A very important person

Excerpt from The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

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This is an excerpt from the short story The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol, translated from the Russian by Ronald Wilks.

One of them, who was deeply moved, decided he could at least help Akaky Akakievich with some good advice. He told him not to go to the local police officer, since although that gentleman might well recover his overcoat somehow or other in the hope of receiving a recommendation from his superiors, Akaky did not have a chance of getting it out of the police station without the necessary legal proof that the overcoat was really his. The best plan was to apply to a certain Important Person, and this same Important Person, by writing to and contacting the proper people, would get things moving much faster. There was nothing else for it, so Akaky Akakievich decide to go and see this Important Person.

What exactly this Important Person did and what position he held remains a mystery to this day. All we need say is that this Important Person had become important only a short while before, and that until then he had been an unimportant person. However, even now his position was not considered very important if compared with others which were still more important. But you will always come across a certain class of people who consider something unimportant which for other people is in fact important. However, he tried all manners and means of buttressing his importance. For example, he was responsible for introducing the rule that all low-ranking civil servants should be waiting to meet him on the stairs when he arrived at the office; that no one, on any account, could walk straight into his office; and that everything must be dealt with in the strictest order of priority: the collegiate registrar was to report to the provincial secretary who in turn was to report to the titular councillor (or whoever it was he had to report to) so that in this way the matter reached him according to the prescribed procedure. In this Holy Russia of ours everything is infected by a mania for imitation, and everyone apes his superior. I have even heard say that when a certain titular councillor was appointed head of some minor government department he immediately partitioned off a section of his office into a special room for himself, an ‘audience chamber’ as he called it, and made two ushers in uniforms with red collars and gold braid stand outside to open the doors for visitors—even though you would have a job getting an ordinary writing desk into this so-called chamber.

This Important Person’s routine was very imposing and impressive, but nonetheless simple. The whole basis of his system was strict discipline. ‘Discipline, discipline, and … discipline’ he used to say, usually looking very solemnly into the face of the person he was addressing when he had repeated this word for the third time. However, there was really no good reason for this strict discipline, since the ten civil servants or so who made up the whole administrative machinery of his department were all duly terrified of him anyway. If they saw him coming from some way off they would stop what they were doing and stand to attention while the Director went through the office. His normal everyday conversation with his subordinates simply reeked of discipline and consisted almost entirely of three phrases: ‘How dare you? Do you know who you’re talking to? Do you realize who’s standing before you?’

However, he was quite a good man at heart, pleasant to his colleagues and helpful. But his promotion to general’s rank had completely turned his head; he became all mixed up, somehow went off the rails, and just could not cope any more. If he happened to be with someone of equal rank, then he was quite a normal person, very decent in fact and indeed far from stupid in many respects.

But put him with people only one rank lower, and he was really at sea. he would not say a single word, and one felt sorry to see him in such a predicament, all the more so as even he felt that he could have been spending the time far more enjoyably.

One could read this craving for interesting company and conversation in his eyes, but he was always inhibited by the thought: would this be going too far for someone in his position, would this be showing too much familiarity and therefore rather damaging to his status? For these reasons he would remain perpetually silent, producing a few monosyllables from time to time, and as a result acquired the reputation of being a terrible bore. This was the Important Person our Akaky Akakievich went to consult, and he appeared at the worst possible moment—most inopportune as far as he was concerned—but most opportune for the Important Person.

Have you read this story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Overcoat – from a collection of short stories – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine in 1809. Vladimir Nabokov wrote of his work that “after reading Gogol one’s eyes may become gogolized, and one is apt to see bits of his world in the most unexpected places.” He died in 1852 after subjecting himself to a severe regime of fasting. “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” are two of Gogol’s finest works. “The Nose” is a masterpiece of comic art, and “The Overcoat” is considered one of the greatest short stories ever written.

Copyright © 1842 by Nikolai Gogol.

Translated from the Russian by: Ronald Wilks

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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