Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: Justice Done

Here is 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.)

For this writing exercise, I'm borrowing from two living souls, in addition to Gogol. One is Julie Orringer, whose creative writing class I took several years ago; she taught "The Overcoat" to make us think about fiction as a means of dispensing justice. The other is William Flesch, whose recent talk at Stanford also focused on justice in storytelling. He argues that perhaps the most satisfying aspect of storytelling, from a reader's perspective, is "altruistic punishment." Fantasized punishments, in which those who've done wrong come to see the error of their ways, are more appealing than virtue rewarded--though writers must be careful not to take the punishment too far, or we begin to feel sorry for the punishee. (The same dynamic holds for real life.)

Gogol negotiates this balance perfectly, I think, by making the punishment truly fantastical, even with in the context of fiction (which is already fantasy by definition). After our poor hero, Akaky, finally saves enough to buy his new overcoat, and the coat somehow starts to make his whole life better, he's robbed on the street and his coat is stolen. Seeking help, Akaky goes to see a "prominent personage," who, although he appears late in the story, quickly becomes the main villain. The "prominent personage" verbally abuses Akaky so severely that Akaky becomes ill and, after a short time, dies. At this point, we really, really want to see justice done, and Gogol provides. But he also makes Akaky's ghost the instrument of justice, so that we remain just a bit doubtful as to whether the retribution really happens:

Suddenly the important personage felt some one clutch him firmly by the collar. Turning round, he perceived a man of short stature, in an old, worn uniform, and recognised, not without terror, Akaky Akakiyevich. The official's face was white as snow, and looked just like a corpse's. But the horror of the important personage transcended all bounds when he saw the dead man's mouth open, and heard it utter the following remarks, while it breathed upon him the terrible odour of the grave: "Ah, here you are at last! I have you, that--by the collar! I need your cloak. You took no trouble about mine, but reprimanded me. So now give up your own."

The pallid prominent personage almost died of fright. Brave as he was in the office and in the presence of inferiors generally, and although, at the sight of his manly form and appearance, every one said, "Ugh! how much character he has!" at this crisis, he, like many possessed of an heroic exterior, experienced such terror, that, not without cause, he began to fear an attack of illness. He flung his cloak hastily from his shoulders and shouted to his coachman in an unnatural voice, "Home at full speed!" The coachman, hearing the tone which is generally employed at critical moments, and even accompanied by something much more tangible, drew his head down between his shoulders in case of an emergency, flourished his whip, and flew on like an arrow. In a little more than six minutes the prominent personage was at the entrance of his own house. Pale, thoroughly scared, and cloakless, he went home instead of to Karolina Ivanovna's, reached his room somehow or other, and passed the night in the direst distress; so that the next morning over their tea, his daughter said, "You are very pale to-day, papa." But papa remained silent, and said not a word to any one of what had happened to him, where he had been, or where he had intended to go.

This occurrence made a deep impression upon him. He even began to say, "How dare you? Do you realise who is standing before you?" less frequently to the under-officials, and, if he did utter the words, it was only after first having learned the bearings of the matter. But the most noteworthy point was, that from that day forward the apparition of the dead official ceased to be seen. Evidently the prominent personage's cloak just fitted his shoulders. At all events, no more instances of his dragging cloaks from people's shoulders were heard of. But many active and solicitous persons could by no means reassure themselves, and asserted that the dead official still showed himself in distant parts of the city.

So "The Overcoat" dispenses justice, but--this is the key--not too neatly. Akaky suffers just a little too much, and his suffering is not quite redeemed. The punishment for those who hurt him, while seemingly fitting, can't be verified. And it's these imbalances that somehow give the story perfect balance, making it supremely satisfying.

The writing lesson here? When it comes to justice, give with one hand and take away with the other.

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