Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

GOGOL: The Overcoat

Akaky didn’t ask much out of life: a small apartment, a job copying documents, and for supper maybe some cabbage soup followed by beef and onions. Was that too much to ask? There was just one thing missing. Akaky’s old coat was almost literally worn out. It was hanging by a thread, which let the cold wind blow through. And it gets cold in Russia, very cold. He would have been perfectly satisfied to have his old coat repaired. But the tailor said no way, the old coat was beyond repair. Akaky would definitely need a new overcoat. Here’s the problem: it took nearly all of Akaky’s money just to pay his bills. He didn’t have enough left over at the end of the month to buy a new coat. But by scrimping and saving and going without food and light and heat for weeks and weeks, Akaky finally came up with the money and had an elegant new overcoat custom made for him. The day his new overcoat was delivered was the biggest day of Akaky’s life. He was so proud of it that his co-workers invited him over for a celebration party that very night. Akaky attended the party and got a little drunk. On the way home two thugs beat him up and stole his overcoat. He reported it to the police but nothing came of it. Akaky never recovered. Not long after the robbery he got sick and died.

What kind of story is this? I mean, it’s sad and all that, but what’s it got to do with me? I live in modern America and I have an overcoat, two or three of them in fact. So why should I care? I should care because good literature is universal. We don’t have copyists in modern America. We have copy machines and computer printers to do that sort of thing. But we do still have plenty of low-paid people slaving away at menial jobs in cubicles all across the country. And many of them go home at night alone to their small apartments. Their dinners may not be cabbage soup with beef and onions. More likely it’s a frozen dinner from the microwave. And they may not spend their leisure hours copying text, as Akaky did after supper at home. The modern American version would be watching TV or reading a book or surfing the Internet. What makes these modern American types any different from Akaky? Some minor details may have changed but the basic human type has changed very little. There are still plenty of people like Akaky around. You may know one or two of them yourself. You may even BE one of them yourself. I may take a good look at my own life and say to myself: I’m actually kind of lazy, just like Akaky. And I’m getting kind of dull, just like Akaky. But I like my life the way it is and I really don’t want to change, just like Akaky. Of course in modern America it’s drilled into us that “Change Is Good” and we believe it. Few people ever stop to ask: why is change good? Things aren’t perfect, but why aren’t they good enough the way they are? Why not leave well enough alone? In this story we find that Akaky worked with love. There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself. It may have been a dull job for most people, but not for Akaky. One of his supervisors once tried to give Akaky higher-paying and more interesting work, but Akaky hated it. All he wanted to do was copy simple text. He didn’t want to give it a new heading and change some of the verbs. Copying plain text was an interesting, pleasant world for Akaky to live in. Besides, when everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself…Having written to his heart’s content he would go to bed smiling in anticipation of tomorrow, of what God would send him to copy. Is this what Aristotle calls arête (excellence)? No. Is this the kind of citizen The Federalist has in mind for America? No. There’s a fundamental classical Greek and American belief that people can change and improve their lives. But if we try to forcibly change a man like Akaky, he protests: Let me be. Why do you do this to me? Is it possible in the modern world to say: I prefer not to change, just let me be? To find out, read Herman Melville’s Bartleby.


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