(Short Story Criticism)

"The Overcoat" Nikolai Gogol

The following entry presents criticism of Gogol's short story "Shinel'" ("The Overcoat"), first published in 1842 in Sochinenya (The Works of Nikolai Gogol). See also Nos Criticism.

Considered one of Russia's greatest prose stylists, Gogol was an important influence on his country's literature. His short story "The Overcoat" has been deemed by many critics as the greatest story in the Russian language and a key work in the evolution of Russian literature toward realism. A quote long attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, that "We all come from Gogol's 'Overcoat'," has often been employed by critics to summarize the importance of this story to Russian literature. "The Overcoat" epitomizes Gogol's writing style, combining elements of realism, fantasy, comedy, and the grotesque.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Overcoat" tells the story of Akaky Akakyevich, an impoverished government clerk who lives a solitary life. One day he realizes that his winter overcoat has become worn out. He takes it to the tailor to be mended but is told that it cannot be repaired and that he will have to have a new one made. Akaky undergoes extreme deprivation in order to save money for a new overcoat. In the process, the coat begins to take a central role in his life and he begins to view the garment as the key to his future happiness. After he finally acquires the new garment, it is stolen. His calls for help and his subsequent pleas for justice go unheeded, and he falls ill with a fever and dies. After his death a ghost resembling Akaky roams the city stealing overcoats.

Major Themes

Gogol's blending of comic, grotesque, realist, and fantastic elements in "The Overcoat" has led to a wide range of opinions concerning the story's themes and the significance of its ending. The work has been interpreted variously as a story of social injustice, as tale of urban alienation and human isolation, and as a love story, with the coat serving as a metaphor for the love interest. The theme of the "little man" against "the system" was a popular one among Russian writers in the nineteenth century, and "The Overcoat" is one of many stories featuring the figure of the impoverished and mistreated government clerk. One significant way in which Gogol's story differs from others of this type, however, is its presentation of the main character. It is unclear whether the reader should feel sympathy for the poor clerk—the typical response toward such characters—or whether one should regard this as ultimately a comic tale with fun being made at Akaky Akakyevich's expense. It is also not precisely clear whether Akaky is victorious against the system. Despite such ambiguity, critics have consistently noted the resonant irony and lyrical power with which Gogol invested this story.

Critical Reception

Gogol's contemporaries focused on the lyricism of "The Overcoat" and lauded what they considered the story's ground-breaking social realism which evoked sympathy for the main character (or at least for his situation). Some critics continue to hold the opinion that this is a story of social protest and that Akaky Akakyevich is the quintessential little man. Others, however, find evidence to the contrary. Early twentieth-century critics such as Boris Eichenbaum and Dmitry Chizhevsky became interested in the structure and unique narrative style of the story and in how these aspects affect the overall theme. Eichenbaum argued that Gogol's use of puns, word play, and narrative devices creates a comic and grotesque effect that makes the story a mockery of a social protest. Chizhevsky, in his formalist study, found the story to be about spiritual poverty and the dangers of worldly obsessions and passions. Later scholars have viewed the story from a psychological perspective, asserting that the overcoat symbolizes a mask that enables Akaky to disguise his spiritual destitution. Others have taken a metaphysical approach, interpreting the final loss of the coat and Akaky's futile pleas for help as emblematic of humanity's spiritual desolation in an indifferent cosmos.

Boris Eichenbaum (essay date 1919)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Structure of Gogol's The Overcoat,'" translated by Beth Paul and Muriel Nesbitt in Russian Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1963, pp. 377-99.

[In this essay, which was first published in Russian in 1919, Eichenbaum examines the narrative devices of "The Overcoat" and discusses their relationship to the structure of the story. He argues that the comic and pathetic elements work together to create a grotesque style.]

The structure of a short story depends in large part on the kind of role which the author's personal tone plays in it, i.e., on whether this tone is an organizing principle, creating more or less the illusion of a narrative in the...

(The entire section is 7468 words.)

Dmitri Chizhevsky (essay date 1938)

(Short Story Criticism)

"On Gogol's The Overcoat,'" translated by Priscilla Meyer and Steven Rudy, in Dostoevsky & Gogol: Texts and Criticism, edited by Priscilla Meyer and Steven Rudy, Ardis, 1979, pp. 137-60.

[The excerpt below was originally published in Russian in 1938 in the journal Sovremennye zapiski. Here, Chizhevsky looks at the frequent use of the word dazhe, "even," and argues that this textual detail helps establish the narrative style and tone of the story as well as providing a key to interpreting the main theme of "The Overcoat."]


Is it necessary to write more about "The Overcoat"? We all know Gogol's tale from our school days, and...

(The entire section is 9452 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Apotheosis of a Mask," in Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1944, 139-50.

[A Russian-born American man of letters perhaps best known for the novels Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), Nabokov was a prolific contributor to many literary fields. He was fascinated with all aspects of the creative life: in his works, he explored the origins of creativity, the relationships of artists to their work, and the nature of invented reality. In the following essay Nabokov extols Gogol's abstract and highly stylized technique and concludes that "The Overcoat" "is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas."]

Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always...

(The entire section is 3227 words.)

John Schillinger (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Gogol's 'The Overcoat' as a Travesty of Hagiography," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1972, pp. 36-41.

[In this essay Schillinger asserts that "The Overcoat" is "a travesty of the saints' calendar account of St. Acacius of Sinai, and to some extent of hagiography itself ."]

Does the name Akakij Akakievi in Gogol's "The Overcoat" indicate more than Gogol's familiar sense of humor? Quite possibly. Another origin, and this is offered by Gogol himself at Akakij Akakievič's christening, is an Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints. Among the saints in such a calendar are several Saints Acacius, one of whom, sixth-century St. Acacius of Sinai,...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

The Life of Saint Acacius of Sinai

(Short Story Criticism)

The blessed John Climacus writes in his book about this holy monk Acacius thus: The most revered John Sabbaites informed me of this incident, truthful and worthy of hearing, saying: There was a certain elder who was very lazy and evil, whom I shall mention only and not judge, yet I shall reveal the suffering endured by this holy one. I shall tell you about this one. The elder had a young disciple named Acacius, who was simple of manner and chaste of mind and who endured so much evil from the elder that there are many who cannot believe it to be true. Not only was he tormented by the elder's humiliations and reproaches, but for days on end he was tormented by wounds inflicted by the elder. He did not...

(The entire section is 38391 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Alissandratos, Julia. 'Tilling in Some Holes in Gogol's Not Wholly Unholy Overcoat'." The Slavonic and East European Review 68, No. 1 (January 1990): 22-40.

Looks at structural and narrative similarities between "The Overcoat" and traditional Russian hagiography (idealized biographies of saints).

Bailey, James. "Some Remarks about the Structure of Gogol's Overcoat.'" In Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev, ed. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham, pp. 13-22. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1974.

Gives a detailed structural analysis of "The Overcoat," in order to...

(The entire section is 498 words.)