The Overcoat

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Overcoat, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Social Status and Fate Theme Icon

Early on in “The Overcoat,” Gogol gives his readers the strong sense that Akaky Akakievich’s life is destined for mediocrity. His family name, Bashmachkin, derived from the Russian word bashmak, meaning “shoe,” already indicates his low social standing. In addition, the narrator notes that his “far-fetched” given name, Akaky Akakievich, was actually fated, as he was named after his father. When they christen baby Akaky, Gogol writes, the baby “wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular counsellor.” From the outset, the protagonist is placed into a low social class from which he will not escape. Gogol’s description of his protagonist’s origins, while comic, also implies that Akaky Akakievich is resigned to his lot from a young age.

Akaky Akakievich’s low social standing determines how he is treated throughout the story. It almost seems like the world is conspiring against him: for example, Gogol describes Akaky Akakievich’s “strange knack” of walking beneath windows just as trash is being thrown out of them. Furthermore, his position in the world seems to determine how he behaves. Outside of his low bureaucratic post, Gogol writes, “nothing else existed as far as he was concerned.” He does not notice happenings on the street or the taste of his food. He merely does his duty and goes to bed. The clerk’s vision of the possibilities in life is extremely, and fatally, limited.

Though Akaky Akakievich seems content with his mundane life, his poverty makes it impossible for him to maintain his standard of living. In Russia’s corrupt bureaucratic society, the unambitious Akaky Akakievich is tossed aside and forgotten. And even if Akaky Akakievich were a more enterprising individual, Gogol casts doubt on the possibility that he might find success. The fact that his overcoat is stolen so quickly after he procured it seems an especially potent demonstration of the difficulty of social mobility. Thus in “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich’s social status is closely tied to his fate. His status dooms him to a life of poverty and makes his struggle to survive utterly futile—he is not “important” enough to be cared for by anyone. Ultimately, the story suggests that the powerless are only remembered once they are dead, and even then only as “ghosts” who haunt the lives of those who neglected them.

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Social Status and Fate Quotes in The Overcoat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Overcoat related to the theme of Social Status and Fate.
The Overcoat Quotes

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.  


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The child was christened and during the ceremony he burst into tears and made such a face it was plain that he knew there and then that he was fated to be a titular counsellor. So, that’s how it all came about. The reason for all this narrative is to enable our reader to judge for himself that the whole train of events was absolutely predetermined and that for Akaky to have any other name was quite impossible.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained how Akaky Akakievich came to have such an absurd and redundant name: although his godparents suggested many different names, Akaky's mother rejected them all, eventually deciding to simply give Akaky the same name as his father (who was also a government official). The narrator jokes that, at his christening ceremony, Akaky made a face because "he knew then and there that he was fated to be a titular counsellor," and stresses the inevitability of both Akaky's repetitive, unappealing name, and the corresponding monotony of his life. This part of the story highlights the rigidity of Russian society. Akaky's fate is determined at birth, and he is destined to perform the same role and even take on the same identity as his father. 

This passage can also be read as a comic reversal of the way in which a conventional story––such as a fairy tale––might begin with a description of the hero's auspicious, noble origins. Where we might ordinarily describe someone as "destined for great things," the narrator implies the opposite is true of Akaky: he is destined for boring, mundane, and unfortunate things. By using the words "absolutely predetermined" and "impossible," the narrator emphasizes the illogical nature of the rigid hierarchical structure of Russian society. There is no real reason why Akaky's fate was so inescapably predestined, but everyone still sees to accept it as unquestionable. 

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? 

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).

“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.