What techniques of characterization does Gogol employ to construct his protagonist?
Gogol constructs the character of Akaky in various ways. Gogol initially describes Akaky via his physical appearance, and this is the first way in which we begin to get a sense of how hapless, pathetic and equivocal Akaky is. He is described as not having any clear traits in particular, being only “somewhat red-haired,” “somewhat nearsighted,” and “slightly bald.” Another way in which Gogol constructs the character of Akaky is via his ridiculous speech. In much the same way this his physical appearance conveys nothing in particular, Gogol describes the content of Akaky’s speech as being essentially meaningless, constructed of the parts of speech that are supposed to connect meaningful phrases but which do not actually communicate anything themselves: “That, really, is altogether sort of…” Finally, Akaky’s name in itself contains layers of signification, suggesting again Akaky’s hopelessness but also a certain kind of inner purity.
What does it mean that “The Overcoat” is self-reflexive?
“The Overcoat” is self-reflexive in that it constantly declares it awareness of itself as a work of art. The narrator frequently mentions writing, writers, and literary conventions, often to make fun of or subvert them. Although the story is, for the most part, narrated in the conventional mode of the omniscient third person—a narrator on high who seems to know everything, including characters’ inner states and things that they themselves do not know—Gogol often interrupts it by drawing attention to the narrator's status as a specific person subject to limitations on their knowledge and interests. The narrator, for example, will mention that he does not remember a specific detail, or speculate about what Akaky is feeling (as in the moment when Akaky chuckles at the advertisement in the street) while admitting that it is impossible to truly know what happens in another person’s mind.
What is the overcoat as a symbol meant to convey?
The overcoat broadly symbolizes the possibility of Akaky being drawn out of his solitary inner world and brought into the world at large. First, before the overcoat arrives, the quest to save money for it gives Akaky a sense of purpose in his life that he has never experienced outside of his copying work. Akaky is at first stricken by how much the coat will cost, but soon he throws himself into the project with a sense of vitality that he has never demonstrated before. During this time, the possibility of the overcoat becomes a symbolic comfort to Akaky, making him feel like he has a companion on his life’s journey. When the new overcoat arrives, it causes Akaky to relate to his coworkers in a different way in that they shower attention on him that he finds uncomfortable, but with which he complies to the extent of going out to a party at a fellow clerk’s house. The overcoat seems to change Akaky in that he, for once, does not work after dinner, instead resting. He also begins to notice women and to develop a burgeoning awareness of sexuality. However, the overcoat also brings tragedy, perhaps signaling that it would have been better for Akaky to live on undisturbed in his solitary world.
Why does “The Overcoat” take a supernatural turn?
One reason “The Overcoat” takes a supernatural turn is because it facilitates a satisfying ending to an otherwise sad and tragic life. By returning as a ghost, Akaky is able to exact revenge on the important person who spurned his request for help, making the reader feel satisfied that a form of justice has been achieved. However, the supernatural turn also serves to convey Gogol’s interest in playing with genres and literary conventions. There are elements of “The Overcoat” that have been identified with social realism—such as its depictions of the difficulty of Akaky’s life of poverty—but the supernatural ending does not feel out of line with Gogol’s grotesque and surrealist tendencies and humor. Nonetheless, critics like Simon Karlinsky argue that while the story does appear to take a supernatural twist, the thief who steals the overcoat from the certain important person is actually one of the same thieves who stole Akaky’s overcoat earlier in the story (141).
What are the targets of Gogol’s satire in “The Overcoat”?
Gogol’s satire in “The Overcoat” is broad-ranging, taking almost everything as its object. “The Overcoat” is biting in its satire of obsession with status and rank, making clear its view that the preoccupation with social status corrupts people who are otherwise kind and well-intentioned. This is most exemplified by the “certain important person,” who merely because he has been recently promoted finds himself unable to behave naturally or humanely towards subordinates. It can also facilitate a culture of more literal corruption, as in the case of the policeman who turns a blind eye when Akaky is robbed in the dark square late at night. Another object of satire in “The Overcoat” is writers and literary convention. On a number of occasions the narrator makes fun of what writers usually do or are supposed to do, for example when the narrator mock-grudgingly gives character details of Petrovich’s past. However, perhaps the most consistent object of ridicule is the poor Akaky Akakievich, who does not seem to be able to do anything right or to have any luck whatsoever. Nonetheless, Gogol manages to make us sympathetic towards Akaky, indeed perhaps suggesting that although Akaky is distinctly pathetic, no one deserves to be treated inhumanely.
"The Overcoat" Nikolai Gogol
The following entry presents criticism of Gogol's short story "Shinel'" ("The Overcoat"), first published in 1842 in Sochinenya (The Works of Nikolai Gogol). See also Nos Criticism.
Considered one of Russia's greatest prose stylists, Gogol was an important influence on his country's literature. His short story "The Overcoat" has been deemed by many critics as the greatest story in the Russian language and a key work in the evolution of Russian literature toward realism. A quote long attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, that "We all come from Gogol's 'Overcoat'," has often been employed by critics to summarize the importance of this story to Russian literature. "The Overcoat" epitomizes Gogol's writing style, combining elements of realism, fantasy, comedy, and the grotesque.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Overcoat" tells the story of Akaky Akakyevich, an impoverished government clerk who lives a solitary life. One day he realizes that his winter overcoat has become worn out. He takes it to the tailor to be mended but is told that it cannot be repaired and that he will have to have a new one made. Akaky undergoes extreme deprivation in order to save money for a new overcoat. In the process, the coat begins to take a central role in his life and he begins to view the garment as the key to his future happiness. After he finally acquires the new garment, it is stolen. His calls for help and his subsequent pleas for justice go unheeded, and he falls ill with a fever and dies. After his death a ghost resembling Akaky roams the city stealing overcoats.
Major ThemesGogol's blending of comic, grotesque, realist, and fantastic elements in "The Overcoat" has led to a wide range of opinions concerning the story's themes and the significance of its ending. The work has been interpreted variously as a story of social injustice, as tale of urban alienation and human isolation, and as a love story, with the coat serving as a metaphor for the love interest. The theme of the "little man" against "the system" was a popular one among Russian writers in the nineteenth century, and "The Overcoat" is one of many stories featuring the figure of the impoverished and mistreated government clerk. One significant way in which Gogol's story differs from others of this type, however, is its presentation of the main character. It is unclear whether the reader should feel sympathy for the poor clerk—the typical response toward such characters—or whether one should regard this as ultimately a comic tale with fun being made at Akaky Akakyevich's expense. It is also not precisely clear whether Akaky is victorious against the system. Despite such ambiguity, critics have consistently noted the resonant irony and lyrical power with which Gogol invested this story.
Gogol's contemporaries focused on the lyricism of "The Overcoat" and lauded what they considered the story's ground-breaking social realism which evoked sympathy for the main character (or at least for his situation). Some critics continue to hold the opinion that this is a story of social protest and that Akaky Akakyevich is the quintessential little man. Others, however, find evidence to the contrary. Early twentieth-century critics such as Boris Eichenbaum and Dmitry Chizhevsky became interested in the structure and unique narrative style of the story and in how these aspects affect the overall theme. Eichenbaum argued that Gogol's use of puns, word play, and narrative devices creates a comic and grotesque effect that makes the story a mockery of a social protest. Chizhevsky, in his formalist study, found the story to be about spiritual poverty and the dangers of worldly obsessions and passions. Later scholars have viewed the story from a psychological perspective, asserting that the overcoat symbolizes a mask that enables Akaky to disguise his spiritual destitution. Others have taken a metaphysical approach, interpreting the final loss of the coat and Akaky's futile pleas for help as emblematic of humanity's spiritual desolation in an indifferent cosmos.