The Overcoat

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)