The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol – Short Story Review

Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred rubles, understood how to be content with his fate; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were there not various ills sown among the path of life for titular councillors as well as for private, actual, court and every other species of councillor, even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves. -From The Overcoat-

The Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, published this short story in 1842 – a tale about a poor Russian official named Akakii Akakievich who is the ridicule of his department. Akakii lives entirely for his duties as a copier. His co-workers laugh at him and abuse him. He often has bits and pieces of filth on his uniform due to his “peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish was being flung out of it.” Akakii’s coat is threadbare and he is finally forced to have a new overcoat sewn for him by Petrovich the Tailor. The cost of the overcoat is exorbitant for Akakii, but he scrimps and saves, denying himself food and other basic necessities until he is able to purchase the coat. Overnight, he becomes respectful. His co-workers fawn over his beautiful, new coat – and even throw him a lavish party in celebration. But, disaster falls upon Akakii … his joy is short lived when the coat is stolen.

Gogol’s short story takes an interesting twist as Akakii seeks help to recover the overcoat – going first to the police and then an “important personage.” He is lost amid a barrage of bureaucracy:

…”don’t you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don’t you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me.” -From The Overcoat-

The Overcoat is a story about a common man who is beneath everyone (much is made in the beginning about Akakii’s name which comes close to the Russian word kaka – translated as “poop”), but who rises in esteem simply upon the purchase of an overcoat. He falls again with the loss of this possession, and must appeal to the government for assistance – which does not come. The ending (which I do not want to reveal to those who have not read the story), implies that the common man will ultimately rise above his persecutors. Gogol pokes fun at those in power, showing them to be insubstantial and shallow despite their titles. He allows Akakii to come out on top – demonstrating it is not material gain which grants one power.

I enjoyed this short story which is perhaps more of a parable.

Recommended; rated 4/5.

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    • Anonymous on March 2, 2008 at 05:49

    Wendy, have you read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake? The title character is named after Gogol, because this story had special meaning to his father. It’s a great book and also a wonderful movie!

    • Anonymous on March 2, 2008 at 21:03

    Laura, I have yet to read The Namesake – but it *is* on my wish list…I didn’t know that about the title character – how interesting!

  1. I was just going to say that about The Namesake! funny. I have been interested in reading Gogol ever since I read that book. Thanks for the review! I am now even more interested in it.

    I came here to comment on Sunday Salon…but I got distracted by your review!

    • Wendy on March 9, 2008 at 20:14

    Thanks, Bethany! I’m behind in posting today’s Sunday Salon – but I’ll be doing it soon 🙂

  2. Its the third time I am reading Namesake.Every time I enjoy it more.
    This time I have also read ‘Overcoat’ on the net. Can someone help me understand the relevance of this story in the life of the hero of Namesake?

    • Fitra on December 5, 2011 at 08:18

    I had just finished reading Namesake. it inspired me a lot. I am the same with Dr. Malik, still, I get confused in relating it with Gogol himself. I’ll read Overcoat deeply then 🙂

    • Gerry Brentari on February 1, 2012 at 21:42

    I have watched the Movie “Namesake” and have been trying to figure out the connection to the overcoat. The Father tells his son “we all come from The Overcoat” Meaning perhaps that we are caught up in life with things that are not really important and we have to suffer losses before we can truly identify and understand who we are and what gives meaning to our lives.

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