Every nation in the world has poor people. Some of these people are unable to work, some cannot find work, and others work in jobs which do not provide much income or any additional benefits. In the US, we refer to these people are “the working poor”. These people earn too much money to receive any additional support, but not enough money to be able to provide for all of their basic necessities. Many of these people are forced to choose between paying rent and buying food. In some cases they are able to receive government assistance to buy food, but if they are required to take any medication they often cannot afford that.
This situation is certainly not limited to the US. In Russia, this situation has also been common for many decades. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote about this in his story, Poor Folk, and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) wrote about this in The Overcoat.
The plot of this story is rather simple. It is a story about a poor Russian official named Akakii Akakievich, a rather pathetic figure. Akakii lives entirely for his duties as a copier. His co-workers laugh at him and abuse him. He often has bits and pieces of filth on his uniform due to his “peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish are being flung out of it.” Akakii’s coat is threadbare and he is finally forced to have a new overcoat sewn for him by Petrovich the Tailor. The cost of the overcoat is exorbitant for Akakii, but he scrimps and saves, denying himself food and other basic necessities until he is able to purchase the coat. Overnight, he becomes respectful. His co-workers fawn over his beautiful, new coat – and even throw him a lavish party in celebration. However, disaster falls upon Akakii … his joy is short lived when the coat is stolen.
Gogol’s short story takes an interesting twist as Akakii seeks help to recover the overcoat – going first to the police and then a “very important person.” He is lost amid a barrage of bureaucracy:
“Don’t you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don’t you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me.” -from The Overcoat-
The Overcoat is a story about a common man who is beneath everyone (much is made in the beginning about Akakii’s name which comes close to the Russian word kaka – translated as “poop”), but who rises in esteem simply upon the purchase of an overcoat. He falls again with the loss of this possession, and must appeal to the government for assistance – which does not come. Gogol pokes fun at those in power, showing them to be insubstantial and shallow despite their titles. He allows Akakii to come out on top – demonstrating it is not material gain which grants one power.1
Akakii Akakievich is not an unusual character. It is a very common experience to meet people whose job is rather mundane and who becomes overwhelmed when dealing with bureaucracy. Gogol wrote several stories dealing with government bureaucrats. In his stories The Nose and Diary of a Madman he wrote about St. Petersburg government officials. These are not very flattering stories.
One major challenge with bureaucracy is that the bureaucrats often operate as though they are taking money out of their own wallet when someone comes to them for help. Also, they often do not think for themselves. They often fail to take into consideration that they are dealing with human beings. This is very apparent in regard to Akakii’s dealing with the “very important person’, a retired general. Instead of receive the help he needed, he is attacked for not “going through the proper channels”.
It would have taken no effort at all for this general to offer this man some help, but he chose to scold him for some remarks that Akakii made about department secretaries. As a result of being beaten in the freezing weather and the scolding he received from the general, Akakii becomes ill with a fever and is dying. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the VIP, who is again scolding him. At first, Akakii pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.2
While it is true that bureaucrats have to deal with numerous people throughout the day, this does not justify treating anyone that the meet as less than human. For many people there is a certain level of embarrassment having to go to the government for help. The fact that their sense of personal dignity has been taken away by having to go for such help is bad enough, but it is even worse when this person is then treated as almost subhuman once they ask for help.
Gogol makes this point by informing us that Akakii’s ghost began haunting certain areas of St. Petersburg and steals the coats of various people. Then his ghost confronts the general who is terrified at the sight. Having felt satisfied by the general’s response, this ghost is never seen again.
Every action does have consequences. Apparently, the general became aware of the fact that he had treated Akakii poorly and regretted it, but, by that point, it was too late. There are many people who believe in karma. Karma is defined as an action seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or after being reincarnated.3 There is an American idiom which states, “What goes around comes around” which is the same idea as karma. Whether a person believes in karma or not, treating someone as subhuman cannot be justified.
The poor have enough personal difficulties without being mistreated by those who are in a position to help them. Nikolai Gogol was a very sensitive soul who struggled with poverty at various times in his life. In fact, his finances were so bad that he did not leave enough money for his own funeral. It is due to the fact that Gogol actually experienced poverty which made him particularly sensitive to the poor.
It is sad that Akakii becomes respectable only after buying a new overcoat. He has not change as a person, but simply by purchasing a coat he is now considered a human being who is unworthy of being made fun of. He is not a person because who he is, but because of what he has. This shameful materialism is still alive and well. Human dignity is still equated with material possessions. This is sad dynamic of human nature which seems to be getting worse with every successive generation. Hopefully, this trend can be eventually be reversed.
1) “The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol—A Short Story Review” http://www.caribousmom.com/2008/03/01/the-overcoat-by-nikolai-gogol-short-story-review/ (accessed 5/22/12)
2) "The Overcoat” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Overcoat (accessed 5/22/12)
3) “Karma” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/karma (accessed 5/22/12)