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.
(The entire section is 245 words.)
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The Human Condition
The universal human need for compassion is a central theme in "The Overcoat.'' Akaky Akakievich and others in the story deny their connection to the rest of humanity, but ultimately fail. This view of the human condition is embodied in the early passage in which the narrator describes the lack of compassion with which Akaky is treated by his co-workers: in one of Akaky's rare pleas to be left alone by his tormentors, a newer office-mate unexpectedly hears, ‘‘I am your brother.’’ The overcoat becomes a symbol for both a basic human need that unites us as well as our tragic tendency to deny that need. The coat is stolen by men supposedly mistaken for Akaky's friends. His efforts to retrieve the coat are thwarted by the hierarchical bureaucracy that encourages people to deny their common bonds and to treat one another without compassion. The story's "fantastic" ending underscores the interconnectedness of all humanity as Akaky's corpse returns to seek vengeance by stealing overcoats from random passersby and from "The Person of Consequence'' himself. Only after the tables have been turned by this supernatural visitation can "The Person of Consequence’’ recognize the error of his treatment of Akaky and others.
The prevalent theme of alienation is closely tied to the story's rendering of the human condition. Akaky Akakievich has no close friends and is so alienated from those around him that...
(The entire section is 627 words.)