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.
Bureaucracy and Selfhood ThemeTracker
Bureaucracy and Selfhood Quotes in The Overcoat
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
In this Holy Russia of ours everything is infected by a mania for imitation, and everyone apes and mimics his superior.
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.
“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?”
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...
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.