“The Overcoat” follows the life and death of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a low-ranking official who works as a copyist in a nameless department in the Russian bureaucracy. The Narrator suggests that Akaky Akakievich is destined for a mediocre and insignificant life from birth: his family name, Bashmatchkin, comes from the word bashmak, meaning “shoe,” while the name Akaky Akakievich (which has the same ridiculous redundancy as the name “John Johnson”) was given to him by his mother, who felt that her child was destined for that name. Akaky Akakievich lives an extremely dull life, devoting himself entirely to his copy work. He neglects every other aspect of his life: he does not care about his appearance, does not notice the taste of his food, does not socialize with the other officials, and barely perceives what is going on around him. The other clerks in his department constantly make fun of him. Usually Akaky does not mind, though sometimes he shouts at them to leave him alone.
Akaky Akakievich seems to be content with his life, but he also faces the challenge of surviving St. Petersburg’s bitter cold. Akaky decides that he needs to get his overcoat repaired. His current coat is old and tattered, and is the butt of many jokes at work. Akaky visits Petrovich, a tailor and a drunkard, to get his coat patched up—but the tailor decides that the garment is so worn out that it is not worth repairing. He insists that Akaky must commission a new overcoat for the price of one hundred fifty rubles. Akaky, stunned, has no idea where he would get that kind of money. Nevertheless, he convinces Petrovich to sell him the coat for eighty rubles, and over the next few months he lives frugally, going hungry in order to save up enough money for his new coat. With an unexpected bonus from his department director, Akaky and Petrovich are able to purchase decent cloth and fur, and Petrovich, after working on the overcoat for two weeks, personally delivers the magnificent new coat to Akaky’s house.
When he arrives at work wearing his overcoat, Akaky’s coworkers congratulate him and insist that they celebrate his good fortune that night. Akaky is at first embarrassed by the attention, but eventually he relents. That night, he walks to the apartment of a fellow official, who lives in a wealthy district of St. Petersburg. All of the partygoers compliment Akaky on his new coat, and then return to their merriment. Akaky feels very out of place in this setting until his coworkers push him to drink some champagne. This lifts the clerk’s spirits, but he decides to sneak out of the party at midnight, as it is late. On his way home, Akaky is accosted by two thieves in a square—they beat him and steal his coat. The watchman in the square claims not to have witnessed the event, and tells Akaky to report the incident to the police in the morning.
Akaky, cold and distressed, returns home, where his landlady advises him to go directly to the District Police Superintendent. Akaky goes to his house the next morning, and waits the entire day before he is admitted into the District Superintendent’s office. But the official, upon hearing Akaky’s story, becomes suspicious of Akaky himself. Akaky leaves, unable to convince the Superintendent to help him. The next day, he goes to his department wearing his old, tattered cloak. Upon seeing him, one of his coworkers advises him not to go to the police, who only work when it will improve their position in the hierarchy. Instead, he tells Akaky to appeal to an “Important Person” who might exert some real influence.
Akaky seeks the help of this Important Person, who is kind to his friends, but who enjoys flaunting his important government status and enforcing a rigid bureaucratic process. When Akaky arrives, the Important Person is shooting the breeze with an old friend, and makes Akaky wait just to demonstrate his power. When he finally allows the clerk to enter his office, Akaky awkwardly explains that his cloak has been stolen. But his familiarity offends the Important Person, who tells Akaky that he should have appealed to him through the appropriate bureaucratic channels. Akaky replies that he does not trust secretaries, which further angers the Important Person. He shouts at Akaky until he leaves the office in a daze.
Feeling faint, Akaky walks through a snowstorm to reach his apartment, and is quickly struck by a fever, which intensifies quickly. As Akaky approaches death, he has visions of Petrovich, the men who robbed him, and his old, tattered coat. When he dies, barely anyone notices, and St. Petersburg goes on as it always has. After his department finds out that he has passed, they immediately replace Akaky with a new official. But rumors begin to spread that a ghost has been stalking the city, stealing the coats from people that it passes. One night the Important Person, leaving a party, decides to visit his mistress’s house. On his way there, he feels a hand on his collar and turns around to see the ghost of Akaky Akakievich. The ghost demands the Important Person’s cloak. Terrified, the official immediately throws his cloak at the ghost and drives home as quickly as possible. From then on, he treats his subordinates with a bit more humility, and Akaky’s ghost is not seen again. In closing, the Narrator mentions one incident in which a watchman in Kolomna follows a ghost until it turns around. The watchman does not act, but notices that this ghost is too tall to be Akaky. This ghost wears a large mustache, and walks off into the night, toward the Obukhoff Bridge.