Dostoyevsky proclaimed “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”, in the sense that The Overcoat changed Russian literature forever when it came out in 1842. One of the first of the golden age of Russian literature. In many ways, I can understand that, despite not knowing a lot about the Russian literature that came before the golden age.
The Overcoat is about a guy, Akakiy Akakievitch, who is very low on the totem pole. He works as a titular councillor, which is a fancy way of saying someone who copies down other documents. (This was before the copy machine. If you wanted a copy of a document someone had to sit down and copy it for hand, and that someone is Akakiy Akakievitch). He works in a department, but “it is better not to mention the department.”. By doing this Gogol is generalizing the story, pointing out that it could happen anywhere in Russia. Akakiy Akakievitch likes coping documents, but he is often bullied by his colleagues, and couldn’t handle the stress the only time he was up for promotion. Akakiy Akakievitch is not a strong man the way Russia for centuries have worshiped the strong man. The alpha, the leader, the one that get things done. Akakiy Akakievitch does his job well, and enjoys his job fairly well. One day Akakiy Akakievitch gets the news from his tailor that he has to get a new overcoat. After working for it he does. It is stolen less than 24 hours later.
Akakiy Akakievitch is as I have stated not the ideal Russian strong man. I think you need to understand this story compared to that ideal, to understand why this story had such a huge impact. In a world, which idolize the men whom can fix everything, what happens to the people who can’t? What happens to the weak man in a world created for the strong man?
This short story made me wonder about the Russian literature that came before it. I can imagine that it’s depressing, Russian literature is always a bit brutal even if you package it differently, but how is it differently? I read that one of the main things you had to do when reading the story was to sympathize with the main character. If you just thought that the brutality was the way life was, you had missed the point. This again might be linked to the Russian idolization, and therefore pragmatic view on people who aren’t strong.