Tag Archives: realism



Khidki (Window)

–Read Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

“The Overcoat” sometimes also translated as ‘The Cloak’ was written by Ukrainian-born Russian author Nikolai Gogol. It is a short story that was published in the year 1842. Both the story and the author have had a great influence on Russian literature, as expressed in a quote about Russian realist writers, by French lit-critic Eugene-Melchoir de Vogue, often misattributed to Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky that says, “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’.” While writing in 1941, American-Russian novelist Vladmir Nabakov called it ‘The greatest Russian short story ever written.’ The story has been adapted into a variety of stage and film interpretations.

    The story narrates very sharply the life and death of a titular councillor Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Although Akaky is dedicated to his job, he is faintly 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 centre of their jokes. One day Akaky decides it is now necessary to have the coat repaired. He takes it to his tailor Petrovich, who declares, the coat is now irreparable, and tells him that he must now 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 his work of copying is replaced with excitement about his new overcoat, to the point that he stops thinking about anything else. Finally, with the addition of an unexpected large holiday salary bonus, Akaky has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.

    Akaky and Petrovich go to various shops in St. Petersburg and pick the finest materials that they can afford. Marten fur is too expensive, so they use cat fur for the collar. The new coat finally emerges impressive and of good quality and appearance and becomes the talk of Akaky’s office on the day he arrives wearing it. His superior decides to host a party in the honour of the new overcoat, but Akaky who is habitually solitary feels out of place. After the party, Akaky goes home, far later than he normally would. But en route home, two ruffians short shrift him, take his coat, kick him down badly, and leave him in the snow to die.

    Akaky gets 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 an important person, a Russian 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 such a trivial matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary. Socially inept, Akaky makes an unflattering remark about departmental secretaries, provoking, so powerful a scolding from the general that he nearly faints and has to be led away from the general’s office. Soon thereafter, Akaky falls seriously 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 find it difficult to capture him. Finally, Akaky’s ghost catches up with the general—who, since Akaky’s death, had begun to feel guilty over having mistreated him—and takes his overcoat by frightening him intensely. Satisfied, Akaky is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city.

    Apparently it is a simple story of a common man and his tribulations, and the final denouement. But when you dig in deeper, you see the condition of Russia in the early 1800s, and a parable of the yoke of feudalism and how it crushes individuality. Akaky-Bashmachkin is the representation of the common man that is victimized under the feudal regime and its social and economic structure. He is a man who has no grasp at all of the true meaning of freedom. Gogol expresses it very well through the fabric of a simple, everyday story of that subaltern copying clerk.

    Gogol is considered the father of realism in Russian literature, and he, along with Pushkin brought about the emergence of Russian literature as we know it. He wrote about people on the ground and his protagonists and their troubles are troubles of your and mines. The Overcoat is a good read.

By Kamlesh Tripathi




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