After I finished reading The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, I pulled my copy of the collected stories of Nikolai Gogol off the shelf to read a story that is referenced throughout The Namesake. “The Overcoat” is one of Nikolai Gogol’s most famous stories*. I wanted to know how the two stories fit together, because The Namesake was clearly in dialogue with “The Overcoat.” I’m very glad I did because reading Gogol helped me understand Lahriri’s Gogol Ganguli and his function much better.
Besides, a little more reading never hurt anything.
Akaky Akakievich, the hapless protagonist of “The Overcoat,” is in a predicament to Lahiri’s Gogol. Akaky is a man with a circumscribed life. He is a copyist, who creates copies of important documents for his unnamed Imperial Russian government bureau. Nothing in his life changes. He doesn’t want it to. Except, his cheap overcoat has worn thin across the back and he freezes when he goes outside. After much badgering from his proud tailor, Akaky finds the money to purchase good fabric. This coat makes him a new man. His coworkers stop picking on him. He notices the world around him instead of huddling against the wind. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to enjoy his new, warm overcoat for long. It is stolen and Akaky is unable to retrieve it. No one will help him and, in the admired tradition of Russian novels, he dies a pitiful death.
As I read “The Overcoat,” I returned to a question I had had all through The Namesake: are these novels trying to tell us that it is futile to reinvent ourselves? Gogol Ganguli never really escapes his family and heritage as an Indian American, though he does come to accept it at last. Akaky dies after his brief moment in the sun and never realizes his transformation. As a white American, raised on the myths of American exceptionalism and the cult of individualism, I had a hard time with the idea that both Lahiri and Nikolai Gogol’s thesis that reinvention is impossible.
Of the two, The Namesake is clearly the gentler story**. Gogol Ganguli won’t be the model son his parents wished for, but he has found a way to live in between his Bengali and American lives. Akaky, if you believe the story at the end of “The Overcoat,” only manages to get a demented kind of revenge as a ghost after he dies—though I suppose you could call that a kind of reinvention.
But, the more I reflected on the two stories, the more I confronted what I had been told for most of my life. It might be nice to imagine that we can sever ties with the person we were before, if we are truly unhappy, but we will always carry something of our past with is. There will always be someone who remembers our embarrassing nicknames***. Even if a person changes their name and their appearance, moves away, and disconnects from everyone that might know that nickname, we still have the memories of who we were and how we came to be who we are. Judging by the sense of comfort and relief Gogol Ganguli feels at the end of The Namesake, growing a sense of self that blends old and new is healthier than running away.
Still, what I am I to make of “The Overcoat”? At one point, Gogol Ganguli’s father tells him that we call from from “The Overcoat.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, not at first. Akaky died a bad, unnecessary death at the end of his story, seemingly as a punishment for getting above himself. And yet, the best moments of Akaky’s life are when he has his new coat. Some amount of change is necessary to be more than just a copy of our parents. But changing all at once, without thinking through the implications? That’s when things get dangerous.
At last, I began to see The Namesake and “The Overcoat” not as cautions against individualism and reinvention, but as questions about becoming and grow. These processes are slow. They are often painful. But if we can take what we want from the old and blend it with the new that we need, we can be something unique and lovely in the world.
** This isn’t to say that I didn’t like “The Overcoat.” Far from it, actually. I love Gogol’s warped sense of humor and laughed more than once as I read the story.
*** My mother still occasionally calls me Annie Booski, the name I created for myself when I was about 3, to mess with me. It will never not be funny to her.