One of the tragedies Gogol highlights in “The Overcoat” is the insignificance of Akaky Akakievich’s life. The clerk’s unimportance is felt early on in the story. Gogol’s phrase “In a certain department…there worked a certain civil servant” implies that his story could happen to any civil servant in any department, and therefore that Akaky Akakievich’s life is more or less interchangeable. His interchangeability is reinforced by his occupation as a copyist, a job that has become the entirety of his life. Akaky’s work, and therefore his personhood, is based on the concept of reproducible and interchangeable material. Throughout the story, both his superiors and his peers treat Akaky Akakievich poorly, and his worthlessness is exacerbated by the fact that he never rises in the bureaucracy. All of his peers are younger than he is and lead more interesting lives, and they frequently make jokes at his expense. Only once in the story, when Akaky protests, does a fellow civil servant (the young official) realize how cruelly they are treating the copyist. Immediately the young official feels ashamed at how cruelly human beings can treat each other, even when they pretend to be the most honorable of men.
Akaky’s life is so devoid of meaning and complexity that it may even be difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for him. Though Akaky Akakievich is apparently content with his lot, Gogol’s descriptions of his mundane and pathetic life challenge the reader’s ability to empathize with the clerk. Gogol at once allows the reader to scoff at Akaky Akakievich’s absurd ignorance, and challenges the reader to find humanity in the most laughable and insignificant of beings. When the protagonist dies, Gogol writes, “And St. Petersburg carried on without its Akaky Akakievich just as though he had never even existed.” By presenting the tragicomic fall of Akaky Akakievich, Gogol draws attention to the mundane life of a member of the silent majority, and he tests the reader’s ability to care about those no one cares for.
At the end of his tale, however, Gogol seeks a sort of redemption for the neglected everyman. Akaky Akakievich takes the form of a ghost who haunts St. Petersburg, stealing the overcoats of the officials who would have ridiculed him during his lifetime. He ultimately gets his revenge on the Important Person who cast him away, so terrifying him that the official adopts a more humble tone from then on. By forcing these officials to experience the brutal winter without an overcoat, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost exposes them to the lives of the powerless and the insignificant. And by confronting them with his corpse, he compels them to recognize his life’s inherent significance.
The Insignificance of the Everyman ThemeTracker
The Insignificance of the Everyman 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.
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.
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.
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.