Analysis of Gogol's 'the Overcoat'

Topics: Nikolai Gogol, Paganism, Folklore Pages: 5 (1939 words) Published: March 10, 2011
“The Overcoat”and Slavic Folk Beliefs
In the nineteenth century, much of Eastern Europe had a fascination with Slavic folk beliefs. During this time, people questioned the existence of mythological creatures, especially those which were believed to be somewhere between dead and alive(3). The word “vampire” was introduced in to the Slavic languages in the late eighteenth century and the term “unclean forces” began to be widely recognized by nineteenth century Russian peasants (1). References to Police reports involving different variations of fiends rising from the dead, often to attack local villagers, were not viewed as unrealistic(3). This attraction to the supernatural strongly impacted writers of the nineteenth century and the occurrences of unnatural phenomena became a popular theme in Russian literature. Gogol’s well known short story, “The Overcoat”, is one example of these Slavic folk based stories. While the majority of “The Overcoat” is an ironic tale about a simple clerk whose obsession with his overcoat eventually causes his death, the ending of the story, where a corpse is believed to begin haunting the town of St. Petersburg is perhaps the most interesting and controversial part of the tale. To readers in the twenty-first century, who are unfamiliar with Slavic folk beliefs, the ending might be viewed as bizarre and unexpected when in fact; the ending to the story is brilliant. Virtually the entire plot of Gogol’s story is conditioned by Slavic folk ideas which can be used to better understand the fantastic ending of “The Overcoat”. Central to Slavic folk beliefs were “unclean spirits” and the devil. Unclean spirits, which were most commonly viewed as manifestations of the devil, were feared for their ability to take over a person’s soul(4). Not everyone was considered equally susceptible to the evils of these unclean spirits. The way that one lived their life determined their vulnerability. The young, the unmarried, and those who lived a life of solitude were among the most defenseless, whereas those who were old, married, and who surrounded themselves with children and friends were considered the safest from the devil’s antics(4). At the opening of “The Overcoat”, Gogol describes the main character of the story, Akaky Akakievich. Gogol depicts Akaky Akakievich’s life at work, his home life, and even what he liked to do in his spare time. The only problem is Akaky Akakievich appears to have nothing else in his life other than his work. He is truly one-dimensional. At work, he is described as “always seen in the same place, in the same position, at the very same duty”. On his walk home from work, Akaky Akakievich is said to have been in such deep thought about “his clear, evenly written lines” that it takes a horse sneezing on his cheek for him to realize that he “was not in the middle of his writing, but rather in the middle of the street”. While the lingering thoughts of a workday might be explainable on the walk home from work, Gogol goes on to write that even when Akaky Akakievich reached home, while everyone else was out enjoying their leisure time, Akaky Akakievich simply ate dinner and “[went] to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy”. Akaky Akakievich is more relatable to a Xerox machine or a robot than an actual human being. He displays no emotion toward anyone or anything. Instead, his life revolves around his undemanding work. Despite Akaky Akakievich being well into his fifties, his solitary lifestyle would have made him highly susceptible to the influences of the devil in Slavic folk traditions.

Later on in the story, the arrival of the St. Petersburg cold weather causes Akaky Akakievich to feel a chill on his back and examine his winter overcoat. He realizes that it is in need of a repair, so he takes it the local tailor, Petrovich, who Gogol craftily hints to the reader is either the devil or, at the very least, an...
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