The Overcoat

The story of The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol is a witty commentary on the efficiency of the bureaucracy in Russia. The main character Akakiy Akakievitch is a short, bald toped red head who has an abundance of personal issues; he is shy, unconfident and a terrible communicator. Despite these traits, Akakiy loves his job in a “certain department” as a copier and is very good at his job, in fact he lives to copy things. The plot of the story is formed as Akakiy clearly needs a new cloak, for the harsh Russian winter is coming and he is constantly being made fun of at the office for his “cape” rather than cloak. This is important because dress is a determining factor of rank so if Akakiy is wearing the wrong dress, he is diminishing his position in society. The means to a new coat consumes Akakiy’s life, as his already simple life is forced to be cut due to the price of a new cloak. After nearly a year of limited resources, Akakiy finally purchases his new cloak from Petrovitch, the one eyed, drunk tailor and is amazed by the quality. He loves his new cloak and it is extremely well perceived at the office. After walking home from a party one night, something that Akakiy being shy and timid rarely did, he was robbed and his coat was stolen. Akakiy goes through a great deal of measures to get his cloak back but is shut down at nearly every department he does to. He eventually makes his way to a prominent personage, who is supposed to be able to actually give Akakiy some aid according to another source, however he is once again disappointed and forced to walk home in a snow storm. He catches a fever and later dies. No one at the office even notices until days later. Gossip concerning an apparition who snags the coats of the backs of many lingers through-out St. Petersburg and one day this apparition seizes the cloak of the very prominent personage who earlier had hindered Akakiy’s claims for his coat. The apparition fits perfectly into his new cloak and is rumored to no more take the coats of men, as he had finally found the one that fits him best.


There are many social critiques made by Gogol through-out the story. He makes is clear the bureaucracy of Russia is like Akakiy Akakievitch, which translates to something along the lines of Poop who does nothing. Suggesting that he thinks that Russia needs to make reforms to departments across the country. The fact that he has such a hard time filling a claim shows that the bureaucracy  is tough to work with and is genuinely bad at what they are supposed to do. The watchmen who didn’t come help Akakiy when he was being robbed also shows a general lack of productiveness.

Does the character of Petrovitch, a one-eyed drunk who does great, cheap work, reveal any values that Gogol might hold?

What aspects of the story could be seen as reasons to westernize or not?

The Overcoat

I think that Gogol is using this story to critique the flaws of the bureaucratic society that was created with the Table of Ranks.  Akaky is so involved in his government work that he has no time to experience life and in unable to do so because of the financial hindrances of his job.  That Gogol makes a point of discussing how Akaky was born for the job he has and remaining stagnant despite others movement seems to critique the harshness of legalized social status and emphasize the trap that is civil service.  Instead of striving to improve his situation, Akaky accepts his low place within the hierarchy and remains blow his peers.  One effect of the ranking system is that it seems to breed resentment between the different ranks, as the Important Person cannot bear to speak to someone lower than him and uses his power to criticize his employees.  The condition of civil service described in Gogol’s piece is akin to how one might imagine the conditions of serfdom, a “bureaucratic serf.”  The state is made strong at the disadvantage of the individuals that serve it.  The overcoat functions as a status symbol that endows Akaky with the respect of his peers and the confidence to step outside his closed world.

The Overcoat also seems to be a critique of materialism.  Akaky quite literally subverts his quality of life for the possession of a new good.  When he dies, Akaky is described in terms of his possessions, and the form that appears to him at death is a ghostly overcoat.  Even in death, Akaky is defined by an endless search for material possessions.  It could be possible that this anti-materialist sentiment was brewing in Russia at the time of print because of the rising imperialism and the promotion of nationality as folk identity in the face of modernization.