Shinel' — Polichinelle — Pulcinella: The Italian Ancestry of Akakij Bashmachkin

Olga S. Partan, Brown University

"Does anything more need to be written about The Overcoat?" This rhetorical question was asked by Dmitrij Chizhevskij several decades ago but, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the answer is still "yes." While Gogol''s life and works have been extensively studied by Russian and Western scholars, little attention has been paid to how impressions of Italy and Italian art affected Gogol''s artistic imagination and the poetics of his works written on Russian subjects while he was living in Italy. This presentation will focus on Gogol''s famous story The Overcoat (1842), written largely in Italy, suggesting that Akakij Bashmachkin has some Italian ancestry and represents a russified version of the famous Italian character of Pulcinella. I argue that there are many links that tie Akakij Bashmachkin with the legendary Italian commedia dell'arte character of Pulcinella. Not only are there linguistic ties, such as similarities between the Russian title, Shinel, and the French version of Pulcinella, Polichinelle, but Pulcinella's background and traditional behavior on stage also strongly parallel those of the famous protagonist of The Overcoat. I suggest that Gogol' used many Italian devices in creating his quasi-Russian clerk.

After briefly mentioning the various interpretations of The Overcoat by such prominent critics as Dmitrij Chizhevskij, Boris Ejxenbaum, Simon Karlinsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere and others, I challenge the traditional approach to the story as being rooted exclusively in the Russian context. I will focus on Italian themes at both the biographical and textual level, providing a detailed comparative analysis of the story and various incarnations of Pulcinella in European art.

Biographically speaking, Gogol' spent almost a decade in Italy between 1836 and 1848, was fluent in Italian, and considered Italy to be the real homeland of his soul. His letters and the memoirs of his friends vividly demonstrate Gogol''s admiration for the Italian national sense of comic, his great interest in Italian theater, and his acquaintance with the character of Pulcinella. In 1838, Gogol' visited Naples, which is considered to be Pulcinella's birthplace, and spent about two months there, when the plot of The Overcoat was already in his mind. At that time, the Neapolitan theater San Carlino was performing the Pulcinellate daily—improvised performances with Pulcinella as a main character that attracted many foreign visitors. It is safe to speculate that Gogol' attended these performances and saw the modernized versions of Pulcinella's character. Gogol' was also fascinated with the sense of comic of inhabitants in the Trastevere area of Rome, where the popular version of Pulcinella shared characteristics with Akakij.

I trace and analyze numerous linguistic puns in The Overcoat that may have Italian connections, establishing the parallelism between the personalities and destiny of Akakij Bashmachkin and Pulcinella. For example, I discuss the etymology of the Russian word shinel'" as related to the traditional costume of Pulcinella (Polichinelle), and the last name of Bashmachkin as possibly connected to Pulcinella's traditional heavy wooden shoes. Akakij Akakievich's strange mode of communicating with "meaningless parts of speech which have absolutely no significance whatever" is compared with Pulcinella's habit of making abrupt sounds instead of comprehensible speech. Finally, Akakij's unremarkable existence while alive and his fantastic apparitions after death, are compared with the double-sided personality of Pulcinella—one being a bore, another a revengeful and aggressive bully.