An Old Portrait, a New Original: Copyists in Gogol's "The Overcoat" and Xvoshchinskaya's The Boarding-School Girl

Karen Rosneck

Gogol's "The Overcoat" and Xvoshchinskaya's The Boarding-School Girl originate from a long line of Russian fictional works that featured the central presence of clerk-copyists. Particularly appealing to writers, the copyist's poorly-paid, subservient responsibility for reproducing original documents offered an unusual literary opportunity to explore the act of writing as well as the nature of artistic originality and imitation. Reproducing documents penned by more important officials, the copyist also served to question the relationship between authority and writing.

A long-established tradition privileging originality in the West influenced the depiction of copyists in both works. As a reflection of the cultural value afforded to originality, artistic work involving the reproduction of originals remained the serious pursuits of students, amateurs, women and other dabblers. Attaining preeminence for writers of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century, the authority of originality came under direct attack by subsequent writers such as Gogol and Xvoshchinskaya.

Sharing a similar theoretical framework, both "The Overcoat" and The Boarding-School Girl seek to effect a greater balance between originality and imitation. Although the laws of language and society effectively bar Gogol's hero from the possibility of individual freedom, "The Overcoat" overcomes limiting structures of authority through the incorporation of ambiguity and fantasy. The Boarding-School Girl successfully resists authority as well, emphasizing the stubborn eruption of difference in life and language. Xvoshchinskaya's valorization of women's historical roles as fine arts' copyists and translators created a foundation for formulating an aesthetic that validated traditional avenues of feminine creativity, while creating innovative new directions for Russian literature.