As an author, Gogol has often been considered one of the most famous writers in Russia, and seen as a champion of the everyday man. In his short story “The Overcoat”, Gogol focuses on that particular type of character in depicting the story of Akaky Akakievich, a penniless government clerk and copyist in the city of St. Petersburg. Akaky is blatantly overworked and overlooked by everyone in his life.
In the story, the reader learns how Akaky is a timid, alienated individual whose sole perceived purpose is copying. Akaky has no close friends and is so isolated that he is essentially unable to communicate. He only wants to copy. He is the subject of mockery and scorn from his coworkers, which he accepts without protesting against it. Specifically, it is his threadbare coat that instigates much of the derision he endures. When Akaky finally decides that his coat needs to be repaired, and takes it to his tailor, he is unexpectedly thrust into a new lifestyle.
The tailor declares Akaky’s coat irreparable, and essentially forces Akaky to buy a new overcoat which costs much more than Akaky can afford to spend. Thus, Akaky adopts a new strict budget to help cover these costs. However, once the coat has been finished, Akaky’s life changes.
Akaky’s peers start to notice him and acknowledge his presence, and even go out of their way to compliment him on his new coat. They even invite him to a party later that night. This is the first time anyone has ever treated Akaky with any level of respect or even kindness, and as a result, he ventures out into the social world. However, Akaky is only able to enjoy this new life for a single day. His hopes are quickly dashed when his coat is stolen from him that very night. When he attempts to enlist the help of a superior within the bureaucracy, Akaky is treated with disdain because of his obvious lack of status. He subsequently plunges into illness and dies within a few days. After his death, Akaky’s coat returns, and takes his revenge on the bureaucrat who scorned him and refused to help him, by stealing his coat. As a result, the bureaucrat strives to be more helpful and kind to others, for fear of Akaky’s ghost returning to him.
Though a majority of the story has a more humorous tone and language, there is a greater critique and subsequent message Gogol is trying to convey. Perhaps this story serves as a critique of the bureaucratic system within Russia. Akaky’s inability to be recognized, appreciated, or even get help when he needs it all serve to demonstrate the inefficiencies of the bureaucratic system in place, which is too rigid and defined by essentially one’s rank and little else. Essentially, the overcoat gives Akaky humanity. Akaky’s new overcoat symbolizes his newfound ability to become an individual, instead of simply part of the bureaucratic mass. The coat gave him courage to venture out beyond his everyday life, and even drove him to reach out to a higher bureaucrat for help when he needed it. This examples demonstrate Akaky’s new ability to essentially “challenge” the system, and do things not expected of him or his class. Perhaps the robbery of the bureaucrat’s coat at the end can be perceived as the prophetic fate awaiting the impenitent Russian ruling class who drive this rigid system. Gogol perhaps was trying to say that so long as the lower classes are ignored and the ruling class remains in its current state, the poor will eventually rise up.