Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol - Wendy's Review

Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred rubles, understood how to be content with his fate; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were there not various ills sown among the path of life for titular councillors as well as for private, actual, court and every other species of councillor, even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves. -From The Overcoat-

The Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, published this short story in 1842 - a tale about a poor Russian official named Akakii Akakievich who is the ridicule of his department. Akakii lives entirely for his duties as a copier. His co-workers laugh at him and abuse him. He often has bits and pieces of filth on his uniform due to his "peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish was being flung out of it." Akakii's coat is threadbare and he is finally forced to have a new overcoat sewn for him by Petrovich the Tailor. The cost of the overcoat is exorbitant for Akakii, but he scrimps and saves, denying himself food and other basic necessities until he is able to purchase the coat. Overnight, he becomes respectful. His co-workers fawn over his beautiful, new coat - and even throw him a lavish party in celebration. But, disaster falls upon Akakii ... his joy is short lived when the coat is stolen.

Gogol's short story takes an interesting twist as Akakii seeks help to recover the overcoat - going first to the police and then an "important personage." He is lost amid a barrage of bureaucracy:

..."don't you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don't you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me." -From The Overcoat-

The Overcoat is a story about a common man who is beneath everyone (much is made in the beginning about Akakii's name which comes close to the Russian word kaka - translated as "poop"), but who rises in esteem simply upon the purchase of an overcoat. He falls again with the loss of this possession, and must appeal to the government for assistance - which does not come. The ending (which I do not want to reveal to those who have not read the story), implies that the common man will ultimately rise above his persecutors. Gogol pokes fun at those in power, showing them to be insubstantial and shallow despite their titles. He allows Akakii to come out on top - demonstrating it is not material gain which grants one power.

I enjoyed this short story which is perhaps more of a parable.

Recommended; rated 4/5.


Rhinoa said...

Thanks for the review, I just found a copy of this at my mums house which I have pinched!

Wendy said...

You're welcome, Rhinoa! I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review!

We recommend that you watch the relatively recent film 'The Namesake'. Gogol and his 'Overcoat' play a rather important part in the movie.