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the ghost in the overcoat strikes again

Page history last edited by PBworks 11 years, 11 months ago

“Bill Gains came from a ‘good family’ – as I recall, his father had been a bank president somewhere in Maryland – and he had front. Gains’ routine was stealing overcoats out of restaurants, and he was perfectly adapted to this work. The American upper-middle-class citizen is a composite of negatives. He is largely delineated by what he is not. Gains went further. He was not merely negative. He was positively invisible; a vague respectable presence. There is a certain kind of ghost that can only materialize with the aid of a sheet or other piece of cloth to give it outline. Gains was like that. He materialized in someone else’s overcoat.” (__Junky__, pg 35)

I love the part about being a composite of negatives. Gains himself is a walking dichotomy – he was born into money, yet he spends his life chasing junk and stealing overcoats. He doesn’t steal overcoats because he needs to – he is molding himself quite literally into this ghostly role. He can’t just look the part; he has to be the part. He is a hypocrite to his social class and monetary standing. He has materialized into a junkie.

And then to make use of my right to stream of consciousness, I’ll jump to Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, a story triggered by Gains and his fetish for stealing overcoats. Akaky was an impoverished government clerk in St. Petersburg, Russia. His job was to copy documents, word for word. And his life was no less mundane. He works hard at his job, yet only gets recognized for his tattered overcoat. The younger copyists constantly ridicule him; throughout the story, he is basically portrayed as the toilet of society. Everyone kind of just takes a shit on him and leaves, most of the time without flushing. Akaky decides to buy a new overcoat in order to better his appearance, and therefore status, in society; he saves up for months, buying and eating only what is absolutely necessary. He finally purchases the wealthy-looking overcoat, and when he shows up with it to work, his clerk decides to throw a party in Akaky’s (new image’s) honor. When walking home from the party, two ruffians beat him up, steal his overcoat, and leave him unconscious in the snow. After being snubbed and ignored by the uncaring St. Petersburg police force, and suffering/fainting from a verbally abrasive upbraiding from the VIP (Very Important Person), Akaky falls ill and dies. The narrator then goes on to say that there is a report of a “corpse” haunting the streets of St. Petersburg and we are supposed to assume that this is Akaky’s ghost, seeking revenge on all who shat on him throughout his lifetime.

I know we’re supposed to feel bad for Akaky, the man who literally dies from the glare of society’s disparaging eyes and the tone of its ridiculing voice. But at the end of the story, he is the same person as the two ruffians who beat him up and took his overcoat in the first place. He is a hypocrite to his honest, meek, hardworking character…just as Gains is a hypocrite to his predestined label. He is the literal equivalent of Gains’ ghost-like appearance, “materializing in someone else’s overcoat.”

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