by Nikolai Gogol
The Overcoat Introduction
In A Nutshell
Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. Kafka. Nabokov. Heard of 'em? We could go on, but naming the people influenced by Gogol and this story is like listing a literary Who's Who. Gogol is probably one of the most famous and influential Russian authors of all time and "The Overcoat" is his claim to fame. But why is everyone making such a ruckus about the short story whose main character is named after poop? Good question; let's get to the bottom of it.
Let's start at the beginning. It took Gogol two years to write the nearly 13,000 words that make up "The Overcoat." The story about a low ranking official who gains and loses a fine coat was published in a volume of Gogol's Collected Works in 1842. By this time, Gogol was already well established in the Russian literary scene. He was besties with people like Pushkin and the famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, so when his collection was released, "The Overcoat" and the other stories were well received by a wide audience.
But "The Overcoat" took on a life of its own. Belinsky—one of the most influential Russian literary critics of the time—praised it for innovating a new kind of naturalist literature, which was different from the romantic and rhetorical literature that dominated Russia at the time (for more on that, check out the Genre section). A wave of authors took up Gogol's style, heralding the beginning of a new literary movement, one that would eventually even be endorsed by the Soviet government, and they weren't always the easiest to impress. This little story became so influential that none other than the great Fyodor Dostoevsky said: "We all come out of Gogol's overcoat."
Besides all this fancy pants literary stuff, Gogol's "Overcoat" has had pretty significant influence on popular culture. Movies, plays, ballets, animations, even mime acts have been based on the story. The adaptations just keep on coming, too, with books as recent as 2003's novel The Namesake pulling its inspiration largely from this story. Who would have thought that 160 years later, a short story by a Ukrainian man with irritable bowels would have influenced an Indian American woman and been made into a movie? That's just as fantastic as the plot of "The Overcoat."
Why Should I Care?
We all know the plot of The Revenge of the Nerds…right? If not, let us remind you: The quiet, weak, nerdy guys rise up against the popular, strong jocks. They become the new popular kids and get to date the cheerleaders. Great. We all love to see the underdogs win.
But what if it weren't so great? What if the nerds realized that they actually didn't want the cheerleaders for girlfriends? Or what if they realized that they prefer staying in with a book instead of partying all night long?
Well, that's the dilemma that Gogol presents to us in "The Overcoat." Akaky finally gains entry into the exclusive social world of St. Petersburg, but it's not all that it's cracked up to be. He'd rather be at home copying papers. But it's already too late when Akaky realizes this, and (spoiler alert) he ends up dying because of his mistake.
So, isn't it great being popular? Not all of the time.