Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

In “The Overcoat”, Gogol ridicules Russia’s ranking system and the emphasis placed on being a “significant person” in society. The flaws in this, system which is based in superficiality and vanity, are most readily evident in Akaky Akakiyevich’s attempts to report the theft of his greatcoat. He begins his efforts with a policeman, who failed to witness the crime even though it happened right in front of him. Akaky then implores the assistance of the next highest level of authority, the district superintendent. The superintendant is asleep the first two times Akaky goes to see him, and then similarly offers no assistance to Akaky. Finally, Akaky goes to see a “certain significant person”, who exhibits no remarkable qualities other than being regarded as significant and important. It is unclear what his job consists of, or if he occupies a role other than boasting of his high rank.

In the character of the “certain significant person”, Gogol’s critique of Russian people’s obsession with rank and high society is most obvious. The ridiculousness of the ranking system is highlighted in the description of how said “significant person” achieved his rank: “It should be noted that this certain significant person had only recently become a significant person, having previously been an insignificant person. Even after this advancement, however, his position was not considered significant in comparison with others of yet greater significance. Still, one can always find a circle of people for whom what is insignificant in the eyes of others is significant.” The repetition of the word “significant” alone implies that Gogol is mocking the depth people give to the word. What makes a person significant? What distinguishes a “significant” person from an “insignificant” person? Akaky is treated by his peers and fellow councilors as insignificant, but what about Akaky constitutes this title? Akaky contributes just as much, if not more, to society through his simple copying of manuscripts, while the “important” people of high society do nothing more than relish in their importance.

3 thoughts on “Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

  1. The ghost of Akaky reminds me of the Decembrist movement. Akaky dies trying to fight an unhelpful bureaucracy, trying to achieve progress through finding his overcoat, which he had waited so long and worked so hard for. Oddly enough, Akaky’s character is more interesting and achieves more in death than he did in life, like how the Decembrists were the first to raise awareness of what was wrong with the state system they unsuccessfully protested against.

    Gogol does an excellent job pointing out to the audience how the function of the bureaucracy is not to accomplish anything, but to simply exist for the sake of having a complicated system.

    Also, I have a question: Who is the second ghost supposed to be?

  2. In addition to Gogol mocking the entire idea of the Russian social hierarchy, Gogol mocks the mentality of this “certain significant person.” It is obvious that this character abuses power by reprimanding Akaky for seeking help, verbally abusing him, and talking down him. This is Gogol’s impression of the bureaucracy and how they treat those deemed “inferior” in status- as if their issues are unimportant and that in order to receive help one must have “achieved” in life to be worthy of their attention. Additionally, this demonstrates the disparity in priorities. The significant person did not respect Akaky’s dire need for that coat and the prominent role it held in his life because the administration held differing values of what mattered- and the needs of the “peasants” were not understood by the “significant.” Finally, this story shows how easily things that were important to the average citizen could be confiscated in society without an explanation. This story was published during the reign of Nicholas I who was known for suppressing intellectual thought via censorship, underground societies via underground police forces, and ensuring the continuation of serfdom. The lack of personal freedoms is analogous to the overcoat- they were ripped away from the people and people higher up just watched the suffering.

  3. I found it interesting that the higher Akaky went up the social ranks, the less the individual cared about Akaky’s plight. Petrovitch, is the only character to really help Akaky, even though he is negatively attributed to being a one-eyed drunk. Petrovitch has the most explicit features Gogol writes about, contrasting the “certain significant person”, who Gogol not only does not give a name to, but not even a job title. This is a stark contrast to Russian Society at this time where the simple tailor would usually be the faceless, insignificant worker, and the “certain significant person” would be the most important, thus the most defined.

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