THE OVERCOAT by Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol

the overcoatDo you remember that in The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which you will find here,  the young man who would become the father of the titular namesake, while on an overnight train ride was reading Gogol’s short story The Overcoat,  which saved his life because he stayed up to read it?  Of course, you do.   He then gives his son the name Gogol as a pet name.

Ok, so I went ahead and read the story.  Well, you have to, right?  You can’t just let that whole thing slide.  Because what if it connects to The Namesake on another level, and then we would have missed it.

Written in 1842, and set in Petersburg, Russia, it stars a mundane copiest, Akaky Akaklievich, which name the author tells us

The reader will perhaps find that somewhat strange and farfetched, but he can be assured that it was not fetched at all, but that circumstances occurred of themselves as made it quite impossible to give him any other name, and here is precisely how it came about.

Yahoo!  We’ve found it …. the connection to The Namesake, to the boy with the strange name.  I am so excited.  OK, it happened thus:

Akaky Akakievich was born, if memory serves me, during the night of the twenty-third of March.  His late mother, a clerk’s widow and a very good woman, decided, as was fitting, to have the baby baptized.  The mother was still lying in bed opposite the door, and to her right rood the godfather, a most excellent man, Ivan Ivanovich Yeroskhin, who serviced as a chief clerk in the Senate, and the godmother, the wife of a police officer, a woman of rare virtue, Arina Semyonovna Belobriushkova.

The new mother was offered a choice of any of three names, whichever she wished to choose; Mokky, Sossy, or to name the baby after the martyr Khozdazat.  “No,” thought the late woman, “what sort of names are those?”  To please her, they opened the calendar to another place;  again three names came out:  Trifily, Dula. amd Varaljasu-  “What a punishment,” the old woman said.  “Such names, really, I’ve never heard the like.  If only it were Varadat or Varukh, not Trifily and Varakhasy.”

They turned another page: out came Pavsikakhy and Vakhtisy.  “Well, I see now,” the old woman said, “it’s evidently his fate.  If so, better let him be named after his father.  His father was Akaky, so let the son also be Akay.”

We have told it so that the reader could see for himself that it happened entirely from necessity and that to give him any other name was quite impossible.

Akaky becomes a copiest, an excellent copiest and he loves his job.  He loves it so much that he even brings work home to his humble room.  Akaky is not very prosperous, but he doesn’t care.  He is happy in his life.  However, he begins to notice that the overcoat which he has always worn is now completely threadbare.  It does not keep out the cold nor the snow nor rain.  He takes it to a tailor to repair.  The tailor tells him there is nothing more to be done.  It is beyond fixing.  He must have a new one.

Akaky, after scrimping and saving for some time, finally has enough money for a new coat which the tailor makes for him.  And it is a beauty.  It is such a beauty that one of the bosses at his work decides to have a celebratory party in its honor, and for the first time in years, Akaky goes out at night — in his new splendid overcoat, of course — to the party where he drinks alcoholic beverages to which he is not at all accustomed.  Late at night, on his way home on foot, he is accosted and robbed of his beautiful coat.

The next day he tries to report the theft, but is put off by the bureaucracy, one of whom tells him he needs to approach some self-styled  important man.  This functionary, trying to impress a visitor, puts Akaky off, berating him for bothering such an important person such as himself.

Akaky catches a dreadful illness from being out in the freezing winter night, and dies a few days later.

Shortly thereafter, an unknown personage begins to grab at the coats of passersby near the place where he was robbed. The rumor spread around the city that a dead man had begun to appear at night in the form of a clerk searching for some stolen overcoat, and pulling the coats off the shoulders of the lucky wearers.

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.

Which of course they never did.

A delightful, if a little bit sad, story, and if we can rely on the translation, a gently humorous one, as well.

Do read it.  I only gave you the bones — and ghost — of the story.




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