Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245
The theme of the common man suffering insult and injury because of the circumstances of modern life became such a central concern of nineteenth century Russian literature that a whole school of subsequent writers are viewed as being, in Fyodor Dostoevski’s words, “out from Gogol’s overcoat.” Although Akaky is portrayed as a somewhat grotesque, humorous figure, Gogol will not allow the reader to lose sight of his humanity. On its deepest level, the story is concerned with the basic theme of people’s inhumanity to other people. To emphasize this point, early in the story the author relates an incident in which one of the new young clerks observes the others teasing Akaky. In a state of compassion, the new clerk refuses to take part in the activity:And long afterward, during moments of the greatest gaiety, the figure of the humble little clerk with the bald patch on his head appeared before him with his heart-rending words: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and within those moving words he heard others: “I am your brother.” And the poor young man hid his face in his hands, and many times afterward in his life he shuddered, seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage brutality lies hidden under refined, cultured politeness.
Gogol explores this theme of people’s inhumanity to others with a brilliant, cutting satire that holds up people’s behavior for the reader’s critical examination.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
The Human Condition
The universal human need for compassion is a central theme in "The Overcoat.'' Akaky Akakievich and others in the story deny their connection to the rest of humanity, but ultimately fail. This view of the human condition is embodied in the early passage in which the narrator describes the lack of compassion with which Akaky is treated by his co-workers: in one of Akaky's rare pleas to be left alone by his tormentors, a newer office-mate unexpectedly hears, ‘‘I am your brother.’’ The overcoat becomes a symbol for both a basic human need that unites us as well as our tragic tendency to deny that need. The coat is stolen by men supposedly mistaken for Akaky's friends. His efforts to retrieve the coat are thwarted by the hierarchical bureaucracy that encourages people to deny their common bonds and to treat one another without compassion. The story's "fantastic" ending underscores the interconnectedness of all humanity as Akaky's corpse returns to seek vengeance by stealing overcoats from random passersby and from "The Person of Consequence'' himself. Only after the tables have been turned by this supernatural visitation can "The Person of Consequence’’ recognize the error of his treatment of Akaky and others.
The prevalent theme of alienation is closely tied to the story's rendering of the human condition. Akaky Akakievich has no close friends and is so alienated from those around him that he usually seems unwilling—or unable—to communicate at all. The anonymous, dehumanizing bureaucracy in which Akaky works epitomizes and perpetuates alienation. Difference in bureaucratic rank is an impediment to communication for both Akaky, who is intimidated by authority, and ‘‘The Person of Consequence,’’ who feels obliged to insist on proper protocol. Akaky's total immersion in his copyist's job keeps him in isolation and further impairs his ability to communicate, as he becomes fixated on mere language fragments—the shapes of letters, and isolated words and phrases.
Language and Meaning
In addition to its pernicious, alienating effects on individuals, bureaucracy in ‘‘The Overcoat’’ also undermines language itself and its function as a medium for meaningful communication. The narrator's digressive way of telling the story, frequently using meaningless phrases like ‘‘as it were’’ and ‘‘so to speak,’’ seems infected with the self-conscious and pompous culture of the bureaucratic office. Akaky's troubles with language begin before he can even speak, when he is christened with his absurd, repetitive and slightly off-color name. His mother, after rejecting equally absurd suggestions from the child's godparents (who are, not coinci-dentally, a head clerk in the Senate and the wife of a police official), decides to name the child after her husband (also a government clerk): "His father is Akaky; let the son be Akaky, too.’’ As he lay dying, Akaky is reduced to speaking "a medley of nonsense,’’ which though obscene at times is also interspersed with the occasional ‘‘your Excellency,’’ the appropriate polite form of address to a superior.
The return of Akaky's corpse introduces a "fantastic" element into a story otherwise grounded in a realistic, contemporary setting and the mundane life of a clerk. Other aspects of the story could be described as exaggerated or absurd—Akaky Akakievich's name, and a bureaucratic reprimand so severe that it sends someone to his deathbed—but the story's ending is unique and, as the narrator comments, "unexpected." The supernatural intervention of Akaky's corpse appears in the story as the only means for redemption: by turning the tables on ‘‘The Person of Consequence,’’ the corpse not only avenges Akaky but brings about his victim's acknowledgment of his own humanity as well. While not an explicitly religious image, Akaky's corpse seems to embody many of Gogol's spiritual concerns in an interesting—perhaps profane—twist on Christian mythology.