Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Gogol’s use of the grotesque and the fantastic to portray his characters in his attacks on society’s ills recalls Charles Dickens on the one hand, and on the other, his use of a narrator with his continual digressions and comments on the expectations of readers recalls Laurence Sterne. Like both Dickens and Sterne, Gogol delights in the use of language for its own sake: idiomatic phrases, phonetic and etymological puns, wordplay in general. The names of his characters, the little idiosyncrasies of their behavior, and the oddities of their physical appearance become major elements in the controlling tone of his fiction. Gogol does not deeply explore complex human motivation; rather, his method is to identify the flaws in people’s social behavior and to hold that behavior up for critical examination. Because his method focuses on people’s social actions, it is not surprising that Gogol also is the author of one of the world’s great comic dramas, Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1890), a satire that also examines men’s actions in bureaucratic organizations. Gogol, who worked as a bureaucrat himself, also wrote an epic novel of satire, Myortvye dushi (1842, 1855; Dead Souls, 1887), which examines provincial avarice and which is based on a bureaucratic flaw in the method of counting serfs for taxing purposes on pre-emancipated Russian estates.

His satiric approach is finally so effective because of his underlying concern with people’s inhumanity to others. In the character of Akaky, Gogol gave the world its first modern common man, a man who is overwhelmed by the complex bureaucracy of which he is a part.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russian city founded by Czar Peter the Great to replace Moscow as the capital. The city gradually developed a special reputation. On one hand, it was viewed as a utopian, model city of the future, but on the other, it was seen as a realm of dark, unfriendly forces. By the time Gogol wrote “The Overcoat,” the city was rife with stories that highlighted the fantastic and mysterious quality of the place.

After Gogol’s hero, Akaky Akakievich, a meek and lowly clerk in the vast government bureaucracy, is assaulted by the bitterly cold wind of this northern city, he must have a new coat made. Gogol’s narrative suggests that Akaky’s decision may have led him into the clutches of demonic forces, and after his new coat is stolen from him, he strives without success to find a sympathetic figure in the city’s impersonal bureaucracy. Akaky dies from illness and sorrow, but after his death, rumors begin circulating that he has returned as a ghost to steal the coats of other people. The entire narrative, however, ends on a note of confusion or uncertainty, and this strange ending accords well with the enigmatic nature of the St. Petersburg setting. Although the tale evokes different aspects of city life—from the simple apartments of the poor clerks to the more elegant homes of the higher officials—Gogol’s narrator intentionally refuses to provide specific details and locations, thereby heightening the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty that permeates the work.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Nikolai Gogol lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russian history. It was a time when the strict censorship was imposed on...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Russian literature before the 1830s had been comprised almost entirely of poetry, while prose was reserved primarily for...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1840s: Russia is impacted by two political factions: the "Slavophiles," who support Russian culture and advocate an isolationist view;...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

One famous passage in ‘‘The Overcoat’’ describes how one of the clerks in the office is touched by Akaky Akakievich's protest against...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Overcoat’’ was made into a film of the same title in 1959 by Russian actor Alexei Batalov. This faithful adaptation was shot in...

(The entire section is 76 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Gogol's story ‘‘The Diary of a Madman’’ (‘‘Zapriski sumassehdshago’’), published in 1835, also makes use of the motif of a...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Maguire, Robert, ed., Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University...

(The entire section is 442 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 238 words.)