Gogol’s The Overcoat is a story of a lowly government official in Tsarist Russia. His job is to copy out documents.
There’s a curious ambiguity in the narrator’s feelings for the official: on the one hand he is described as miserable: as a new-born he cried “as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.” On the other hand, when we see the man grown up there is no denying that he is content in the limited life he leads, and he is passionate about his job, having a special love for some of the words he copies, and dreaming about lines of text even when he is out on the street, so that he feels he is copying even when he is away from his desk. In sum, he is a ridiculous character, but the narrator hints that perhaps it is not so bad to be ridiculous in this way.
He is a man who lives an unassuming, solitary life. An absurd life, we might say, since it seems so devoid of meaning: his mind is only ever occupied with whatever work is put in front of him by other people, and he seems never to have pondered the meaning of life, let alone taken any steps towards wresting control of his life from the hands of others and evaluating it for himself.
A change awaits him, in the form of a new coat, and after this change his past life will seem to have been empty without it. How could life have had any meaning then, before the overcoat entered his life? (I think there have been overcoats in my life, things that changed everything forever and rendered my past life meaningless. Reading Plato for the first time at age 17.)
Suddenly, everything is shaken. A period of transition: things don’t make sense now the way they used to. He is learning to see the world differently. The coat is distracting him from his work so that he almost makes a mistake in his copying – something unheard of before now. We get no indication that he regrets the distraction: though he was at first wary of something new entering his life – the word “new” itself inspiring horror – once work begins on the coat he can hardly contain his excitement. In his past life he was an obsessive, passionate person, passionate about small things – the lines of the documents he copied out, his favourite words – and now he is obsessed with the coat. When the coat is finally finished, we’re told, it is the most glorious day of his life.
Just as we felt the passion of the man for his lines, so we feel the loss of the overcoat when it is stolen. He had sacrificed so much for it. It is really a tragedy to live in a world where one has to starve in order to save the money to buy a coat.
Finally the man dies. And the narrator gives us a summary of his life: a life lived largely unnoticed until those last days where he “appeared a bright visitant” in his shining new coat. Such a short span in which the man was truly alive.
I am left wondering what happened to that coat. How long did it continue to shine for? Perhaps it was sold after it was stolen, and ended up in the hands of another who would love and care for it. Or perhaps it slowly fell to pieces, just as, I suppose, it would have eventually in the hands of the poor official.
This tale of the emergence of this bright flash of light, this wonderful coat, and the tragic demise of the man, is perhaps a more beautiful tale than the alternative: to have had the man survive and keep the coat and for it to gradually fall apart as he struggled on in poverty. Though comical, The Overcoat is undeniably a sad tale from beginning to end, the sour taste of poverty throughout.
(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)