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.