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 should report his loss to the police inspector the next day.
When Akaky arrives home in his distraught state, his landlady advises him to go the next morning directly to the police commissioner, because the police inspector might deceive him. So, the next day, Akaky goes to the house of the official, but instead of providing assistance, the man questions Akaky on what he was doing out at such a late hour, and Akaky leaves, more confused than ever.
The next day, when Akaky arrives at work in his “dressing gown,” the clerks take up a collection for him, but very little money is raised—the clerks simply do not have much left over from their wages. One of the clerks, however, urges Akaky to appeal for help to some person of consequence. The clerk knows the name of such a person, and he gives Akaky that name. Akaky does go to this “Person of Consequence,” but the results prove disastrous. The Person of Consequence has only recently assumed his position, and when Akaky calls, he has an old friend for a visitor. To impress his friend, the Person of Consequence uses his most supercilious manner on Akaky, and Akaky flees the interview in complete confusion. Dazed, he stumbles around the streets of St. Petersburg in a snowstorm, and the next day comes down with pneumonia. Within a short while, Akaky goes into delirium, curses the Person of Consequence, and dies.
Several days after his death, a ghost begins to haunt the neighborhood, stripping the coats off passers-by. Orders are given to catch the ghost “regardless of trouble or expense, dead or alive, and to punish him severely, as an example to others.” The impossible nature of this order—as a ghost cannot be caught, and to punish him is ridiculous—couched in these bureaucratic terms illustrates the satiric nature of this story. One late night, the Person of Consequence is crossing town in his sleigh when the ghost confronts him, grabbing his coat collar and declaring, “It’s your overcoat I want; you refused to help me and abused me into the bargain! So now give me yours!” The ghost then strips the horrified Person of Consequence of his coat and leaves him disoriented and frightened. His revenge complete, the ghost disappears forever.
The story ends with the final point of the incident making such an impression on the Person of Consequence that he never again abused the clerks under him in such a manner as he had abused Akaky.