Gogol’s The Overcoat has the same sticky, slimy, unpleasant-to-view feeling of George Orwell’s 1984. Akaky Akakievich has a monotonous job that only he loves, one that he takes very seriously and even does in his free time. Winston Smith, Orwell’s protagonist, has a fairly boring occupation as well, doing almost the same thing: where Akaky simply copies the words, Winston changes them to reflect Big Brother’s infallibility. Akaky and Winston both live alone, eat the bland foods that their meager government salaries can afford them, and either willingly ignores or is encouraged to ignore every attempt at meaningful human interaction. Where Akaky smells alcohol and slops on the stairs going to Petrovich’s apartment, Winston is followed by the odor of the Victory gin that everyone in his caste drink. Both stories have the theme of being born into blindly following the leadership presented to the character.
Gogol’s short story is much less harsh than Orwell’s and for a good reason. Gogol did not intend for The Overcoat to comment on the oppressiveness of the contemporaneous government. He merely wanted to mention or draw attention to the way of life of some of the government workers. Our protagonist was a titular councillor, rank nine, which means that he was a noble. He was a noble earning 400 rubles per year doing and loving service to the state almost every day. In the current ranking system Akaky could scarcely clothe himself with the salary he earned while people working in the same room as he threw lavish parties for everyone, eating and drinking at probably a month’s worth of food for Akaky. There was a large gap between the rich and the poor even if they held similar or the same occupation.
Housing Problems is a 1935 document about housing problems in Britain. The video is very similar to Orwell’s piece entitled ‘Road to Wigan Pier’. It depicts the poor conditions that the lower class in Britain had to live in. It is also interesting to notice that the people who are interviewed are wearing what appears to be decent clothes, with one man even wearing a three-piece suit, without the jacket. I don’t know if this was common attire, but in my opinion it looks like these people did their best to look good, despite the fact that this was a film documenting their poor living conditions. Logically, looking as bad as possible would be conducive to the documentary and thus to the possibility of attaining help, but the emotional response of the interviewees represents the idea of pride that was still prevalent in this ‘new poor’ section of society.
Following the First World War, the general British attitude toward the poor and their situations changed. It was then thought that it was people’s own fault for being poor. They were too lazy to work hard enough to afford better living quarters. In his writings “Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, George Orwell, argues against this idea. Those who are poor, for the most part, are not well educated, and perform unskilled labor. They lack skill sets and the means to obtain a skill set that would allow them to acquire higher paying jobs.
In his short film, Housing Problems, John Grierson interviews people living in British slums. They’re not happy to be living there, but they don’t have a choice. They can’t afford to live anywhere else, and they feel some shame about their living situations. The film argues that if people are provided with well-built homes, that they can afford, they will take care of these homes. Living in the slums, people are not motivated to keep their homes clean because they’re falling apart and full of rodents.
Even in the slums, people attempted to keep up appearances, with a well-kept living room, like that of the first interviewee. This seems to conflict with the film’s assertion that only a well built home will be well kept by its inhabitants. Why did people maintain living rooms in a smilingly bourgeois style? Was it to preserve their dignity in their filthy homes? Was it to uphold personal or family identity in a row of identical homes?