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Which is the true Gogol? The humane critic of the social condition hoping to evoke our outrage and sympathy for the downtrodden, or the comical humorist laughing with us and at us and our human vanity? How does one reconcile the author of both of these stories?

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17 Responses to “Did we all come from Gogol’s “Overcoat” or from his “Nose”?”

  1. Vanda Gaidamovic says:

    The central matter of concern for Gogol is, in my opinion, successfully summarized in The Overcoat: “how much inhumanity there is in man”. And although addressed at the bullying colleagues of Akaky Akakakievch, it certainly questions human qualities of the protagonist himself. Of course, being of a kinder, quieter nature to the rest of the personnel, he gains the sympathy of the readers. Yet either because of adverse poverty in combination with questionable upbringing or simply due to the predestined, innate qualities of a ‘little man’ – he resembles a factory machine, some automatic mechanism, whose sole purpose of existence is to carry out the same, monotonous, almost mechanical ‘mission’: ‘[…]He would smile at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy.’
    Same problem arises in The Nose: “…without a nose a man is goodness knows what; he’s not a bird; he’s not a human being; in fact just take him and throw him out the window!” As Anna previously aptly noticed, Gogol presents a serious riddle for the mankind: what makes us humans?
    I believe that in his quest for the answer, Gogol assumes different statutes: he is a social critic, an absurdist, a folk-tale teller, and a dark comedian. Yet most importantly, he is a careful observer, able to glimpse the neglected, and the invisible.

  2. Margaret Fulford says:

    While “The Nose” certainly has a more comedic feel, I also found myself laughing out loud or at least grinning on occasion while reading “The Overcoat.” Admittedly the latter is the darker story, and one does feel a certain amount of sympathy for Akaky Akakievitch because of the way he is treated. However, there is also reason for his being treated this way, and I think that Gogol wanted the reader to understand this when he described Akaky Akakievitch the way he did (meaning of his name aside!) Everything from the bald head and “sanguine” face to the way he stumbles over the simplest of words when speaking to others evokes not only pity but a small element of distaste. In “The Overcoat”, the reader is also prompted by Gogol to dislike Kovalev even as they pity him for his lack of nose. All in all I don’t think that the author or his style seem very different at all from story to story, if you read between the lines a bit.

  3. Laura Howard says:

    I need to know what “humane” and “social condition” mean. It has been a long time since vocabulary lessons have played a role in school, so sometimes it’s good to have a refresher. I think that “humane” means being moved by the feelings, woes, trials, and elations of people – by recognizing how people react to the world around them. One person may walk by a scrap of paper on the street and not pause to pick it up. Another person might stop to pick it up. A “humane critic” author comparse these two people based on their reactions to the situation.
    So what does “social condition” mean? I believe it means “the way we live our lives.” The social condition of a person like Akaii is very different from the social condition of someone like Mary (The Princess). I compare Akaii and Mary because both of their “social conditions” have been very well exposed by their respective authors. To compare Akaii to Kovalyov does not make sense, because certain telling aspects of Akaii’s life – for instance, how much money he lives off of – are not provided for Kovalyov. This is why I believe that Gogol’s talent shines in the field of “the humane critic of the social condition.” In contrast, “The Nose” story is like a fairy tale, a story that shouldn’t be taken seriously. It does not pull at one’s heartstrings, because it’s intended to be “fluff”. An author can recognize these two sides of his literary career is by doing exactly what Gogol does – writing two different kinds of stories, and writing them well.

  4. Romany Redman says:

    In both The Nose and the Overcoat, we laugh, but we mostly laugh at the progatonists. Tha absurdity of the situations also elicits humor, but the settings of both stories are not funny. In fact, there is nothing even unique about the bureaucratic job and position of Akakii or the class consciousness of Kovalyov.
    Both protagonists have little if no social capital or personal agency to determine their situation, as they are near the bottom of their respective social ladders. There are clear structural factors which impose a rationality to decisions made by individuals in similar positions.
    In this way, we find humor when considering the possibilities of action of these otherwise “under the thumb of life” protagonsists when they meet with absurd or ironical events which allow them room o make decisions. Do I publish an ad in the paper? Do I walk on my toes to make sure my boots don’t wear out? The humorous irony that Gogol presents is the myth of personal agency in a system of otherwise structural restraints.

  5. Brandt Silver-Korn says:

    I do not see “comical humorist” and “critic of the social condition” as mutually exclusive. While I read these stories, I felt that they we were to understand and appreciate them at two separate levels. One level being the hilarity of the absurd (which was matched in tone when the author laughs with and at us), and the other level being a deeper commentary on the social condition, which is not meant to elicit smiles and laughter at all.

    In “ The Nose” Gogol is certainly attempting to evoke laughter at one level. I mean, C’MON, you have a Nose running around town acting like a human being. How can this not be funny? But like Ben mentions, the author also highlights the pretentiousness of Russian society. And while I think we are supposed to laugh at our own vanity, I think we are also supposed to look deeper and realize how wrong it really is, and not find the “pretentiousness” of a society humorous. Its analogous in my mind to Pechorin, who basically laughs at the fact that so many people hate him, but deep down, realizes how unnecessary it is for such animosity to exist.

    The same goes in “The Overcoat”. On one level, Akakii is mocked at for basically everything…and we are supposed to laugh at it for its absurdity (ex: his name). But Akakii is also severely mistreated, and at this deeper level I think Gogol wanted us to look introspectively at how wrong it is.

  6. Russell Jacobs says:

    “The Nose” reminds me of a Monty Python sketch. In fact, I started to imagine John Cleese arguing with Kovalyov over whether or not it was reasonable to run an advertisement for a missing nose in the newspaper. At the story’s end, Gogol even gave me the “alright, this is just silly” that Monty Python famously recycled in the Flying Circus sketches. “The Overcoat,” though, as some people have pointed out, seems a bit darker and maybe more human. Akakii gives up his substance for an overcoat. With his new shell, he’s allowed to participate in society again. Tragically, his “second life” is short-lived. Rouan points out, though, that Akakii has an innate cartoonish-ness about him. He’s got a joke name, and our narrator doesn’t seem to mind calling him pathetic. I guess the stories are sort of inverses of each other in a certain way. “The Nose” is a silly, silly story that happens to a serious, ambitious person. “The Overcoat” tells of somewhat serious events (I’d also argue it’s more potent as literature) that happens to “Poopy Pooperson,” a poor clerk. Gogol seems to be playing with something here, and we’ve ultimately got to ask ourselves “what part of this is humorous?” It’s not exactly clear, I don’t think. Is society a joke? Is fiction? Or is the joke really on Akakii? To quote Lermontov: “ ‘Malicious irony’ they’ll retort. I don’t know.” If Akakii moves us then does his story teach us anything true? Is it a valid parable? I’m not sure.

  7. Melody Wang says:

    I think Gogol leaves a lot of the room for the readers to react to his rich combinations of comic, pathetic, fantastic, and absurd literary conventions, as a consequence, I have mixed feelings toward the characters and the intentionality of his writing. For instance, In The Overcoat, while I do have some sympathy for Akakii Akakievich’s banal and soul-less existence, at the same time he himself is so fully satisfied with his dreary pettiness that my sympathy almost seems unnecessary. I certainly don’t feel comfortable laughing at the Akakii Akakievich, yet I can’t completely identify with him. In fact, I find the narrator to be more compelling than the protagonist. The tone of the Overcoat is written in a highly familiar tone, the narrator’s tendency to digress and apologize ultimately convey Gogol’s mastery of various different styles. Sometimes the narrator conveys a deep sense of uncertainty to the narrated details, and sometimes, the narrator focuses on a microscopic and inconsequential detail. For instance, the narrator mentions how it is fashionable to render the exact reproduction of reality in his contemporary days, so the narrator is compelled to extend his introduction of the tailor (along with his turtle-shelled toenail) to his wife, and the couple’s petty and hilarious arguments. In short, the chatty narrator is so full of personality, satire, humor and unrestrained love for anecdotes, the narrator exudes more energy and life than that of the protagonist and other characters in the story. Ultimately, since I am so drawn to the narrator’s digressions and intrusions, I feel that I have trouble penetrating the implicit moral or ethical messages of the stories.

  8. Sarah Bellingham says:

    Personally, I am going to say that Gogol is definitely the “comical humorist laughing with us at our human vanity” and not someone trying to evoke our “outrage and sympathy for the downtrodden”. I would like to reinforce Rouen’s point that “Akaky Akakievich” is roughly the equivalent to “poopy, son of poopy”. If I were writing a short story with the goal of evoking righteous anger for the downtrodden, I really feel that I would have chosen something slightly different. In literature, a name means so much. Akaky Akakievich is just not a name that you would give to a character you want to portray as some poor, idealized hero that you’re hoping to raise up on a platform.

    As for “The Nose,” I feel that Gogol used this story to convey the absurdity of our daily lives. By creating a situation that was so fantastical that no one could ever relate to it, he separated us from the character and the situation. Because of this separation, we are able to see how ridiculous the petty worries and indignities of the characters’ lives are—and, by extension, our own.

  9. Anna Mackey says:

    I definitely read “The Nose”, with its blatant humor and absurd protagonist, as Gogol poking fun at human vanity, and our concepts of what makes a man, while “The Overcoat” drew more sympathy and social commentary, but still did not take itself too seriously.

    During one particular rant, “Major” Kovalyov exclaims: “…without a nose a man is goodness knows what; he’s not a bird; he’s not a human being; in fact just take him and throw him out the window!” (70) These sort of statements, initially thought provoking (what does make someone a human being?), are just as quickly turned back into humor with Kovalyov’s dramatic antics. Societal criticism can still be gleamed from the story, as well as literary criticism as seen in Part III of the story (“But the strangest, the most incomprehensible thing of all, is how authors can choose such subjects”, 78), and despite the absurdity, or maybe even because of it, Gogol reminds us “there really is something in all this” (78).

  10. Katherine Burdine says:

    Gogol is clearly a complex person and a very gifted writer, and the humane critic and comical humorist do not seem to me to be mutually exclusive personas. In The Overcoat he simultaneously mocks and pities Akaky Akakievich, and The Nose mingles straightforward satire with haunting imagery and a heavy dose of pure absurdity.

    I don’t believe that Gogol wrote only for comedy or only for social criticism, or even that he thought much about either as he was writing. Instead, I think he was merely following his own bizarre, haunting, misty, and surreal vision of how the world works. First and foremost, he saw the strange in the everyday and the brilliance of his work lies largely in the juxtaposition of the impossible and the commonplace.

  11. Alexandra Siega says:

    I agree with Flora that Gogol does not have to be either humane or comical: he shows in “The Overcoat” that he is capable of both. “The Overcoat” does not contain the blatant, absurd comedy of “The Nose”, but it appeals to the human heart in a way that the distant satire of “The Nose” cannot. I found “The Overcoat” to be a much more compelling story because of the strong character development that is lacking in “The Nose”. Kovalev is merely a exaggerated reflection of the object of Gogol’s critique in the story: vanity and society. We see Kovalev in detail mostly within the action of the plot, yet we do not see him function in a normal manner outside of his panicked state. In contrast, there is a clear development of Akakiy Akakievich’s character. Gogol begins “The Overcoat” by depicting a meek, generally likeable Akakiy Akakievich, whose description somehow induces pity and reverence simultaneously and causes the reader to be overly fond and protective of their shy hero. We are more emotionally invested in Akakiy Akakievich’s life: we feel his descent into a quasi-mad state during the tailoring process, our hearts are wrenched when he is robbed of his overcoat, and we laugh and cheer at his confrontation as a ghost with the “important personage”. In the character of Akakiy Akakievich, Gogol shows us that not only the disliked, dispensable people like Kovalev are prey to the absurdity of society, but also the worthy, pleasing (even if somewhat odd) men. Gogol still manages to be humorous, particularly in the portrayal of the sensible Akakiy obsessing over the overcoat, yet creates a kindly character with whom the reader can empathize, rather than ridicule.

  12. Bryanna Kleber says:

    The author is mocking society, but I think he includes himself in this mockery. Overall, both stories present a similar critique of society and the obsession with class, looks, and judgements. Gogol uses humor to try and cover up and deeper meaning that is imbedded in his stories. This could be because even though he knows the reality his stories present, he likes to remain in denial. Gogol is very direct in his mockery of human behavior in “The Nose.” In “The Overcoat,” Gogal is much more discreet in his mockery.

    I always question an author’s motive when reading literature. With these two Gogol stories, it is very hard to determine whether or not Gogol is using humor to cover up the unpleasant truths that his stories hold, or if he is being so dramatic to make the reader realize how absurd human behavior is. “The Nose” seems more comedic to me just because Kovalev’s situation seems much less dire than Akakii’s. Kovalev already has a decent ranking, and is concerned about what people could potentially think of his nose’s higher ranking. Akakii, however, is constantly ridiculed for his less than stellar status. A hostile and uncomfortable environment has been created for Akakii, so we are more inclined to feel sympathy for him than for Kovalev who is foreseeing ridicule.

    Nevertheless, it was Dostoyevsky who said, “We have all come out from under Gogol’s overcoat.”

  13. Flora Weeks says:

    I don’t believe that Gogol has to be one or the other. He doesn’t have to choose between evoking sympathy for the downtrodden and laughing at human vanity. While these sound like very different ideas, I would argue that they are more similar than they seem. It may be because of the vanity and self-centered nature of the upper class that there are so many people without enough to live on and seemingly nothing to live for. Even now, in perhaps a more equal society, we all think about both these ideas, and wonder why it can’t be more equal. We all feel some shame/anger that the upper class isn’t more understanding and giving of others, and we all have sympathy for those with less privilege. Could it be that Gogol sees both of these things, and like many people wants to call more people’s attention to them? Could it be that he then tries out two very different attempts to bring people’s attention to the inequality of society? It is hard to know whether more people will react strongly to a satirical piece or to a story prompting pity. Perhaps, Gogol is showing his versatility with his writing methods and style, and not in the ideas and morals he is writing on.

  14. Benjamin Kingstone says:

    Gogol laughs both at us and with us. His literature serves to illustrate not only our pettiness, but also our response to absurdity.
    In “The Nose,” Kovalyov is driven by greed: he “was not averse to getting married, but only in the event that the bride had a fortune of two hundred thousand” (62). Gogol emphasizes his fear of being seen without a nose–and the implications with respect to his “reputation” (67) to highlight the pretentiousness of “official” Russian culture. Moreover, the reactions of other characters are routine, as if this is only a rare ocassion that somebody wakes up to find themselves without a nose. It is easy to laugh at the pitiable simplicity of Kovalyov and the story of the nose.
    With “The Overcoat,” Gogol laughs with us, at our love of material goods. Russian has an untranslatable term for this pettiness. Пошлость (poshlost’) roughly means vulgarity, but describes the positive reinforcement we feel after purchasing a new object, as if it makes us a better person–in some way justifying or reflecting our moral value. In a way, these stories are too absurd for us to take personally. Rather, we accept them as social commentaries–humourous social commentary for both author and reader.

  15. Rouan Yao says:

    Although Gogol’s Overcoat does a good job in evoking sympathy for Akaky Akakievich, both his stories carry a prevailing sense of humor and social satire. Even though the absurdity of The Nose is much more obvious than the absurdity in the Overcoat, there is definitely a good amount of blatant humor in both.

    Take, for example, Akaky Akakievich’s name. Gogol obviously did not mean to stir too much sympathy in the reader for him, to have named his protagonist something to the English equivalent of “Poop Pooperson”. It seems to me, by giving his character such a name, that Gogol is not entirely invested in shedding a purely sympathetic light on Akaky, and is almost partaking in his mockery. Another absurdity of The Overcoat is the lack of occasion administered to the unnatural juxtapositions between the real world and Gogol’s plot. For example, when Akaky’s ghost is seen wandering St. Petersburg, Gogol writes that “an order was issued for the police to catch the dead man at all costs, dead or alive, and punish him in the harshest manner, as an example to others.”

    The Nose has an equally absurd narrative. When Kovalev finds his nose praying at the cathedral, he notes that “the nose… was praying with an expression of the greatest piety.” Furthermore, when the policeman returns the nose to Kovalev, he tells the relieved man, “The strange thing was that I myself first took him for a gentleman. But fortunately I was wearing my spectacles, and I say at once that he was a nose. For I’m nearsighted…” As Emily mentioned before, it is the mundane manner of storytelling for such bizarre plots which makes The Nose and The Overcoat such entertaining reads.

  16. Emily de Koning says:

    The comical nature of both “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” is unquestionable. Both plot and characters are absurd to the point of being humorous. For example the plot for “The Nose” can be simplified to: these was a nose, it was gone (decided to for a walk around town) and it was back. In a sense there is no plot or definite structure to either story.

    Yet somehow, they appear to have been written in a realistic style. The detailed descriptions of mundane daily scenes and the normal flow of conversations and the characters interactions are reminiscent of realistic stories. However, in this story, they are transformed by their exaggeration into satire. When, for example, the root of Bashmatchkins name is explained we only learn that men that carry this name never wore shoes. These details seem superfluous and serve no particular purpose (except, perhaps, to make us laugh).

    The narrator openly makes fun of all of his characters. Take the scene where the young man upon hearing Akakiy’s “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” decides to changes his ways. The characters honorable thoughts and actions are mocked by the young mans over reaction to Akakiy’s simple words.

    It is upon reading the last paragraph of “The Nose” that some deeper meaning to these absurdities is given. The narrator appears to be completely aware of the inconsistencies of the plot, and that, in the extreme humorous nature, they serve as an illustration of the absurdities of literature.

  17. Juan Machado says:

    I don’t think it’s that hard to reconcile the author of both these stories. Namely because Gogol creates two classes of downtrodden characters: those who are ambitious and petty (like the protagonist in “The Nose” and almost all of his characters) and those who are simpleminded, but content (as in the protagonist of “The Overcoat”).

    Gogol does laugh at human vanity, at our tendency to think that we are so “holy” (140). His portrayals of obsession portray the rat race that humans engage in and their pettiness.

    On the other hand, Akaky Akakievich is so distant from those characters—that is, until he is convinced he absolutely must have a new overcoat. He does not engage in the vices of his coworkers and does not have lofty ambitions. He loves his work, and his simplicity and contentment have a sort of Christian beauty to it.

    Therefore, the reader laughs at those characters and is outraged by their loftiness, but takes sympathy in an innocent character like Akaky Akakievich who falls victim to the injustice of society.

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