A poor man in Saint Petersburg, after many years of labor as a government clerk, scrapes together enough money to buy a much-needed overcoat. He wears it proudly for one day, only to have it stolen from him on a dark street that night.
The ironic humor of this tale about Akaky Akakyvitch, confined to interminable copying of government documents both by society and by his own narrow preferences, contrasts sharply with the stark social realism of the action.
Akaky never recovers his prize possession. He appeals to the general, identified as a “Person of Consequence,” but receives only a humiliating reprimand for not showing proper respect for rank. The distraught Akaky, crushed by the petty tyrant, who was only showing off his power before a friend, catches pneumonia on the way home and dies soon after.
The story ends with a seriocomic bit of Gothic fantasy. A corpse haunts the frigid night streets of Saint Petersburg, snatching fine overcoats off the backs of passersby. The ghost does not rest until, at last, he steals the luxurious fur coat of the terrified Person of Consequence who had humiliated him.
Although Nikolay Gogol was not particularly revolutionary in spirit, this tale had considerable influence on mid-nineteenth century Russian writers of the Critical Realism school, those interested in revealing the pitiable state of the “little man.” Fyodor Dostoevski once remarked that all Russian writers came from under Gogol’s “Overcoat.”
Gogol combined humor, symbol, and social message in several other works, as well, including a comic play, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL (1836), which also satirizes bureaucracy, and a novel, DEAD SOULS, which describes a con game in the provinces.
Alissandratos, Julia. “Filling in Some Holes in Gogol’s Not Wholly Unholy ‘Overcoat.’ ” The Slavonic and East European Review 68, no. 1 (January, 1990): 22-40. Examines the patterns and allusions relating to religious texts in Gogol’s story. Argues that Gogol parodies Russian religious tradition.
Chizhevsky, Dmitry. “About Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ ” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. An insightful essay that shows how Gogol’s seemingly humorous story points to a serious moral vision: The devil ensnares humans into obsession not only with exalted things in life, but also with trivia.
Eichenbaum, Boris. “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century, compiled by Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Analyzes Gogol’s stylistic technique, highlighting the performative nature of the narrative by focusing on its puns, hyperbole, and abrupt shifts in tone.
Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. Underscores the problematic nature of Gogol’s text. Noting the presence of discrete elements of several thematic patterns, this analysis concludes that “The Overcoat” remains elusive, pointing always to movement rather than resolution.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions, 1944. A dazzling evocation of the stylistic and verbal idiosyncrasies of Gogol’s text. Nabokov’s commentary identifies the salient features of Gogol’s style and suggests what kind of worldview this stylistic display reveals.