The Overcoat

Interpretations

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 would be Melville’s 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” 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.

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]


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