVERCOAT, adapted by Tom Lanter and Frank S. Torok premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater on May 5, 1973. It was subsequently published by Samuel French, Inc. in 1975.

An adaptation by Howard Colyer was produced at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in 2011.

The Jerusalem Khan Theatre produced an adaption of "The Overcoat" in Hebrew, in 2013.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The protagonist in the 2003 novel The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is named for Gogol because of the importance that "The Overcoat" had on his father as a young man in Calcutta. The book's Gogol finds meaning in the story, after struggling with the name given to him by his father. In the novel, Gogol's father justifies his choice for his son's name by saying "We all came out of Gogol's Overcoat......One day you will understand..." An adaptation of the novel was produced as a film, The Namesake, in 2006, directed by Mira Nair.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides4/cloak.html
  2. ^ "Lecture 2: Gogol’s "Overcoat"". University of Toronto. 
  3. ^ Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat” (Coradella Collegiate Bookshelf Editions, 2004) 5.
  4. ^ Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Billy Budd and Other Stories (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) 11.
  5. ^ For an existential reading of Bartleby see Olga Todoric, "Bartleby, the Absurd Hero" Moderna Språk 94.1 (2000) 15-18.
  6. ^ See Vissarion Belinksy’s theory of literary types in “The Russian Story and Mr. Gogol’s Stories” (1835).
  7. ^ Gogol 3-6
  8. ^ Boris Eichenbaum, Beth Paul and Muriel Nesbitt, “The Structure of Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat,’” The Russian Review 22.4 (1963): 13.
  9. ^ Gogol 3-5
  10. ^ See Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Out from Under Gogol's Overcoat: A Psychoanalytic Study, (Anne Arbor: Ardis 1982) 251.
  11. ^ Gogol Gogol 27
  12. ^ Gogol 25
  13. ^ Gogol, 19
  14. ^ Chizhevsky, Dimitry (1974). "About Gogol's Overcoat". In Robert Maguire. Gogol From the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP. pp. 295–322. 
  15. ^ McFarlin, Harold A. (1979). "'The Overcoat' As a Civil Service Episode". Canadian-American Slavic Studies 13 (3): 235–53. doi:10.1163/221023979X00096. 
  16. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1981). Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 54. ISBN 0-15-149599-8. 
  17. ^ The Overcoat - Yuri Norstein [1] [2]
  18. ^ "The Overcoat". culturevulture.net. 

References[edit]

  • Gogol, Nicolai V. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1965
  • Graffy, Julian Gogol's The Overcoat: Critical Studies in Russian Literature London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000.
  • Karlinsky, Simon. The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago,1992. Print.
  • Proffitt, Edward Gogol's `Perfectly True' Tale: `The Overcoat' and Its Mode of Closure, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 35–40

External links[edit]