A modern version of Gogol's the Overcoat, doesn't allow the reader a minute's rest or contemplation regarding life -- it simply is dour, counterproductive, non-actualizing. Yet -- one still holds out that the man-v-man, and/or man-v-universe may only last 2-3 more months. Akaky is not a "hard-nosed revolutionary communist worker." it's getting cold, so he saves over 500 rubles to purchase a "Good Quality Soviet made Coat." The coat, sad to say, turns out to be part of the Black Market. He is afforded a few moments of stardom as he comes into the office and all view his wonderful coat; but then it is stolen and Akaky finds himself in the system -- where did you get it, etc. and, as a symbol, shows that without this material "good" he cannot attain happiness.
There are also dual themes in this -- the man vs. society -- society as both the peers and as a vast and complex bureaucracy more interested in punishing him than in recovering the coat; and man vs. self -- just as with Gogol, the material coat seems to take upon mythic proportions; certainly pining of the nostalgia works, but do does the very idea that a person's work ethic, ability, and personality can change by them wearing something of status.
Entry #6 -- What Men Live by -- Leo Tolstoy -- "Another year passed, and another, and Michael was now living his sixth year with Simon. He lived as before. He went nowhere, only spoke when necessary… He never now asked him where he came from, and only feared lest Michael should go away."
This story reads a bit like an Aesop Fable, or an ancient Greek myth. In it are several archetypes of behavior, or towards what should humans aspire: goodness, sharing, truth -- and when good works are done one will be paid back more than the original investment. In contrast to some of the earlier stories, this is rather optimist, and if man against man it is only the baser nature of individuals that must be overcome.
For instance, Tolstoy does not expect his characters to be perfect -- witness spending 20 kopeks on vodka instead of needed skins. However, also witness the kindness of the family and their willingness to take Michael in -- no questions asked. When it turns out that Michael is really the Angel Michael, the surprise idea of doing good for people unbeknownst to their status in life proves that at least on some level, it is the peasant (and this might be romanticized) in Russia that holds the key to the future -- for Tolstoy at least. While Tolstoy romanticizes the peasants, he is also a heartfelt optimist -- clearly understanding that humans have the capacity for both good and evil in their world.
Entry #6 -- Anna on the Neck -- Anton Chekhov -- "But little by little the huge officer, too, broke out; he grew lively, excited, and, overcome by her fascination, was carried away and danced lightly, youthfully, while she merely moved her shoulders and looked slyly at him as though she were now the & #8230;, with their hands at their sides…"
In many ways quite similar to Tolstoy, this short Chekhov story focuses on the emotions surrounding a wedding and the communication between people at quite different stages of their lives (Alexetch at 52 and Anna at 18). The contrasts between the two physically, mentally, and most especially in wisdom and thought are touching but seem to point to a view of the success of the man being able to afford to have a new and much younger wife. Anna is unable to understand her mood, her distress, and her unhappiness -- Chekhov seems to tell us that there is something more needed -- a sort of "is that all there is" (apologies to Peggy Lee) approach that we actually see in all these stories. For Anna had been deceived -- she married for money, but found that there was none. Then, through it all, we find that everything was a sham -- deceit was the order of the day.
Reflections - What is it that actualizes a person? Is it deeds? Thoughts? Interactions with others? Material Goods? or, is it more the path towards actualization rather than the destination -- or, as Aristotle said, "Happiness is found along the way, not at the journey's end." Each of these stories had a note of typical Russian sadness, of the introspection and ability to clearly find themselves, and each other, wanting.
The endless journey of life is symbolized in Bezhin Meadows, while the hypocrisy of humans and the lack of true value for a human in Crocodile. That humans can be dissected - even if it borders on the ridiculous -- is expressed in Gogol's the Nose. and, the lust and avarice for material goods, and the very nature and essence of what can make us happy in both the Overcoat and the Overcoat II. Striking similarities between these two stories and Anna on the Neck show a certain cynicism from the authors about the way in which things that "show" others a semblance of prosperity (a warm coat with fur, a necklace, a ball gown, etc.) are the things for which some pine, but find that once those items have been achieved, they still pine for more. It is not without irony that the phrase, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill," translates into so many languages.
However, there is hope. Within each of these stories there were admirable deeds -- sharing, caring, helping, sacrificing -- and the very nature of the goodness and possibility, however Pollyannaish, in Tolstoy's What Men Live by. In a way, this is the difference between having and wanting; of needing and wanting; and of deciding each day whether it will be a productive day -- all within the individual's grasp of their own personal realities. This hope, this optimism, resonates in the final section of Tolstoy:
"I remained alive when I was a man, not by care of myself, but because love was present in a passer-by, and because he and his wife pitied and loved me. The orphans remained alive not because of their mother's care, but because there was love in the heart of a woman, a stranger to them, who pitied and loved them. And all men live not by the thought they spend on their own welfare, but because love exists in man.
"I knew before that God gave life to men and desires that they should live; now I understood more than that.
"I understood that God does not wish men to live apart, and therefore he does not reveal to them what each one needs for himself; but he wishes them to live united, and therefore reveals to each of them what is necessary for all.
"I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live.