Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Overcoat" (and more on The Namesake)

The Namesake (see previous post) makes multiple references to Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Professional scholars of literature have special terminology for such reference. “Allusion” is one term, but the other is “intertextuality,” the latter suggesting a closer relationship between the two texts besides one merely mentioning the other. Just as Beloved (see previous posts) can be understood in a larger context of mythological and Biblical traditions, so The Namesake can be read, not only in the context of the hero’s quest myth and coming of age stories, but also, given the significance that Nikolai Gogol plays in the narrative, in relationship to the Russian writer’s works.

Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, the main character of “The Overcoat” is the son of a native Russian family who lives and works in St. Petersburg. Gogol’s short story is not a multicultural one of immigration and assimilation, but it is a story of identity. Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, however, Akakiy Akakievitch does not have to struggle with multiple identities. Quite the opposite. He struggles to achieve any sense of identity at all.

Both narratives include a scene in which the main character receives his birth name, Gogol, after the Russian writer, and Akakiy, after his own father. In each case, the main character receives his name somewhat as an afterthought, without careful intention, though the name “Gogol” has special significance to Gogol’s father, whereas Akakiy receives his name more or less by default, other choices suggested by his godparents having been rejected by his mother. Gogol’s father is a major presence and influence in his life, but Akakiy’s father never appears in the story at all and is never referred to except in the naming scene.

We do know that Akakiy’s father was a government official, and Akakiy himself is a “perpetual titular councilor” in an unnamed government department who seems to live in complete isolation without family or friends. At work he is an object of derision when he is recognized at all. His job consists of copying documents, like a human Xerox machine. He is so devoted to his work that he takes it home with him, apparently having nothing else to live for. When asked to do anything slightly original, he begs to be given his copying tasks back. Other than an occasional pathetic outburst when the ridicule by his peers at work becomes too much, Akakiy is as nameless and faceless as the government bureaucracy in which he toils.

Only when Akakiy’s overcoat becomes so worn that it can no longer keep out the cold, does he begin to show an interest in anything outside of work. He bargains with the tailor to get a good price, scrimps, sacrifices, and goes without in order to save up enough money, and is eventually able to acquire a handsome new coat. His new attire brings unaccustomed attention, congratulations, and pleasantries from his coworkers. They insist the coat must be “christened” (as Akakiy was after his name was decided upon) and invite him to a party. This “christening” party offers symbolic hope that Akakiy might receive a new identity and a new life.

At the party, he is overwhelmed by the noise and sociability, drinks more than he is used to, and stays up well past his usual bedtime. On the way home through dark and deserted streets, he is accosted and robbed of his attractive new coat (his new identity?). He tries to assert himself, seeking help from the night watchman and the next night from the district of police and finally from a “certain prominent personage.” But they all rebuff him, insisting that he has not followed proper procedures or filled out the proper forms, and then, heading home in a snowstorm wearing his old coat, he catches a fever, grows delirious, and finally breathes his last.

At this point Gogol’s somewhat “realistic” story, though a bit bizarre, to say the least, turns into a gothic tale, for a dead man, resembling Akakiy, begins to be seen on the Kalinkin Bridge accosting passersby and stealing their coats. Eventually Akakiy takes his final revenge, as his ghost steals the coat of that “prominent personage” who had treated him so rudely, an event that somewhat humbles the behavior of that “prominent personage.” Meanwhile, the ghost disappears and is seen no more.

Symbolically, the ghost could be said to represent the regrets of all those who had abused Akakiy in life, including the “prominent personage,” who had felt some temporary remorse after mistreating the poor copyist in search of his overcoat. Or the ghost could function as a kind of revenge fantasy for all those nameless, faceless civil servants performing their mechanical tasks in their unknown bureaucratic departments, suffering daily slights and abuses from their superiors and coworkers alike. Or perhaps the ghost is poor Akakiy’s buried humanity, his only identity, finally asserting itself postmortem.

Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, on a quest for self-definition among competing identities, Akakiy seeks only to provide himself with the basic necessities of survival and to preserve some semblance of human dignity. By comparison, Gogol’s “identity crisis” seems like self-indulgence, a luxury afforded only to the fortunate.

Or, does the significance lie in the difference between the burdens bequeathed to them by their fathers: Gogol carrying the name of the Russian writer whose book, Gogol’s father believes, had once saved his life, and the legacy of his Bengali immigrant experience in the U.S.; Akakiy carrying the name of a silent, faceless, absent father with no legacy at all to pass on to his son? Better a complicated legacy from one’s past than none at all? Perhaps the intertextual relationship between the two works is one more of contrast than similarity.

Another major contrast is the style of the two works. The Namesake relates its story in an understated, matter-of-fact manner that makes the unusual multicultural experience of the Ganguli family seem ordinary. “The Overcoat,” on the other hand, for all Nikolai Gogol’s reputation as a realist, is exclamatory, melodramatic, and fantastic in style, making the unremarkable life of a minor Russian bureaucrat seem extraordinary.

Regardless of the contrasts, both stories dramatize the universal dilemma of identity, whether it be culturally complex or a matter of simple humanity.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Namesake

This 2003 novel by Jhumpa Lahiri captures both late 20th century American immigrant experience and a timeless coming of age narrative, with all the complexities, conflicts, confusions, and compromises that both stories entail.

The immigration of an Indian family to the American Northeast is complicated by the father’s love of Russian literature and the somewhat accidental naming of his son after Nikolai Gogol, transforming an immigration and assimilation story into one of more broadly multicultural significance. The three cultures-- Indian, American, and Russian—could hardly be more different. Yet Gogol must navigate himself and his identity through these conflicting shoals of influence to find his way toward authentic selfhood.

His parents were joined in a traditional arranged marriage and remained faithful to each other throughout their life together. Gogol and his sister, born and raised in the U.S., marry for romantic love. Gogol, by the time he marries, has already engaged in pre-marital sexual relationships, including an affair with a married woman. His own marriage to another second-generation Bengali immigrant ends in divorce after he learns of her adulterous affair.

Marital fidelity is just one manifestation of a larger fidelity theme—fidelity to the past, family, and cultural heritage, not to mention one’s name. Gogol resents his name, and, it seems, his Indian heritage, which sets him apart from his American peers. He loves his parents, though, and constantly struggles between loyalty to them and rebellion against them.

At an early age, he rejects the formal name, Nikhil, that his parents seek to bestow on him, preferring Gogol, but later, as an adolescent he comes to hate the name Gogol and eventually changes his legal name to Nikhil. Such is the confusion and conflict that plagues his struggle to define his own identity, as a Bengali, as an American, and as the son of a father who reveres a Russian writer.

Grief-stricken by his father’s sudden death, Gogol finds consolation in his family and Indian heritage. Later he falls in love with, and marries, a Bengali woman, whom he has known from childhood, after his mother urges him to call her, a kind of compromise between a traditional arranged marriage and a Western style romantic marriage. They even observe the traditional Bengali wedding rituals.

Though Gogol is the main protagonist, the novel is structured by shifting points of view--from the perspective of his mother as a newly married woman in a strange country, where her husband is an engineering student at MIT, to his own perspective as a youth and young man finding his way in his multicultural world, to the perspective of his Bengali wife, Moushumi, a feminist studying for her doctorate in French literature (yet another cultural influence in Gogol’s life).

This organization throws into relief the contrast, not only between first and second generation immigrants, but also between the traditional Indian wife and the modern “liberated” wife. It’s hard to say which is the greater burden—obedience and fidelity or modernity and liberation.

In the end, Gogol, having rejected two serious Western girlfriends and divorced his Bengali wife, seeks reconciliation with his past, his family, his culture, and his namesake. At the age of 32, for the first time, he opens the book by Nikolai Gogol his father had given him long before and begins to read.

We can only speculate on how the young man will come to terms with all that he has inherited, all that he has chosen, all that he has become, and all that he may yet be. What one hopes is that he will come to accept himself as a global citizen.