Monday, May 04, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: The Elements

The text of "The Overcoat," called "The Cloak" in this collection, from Project Gutenberg. (You'll need to do a search for "cloak" or Gogol, since the whole story collection is in one file.)

Just as in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, the St. Petersburg weather plays a significant role in "The Overcoat." The motif of St. Petersburg as a grid imposed upon chaos dates back to Peter the Great, who wanted to construct a "rational," western-European-style city on top of what was essentially swampland. Having been to St. Petersburg, I can tell you the weather is, to put it mildly, changeable; and the futility of trying to give structure to uncooperative nature drives many a Russian tale.

Near the beginning, Gogol suggests--though I don't think this is entirely true--that "The Overcoat" is a story about weather:

There exists in St. Petersburg a powerful foe of all who receive a salary of four hundred rubles a year, or there-abouts. This foe is no other than the Northern cold, although it is said to be very healthy. At nine o'clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for the various official departments, it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses impartially, that the poor officials really do not know what to do with them. At an hour, when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes, the poor titular councillors are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as quickly as possible, in their thin little cloaks, five or six streets, and then warming their feet in the porter's room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service, which had become frozen on the way.

Weather itself takes a back seat later to all the metaphorical weather to which poor Akaky is subject--namely bureaucracy, and the aforementioned cruelty of human nature. Still, I propose a writing experiment in which weather itself drives both plot and characterization. Not necessarily freakish weather (for example, riding out a storm on the high seas), but everyday weather. I'm thinking, for instance, of the Coen brothers' movie Fargo, in which different characters' preparedness for and understanding of snow--that is, endless miles of deep, drifting, relentless snow--signals who ultimately will and won't survive (the Steve Buscemi character being in the latter category).

A human and the weather--an elemental tale in many senses.

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