Monday, May 11, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat"

 Nikolai Gogol's major stylistic short-story innovation is to combine the fanciful and earthy folklore of his native Ukraine with the literary and philosophic imagination of German Romanticism he had learned in school; the result is a hybrid generic form created by the combination of fantastic events and realistic detail, the most obvious example of which is "The Nose" (1836).  The fantastic story of assessor Major Kovalyov's waking one morning without a nose, which he later meets in the streets wearing a gold-braided uniform, has often been dismissed as a farce with little or no meaning or significance, an attempt by Gogol to exploit the convention made popular by Adelbert von Chamisso's story of Peter Schlemihl's loss of his shadow and E.T.A. Hoffmann's story of Erasmus Spikher's loss of his reflection.
 However, the difference between using a shadow or reflection as an image of one's identity and using a nose is that whereas the former are metaphoric, the latter is metonymic.  Gogol's whimsical exploration of the theme of lost identity suggests that if one is the sum total of his physical presence and social persona in the world, then the loss of that part of the face that most characterizes one's physiognomy means the loss of self.  As Kovalyov laments: "If I had lost an arm or a leg, it would not be so bad; if I had lost my ears, it would be bad enough, but still bearable; but without a nose a man is goodness knows what, neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring--he isn't a respectable citizen at all!"
Gogol not only parodies the basic assumption of characterization of realistic fiction--that one is the sum total of how one faces the social world--he also undermines the basic plot assumptions of such fiction--that causes have plausible effects and that even unusual events have discoverable causes.  For example, at the end of parts one and two of the story, he uses what later becomes a standard film technique and fades abruptly to a new scene, claiming, "here the incident is completely shrouded in fog and absolutely nothing is known of what happened next."  Thus, the usual driving force of narrative--"what happens next"--is self-consciously frustrated. 
Just as  "The Nose" begins with what Goethe had earlier claimed to be the anecdotal source of the novella form--an unheard-of event that actually takes place--it ends by challenging the reader's expectations that fiction has either plausibility and significance. The narrator confesses with mock seriousness that he simply cannot understand the story or why authors would choose such subjects.  "All the same, on second thoughts, there really is something in it.  Say what you like, but such things do happen--not often but they do happen." Donald Fanger says "The Nose" is a manifesto, not because of what it means, but by the very fact of its existence, for it mocks a serious attitude toward plot, and the very assumption that language is the carrier of messages.  "The Nose," says Fanger, "triumphantly proclaims its existence as pure instrumentality."
Gogol's most influential narrative play with the underlying assumptions of prose is, of course "The Overcoat" (1842) which Frank O'Connor, in his study of the short story The Lonely Voice, says that Gogol's marks the true origin of the short story, for nothing like it had every appeared before.  O. Connor argues that the story uses the old rhetorical device of the mock-heroic to create a new form that is not satiric nor heroic, but something that transcends both.  "So far as I now, it is the first appearance in fiction of the Little Man, which may define what I mean by the short story better than any other terms I may later use about it."
 The classic 19th-century Russian view of "The Overcoat" is that it a realistic story of social significance, one of the first Russian narratives about the little man crushed by the Tsarist regime.  However, in the 1920s, B. M. Ejxenbaum presented a famous formal argument that it is Gogol's combination of rhetoric with folktale convention that makes the story such a masterpiece.  Ejxenbaum says that Gogol takes the old narrative form of the Russian folktale, the skaz, and juxtaposes it against the sentimental rhetoric of the speaker to make the reader unsure about whether to feel sorry for Akaky or laugh at him.  "This pattern," says Ejxenbaum, "in which the purely anecdotal narrative is interwoven with a melodramatic and solemn declaration, determines the entire composition of "The Overcoat" as a grotesque."  The story "plays with reality," breaks up the ordinary so that the unusual logical and psychological connections of reality in the story become unreal.  Ejxenbaum says that the structure of the short story as a genre always depends in large part to the kind of "role which the author's personal tone plays in it."
O'Connor and Ejxenbaum's famous comments represent the critical dichotomy the story has stimulated--whether to focus on Akakey's heart-rending cry, "I am your brother" or to emphasize the voice of the narrator who seems to subvert the seriousness of that cry.   The problem the story confronts is echoed by the problem the tailor encounters when Akakey comes to him to get his old coat repaired:  how to make something out of nothing.  If Akakey is no more than his coat, then, he, as the tailor says, is hardly "there" at all.  But, since this is a story of how a nobody becomes a somebody, when he gets a new coat, the expression "clothes make the man" takes on an almost literal significance.  Moreover, if the story is a about a person who is treated as if he were an object, it is simultaneously about an object treated as if it were a living person.  Whereas the first is cause for sympathy, the second is clearly cause for laughter.  If one were to object that you can't have it both ways, Gogol would instantly reply, "Of course you can."
Having it both ways at once--realistic and fantastic, metonymic and metaphoric, pathetic and comic--is precisely what Gogol achieves in this famous story. If in the end of the story reality seems to lead to fantasy, it is because we have been presented fantasy that looks like reality all along.  If Akakey is one of the most famous grotesques in the history of short fiction, it is because when you make something out of nothing you inevitably exaggerate its importance.  Almost one hundred years later, Sherwood Anderson helps initiate another revolution in the development of the short story in Winesburg, Ohio by once again focusing on the grotesque result of "making something out of nothing."

1 comment:

Karl said...

Thanks so much for an insightful and sensitive essay on this great classic short story! I can hardly wait to see what stories will be covered in this series over the rest of the month.

BTW, the "Each day on Facebook" thing mentioned in your sidebar doesn't seem to be happening -- unless I'm looking at the wrong Facebook page.