Though his fellow bureaucrats treat Akaky Akakievich as an uninteresting character through most of the story, his prized overcoat briefly raises his status in the workplace. Indeed, it’s comical how differently his colleagues interact with him: the day he arrives with his new coat, he is immediately surrounded, congratulated, and complimented, and is invited to a party that night. Akaky Akakievich, too, sees himself in a new light. He is more cheerful than usual, and he does not follow his usual routine of eating, working, and sleeping; instead, he allows himself to rest after dinner, and then departs for the party. Out on the street, where previously he would notice nothing of interest, he looks in awe at people and objects that suddenly appear to him as beautiful. As Gogol writes, “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.”
On the one hand, Gogol reveals the absurdity of human interaction—so little (just an overcoat) separates others from seeing Akaky Akakievich as boring and insignificant, or as deserving of respect and admiration. In this light, Gogol’s focus on the overcoat as a material good emphasizes the superficiality of Russian society, and mirrors the modern world’s scorn for people who are “materialist” and shallow.
On the other hand, Akaky Akakievich’s overcoat embodies the actual importance of material goods in human life, especially to the poor. On the most basic level, Akaky Akakievich’s coat allows him to survive the punishing winter in St. Petersburg. This improvement not only raises his standard of living, but also expands his range of activity. Suddenly accepted by his peers and able to venture outdoors at night, Akaky Akakievich begins to find meaning beyond his mundane life as a homebody and copyist.
The power of material is perhaps best illustrated in the tailor Petrovich’s creation of the overcoat. In this passage, the care and attention Petrovich gives to the garment is clear. He works at the coat for two weeks and delivers it himself to Akaky Akakievich’s home. As Gogol writes, “He seemed to know full well that his was no mean achievement, and that he had suddenly shown by his work the gulf separating tailors who only relined or patched up overcoats from those who make new ones, right from the beginning.” Here, Gogol depicts the tailor as an artist, proud of his creativity. By bringing something new into the world, Petrovich has found something meaningful in life. Likewise Akaky Akakievich, now the owner of the overcoat, finds his own identity enhanced. As the possessor of an original work, he is no longer defined by his position as a copyist. In the overcoat, we can read Gogol’s argument for the liberating power of art.
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art ThemeTracker
Materialism, Material Goods, and Art Quotes in The Overcoat
St Petersburg harbours one terrible enemy of all those earning four hundred roubles a year—or thereabouts. This enemy is nothing else than our northern frost, although some people say it is very good for the health.
“I'm afraid it can't be done, sir,” replied Petrovich firmly. “It's too far gone. You'd be better off if you cut it up for the winter and made some leggings with it, because socks aren't any good in the really cold weather. The Germans invented them as they thought they could make money out of them.” (Petrovich liked to have a dig at Germans.) “As for the coat, you'll have to have a new one, sir.”
The word “new” made Akaky's eyes cloud over and everything in the room began to swim round. All he could see clearly was the pasted-over face of the general on Petrovich's snuff-box.
Frankly, Akaky Akakievich found these privations quite a burden to begin with, but after a while he got used to them. He even trained himself to go without any food at all in the evenings, for his nourishment was spiritual, his thoughts always full of that overcoat which one day was to be his. From that time onwards his whole life seemed to have become richer, as though he had married and another human being was by his side. It was as if he was not alone at all but had some pleasant companion who had agreed to tread life's path together with him; and this companion was none other than the overcoat with its thick cotton-wool padding and strong lining, made to last a lifetime. He livened up and, like a man who has set himself a goal, became more determined.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.