I’ve been super busy with school and don’t have time to do much blogging. In the meantime I’ll just post one of my essays for my 19th century Russian literature class. If you haven’t read Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, or in Russian ‘Шинель’ I would recommend it absolutely. Not only because Gogol is brilliant but also so that you can better appreciate my essay.
Akakii Akakiievich’s Fall From Grace
In the Overcoat the story of Akakii Akakiievich’s demise is reminiscent of an Old Testament tale of the birth of mankind. According to the book of Genesis, human mortality came to be when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and was cast out from the blissful Garden of Eden. Both Adam’s and Akakii’s fallen state is the result of their fixation on a simple object, a piece of fruit and an overcoat. These objects replace their simple, pious work with lust, pride and egocentricity. In addition to these sins, these objects bring knowledge of and vulnerability to good and evil, and thus the irreversible loss of blissful oblivion.
The tragedy of Akakii Akakiievich and Adam is not only that their partaking of these objects resulted in death and dejection, but also their irreversible eviction from a state of innocence. In this pre-fallen state, Adam and Akakii are both completely fulfilled and content. In Eden Adam’s work was to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’, and he was given by God, every kind of seed for fruit and vegetables, dominion over the animals, and finally a helpmeet, Eve. (Genesis 1:28) Like Adam, Akakii lives and tills the land of his own little Eden, the ‘diversified and pleasant world’ of transcribing. (205) Within their respective “Edens” Adam and Akakii’s devotion, focus and love is doing their appointed work. And everything harmoniously enables them to do so.
In addition to the fulfillment in work, the gardens shield both Adam and Akakii from the nakedness of their simple lives. The bible tells us that in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 3:1) Nakedness is shameful only when it is exposed to the world outside of oneself. Akakii’s nakedness is in his lowly rank, his pitiful complexion and unfortunate name, and he, like Adam, is oblivious to it. He is so unaware to the world outside himself that as he wanders through the streets garbage falls on to his hat, debris gets stuck to his coat, and it’s only when he collides with a horse that he realizes that ‘he was not in the middle of script, but, rather in the middle of the roadway.’ (206)
The cessation of this edenic incubation is brought about by ‘sundry calamities’, calamities brought about by a petty sin of lust and pride. The fruit for Adam, and the overcoat for Akakii become objects of lust that ultimately divert them from their humble work. Although initially they are hesitant to step outside the comforts of oblivion, they both become enticed by how this object can elevate them. The snake sells his fruit by telling how it will make its partaker ‘like the gods, knowing good and evil.’ (Genesis 3:5)
Petrovich the tailor, similarly, fills Akakii’s simple mind with lofty ideas about a beautiful coat done ‘in the way it’s all the fashion now.’ (213) The heroes’ attempts to elevate themselves result in an ironic fall. They begin to desire above and beyond what their Edens provide and, in a way, they grow out of their incubator, and therefore cannot return to it. These objects brought, as was promised, knowledge of good and evil, and thus, a new level of accountability and vulnerability.
These objects of lust were enticing for a good reason. We learn that the fruit which the snake beguiled Eve to eat was ‘good for food and…pleasant to the eyes.’ (Genesis 3:7) Akakii, too, ‘was a gainer on two points: for one, the overcoat was warm, for the other, it was a fine thing.'(217) As Adam and Akaki obtain the object of their lust ‘their eyes were opened and they perceived that they were naked.’ (Genesis 3:8) Akakii becomes suddenly aware not only of the outside world, but of his nakedness in it. The opinion and ridicule of his coworkers that Akakii was once been oblivious to is replaced by an sense of vulnerability and pride in their presence. When his coworkers congratulate him and praise his coat, ‘he could merely smile, and in a short time became actually embarrassed.’ (217)
The fine print in the appeal of the fruit was that eating it would cause death-mortality. Mortality is a state of enmity with nature’s cruelty, the gravitation to the passions of the flesh and the relentless pull of death. The fruit and blossoms that so readily bloomed in the garden would turn to thorns and thistles. When Adam fell from the garden he falls in among the hostilities of earth’s nature as well as human’s nature, and must fight to survive. God casts him out with this curse: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread until thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken, for earth thou art and to earth thou shalt return.’ (Genesis 3:20)
Akakii too is afflicted by Adam’s curse. Snug in his new overcoat, Akakii ventures into mortality with his new knowledge of good and evil, and becomes aware of pleasures that he had never known before. His soup suddenly gives him delicious pleasure, and he allows himself to loaf a bit after dinner instead of doing work. On the way to mingle with society, Akakii amuses himself with a mildly salacious depiction of a woman revealing her whole leg. These pleasures, although once ‘utterly unfamiliar’ to Akakii, were a product of mortality-his new vulnerability to carnal pleasures for which ‘everyone preserves a certain instinct.’ (218)
But the knowledge and sensitivity to good is always inextricably bound to the knowledge and sensitivity to evil. The fruit was in fact delicious but hard to digest. The very lust and desire that brought Akakii to the overcoat becomes like the cursed earth, bearing hostile thorns and thistles. Thieves steal his coat, a crime for which he can find no justice. And, after losing his beloved overcoat, he is utterly helpless and dejected, unable to combat the harshness of the Petersburg winter. By the sweat of his face he labors to survive in an ominous world and to recover his overcoat, but to no avail. In his death, Akakii, like Adam, returns to the earth and to the existence from which he came to life: ‘a being protected by none, endeared to no one, of no interest to anyone.’ (227)
These tragedies of fallen heroes haunt us and leave us desperately searching for reason behind it all. Akakii’s pitiful tale of woe is a microcosm of the greater implications of the fall. He labors for this goal by the sweat of his face, and in doing so finds new levels of joy and purpose, only to have his hard work be destroyed by thorns and thistles of evil. Adam was the father of mortality, and after many years of toil and suffering, dies leaving behind posterity to toil and suffer. The parallels of Adam and Akakii’s tales are seen in their bliss, their lust, their loss, and in their death. For thousands of years readers of Genesis have been grappling with the same questions that the Overcoat poses: ‘Is the knowledge of good and evil worth the cost of the fall?’ And the greatest trait that these tales share is the absence of answers.
I thought maybe you would want this just to know which translation of the Old Testament I used.
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilyevich. “The Overcoat”. The Portable Nineteenth Century Russian Reader. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Penguin Books, 1993
The Septuagint Bible:
March, E.C. “English Translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible
The Translation of the Greek Old Testament Scriptures, Including the Apocrypha.
Compiled from the Translation by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton 1851”. The Septuagint Bible Online. Oct 19. 2008<http://ecmarsh.com/lxx-kjv/genesis/gen_001.htm>