Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unsatisfiable Desire

An image of wealth is almost more important that actual wealth, but is it only the image that creates the euphoria? The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol is a commentary on the human condition and the inability to find satisfaction once something of greater luxury has been introduced.

The most common example of this case is that of a baby who is given a rattle. The baby is very happy with the rattle and enjoys playing with it, but a bigger and better toy is then given to the baby. The baby likes the new toy and plays with it. The new toy is then taken away, and the rattle is returned to the baby. The baby no longer wants the rattle. This idea of humans. once shaken by something new and better, never fully satisfying their desires is human nature. Gogol creates an embodiment of humanity within Akaky Akakievich.

First we must examine the name Akaky Akakievich. Akaky Akak(y)evich is almost redundant, with the sound of a repeated name, and to stress this we are told that he was given his father's name. Upon looking up Akaky's name, I discovered two similarities in the russian language. The sound kak in Russian means "like" (tak kak means "just as" or "just like"). This idea of likeness and sameness is only further built upon when we remember that Akaky is a clerk and is personally unable to do anything other than copy. Gogol proceeds to drive this idea home by telling of a time when Akaky was offered the job of modifying a document. Upon receiving the instruction, he began to sweat profusely and said at 'at last' "No I'd rather copy something." The second similarity in the Russian language is a set of words: "okakat", "obkakat", and "kakatj." The first two are of similar meaning: "to beshit" or "to cover with excrement" while the second, often used by children, comes from the Greek work cacos meaning bad or evil and has taken on the meaning "to defecate." All of these ideas bring home the idea that Akaky is both the same and single minded, but also "crapped on" or treated like garbage.

All that said, Akaky is the image of a lowly human being. Akaky must survive on very little money and does it while content, but when his coat is deemed ruined, he must allot for purchasing a new one. He spends many weeks saving up for his new overcoat while running in the cold and skipping entire meals. He even gives up the use of his candle at night and must borrow the landlady's light at night.

During the process, Akaky is able to choose the fabrics and various parts of his new overcoat, helping to solidify the idea both in the readers' and Akaky's mind that this is his overcoat. Upon dawning the overcoat, Akaky is excited to see it fits and he immediately heads out. In a "gay holiday mood" he briskly walks with a constant awareness of the overcoats lying on his shoulders. He even "laughed [several times] from inward satisfaction."

After arriving to the office, Akaky is greeted with a completely different mentality than before. The very people who used to treat him badly all treated him well and congratulated him; this new overcoat created a change in Akaky's person. One of the clerks invites Akaky to his home for a party that night and, feeling changed, he accepts the invitation.

On his way to the party, Akaky begins to notice the things around him for the first time. He had not been in the streets so late in years and it was all a novelty to him. Stopping at a lighted shop window he noticed a picture of a woman taking off a shoe, and he noticed her "shapely leg" and a man with a handsome imperial on his chin with his head through the doorway. Never before had Akaky noticed women. This new overcoat had opened his eyes and the doors of possibility for Akaky and suddenly desire had founds its way into his heart.

Just like Mathilda in The Necklace though, all dreams must come to an end. On his way home from the party, Akaky has his overcoat taken from him by a thug. After this happens Akaky goes into an uncontrollable panic searching long and hard for his overcoat. He visits several men in power but when noone is willing to help him, Akaky becomes very sick and eventually dies. He is unable to live without what he had gained. This speaks volumes on the human condition. Like the baby, Akaky was given something better, but he could not live without it, and unable to pursue more, he died.