Early on in “The Overcoat,” Gogol gives his readers the strong sense that Akaky Akakievich’s life is destined for mediocrity. His family name, Bashmachkin, derived from the Russian word bashmak, meaning “shoe,” already indicates his low social standing. In addition, the narrator notes that his “far-fetched” given name, Akaky Akakievich, was actually fated, as he was named after his father. When they christen baby Akaky, Gogol writes, the baby “wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular counsellor.” From the outset, the protagonist is placed into a low social class from which he will not escape. Gogol’s description of his protagonist’s origins, while comic, also implies that Akaky Akakievich is resigned to his lot from a young age.
Akaky Akakievich’s low social standing determines how he is treated throughout the story. It almost seems like the world is conspiring against him: for example, Gogol describes Akaky Akakievich’s “strange knack” of walking beneath windows just as trash is being thrown out of them. Furthermore, his position in the world seems to determine how he behaves. Outside of his low bureaucratic post, Gogol writes, “nothing else existed as far as he was concerned.” He does not notice happenings on the street or the taste of his food. He merely does his duty and goes to bed. The clerk’s vision of the possibilities in life is extremely, and fatally, limited.
Though Akaky Akakievich seems content with his mundane life, his poverty makes it impossible for him to maintain his standard of living. In Russia’s corrupt bureaucratic society, the unambitious Akaky Akakievich is tossed aside and forgotten. And even if Akaky Akakievich were a more enterprising individual, Gogol casts doubt on the possibility that he might find success. The fact that his overcoat is stolen so quickly after he procured it seems an especially potent demonstration of the difficulty of social mobility. Thus in “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich’s social status is closely tied to his fate. His status dooms him to a life of poverty and makes his struggle to survive utterly futile—he is not “important” enough to be cared for by anyone. Ultimately, the story suggests that the powerless are only remembered once they are dead, and even then only as “ghosts” who haunt the lives of those who neglected them.
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Social Status and Fate Quotes in The Overcoat
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.
The child was christened and during the ceremony he burst into tears and made such a face it was plain that he knew there and then that he was fated to be a titular counsellor. So, that’s how it all came about. The reason for all this narrative is to enable our reader to judge for himself that the whole train of events was absolutely predetermined and that for Akaky to have any other name was quite impossible.
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...
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.
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.
“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...