I recently rented to movie The Namesake, where Gogol and his short story, “The Overcoat,” were featured prominently. It prompted me to read the short story.
The story is about human dignity, and that is what the overcoat symbolizes. Akaky Akakyevitch is a person of no worldly consequence, influence or power, without even a wife or family. He lives in material, social, and spiritual poverty. What little human dignity he has is constantly under assault at the office. He invests all of his human dignity in a new overcoat which he purchases at great sacrifice. Soon, he is violently robbed of his overcoat. The police offend Akaky by having not the slightest inclination in investigating the robbery. And then, a person of Person of Consequence adds mortal insult to the original injury. It is no wonder Akaky dies.
Ultimately, I find the story disappointing. Yes, there is a retributive justice. To make up for his loss, Akaky’s ghost robs many others of their coats. He flusters the police, just as they had flustered him, and, finally, Akaky’s ghost confronts and terrifies the Person of Consequence while freeing him of his overcoat. It was sad to see that the justice achieved was only transactional, as opposed to transformational, and that none of the characters redeemed themselves, repented, or were significantly changed for the better in anyway. It is no wonder that these social conditions of Russia resulted in revolution.
After reading the story, I also read Frank O’Connor’s, “The Legacy of Gogol’s Overcoat.” O’Connor talks about how groundbreaking this story was, but of course, I cannot read it as if I had never ready anything written afterwards.
I think O’Connor is going too far in stressing that the story is an analogy to the crucifixion of Jesus. However it is very much a Judaic-Christian story, in that it is about the innate human dignity of a person regardless of their station in life