Contentment and Materialism in The Overcoat and The Necklace
Two well written short stories that have remarkable similarities in moral and theme are Nikolai Gogols The Overcoat, and Guy de Maupassants The Necklace. Both of these stories revolve around material items that drastically affect their lives, and they are both aptly named after those items. While The Overcoat takes place in Russia, and The Necklace takes place in France, both capture the essence of each country during a historically unique time period, although the exact time is not specifically mentioned in either story. However, both authors lived in the early nineteenth century, and the stories both have qualities that are reminiscent of fairy tales. Both messages are similar to those one might find in tales designed to support a moral message. The Overcoat and The Necklace each use opposing ideas to help support the same moral message about the materialistic world.
In the story of The Overcoat, we find a man who is content in his life. His contentment is based on not needing anything but the satisfaction of his work. The life we see in Akaky Akakievich does not need the approval of others and does not need the acquisition of things in order to achieve anything more within his self awareness. He leads a simple life that does not need, in his estimation, anything more. His attempt to repair his old overcoat is just an attempt to retain his status because he coat he owns is sufficient in his eyes. The dilemma is revealed when he cannot retain that coat, but is forced to buy another. In the symbolism of this coat, he must accept change.
In order to attain the coat, he must sacrifice. He must give up his savings and deprive himself of some of the essential things for his life in order to have enough money to purchase the new coat. Because he is used to an austere life, he is able to happily adjust to his new, more deprived, lifestyle. The narrator says, To tell the truth, it was a bit difficult for him at first to get used to such limitations; but later it somehow became a habit and went better; he even accustomed himself to going entirely without food in the evenings; but instead he was nourished spiritually, bearing in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future overcoat.(Gogol 406) This changes Akaky because this coat gives him something more in which to have hope. From that time forth, he became somehow livelier, even firmer of character, like a man who has a defined and set goal for himself. Doubt, indecisionin short, all hesitant and uncertain featuresdisappeared of themselves from his face and actions (Gogol 407). The coat becomes a symbol for more in his life, a concept that he had never considered before this need became relevant to his life.
In The Necklace, an opposite situation exists. A very pretty woman of simple, but comfortable means is not content in her circumstances. In a life that provides shelter, adequate food, and adequate clothing, Mathilde longs for the lush lifestyle of wealth. She dreams of silent antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry, lit by tall bronze candelabra, and two great footmen in knee-breeches who sleep in the big armchairs, made drowsy by the heavy warmth of the hot-air stove. (de Maupassant 964) Moreover, her desire to be inserted magnificently into society leaves her yearning for a social status she is unable to attain. The narrator says, She thought of long salons fitted with ancient silk, of the delicate furniture carrying priceless curiosities, and of the coquettish perfumed boudoirs made for talks at five oclock within intimate friends, with men famous and sought after. (de Maupassant 964) These details of luxury are not within her means, but she is dissatisfied with the limitations of her level of provision. Contrary to Akaky, she is simply unhappy because of the simplicity of her life.
Mathilde believes that the level of her own beauty warrants a better life. She feels that on the basis of her looks, she is entitled to more. When her husband brings home an invitation of the sort she has been dreaming of receiving, she isnt happy because she feels that she is inadequately able to dress for the occasion. Her husband sacrifices the money he has been saving for a gun and trip with his friends in order to provide her with a sum great enough to buy a proper dress. After he does this, she is still not satisfied because she feels she must have jewels to adorn herself in order to fit into the crowd. In order to fulfill this last need, she borrows a necklace. This great desire for more will be her undoing.
In both stories, the object of desire ruins the lives of the main characters. The short lived joy that Akaky feels as he works towards a goal in which he achieves is destroyed when the object of that goal is stolen from him. As well, Mathilde gets the event of her dreams, but when it is finished and she realizes that the necklace she borrowed is missing, her life is irrevocably altered. Both characters set the hope of their future on material items and that sets a tragic course for them both. Despite the true need of Akaky and the frivolous need of Mathilde, the readers of both stories will find that the message is clear. Identity can rest in material possessions.
The way in which these two stories are told are very different and ironic. The story of The Necklace is told with a sparseness of detail. The narrator mentions that Mathilde is pretty, but doesnt elaborate on the specific details of her looks. The reader knows nothing of her and must fill in the details of how such a woman might look. Great details are not given about the reality of her home, but the details of her imagining are vividly described. For Mathilde, the desire for more luxury is in contrast to the lack of description and detail that is provided within the story. Much of the reality of the story must be imagined, much like the world that Mathilde creates for herself.
In contrast, Gogol spends a great deal of time meticulously describing people and places within his writing. He spends the first five paragraphs of the story describing the circumstances surrounding the birth of his main character. He goes in great detail over the situation at Akakys workplace. He describes at length the reasons behind the devotement of the personality of the certain prominent personage who will ultimately commit the final act that leads to Akakys death. The simplicity of the life that Akaky is most content to live is in contrast to the overwhelming abundance of detail provided by the author.
In each of these two stories, the object of desire becomes an active character within the piece. The overcoat that Akaky sacrifices so much to attain becomes the symbol of all he has been without during his life. The coat gives him a hope that more is possible within his life. As the achievement of the overcoat reaches its climax, Akaky is socializing and interacting with others, a state he has not needed, nor longed for before the coat became an entity in his life. The coat represents a new beginning for Akaky, a sort of camaraderie as he is wrapped in the embrace of the world outside of his own mind. He begins to see that to breach his comfort zone can have rewards that he has never thought to dream of attaining.
The diamond necklace becomes the ultimate symbol of perfection for Mathilde. As she adds this final adornment, the person that she believes she deserves to become can come to life underneath the rich exterior that the necklace has created for her. As she interacts with the people who are what she envies, Mathilde feels accepted because she has this representation around her throat that proves that she belongs. This piece of jewelry is the fuel that drives the momentum of this achievement for her. The loss of the jewelry only occurs when the dream of the evening is over.
The use of irony at the end of The Necklace is purposeful and very clear. The moral of the story is not left with any ambiguity. The loss of the necklace has ruined Mathilde and her husband. They have struggled for ten years to get themselves out of debt. This struggle has lead to the disintegration of all that Mathilde had held in hope for her future. He beauty is now gone. Maupassant writes, Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become like the woman of impoverished householdsstrong and hard and rough. With frowsy hair, skirts askew, and red hands she talked loud while washing the floor with great swishes of water (de Maupassant 968) This is the most detailed description of Mathilde of the story. Mathilde runs into Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still attractive. as Maupassant will describe her. As she tells the story of the sacrifices she made the last ten years to repay the debt on the diamond necklace, she discovers that she sacrificed it all for nothing. The diamonds had been fake.
The intent of the moral of the story is that to covet something that cannot truly be attained is to court the disaster of having what one does be taken. As well, had she been honest about the loss of the necklace, Mathilde would have not had to spend ten years repaying a loss that had never been true. Mathilde did not live authentically. Her life was lived in a narcissistic world that did not reflect her reality. The lie of that world was enhanced by the lie of the returned necklace. An honest life would have provided her with a growing life, where the consequences of her deceptions cost her everything.
For the story of Akaky, the moral is less clear. Akaky works very hard to attain his goal. He does not covet a magnificent coat, but needs a coat to keep him warm. The artistic arrogance of the tailor is the only reason that the coat is of high value. Akaky was perfectly satisfied with the idea of his old coat repaired to continue being of use. However, as he sacrificed and obsessed over this large purchase, the importance of a new overcoat became a growing obsession for him. He became caught up in the enthusiasm of the tailor.
The very next day he went shopping with Petrovich. They bought very good broadclothand no wonder, because they had begun thinking about it six months before and had hardly every let a month go by without stopping at a shop and inquiring about the prices; and Petrovich himself said that better broadcloth did not exist. For the lining they chose chintz, but of such good, sturdy quality that, according to Petrovich, it was even better than silk and looked more attractive and glossy. They did not buy a marten, because it was indeed expensive; but instead they chose a cat, the best they could find in a shop, a cat which from afar could always be taken for a marten (Gogol 407)
This coat was to be a masterpiece for the tailor. However, it is questionable if this was in Akakys best interest. He went from a man who was content with an old coat repaired, to the obsession with fine quality fabrics and the appearance of fashion.
However, the moral of the story might be, again, that one should be true to ones own sensibilities or risk a backlash of fate. Had Akaky not had such a magnificent coat created for him, but something a bit more modest, he may not have been robbed. In the beginning of the story of his life, Akaky was very authentic to his own expectations of life. Instead, the overcoat brought higher expectations.
The introduction of a supernatural element into the story of The Overcoat, creates an avenue of revenge for Akakys character. The character of the General is the object of that revenge. As Akakys corpse steals overcoats throughout the city, it is not until the overcoat of the man whose harsh treatment led to Akakys death is stolen that the story may end, the uncompassionate end to him finally balanced. The character of the General can be compared to that of Mathilde. He has attained a status that he has only just earned and he flaunts it to the degradation of those he deems below himself. Where Mathilde seeks position, the General inflates his position. This pride will attract a humbling punishment.
Both The Necklace and The Overcoat deal with issues of the class in reference to the acquisition of the items they attain that represent their situation. The Loisels are members of a class that would compare to a white collar family of today as would the work that Akaky be labeled as he hand-copied documents before the invention of the Xerox. However, both of these levels of class are well below the ruling class. In wearing the diamond necklace, Mathilde would psychologically elevate her station to be equal to those she would wish to be equal. As the overcoat is noticed by his fellow workers, Akakys social status becomes elevated and he is suddenly allowed into a world of which he has never been a part. Objects become the focus of that elevation, however it is notable that Mathildes husband obtained the invitation without the necklace, and had Akaky taken a small measure of interest in being more like his co-workers, he may not have needed the overcoat to become socially acceptable. A small thing like avoiding the garbage from being hung up in his hat may have brought him into the fold without the need of a prop.
In both stories, the objects do become props in a play that sets a course for the lives of the characters. Mathilde has scripted a play in which each piece of the set must be perfected in order for her to hit the mark. The overcoat scripts the play for Akaky. Its presence becomes the focus of a journey. While Mathilde victimizes herself, the character of the overcoat victimizes Akaky. Oddly though, neither object takes on any characterization of intent. There is no malice in the object, only a changing existence within the tale.