The Overcoat: Symbolism in “The Overcoat”

In his short tale “The Overcoat,” Nikolai Gogol has unfolded tragedies as well as satirical jokes by imagining a wide range of roles an overcoat can fulfill within an oppressive, bureaucratic, and heavily materialistic society. Without loss of humor, he has shown his reader different perceptions of an overcoat as a simple necessity for decent life, an object beyond admiration, a tenuous tie between a man and his “brother” (Gogol, 29), and perhaps worst of all, a cause for the rage of ghosts. Along those playful exaggerations, however, Gogol also turns the overcoat into a motif that expresses his serious concerns for the well being of humanity, and eventually such concerns also distinguish themselves from all comedies within his tale. To set the tragic tone of the story, Gogol appears to his reader as an omniscient and anonymous third person narrator who observes the parallels between Akaky Akakievich, an impoverished clerk, and his worn-out overcoat, which often represents the image of himself within society. The narrator notices Akaky’s overcoat is mocked by others as it is becoming “threadbare” (Gogol, 5), and to prevent it from falling apart, Akaky has to use its collar to patch all other damages on it. In “The Overcoat”, such a strange, absolutely “zero-sum” way of tailoring, besides explaining the variegated look and the reduced collar on Akaky’s overcoat, also seems to reflect a pattern that is typical within Akaky’s destitute life. Indeed, as the hemorrhoidal complexion of Akaky’s face reminds the narrator of Akaky’s birth in a humble family, his low rank, and his old age, the narrator exclaims “No help for it!” (Gogol, 1) not simply out of his sympathy for Akaky’s physical appearance, but rather it is because he realizes that in a society which depends virtue upon rank, family influence, and perhaps also upon good physical appearance, there is simply no way for Akaky to advance himself in his life. Within such society, Akaky’s only merit is his neat hand writing, and as the story develops, the narrator suggests that Akaky’s life has become as hopeless as his broken overcoat is, especially when Akaky finds it impossible to compensate for all his inherent disadvantages by working diligently as copying clerk: as this kind of role is nearly negligible within his society, his achievement is usually not recognized. Thus from the narrator’s view, Akaky’s hard work only appears to further degrade his life, and therefore it is no better than patching an overcoat with its collar. Moreover, by revealing Akaky’s reluctance to change a document from third person into a letter in first person, the narrator has also attested to the belittling effect that Akaky’s work has produced upon him. The narrator characterizes Akaky’s obsession with his copying work as his desperate resort for avoiding any other misfortunes in his life. From this point, the narrator reaches the taciturn conclusion that Akaky is so oppressed by society that he even lacks the courage to tell his own story or to write down anything that would resemble it, and as most people surrounding Akaky are ignorant of his diminishing existence, the narrator also questions whether individuals who share Akaky’s suffering will ever be known by their fellow human beings if he did not bother to include any of them in his story. The irony of Gogol’s narration arises not only from its mockeries of the old overcoat, but also from its matter-of fact sounding description and its facetious dramatizations of Akaky’s new overcoat. Gogol has devoted much of his story to emphasize a new overcoat’s pragmatic appeal for Akaky. Through the narrator’s cold, merciless voice, Gogol affirms the indisputable fact that Akaky needs a new overcoat in order to survive the harsh winter and to protect himself from the scornful remarks of his co-workers. Gogol describes how Akaky’s frequent visit to the tailor Petrovich and his persistent endurance of months of hardship, with a clear vision of an ultimate goal in his mind, have finally afforded him the luxury of a new overcoat. To give the story a more realistic feel, Gogol even depicts every bit of details of the new overcoat, such as its material, its glossy, attractive texture, and its sturdy quality, as if all aspects of the new overcoat have been carefully examined from Akaky’s perspective within the narration. What Gogol is concerned about, however, is certainly more than reality: after venturing into Akaky’s earthly life, he immediately creates a sharp contrast between Akaky’s physical and spiritual world by turning the materialistic image of an ordinary overcoat into something much more edifying within the story. For example, in a quite oxymoronic sense, Gogol portrays Akaky’s endeavor for acquiring a new overcoat as some effort through which he “was nourished spiritually” (Gogol, 10), which only seems to indicate how purposeless his life would otherwise become without the ordeal of a new overcoat. To further exaggerate such unusual significance of an overcoat, Gogol also mentions Akaky’s cheering co-workers, who have suddenly become amiable towards Akaky, begin to congratulate Akaky for his new overcoat and are even willing to throw a party for it, as if they are enchanted by some magical power and have all mistaken the overcoat as Akaky’s wedding ring. Apparently, by stretching the role of an overcoat much beyond what is usual in Akaky’s life, or rather, by endowing it with the ability to perform all kinds of miracles, Gogol has told a slightly absurd story, but with all those absurdities as intentional contradictions to reality, Gogol also exemplifies the limitations of materialism without being didactic to his reader. Towards the end of the story, as Akaky’s new overcoat vanishes along with his “brotherly” relation between his co-workers, Akaky is again plunged into his deep abyss of misery. Gogol shows that Akaky’s abundance in material wealth has in fact neither truly dissolved his isolation from other humans, nor has it enriched him spiritually or procured him any happiness other than satisfying his most basic human needs. Thus as an overcoat within Gogol’s story, perhaps somewhat mystical, turns out to be nothing more than an overcoat, the reader can also clearly sense that even if Akaky’s new overcoat were never robbed away, he would still end up with a tragic, unfulfilling life — if an overcoat was all Akaky had asked for, or regrettably, if it were the most valuable gift the world could offer him. Besides recounting Akaky’s particular grievance, Gogol also adds to his story a rather phantastical ending by reporting thefts of several other overcoats, all of which further resonating with his discontent against a corrupt, oppressive society, even though all those incidents are trivial compared to Akaky’s immense misfortunes throughout his life. Near the conclusion of the story, Akaky is single-mindedly focused upon searching for his new overcoat, and he does not notice his other losses at all until he meets the “important person” (Gogol, 16), someone who would prefer to entertain his friend out of boredom rather than hearing Akaky’s complaints. Although this can be seen as a criticism for ineffective bureaucracy, within the context of the story, it also reminds the reader that while Akaky needs a decent overcoat to meet the “important person,” he does not even have a friend who can lend him one. Had Akaky not met the “important person,” he probably would never realize how much his obsession with materialistic life has alienated him away from society. Through such a scenario, Gogol illustrates how excessive materialism not only causes isolations and indignity among humans, but also results in blindness towards its damages to humanity. Furthermore, as Gogol depicts how “the important person” at the end has merely lost his overcoat, and as a result, has saved his own integrity and his family by returning home, he also seems to insinuate that no matter how many overcoats a ghost Akaky can rob, those overcoats will never be adequate to repay for what Akaky has lost in his life. Finally, as Gogol arrives at the possibility that all humans and ghosts in his story, despite the antagonisms among themselves, are actually victims of the Czarist regime, he also asks his reader to judge whether Akaky and other ghosts, no matter “dead or alive” (Gogol, 20), should be punished “in the harshest manner, as an example to others” (Gogol, 20).By skillfully using overcoat as a motif in his story, Gogol has asked many important questions about humanity. As Gogol describes how lonely and hopeless Akaky has become more and more preoccupied with his overcoat and eventually collapses, he frowns upon Akaky’s futile life, but at the same time he also questions how one could escape the viscous cycle of spiritual poverty and excessive materialism, each appearing to be simultaneously the cause and the effect of the other. With ghost Akaky’s rage towards others, especially towards the “important person,” Gogol is perhaps suggesting that humans should be responsible for helping each other to avoid such repulsive pattern of life, that is, figuratively speaking, they should avoid suffering by using their long handled spoons to feed each other instead of only trying to satisfy their own needs. Gogol’s story, however, also implies that fulfilling this obligation is not easy when many individuals like Akaky are totally isolated from society. In addition, by mentioning the ruthless manner that the Czarist regime seeks to punish even the ghosts, who are most likely non-existent, Gogol also blames the regime for its severe oppression against humanity and questions whether humans should also be responsible for resisting such oppression, if they were to be held responsible for their own well-being. It is hard to imagine how Gogol could ask those excruciating questions and criticize the bureaucratic and overly materialistic influences of society without utilizing his good humor to soften the threatening tones of his story. Gogol’s humor has undoubtedly saved his work from doctrinarism, trivial objections, and perhaps even censorships, or in Gogol’s most general term, one could also say that it is the power of humor that has enabled Gogol “to avoid any unpleasantness” (Gogol, 1) in “The Overcoat”.

Beauty versus Truth: Poe’s Aesthetics in “The Overcoat” and “Poor Liza”

In his “Review of Twice Told Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe argues the superiority of the short story form. In doing so, Poe compares the short story to the poem and novel, speaking about the features of the short story which make it better than other literary formats. Through this, Poe essentially creates a standard for what a short story should provide to its readers. Poe’s writings will provide a lens to view Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Karamzin’s “Poor Liza”. Because both pieces of fiction are obviously short stories, Poe’s essay will be used not to compare the effectiveness of two differing forms, but rather as a standard by which to measure the success of each short story.

Within this analysis, it is crucial to note the periods in which the pieces were authored – Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” being a work of the sentimentalism era, and Gogol’s “The Overcoat” being written in between romanticism and realism. Poe’s main arguments can be split into two parts — first, his arguments concerning the aesthetic value of the short story in comparison to the poem, and secondly his arguments about the singular effect and unity of impression that Poe argues the short story should contain. In this way, one can consider if one particular style of writing better conforms to what Poe believes makes a short story successful. When Poe begins to develop his argument about the short story, he compares the form to poetry. Poe argues literary works should have “poetic sentiment” but that often, the poem does not provide enough space to do this, and the novel is simply too long to provide the sort of emotional intensity that the poem can. This argument becomes about the short story’s emotional power. Poe writes, “…This latter [the poem], if truly fulfilling the demands of the poetic sentiment, induces an exaltation of the soul which can not be long sustained… A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort–without a certain duration or repetition of purpose–the soul is never deeply moved.” (48) Through this, Poe explains that the short story should include some sort of exhalation and movement of the soul — in other words, that the reader should be emotionally effected. These standards are slippery (a paper could be written about the definition of soul), however, this description of the goal of the short story seems to favor the writing of Karamzin rather than the writing of Gogol. First, one should consider the emotional expression in “The Overcoat” and “Poor Liza.” Both “The Overcoat” and “Poor Liza” offer the reader opportunities to feel, but “Poor Liza” much more consistently so, likely because of the story’s sentimental nature. In “Poor Liza,” the author very obviously wants an emotional response from the reader — this can be inferred simply from the work’s title. In the story’s exposition, Karamzin writes, “But most of all the recollection of the mournful fate of Liza, poor Liza… Ah! I love those objects which touch my heart and force me to shed tears of tender sorrow!” (55). This quote is filled with emotional evocations of things like tears, the mention of the narrator’s heart, the “mournful fate” of Liza, all of which serve to move the “soul” of the reader to feel for Liza. Further, the “duration or repetition” Poe mentions is present in “Poor Liza”, as the focus and mood of the piece stays consistent, the language continues to be dramatic and emotionally evocative (48). This is, of course, the goal of the sentimental text, and as one can see, Karamzin is willing to overdo the language of his narrator so that the reader may sympathize with Liza, and subsequently, peasant people. Realism and romanticism hinge on different ideas, as can be seen in “The Overcoat.” First, it seems less obvious that “The Overcoat” would be considered poetic. “The Overcoat” is much more colloquial, and some might even say, crass, than “Poor Liza.” The unique narrative style of “The Overcoat” is one of its great strengths, but it the skaz narrates does not prioritize poetics. Often, the absurd and unimportant narratorial diatribes serve to detract from any sentiment the reader might otherwise feel for Akaky Akakievich. For example, the line, “They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councilor” (141) is certainly funny, but it might be far-fetched to call lines like these poetic in a traditional sense. Certainly, the narrator functions to keep the plot of “The Overcoat” from veering into something too upsetting or sad. Perhaps, though, deeming the entire work unpoetic because of the narrator would be a misnomer — instead, it might make sense to rethink the way one thinks of poetry when looking at a piece of a different era. For example, poetry often functions as a way to analyze and come to conclusions that aren’t readily determinable as correct or incorrect via the text. If one considers poetry through this lens, as poetry as needing to have some degree of analytical ambiguity, perhaps “The Overcoat” could be considered poetic, just in different standards than those in “Poor Liza.” Perhaps Karamzin’s work has a more consistent and traditional way of being poetic, but “The Overcoat” offers analysis in the poetic sense in a way that “Poor Liza” does not — and this division is likely due simply to changing literary styles in the times the works were published. One can also observe the changes from sentimentalism to the romantic/realist era through Poe’s analysis of beauty versus truth within text. About the difference between truth and beauty, Poe writes, “But Truth is often, and in very great degree, the aim of the tale…that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at a great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem…” (48). In this passage, Poe suggests that beauty is often more aptly suited to the poem than the short story, and the short story is a better mechanism for truth. This point, in relation to “The Overcoat” and “Poor Liza”, likely needs not be belabored — in a fashion similar to the way “Poor Liza” is more poetic, it also seems to be more beautiful than “The Overcoat.” It is in assessing the truth of both works that things become more complicated. First, again, one should assess the different genres the works are born out of. This is to say that is it the goal of sentimentalism to tell the truth? There is a moment in Poor Liza where the narrator argues he is telling the truth — “My heart bleeds at this moment — I forget the man in Erast… I look at the heavens, and a tear rolls down my face. Ah! Why am I not writing a novel rather than a sad true tale!” (69) Although obviously “Poor Liza” is not true, the author, aside from the narrator, probably wishes the readers would consider it to be true as well, if only the reader’s heart may bleed in sync with the narrator’s for a peasant. The truth, in the case of “Poor Liza” is likely that peasant people were suffering, and the author wanted to humanize them — but because this is done beautifully, is some degree of truth lost? This is to say that because the language of “Poor Liza” is so ornate, and the circumstances of the story seem to function in such black and white terms, does truth slip out of the story? Certainly characters like Liza are fairytale inspired and unlike people in the real world, so perhaps in some attempt to humanize peasants, the text goes too far in the other direction and sacrifices truth for agenda. Does “The Overcoat” offer more truth to make up for what it might lack in beauty? Although Akaky Akakievich’s ghost is very obviously fiction, the picture Gogol paints seems rather realistic at times. About Akaky Akakievich’s office job, Gogol writes, “His superiors treated him icily and despotically… Some assistant to the headclerk would shove some papers right under his nose…” (142). Gogol’s description of Akaky Akakievich’s life feels like something familiar, something true. Gogol’s St. Petersburg is not fair or pretty for Akaky Akakievich, but the reader gets the sense that it is fairly accurate world in which the characters live (perhaps sans ghosts). In this way, it seems as though Gogol offers a more comprehensive idea of the truth, likely because he isn’t pursuing an agenda as specific as sentimentalist writers were. Rather, “The Overcoat” offers interpretations which may bring the reader to feel sentimental feelings towards Akaky Akakievich, but this is complicated by other factors within the text — like the narrator, for example, who doesn’t seem to suggest we should feel pure sympathy for him. As the name of the era would suggest, realism gives up beauty and flowery language in favor for depictions which are more true than one would find in sentimentalism. Aside from all Poe says in relation to poetry, Poe writes, perhaps most notably, about a unity of impression. It seems as though sentimentalism fulfills this idea most completely — there is unity in Karamzin’s writing because he isn’t asking the reader to complicate or think about notions he hasn’t laid out of explicitly suggested. Unity may exist within Gogol’s piece – for example, there is consistency in the narrator’s erraticism, but not a moral or message as readily available. In this sense, perhaps Gogol’s story does present its themes in a way that is more “evolved,” as there is more interpretive room in a piece like “The Overcoat” than may be present in “Poor Liza.” Regardless, both works of fiction could be seen as working within Poe’s definition of what makes a short story is good, if only the reader takes into account the goals of the literary period of that time.