Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Fate of "Insignificant" People

It's hard to know what to make of this story by Gogol. Akaky Akakievich, the main character, is a simple man of humble means.
As a copy clerk, he barely makes enough money to keep himself alive. In today's economy, we would describe his condition as bare subsistence.  In other words, he is right at the edge of being a "street person." Although he has a job, he lives from paycheck to paycheck with barely enough to sustain life, but not enough to improve his standard of living. When his winter coat wears out, he is unable , or unwilling, to spend  the money to buy a new one. Instead, he spends only enough to patch the old one. But winters in Russia are severe. You cannot survive without a decent coat. So, when his old one finally wears out, his tailor tries to persuade him that he should acquire a new coat. Like Akaky himself, his old coat has finally become too old and decrepit to repair.

Eventually, the  tailor persuades Akaky to buy a new coat, far nicer than the old one he had, one that will keep him warm in the winter and give him a little style in his wardrobe. But, to Akaky's way of thinking, such a nice coat would be a foolish expense. He believes that people like him should always avoid luxury. Yet this time, Akaky listens to the tailor and is persuaded to order a new coat, much nicer than any coat he ever owned before. And what is the result of this new investment in fine clothing?

His fellow clerks, who have always made fun of him, take notice of his new stylish coat and invite him to a party. Now, for the first time in his life, Akaky changes his routine. He goes out and socializes and drinks a little vodka. He gets tipsy. He enjoys the attention and respect his new luxurious coat has brought him. Then, as he makes his way home after the party, he is robbed of his new coat and is left to freeze in the bitter cold.

Akaky is devastated. When he goes to the police commissioner for help in recovering his coat, the commissioner acts as though he cannot be bothered with such trivial business. Akaky is on his own. He feels that a great injustice has been done to him, and yet no one seems to care.  Soon after this, Akaky becomes sick and dies. Afterwards, his ghost haunts the city, robbing people of their own coats, and creating fear and outrage in all the people who failed to help Akaky when he was still alive. So, is this tale a tragedy or a comedy?

What is the moral of the story?  Is Gogol saying that life is unfair and we should just accept our fate and move on? There doesn't seem to be any real solution to Akaky's problem. He lived a very humble life. Did his luxurious new coat contribute to a premature death? Is it better to be humble, live in solitude and be content with a meager existence? Or is there something fundamentally wrong with a society that ignores people like Akaky? Did the commissioner or any other bureaucrats have an obligation to help Akaky recover his stolen coat? What is society's obligation to the poor? Is there ever any obligation to help working class and poor people or is it just every man for himself? Is all life worth preserving, or are some lives worth more than others? Gogol doesn't answer these questions.

The myth of the American dream has always been aspirational. We believe in the idea of raising ourselves through sustained, honest hard work. But what happens when the dream fizzles out and we remain stuck in the same place, unable to rise to a better way of life? Does anyone, our neighbors or even our government, have a responsibility to help us improve our lives? Or, is it better to just stay where we are and not try to elevate our position in life? Isn't that the fate of all insignificant people? To remain where they are, doing what they do, over and over, and never challenging the system or questioning their place in the world?


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