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Gogol’s Petersburg Tales Essay

Compare Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” with the other St. Petersburg tales. Nikolai Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories have been interpreted as tales of social injustice, urban and human isolation, psychological studies, love stories, moralistic fables and social satires. In keeping with emerging trends of “naturalistic” writing, the stories deal with relatively lowly members of the social strata in the Petersburg bureaucracy – the everyman. This essay will compare “The Overcoat” with “Diary of a Madman” and “The Nose” and examine how each of the main characters in Gogol’s stories survives in the seemingly unnatural and fabricated world of St. Petersburg. The principal character in “The Overcoat”, Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin buries himself so deeply in his paltry work of copying documents that his work almost supersedes the actual reality in which he inhabits, he is described walking through the streets of St. Petersburg oblivious to the people around him or the rubbish being thrown out windows onto him, he sees nothing but a line of beautiful words to copy.

He later does the same when obsessing about the coat which he is having made to shield him from the bitter Russian winter. This need to cloak and insulate oneself from the cold harshness of modern society is an idea which runs through these three stories, and seemed to preoccupy Gogol himself. He was a secretive person about which very little is known, he said himself in his letters “But how can one judge about a secretive person in whom everything is inside, whose character hasn’t even taken shape but who is still educating himself in his soul and whose every move produces only misunderstanding? How can one make conclusions about such a person basing oneself on a few traits which have inadvertently stuck themselves out? Won’t this be the same as to conclude about a book by a few sentences torn out of it – not in order either, but from different passages.” Gogol was interested in how the character and worth of someone is judged by others, the characters in The Petersburg Stories are all defined, both by themselves and by others, by their professions, which are comically insignificant, Akaky Akakievich copied pages and Poprishchin in “Diary of a Madman” was in charge of pencil sharpening.

These characters are defined by the role they serve as part of the bureaucracy rather than by any kind of individual identity. Gogol paints a picture of a society in which values the most superficial aspects of a person, an idea which is taken to comical new heights in “The Nose” when the preposterous and vain main character Major Kovalyov loses something which serves no great purpose other than normalising one’s appearance – his nose. Escapism is essential for Gogol’s characters. Each of the main characters feels happiest when they are detached from reality, when they have some sort of rosy, imaginary insulation between them and the inescapable monotony of their lowly lives. Akaky Akakievich is described garnering a disproportionate amount of joy from his work copying documents, smiling to himself as he coppied letters he particularly liked, going home and copying just for fun and “when all strive to divert themselves” going to bed “smiling at thought of coming day”.

Akaky puts all of his faith and love and passion into something arbitrary and ultimately meaningless as a coping mechanism, for how else would he survive his pitiful life? The main character in “Diary of a Madman” Poprishkin is driven to a similar detachment from the real world as his lowly and socially immobile position as a titular councillor becomes too much to bear. He loses his sanity but arguably gains something of greater value; confidence and social mobility. In creating a world for himself where he is no longer one of many middle aged, poorly paid low ranking civil servants but the King of Spain he frees himself from his suffocating ties to societal norms, he no longer believes in the inherent superiority of those of a higher social status, he even has the audacity to call his employer as “an ordinary doornail, a simple doornail, nothing more. The kind used in doors”. Similarly, Kovalyov deludes himself to give his life a sense of importance and significance.

He gives himself the title of “Major” and struts down Nevsky Prospect making eye contact with everyone and imagining attention from ladies that he passes. The key difference between the coping mechanism employed by Akaky and the methods used by Poprishkin and Kobalev is that Akaky’s world is not one which elevates his social status. His extremely introverted behaviour does not disrupt the status quo. It is arguably their obsession with class and how they appear to others which causes all of both Kovalev and Poprishkin’s strife. Contrastingly, Akaky just wants to be left alone, he doesn’t care that people often see him with trifle or hay stuck to the back of his cape, this makes Akaky a more likeable, sympathetic character, he is completely harmless and innocent – a perfect victim. This is the only story in which Gogol allows us to be fully sympathetic with a character. There are
indeed moments in “Diary of a Madman” which could and should stir sympathy for Poprishkin in the reader, but Gogol always undermines these moments with a humorous or nonsensical comment.

In “The Overcoat” however, the narrative tone flips from heart wrenchingly sad to funny and light hearted and then back again in the space of a page – Gogol displays his talent for evoking sympathy and emotion in a reader and his gift for comedy side by side. It is not just the characters who seek to cover themselves up and conceal the truth from the reader; there is a lack of reliability coupled with nonsense running through all three of the narratives which obstinately refuses to make sense. “The Overcoat” introduces us to this immediately, it begins with a digression “In the department of — but it is better not to mention the department.” The narrator continues in this vein, using a conversational, unreliable tone, often forgetting the facts or losing their place in the story.

Gogol’s deliberate elusiveness undermines the idea of the omniscient authorial voice of the narrator and injects suspicion and confusion into the narrative. Gogol uses a similar narrative voice in “The Nose”. The narrator of “The Nose” is similarly uninformed and forgetful and makes no attempt to elucidate the reason for all the bizarre occurrences in the story. Things in these stories can often just disappear into a puff of smoke, Gogol increases the confusion, and elusiveness with the use of a lot of mist and smoke imagery, he is like a magician, cloaking his intentions, keeping himself safe behind a cloud of nonsense and a mist of confusion.

Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories portray many different types of characters, but pervading through the stories and uniting them is this sense of heightened self-consciousness a need to protect oneself from a befuddling, cold harsh world. Gogol himself put it best in another St Petersburg story – Nevsky Prospekt “It had seemed as if some demon had crumbled the world into bits and mixed all these bits indiscriminately together”

Bibliography
Gogol, Nikolai – translated by Macandrew, Andrew R and Meyer, Priscilla The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories – SIGNET CLASSICS, January 2005, New York, NY/US One Of The Oldest Cases Of Schizophrenia In Gogol’s “Diary Of A Madman” Eric Lewin AltschulerBMJ: British Medical Journal , Vol. 323, No. 7327 (Dec. 22 – 29, 2001), pp. 1475-1477 Published by: BMJ Publishing Group
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25468632 Cloaking the Self: The Literary Space of Gogol’s “Overcoat” Charles C. Bernheimer – PMLA , Vol. 90, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 53-61 – Published by: Modern Language Association – Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/461347 The Laughter of Gogol – R. W. Hallett – Russian Review , Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1971), pp. 373-384 – Published by: Wiley on behalf of The Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review – Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/127792


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