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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Delaying Gratification like Akakiy Akakievitch

Akakiy Akakievitch is a character in Nikolai Gogol's famous short story, "The Overcoat" (sometimes known as "The Cloak"). Akakiy is a lowly civil servant whose job is to copy letters. Nearing fifty, he cares not for himself, and he has no family nor children. He lives in a small rented room. His colleagues make fun of him each day, but he rarely protests, except occasionally asking them to leave him alone when they get too much.

In his life, Akakiy led a life which could be described as almost monastic. He lived each day only to do his work, and in his work he was impeccable. As a scribe he would copy articles and letters with professionalism. But his clothes were shabby, and his cloak was thin and worn and torn. He goes to see Petrovitch, a tailor who is staying in the same building and renting a room as well. Petrovitch insists that the cloak is beyond repair and informs Akakiy that the only solution is to make a new one -- for 150 rubles.

Akakiy somehow calculates the cost and thinks that Petrovitch would do it for 80 rubles. Akakiy has some savings (about 40 rubles), but it is not enough. He decides to change his daily habits -- in essence, becoming more frugal -- in order to save the funds required. He starves, does without many small luxuries, and works by the light of his landlady's room rather than his own -- all to scrimp and save for the new coat. As luck would have it, he also obtains a bonus of 60 rubles from the department. Finally, he is able to afford the materials for the new coat, and Petrovitch commences the job. Petrovitch charges him a further 12 rubles for making the coat.

The coat is a wonderful garment, and instantly all his colleagues pay homage to their well-dressed friend. One of his superiors decides to throw a party in honour of Akakiy's new coat. So, after work, Akakiy goes to the party, and everybody celebrates. At twelve midnight he leaves. Disaster strikes: Akakiy's coat is taken from him forcefully by two hoodlums. He is devastated, distraught and tries to get the watchman to help him, which the watchman will not. Akakiy goes home to complain to his landlady, and his landlady advises him against going to the police (as they will do nothing) but to see a "prominent personage", who can do something for him.

Akakiy makes his way to see the "prominent personage", but the "prominent personage" was in fact promoted only a short while ago. He was before that a nobody, and having acquired a new post, is ever anxious to impress upon friends and colleagues about his sternness of character. It so happened that the "prominent personage" has a friend visiting (but waiting in the waiting room) when Akakiy visits. Akakiy is rejected and shouted at by the "prominent personage". Akakiy is devastated and makes his way home.

Akakiy suffers from a fever and the cold weather does not help. He falls into delirium. Eventually his landlady calls a physician, who advises her to prepare a pine coffin (i.e. being frugal) for him. After a prolonged period of delirium and suffering, Akakiy breathes his last.

His department's chief only finds out about Akakiy's death when a notice arrives, demanding him to show up for work. But Akakiy's death (and life) was in vain. Life went on, as though Akakiy had never existed. In the meantime, the "prominent personage" remembers Akakiy's trembling response to his harsh treatment and feels sorry for Akakiy. However, the "prominent personage" finds out, too late, that Akakiy has passed away.

The apparition of the vehement Akakiy appears, and all over town, there are reports of Akakiy's apparition snatching and forcefully taking fur coats of the people in the town. One day, the "prominent personage" is also confronted by Akakiy's apparition and loses his coat to it. Since that day, reports of Akakiy's apparition snatching forcefully the fur coats, cease. However, a different apparition then appears, and its behaviour is like that of the "prominent personage".

In this story, which I read at, I found that the description of Akakiy Akakievitch's sacrifices to save up for his new overcoat -- to be most moving. Here is an extract of the relevant portion.

Then Akakiy Akakievitch saw that it was impossible to get along without a new cloak, and his spirit sank utterly. How, in fact, was it to be done? Where was the money to come from? He might, to be sure, depend, in part, upon his present at Christmas; but that money had long been allotted beforehand. He must have some new trousers, and pay a debt of long standing to the shoemaker for putting new tops to his old boots, and he must order three shirts from the seamstress, and a couple of pieces of linen. In short, all his money must be spent; and even if the director should be so kind as to order him to receive forty-five rubles instead of forty, or even fifty, it would be a mere nothing, a mere drop in the ocean towards the funds necessary for a cloak: although he knew that Petrovitch was often wrong-headed enough to blurt out some outrageous price, so that even his own wife could not refrain from exclaiming, "Have you lost your senses, you fool?" At one time he would not work at any price, and now it was quite likely that he had named a higher sum than the cloak would cost.

But although he knew that Petrovitch would undertake to make a cloak for eighty rubles, still, where was he to get the eighty rubles from? He might possibly manage half, yes, half might be procured, but where was the other half to come from? But the reader must first be told where the first half came from. Akakiy Akakievitch had a habit of putting, for every ruble he spent, a groschen into a small box, fastened with a lock and key, and with a slit in the top for the reception of money. At the end of every half-year he counted over the heap of coppers, and changed it for silver. This he had done for a long time, and in the course of years, the sum had mounted up to over forty rubles. Thus he had one half on hand; but where was he to find the other half? where was he to get another forty rubles from? Akakiy Akakievitch thought and thought, and decided that it would be necessary to curtail his ordinary expenses, for the space of one year at least, to dispense with tea in the evening; to burn no candles, and, if there was anything which he must do, to go into his landlady's room, and work by her light. When he went into the street, he must walk as lightly as he could, and as cautiously, upon the stones, almost upon tiptoe, in order not to wear his heels down in too short a time; he must give the laundress as little to wash as possible; and, in order not to wear out his clothes, he must take them off, as soon as he got home, and wear only his cotton dressing-gown, which had been long and carefully saved.

To tell the truth, it was a little hard for him at first to accustom himself to these deprivations; but he got used to them at length, after a fashion, and all went smoothly. He even got used to being hungry in the evening, but he made up for it by treating himself, so to say, in spirit, by bearing ever in mind the idea of his future cloak. From that time forth his existence seemed to become, in some way, fuller, as if he were married, or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend had consented to travel along life's path with him, the friend being no other than the cloak, with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and even his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering traits disappeared of themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind; why not, for instance, have marten fur on the collar? The thought of this almost made him absent-minded. Once, in copying a letter, he nearly made a mistake, so that he exclaimed almost aloud, "Ugh!" and crossed himself. Once, in the course of every month, he had a conference with Petrovitch on the subject of the cloak, where it would be better to buy the cloth, and the colour, and the price. He always returned home satisfied, though troubled, reflecting that the time would come at last when it could all be bought, and then the cloak made.

The affair progressed more briskly than he had expected. Far beyond all his hopes, the director awarded neither forty nor forty-five rubles for Akakiy Akakievitch's share, but sixty. Whether he suspected that Akakiy Akakievitch needed a cloak, or whether it was merely chance, at all events, twenty extra rubles were by this means provided. This circumstance hastened matters. Two or three months more of hunger and Akakiy Akakievitch had accumulated about eighty rubles. His heart, generally so quiet, began to throb. On the first possible day, he went shopping in company with Petrovitch. They bought some very good cloth, and at a reasonable rate too, for they had been considering the matter for six months, and rarely let a month pass without their visiting the shops to inquire prices. Petrovitch himself said that no better cloth could be had. For lining, they selected a cotton stuff, but so firm and thick that Petrovitch declared it to be better than silk, and even prettier and more glossy. They did not buy the marten fur, because it was, in fact, dear, but in its stead, they picked out the very best of cat-skin which could be found in the shop, and which might, indeed, be taken for marten at a distance.

Akakiy Akakievitch's troubles can be surmised in one sentence: that he endured at first penury, and then injury. But Nikolai Gogol's tale of the little man who loses his prized possession is, for many, a metaphor for reality. Too often today, people invest their life's savings into important investments, only to have them all snatched away from them by some heartless, scheming ruffians. Sometimes there does not seem to be any way in which the victims can reclaim their loss. In the face of such devastating loss, it is normal to expect that the victims will be devastated and totally upset. Upset, to the extent of withering away, like Akakiy Akakievitch. And sometimes, they do come back like apparitions to haunt their tormentors -- like Akakiy Akakievitch.

What scary lessons.