At the start of the story, the Narrator stops himself from naming the department in which Akaky Akakievich, the main character in his tale, worked. The Narrator decides that it is better to avoid mentioning too many details, as he is worried about offending a sensitive official or other bureaucrat. He comments that these days, every Russian citizen believes the whole state to be insulted when he himself is. He cites a recent incident in which a police inspector complained that the Russian government was riddled with problems, and that people were maligning his name. As evidence the inspector supplied an extremely long romantic novel in which a police inspector often appears, sometimes in a drunken state.
The Narrator’s unwillingness to disclose the full details of his tale establishes a background of secrecy and fear, but also of scorn and mockery for the over-sensitive, self-important members of the Russian bureaucracy. We also start to get a sense of the Narrator’s voice, which starts off here with a tone of the comic and absurd. The romantic novel emphasizes the ridiculousness of the police inspector’s complaint, implying that he has a fantastic and delusional opinion of himself.
The Narrator then goes on to introduce Akaky Akakievich as a civil servant in a “certain department” in St. Petersburg. He is a short man with unmemorable, unattractive features. The Narrator jokes that his official title is “eternal titular counsellor.” His family name, Bashmachkin, comes from the word bashmak, meaning ‘shoe’. The Narrator assures the reader that Akaky Akakievich’s name may seem strange, but that it was impossible for him to be given any other name. The Narrator explains the circumstances of Akaky Akakievich’s birth. He is born on March 22, and his mother, needing to come up with an appropriate name for the baby, rejects many proposals and finally names him after his father Akaky, sensing that this is fate. During the christening, baby Akaky grimaces, as though foreseeing the dull life ahead of him.
Gogol starts off by painting a very unimpressive picture of Akaky Akakievich, and throughout the story he will test our ability to empathize with this pathetic character. The fact that Akaky’s family name is derived from the word “shoe” and that his mother thought it was fate to name her son “Akaky Akakievich”—an absurd name that literally means “mild or inoffensive,” and may also refer to the Russian word for excrement—forcefully introduces the idea that one’s social status is tied to one’s success in life. It’s suggested that since the moment of his birth, Akaky has had no choice but to be an insignificant, low-ranking government worker.
The Narrator claims that no one remembers how Akaky Akakievich was appointed to his specific department. Nevertheless, Akaky is a constant presence there—however much the department changes directors, Akaky is always “in precisely the same place, sitting in exactly the same position, doing exactly the same work—just routine copying, plain and simple.” No one respects Akaky in the department, and he barely has any civil interactions with his peers. While the younger clerks constantly make fun of him, Akaky usually does not let it affect his work. He always copies his documents diligently and carefully. But at certain moments when the younger officials go too far, Akaky shouts at them to leave him alone. The Narrator says that once, a young official new to the office was so moved to pity that he would remember Akaky’s exclamations long after, hearing in his voice the words “I am your brother.” Each time he remembers Akaky, the young man is filled with shame at the brutality and inhumanity of man.
Akaky’s constant presence in his department establishes how little social mobility he has, and his job as a copyist emphasizes the dull, repetitive nature of his work and life. It also implies that Akaky himself is easily replaceable—he is merely a cog in the Russian bureaucracy. That Akaky works diligently at his copying and rarely interacts with his peers suggests that Akaky has little personality—that he is perhaps a kind of machine, or a non-entity. But when Akaky finally “snaps” and protests against the mockery of the younger officials, the reader realizes that even though Akaky seems so pathetic and uninteresting, he is still a human being, a “brother.” The young official, who is haunted by the memory of Akaky’s mistreatment, personifies this reaction, and the suddenly poignant scene marks the story’s transition from a rather straightforward satirical tale to a more complex kind of tragicomedy.
Akaky loves his job as a copyist so much that he makes it his entire life. He takes joy in reading different documents and carefully copying each letter. But he is never promoted—once, a director who wished to reward Akaky for his hard work ordered him to add a few small changes to a document, but Akaky grew nervous and requested to copy something instead. After this incident, no one offered to promote Akaky again. Beyond copying, the Narrator says, “nothing else existed as far as he was concerned.” Akaky neglects his appearance and never pays attention to what is happening around him. He never notices the taste of his food, and after he returns home and has dinner, he continues copying papers that he brought from work. At times when his fellow officials are socializing at the theater, or a dinner parties, Akaky is at home, writing and looking forward to the next day’s copying.
Akaky’s love for his boring job may strike the reader as bizarre, but by vividly describing Akaky’s enjoyment of copying, Gogol challenges our assumption that Akaky himself, like his work, is mechanistic and emotionless. Instead, Gogol proposes that it is possible to find joy in any type of labor one undertakes—even as he also goes back to briefly portraying Akaky as a kind of caricature. The Narrator then immediately turns around and mocks Akaky for neglecting every other aspect of his life—his clothes, food, social life, and immediate surroundings. Akaky’s love for his work contributes to his complete ignorance of his own social situation (not to mention his lack of any spiritual, intellectual, or romantic personality), so he is unable to reflect on his lot in life, and therefore unable to take action to improve it.
The Narrator says that Akaky is “perfectly happy with his lot,” but that St. Petersburg harbors a major obstacle to those who make the low salary of four hundred rubles per year—the northern cold. Akaky, after being punished by this cold, decides that it is time for him to get a new overcoat. Akaky’s current coat has been the butt of many jokes in his department, as it is ugly, thin, and tattered. The clerk decides to take the coat to Petrovich, the tailor, to get it repaired. In an aside, the Narrator describes Petrovich as a decent tailor, but a heavy drinker. When Akaky arrives at Petrovich’s room, the tailor is angrily trying to thread a needle.
Gogol criticizes the Russian government for paying its civil servants a low salary on which they can barely survive. Akaky’s old, worn overcoat becomes a symbol for the government’s inability to provide basic needs to its impoverished citizens—even those who work constantly like Akaky. This also introduces the theme of the importance of material goods. At the most basic level, Akaky needs the “commodity” of the overcoat just to be able to survive and continue working.
Akaky, noting that Petrovich appears to be sober, is worried that he will not be able to bargain as effectively. He begins nervously, unable to complete his sentence. Petrovich takes his coat and examines it. After some time, he shakes his head and declares it impossible to mend. He insists that Akaky must have a new coat. The tailor’s statement troubles Akaky, because he has no money for a new coat. Feeling dizzy, he focuses on the image of a general on Petrovich’s snuffbox. A square piece of paper has been pasted onto where the general’s face should be. Petrovich tells Akaky that a new coat will cost him a hundred fifty rubles. Akaky, after first traveling in the wrong direction, returns home in a daze.
In this scene, the snuffbox with the faceless general may be an image of the Russian bureaucracy’s powerful influence on its citizens, as well as its essentially inhuman nature. Following this logic, it may also be that Petrovich has covered the general’s face himself as a petty kind of rebellious act. The snuffbox is also Gogol’s subtle commentary on the artificiality of self-presentation: the square covering the general’s face is a kind of mask. Throughout the story, Gogol criticizes various characters for only caring about their appearances, shirking their real duties and even basic virtues to instead focus only on appearing important and powerful.
Akaky resolves to return to Petrovich on Sunday morning to try to bargain for his coat. When he visits the tailor again, he hands Petrovich a ten-copeck piece and asks him once again to mend his coat. The tailor thanks him for the money, but insists that Akaky needs a completely new coat. Akaky, discouraged, wonders where he will get the money to pay for the brand new garment. Even if the director gives him a generous Christmas bonus of forty or fifty rubles, he already owes most of it to paying off debts he has accrued. He knows that Petrovich might agree to make an overcoat for as little as eighty rubles. Akaky has saved up about forty rubles over the course of several years, but he does not know where he will get the other half.
Gogol emphasizes how poor Akaky Akakievich is. It seems that the clerk is always trying to catch up with himself—whenever he comes into some extra money, he must use it to pay off his debts. This suggests the immense difficulty of trying to improve one’s social status and standard of living in Gogol’s society. It is especially troubling that Akaky is not even at the lowest rung of the Russian government—the title of titular counsellor belonged to the ninth of fourteen bureaucratic ranks—so we can only imagine how his inferiors manage to survive the cold.
Akaky resolves to deprive himself of many of his ordinary expenses. He stops drinking tea at night, burns no candles, walks lightly so as not to wear out his shoes, and goes hungry at night. The Narrator notes that Akaky’s spirit begins to change. With the goal of purchasing a new overcoat in mind, he becomes livelier and more decisive. His existence becomes “richer, as though he had married and another human being was by his side.” Akaky receives a surprise when his department director awards him a bonus of sixty rubles. After three more months of saving up, Akaky has the eighty rubles he needs. He and Petrovich go shopping for supplies: they purchase good quality cloth and fur at reasonable prices.
The overcoat enriches Akaky’s life before he even gets to wear it. His goal, to save up money in order to purchase the coat, gives him a new sense of purpose, a reason to live beyond the drudgery of his copying. Here, Gogol emphasizes the value of material goods not only for basic human survival, but also for emotional and spiritual wellbeing. His comparison of the coat to a wife also illustrates the sense of comfort and safety that the garment will bring, and introduces another level of interpretation to the symbol of the overcoat—the coat as a kind of stand-in for a spouse or for sexuality itself in Akaky’s life.
Petrovich works on the overcoat for two weeks and charges twelve rubles for the job, the lowest price possible. The Narrator states that it was probably the most triumphant day of Akaky’s life when Petrovich personally delivers the overcoat to his home. The coat arrives just in time, for an extreme cold has taken over St. Petersburg. Petrovich proudly displays the coat, which he made from scratch, to Akaky and helps the clerk put it on. It fits perfectly. The tailor declares that it is only because he works on a small street and has known Akaky for so long that he made the coat so cheaply. Akaky pays and thanks Petrovich and sets off for work. Petrovich follows him, watching the coat move off in the distance, and then he runs through a side street so that he can catch a glimpse of Akaky and his overcoat from the front.
Petrovich’s pride in creating the overcoat is evident as he hand-delivers it to Akaky’s home. The tailor distinguishes himself from other tailors who only repair clothing, and who don’t possess the skill to make a completely new garment. Petrovich’s ability to create an original work contrasts with Akaky’s inability to do anything but copy documents. Here Gogol makes an argument for the value of art (which is another kind of “material good,” and arguably the most “elevated” kind) to give new meaning to life, and he consequently adds another layer of symbolism to the overcoat itself. But Gogol’s description of Petrovich’s solemnity may also make us laugh—it is meant to be both poignant and comical that a new overcoat has such a significant impact on these characters.
At his department, everyone congratulates Akaky on his new overcoat. They insist that the event must be celebrated, and that Akaky must host an evening party. Akaky is extremely embarrassed until a higher-ranking civil servant, an assistant head clerk, offers to host the party instead, and invites everyone to tea that night. The other officials accept his invitation, and pressure Akaky to come as well. Akaky passes the rest of the day in a very good mood. Upon returning home, he compares his new cloak to his old one, laughing at the difference. After dinner he does not do any copying, but instead rests until dark, and then heads to the evening party. The Narrator does not remember where the party took place, but asserts that the assistant head clerk lived in a wealthy part of the city, far away from Akaky’s home. Akaky must pass through a dimly lit neighborhood before arriving at the bright, lively streets of the assistant head clerk’s district.
Gogol draws attention to how differently Akaky’s coworkers treat him when they hear about his new overcoat—indeed, the change in their behavior is ridiculously exaggerated. This material possession immediately raises Akaky’s status in the department, and highlights the idea that people only care about outward appearances. At the same time, the coat opens up a whole new dimension of experience for Akaky: suddenly he has a social life, and goes out at night for the first time in years. Gogol repeatedly draws out the absurdity of social interactions—they are based on the most superficial self-presentation, but they are also an important element of a fulfilling life.
Akaky gazes with awe upon the high society populating the streets around him. He has not been out at night in years. He looks into a shop window and sees a picture of a beautiful woman displaying a naked foot, as behind her, a man looks at her through a doorway. Akaky laughs and walks on. The Narrator speculates about why Akaky laughed in that moment: perhaps it was because he had encountered something unknown, or, like other officials, he was amused by French customs, or else he was not thinking about anything in particular.
The picture of the beautiful woman introduces a level of sexuality to Akaky’s life. In contrast to the beginning of the story, in which Akaky barely noticed his surroundings, we now see him paying attention to things beyond his work. The overcoat has not only raised his social status, but has also introduced him to new ways of relating to the world. The coat has arguably contributed to him “growing up”—becoming more of a complete human adult, which includes a recognition of his sexuality.
Akaky reaches the assistant head clerk’s apartment and hangs up his overcoat. He enters the main room and is greeted by a bustling scene full of officials, card tables, and conversation. Akaky is unsure of how he should behave, but his fellow clerks greet him happily and crowd into the anteroom to look at his cloak once more. Akaky is overjoyed by their compliments, but soon after this, the officials return to their card games, leaving Akaky alone. Feeling awkward and overwhelmed, Akaky sits down in a stupor. He is tired and wants to leave, but his peers push him to drink champagne. Akaky feels better after having a drink, but as it is midnight, he decides to sneak out of the party. To his dismay, he finds his overcoat is lying on the floor of the anteroom. Akaky picks it up, brushes it off, and leaves the apartment.
Even though the overcoat has raised his reputation among his fellow civil servants, this passage shows that Akaky’s social standing is still very limited. The coat impresses his coworkers, but Akaky is still an outsider in their social scene, and he lacks the conversation skills (and, presumably, the inflated ego) to fit in. And though the other officials are friendly to Akaky and courage him to stay, Gogol implies that they do not truly care about the clerk. His overcoat gets knocked to the floor, and no one notices when he leaves. As hard as he has tried, Akaky remains insignificant.
Akaky leaves the party feeling happy. In a flight of fancy, he runs after a lady who passes him on the street, but then immediately stops and again walks quietly down the street, unsure of why he was running. The streets grow deserted and dark. The festive neighborhood he was in transitions into a poorer district of low houses and dim lamps. He enters an empty square, in the middle of which is a watchman’s box. Akaky suddenly feels afraid as he enters the square. He closes his eyes, wishing to pass through as quickly as possible. When he opens his eyes, he is suddenly standing in front of two bearded men. One of the thieves grabs his overcoat. Akaky is about to shout for help, but then the other thief threatens to hit him. The men take his cloak and push him to the ground, and Akaky loses consciousness.
Again, we see Akaky behaving uncharacteristically with his new overcoat. Whereas before he was only comfortable living according to his strict routine, unable to make even simple changes to documents, now he acts spontaneously and even pursues a sexual or romantic feeling on a whim. He is on the verge of realizing that he has inner desires separate from his boring labor, even if he can’t properly comprehend what these ideas are. The tragic loss of his overcoat, then, once again exposes Akaky as a helpless, impoverished man. The overcoat seemed to give Akaky a sense of purpose and value in life, and even to make him into a more complete human being, but now that has been snatched away from him. We cannot help feeling that this was fated to happen all along.
When he recovers, Akaky runs to the watchman in the middle of the square. Sobbing, he shouts at the watchman for completely ignoring his robbery. The watchman replies that he saw two men stop him in the square, but supposed that they were friends. He recommends that Akaky report the robbery to the police in the morning. Akaky returns home covered in snow, a complete mess. He knocks on his door, and his landlady answers. She is shocked to see him in this state, and, upon hearing his story, tells him to go directly to the District Police Superintendent, as the local police officers will be sure to ignore or cheat him. The landlady believes the Superintendent to be a good man, since he goes to church every Sunday and gives everybody a friendly smile. With that, Akaky goes to his room.
It is clear how little the watchman cares about Akaky, and how little his duties as a police officer matter to him. The fact that the watchman turns a blind eye to Akaky’s crime is representative of the Russian bureaucracy’s negligence of the rampant corruption within its own ranks. Gogol illustrates the superficiality of self-presentation once again when Akaky’s landlady recommends that he see the Superintendent, and her only reasons to trust him are the fact that he goes to church and seems like a nice man.
The next morning, Akaky goes to the Superintendent’s house, but is told that the Superintendent is asleep. Akaky returns at ten, but the official is apparently still in bed. At eleven, he is informed that Superintendent is not at home. He returns in the evening, but the official’s clerks refuse to allow him into the anteroom. Akaky stubbornly says that he must see the Superintendent in person, and that he has come from a government department in an official capacity. The clerks finally allow him to see the Superintendent. Upon hearing Akaky’s story, the Superintendent begins to interrogate Akaky instead of focusing on the crime committed. Why did Akaky return home so late? Was he doing anything illicit that night? Akaky, bewildered, leaves without securing the Superintendent’s assistance.
The corrupt and unwieldy nature of the bureaucracy is further exposed in this scene, as the clerks do not respond to Akaky’s demands until he pretends to be an important government official. The Superintendent’s reaction to Akaky’s story is also telling. Akaky’s low social status clearly influences the way he is treated: the Superintendent does not treat him like the victim of a crime—rather, he treats the clerk as if he were the criminal. The unprofessional manner in which Akaky’s case is handled is due to his complete lack of social or political power in this system. The members of the bureaucracy have been trained to value status above all else, and they neglect basic human decency in their attempts to make themselves seem more important.
That day, Akaky does not go to his department, but he shows up to work the following morning in his old overcoat. The news of his stolen coat has spread around the department, and while many pity him, some still make fun of him. They throw together a small sum of money for Akaky. One of the clerks, genuinely wishing to help, advises him not to go to the police: even if a police officer found the cloak, it would remain in police custody unless Akaky could provide legal proof that he was the coat’s owner. Instead, Akaky should appeal to “a certain Important Person” who could truly influence the situation.
Akaky’s popularity in his department is short-lived indeed, as it seemingly depended entirely upon his overcoat—now he is back to being as insignificant as ever. The clerk’s advice to Akaky emphasizes that in order to achieve anything in Russia’s government, one has to have powerful connections that can influence things from above. The inefficiency of the bureaucracy encourages bribery and other forms of corruption.
Akaky decides to seek the help of the Important Person. The Narrator states that the official title of this Important Person is not known. We do know, however, that this individual only recently became an Important Person, and up until then he had been “an unimportant person.” The Important Person increases his importance by enforcing strict etiquette amongst his subordinates. Reports must travel through the appropriate channels, passing through several bureaucratic stages before reaching him. The Narrator comments that all of Russia’s bureaucracy functions in this way, with every man imitating his immediate superior. The Important Person, the Narrator continues, has grand and exaggerated mannerisms. His conversations are mainly comprised of three phrases: “How dare you?” “Do you know who you’re talking to?” and “Do you realize who’s standing before you?” While he is fundamentally a kind person, his rank confuses his behavior. When communicating with people of a lower rank he usually falls silent, unsure of how interacting with his inferiors will affect his reputation.
Gogol’s use of the vague phrases “Important Person” and “unimportant person” raises questions about the value of this government official, and further satirizes just what is regarded as “important” in such an absurd hierarchy. How do we know that this man is truly important if we don’t even know what he does? And what made him suddenly go from “unimportant” to “important?” Gogol implies that these high-ranking government positions are less impressive than they seem, and that the promotions that officials receive are to a large extent arbitrary. Perhaps because of the tenuous and arbitrary nature of his “importance,” the Important Person feels the need to reinforce his position by enforcing strict bureaucratic procedure. His subordinates, also wishing to seem important, do the same. Nothing about their actual jobs is mentioned: the bureaucrats Gogol depicts are only concerned with looking like they are doing something important.
When Akaky visits the Important Person, the official is chatting with an old friend, and uses Akaky’s arrival to demonstrate his own importance. The Important Person tells his secretary that Akaky can wait, just to show his friend how long people have to wait in his anteroom. After some time, he summons Akaky and addresses him rudely. Akaky tongue-tied, attempts to explain that his overcoat has been stolen and that he is seeking the official’s help. Offended by the inferior clerk’s familiarity, the Important Person tells Akaky that he should have gone through the proper bureaucratic channels. Akaky tells him that he believes secretaries to be “a rather unreliable lot.” The Important Person, outraged, laments the impertinence of the younger generation of officials, even though Akaky is already in his fifties. The Important Person yells at Akaky until he stumbles out of the office, feeling faint.
Again, we see that this government official is more interested in seeming important and enforcing the bureaucratic hierarchy to maintain his status than actually listening to Akaky’s story, or even regarding Akaky as a fellow human being. When Akaky tells the truth, saying that low-ranked bureaucrats are unreliable and ineffective, the Important Person takes that as a personal offence—as if he is a representative of the bureaucracy itself. Once again, the fact that Akaky has no real power or status means that no one will care enough to help him. As Gogol describes it, the Important Person doesn’t mean to be cruel, he is just acting the way he thinks he ought to for someone of his position.
Akaky, feeling numb, walks home in a snowstorm. The next day, he is overtaken by a fever. His sickness intensifies quickly, and when a doctor sees him, he declares Akaky to be incurable. The doctor tells the landlady to order a cheap coffin, as Akaky will be unable to afford a more expensive one. The Narrator wonders whether or not Akaky heard the doctor proclaim his death. We do not know, he says, because Akaky is at that moment delirious. Akaky sees visions of Petrovich, the thieves, and his old overcoat. In his delirium, he apologizes to the Important Person, but then begins to curse. His voice descends into nonsensical phrases revolving around his overcoat.
The importance of basic material goods once again comes to the fore as Akaky succumbs to illness. Akaky’s poverty will even affect him after death, as he will have to be buried in the cheapest possible coffin. Akaky’s cursing just before his death suggests his repressed anger regarding his maltreatment and the injustice of his life, and foreshadows his revenge on the Important Person in the form of a ghost.
Akaky finally dies and is buried. No one takes an inventory of his possessions, as he has no heirs and has almost nothing to pass on. St. Petersburg carries on, the Narrator remarks, as if Akaky had never existed. He was not interesting as a person or as an object of study. He was completely mediocre, though toward the end of his life, his new overcoat “suddenly appeared, brightening his wretched life for one fleeing moment….” Several days after his death, Akaky’s department sends a porter to his house to investigate his whereabouts. After learning that he has died, his department replaces him the next day with a new official with slightly different handwriting.
In both life and death, Akaky is barely noticed, and barely acknowledged by anyone (even, seemingly, the Narrator) as a fellow human being. It is both tragic and comic that the highlight of the clerk’s life is the purchase of a new overcoat—that is how mundane and pathetic Akaky’s existence is. The fact that Akaky’s department does not notice that he has died until several days later further emphasizes his insignificance, and their ability to replace him the next day reminds us that in the bureaucracy’s eyes, a copyist’s life is completely replaceable.
Soon after Akaky’s death, a rumor spreads through the city that a ghost has been appearing on the Kalinkin Bridge seeking a stolen overcoat and stripping the cloak off of every man who passes. One official recognizes the dead man as Akaky Akakievich. Reports come in from officials of all ranks that their coats have been stolen and that they have been exposed to the bitter cold of St. Petersburg. Police almost succeed in capturing the ghost: in one episode, a policeman caught Akaky in the act of stealing a cloak and ordered two of his comrades to hold Akaky while he took some snuff. But as the policeman opened his snuffbox, the ghost sneezed and filled all three policemen’s eyes with powder. Then he vanished. After that, Akaky’s ghost begins to appear even beyond the Kalinkin Bridge, terrorizing everyone around him.
The story now takes a fantastical twist, as Akaky’s ghost returns to the mortal world, seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. By stealing their overcoats, he subjects them to the same pain that he suffered—social humiliation and exposure to the cruel St. Petersburg cold. It is ironic that Akaky has much more power in death than in life, and he also seems to have a much more forceful will—it’s impossible to imagine the living Akaky confronting superior officials and stealing from them. As usual, there is an element of the comic and the absurd in Gogol’s description—Akaky’s ghost is somehow both a physical corpse and a supernatural spirit, a presence both mundane and frightening.
The Narrator turns our attention back to the Important Person. He notes that after kicking Akaky out of his office, the Important Person felt guilty, and thought of the clerk frequently afterwards. A week later, he sends an official to Akaky’s house to see if he can help, and is troubled to learn that the man is dead. Hoping to distract himself, the Important Person goes to a party at a friend’s house that evening. Everyone there is the same rank as he, so he feels completely unconstrained and has a wonderful time. At the end of the evening he decides not to go home, but to instead visit a female friend of his. The Narrator mentions that the official is a good husband and father, but despite the fact that he is satisfied by his family life, he still wants to have a mistress. The Important Person steps into his sledge and instructs the coachman to take him to his mistress’s. He reflects happily on the events of the evening, though his thoughts are interrupted occasionally by the cold wind.
The Important Person shakes off his guilt regarding his dismissal of Akaky with relative ease. Gogol highlights the fact that his high rank has a powerful impact on the man’s behavior, as he only feels like he can be “himself” when he is among officials of his rank. For the Important Person, every aspect of life is meant to uphold and reinforce his “importance”—he even has a mistress just because that’s what is fashionable for high-ranking officials. The arbitrariness of what makes him “important” (especially when he was recently “unimportant”) only highlights the unfairness of Akaky’s life, as the Important Person’s lavish and immoral lifestyle provides a stark contrast to Akaky’s life of discipline, poverty, and suffering.
Suddenly, the Important Person feels a hand on his collar. He turns around and sees a short man in an old uniform—Akaky Akakievich. The ghost is very pale. Akaky opens his putrid-smelling mouth and demands that the official give up his overcoat. The Important Person, absolutely horrified, throws his cloak at Akaky and commands his coachman to drive him home as quickly as possible. The next morning, the Important Person’s daughter comments that he looks very pale. The official does not answer, and does not tell anyone what happened to him that night. The event affects him deeply, however, and he begins to behave more modestly, treating his subordinates with more respect. From that day on, Akaky’s ghost is not seen again, though many claim that he still appears in the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
The Important Person, while he feels guilty about Akaky’s death, only truly changes when he faces the clerk’s ghost. Gogol suggests that those in power must see their “inferiors” as human beings with value and dignity—and not just after they’ve died. The young official’s revelation at the beginning of the story seems to come back and strike the Important Person now, becoming a kind of “moral” for the story. People can be horribly cruel to one another, especially through systems of dehumanization or oppression, and it’s crucial to recognize that we are all, at heart, “brothers.”
The Narrator mentions that in one instance, a watchman in Kolomna saw a ghost come from behind a house. He dared not arrest it, but followed it until the ghost turned around, raising a large fist, and asked, “What do you want?” The watchman turned away immediately. But, the Narrator says, this ghost was too tall to be Akaky. It wore a large mustache, and went off toward the Obukhoff Bridge.
The existence of another ghost suggests that there are individuals other than Akaky who have been wronged by their superiors in Tsarist Russia. This ghost’s great strength (and apparent virile masculinity), illustrated by his large fist and mustache, may imply that the power of the oppressed is growing. At the same time, this final scene also shows Gogol veering off into the absurd again, leaving behind his protagonist and avoiding a neat conclusion to the story of one insignificant clerk in St. Petersburg. Akaky fades away and life goes on, in all its strangeness and absurdity.