Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

GOGOL: The Overcoat (2011)

Psychologist William James was aware of the power our habits exert on us. He once wrote that (Habit) alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow… This is a good theory but how well does it work in practice? Gogol’s short story about a poor office clerk and his new overcoat provides us a good way to find out. Reading the story through the prism of James’ theory can give us new insight into the way we live. To start with, let’s look at the office clerk’s name. His name was Akaky Akakievich. Many people start out life with unfortunate names. Take Benny Benson, for example. Benny was the guy who designed the territorial flag for Alaska when he won the flag contest for students in grades 7 through 12. Or consider the guy who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn. His name was Crazy Horse. Some men become famous after changing their names. Fred Astaire started out life as Frederick Austerlitz. Louis L'Amour began as Louis Dearborn LaMoore. And Yogi Berra was really Lawrence Peter Berra. Lesson one: names don’t matter as much as character. So the second lesson is this: Benny and Crazy and Fred and Louis and Yogi were industrious men who took advantage of their gifts and talents. Not so with Akaky: 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. All Akaky wanted was to be left in peace so he could do his job copying official government documents. He was the lowest-ranking clerk in the office and had no desire to advance up the promotional latter. Why not? He didn’t need a promotion because he didn’t want all the normal things that most people want. He never gave a thought to his clothes… Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him in the street… He never noticed the taste (of his food)… Akaky lived in a small apartment a few blocks from his office in the city. He had everything he needed. He was content doing what he was doing. So why take on more responsibilities to earn more money to buy more stuff that he didn’t need anyway? Which brings us to a third lesson this story can teach: no man is an island. Akaky lived alone. That’s ok, lots of people live alone. But Akaky rarely went outside his own little world. He would go to work in the morning, work all day, and then return to his tiny apartment in the evening. He never went out at night. It was a habit that he followed day after day, year after year. This is where William James’ habit-theory is helpful. Akaky’s work habits were good. But those same habits rendered him utterly unable to cope with any slight deviation in his life. The simple fact that Akaky needed a new overcoat caused his whole world to come crashing down. When the tailor told him that his old overcoat couldn’t be patched any more this was the reaction: At the word “new” Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway. There are similar examples today. Akaky wouldn’t even have a job in modern America. We have copy machines that work faster, better and cheaper than any human copyist can. So where does someone like Akaky fit into a modern American workplace? There are still office clerks all over the country. But Akaky was totally unfit to do things like provide good customer service over the telephone. He couldn’t even speak to people in a normal manner. Akaky was incapable of fulfilling quotas. The mere thought of pressure made him break out in a cold sweat. Imagine a contemporary middle-aged worker with limited technology skills. They’ve just been informed they’re being laid off from a job they’ve been doing for decades. What’s the normal reaction? Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway. William James had it right: habits form the person.


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