Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The theme of the common man suffering insult and injury because of the circumstances of modern life became such a central concern of nineteenth century Russian literature that a whole school of subsequent writers are viewed as being, in Fyodor Dostoevski’s words, “out from Gogol’s overcoat.” Although Akaky is portrayed as a somewhat grotesque, humorous figure, Gogol will not allow the reader to lose sight of his humanity. On its deepest level, the story is concerned with the basic theme of people’s inhumanity to other people. To emphasize this point, early in the story the author relates an incident in which one of the new young clerks observes the others teasing Akaky. In a state of compassion, the new clerk refuses to take part in the activity:And long afterward, during moments of the greatest gaiety, the figure of the humble little clerk with the bald patch on his head appeared before him with his heart-rending words: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and within those moving words he heard others: “I am your brother.” And the poor young man hid his face in his hands, and many times afterward in his life he shuddered, seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage brutality lies hidden under refined, cultured politeness.
Gogol explores this theme of people’s inhumanity to others with a brilliant, cutting satire that holds up people’s behavior for the reader’s critical examination.