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.
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