The Overcoat

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The Overcoat Symbol Analysis

The Overcoat Symbol Icon

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s comment, “We all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’,” may indicate how broadly the symbol of the overcoat can be interpreted. The coat represents a number of different ideas, and its meaning also shifts as the story progresses. At the outset, Akaky Akakievich’s need for a new overcoat is driven by a basic human need: he has to survive the St. Petersburg cold. Here, the coat represents a baseline standard of living that is difficult for Akaky to obtain as a low-level government bureaucrat—in order to save up enough money for the coat, he has to go hungry for several months. Later, the care invested into the coat by Petrovich the tailor endows the coat with greater meaning, as the coat is not only a means of survival, but also a kind of work of art. The overcoat then becomes a symbol for the significance that care and material goods can bring in life. Akaky also experiences this, as he senses that his mission to save up for the coat gives his life a new purpose. The coat allows Akaky, whose life has been extremely dull and repetitive up until then, to experience the feeling of being a unique individual.

When Akaky Akakievich finally obtains the overcoat, it begins to represent the social interactions that determine status and success. Over the course of the story, it becomes more apparent that the bureaucracy Akaky belongs to is based on appearances and superficial status symbols: officials only work when they believe it will raise their social stature, and higher-ups are more interested in maintaining their reputation than assisting the helpless. Akaky’s new coat immediately makes his coworkers treat him with more respect, but when he loses the coat they once again forget about him.

Because “The Overcoat” is such a famous and well-studied story, the titular symbol has been interpreted in several other ways throughout history as well. A more Freudian, psychoanalytic perspective of the overcoat focuses on the coat as symbolic of a spouse, or for sexual desire itself. Akaky only expresses himself and his sexuality (chasing after women, basically) once he buys the overcoat. The overcoat then becomes a stand-in for a lover for Akaky, as he treats it with tenderness and adoration, and when he receives it he feels “as if he were married.” Ultimately, the overcoat itself is such a complex symbol, and so simply presented, that its very ordinariness is what makes Gogol’s story so extraordinary.

The Overcoat Quotes in The Overcoat

The The Overcoat quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Overcoat. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Overcoat published in 2006.
The Overcoat Quotes

“I'm afraid it can't be done, sir,” replied Petrovich firmly. “It's too far gone. You'd be better off if you cut it up for the winter and made some leggings with it, because socks aren't any good in the really cold weather. The Germans invented them as they thought they could make money out of them.” (Petrovich liked to have a dig at Germans.) “As for the coat, you'll have to have a new one, sir.”
The word “new” made Akaky's eyes cloud over and everything in the room began to swim round. All he could see clearly was the pasted-over face of the general on Petrovich's snuff-box.

Related Characters: Petrovich (speaker), The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Akaky has taken his old, tattered overcoat to Petrovich, the alcoholic tailor. Noticing that Petrovich is sober instead of drunk as usual, Akaky grows nervous; he stares at the image of a general on Petrovich's snuffbox, over which Petrovich has stuck a square piece of paper. Akaky's strong reaction to Petrovich's insistence that the coat cannot be mended further emphasizes Akaky's weak, pathetic character. Rather than face Petrovich directly, Akaky chooses to stare at the face of the general, a symbol of authority. On the other hand, Akaky's despair at the news about his coat is also somewhat understandable, considering he does not have enough money for a new coat, yet needs one to survive the cold. 

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Frankly, Akaky Akakievich found these privations quite a burden to begin with, but after a while he got used to them. He even trained himself to go without any food at all in the evenings, for his nourishment was spiritual, his thoughts always full of that overcoat which one day was to be his. From that time onwards his whole life seemed to have become richer, as though he had married and another human being was by his side. It was as if he was not alone at all but had some pleasant companion who had agreed to tread life's path together with him; and this companion was none other than the overcoat with its thick cotton-wool padding and strong lining, made to last a lifetime. He livened up and, like a man who has set himself a goal, became more determined.

Related Characters: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 153-154
Explanation and Analysis:

Having realized he has no choice but to try to gather enough money for a new coat, Akaky decides he must forego many of the items he usually spends money on, including tea, candles, and even food. While at first this decision feels like "quite a burden," eventually Akaky finds that it gives him a new sense of purpose, "as though he had married and another human being was by his side." This newfound vitality suggests that Akaky's life, without his even realizing it, previously lacked a sense of meaning; while he derives pleasure and satisfaction from his civil service work, the endless monotony of copying does not provide the same sense of direction and momentum as the goal of buying a new coat. 

This passage provides compelling evidence for the interpretation that the overcoat takes on symbolic sexual significance within the story. Akaky is presented as being in a kind of romantic haze, adopting the behaviors (loss of appetite, obsessive thoughts, increased vigor) that we usually associate with being in love. Akaky's fantasies about the coat, "with its thick cotton-wool padding and strong lining," can be read as an example of commodity fetishism, in which Akaky imbues the object of the overcoat with value disproportionate to its material properties. Like a newlywed who dreams he will live "happily ever after," Akaky fixates on the robust nature of the coat, which is "made to last a lifetime." 

It was...precisely which day it is difficult to say, but without any doubt it was the most triumphant day in Akaky Akakievich's whole life when Petrovich at last delivered the overcoat… Petrovich delivered the overcoat in person—just as a good tailor should. Akaky Akakievich had never seen him looking so solemn before. He seemed to know full well that his was no mean achievement, and that he had suddenly shown by his own work the gulf separating tailors who only relined or patched up overcoats from those who make new ones, right from the beginning.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Having spent months living frugally and saving money, Akaky is surprised by the director of his department giving him a bonus, and is eventually able to pay Petrovich to make the new overcoat. They buy materials together, and when the coat is finished, Petrovich delivers it to its new owner in person. The narrator describes this moment as "the most triumphant day in Akaky Akakievich's whole life," a superlative that is simultaneously comically absurd and strangely moving. While both Akaky and Petrovich are flawed and not particularly likeable, the fact that through their combined efforts they create something exceptional provides a note of optimism within the story.

On the other hand, this exaggerated sense of triumph in the midst of an otherwise bleak, depressing narrative suggests that this moment of good fortune may turn out to be too good to be true. The fact that Akaky and Petrovich are portrayed as unfortunate characters tinges their achievement with the anticipation of tragedy, and signals that it is doomed to eventually go wrong. 

At first Akaky Akakievich had to pass through some badly lit, deserted streets, but the nearer he got to the civil servant's flat the more lively and crowded they became, and the brighter the lamps shone. More and more people dashed by and he began to meet beautifully dressed ladies, and men with beaver collars. Here there were not so many cheap cabmen with their wooden basketwork sleighs studded with gilt nails. Instead, there were dashing coachmen with elegant cabs, wearing crimson velvet caps, their sleighs lacquered and covered with bearskins. Carriages with draped boxes simply flew down the streets with their wheels screeching over the snow.
Akaky Akakievich surveyed this scene as though he had never witnessed anything like it in his life. For some years now he had not ventured out at all in the evenings.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

Akaky's coworkers have reacted in a comically favorable way to his new overcoat, congratulating him and insisting that they must celebrate his new possession. A high-ranking official has offered to host a party at his home, which is in a fancy neighborhood; as Akaky approaches the official's apartment, he describes the beautiful dress of the people he sees around him. This passage emphasizes the vast difference the coat has made to Akaky's existence; whereas previously his life was dreary and dull, it is now populated by elegant clothes, fast carriages, and street lamps that glow brighter than in other parts of the city.

It is almost as if Akaky's new overcoat has magically transported him into a new world of beautiful objects. The scene has an unreal quality, exaggerated in the same way as Petrovich's solemnity and the over-the-top enthusiasm of Akaky's colleagues. Akaky himself is like a character in a fairy tale who has arrived in a world with which he has no familiarity. 

Although he was somewhat overwhelmed by this reception, since he was a rather simple-minded and ingenuous person, he could not help feeling glad at the praises showered on his overcoat. And then, it goes without saying, they abandoned him, overcoat included, and turned their attention to the customary whist tables. All the noise and conversation and crowds of people—this was a completely new world for Akaky Akakievich. He simply did not know what to do, where to put his hands or feet or any other part of himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

Akaky has arrived at the party and feels awkward, as he is unused to being in this kind of social situation. However, his coworkers have acted in a friendly manner, continuing to heap praises on his coat, and Akaky relaxes. Yet eventually the other guests turn their attention away from him, and Akaky's awkwardness returns. To some degree, this part of the story may elicit further sympathy for Akaky, as it is not uncommon for people to feel awkwardness at social gatherings. On the other hand, Akaky is unusually bad at handling such situations, confirming the idea that he is like a person who has been transported to a strange and distant land. This impression is further emphasized by the narrator's comment that "this was a completely new world for Akaky Akakievich." 

The story of the stolen overcoat touched many of the clerks, although a few of them could not refrain from laughing at Akaky Akakievich even then. There and then they decided to make a collection, but all they raised was a miserable little sum since, apart from any extra expense, they had nearly exhausted all their funds subscribing to a new portrait of the Director as well as to some book or other recommended by one of the heads of department—who happened to be a friend of the author. So they collected next to nothing.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

On the way home from the party hosted in his honor, Akaky was robbed by two thieves, who stole his overcoat. Distraught, he has attempted to report the theft to the Superintendent, who is uncooperative and suspicious. At work, Akaky's colleagues have already heard that his coat has been stolen, and treat him with rather limited sympathy. They pool money for a replacement coat, but this turns out to be a rather empty gesture, as they have all used up any extra funds to buy a new portrait of the Director and a book written by a friend of a friend. These details prove that the kindness and generosity extended to Akaky by his colleagues was flimsy and superficial, based on the coat he no longer has and not on him.

While the coat acted as a means by which Akaky came to be accepted and embraced by his colleagues, they are so focused on the social network created by wealth and power that, without his coat, Akaky once again becomes meaningless to them, and some even treat him with the same mocking cruelty as before. The fact that the other civil servants have spent money on a new portrait of the Director, and on a book whose author they are socially connected to, shows the supreme importance of status and power in the story; indeed, these are forces that trump basic moral qualities of kindness and empathy. 

What exactly this Important Person did and what position he held remains a mystery to this day. All we need say is that this Important Person had become important only a short while before, and that until then he had been an unimportant person. However, even now his position was not considered very important if compared with others which were still more important. But you will always come across a certain class of people who consider something unimportant which for other people is in fact important. However, he tried all manners and means of buttressing his importance.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Important Person
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Akaky's more sympathetic colleagues has advised him that, instead of going to the police to report his stolen coat, Akaky should seek the help of a mysterious Important Person. Like all other identifying details in the story, the exact position of the Important Person and the reason why he is important are not revealed. However, unlike other factors such as the department in which Akaky works, the narrator is not deliberately withholding the information, but admits that he does not know himself. This suggests that there may be something dubious about the Important Person's status, implying that he is perhaps only important because others have arbitrarily decided that this is the case, rather than because of anything he has done to earn himself such a qualification.

The narrator also explains that the Important Person is not that important in comparison to other, more important people, and that it is only recently that he has come to be thought of as important. This further emphasizes the arbitrariness of the Important Person's status, and comically critiques the complex hierarchical structure of Russian society. As the narrator notes, the Important person is fixated on his own importance ("he tried all manners and means of buttressing his importance"), yet his position within the hierarchy seems to be, objectively speaking, rather groundless. And, by extension, the entire way that the bureaucratic system determines importance seems arbitrary, meaningless, and a mystery even to those who become important, and yet everyone in the system treats the important people as if they have some kind of inherent value (even the important people themselves).

Finally poor Akaky Akakievich gave up the ghost. Neither his room nor what he had in the way of belongings was sealed off, in the first place, because he had no family, and in the second place, because his worldly possessions did not amount to very much at all… Whom all this went to, God only knows, and the author of this story confesses that he is not even interested. Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on without its Akaky Akakievich just as though he had never even existed.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Having failed to find his overcoat again, Akaky has grown ill with a fever. The doctor, certain that Akaky will not survive, has advised Akaky's landlady to order him a cheap coffin. When Akaky does indeed die, St Petersburg carries on "just as though he had never existed." The narrator notes that he is unsure and uninterested in what happened to Akaky's few world possessions. This is perhaps the most obviously tragic moment in the novel. Akaky's death by fever demonstrates the power of the natural elements as the arbiter of life and death––although of course it does not help that Akaky was caught up in a cruel, illogical bureaucracy that hindered him from finding his coat.

The fact that St Petersburg goes on as usual shows that Akaky is as inconsequential in death as he was in life. Meanwhile, the statement that "the author of this story confesses that he is not even interested" in what happened to Akaky's belongings highlights a coldness and cruelty on the part of the narrator, too. Despite the fact that the story is about him, Akaky's life is too dull and pathetic to even be worth rendering in its full detail. 

So vanished and disappeared for ever a human being whom no one ever thought of protecting, who was dear to no one, in whom no one was the least interested, not even the naturalist who cannot resist sticking a pin in a common fly and examining it under the microscope; a being who endured the mockery of his colleagues without protesting, who went to his grave without achieving anything in his life, but to whom, nonetheless (just before the end of his life) a shining visitor in the form of an overcoat suddenly appeared, brightening his wretched life for one fleeting moment; a being upon whose head disaster had cruelly fallen, just as it falls upon the kings and great ones of this earth...

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Having described Akaky's unceremonious death from fever, the narrator emphasizes Akaky's absolute unimportance to the world. According to the narrator, no one loved Akaky, and he wasn't even as interesting as a fly studied by a biologist; indeed, the only good thing that happened to Akaky in his life was the overcoat, although of course this episode too ends in "disaster." This passage is a key example of the way Gogol combines tragedy and comedy in the story, simultaneously compelling the reader to feel immensely sad for Akaky while laughing at just how absurdly awful and meaningless his life is. The use of a run-on sentence helps increase the impression that Akaky's life consists of one terrible fact after the next, creating comic momentum. 

There is also a note of irony in the fact that the narrator claims "no one was the least interested" in Akaky, as the narrator himself has written a story about him, a story that someone must now be reading. This ironic tone continues within the narrator's description of the overcoat, which is anthropomorphized as a "shining visitor." Once again, the overcoat's ability to drastically transform and improve Akaky's life is humorously exaggerated. The narrator's final comment that disaster fell on Akaky "just as it falls upon the kings and great ones of this earth" reminds us that, while Akaky may have been an exceptionally sad and unlucky character, misfortune happens to everyone. Indeed, this may provide a clue as to the narrator's justification for why this story is worth telling: the tragedy that befell Akaky is somehow shared by all of humanity. And, if Akaky's death is somehow relatable to all humanity, there is an implication that perhaps his meaningless, absurd life is as well.

But the Important Person's terror passed all bounds when the ghost's mouth became twisted, smelling horribly of the grave as it breathed on him and pronounced the following words: “Ah, at last I've found you! Now I've, er, hm, collared you! It's your overcoat I'm after! You didn't care about mine, and you couldn't resist giving me a good ticking-off into the bargain! Now hand over your overcoat!” The poor Important Person nearly died. However much strength of character he displayed in the office (usually in the presence of his subordinates)… he was so frightened that he even began to fear (and not without reason) that he was in for a heart attack.

Related Characters: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (speaker), The Narrator (speaker), The Important Person
Related Symbols: The Overcoat
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

After Akaky's death, people have begun reporting seeing his ghost on the Kalinkin bridge, stealing people's overcoats as they pass by. Meanwhile, the Important Person has been feeling guilty about how he treated Akaky, and has attempted to reach out to him, only to find that he has died. One day, as the Important Person is leaving a party on the way to see his mistress, Akaky's ghost approaches him and nearly frightens him to death.

This interaction has a cathartic function in the narrative; in the face of Akaky's ghostly presence, the Important Person's ego is immediately deflated and he is terrified. The "strength of character" he displayed "in the presence of his subordinates" does not hold up against the threatening sight of a ghost. 

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The Overcoat Symbol Timeline in The Overcoat

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Overcoat appears in The Overcoat. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Overcoat
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
...punished by this cold, decides that it is time for him to get a new overcoat. Akaky’s current coat has been the butt of many jokes in his department, as it... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
...to bargain as effectively. He begins nervously, unable to complete his sentence. Petrovich takes his coat and examines it. After some time, he shakes his head and declares it impossible to... (full context)
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
Akaky resolves to return to Petrovich on Sunday morning to try to bargain for his coat. When he visits the tailor again, he hands Petrovich a ten-copeck piece and asks him... (full context)
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
...Narrator notes that Akaky’s spirit begins to change. With the goal of purchasing a new overcoat in mind, he becomes livelier and more decisive. His existence becomes “richer, as though he... (full context)
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Petrovich works on the overcoat for two weeks and charges twelve rubles for the job, the lowest price possible. The... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
At his department, everyone congratulates Akaky on his new overcoat. They insist that the event must be celebrated, and that Akaky must host an evening... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
Akaky reaches the assistant head clerk’s apartment and hangs up his overcoat. He enters the main room and is greeted by a bustling scene full of officials,... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
...is suddenly standing in front of two bearded men. One of the thieves grabs his overcoat. Akaky is about to shout for help, but then the other thief threatens to hit... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
...to his department, but he shows up to work the following morning in his old overcoat. The news of his stolen coat has spread around the department, and while many pity... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
...time, he summons Akaky and addresses him rudely. Akaky tongue-tied, attempts to explain that his overcoat has been stolen and that he is seeking the official’s help. Offended by the inferior... (full context)
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
...is at that moment delirious. Akaky sees visions of Petrovich, the thieves, and his old overcoat. In his delirium, he apologizes to the Important Person, but then begins to curse. His... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
...of study. He was completely mediocre, though toward the end of his life, his new overcoat “suddenly appeared, brightening his wretched life for one fleeing moment….” Several days after his death,... (full context)
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon
...the city that a ghost has been appearing on the Kalinkin Bridge seeking a stolen overcoat and stripping the cloak off of every man who passes. One official recognizes the dead... (full context)
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art  Theme Icon
...very pale. Akaky opens his putrid-smelling mouth and demands that the official give up his overcoat. The Important Person, absolutely horrified, throws his cloak at Akaky and commands his coachman to... (full context)