Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gogol's overcoat

The protagonist of "The Overcoat," one of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol's best stories, is Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a clerk in a government department in St.Petersburg, very mild-mannered and self-effacing, never known to raise his voice, and always passed over when it comes to promotions - a nonentity in the social order who does not even have the consolation of the love and respect of people at home, being a bachelor. Akaky Akakievich's only pleasure lies in his work, and he is so absorbed by it that he pays little regard to his personal appearance, to conversation with his colleagues, or to the routine tasks of daily life. He always comes to work wearing a tattered old overcoat ("its collar diminished more and more each year, for it went to mend other parts") that is a source of great amusement to his colleagues.

There comes a time when Akaky Akakievich's coat finally gives up the ghost and just cannot be mended any more. When he hears from his tailor the price of a new overcoat, nearly half his month's salary, he grows nearly faint with worry, and wonders how he will save up the money for a new coat to protect him from the violent St.Petersburg winter. But then gradually he formulates a plan to skimp a little here, forgo something there, and in this manner, through all sorts of pains and sacrifices, to save up enough for the overcoat over the duration of a few months. All this has a salutary effect on Akaky Akakievich's nature. Gogol captures beautifully the significance that gradually gathers around this one material object in the impoverished life of a man not otherwise given to material desires, writing that Akaky Akakievich
was nourished spiritually, bearing in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future overcoat. From then on it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life's companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him - and this companion was none other than that same overcoat with its cotton-wool quilting, with its sturdy lining that knew no wear….In the course of each month, he stopped at least once to see [the tailor] Petrovich, to talk about the overcoat, where it was best to buy broadcloth, and of what color, and at what price, and he would return home somewhat preoccupied yet always pleased…

I shall not reveal any further details of the plot, except for this bit: when Akaky Akakievich finally gets his beautiful new overcoat and wears it proudly to work, his colleagues are so pleased for him that they decide to throw a party for him that night at the residence of one of the clerks in office. Walking that night to the venue of the party, Akaky Akakievich passes through a posh part of town and looks at the shops:
It was several years since he had gone out in the evening. He stopped curiously before a lighted shop window to look at a picture that portrayed some beautiful woman taking off her shoe and thus baring her whole leg, not a bad leg at all…

This passage is thought to mark one of the early appearances of advertising in literature. Writing about it in her biography of Charles Dickens, the novelist Jane Smiley remarks that it can be seen as the moment 'when literature enters the modern world', a world in which

[t]he tissue of relationships and obligations that mark traditional society give way to the casual meetings and commercial connections that mark modern society. [Akaky Akakievich] is struck by the picture of the woman's leg slipping into the stocking. He moves on, but he has just had a thoroughly modern moment - sex and graphics have combined to turn him into a potential customer.
And here is an essay by the novelist AS Byatt on a recent translation of Gogol's great novel Dead Souls.


priya said...

hey chandrahas,
thank you so much for the summary.its really well written.
i am looking forward to buy this book.
this is the first post i read at ur blog,mite see more!
keep up the good work!!

S M Rana said...

I only remember this novelette as a wonderful typically Russian story-I can't remember what finally happens except that it was very sad--maybe he dies? And congratulations for losing or giving up your job-something very nice will surely come of it.