Comparative Literature between Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Melville’s “Bartleby” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 18th, 2019

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol is centered on the life and death of Akaky Akakievich, an impoverished government clerk in St. Petersburg. Akaky is a hard- working man who is dedicated to his job, which includes hand-copying of documents, despite the lack of appreciation of his efforts even by his workmates who constantly distract and make fun of him (Gogol, p. 2).

His overcoat, threadbare and old, is often the butt of their jokes hence forcing Akaky to have it repaired, but Petrovich, his tailor, finds it irreparable advising Akaky to buy a new overcoat (Gogol, p. 5). This proves to be an expenditure Akaky would rather avoid as a new coat is well beyond his meager earnings, but he has no choice hence forcing him to live within a strict budget as his excitement for a new coat overrides his zeal for his job (Gogol, p. 7-8).

Luckily, Akaky is awarded an unexpected holiday bonus that when added to his savings enables him to buy a new overcoat which turned out to be of extremely good quality thus becoming the talk of his office (Gogol, p. 11). His clerk superior even hosts a party in its honor, but Akaky feels out of place as he is a loner thus not accustomed to a lot of attention (Gogol, p.12).

Akaky leaves the party rather late, which is unlike him as he does not keep late hours. Two hoodlums confront him on his way home taking his coat and leaves him in the snow. He reports the matter to the authorities who are of no help. One of the clerks in his department advises him to ask for help from a high ranking general, known to the public as ‘Very Important Person’.

The general, fond of belittling his subordinates keeps Akaky waiting for an unnecessarily long time (Gogol, p. 16). When he sees him, he is rather harsh and asks Akaky why he has brought such a trivial matter to him personally and not through his secretary (Gogol, p. 17).

Akaky remarks negatively about departmental secretaries, hence provoking a scolding from the general and eventually led out of the office nearly fainting, but succumbs to a fever shortly afterwards (Gogol, p. 19). During his sickness, he imagines himself sitting before the general again and being scolded. At first, he pleads for forgiveness, but nearing his death, he curses the general.

At the end of the story, his ghost haunts St. Petersburg taking overcoats from people. The police are unable to capture him. Finally, Akaky’s ghost steals the general’s overcoat. Akaky ghost is not seen again after his encounter with the VIP as he has accomplished what he wanted (Gogol, p. 20-21). The story ends with the appearance of another ghost seen in another part of the city, but this ghost resembles the criminals who had robbed Akaky earlier (Gogol, p. 24).

Gogol gives his main character an unusual name (Gogol, p. 1). This name is symbolic representing the kind of life Akaky had and the type of a person he was. In Greek, the name means “harmless”. Akaky plays the role of an ordinary man in the society who is burdened with the woes of life.

His colleagues who are much younger than him do not even respect him, but he is not bothered as he finds solace in his job hence implying his harmless nature as suggested by his name. His overcoat is ridiculed due to its condition forcing him to get a new one even though he cannot afford.

He was already living a miserable life due to his poor earnings so having to cut down on the very little he had meant that his life would be far much worse. But this does not deter him as he is committed to getting a new coat. Many people wouldn’t necessarily be excited about something like a coat, but not Akaky. He finally saves enough money and purchases the best material for his coat.

His colleagues are even impressed to the extent that one of the clerks throws him a party. This implies that purchasing the new coat brought new prospects in Akaky’s life, i.e., positive interaction with his colleagues. It is a big deal as normally parties are not held in honor of new clothing items. But his joy does not last. He is robbed of his coat as he leaves the party and reporting the matter proves useless eventually leading to his illness resulting into death.

It is obvious that Akaky died an angry man. His ghost thus haunts the town, stealing coats from people. In life, Akaky is portrayed as someone who is unlikely to harm anyone. So it is unusual that he avenges the theft of his coat in his death. After stealing the general’s coat, he stops haunting the town. This is because he sought justice and he got it. I am sure Akaky’s deeds after his death, would be shameful to him in life, but since he could not get justice in life, he is justified to get it in death.

Akaky’s ghost haunting the town is a form of rebellion. He rebels against the authorities by stealing people’s coats. He does this after his death since he couldn’t do it in life due to his harmless character.

In Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the narrator, a lawyer in Manhattan whose business is helping wealthy men deal with mortgages, deeds, and bonds, narrates the story of the strangest man he has ever known (Melville, p. 1). The story begins with a description of the narrator’s two employees nicknamed Nippers and Turkey whose job is to hand copy legal documents Melville, p. 6).

Increase in business forces the narrator to advertise for a third scrivener. Bartleby, a forlorn looking man is employed with hopes that his calm nature will soothe Nippers’ and Turkey’s temperaments (Melville, p.16)

Bartleby appears to be a great addition to the practice; he is a hard worker and he produces a large volume of high-quality work (Melville, p.18). One day, the narrator asks him to help him proofread a copied document, but Bartleby declines saying that he would prefer not to (Melville, p. 21).

Soon Bartleby starts performing fewer and fewer tasks around the office, a habit that shocked the narrator and angered his colleagues. The narrator attempts to reason with him, but Bartleby is not co-operative and the only thing he says is his catch phrase, “I would prefer not to” (Melville, p. 26).

One weekend the narrator discovers that Bartleby lives at the office (Melville, p86). Bartleby’s lonely life strangely impresses the narrator, making him indifferent towards him. This is because he is not sure whether he should pity him or be disgusted by him.

Bartleby continues performing his duties, but stops after a while even when the narrator is unable to sack him (Melville, p. 126). His unwillingness to do so mirrors Bartleby’s strange inaction. Bartleby’s associates soon begin to wonder why he’s still employed as he does nothing at all (Melville, p.147).

Unable to throw Bartleby out and wanting to avoid his reputation being ruined, the narrator relocates his business leaving Bartleby behind (Melville, p.168). His relocation does not help as the new tenants still contacts him to help them get Bartleby out of the office. He is eventually thrown out of the rooms, but still decides to keep to the building both day and night (Melville, p.181). Desperately, the narrator invites Bartleby to come and live with him at his own home, but Bartleby refuses (Melville, p. 191).

The narrator stays away from work for a few days for fear of being involved in the new tenants’ efforts to throw Bartleby out. Upon his return, he finds out that Bartleby has been forcibly removed and is imprisoned at The Tombs (Melville, p. 214). He visits him only to find him even grumpier than usual.

As usual, Bartleby rejects the narrator’s kindness. The narrator doesn’t give up on him, so he bribes a turnkey to ensure that Bartleby gets good food (Melville, p. 230). A few days later, the narrator is informed of Bartleby’s death as a result of starvation, apparently, having preferred not to eat (Melville, p.249).

Afterwards, the narrator figures out why Bartleby was always gloomy. Before joining his practice, Bartleby worked at a dead letter office, but his employment had been terminated. Hence, the narrator finally understood Bartleby’s source of his grump personality (Melville, p. 250).

Why? Because working in the dead letter office would make negatively affect anyone with Bartleby’s personality. Hence, through this character, the narrator’s perception of the world is much similar to that of the miserable scrivener. The story ends with the narrator’s resigned and pained sigh, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (Melville, p. 251).

Bartleby is brought out by the narrator as a disturbed man. At first, the narrator doesn’t understand him and he strives to do so throughout the story. He obviously sympathized with him, which is why he is unable to sack him even though he does absolutely nothing in the office.

The only reason he parts way with him is because of the tension amongst his other employees who don’t understand why Bartleby is still at the office. And even then he does not stay away from him for long. He is called to try to get Bartleby to move and when Bartleby is imprisoned, he visits him and uses bribery to ensure that he gets good food. After his death, the narrator finally gets to know the source of Bartleby’s grumpy nature and he sympathizes with him even in death (Melville, p. 251).

It’s difficult to identify the kind of man Bartleby was as his character remains elusive throughout the story. It can be said that Bartleby might have had some sort of a mental illness considering his mannerism.

He does not seem to be moved by anything or anyone around him. His boss offers him friendship, but he refuses any form of help from him. He does not seem to be grateful. The narrator lets him sleep in the office even after proving to be redundant at the office. His presence is not welcome by the new tenants, but this does not deter him.

When he is thrown out of the office, he moves to the stairs. In jail, he refuses to eat and dies of starvation. This, in a way, is his way of rebelling against society. Therefore, Bartleby’s character symbolizes a locked up citizen in a cruel society. He rebels against his work by simply refusing to do it, which is odd since at first he did it with a lot of relish and produced large volumes of high quality work proving to be an asset at the practice.

Bartleby is unwilling to explain his behavior, despite the narrator’s several attempts to reason with him. His unwillingness to explain his behavior implies his reluctance to conform to the society’s expectations.

The two stories, The Overcoat and Bartleby have an almost similar plot. The authors focus on two characters that might be considered social misfits especially in Melville’s story. In both stories the main characters lead rather miserable lives due to their social status. Akaky’s poverty is shown when he has to save up just to buy a coat after his old coat is ridiculed by his colleagues. Bartleby sleeps at the office where he works meaning that he cannot afford to rent a place.

They both enjoyed doing their work, at first. Bartleby shuts down and stops working altogether while Akaky’s love for his job is overtaken by the excitement of owning a new coat. Akaky conforms to society and decides to buy a new coat. He even accepts the offer of a party being held in the honor of his new coat, things he normally does not do as he shuns attention.

But Bartleby is defiant to his death. He refuses to associate with his colleagues, he declines help from his boss, and even refuses to eat while in prison. He rebels towards his work, his boss, and the society when he refuses to lead a normal life.

Akaky rather rebels in his death. He steals people’s coats as vengeance for his stolen coat. He is finally satisfied when he steals the general’s coat, therefore, he stops haunting the town.

Akaky seems like a pleasant man as suggested by his name. He loves his work and his colleagues’ behavior towards him does not affect him one bit. He is unlike Bartleby whose character is unlikable. His colleagues are irritated by him. He even forces his boss to relocate his business to get rid of him.

Gogol and Melville’s style of writing is similar. Their focus is on the down-trodden and how society treats them. Whereas Gogol brings out an almost likable character, Melville makes it easy for the reader to detest his main character. Their stories have a similar theme, rebellion albeit brought out differently. The endings of the stories are also similar, the main characters die, one from illness another from starvation, both of which are major issues among the low class in society.

The authors’ kind of writing can be said to be tragic as both stories end in death of the main characters. Therefore, when the stories are told, the narrators should ensure that the intensity of the themes are brought out and effectively passed across as they should be.

The stories have strange anti-climatic endings, i.e., death. This is meant to capture the attention of the readers so that they know the focus of the authors, which are the tribulations of the main characters. These endings also serve to create a lasting impression on readers; they have something to ponder on after reading the stories.

In conclusion, the two stories focus on major issues in society. The characters of Akaky and Bartleby are representatives of the low class in society and their woes. Their rebellion symbolizes how the low class attempts to get back at those who oppress them. Therefore, their death symbolizes lost hope and dead dreams of better lives and justice.

Works Cited

Gogol, Nikolai V. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1965. Print.

Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853)., 2011. Web. <>.

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