The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Synopsis of 'The Overcoat'
  • 2:55 Analyzing 'The Overcoat'
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Has an outfit ever made you feel like a new person? If so, you might have more in common with the protagonist of 'The Overcoat' than you may think. Explore this lesson to find a synopsis as well as an analysis of Nikolai Gogol's famous short story!

Synopsis of 'The Overcoat' by Nikolai Gogoi

'The Overcoat' is a short story written by Russian author Nikolai Gogol in 1842.

As the story begins, we meet the protagonist of 'The Overcoat,' Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, who could be adequately described as human wallpaper. We discover that he comes from humble origins, occupies a lowly position in a departmental office, and is in no way remarkable other than his rather unsightly features and attire. Despite the fact that he's endlessly tormented by the younger yet more successful clerks in the office, Akaky wants nothing more than his job as a simple copyist and his shabby, threadbare overcoat that the others ridicule so harshly.

Regardless of his contentment, though, Akaky's worn overcoat is in desperate need of repair. Upon taking it to his neighbor and tailor Petrovich, he discovers that it is beyond the tailor's abilities to fix, and so he must find a way to pay for a new one. Akaky, whose money is strained as it is, tightens his budget even further, doing without candles and even partially starving himself to make up the difference he needs for this new coat. His savings are added to his holiday bonus, and Petrovich creates Akaky's overcoat from scratch in two weeks.

When Akaky finally retrieves his new coat, he's mesmerized by it and even enjoys his cold walk to work with it. Once mostly invisible to his co-workers, Akaky's overcoat draws the attention of some people at the office when he arrives, and he's even invited to a party later that evening. Akaky decides to attend and finds himself in a world much different from his own bleak existence. After some uneasy time spent socializing, Akaky leaves for home, but is mugged on his way, and the overcoat is stolen.

Unsure what to do about this theft after little help from the police, Akaky turns to someone in his office who could possibly grease the gears of justice. This 'important personage,' though, uses his position to intimidate and to belittle his subordinates and causes Akaky to collapse in a fit of anxiety when the personage reprimands him for approaching him so familiarly. Akaky contracts a fever on his way home through a blizzard and soon dies. Shortly thereafter, there are reports of a ghost in town yanking people's coats from their shoulders, apparently searching for one that was stolen from him. The 'important personage' encounters this ghost one evening and is more compassionate afterward. The ghost never appears again. Both of these changes suggest the meeting held a lot of importance.

Analyzing 'The Overcoat'

Now that we've covered the plot of 'The Overcoat,' let's do some analysis.

Many schools across the country (and the world, for that matter) have instituted formal dress codes for their students. One of the primary arguments that many of these institutions use for their decision is that standardized outfits put everyone on equal footing, which doesn't allow students to use their clothing as status symbols or ways to make themselves 'better' than others. The coat in Gogol's 'The Overcoat' truly operates as such a status symbol, and as such, demonstrates Akaky's true social inequality.

Many critics and analysts of 'The Overcoat' have speculated on the emphasis that the author places on Akaky's name in the short story's opening paragraphs. Gogol stresses the point that 'any other name (for his protagonist) was unthinkable.' Some have theorized that the humorist writer intended it to be a reference to feces, while others believe it is an allusion to the life of a particular saint. Another viewpoint we might consider is that, in Russian, 'a, ' which means 'not' or 'un-', combined with 'kak' which means 'as,' or 'like' could render something to the effect of 'unlike' or 'unequal.' This would make Akaky's title, 'an unequal,' 'the son of an Unequal.'

The reason no other name could really work for Akaky is that he's a poignantly accurate portrayal of life in the highly socially stratified imperial Russia of the mid-19th century. The indicators Gogol uses to mark the lines of class and rank are minute and meaningless. For instance, the author notes that there is little real difference between various clerks of the different departments - all are members of the fraternity of bureaucrats that endlessly toil at the same menial tasks. This point is highlighted when Akaky, finally pushed to his limit by being disturbed in his work, responds to his harassers with 'Let me be. Why do you do this to me?' One particular young clerk is touched by Akaky's pathetic plea and interprets it as 'I am your brother.'

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