The class was American Literature. The professor was stern and unconcerned with coming across as friendly, but we shared a common connection. She was passionate about the literature we read in class and I loved it, I loved reading, but most of all, I loved analyzing the texts and connecting them to the human condition and to our world today.
One story, “The Overcoat," is one I have been thinking about recently, and one that fits perfectly with the time of year as Thanksgiving is approaching. “The Overcoat," written by Nikolai Gogol, revolves around a man, Akaky Akakievich who is the the subject of cruel jokes. His coworkers make fun of and torment Akaky but he does not fight back. They make fun of everything about Akaky, especially the fact that he wears a shaggy, old and tarnished overcoat.
Akaky decides that he will forgo buying a simple, new overcoat and will instead save his money to get a beautiful overcoat that is custom-made by a tailor, Petrovich. Akaky, who makes a humble salary as a clerical worker, saves his money for this new overcoat. He sacrifices candle light as well as food in order to save up for this coat. Finally, Akaky has enough money for the coat and when it is finished, it is beautiful.
Akaky goes to work with his coat and the same coworkers who once tormented him, now take notice of him and admire his coat. They compliment him and Akaky, who was the butt of every cruel insult and joke, is even invited to a party. Up until that day, he knew what it was to be entirely ostracized and then to be accepted and deemed as “normal” by his coworkers and society.
But Akaky’s coat also attracted the wrong attention. One night, Akaky gets mugged and is left with no coat. What he worked so hard for was gone in an instant and when he goes back to work he finds his coworkers no longer treat him well. Akaky turns bitter and, with the harsh, cold weather, gets sick and eventually dies. Even after dying though, Akaky cannot leave Earth — he turns into a ghost and is obsessed with the overcoat and with being accepted.
Akaky died chasing the thing he thought would be the one to bring him happiness and acceptance. In his eyes, it would solve all his problems.
Maybe we do not yearn for an overcoat in the way Akaky did, and maybe we do not physically die because of it, but we all know what it is to feel like we need to be or act or wear a certain thing to be accepted. We all try on new “coats," believing it will make us happy and solve all our problems. Credit cards, relationships, school, work — all things that we aspire for, all things that can lead to our demise.
I have been Akaky, and very recently too, which I do not like to admit. People can be cruel, and oftentimes you cannot avoid them. It is so easy to believe the opinions of others have of you and to feel like the world is unbearable. It is so hard to not let the opinions and judgments of people and the world get to you, especially if they are negative. Akaky had a simple life and was humble and content with his job, but he lost it all for a coat that did nothing but gain him the temporary acceptance of people who would abandon and torment him the second he lost something as superficial as a piece of clothing.
Credit card debt, self hate, bad friends, a life so consumed with school you have no time for yourself — these are all things we fall prey to on the pursuit of happiness.
I had to realize recently that people’s opinions of me are not necessarily true and realize that someone who acts like Akaky's coworkers, is not worth changing my coat for. It is cliché but true: happiness comes from within and it is impossible to be happy without gratitude.
Do not lose everything trying to prove to others that you are enough. This Thanksgiving, be thankful, among other things, for yourself and your resilience, and do not change your coat for your coworkers or anyone else.
Breana Omana is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in political science. Her column, "Left Brain, Right Brain," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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