Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

Having teeth forcibly removed from my head has slowed my The Master and Margarita progress to a plod, but I’m getting through.  (That’s why I had previously said it would take two days to read or forever to read–I was scheduled in two days for the removal of several impacted and/or generally evil teeth. I knew it was going to make me a vegetable for, like, a week.  But unable to eat vegetables. All the qualities of being a vegetable without the nutrition of vegetables.  Okay, I’m going to stop with the vegetables now…as you see, all my faculties have not yet returned.)

I’ve been alternating between The M and M and a collection of Russian short stories I have on the Kindle, and I just finished Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”  I’d read it before, but I’d forgotten how absolutely heart-wrenching it is.  This is why I love Russian lit as much as I do. Russian lit has this amazing combination.  Eloquence normally puts a kind of professional, decorous distance between the speaker and the spoken-to.  But Russian lit is eloquent and raw and intensely personal and amazingly human at the same time, and the combination is just jaw-dropping.  Nothing does this combination like Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground, in my opinion.  But Gogol’s “The Overcoat” is another example of how there must be something in the water in Russia or something.  These authors compose the most stirring works.

For those who have not had the experience, “The Overcoat” traces the last days of a man who is very awkward–too socially inept, in fact, to communicate in full sentences.  Kind of like me right now.  He walks around with fruit rinds and fuzzballs and various garbage attached to his coat, probably smells funny, and likes to keep to himself.  He very much reminds me of Melville’s Bartleby, though he is immensely dedicated to his work as a copier and, after work, goes home and copies for pleasure.  He has no friends, no family, and is quite poor.  Everyone at his job teases him relentlessly because of his shabby dress and general weirdness, and that in itself, as told by Gogol,  is fairly heartbreaking.  But, when a freezing Russian winter is setting in and he discovers holes in his decrepit overcoat which cannot be patched, he must begin to scrimp and save for a new one.  As he helps the tailor pick out the material and discusses its manufacture, he begins to feel excited about the new coat.  Here’s part of Gogol’s mastery–to see this man’s existence so far has been so sad that the reader feels positively elated as the man starts to show signs of life. As he dreams of his new coat, he starts living for the day that he can put it on.  On the very first night he has it, he gets mugged and it is stolen. He dies from the sickness he gets from exposure to the cold that night.  Go ahead, cry.  It’s okay.

Gogol keeps a beautiful balance in his narrator’s voice throughout all this.  The storyteller is present in the story, but he makes himself disappear at the crucial moments, and then makes us aware of him again later to shock us out of the story and call our attention back to him again.  The push and pull of the seriousness of the narrator’s retelling is fascinating.  The one relaying the story is a fairly lighthearted person, as can be seen in the beginning, and that’s certainly a contrast to the material the lighthearted person is relaying.  The thing that really strikes me about the story is how immensely compassionate it is without using gimmickry to try to appeal to the reader.  It’s almost as if Gogol himself felt so much for his invention, this character whom the world had forgotten, that he had to write about it and didn’t care much what we, the reader thought.  Though the narration and the push and pull of seriousness that I mentioned seems like a tactic or an emotive device of some sort, I almost feel as if Gogol just knew the perfect way to express his own sympathy for the forgotten and his devices are an outflow of compassion.  I don’t really have any evidence for that.  It’s just a feeling.  I usually know when I’m being manipulated into feeling something–it’s like authors fall back on triggers (cue rape, child abuse, or man hitting woman.)  And this is so authentically, actually, gimmick-free-ly moving.  It’s refreshing.  And also (sniffle) sad!

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