Book Club Discussion: Nikolai V. Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

Professor Gary R. Jahn, Univ. of Minnesota, Facilitator

A native of Minneapolis, Professor Gary Jahn earned his Ph.D. in Russian Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  After stints at St. Olaf College and the State University of New York at Buffalo, he joined the University of Minnesota, where he has been teaching undergraduate and graduate –level Russian Language and Literature courses for over 30 years.

Professor Jahn is a recipient of numerous teaching awards and research positions, and has published extensively, with particular emphasis on the works of Leo Tolstoy, not to mention the harrowing subject of Russian Conjugation and Declension.

Questions/Topics for Discussion:

  • Who is Akaky Akakyevich Bashmachkin?  What sort of person is he?  How does he change (or remain the same) after he receives his new overcoat?
  • How does the anonymous narrator color the story?  What is his attitude toward Akaky?  Toward the Civil Service in which Akaky works?
  • How is Akaky’s isolation conveyed?
  • At one point, thoughts of his new overcoat are described as providing Akaky  “spiritual nourishment.”  What other spiritual/supernatural allusions and elements are present in the story?  How does Petrovich the tailor figure in this discussion?
  • Who is the Very Important Person?  What does he represent?
  • At the very end of the story, the overcoat-thieving ghost terrorizing St. Petersburg is clearly described as Akaky, but also as having an enormous fist (like Akaky’s assailant).  What do you make of this?
  • Is the story funny?  Tragic?  Ridiculous?  How so?

Historical Context

  • “The Overcoat” was written in 1841 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I.   The Tsar’s suppression of the Decembrist uprising in 1825 inaugurated an age of reactionary policies.  In 1833, Nicholas’ minister of education coined the slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality,” which became the primary ideological doctrine of Nicholas’ reign.  Do you think this doctrine is reflected in the story?  How?  Could one argue that certain aspects of the story foreshadow Russia’s Soviet future?  Explain.

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