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Indeterminacy Meanings and in Gogol's The Overcoat*
VICTOR BROMBERT Henry Putnam University Professorof Romanceand ComparativeLiterature Princeton University kaky Akakyevich is the central characterof Gogol's story TheOvercoat. Although Dostoyevsky gave common currency to the term "antihero" in Notes from Underground,it is Gogol's Akaky Akakyevich who is the genuine, unmitigated, and seemingly unredeemable antihero. For Dostoyevsky's anti-heroic paradoxalist, afflicted with hypertrophia of the consciousness, is well-read, cerebral, incurably bookish, and talkative. Akaky Akakyevich is hardly aware, and almost inarticulate. Gogol's artistic wager was to try to articulate this inarticulateness. The story, in its plot line, is simple. A most unremarkable copying clerk in a St. Petersburg ministry-bald, pockmarked, short-sighted, and the scapegoat of his colleagues who invent cruel ways of mocking himdiscovers one day that his pathetically threadbare coat no longer protects him against the fierce winter wind. The tailor he consults categorically refuses to repair the coat which is now beyond repair, and tempts Akaky Akakyevich into having a new overcoat made, one totally beyond his means, but which by dint of enormous sacrifices, he manages to acquire and wear with a newly discovered sense of pride. But his happiness lasts only one short day. Crossing a deserted quarter at night, he is attacked by two thieves who knock him to the ground and steal his coat. Drenched, frozen, deeply upset, brutally reprimanded by a superior whose help he dared seek, Akaky develops a fever, becomes delirious, and dies. One can hardly speak of an interesting plot line. Yet this simple story lends itself to orgies of interpretations. In fact, there may be as many interpretations as there are readers. The Overcoatcan be read as a parable, a hermeneutic puzzle, an exercise in meaninglessness. But to begin with, there is the temptation to read it seriously as satire with a social and
* Read 9 November 1990.
PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, VOL. 135, NO. 4, 1991
moral message. In The Nose, Gogol had already made fun of the rankconsciousness and venality of civil servants. In The Overcoat, he seems to deride systematically the parasitical, lazy, phony, world of Russian officialdom, whose members are the impotent mediators of a hierarchy of ineffectual power structure in which every subordinate fears and apes his superior. Early Russian critics, convinced that literature must have a moral message, read such a denunciatory and corrective satirical intention into the story even though it is clear that Gogol constantly shifts his tone, defends no apparent norm, and systematically ironizes any possible "serious" message. There is of course the temptation to read The Overcoatas a tale of compassion, as a plea for brotherhood. The pathetically defenseless little clerk, taunted and persecuted by the group, remains...