Q. Define Psychological Realism. Identify examples of psychological realism in “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol.
Psychological realism is a literary movement that emerged in the 19th century, rooted in Romanticism and Realism. It is characterized by focusing on the inner workings of characters’ minds, emotions, and motivations.
It strives for a more profound and accurate representation of human experience by exploring the inner lives of their characters. Literary works across genres, from novels to short stories, poetry, and drama, demonstrate psychological realism.
Psychological Realism in The Overcoat
Psychological realism focuses on the complexities of characters’ inner lives. It reveals their subjective experiences, emotions, and mental processes in The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol.
Thompson and Gassner say, “Realism in the works of a Flaubert or a Maupassant had brain, but realism in the works of Russian masters had a heart”.
Gogol’ is classified as ‘one of the chief masters of early realism’, who gained his full stature ‘only when he began to write out of pity and grief that overwhelmed him.
Characteristics of Psychological Realism
1- In-depth character analysis
2- Focus on subjective experience
3- The complexity of human nature
4- Social and cultural context
Psychological realism delves deep into the characters’ minds, exploring their motivations, desires, and fears.
1- In-depth Character Analysis
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol provides several instances of in-depth character analysis, revealing Akaky Akakievich’s motivations, desires, and fears.
Akaky’s dedication to his work: Gogol describes Akaky’s meticulousness and devotion to his work as a copyist, even though it is repetitive and monotonous. This dedication is evident in the following passage.
No matter how much the director spoke with him about it, no matter how much the head of the department explained it, he always responded: ‘I’ll be happy to do it,’ and went on copying without looking up.
This passage showcases Akaky’s unwavering commitment to his work, despite others attempting to engage him in other tasks or conversations.
Akaky’s initial indifference to ridicule: Akaky’s coworkers often mock him because of his appearance and obsessive focus on his work. The text describes his initial reaction to the mockery.
At first, it seemed strange to him that he was the subject of such relentless laughter and teasing from his colleagues, whom he had always considered intelligent, sensible people, but then he became used to it.
This instance highlights Akaky’s reflective nature and ability to adapt to his environment, even when faced with ridicule.
Akaky’s emotional response to the overcoat: The narrative delves into Akaky’s thoughts and feelings as he becomes increasingly excited about the prospect of a new overcoat. His obsession with the overcoat is evident in this passage.
His heart, generally quiet, began to beat. As soon as he took the cloth and paid the advance for the labor, everything suddenly seemed to change for him. It was as if, in place of his old life, another newer life had begun, a life more in harmony with the overcoat.
This passage shows the emotional transformation Akaky experiences with the prospect of a new overcoat. It indicates the importance of this garment as a symbol of personal and social change.
2- Focus on Subjective Experience
The narrative often emphasizes the characters’ perceptions and emotions, providing a window into their subjective experiences. This can lead to an unreliable narrator or characters whose thoughts and feelings are more important than the events.
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol focuses on the subjective experiences of Akaky Akakievich, emphasising his perceptions and emotions.
Akaky’s attachment to his old overcoat: Gogol describes Akaky’s emotional connection with his old overcoat, highlighting the subjective importance of the garment to him.
So attached was he to his old overcoat, so fond of it had he grown, so used to it had he become during those eight years that it seemed to him that if they were to take it away from him, a piece of his self would go with it.
This passage reveals Akaky’s perspective on his old overcoat, portraying it as an extension of his identity.
Akaky’s excitement about the new overcoat: Gogol delves into Akaky’s subjective experience as he eagerly anticipates the completion of his new overcoat:
It seemed to him that the time passed with a special slowness, and he even began to think that the director had forgotten the date he had set, or perhaps, God forbid, he was ill.
This passage demonstrates the heightened importance Akaky places on the new overcoat, showing how his anticipation affects his perception of time.
Akaky’s pride and joy in wearing the new overcoat: When Akaky finally receives his new overcoat, Gogol captures his emotions and subjective experience.
Akaky Akakievich could hardly recognize himself in his happiness. His heart swelled with joy, and he could hardly contain his feelings, so overwhelming was his gratitude to his colleagues and, most of all, to the director.
This passage reveals the overcoat’s profound impact on Akaky’s emotional state, illustrating how this simple garment transforms his subjective experience.
3- The Complexity of Human Nature
Psychological realism highlights the complexity of human nature, acknowledging that people can be irrational, contradictory, and multifaceted. Characters are often flawed, with rich inner lives that may contradict their external actions.
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol emphasizes the complexity of human nature, portraying Akaky Akakievich as a multifaceted and flawed character.
Akaky’s simple nature and obliviousness: Gogol describes Akaky’s lack of awareness about his social surroundings, showing his simplicity and naivete.
He did not even suspect that they were laughing at him and calling him names; he did not know that he was considered the office drudge, the one who was to be sent on errands and could be teased with impunity.
This passage illustrates the complexity of Akaky’s character, revealing his innocent nature and lack of social awareness.
Akaky’s growing obsession with the overcoat: As Akaky becomes increasingly fixated on the idea of a new overcoat, Gogol shows the emergence of a previously unseen side of his character.
The thought of the overcoat took possession of his whole being. The more the tailor described the overcoat, the more he felt that he must have it, that it was absolutely indispensable to him.
This passage highlights the change in Akaky’s mindset, showing how his once simple and content character becomes consumed by a material desire.
Akaky’s assertiveness in requesting his stolen overcoat: When Akaky’s new overcoat is stolen, he musters the courage to report the theft to an important person, revealing another layer of his character.
Your Excellency,’ he said, ‘I have come to you with a request.’ Then, in a trembling voice, he told him his misfortune, how the overcoat had been stolen and how everyone had advised him to report it to him.
This instance shows Akaky’s determination and assertiveness, demonstrating his willingness to stand up for himself when faced with adversity.
4- Social and Cultural Context
Psychological realism considers how social, cultural, and historical contexts shape characters’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The narrative may explore themes related to class, gender, and power dynamics.
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol incorporates the social and cultural context of 19th-century Russia. It illustrates how these factors shape Akaky Akakievich’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
The importance of social status: The story highlights the significance of social status in 19th-century Russia. Akaky’s experiences are shaped by his lowly position in the bureaucratic system:
Copying was to him a sacred occupation, a passion: he even said that if it were not for copying, he wouldn’t know what to do with his hands.
This passage demonstrates how Akaky’s role as a low-level government clerk defines his sense of purpose and identity in the rigid social hierarchy.
The influence of materialism: Gogol explores the pervasive materialism of Russian society, showing how people’s worth is often determined by their possessions and appearance:
An overcoat is everything in St. Petersburg; many people there, as you know, wear overcoats instead of regular clothes, particularly those who are both clever and honest.
This quote also underscores the importance of outward appearance in Russian society and the pressure to conform to materialistic standards.
The power dynamics at play: Gogol highlights the power dynamics that permeate the bureaucratic society, as seen in the exchange between Akaky and the important person to whom he reports the theft of his overcoat.
Are you not acquainted with etiquette? Where have you come from? Don’t you know how such matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court below: it would have gone to the head of the department, then 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.
This instance reveals the harsh treatment Akaky receives from higher-ranking officials. It emphasizes the societal hierarchy and its impact on individuals like Akaky.
Psychological realism often embraces ambiguity. Human emotions and motivations are complex, making them challenging to understand fully.
As a result, the narrative may leave some questions unanswered or open to interpretation.It allows readers to draw their conclusions.
In “The Overcoat,” Gogol embraces ambiguity, allowing readers to draw their interpretations of the story.
The supernatural elements: The story features a supernatural element towards the end, where Akaky’s ghost haunts the city after his death.
And the ghost of the official in the stolen overcoat, for whom they are looking with the lantern, is wandering through dark alleys, knocking at doors and looking out of windows, while from behind him steals the sound of laughter.
This passage leaves the reader with a sense of ambiguity, questioning the meaning behind the ghost’s actions and the implications for Akaky’s character.
The impact of the overcoat on Akaky’s life: The story leaves open the question of whether the new overcoat truly transforms Akaky’s life as he hoped it would or if it only brings temporary pleasure.
True, he still liked his overcoat very much and still used it for a long time, so that it was later even seen in quite a tattered condition, but by then, no one bothered about him, and no one even made fun of him.
This passage suggests that Akaky’s desire for social status and respect was transient. The impact of the overcoat on his life may not have been as significant as he had anticipated.
The reason for the theft of the overcoat: The story does not provide a clear answer as to why Akaky’s overcoat is stolen. It leaves the reader to interpret the motives behind the crime.
No one knows who stole the overcoat, but in all likelihood, it was someone who had a taste for such things and had been waiting for a good opportunity to satisfy that taste.
This passage leaves the possibility that the theft was either a random act or a deliberate effort to target Akaky specifically. Hence, It adds ambiguity to the story.