More Than an Overcoat

In Gogol’s Overcoat, the reader is overcome with a great sense of pity for Akaky. He’s a sad man – not just because of his relative linguistic incompetency or his inability to perform tasks that extend beyond a simple copy job but because all of his peers see him as utterly beneath them. He is unfit of any type of respect. They can torment him without any sort of recognition for the important tasks he can complete without fail. Much of this ridicule comes from his “night gown.”

Here the “night gown” is a reflection of the role of social status in the Russian Society. His coat reflects his rank and stance in society. He lives in the dank part of St. Petersburg and occupies a lower rank than his peers who sport lavish coats with beaver fur collars. Gogol shows that performance and capability matters little. Prestige is really just superficial. Akaky’s stance and acceptance by his peers fluctuates with his appearance. When he finally obtains his new coat his coworkers notice him but this is only temporary.

Gogol is absolutely critiquing the manner in which power and respect is garnered in Russian Society. I guess one of my questions pertains to the significance of Akaky’s ghost and how he haunts the city. Is this a foreshadowing of how the lower gentry or bureaucracy will eventually rise up and take “revenge” on the self absorbed and entitled upper class? If yes, how would such literature be perceived by those Russians who could read and appreciate Gogol’s work?

The Overcoat (or really the Dressing-Gown)

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.

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.

The Overcoat

Akaky Akakievich is the epitome of the antihero. A boring, insignificant little man whose main pleasure in life is to copy documents, in fact his whole life consists of copying documents. His life however, is changed the day he realizes he has to buy a new coat. Lacking the money, he undertakes what could be called austerity measures and starves himself to be able to buy his new coat. Here we witness a first change in the character. Before, he was simply living in his own little world, the world of a diligent clerk who enjoyed the unexciting life he possessed. My assumption is that he received his rank early in his life, and had no possibilities of raising himself higher, thus explaining his stoic personality. Having to buy a new overcoat changed his life, for the first time he had a goal. His personality changes and he even finds this challenge to make him a driven person: In other words, he gets out of his routine and is exhilarated by the new one. Upon getting the new coat, Akaky is now filled with pride, although his former personality does try to steer him back to his old ways. To Akaky, this new overcoat symbolizes a new life, the only true achievement he ever and probably will ever make in his life. This new hope is however destroyed when his coat gets stolen, and nobody seems to really care to help him. Here Gogol uses this opportunity to demonstrate how ranks change a person, especially through the rather comical “Important man.” The story ends with Akaky dying of what appears to be pneumonia and possibly despair from realizing he will never get his dear overcoat back, and haunting the streets of Saint Petersburg trying to steal overcoat from the population.

My opinion, which I am aware could very well be wrong, of the overcoat is that Gogol was giving a critique of the rank system in place in Russia. He does so through Akaky and the very important man. Akaky is a man who is not supposed to achieve anything in his life because he has a low rank and will never really be able to pull himself any higher. The new overcoat does change him but also shows the manner in which he changes once he starts caring about something. In the case of the important man, the idea seems to be the same; he was a caring nice gentleman who received a promotion and now cannot help but crush people underneath him. I believe that the moral of the story is that the ranking system creates two types of people, whose personalities are dictated by their rank: stoic people who live without any passion to avoid any disappointment (Akaky) or people whose role in society is more important and who therefore cannot help but disregard the lesser ranks (the important man.)

The Overcoat

The language and imagery with which Nikolai Gogol writes allows the reader to further identify with the plight of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachin and his need to buy a new coat. This story really discusses how class affected how people interacted with one another and how people had to behave in order to live according to the social norms of the time. Akaky believed that by having a proper coat, he would be more successful in his job, however his need to conform to this social norm that results in his death. However, Gogol introduces the true cause of Akaky’s death, the drastic differences between the social classes and those trapped in the middle. Akaky was not in the lowest class nor was he in the upper class; this put him in a bit of a limbo, especially when one reads of the interactions between him and the Important Person. The greatest difference between the two characters is their standing in the social hierarchy and what one finds to be more important. To Akaky the coat represented the hours he worked and the things he and his family had to forgo in order to afford that coat, while to the Important Person it’s simply a coat. The ghost of Akaky’s new goal is to take the coats from others to compensate for his own stolen one. The final scene in which the Important Person gets his own coat stolen almost seems to symbolize the rise of the lower class over the higher ranked officials.

I was interesting to me to read this story and made me question why and how this story was published as it insults the social hierarchy and the importance of certain people. How did the general public view this story? Was it popular among a specific group of people?

Gogol- The Overcoat

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.