Theme of the “Little Man” in Gogol’s The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman
Though rather simple in plot and structure, Gogol’s short stories carry deep moral messages, which are urgent beyond time and place. One of these is a theme of a little man, who is a poor person, is not respected by those with higher ranks, and is usually driven to despair by his life conditions. This is a socio-psychological type of a person often pitifully aware of his unimportance, but there often occurs a situation in which he dares a protest, which finally turns out to be fatal for him. As Emily Hopkins noticed (2011), this type of character functions as a contrast to and victim of an unjust system, which besides being unfair is lethal. In his series Petersburg’s Narratives, Gogol developed this theme by delving into the character of an ordinary clerk.
The hard school of life, which Gogol had gone through in his early career, trained him for creation of Nose, Diary of a Madman, Portrait, The Overcoat, and other narrations. Having moved to Saint Petersburg, Gogol was struck by deep social contradictions and tragic catastrophes. By his own experience, he got to know of a poor clerk’s life conditions, of the young artists’ circle, and even of the need for a new overcoat. This very life experience helped Gogol to show vividly the city of Saint Petersburg with its outer splendor and deep inner social contrasts.
Human and inhuman conditions of life are the main underlying conflicts of Gogol’s short stories. The author describes Saint Petersburg as a city where human relationships are distorted, where meanness and cruelty triumph over justice and integrity. It is a place where talents have no opportunities to develop. This terrible and insane city becomes a scene of action for Poprishchin’s striking incidents (in Diary of a Madman), and the place where poor Akakiy Akakievitch’s life becomes unbearable (in The Overcoat). One of them loses his senses, and the other dies during an unequal fight against the severe conditions of reality.
Diary of a Madman is undoubtedly the most tragic narration from Petersburg’s Narratives. The entire story is told by the hero and author of Diary – Aksentiy Ivanovich Poprishchin, who is a minor official offended by everyone in his department. Poprishchin is of a rather noble origin, but very poor and pretends to nothing. His only responsibility is to sharpen his master’s pencils. Poprishchin considers that rank creates reputation, and those with high ranks are honest and respectable in his view. Poprishchin has his own socially legalized tastes, cultural and political interests, ideas of honor and self-respect, and even habits and cherished dreams. Within this world, created by himself, Poprishchin leads a rather self-satisfied life, paying no heed that this life is actually an outrage upon one’s personality and dignity.
Poprishchin’s consciousness is in disorder and he starts asking himself why he is just a titular counselor, why everything best belongs to generals and to other high-ranking individuals. Offended human dignity awakens in Poprishchin and he dares to stir up a rebellion. He completely loses his reason and thinks he is a Spanish king. This very idea appears as a fantastic projection of those distorted conceptions of a world around him. Diary of a Madman is a scream of protest against the unfair moral principles of a world where everything is confused, where intelligence and justice are violated. Poprishchin is both a product and a victim of this world. By making his protagonist a minor official Gogol tries to open the comic and pitiful traits of his inner world, and to reveal the tragic feeling of pain and anger at social inequality.
Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmachkin (The Overcoat) also becomes a victim of poverty and lawlessness; it is Petersburg with its injustice that leaves Bashmachkin to the mercy of fate. Gogol himself describes he hero as a perpetual titular councilor, over whom, as is well known, some writers make merry, and crack their jokes, obeying the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back. The author does not conceal his ironic grin when describing narrow-mindedness and wretchedness of the protagonist. This helps us to understand the typical nature of Akakiy Akakievitch as that of a timid, crushed man, a dumb being enduring the mockeries of his colleagues. And it was fate’s will that a desire for a new overcoat captivated such a person. This fact bears irony, as such a simple everyday thing as an overcoat is something incredible for a minor official. When Bashmachkin is robbed of his new overcoat, in a burst of despair he turned to a prominent personage, who becomes in The Overcoat a generalized image of overbearing and useless authority. It the scene at the general’s that most strongly displays the social tragedy of a little man. From the prominent personage’s study an almost motionless Akakiy Akakievich is carried out. Only after his death does he dare to stage a rebellion: he appears as a ghost, seeking a stolen overcoat at night and dragging overcoats without regard to rank or calling from everyone’s shoulders.
Both narratives have no clear boundaries between mind and insanity, between life and death. In the end we see not just a little man; we see a human, who is solitary, hesitating, deprived of security, and in need of sympathy. We can neither judge a little man nor justify him, since he calls for both compassion and mockery. That’s the way Gogol describes this paradoxical, oddly immortal type of character.
Hopkins, Emily (2011) “The Little Man and the Masses: Expression, Form and Politics in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings,” Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate of Musiology: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 2.
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Though rather simple in plot and structure, Gogol’s short stories carry deep moral messages, which are urgent beyond time and place. One of these is a theme of a little […]