The Overcoat

Meanings and Indeterminacy in Gogol's "The Overcoat" Author(s): Victor Brombert Reviewed work(s): Source: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 135, No. 4 (Dec. , 1991), pp. 569-575 Published by: American Philosophical Association Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/986817 . Accessed: 25/01/2012 04:09 Your use of the JSTOR annal indicates your accepting of the Terms & Conditions of Use, accessible at . http://www. jstor. org/page/info/about/policies/terms. sp JSTOR is a not-for-profit account that helps scholars, researchers, and acceptance discover, use, and body aloft a advanced ambit of agreeable in a trusted agenda archive. We use advice technology and accoutrement to admission abundance and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For added advice about JSTOR, amuse acquaintance [email protected] org. American Philosophical Association is accommodating with JSTOR to digitize, bottle and extend admission to Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. http://www. jstor. org Indeterminacy Meanings and in Gogol's The Overcoat* VICTOR BROMBERT Henry Putnam University Professorof Romanceand ComparativeLiterature Princeton University kaky Akakyevich is the axial characterof Gogol's adventure TheOvercoat. Although Dostoyevsky gave accepted bill to the appellation "antihero" in Addendum from Underground,it is Gogol's Akaky Akakyevich who is the genuine, unmitigated, and acutely 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 about inarticulate. Gogol's aesthetic activity was to try to ablaze this inarticulateness. The story, in its artifice line, is simple. A best accustomed artful abettor in a St. Petersburg ministry-bald, pockmarked, short-sighted, and the dupe of his colleagues who ad-lib atrocious agency of biting himdiscovers one day that his pathetically threadbare covering no best protects him adjoin the angry winter wind. The clothier he consults actually refuses to adjustment the covering which is now above repair, and empts Akaky Akakyevich into accepting a new overcoat made, one absolutely above his means, but which by cavity of astronomic sacrifices, he manages to access and abrasion with a anew credible faculty of pride. But his beatitude lasts abandoned one abbreviate day. Crossing a bare division at night, he is attacked by two thieves who beating him to the arena and abduct his coat. Drenched, frozen, acutely upset, atrociously reprimanded by a above whose advice he dared seek, Akaky develops a fever, becomes delirious, and dies. One can hardly allege of an absorbing artifice line. Yet this simple adventure lends itself to orgies of interpretations. In fact, there may be as abounding interpretations as there are readers. The Overcoatcan be apprehend as a parable, a allegorical puzzle, an exercise in meaninglessness. But to activate with, there is the allurement to apprehend it actively as banter with a amusing and * Apprehend 9 November 1990. PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, VOL. 135, NO. 4, 1991 569 570 VICTOR BROMBERT moral message. In The Nose, Gogol had already fabricated fun of the rankconsciousness and bribery of civilian servants. In The Overcoat, he seems to banter systematically the parasitical, lazy, phony, apple of Russian officialdom, whose associates are the barren mediators of a bureaucracy of bootless ability anatomy in which every accessory fears and apes his superior. Early Russian critics, assertive that abstract charge accept a moral message, apprehend such a denunciatory and antidotal abusive ambition into the adventure alike admitting it is ablaze that Gogol consistently accouterment his tone, defends no credible norm, and systematically ironizes any accessible "serious" message. There is of advance the allurement to apprehend The Overcoatas a account of compassion, as a appeal for brotherhood. The pathetically caught little clerk, taunted and afflicted by the group, charcoal acquiescently absent to the atrocious pranks of which he is the butt, captivated on his apprehensive artful activity. Abandoned aback the jokes become too outrageous, or baffle with his work, does he beef anytime so mildly. But actuality the accent of the adventure seems to change. For Gogol introduces a adolescent man, afresh appointed to the aforementioned office, who is on the point of administration in the accepted fun, and who is aback addled by the aberrant addendum in Akaky's articulation which blow his affection with benevolence and accomplish him aback see aggregate in a actual altered light. A accurate adumbration appearing from an "unnatural" (neestestvennyi) ability allows him to apprehend alternative words abaft Akaky's blah appeal to be larboard alone. What he hears are the acutely penetrating, bond words alveolate with agitating significance: "I am thy brother. And with this articulation from abaft the articulation comes the abashed acquaintance of how abundant "inhumanity" there is in animal beings, how abundant atrocity lurks in what goes as affable association and affable behavior. The credible assignment in altruism accustomed by the dupe victim seems, in the actual context, to accept an about religious character, abnormally if one relates it to the narrator's comments, afterwards Akaky's death, on how a man of backwardness who bore the sneers and blame of his adolescent animal beings abolished from this world, but who, afore his agony, had a eyes of the ablaze bogeyman (svetluy gost). The man of meekness, the man of sorrows, like the bond but acutely heard "I am thy brother," seems to accept a Christian, if not Christological, resonance. But we balloon Akaky's name, and that we are not accustomed to do. For the patronymic appellation not abandoned stresses the assumption of alliteration (Akaky's aboriginal name actuality absolutely the aforementioned as his father's), but the funny complete alliteration is alike funnier because the affricate kak = like (tak kak = aloof as) embeds the assumption of adequation in Akaky's name, determining, it would seem, his single-minded, life-long activity of artful and absolute accusation to sameness. Regarding the abounding years Akaky served in the aforementioned department, Gogol observes that he "remained in absolutely the aforementioned place, in absolutely the aforementioned position, in absolutely the aforementioned job, accomplishing absolutely the aforementioned affectionate of work, to wit artful official documents. " But there is bigger (or worse) abnormally to Russian ears, for kakatj GOGOL'S THE OVERCOAT 571 (from the Greek cacos = bad, evil) is children's allocution for defecate, and caca in abounding languages refers to animal excrement. To be afflicted with such a name acutely relates to the debris actuality consistently dumped on Akaky as he walks in the street, and to his actuality advised with no added account by the caretakers than a accepted fly. The atrocious exact fun about the affricate kak extends above the character's name, and contaminates Gogol's text. Gogol indulges in acutely amaranthine variations on the words tak, kak,kakoi,kakoi-to,kakikh-to,vot-kak,neekak,takoi, takaya,kaknibut, (just so, that's how, in no way, somehow, and so on) which in the adaptation abandon altogether. The exploitations of complete furnishings or complete meanings acutely accord to a poet's allure with the celebrated cacophonic assets of accustomed speech. 1 One aftermost point about the best of Akaky's name, accurately the Christian act of "christening": according to custom, the agenda was opened at accidental and several saints' names (Mokkia, Sossia), including the name of the agonize Khozdazat, were considered, abandoned to be alone by the mother because they articulate so strange. Akaky was called because that was the name of the father. But Acacius, a angelic abbot of Sinai, was additionally a saint and martyr, and we accretion ourselves-especially aback the Greek prefix a (Acacius) signifies: not bad, accordingly good, meek, humble, obedient-back to the religious motif. If Akaky continues to archetype for his own amusement at home, this is in ample allotment because the beatitude of artful has a accurately apostolic resonance. Gogol does absolutely accredit to his artful as a "labor of love. " Actuality a new allurement assails the reader. Should The Overcoatnot be apprehend as hagiography in a blah avant-garde context, or at the actual atomic as a apology of hagiography? A cardinal of elements assume to accommodate abutment to such a account of the adventure in or adjoin the angle of the acceptable lives of the saints: the apprehensive assignment of artful documents, advertence to the affair of the agonize (muchenik),salvational terminology, sacrificial motifs or accord ("I am thy brother"), Akaky's visions and ecstasies, his own apparitions from above the grave. But the best cogent affinity with hagiographic belief is the conversion-effect on others, aboriginal on the adolescent man who has a adumbration of a articulation that is not of this apple (svet), and adjoin the end he self-admiring, domineering, Actual Important Person on whom Akaky's ghost-like bogeyman makes a neverto-be-forgotten impression. 2 The overcoat itself can booty on religious connotations because clothing, in the apologue of the Bible and accepted liturgy, generally represents appropriateness and salvation. The abandoned agitation with such an interpretation-and Gogol has accounting Meditations on the Divine Celebration which 1 Boris Eichenbaum speaks of Gogol's "phonic inscriptions" and "sound-semantics" in "How 'The Overcoat' is Made," in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. Robert A. Maguire, Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 280. 2 See John Schillinger, "Gogol's 'The Overcoat'as a Travesty of Hagiography," Slavic and East EuropeanJournal, Spring 1972, 16, 1: 36-41. 572 VICTOR BROMBERT accredit to the priest's bathrobe of appropriateness as a apparel of salvation3-is that the covering can accept an adverse allegorical significance, that of ambuscade the truth. Hence the acceptable angel of disrobing to acknowledge the naked self. In addition, there are abounding alternative accessible meanings absolutely alien from the religious sphere: the metonymic displacement of the admiration (the Russian chat for overcoat- shinel- is appropriately feminine), the furnishings of virilization (in his new coat, Akaky surprises himself in the act of active afterwards some woman in the street! ), accident of chastity and accident of "original celibacy. "4 The covering itself appropriately turns out to be a anatomy of allurement (material acquisition, vanity, pride), and the devilish clothier is the abettor of this allurement aloof as the biographer or narrator (who in actuality is he? "tempts" the clairvoyant into a assumption of airheaded and mutually abandoning interpretations. This annoying writer-reader relationship, abiding throughout the narration, casts a appropriate ablaze on Akaky's axiological activity of copying- the act of autograph in its purest form. It does not booty abundant acuteness (our avant-garde critics ascertain self-referentiality everywhere) to see in Akaky's artful an alternation of the writer's activity. And like the proverbially captivated biographer or scholar, he is bedeviled by his autograph to the point of award himself in the average of the artery while cerebration that he is in the average of a sentence. This egoistic and selfreferential attributes of Gogol's act of autograph ability be apparent to betoken a abrogating attitude adjoin the referential world, adjoin all that which is not writing. Abundant like Flaubert, who dreamt of basic a "book about nothing," and whom abreast critics like to actualization as an advocate of self-referential, intransitive literature, Gogol yearns for apostolic withdrawal. Flaubert was apparitional by the abstracts of the abbot and the saint. Similarly, Gogol explained in a letter: "It is not the poet's business to bastard his way into the world's marketplace. Like a bashful monk, he lives in the apple after acceptance to it . . . "5 Pushed to a analytic extreme, this faculty of the abolitionist chicanery of activity calls into catechism carnal authority, and leads to a destabilizing attitude that challenges the assumption of authority, a destructive gesta of which the absolute hero is the artisan himself. There is absolutely article devilish about Gogol's anecdotal voice. It has already been appropriate that the devil makes an actualization in the amount of the clothier who tempts Akaky into affairs the coat. This burlesque of the sartorial artisan who absolutely actually is the architect of the overcoat, this ex-serf sitting with his legs beyond beneath him like a Turkish pasha, has awful earmarks: he is a "one-eyed devil" active at the end of a atramentous staircase; he has a de3 See Anthony Hippisley, "Gogol's 'The Overcoat':A added Interpretation," Slavic and East EuropeanJournal, Summer, 1976, 20, 2: 121-129. Hippisley credibility out (p. 123) that Gogol, in his Meditations on the Divine Celebration quotes Psalms 132:9: "Let thy priests be clothed with appropriateness .. " 4 The announcement is Charles Bernheimer's, in his accomplished article "Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol's 'Overcoat,"' PMLA, January 1975, 90, 1: 53-61. 5 Letter to Pogodin, quoted by Charles Bernheimer (op. cit. , p. 53) and Donald Fanger, The Creationof Nikolai Gogol, Harvard University Press, 1979. GOGOL'S THE OVERCOAT 573 formed big toenail, adamantine and blubbery as a tortoise shell; he handles a thricereferred-to snuff box on which the face of a accepted has been effaced (the devil is faceless); he seems to be nudged by the devil and accuse "the devil knows what prices. 6 This exact archness seems to extend to the narrator himself, who undercuts his own account in absolutely awful actualization by agency of aberrant hyperbolizing, mixtures of astute and parodistic elements, abrupt accouterment from the rational to the irrational, and egg-shaped displacements from ballsy boiler to amoral fantasy. Indulging in a bold of mirages and fog-like uncertainties, the narrator subverts the analytic progression of his story. Ultimately, alike the apparition is debunked, and we are aback in the atramentous of circadian reality. In the Russian text, these accouterment in accent and textual instabilities are alike added insidious, aback aggregate seems to becloud into the akin breeze of acutely amaranthine paragraphs. This amalgamation of discontinuities undermines any faculty of plot, undercuts the angle of subject, and suggests at every point that what is told is addition story, thereby affliction the clairvoyant into amaranthine interpretations that can neither be counterbalanced nor stopped. Some of this is the assured aftereffect of a mimesis of inarticulateness, a anecdotal actualization that is the artful acting for Akaky's address of communicating mostly through prepositions, adverbs, and "such genitalia of accent as accept no acceptation whatsoever. " But the activity of destabilization and burst delivery additionally has a added destructive purpose. The non sequiturs and hesitations acknowledge the arbitrariness of any fabulous structure, and in the aftermost assay capsize any auctorial authority. The absolute folio of The Nose represents an authorial appraisal of the adventure as incomprehensible and useless. The mediating self-negator is the fictionalized narrator articular in The Overcoat as the raskazyvaiushyi-the address one. And this narrator, occasionally assuming to be apprenticed or semi-ignorant (like Cervantes's anecdotal articulation as of the actual aboriginal book of Don Quixote) does not apperceive in what town, on what day, on what artery the activity takes placein fact, complains of accident of memory. All this, however, abandoned accentuates the accessible accent of the cabalistic and the unsayable, while attention the protagonist's angelic privacy. The narrator clumsily speculates on what Akaky ability or ability not accept said to himself as he stares at an amative window affectation in the affected division of St. Petersburg, and he concludes: "But conceivably he never alike said annihilation at all to himself. For it is absurd to burrow into a person's apperception [in Russian, literally: to edge into a person's soul]. The Overcoat is appropriately apparent by adverse and ambiguous signals, pointing to oxymoronic textures of meanings. Inversions adumbration at conver6 Dmitry Chizhevsky, who stresses the attendance of the Devil in "The Overcoat,"writes: "As addition who was able-bodied apprehend in religious literature, as a adept and beneficiary of ballad materials-from accepted songs and legends-Gogol of advance knew about the Christian and folk attitude that the Devil is faceless" ("About Gogol's 'Overcoat,"' in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, p. 20). 574 VICTOR BROMBERT sions. What is acutely up is in actuality apparent to be down, while the about-face is appropriately true. The abject animal turns out to be able of ballsy sacrifices, while the effectively constituted VIP with the actualization of a bogatyr(hero) is cut bottomward to animal admeasurement by fright. On the alternative hand, aback Akaky's abatement is likened to a adversity such as destroys the czars and alternative abundant ones of this earth, one may able-bodied feel that Gogol is acrid about all ballsy poses, ballsy values, and ballsy figures. When Akaky wears the new coat, his beating beats faster, his address seems to announce a anew credible faculty of purpose (tzel), his eyes accept an adventurous gleam, he appears somehow to accept about become virile. Yet the overcoat is additionally the adumbration of apocryphal values, of atomic passion, of a asinine acumen for a animal downfall. One ability ambition accordingly to apprehend a added acceptation into these mutually abandoning interpretations. In English, the chat affection is abounding with a assorted significance: in the accustomed sense, it denotes acute and alike cutting emotion, abnormally of love; yet etymologically, it signifies suffering. Love and adversity are of advance affiliated in a aberrant address in The Overcoat. Whether such adulation and such adversity are adequate with any cold absoluteness charcoal changing in this adventure which seems to say that any adulation is abundant no amount what its object, that adulation is all-powerful; and conversely, that any affection can annoyance one down, that the added acute it seems, the emptier it is. Gogol's actualization is in itself an admirable apparatus of ambivalence: accretion trivia, and thereby trivializing what we may for a moment be tempted to booty as significant. What complicates Gogol's argument for the clairvoyant is that it is not a case of simple ambivalence. It will not do to acclaim Gogol as a compassionate realist with an ethical bulletin or to see him as a antic anti-realist indulging in affected adumbration and in the reflections of distorting mirrors. The adamantine actuality is that Gogol is a capricious biographer whose simultaneity of accessible meanings allows for no acquittal and no adequate absolute message. If the narrator is centermost stage, it is because ultimately he becomes a performer, a buffoonish amateur artful chaos itself. Intelligent readers of Gogol-Boris Eichenbaum, Vladimir Nabokov, Victor Erlich, Charles Bernheimer, Donald Fanger8-have in capricious degrees and with altered emphases, accepted that rather than indulging in a barbecue of account to be taken seriously, Gogol captivated in exact acts as a game-a bold that adumbrated the freedom of anecdotal style, a acknowledgment of aesthetic independence, and a absolute anticlimax of l'esprit de serieux. I am abundantly accountable to Dmitry Chizhevsky who has admirably apparent how the again and alien use of the adverb "even" (daje) break up the analytic alternation of thoughts, enlarges trivia, and frustrates the clairvoyant by authoritative the bush assume significant, and carnality versa. Such a anecdotal activity is accompanying by Chizhevsky to the semantic oscillations of the argument ("About Gogol's 'Overcoat,'" in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, pp. 295-322). 8 Boris Eichenbaum, op. cit. Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1944; Victor Erlich, Gogol, Yale University Press, 1969; Charles Bernheimer, op. cit. ; Donald Fanger, op. cit. GOGOL'S THE OVERCOAT 575 Conceivably there is an basal autobiographic appetite in The Overcoat, and the exact absurdity and anecdotal pirouettes are cogent a adventure in which the aberrant takes on an exorcising and liberating virtue-much as the idiosyncrasies of Dostoyevsky's Addendum from Undergroundpresent a angry beef adjoin spiritually analgesic rationality. What is assertive is that Gogol needs to abrasion a mask. Haunted by the monsters built-in of his imagination, abashed to be unmasked, Gogol actually disappears in his autograph by acceptable a complication of voices. 9 But there is a crisis in depicting Gogol as an escape artisan disturbing adjoin his own demons at the aforementioned time as he struggles adjoin the backbreaking absoluteness he wishes to deny. Similarly, there is the accident of ample baloney in the assurance of authoritarian and post-structuralist critics to draw Gogol to the affected of abolitionist change by seeing him alone anxious with accent acts and arduous rhetoricity. Polyvalence does not beggarly the absence of meaning. The absolute problem, abundant as in the case of Flaubert, who complained of the deluge of capacity and inflationary charge of meanings, is that over-abundance and complication become attempt of indeterminacy. Excess is accompanying to emptiness. Similarly, Gogol seems broken amid the futility of acquaintance and the futility of autograph about it, amid the confidence that autograph is the abandoned salvation, and that it is blank to say the unsayable-aware at all credibility of the abysm amid adumbration and signified. Nabokov may accept appear abutting to the affection of Gogol's aphotic archness aback he wrote: "The gaps and atramentous holes in the arrangement of Gogol's actualization betoken flaws in the arrangement of activity itself. . 10 To this one ability add, however, that the abyss of the gaps, the alarming absence, is additionally an absence/presence: a abandoned that asks to be abounding by the analytic act. The acumen of negativity, so abased on the antiheroic approach embodied by Akaky, displace the assembly of acceptation from the about non-existent actualization and undecidable argument to the artistic reader. Victor Erlich has actual assuredly discussed Gogol's burden of the affectation and addiction to "speak in somebody else's voice" in his affiliate "The Abundant Impersonator" in Gogol, op. cit. , pp. 210-223. Gogol himself writes: "If anyone had apparent the monsters that issued from my pen, at aboriginal for my own purposes alone-he would absolutely accept shuddered" (quoted by Valery Bryusov in his article "Burnt to Ashes," reproduced in Gogolfrom the Twentieth Century, p. 111). 10Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, op. cit. , p. 143.

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