|Originally published 1842|
Adaptations Shinel (1926)
|Similar Nikolai Gogol books, Classical Studies books|
"The Overcoat" (Russian: Шинель, translit. Shinel; sometimes translated as "The Cloak") is a short story by Ukrainian-born Russian author Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842. The story and its author have had great influence on Russian literature, as expressed in a quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'." The story has been adapted into a variety of stage and film interpretations.
The story narrates the life and death of titular councillor Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (Акакий Акакиевич Башмачкин), an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Akaky is dedicated to his job, though little recognized in his department for his hard work. Instead, the younger clerks tease him and attempt to distract him whenever they can. His threadbare overcoat is often the butt of their jokes. Akaky decides it is necessary to have the coat repaired, so he takes it to his tailor, Petrovich, who declares the coat irreparable, telling Akaky he must buy a new overcoat.
The cost of a new overcoat is beyond Akaky's meager salary, so he forces himself to live within a strict budget to save sufficient money to buy the new overcoat. Meanwhile, he and Petrovich frequently meet to discuss the style of the new coat. During that time, Akaky's zeal for copying is replaced with excitement about his new overcoat, to the point that he thinks of little else. Finally, with the addition of an unexpectedly large holiday salary bonus, Akaky has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.
Akaky and Petrovich go to the shops in St. Petersburg and pick the finest materials they can afford (marten fur was too expensive, so they use cat fur for the collar). The new coat is of impressively good quality and appearance and is the talk of Akaky's office on the day he arrives wearing it. His superior decides to host a party honoring the new overcoat, at which the habitually solitary Akaky is out of place; after the party, Akaky goes home, far later than he normally would. En route home, two ruffians confront him, take his coat, kick him down, and leave him in the snow.
Akaky finds no help from the authorities in recovering his lost overcoat. Finally, on the advice of another clerk in his department, he asks for help from a "Person of Consequence", a general recently promoted to his position who belittles and shouts at his subordinates to solidify his self-importance. After keeping Akaky waiting, the general demands of him exactly why he has brought so trivial a matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary. Socially inept Akaky makes an unflattering remark concerning departmental secretaries, provoking so powerful a scolding from the general that he nearly faints and must be led from the general's office. Soon afterward, Akaky falls deathly ill with fever. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the general; at first, Akaky pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.
Soon, a corpse, identified as Akaky's ghost, haunts areas of St. Petersburg, taking overcoats from people; the police are finding it difficult to capture him. Finally, Akaky's ghost catches up with the general — who, since Akaky's death, had begun to feel guilt over having mistreated him — and takes his overcoat, frightening him terribly; satisfied, Akaky is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city.
Akaky Akakievitch Bashmachkin: Bureaucrat in one of the departments of the Russian government in St. Petersburg, the nation's capital city. Bashmachkin, about fifty, is a quiet, self-effacing man with red hair and a receding hairline. His job is to copy documents such as letters. Although he enjoys his work and never makes a mistake, he has no desire to take on more challenging work, realizing that he has limited capabilities. Because he is meek and dresses shabbily, most of his coworkers regard him as a nobody and frequently pick on him. When his cloak becomes so frayed that it can no longer protect him against the bitter cold, he dedicates himself to saving enough money to purchase a new cloak.
Petrovich: One-eyed, heavy-drinking, decent, tailor whom Bashmachkin hires to make his new cloak. Petrovitch was once a serf.
Wife of Petrovich: Woman of plain looks whom the narrator says Petrovitch calls "a low female and a German" when they argue.
Bearded Assailants: Men who rob Akaky of his new cloak.
Landlady of Bashmachkin: Elderly woman who advises Akaky to report the theft of his cloak to the district police chief.
District Police Chief: Official who hears Akaky's report about his stolen cloak. The policeman asks Akaky embarrassing questions, as if he were a criminal. The policeman is of no help.
Employee With Advice: Coworker of Akaky who advises him to see a certain prominent personage in a government office who will help Akaky track down his stolen cloak.
Prominent Personage: Bureaucrat mainly concerned with demonstrating the power he wields as a supervisor. He excoriates Akaky for not going through the proper government channels to get an interview. He is of no help.
Physician: Doctor called after Akaky develops a throat infection. He tells Akaky's landlady to order a coffin.
Gogol makes much of Akaky's name in the opening passages, saying, "Perhaps it may strike the reader as a rather strange and farfetched name, but I can assure him that it was not farfetched at all, that the circumstances were such that it was quite out of the question to give him any other name..." The name Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin in Russian means Akaky Bashmachkinis the son of Akaky and is similar to "John Johnson" and has similar comedic value; it also communicates Akaky's role as an everyman. Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the word "obkakat'" in Russian, which means "to smear with excrement," or kaka, which means "poop", thereby rendering his name "Poop the son of poop". In addition to the scatological pun, the literal meaning of the name, derived from the Greek, is "harmless" or "lacking evil", showing the humiliation it must have taken to drive his ghost to violence. His surname Bashmachkin, meanwhile, comes from the word 'bashmak', a type of shoe. It is used in an expression "быть под башмаком" which means to be "under someone's thumb" or to "be henpecked".
Akaky progresses from an introverted and hopeless but functioning non-entity with no expectations of social or material success to one whose self-esteem and thereby expectations are raised by the overcoat. Akaky is not merely introverted, but described as humorously fit for his position as a non-entity. He is not oppressed by the nature of bureaucratic work because he is petty bureaucracy himself. Akaky “labored with love” and longed for nothing but copying. He found it “a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face.” A good contrast would be Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Bartleby is quite adept at his job as a copyist, but arrives “incurably forlorn” when he is first employed. Bartleby begins rejecting his work saying “I would prefer not to,” gradually rejecting more and more, until he finally dies staring at a wall having rejected life itself. Bartleby’s antisocial, otherworldly and melancholy features make him uncanny and he has been interpreted as a provocateur of existential crisis. Akaky, on the other hand, is presented in a humorous way initially. This is partly because he represents a “type” presented in anecdotal form by Gogol. He enjoys copying because he lacks an inner life. Gogol makes light of his fitness for mundane bureaucratic activities by joking that Akaky was always “to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation; so that it was afterwards affirmed that he had been born in undress uniform with a bald head.” When Akaky is asked to make a minor change in a document instead of merely copying it, he cannot do it.
Critics have noted the famous “humane passage” which demonstrates a sudden shift in the narration’s style from comic to tragic. Though Akaky is not oppressed by his task, he is by his coworkers who treat him “in a coolly despotic way” and “laughed at and made fun of him” to which Akaky usually “answered not a word” until finally he is provoked to exclaim “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” in a way “which moved to pity” so that a new worker suddenly “stopped short” as if he had “undergone a transformation” This young man never forgot Akaky and his “heart-rending words” which carried the unspoken message “I am thy brother.” Remembering Akaky he “shuddered at how much inhumanity there is in man.” Indeed, the coworker's comments underscore one possible interpretation of the story:
"How little humane feeling after all was to be found in men's hearts; how much coarseness and cruelty was to be found even in the educated and those who were everywhere regarded as good and honorable men."
The narrator’s portrayal of Akaky jars the reader, like the young man himself, from carefree mockery to graven sympathy. Gogol is noted for his instability of style, tone, genre among other literary devices, as Boris Eichenbaum notes. Eichenbaum also notes that Gogol wrote “The Overcoat” in a skaz—a difficult to translate colloquial language in Russian deriving from or associated with an oral storytelling tradition.
Co-workers start noticing him and complimenting him on his coat and he ventures out into the social world. His hopes are quickly dashed by the theft of the coat. He attempts to enlist the police in recovery of the coat and employs some inept rank jumping by going to a very important and high ranking individual but his lack of status (perhaps lack of the coat) is obvious and he is treated with disdain. He is plunged into illness (fever) and cannot function. He dies quickly and without putting up much of a fight. The Overcoat is a philosophical tale in the tradition of a stoic philosopher or Schopenhauer.
Akaky’s overcoat allows him to become human instead of a merely bureaucratic tool. A Marxist reading of the text would interpret Akaky’s material desire as granting him humanity. The story does not condemn private acquisition and materialism, but asserts that human beings can have fulfillment from attention to material goods. Material goods, in particular clothing, do not merely mask real human character, but can modify a person’s identity in a positive and liberating way. Akaky’s social alienation and belittlement give way to community inclusion and genuine respect. People are brought together by material goods.
It is also possible to read the text from a psychoanalytic perspective.Akaky’s libido is repressed and sublimated into the task of copying. After he acquires the coat, he expresses sexual interest. Akaky “even started to run, without knowing why, after some lady.” He also “halted out of curiosity before a shop window to look at a picture representing a handsome woman…baring her whole foot in a very pretty way.” He laughs and doesn’t know why because he experiences previously unknown feelings. Akaky also treats the coat with the tenderness and obsession of a lover. When the construction of the coat is first commissioned Akaky feels that his existence became “fuller, as if he were married.”
Akaky's low position in the bureaucratic hierarchy is evident, and the extent to which he looks up the hierarchical ladder is well documented; sometimes forgotten, according to Harold McFarlin, is that he is not the lowest-ranked in the hierarchy and thus in society. He has mastered the bureaucratic language ("bureaucratese") and has internalized it to the extent that he describes and treats the non-civil servants ("only two 'civilians,' the landlady and tailor, play more than incidental roles") as if they are part of the same world—the tailor is described as sitting "like a Turkish Pasha", that is, a government official, and Akaky "treats the self-effacing old landlady just like his bosses treat him at the office ('somehow coldly and despotically')".
Vladimir Nabokov, writing in his Lectures on Russian Literature, gave the following appraisal of Gogol and his most famous story: "Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in the immortal The Overcoat, he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced."
A number of films have used the story, both in the Soviet Union and in other countries: