Since I am (was) attempting to write 52 bad stories, I also thought it would be good to read 52 good stories. I am reading through The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn. If you are looking for an anthology of classic short stories that will make you swoon or want to through the book out the window in turn, this is your anthology. While I am mostly going through the book in order, I should note that I did read some out of order for Black History Month in February and my April Short Story a day posts for the April A to Z Blog Challenge.
The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
Gogol, a seminal figure of modern Russian fiction, presents a bleakly comic vision of everyday life that became the basis for Russian Realsizm. Fydor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Leo Tolstoy have all been credited with the famous remark, “We all come out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ “
The Overcoat is the tale of a copy clerk, Akaky Akakievich. He is single, and his only hobby is to continue to do his copying at home after work. Clerks in Russia were not paid well, but his supervisor gave him a generous bonus, as Akaky did not make errors. Akaky takes his worn overcoat to his tailor, who will not longer mend it. “You have to have something to put a patch on!” The tailor convinces Akaky that he will need to get a new overcoat.
After scrimping and saving, Akaky manages to get his new overcoat. It is beautiful, and his coworkers convince him he needs to go out and celebrate his new purchase. On his way home after the revelry, his overcoat is stolen.
Loss of his beloved overcoat and a scolding by a Very Important Person, as well as the bitter cold, end the life of Akaky. His ghost then appears to steal the overcoats of others.
Akaky as a character is sad, and it is Gogol’s genius that the reader cares deeply for this sad little man. We know people like this, even today, who cannot catch a break at all. Gogol describes Akaky, and it is not unlike a description of Gogol in the introduction. Did Gogol feel his life was dull and unlucky, like that of his character? Did Gogol experience such absurdity in his own life? I am sure there are graduate students and papers that explore that question, but I will not spend time looking for them at the moment.