Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 09, 2016

GOGOL: The Overcoat (Insignificant People)

Nikolai Gogol once wrote that “The Russian is more frightened of his insignificance than of all his vices and shortcomings.”  Modern American readers may want to ponder if the same is true of us today.  We have about 323 million citizens.  A few of them may have some of the same “vices and shortcomings” Gogol was talking about.  But in a land where “all men are created equal” every citizen (all 323 million of them) is guaranteed certain rights.  No one, in theory, is insignificant.  What Gogol wants to do in this short story is examine a man who is considered, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant.  Akaky Akakievich is a low ranking clerk in a huge departmental office.  And Gogol points out that “There is nothing touchier than departments, regiments, bureaus, in fact, any caste of officials.  Things have reached the point where every individual takes an insult to himself as a slur on society as a whole.”  Americans may again want to pause and consider how Gogol’s writing reflects on our own society.  Some things are different.  We don’t, for example, have an official caste system like they had in 19th century Russia.  Modern Americans are much more sensitive to issues related to race and sex.      

But Gogol could have written his story today with much the same effect.  Akaky wasn’t much concerned about the politics or office gossip of his day and if his story was written now he wouldn’t care to discuss racial or sexual preferences or politics or religion.  Or anything else.  He just wanted to do his job and be left alone.  His job was copying letters.  And he was good at it.  In many ways he was an ideal employee.  He didn’t drink.  He didn’t take many sick days.  He didn’t complain.  He didn’t ask questions.  He just made excellent copies with no mistakes. 

In fact, Akaky “lived for his job… he worked with love.  There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.”  An excellent bureaucrat if there ever was one.  So what was the problem?  In short, “Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him…”  Excellent bureaucrats can eventually turn into dull people.  William James (IGB2: Habit) put it this way.  “As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.”  For Akaky those “hours of work” turned into days, then weeks and months and years “until after awhile people began to believe that he must have been born just as he was, shabby frock coat, bald patch, and all.”  Plain, dull, insignificant Akaky. 

To be clear, not all bureaucrats and government employees turn into dull people.  Akaky’s personality just gravitated naturally toward order and routine.  Maybe excessively so.  In modern America he would be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder.  Here’s the point Gogol was trying to make.  Akaky’s co-workers thought of him, and treated him, as insignificant.  And most readers probably think he led a dull life.  But Akaky didn’t think so.  He was poor but he was happy.  “Having written to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling in anticipation of the morrow, of what God would send him to copy.  Thus flowed the life of the man who, on a yearly salary of four hundred rubles, was content with his lot.”  (Footnote: Gogol died in 1852.  As a comparison, $400 of 1852 U.S. dollars would be worth $12,500.00 in 2015.  As another comparison, the 2015 U.S. Federal Register lists the poverty level for a one person household at $11,770.)  Can anyone be truly happy living on $12,500 a year?  Apparently so.  “When everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself.”  But nothing lasts forever.  When Akaky’s old coat wore out he had to get a new one.  “At the word ‘new’ Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy” and his contented life was gone forever.  Gogol’s writing is both tough minded and tender hearted.  So his message is both bitter and sweet.  Many people do, in fact, live dull lives.  But they are not insignificant. 


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