The Overcoat

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
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.
The Insignificance of the Everyman Theme Icon

One of the tragedies Gogol highlights in “The Overcoat” is the insignificance of Akaky Akakievich’s life. The clerk’s unimportance is felt early on in the story. Gogol’s phrase “In a certain department…there worked a certain civil servant” implies that his story could happen to any civil servant in any department, and therefore that Akaky Akakievich’s life is more or less interchangeable. His interchangeability is reinforced by his occupation as a copyist, a job that has become the entirety of his life. Akaky’s work, and therefore his personhood, is based on the concept of reproducible and interchangeable material. Throughout the story, both his superiors and his peers treat Akaky Akakievich poorly, and his worthlessness is exacerbated by the fact that he never rises in the bureaucracy. All of his peers are younger than he is and lead more interesting lives, and they frequently make jokes at his expense. Only once in the story, when Akaky protests, does a fellow civil servant (the young official) realize how cruelly they are treating the copyist. Immediately the young official feels ashamed at how cruelly human beings can treat each other, even when they pretend to be the most honorable of men.

Akaky’s life is so devoid of meaning and complexity that it may even be difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for him. Though Akaky Akakievich is apparently content with his lot, Gogol’s descriptions of his mundane and pathetic life challenge the reader’s ability to empathize with the clerk. Gogol at once allows the reader to scoff at Akaky Akakievich’s absurd ignorance, and challenges the reader to find humanity in the most laughable and insignificant of beings. When the protagonist dies, Gogol writes, “And St. Petersburg carried on without its Akaky Akakievich just as though he had never even existed.” By presenting the tragicomic fall of Akaky Akakievich, Gogol draws attention to the mundane life of a member of the silent majority, and he tests the reader’s ability to care about those no one cares for.

At the end of his tale, however, Gogol seeks a sort of redemption for the neglected everyman. Akaky Akakievich takes the form of a ghost who haunts St. Petersburg, stealing the overcoats of the officials who would have ridiculed him during his lifetime. He ultimately gets his revenge on the Important Person who cast him away, so terrifying him that the official adopts a more humble tone from then on. By forcing these officials to experience the brutal winter without an overcoat, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost exposes them to the lives of the powerless and the insignificant. And by confronting them with his corpse, he compels them to recognize his life’s inherent significance.

Get the entire The Overcoat LitChart as a printable PDF.
The overcoat.pdf.medium

The Insignificance of the Everyman ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Insignificance of the Everyman appears in each chapter of The Overcoat. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:

The Insignificance of the Everyman Quotes in The Overcoat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Overcoat related to the theme of The Insignificance of the Everyman.
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.  

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other The Overcoat quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

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. 

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. 

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. 

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).