In one of our government departments … but perhaps I had better not say exactly which one. For no one’s more touchy than people in government departments, regiments, chancelleries or indeed any kind of official body. Nowadays every private citizen thinks the whole of society is insulted when he himself is ….
And so it was that the first sentence of the first story I had ever read from Gogol’s pen pulled me right in without further ado. 18 years of working in the public sector has taught me that government departments can indeed be tetchy. Citizens outraged by bureaucratic incompetence (or should that be constraint) and apparent insult. I loved the irreverent tone and the need to keep things anonymous. Onwards to the second paragraph.
In a certain department, then, there worked a certain civil servant. On no account could he be said to have a memorable appearance; he was shortish, rather pock-marked, with reddish hair, and also had weak eye-sight, or so it seemed. He had a small bald patch in front and both cheeks were wrinkled. His complexion was the sort you find in those who suffer from piles … but there’s nothing anyone can do about that: the Petersburg climate is to blame.
Gogol now narrowing his focus from the institution to the individual – still playing it for laughs. (I’ll not explain how the cold climate and hemarrhoids are connected.) Our certain civil servant quickly established as typical of his class, poor, mocked and jeered at by his fellow workers and “certain writers with the very commendable habit of attacking those who are in no position to retaliate”. And with that phrase the tone of Gogol’s story turns and his sympathy with the certain civil servant, Bashmachkin, becomes apparent. The man is so underprivileged that his parents could not even bestow him with an individual name. He is christened Akaky Akakievich – Akaky, the son of Akaky. He ekes out his existence as a copy writer, a profession he loves so much that he takes work home in the evenings. He is content with his meagre existence and so life plods on until his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, which has now become so threadbare and worn that it now ressembles a shabby dressing-gown.
And so, the narrowing of the Gogol’s focus is complete – from the institution, to the individual, to the garment. The worn-out coat becomes the catalyst for all further action. A new coat – its cost 80 roubles – demands sacrifice to obtain. The middle section of the story describes those sacrifices and the reader struggles with Bashmachkin and revels in his triumph as the new hand-stitched coat is wrapped around his shoulders. His happiness on achieving his objective – and I’m not spoiling anything here, for this is a Russian short-story with mandatory misery, is shortlived.
In the final section of the story, which relates Bashmachkin’s quest for justice, the author’s focus returns the way it came: from garment, to individual to institution. In a parallel arc, the tone gradually regains the sardonic qualities of the first paragraph. Institutions are represented by Important Persons and often incompetent Important Persons, filled with nothing but the sense of their own – er – importance.
Do you realise who you’re talking to? Do you know who is standing before you? Do you understand, I ask you, do you understand? I’m asking you a question?
I can fully empathise with Arkady Arkakievich. Nothing’s changed much in the 244 166 years since The Overcoat was published in 1842. No wonder then that the justice he seeks is only to be found by unconventional, subversive means ….