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Up until this point, I’ve generally been against participating in blog memes. However, Breadcrumb Reads hosts a Short Stories on Wednesdays meme that I’ve decided will be the exception, as short stories are a very underrated form of writing. For this week, I’ve chosen The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol (see link for full text of the story).
Gogol’s writing is one of the earliest examples of surrealism, and “The Overcoat” is no exception. It tells the story of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, whose name sounds just as ridiculous in Russian as it does in English. It’s a ridiculous name because Akaky is a ridiculous man. He is both stingy and poor, and works as a low-level bureaucrat copying lines by hand. He won’t take a promotion because he’s afraid to step out of his own familiar habits to face the unknown.
Akaky has owned the same threadbare overcoat for a very long time, and his coworkers mock him for it. He takes it to the tailor to get fixed, but is assured that the coat is beyond repair. As Akaky doesn’t make a lot of money, it takes him a long time to save up for a replacement. When he finally gets it, he feels like a changed man, and his coworkers throw a party in his honor, but Akaky feels alienated and thrown off by the attention. On his way home, he is mugged, and the thieves take the coat. Akaky despairs, and tries using bureaucratic connections to get the coat back, only to be laughed at. Akaky falls ill and dies, and his ghost comes back and starts stealing people’s overcoats.
In the end, it is Akaky’s resistance to change that leads to his death. Gogol uses the story to poke fun at Russian bureaucracy, highlighting its incompetence and lack of imagination. Meanwhile, readers feel pity for Akaky, who despite his ridiculousness remains a generally sympathetic character who is so underpaid that a new overcoat becomes a monumental and life-changing event.
What short stories have you been reading recently?
For anybody who finds this post while Googling for help on Russian literature homework, you can also see my 19th Century Russian Literature Pathfinder that I made for one of my library school classes for links to further resources.