Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Back to Classics: "The Overcoat"

Igor Grabar's cover from the 1890s.
At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships. – Vladimir Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol on “The Overcoat”
The Story: Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), about a clerk who needs a new winter coat.

The Writer:
Nikolai Gogol’

Dates: First published in 1842. Gogol’ began writing “The Overcoat” during summer 1839; he finished in spring 1841.

Why it’s important: Dostoevsky acknowledged Gogol’s influence by saying, “We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” Gogolesque absurdity and a combination of motifs from low and high genres (see below) continue to pop up in Russian fiction. Two post-Soviet examples from my recent reading: Petr Aleshkovskii’s Skunk [sic! He’s Ferret in Russian] and, to a lesser extent, Aleksei Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome.

My favorite criticism: Formalist Boris Eikhenbaum’s Как сделанаШинельГоголя (“How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made”) and the chapter “The Apotheosis of a Mask” from Vladimir Nabokov’s book of notes, Nikolai Gogol. On Gogol in general, Gary Saul Morson's “Absolute Nonsense,” from The New Criterion.

IMHO: So many readers and critics have written so much over the years about “The Overcoat,” often using social, Freudian, and other analytical prisms, that fresh insights are tough to find. Much of the debate concerns themes Nabokov eschews: class differences and big messages. Nabokov believes “The Overcoat” requires creativity from readers and even advises that readers stay away from Gogol’ if they are looking for ideas, facts, or messages.

I (mostly!) agree with Nabokov because “The Overcoat” is so nuanced that it must be felt. As Nabokov notes, the story’s setting is absurd, which he defines not as funny but as pathetic and representative of the human condition in a “nightmarish, irresponsible world.” Nabokov believes Gogol’ wrote best when he avoided treating rational ideas in a logical way. With “The Overcoat,” writes Nabokov, Gogol’ “really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss.”

Grasping Gogol’s ability to retain his balance is, I think, a key to coming to terms with “The Overcoat.” What struck me most in a recent reading of “The Overcoat” is Gogol’s combination of registers and genres, particularly oral storytelling and lives of saints.

Storytelling first: the narrator of “The Overcoat” makes informal asides, clearly delights in verbal play, and repeatedly compromises his reliability. Eikhenbaum’s formalistic analysis of the story refers to what I might call “sound gags,” citing Gogol’s use of names and words that generate puns. The name Akakii Akakevich sounds odd to Russian ears partly because, as my Russian-born literature teacher noted, it sounds like “kaka.”

But Gogol’ is sneaky: “Akakii” can also refer to Saint Acacius. And my Russian dictionary of personal names lists the meaning of the name as (in my translation) “not doing harm, forgiving.” This description fits Akakii Akakevich: he suffers like a saint, fasting to save for his coat, serving with love at work, and asking only that co-workers not offend him. “I am your brother,” the monk-like scribe tells them. Gogol’ uses “brother” in other passages, too. Some readers believe Akakii Akakevich returns from the dead at the end of “The Overcoat,” though, to me, that passage feels more like storytelling than religious mysticism.
Gogol’s blend of oral tradition and religious motifs is artistically risky, but his successful balancing act results in paradoxes that leave this reader feeling unsettled and a bit confused, yet oddly satisfied after repeated readings. The ambiguity fits because it reminds me of двоеверие, the “dual belief” combination of pagan and Orthodox traditions within Russian and Ukrainian culture that Gogol’ includes in many earlier stories.
I’ll leave you with a fitting line from Eikhenbaum’s article on “The Overcoat” that addresses paradoxes and literary devices:
“A grotesque resulted in which the mimicry of laughter alternates with the mimicry of sorrow, and both the one and the other have the appearance of a game, with a controlled alternation of gestures and intonations.”
P.S. This posting is the first of a regular series on Russian classics. Most pieces will coincide with the reading list of the Yahoo Russian Lit Reading Group.

P.P.S. For more on “The Overcoat” and its themes, visit Wuthering Expectations for this piece, which includes some nicely selected brief excerpts that give a good feel for the story. If you’re on a Gogol’ kick, be sure to check the same blog to read about “The Portrait.”


  1. Hey, I was going to write about this on the Russian Reading Challenge? Now what am I supposed to do? Probably just link to your post.

    Looking forward to future entries.

  2. AR,

    Oof, sorry about the bad timing! I'm looking forward to reading what you write about the story.


  3. Your blog is just awesome! I was reading through it, and decided that I just had to comment (I feel like you might be my soulmate, or perhaps a little too much like me to be my soulmate (does it make any sense?)) and so I randomly chose this post.

    I absolutely adore Russian literature. That's what I decided to spend my life on - Russian books and Russian language and life in Russia...

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for your warm note, Josefina!

    Hmm, we do have an awfully lot in common... beyond all the language and literature and writing, I'm even part Swedish (albeit through Denmark) and visited Ekaterinburg a few times.

    One note related to судьба... one semester in college I signed up for Swedish and Russian courses, not knowing if I would take one language or both. There weren't enough students for Swedish, so that made Russian my automatic focus!


  5. I haven't read Shinel' for many years, but reading your post immediately plunged me back into the feelings I had when I read it.

    As you say, so much has been written about Gogol that it's difficult to find fresh insights, and often rehashing the old ones over and over detract from the beauty and sheer richness of Gogol's storytelling.

    I always remember Gogol's line about St Petersburg, in which "the devil lights the lamps" - you can't trust what you see, so you get a sense of the surreal, the eerie, a strange sense of what happens when you reach the edge of civilisation - which is, in a way, what Petersburg was (the Mednyi Vsadnik leaping off its pedestal into the abyss). It reminds me of traditional Russian/Ukrainian fairy tales, or the puppet theatre, where the grotesque and eerie abound.

    Gogol himself was caught in the middle, or on the edge, squeezed between a nascent Ukrainian identity and an urban, Russian identity steeped in an inhuman bureaucracy and hierarchy.

    Another great Petersburg novel that owes a lot to Gogol is Bely's "Petersburg".

  6. Thanks, Yaeli, for your visit and your comment. I'm glad the "Shinel'" posting brought back memories of the story. I agree with you about Gogol' and identity: I've been reading the "Dikanka" and "Mirgorod" stories, too, and have really felt the tensions you mention.

    You're the second person to mention Bely's "Petersburg" recently... I think it's a sign that it's time to reread it!