The Overcoat

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Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Analysis

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The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon
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Bureaucracy and Selfhood Theme Icon

Nikolai Gogol’s Russia was a country run by an extremely unwieldy bureaucracy. Under the control of Tsar Nicholas I, the government was large, slow, and corrupt. Much of this was due to the fact that many of the civil servants in the Russian system were uneducated and very poor. In “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is one such civil servant. Though he can read and write and is not at the lowest rung of the bureaucratic hierarchy, he can still barely support himself. Over the course of the story, Gogol reveals the ways in which Akaky Akakievich’s individuality is oppressed and denied by his bureaucratic society, to the point where he is neglected at the time of his greatest need.

From the story’s outset, Gogol presents Russia’s bureaucratic oppression as a major theme. The narrator is unwilling to name the department in which Akaky Akakievich worked, fearing censorship or some other form of retribution. The clerk’s superiors are described as dictators, and Akaky is paid so little that he can barely survive the brutal cold in St. Petersburg. The difficulty of Akaky Akakievich’s life is compounded by the incompetence of this bureaucracy, which we see at work when he attempts to report the theft of his prized overcoat. A fellow clerk informs him that it would be useless to go to the police, who only work to please their superiors, and would not return to the overcoat even if they found it. Akaky Akakievich then seeks the help of an “Important Person,” and there discovers that Russia’s higher-ups care more about maintaining their appearance of importance than actually performing government work. By directly communicating with the Important Person instead of going through the “proper channels,” Akaky violates the superior official’s sense of hierarchy. Offended, the Important Person angrily throws Akaky out of his office: Akaky Akakievich’s individual needs are completely neglected in favor of the preservation of a strict bureaucratic hierarchy and the egos of the officials within it.

Interestingly, though Akaky Akakievich suffers under this bureaucratic system, he genuinely enjoys his bureaucratic job. Unlike the protagonist of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener”—a copier who refuses to bear the drudgery of his work, and ultimately chooses to die rather than live under the heel of an oppressive system—Akaky Akakievich is content to be a cog in the Russian government. He works, as Gogol writes, “with love.” Outside of his job, the clerk has no other concerns: all he does is eat, sleep, and copy. It appears that his selfhood consists entirely of his position in the bureaucracy. In this way, he is not so different from the other civil servants in Gogol’s story, who are all keen to preserve their status within the government. Just as the minor bureaucrats copy their higher-ups to gain approval, so Akaky copies documents. He loves copying so much that his work supplants his individuality. The clerk’s lack of inner life and agency becomes clear when he is unable to make even a minor change to a document, preferring instead to copy it word for word. Akaky Akakievich embodies the stagnancy and incompetency of the bureaucracy, while simultaneously bearing its repressive effects.

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Bureaucracy and Selfhood Quotes in The Overcoat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Overcoat related to the theme of Bureaucracy and Selfhood.
The Overcoat Quotes

In one of our government departments…but perhaps I had better not say exactly which one. For no one’s more touchy than people in government departments, regiments, chancelleries or, in short, any kind of official body. Nowadays every private citizen thinks the whole of society is insulted when he himself is.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator opens the story by referring to an anonymous government department, refusing to specify which one on the grounds that it might cause offence. The narrator laments the fact that nowadays people tend to think that "the whole of society is insulted" when they are insulted as individuals––the reverse of "taking it personally." This opening paragraph establishes the absurdist, comic tone of the story, while grounding it in serious criticism of Russian society. By listing the names of different bureaucratic institutions––"government departments, regiments, chancelleries, or, in short, any kind of official body"––the narrator illustrates the vast and complex expanse of these institutions within the Russian world. 

This passage also demonstrates the way in which people's individual identities are collapsed into the bureaucratic systems in which they work. The narrator's comment about citizens taking personal criticism as an insult to "the whole of society" is somewhat counterintuitive; surely it is more usual for this problem to work the other way around, where general comments are taken personally. However, in a culture in which people lose their sense of self through mindless, tedious bureaucratic work, perhaps it makes sense that this perverse paranoia emerges.


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As for his rank in the civil service…he belonged to the species known as eternal titular counsellor, for far too long now, as we all know, mocked and jeered by certain writers with the very commendable habit of attacking those who are in no position to retaliate. His surname was Bashmachkin, which all too plainly was at some time derived from bashmak.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced Akaky Akakievich, the civil servant around which the story revolves, and described him as short, balding, and unattractive. The narrator notes that Akaky is a not particularly high-ranking official, and occupies a role people jokingly refer to as "eternal titular counsellor," in reference to the bland, monotonous nature of government bureaucracy and the way that people who have this particular role never seem to "move up" or "get ahead." While the narrator refers disapprovingly of the "certain writers" who use the joke to make fun of people "who are in no position to retaliate," this is ironic, as the narrator himself makes use of the joke to describe Akaky. This irony establishes the narrator's ambivalent treatment of Akaky, which combines mockery and sympathy.

The fact that Akaky's surname, Bashmachkin, is derived from the word "bashmak," meaning shoe, further conveys that Akaky is a comically ignoble character, who is metaphorically "trodden on" by other people and by the structure of the society in which he lives.  

No matter how many directors and principals came and went, he was always to be seen in precisely the same place, sitting in exactly the same position, doing exactly the same work—just routine copying, pure and simple. Subsequently everyone came to believe that he had come into this world already equipped for his job, complete with uniform and bald patch.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Having described Akaky's birth and how he came to have his name, the narrator moves on to describe his career as a civil servant. The narrator has noted that no one remembers how Akaky came to be given his particular role in the anonymous government department where he works, but says it is as if "he had come into this world already equipped for his job." This passage employs a particular combination of humor, absurdity, and dull realism to describe Akaky's life and the world in which he lives. The comment that Akaky was born ready for his job, "complete with uniform and bald patch," is very humorous, while simultaneously illustrating the dreary, wearying nature of Russian government bureaucracy. 

The description of Akaky's job also emphasizes the repetitive monotony of his life. Even as other things in his office change, Akaky remains "sitting in exactly the same position, doing exactly the same work"––an image that brings to mind a robot more than a person. Indeed, the fact that Akaky's job is limited to copying and never producing anything himself further confirms the mechanical character of his life and role at the government department. In this sense Akaky is a strange, unnerving character, as he does not seem to possess the varied moods, opinions, and vitality we tend to expect of people.

And for a long time afterwards, even during his gayest moments, he would see that stooping figure with a bald patch in front, muttering pathetically: “Leave me alone, why do you have to torment me?” And in these piercing words he could hear the sound of others: “I am your brother.” The poor young man would bury his face in his hands and many times later in life shuddered at the thought of how brutal men could be and how the most refined manners and breeding often concealed the most savage coarseness, even, dear God, in someone universally recognized for his honesty and uprightness...

Related Characters: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (speaker), The Narrator (speaker), The Young Official
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the way in which Akaky is constantly bullied by the other clerks at his office, most of whom are younger than him. Akaky usually ignores them and never stands up for himself, only occasionally begging them to leave him alone. Over time, only one clerk is moved to feel sympathy for Akaky, and many years later comes to be haunted by his coworkers' merciless taunting, believing it to show the cruelty of humanity. This passage reveals that, for all its comic levity, there is a dark, morally urgent exploration at the heart of the story. Despite being completely harmless and inoffensive, Akaky is ruthlessly taunted by his coworkers, who seem to target him precisely because of his weakness. 

The fact that the Young Official is the only character who pities Akaky further emphasizes that people tend to have a highly limited capacity for compassion. Meanwhile, the reader is forced to reckon with his or her own ethical position, as Akaky is portrayed in such an unappealing, comic light. By laughing at Akaky's strange manner and unfortunate life, is the reader participating in the same cruel behavior as the clerks who bully him? 

One would be hard put to find a man anywhere who so lived for his work. To say he worked with zeal would be an understatement: no, he worked with love. In that copying of his he glimpsed a whole varied and pleasant world of his own… Apart from this copying nothing else existed as far as he was concerned.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained that, despite his commitment to this job, Akaky has never been promoted; during the one instance in which he was considered for a promotion, his supervisor asked him to make a minor adjustment to a document and Akaky, flummoxed, asked to be given something to copy instead. It is completely beyond Akaky's ability to do anything even slightly creative, though it's never clear if that is a result of his own nature or because the "inevitability" of his boring life in the bureaucracy has drained any creativity out of him.

In this passage, the narrator also describes Akaky's exceptional dedication to the his work, saying that he "worked with love" and that "nothing else existed" to him. Framing Akaky's relationship to his boring, inconsequential job in such romantic terms is humorous, while drawing out significant questions about the nature of work, passion, and happiness.

The narrator never reveals precisely why Akaky so devotes himself to his boring and monotonous job, and this increases the strange mystery of his character. His love for his dull work seems absurd and laughable, and it is certainly described by the narrator in comic terms. And yet, the story also seems to question why it is so absurd. Passion and enjoyment, after all, are often thought of as rather arbitrary and subjective, so why should anyone laugh at someone engaged in such a passion, even if it is copying. Furthermore, Akaky's dedication at work is clearly not motivated by the desire for more money or power, as he deliberately avoids getting a promotion. With this in mind, shouldn't the love and contentment he finds in his work be seen as noble, admirable, and even enviable rather than something to be mocked? 

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).

In this Holy Russia of ours everything is infected by a mania for imitation, and everyone apes and mimics his superior.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained that the Important Person might not objectively be particularly important, but that he deliberately increases his own authority by requiring his subordinates to imitate him. The narrator adds that this is a common practice "in this Holy Russia of ours."

Once again, the story reveals the way in which a certain code of behavior is embedded within society for no logical reason, yet goes unquestioned despite its absurdity. Indeed, the "mania for imitation" seems to promote irrational, inefficient, and corrupt behavior, as people fail to think for themselves and instead simply copy what their superiors do. The narrator's use of the phrase "this Holy Russia" is ironic and suggests that, instead of following the example set by religion, people obsessively obey those who are arbitrarily ranked above them.

However, he was quite a good man at heart, pleasant to his colleagues and helpful. But his promotion to general's rank had completely turned his head; he became all mixed up, somehow went off the rails, and just could not cope any more. If he happened to be with someone of equal rank, then he was quite a normal person, very decent in fact and even far from stupid in many respects.
But put him with people only one rank lower, and he was really at sea.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Important Person
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the Important Person in vague terms, emphasizing that he is not objectively even that important, but obsessed with increasing his own status and authority. In this passage, the narrator adds that the Important Person is "quite a good man at heart," but that his promotion has left him unable to communicate properly with people of lower ranks. This description introduces further nuance into the story's critique of bureaucratic hierarchy. The narrator suggests that not every arrogant bureaucrat is cruel and power-hungry at heart; rather, good people are corrupted by the systemic obsession with rank. 

Indeed, the Important Person is described as being "mixed up" and unable to cope with the consequences of his promotion, a description that emphasizes his vulnerability. This perhaps implies that the Important Person is not particularly qualified for his job, as he is so easily flummoxed by being elevated to a higher rank. The Important Person's reaction to his promotion thus further confirms the dysfunctional nature of government bureaucracy. Rank is all important, and so everyone pursues greater rank and defends their current rank rather than actually doing their jobs efficiently or interacting with other people authentically. 

“What do you mean by this, my dear sir?” he snapped again. “Are you unaware of the correct procedure? Where do you think you are? Don't you know how things are conducted here? It's high time you knew that first of all your application must be handed in at the main office, then taken to the chief clerk, then to the departmental director, then to my secretary, who then submits it to me for consideration...”
“But Your Excellency,” said Akaky Akakievich, trying to summon up the small handful of courage he possessed… “I took the liberty of disturbing Your Excellency because, well, secretaries, you know, are a rather unreliable lot...”
“What, what, what?” cried the Important Person. “Where did you learn such impudence? Where did you get those ideas from? What rebellious attitude towards their heads of department and superiors has infected young men these days?”

Related Characters: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (speaker), The Important Person (speaker), The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 165-166
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained that, although fundamentally the Important Person is "normal" and "very decent," his obsession with his status leads him to treat people ranked below him in an unreasonable fashion. For example, he has deliberately made Akaky wait longer than necessary simply as a way of showing off his power and importance. When Akaky tries to explain his situation and mentions that secretaries can be "a rather unreliable lot," the Important Person explodes with anger, calling Akaky impudent and "rebellious." The fact that the Important Person makes these accusations is comical, as in reality Akaky is about as far from rebellious as it is possible for a person to be. However, the Important Person's fixation with bureaucratic conventions––"the correct procedure"––has clearly clouded his judgment to the point of absurdity.

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.

The encounter had made a deep impression on him. From that time onwards he would seldom say: “How dare you! Do you realize who is standing before you?” to his subordinates. And if he did have occasion to say this, it was never without first hearing what the accused had to say.

Related Characters: The Important Person (speaker), The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Having encountered Akaky's ghost, the Important Person is left shaken, so much so that his daughter comments on how pale he is. From that point forward, the Important Person comes to treat his subordinates in a much more fair and reasonable way. This twist in the narrative is somewhat unexpected; after all the bizarre tragedy and absurdity the story has contained thus far, it is surprising that the ending should contain someone learning a positive moral lesson.

On the other hand, it is also true that many things remain unresolved––the fate of Akaky's ghost is unclear, and at the very end of the story a second ghost is introduced, whose role within the overall narrative is somewhat perplexing. Nonetheless, the Important Person's change of heart emphasizes that even the most meaningless life might hold some meaning (even if that meaning comes only in other people's interpretation of it).