Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
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 streets “almost on tiptoe” so as to spare shoe soles. These privations, however, give Akaky a great sense of purpose, and instead of feeling deprived, he feels spiritually nourished by his ordeal. The uncertainty and indecision that characterized his previous life now vanishes as he contemplates the beauty of the coat he shall wear.
At last, after more than a year of such hardship, Akaky orders the coat made. When the tailor delivers it, the coat’s beauty and warmth make this day the most triumphant in Akaky’s life. At the office, his supervisor, the assistant head clerk, insists on having a party at his house in honor of the occasion, and that evening, filled with pride, Akaky walks across town to attend the festivities. At midnight, after a wonderful evening of eating and drinking, Akaky starts his walk home. It is then that disaster strikes: Out in one of the large squares of the city, two men overwhelm Akaky and steal his coat, leaving him unconscious in the snow. When he wakes, he begins screaming, and runs to a police officer’s sentry box on the other side of the square for help. The officer tells him that nothing can be done now, that Akaky...
(The entire section contains 1081 words.)
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