Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 20, 2008

Death by coat

The Overcoat
By Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

I like the slight on pubic sector departments, in this story, as being irritable places to work in and well, yes, really quite boring organisations.  This  sets the scene for the rest of the story.  It is not only Akakiy Akakievich who is boring and slightly embarrassing but the implication clearly is that whoever works in these departments is almost of necessity boorish and ill adapted.  People who work there are definitely not the most interesting people, whatever they imagine themselves to be. 

Unfortunately, AA is even more ill adapted to the reality of life and work than the rest of them are.  The others somehow manage to be important and make AA the butt of their sniggers and so you feel for him, even if you cringe and want to wallop the lot of them.

Not only is AA’s work environment dull and boring, and his whole approach to what he does, his background almost predestines him for where he is.  It is a very ordinary and drab background where his elders could not come up with a more inspired name than calling him Akaki the son of Akaki, as the least controversial.  He is the ultimate dull character who is bullied at work, almost inevitably, but who wants nothing more than simply be left alone and carry on with his dull and unimaginative existence.

The impartial way in which Gogol describes the character of AA, without pity or resentment, is marvellous and makes the story compelling and believable.   We actually feel for AA and reluctantly expect the almost inevitable disaster that will follow once he has managed to save up and acquire his much-needed warm winter coat, necessary in the freezing and bitter cold of a Russian winter.  For just a very short time he manages to access what he imagines is a more elevated position, thanks to this coat.  An official in the department even organises a party on his behalf to celebrate the acquisition of this coat.  He cannot therefore very well decline the invitation and so he walks to this very unfamiliar part of the town in which the official lives.

The story is sustained by the sense of doom and inevitability that appears to attach itself to a character like AA – it just could not be that someone so naïve and unworldly would be able to hang on to anything as valuable as a brand-new warm winter coat, or anything else for that matter that might even have a whiff of well-being about it.

And so the inevitable does happen, and we are carried along by Gogol’s story, absorbed in what will happen next, feeling for AA.   He is robbed of his coat and there is no one really inclined to make an effort on his behalf to help find the culprits.  The official in charge, who he is advised to approach, does not want to know.   This will ultimately lead to AA’s death, as no one could survive coatless in the bitter cold without falling seriously ill. 

Nevertheless, there is some justice.   A ghost haunts the city, in search of a coat and the official is accosted.  The ghost demands the official’s cloak, which he throws off in fear and the ghost wraps it around his shoulders.   Only then does the ghost rest from its nightly wanderings.  And the official?  Well, he becomes a much nicer man after this and less of a bragger.  Gogol has really managed to keep us enthralled by this story and the fate of AA, such a dull person!

This review is also posted on a blog dedicated to reviewing short stories.  A curious singularity

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Responses

  1. I just saw your post on A Curious Singularity and followed the link to your blog here. I left a comment there, and not to repeat myself, but I like your summary and analysis of the story.

  2. Kim: thank you – I enjoyed reading it. And thanks very much for stopping by.

  3. One scene that shows what the coat has done to Akakii can be seen as he leaves the party, returning to his plain district before he has his coat stolen. As he returns to this area, he looks around and very much dislikes his living area. Before he had the coat, he was completely fine and content with his living quarter and life. With the overcoat, he finds he wants more. And after he loses his overcoat, he cannot function and simply dies. The story always reads like a parable to me.

  4. I’m really sorry I can’t keep up with your reading pace, Seachanges, but your description, although generalised, of the works you read are also worth reading and illustrating.

    Thank you.

  5. […] reviewed Gogol’s short story The Coat a little while ago, on A Curious Singularity as well as at 51Stories.  A Curious Singularity is a website devoted to the short story, where members can review a […]


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