The Overcoat  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The Overcoat" (sometimes translated as "The Cloak") is the title of a short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842. The story and its author have had great influence on Russian literature, thus spawning the phrase which has been variously attributed to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev.: "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'." The story has been adapted into a variety of stage and film interpretations. The period of modernism saw a revival of interest in and a change of attitude towards Gogol's work. One of the pioneering works of Russian formalism was Eichenbaum's reappraisal of The Overcoat.

Contents

Summary

The story centers on the life and death of Akakii Akakievich, an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Akakii is dedicated to his job, taking special relish in the hand-copying of documents, 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. Akakii decides it is necessary to have the coat repaired, so he takes it to his tailor, Petrovich, who declares the coat irreparable, telling Akakii he must buy a new overcoat.

The cost of a new overcoat is beyond Akakii's meagre salary, so he forces himself to live within a strict budget to save sufficient money to buy the new overcoat. Meantime, he and Petrovich frequently meet to discuss the style of the new coat. During that time, Akakii'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, Akakii has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.

Akakii and Petrovitch go to the shops in St. Petersberg and pick the finest materials they can afford (beaver fur is unaffordable, but they buy the best cat fur available for the collar). The new coat is of impressively good quality and appearance, and is the talk of Akakii's office on the day he arrives wearing it. His clerk superior decides to host to a party honoring the new overcoat, at which the habitually solitary Akakii is out of place; after the event, Akakii goes home from the party, far later that he normally would. Enroute home, two ruffians confront him, take his coat, kick him down, and leave him unconscious in the snow.

Akakii 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 "Very Important Person" (sometimes translated the prominent person, the person of consequence), a high-ranking general. The narrator notes that the general habitually belittles subordinates in attempting to appear more important than he truly is. After keeping Akakii waiting an unnecessarily long time, the general demands of him exactly why he has brought so trivial a matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary (the procedure for separating the VIPerson from the lesser clerks).

Socially inept, Akakii 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 afterwards, Akakii falls sick with fever, likely to die. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the VIP, who is again scolding him. At first, Akakii pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.

Soon, Akakii's ghost (sometimes translated as "corpse", though Gogol wrote "ghost"--"привидение" in the original text) is reportedly haunting areas of St. Petersburg, taking overcoats from people; the police refusing to approach and stop him. Finally, Akakii's ghost catches up with the VIP — who, since Akakii's death, had felt very guilty over having mistreated him — and takes his overcoat, scaring him severely; satisfied, Akakii is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city, but that one was taller and had a moustache, bearing a resemblance to the criminials who had robbed Akakii earlier.

Interpretations

Gogol makes much of Akakii's name in the opening passages, saying, "It may strike the reader as rather singular and far-fetched; but he may feel assured that it was by no means far-fetched, and that the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to give him any other name..." In one way, the name Akakii Akakievich is similar to "John Johnson" and has similar comedic value; it also communicates Akakii's role as an everyman. Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the word "obkakat'" in Russian, a word which means "to smear with excrement,"[1] or kaka, which means "defecator."

Akakii progresses from an introverted, 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. 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 (depression?) 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.

The story's ending has sparked great debate amongst literary scholars, who disagree about the existence, purpose, and disappearance of Akakii's ghost. Edward Proffitt theorized that the ghost did not, in fact, exist at all and that Gogol used the ghost as a means of parodying literary convention. Proponents of the view that the story is a form of social protest prefer to see the ghost's attack on the Very Important Person as a reversal of power from the oppressor to the oppressed. Yet another view states that Akakii's return from the grave is symbolic of society's collective remorse, experienced as a result of failing to treat Akakii with compassion.

The appearance of the second ghost is similarly unexplained. Was it the mustachioed robbers who stole Akakii's coat originally? Does this mean that Akakii was, himself, robbed by ghosts? Was he, perhaps, not robbed at all, or possibly never had the new overcoat at all? Akakii's deteriorating mental state, brought about by fever and malnourishment, may have been responsible for many of his sufferings, including the existence of an overcoat far superior to his own.

Films

A number of films have used the story, both in the Soviet Union and in other countries. Versions have been made in 2001, 1997, 1959, 1952 and 1926 (see The Overcoat (film)). One film is currently in the process of being made: animation director Yuriy Norshteyn has been slowly and laboriously working on a (presumably) full-length animated film version of 'The Overcoat' since 1981. A couple of short, low-resolution clips from the project have been made available: [2] and [3].

The main theme of the 2007 film release The Namesake is woven with references to "The Overcoat" and Gogol. The film is based on the 2004 novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. See the Trivia section below.

Ballet

The Russian composer German Okunev was working on a ballet version of 'The Overcoat' at the time of his death in 1973: it was completed and orchestrated by V. Sapozhnikov.

A recent adaptation by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, set to various music by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, was performed by actors using dance and mime. [4] A film version was produced by the CBC.

The Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt created a version for Dennis Nahat and the Clevelend-San Jose Ballet. The principle role was performed by Rudolph Nureyev at the world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1990.

Trivia

The phrase "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'." has a witty copy used in talks on philosophic topics: "we all came out of Hegel's overcoat" [5] (in Russian Hegel is written as Гегель and pronounced as Gegel)

In Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, "The Overcoat" is central to the plot, and the namesake of the protagonist is Gogol.

A short film by Jason Steele is called "The Cloak", and stars an anti-communism Cloak and the disembodied head of Noir Film legend Robert Mitchum.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Overcoat" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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