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.)
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.)