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Theme of the “Little Man” in Gogol’s The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman

Although rather simple in plot and structure, Gogol’s brief stories carry deep moral messages, which are urgent beyond time and spot. 1 of these is a theme of a small man, who is a poor individual, is not respected by those with greater ranks, and is usually driven to despair by his life conditions. This is a socio-psychological sort of a particular person often pitifully aware of his unimportance, but there often happens a circumstance in which he dares a protest, which ultimately turns out to be fatal for him. As Emily Hopkins noticed (2011), this variety of character functions as a contrast to and victim of an unjust system, which apart from getting unfair is lethal. In his series Petersburg’s Narratives, Gogol created this theme by delving into the character of an ordinary clerk.

The challenging college of life, which Gogol had gone by means of in his early profession, educated him for creation of Nose, Diary of a Madman, Portrait, The Overcoat, and other narrations. Having moved to Saint Petersburg, Gogol was struck by deep social contradictions and tragic catastrophes. By his own experience, he got to know of a poor clerk’s life situations, of the young artists’ circle, and even of the need to have for a new overcoat. This really life experience helped Gogol to show vividly the city of Saint Petersburg with its outer splendor and deep inner social contrasts.

Human and inhuman conditions of life are the major underlying conflicts of Gogol’s brief stories. The author describes Saint Petersburg as a city where human relationships are distorted, where meanness and cruelty triumph over justice and integrity. It is a place where talents have no opportunities to develop. This terrible and insane city becomes a scene of action for Poprishchin’s striking incidents (in Diary of a Madman), and the location where poor Akakiy Akakievitch’s life becomes unbearable (in The Overcoat). 1 of them loses his senses, and the other dies during an unequal fight against the severe conditions of reality.

Diary of a Madman is undoubtedly the most tragic narration from Petersburg’s Narratives. The entire story is told by the hero and author of Diary – Aksentiy Ivanovich Poprishchin, who is a minor official offended by everybody in his department. Poprishchin is of a rather noble origin, but extremely poor and pretends to nothing. His only responsibility is to sharpen his master’s pencils. Poprishchin considers that rank creates reputation, and these with high ranks are honest and respectable in his view. Poprishchin has his personal socially legalized tastes, cultural and political interests, concepts of honor and self-respect, and even habits and cherished dreams. Within this planet, designed by himself, Poprishchin leads a rather self-happy life, paying no heed that this life is actually an outrage upon one’s character and dignity.

Poprishchin’s consciousness is in disorder and he starts asking himself why he is just a titular counselor, why almost everything ideal belongs to generals and to other high-ranking folks. Offended human dignity awakens in Poprishchin and he dares to stir up a rebellion. He entirely loses his explanation and thinks he is a Spanish king. This quite thought appears as a wonderful projection of those distorted conceptions of a world about him. Diary of a Madman is a scream of protest against the unfair moral principles of a globe exactly where everything is confused, exactly where intelligence and justice are violated. Poprishchin is each a item and a victim of this world. By generating his protagonist a minor official Gogol tries to open the comic and pitiful traits of his inner world, and to reveal the tragic feeling of pain and anger at social inequality.

Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmachkin (The Overcoat) also becomes a victim of poverty and lawlessness it is Petersburg with its injustice that leaves Bashmachkin to the mercy of fate. Gogol himself describes he hero as a perpetual titular councilor, over whom, as is well recognized, some writers make merry, and crack their jokes, obeying the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who can not bite back. The author does not conceal his ironic grin when describing narrow-mindedness and wretchedness of the protagonist. This assists us to comprehend the common nature of Akakiy Akakievitch as that of a timid, crushed man, a dumb becoming enduring the mockeries of his colleagues. And it was fate’s will that a wish for a new overcoat captivated such a person. This fact bears irony, as such a easy every day point as an overcoat is one thing extraordinary for a minor official. When Bashmachkin is robbed of his new overcoat, in a burst of despair he turned to a prominent personage, who becomes in The Overcoat a generalized image of overbearing and useless authority. It the scene at the general’s that most strongly displays the social tragedy of a small man. From the prominent personage’s study an virtually motionless Akakiy Akakievich is carried out. Only right after his death does he dare to stage a rebellion: he appears as a ghost, seeking a stolen overcoat at evening and dragging overcoats with no regard to rank or calling from everyone’s shoulders.

Both narratives have no clear boundaries in between thoughts and insanity, between life and death. In the end we see not just a small man we see a human, who is solitary, hesitating, deprived of safety, and in require of sympathy. We can neither judge a tiny man nor justify him, given that he calls for both compassion and mockery. That is the way Gogol describes this paradoxical, oddly immortal type of character.


Hopkins, Emily (2011) “The Small Man and the Masses: Expression, Form and Politics in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings,” Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate of Musiology: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Report 2.
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