June 2003

Allyson Blomeley

english majorette

Shinel

Now that the Southern literature course is over, I've developed a hankering for borscht and wool shawls. Yes, my friends: I'm talking about Russia.

I love Russia, and all things Russian (well, except for Tatu, but that's a whole other story). My fascination began seriously evolving about a year and a half ago. It all began with my religion, as most things do: I'm Eastern Orthodox and my patron saint was Russian. I started to learn Russian because of that, and I discovered Russian literature for the same reason. Although frankly, in the end my biggest attraction to learning Russian was so that one day in the future I would be able to flounce around reading books in another language with a non-Latin alphabet.

Shallowness thy name is Allyson.

My dedication could probably use with some tempering. I chose my college because they told me, "Well, we don't teach Russian, and we don't have an official Russia study-abroad program, but what the heck? We'll send you there anyway."

It took a lot of self-control not to hug the study-abroad coordinator on the spot.

Of course, I can't afford to go to Russia at the moment (drat), so let's talk about Russian lit this month, okay? I promise it won't hurt too much. In fact, we'll narrow our focus somewhat to the wonderful Nikolai Gogol.

My first exposure to Gogol was a rather tattered book containing his more known short stories, such as "The Nose," and "The Overcoat," which I checked out from the campus library. Remember: libraries are good places. What immediately struck me with his writing were two things: 1) he was very readable, and 2) he really had a knack when it came to subtle wit and satire. Don't you love that in a man?

So lets talk about "Shinel" ("The Overcoat"). The basic premise is that our hero (sort of) Akaky Akekyevich is a lowly government clerk. He's quiet, he's poor, he's not exactly a muscle man, and by golly, he has the rattiest overcoat on the block. He is slowly saving up the funds to buy a new one, although it has taken him a long time to do so. When he finally has enough money, he buys a new luxurious overcoat. His co-workers arrange a party in honor of his new acquisition. Unfortunately, he is attacked by thieves and robbed on his way home.

So sad.

Going on: he attempts to enlist the aid of an Important Person to retrieve said overcoat, but he is very mean to him and refuses to help. He is so mean, in fact, that Akekyevich dies of fright in three days (and an unhealthy bit of exposure).

Hush, y'all, I can hear your cries of "Wimp!" all the way in North Carolina. Give him a chance.

After Akekyevich dies, the Important Person is attacked one night by a ghost who steals his overcoat. Yes, his overcoat. This ghost - can you guess who the ghost is? - continues to steal other overcoats from other people. However, the ghost of Akekyevich is drastically different from his human form: not only does he steal, but he is also now a burly man with a mustache and big fists.

And that's the story.

No, I'm serious, that's really the story.

Don't believe me? Think I'm spinning tales over here? Well, think about this then: "Shinel" had a very big impact on what Russian literature is today. Gogol is considered the cornerstone of Russia's realistic school of fiction because of this story. Dostoevsky once said, "We all came out from under Gogol's 'Overcoat'." Through this story Gogol created a new form of Russian literature where the underdog is treated not as an object worthy of ridicule, but someone to be treated compassionately and who has just as much claim on happiness as anyone else. Nice, right?

Right. Of course, he was no saint. Few people are. But he was certainly doing something right. So go show Gogol some love. I recommend you start with his short stories and then graduate to Dead Souls. Trust me, you'll appreciate the transition.