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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.