Places: The Overcoat

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: “Shinel,” 1842 (English translation, 1923)

Type of work: Short fiction

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*St. Petersburg

*St. Overcoat, ThePetersburg. Russian city founded by Czar Peter the Great to replace Moscow as the capital. The city gradually developed a special reputation. On one hand, it was viewed as a utopian, model city of the future, but on the other, it was seen as a realm of dark, unfriendly forces. By the time Gogol wrote “The Overcoat,” the city was rife with stories that highlighted the fantastic and mysterious quality of the place.

After Gogol’s hero, Akaky Akakievich, a meek and lowly clerk in the vast government bureaucracy, is assaulted by the bitterly cold wind of this northern city, he must have a new coat made. Gogol’s narrative suggests that Akaky’s decision may have led him into the clutches of demonic forces, and after his new coat is stolen from him, he strives without success to find a sympathetic figure in the city’s impersonal bureaucracy. Akaky dies from illness and sorrow, but after his death, rumors begin circulating that he has returned as a ghost to steal the coats of other people. The entire narrative, however, ends on a note of confusion or uncertainty, and this strange ending accords well with the enigmatic nature of the St. Petersburg setting. Although the tale evokes different aspects of city life–from the simple apartments of the poor clerks to the more elegant homes of the higher officials–Gogol’s narrator intentionally refuses to provide specific details and locations, thereby heightening the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty that permeates the work.

BibliographyAlissandratos, Julia. “Filling in Some Holes in Gogol’s Not Wholly Unholy ‘Overcoat.’ ” The Slavonic and East European Review 68, no. 1 (January, 1990): 22-40. Examines the patterns and allusions relating to religious texts in Gogol’s story. Argues that Gogol parodies Russian religious tradition.Chizhevsky, Dmitry. “About Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ ” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. An insightful essay that shows how Gogol’s seemingly humorous story points to a serious moral vision: The devil ensnares humans into obsession not only with exalted things in life, but also with trivia.Eichenbaum, Boris. “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Analyzes Gogol’s stylistic technique, highlighting the performative nature of the narrative by focusing on its puns, hyperbole, and abrupt shifts in tone.Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. Underscores the problematic nature of Gogol’s text. Noting the presence of discrete elements of several thematic patterns, this analysis concludes that “The Overcoat” remains elusive, pointing always to movement rather than resolution.Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions, 1944. A dazzling evocation of the stylistic and verbal idiosyncrasies of Gogol’s text. Nabokov’s commentary identifies the salient features of Gogol’s style and suggests what kind of worldview this stylistic display reveals.
Categories: Places