Recently, we held a critical theory workshop at ARU exploring Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ where we all took turns to analyse the short story from a wide variety of different critical standpoints. It was a fascinating and rich session, with some thought-provoking and nuanced interpretations emerging. Three of our members have written up their responses:
Hannah Cox – Postcolonialism
The workshop was a fantastic experience! Using the short story ‘The Overcoat’ to discuss a variety of theoretical analyses demonstrated how using different lenses can bring about wildly significant interpretations of a text. I chose to analyse Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ in line with a Postcolonial reading. The Russian colonies inhabited between 1732 and 1867 were Alaska, Hawaii, Northern California and the Aleutian Islands. They were constructed primarily for the maritime fur trade which provided furs for Russia as a result of their continued depletion of animals used to provide fur. We can see evidence of the rising fur costs in ‘The Overcoat’ as ‘marten on the collar and a silk-lined hood’ (p.225) would increase the price of the overcoat by 50 rubles. Other furs included in The Overcoat, such as ‘cat, beaver, fox, bear-skin’ (p.246) demonstrate the variety as well as associations of wealth and hierarchy linked to furs in Russian culture, which Chris Lyon discussed in relation to Thing Theory. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian-Russian, and his assimilation and mimicry of Russian culture is demonstrated effectively throughout The Overcoat, as the narrator conveys himself as a Russian well acquainted with the culture and social subtext. Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the late 1700s and Ukrainians faced measures imposing russification, such as their language becoming illegal in school settings and publications. Ukrainians were called Little Russians, a derogatory term opposed by Ukrainian nationalists. Akaky Akakievich in his ghost form, is known as the ‘little clerk’ (p.246), and having been condescended towards his entire life, he finally seeks justice for the wrong committed against him. Interestingly, there was a passage that many in the workshop highlighted and were able to interpret through different lenses:
“he would hear the words, “Let me be. Why do you do this to me?” and within those words rang the phrase, “I am your brother.” (p.217)
Having researched the Ukrainian/Russian conflicts of the nineteenth century, I was able to interpret this as equality among different races and countries. Notably, Edwin drew upon Marxist ideas and the comradeship and equality between classes and social hierarchies, drawing on the building of communist ideals in Russia. I would like to thank Edwin for a very interesting workshop, and a very good choice of text.
Edwin Marr – Marxism
As Terry Eagleton explains in his book Marxism and Literary Criticism, ‘Marxist criticism is not merely a “sociology of literature”, concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class. Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping these forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history.’ In other words, Marxist approaches explore literature as a product of a particular society, and therefore see literature as embodying the values, structures and ideology of that specific society. Russia in the 1840s was still a serf economy, and even by 1858 there were still 22.5 million private serfs. In addition, Russia was fighting wars throughout the century, leaving them politically strong in the eyes of the world, but financially weak. Education was increasingly important, but censorship ran rife, with direct political criticism illegal and petty police interference the norm, something Gogol fell victim to on multiple occasions. This was the environment that ‘The Overcoat’ was written against, and as a result, a Marxist reading is concerned with seeing how these values are reproduced within the text.
‘The Overcoat’ features the clerk ‘Akaky Akakievich’ as its central character, a name equivalent to ‘John Johnson’ in English, suggesting that he is a sort of everyman figure, representative of the Russian working classes and their situation. In fact, Akaky’s status as a lowly clerk is established from his very birth, as Gogol writes ‘when they christened the child it cried and twisted its features into a sour expression as though it had a foreboding that it would become a ninth-class clerk’. Akaky’s status is written on his face even from his infancy, and it suggests his status as a cog in the capitalist machine is his fate even from his birth, presenting class as inescapable and pre-destined. When he starts working in the office, his fellow clerks treat him harshly, forcing him to do work beyond his remit, to which he responds, ‘“Why do you do this to me?” and within those words rang the phrase, “I am your brother.” His plea of ‘I am your brother’ is reminiscent of the rallying calls of Marxism, and Communism, a declaration of equality and comradeship.
As the narrative continues, Akaky’s coat wears out, requiring the purchasing of a replacement. Whilst the coat could be seen as a necessity against the St Petersburg winter, the fact he seeks a luxury, handmade overcoat reveals it to be a luxury too, tying into Marx’s theories of commodity fetishism. As he writes in Das Kapital:
The products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
As Marx highlights, when the object is constructed by human hands it takes on a unique aura and a heightened sense of value. Akaky seems to be aware of this, with the coat becoming an object of fetishism, emphasised by the care and construction with which it is designed and made, ‘For the lining they chose calico, but so good and thick that, Petrovich said, it even looked better and glossier than silk. They did not buy marten because it was too expensive. Instead they got cat, the best available – cat which at a distance could always be taken for marten. Petrovich spent two full weeks on the overcoat because of all the quilting he had to do’. The fact that Petrovich is even described as finishing the coat with his teeth, adding corporeality to the material object, and thus increasing its monetary and social value. Indeed, the effect of the new overcoat on Akaky’s social network is profound and instantaneous, ‘Immediately everybody rushed out into the hall to have another look at his new overcoat’. Akaky, so long overlooked and neglected suddenly gets invited to parties and events due to his new coat elevating his social position.
Increasingly Akaky’s identity becomes intertwined with his coat, such is the power of the object. As a result, when Akaky is robbed and his overcoat is stolen from him, he begins to unravel. ‘Akaky Akakievich felt them pull off his coat, then he received a knee in the groin. He went down on his back, and after that he lay in the snow and felt nothing more…He felt cold, and when he realised that the overcoat was gone, desperate.’ Initially after the assault Akaky is unfeeling and senseless, it is only once he realises that his overcoat has been stolen that he revives and feels ‘desperate’. His office colleagues feel so sorry for Akaky, that ‘They decided on the spot to take up a collection for him, but they collected next to nothing because the department employees had already had to donate money for a portrait of the Director and to subscribe to some book or other’. Although they have good intentions and seek to fund a new coat for Akaky, a new portrait for the director takes precedence, demonstrating the rigid class structure of Russian life, and implying that an object designed for commemoration and celebration of senior management takes priority over an object of necessity for a lowly clerk.
After the theft of his coat, Akaky falls increasingly ill, until unable to survive without it, he dies. Yet even in death, Akaky feels incomplete without his overcoat, and he returns to find it. ‘The ghost, which looked like a little clerk, was purportedly searching for a stolen overcoat and used this pretext to pull the coats off the shoulders of everyone he met without regard for rank or title’. It is significant that in death Akaky is able to transcend the rigid class structures, and in ghost-form, he pulls the coats off the shoulders of all those he meets, regardless of ‘rank or title’ as he frantically seeks his missing overcoat. Although he does not find his own coat, he does steal the coat from the police inspector who refused to help him in life, and ‘after that night, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost was never seen again. The important personage’s overcoat must have fitted him snugly. At any rate, one no longer heard of coats being torn from people’s shoulders’. In death, a sense of order can be restored, with Akaky’s ghost finally disappearing after he takes vengeance on society for robbing him of his valued posession. In this way, ‘The Overcoat’ is clearly a product of 1840s Russian society, it replicates the rigid class structures, the nonchalance of the police force and the increasing emphasis on commodification and object fetishism.
Kathy Rees – Darwinian
This approach foregrounds evolutionary principles of the survival of the fittest, reproduction, and adaptation. The life of Gogol’s protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, seems initially to be characterised by type rather than variation: he duplicates both the name and occupation of his father, and the world he inhabits as a ninth-class clerk is dominated by the act of copying documents, never originating anything new. Unlike other Petersburg clerks who exhibit a range of behaviours, engaging in entertainment, exercise, and social interaction, Akaky focuses only on the copying of documents. When his superior tries to vary the nature of even that limited task, Akaky cannot adapt, and so “they left him copying forever” (218).
Akaky’s mode of behaviour inhibits any drive towards reproduction: while ordinary clerks “inspect ladies’ hats” or pay “compliments to some prettyish damsel” (219), Akaky is caricatured by his fellows as the sexual partner of his sterile “seventy-year-old landlady” (216). Both physiologically and environmentally, Akaky is disadvantaged. Because he is “small”, “pockmarked”, “somewhat blind” and has “thinning reddish hair”, “wrinkled cheeks” and a “haemorrhoidal complexion” he is not attractive to potential mates. Furthermore, his weakness and poverty make him “defenseless”(221) against the harsh Petersburg cold.
Akaky’s overcoat is so old and worn that “nothing can be done with it” (225). In order to protect himself from the environment, and therefore survive, Akaky adapts his behaviour to achieve the goal of purchasing a new coat: he deprives himself of tea, candles, and new soles for his shoes to save money. Despite these bodily restrictions, Akaky is psychologically energised by this “ultimate goal” (229). Having achieved it, Akaky manifests a very slight shift towards the reproductive instinct, by “staring curiously at a picture of a pretty woman kicking off her shoe and thereby showing her whole leg” (233-34). However, before this instinct can be developed in any way, Akaky is subjected to a primitive act of physical violence, depicted by Gogol in terms of a disembodied “fist about the size of a clerk’s head” and “a knee in the groin” and Akaky’s overcoat is stolen (236).
Darwin argues that the ability to negotiate with other humans is an evolved and adaptive capacity. Akaky lacks the social resources to organise the retrieval of the coat through legal channels, and the physical resources to withstand the climate: he is therefore doomed. Despite his one immense effort towards adaptation, Akaky is too physically and psychologically weak to compete for limited resources: he dies and is buried. Gogol’s intimation of Akaky’s expendability anticipates Darwin’s argument that more offspring are born than can survive: the superfluous Akaky is quickly replaced by a new clerk. After his burial, “Petersburg went on without him exactly as if he had never existed” (245), evoking the Darwinian concept that the extinction of the individual occurs within the framework of the constant regeneration of life.