Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In many a workplace, there is one person who serves as the object of the others’ cruel amusement. In “The Overcoat,” that person is Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a poor office worker whose very name reminds a Russian of excrement-befouled boots (from “kaka,” the child’s word for excrement, and “bashmak” for boot or shoe). His coworkers poke endless fun at him. They tear paper into confetti and sprinkle it over his head. Akaky protests only when the torment becomes extreme. Otherwise, he is content to work as a copy clerk, keeping his pencils sharp and copying document after document all day.
The fiercely cold St. Petersburg winter forces Akaky to consider the purchase of a new overcoat, since his old coat has worn to complete transparency and is useless. The tailor, Petrovich, suggests the possibility of owning a splendid new coat with a “catskin collar that could pass for marten.” After months of the most sacrificing parsimony (so many months, in fact, that it would have been summer and the coat not needed, but Gogol’s narrative logic is not fazed by this fact), Akaky saves the needed eighty rubles to buy the coat. He immediately wears it to work and basks for the first time in the admiration of his coworkers. One of them even invites Akaky to a birthday party. On the way home after the party, a group of “people with moustaches,” one of whom had a “fist the size of a civil servant’s head,” accosts him and strips him of his new coat.
Akaky knows that seeking redress for such a crime from the police...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
A lively narrator with his comments on the events of the plot—and his digressions from it—is one factor that makes “The Overcoat” so entertaining. As in other Gogol stories such as “The Nose,” the plot combines fantastic elements with narrative simplicity in the manner of a folktale. A lowly copying clerk sacrifices greatly to purchase an overcoat, which is a necessity in the harsh winter of St. Petersburg, located in northern Russia. Shortly afterward, the coat is stolen by thieves, and in despair, the clerk goes to powerful people in St. Petersburg to request help in its recovery. Because of the self-centeredness of these powerful people, the request is not handled properly, and the clerk dies as a consequence of exposure and despair. Unfairly treated, the clerk returns as a ghost to haunt St. Petersburg. In particular, the ghost seeks revenge on those powerful people who did not help him when he was alive.
However, this story is more than entertainment. On one level, it is an attack on the nature of bureaucracies, and appropriately enough, the narrator opens the story with a discussion of why the particular department in which the story occurs must remain unnamed. The narrator declares that there is nothing more touchy than a department, a regiment, a government office, or in fact, any sort of official body. The narrator does, however, name the clerk who is the protagonist—Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin—in a long discussion of how Akaky was christened this particular name. The name itself establishes the lowly nature of this clerk, since “kaky” in Russian is associated with fecal matter, and “bashmak” means “shoe.” Akaky is a hardworking clerk whom the other clerks tease and insult. A peaceful man, he harms no one, while others take advantage of him, making him the butt of the office jokes.
Akaky, however, can withstand the insults of his fellow workers; year after year, he continues at his job of hand-copying written documents, doing his work without errors. It is when his old overcoat wears out that his problems begin. The coat is so thin and threadbare that his fellow clerks term it “the dressing gown.” On Akaky’s low salary, a new coat—which would cost more than a quarter of one year’s wages—would seem to be beyond his means. Yet after Petrovich, the tailor, convinces Akaky that his old coat cannot be remade, Akaky realizes that he must save to buy a new one. He undergoes hardships to squeeze all available savings from his already meager life: He does without candles in the evening, does not wear his copying clothes at night so that he may cut down on the laundry bill, walks the...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In one of the bureaus of the government, there works a clerk named Akakii Akakiievich Bashmachkin. He is a short, pockmarked man with dim, watery eyes and reddish hair beginning to show spots of baldness. His grade in the service is that of perpetual titular councilor, a resounding title for his humble clerkship. He had been in the bureau for so many years that no one remembered when he had entered it or who had appointed him to the post. Directors and other officials come and go, but Akakii Akakiievich is always seen in the same place, in the same position, doing the same work: copying documents. No one ever treats him with respect. His superiors regard him with disdain, and his fellow clerks make him the butt of their rude jokes and horseplay.
Akakii Akakiievich lives only for his work, without thought for pleasure or his dress. His frock coat is no longer the prescribed green but a faded rusty color. Usually it has sticking to it wisps of hay or thread or bits of litter someone had thrown into the street as he was passing by, for he walks to and from work in complete oblivion of his surroundings. Reaching home, he gulps his cabbage soup and perhaps a bit of beef, in a hurry to begin transcribing papers he brings home from the office. He goes to bed soon after his labors are finished. Such is the life of Akakii Akakiievich, satisfied with his pittance of four hundred rubles a year.
Even clerks on four hundred a year, however, must protect themselves against the harsh cold of northern winters. Akakii Akakiievich owns an overcoat so old and threadbare that over the back and shoulders one can see through the material to the torn lining beneath. At last he decides to take the overcoat to Petrovich, a tailor who does a large business repairing the garments of petty bureaucrats. Petrovich shakes his head over the worn overcoat and announces that it is beyond mending, fit only for footcloths. For one hundred and fifty rubles, he says, he will make Akakii Akakiievich a new overcoat, but he will not touch the old one.
When he leaves the tailor’s shop, the clerk is in a sad predicament. He has no money for an overcoat and little prospect of raising so large a sum. Walking blindly down the street, he fails to notice the sooty chimney sweep who jostles him, blacking one shoulder, or the lime that falls on him from a building under construction. The next Sunday, he sees Petrovich again and begs the tailor to mend his old garment. The tailor surlily refuses. Then Akakii Akakiievich realizes that he must yield to the inevitable. He knows that Petrovich will do the work for eighty rubles. Half of that amount he could pay with money he saved, one kopeck at a time, over a period of years. Perhaps in another year he could put aside a like amount by doing without tea and candles at night and by walking as carefully as possible to save his shoe leather....
(The entire section is 1174 words.)