"And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; not a very remarkable clerk, one might say—short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as hemorrhoidal... No help for it! the Petersburg climate is to blame."
This quotation, which introduces Akaky Akakievich to the reader, provides important information about the unfortunate clerk. Through only a description of some of Akaky's physical features, Gogol immediately communicates a sense of the protagonist that will be substantiated as the story continues: Akaky is unremarkable, even a little pathetic, with literally no distinct features that somehow communicate a lack of assertiveness. His hair is not red but "somewhat red," he is not even certainly nearsighted but "somewhat nearsighted," he is not completely bald but "slightly bald."
"As for his rank (for with us rank must be announced first of all), he was what is called an eternal titular councillor, at whom, as is known, all sorts of writers have abundantly sneered and jeered, having the praiseworthy custom of exerting themselves against those who can't bite."
With this quotation, Gogol flags the story's preoccupation with status and rank, as well as the story's acknowledgment of itself as a work of art. Gogol suggests that rank is something that must always be "announced first of all," but without endorsing the idea that it is actually important information—the narrator is, he suggests, following a custom. Gogol's "us" in "for with us" seems to refer to the Russian society of his time, but also invites readers to consider more broadly how status and rank might be an unfortunately common human obsession. Likewise, this quotation is one of the instances of "The Overcoat" drawing attention to itself as a work of art, because it suggests that writers have often made fun of titular councillors. Implicitly, Gogol sets up the story to be a departure from the norm of "sneer[ing] and jeer[ing]" at "those who can't bite."
“We have told it so that the reader could see for himself that it happened entirely from necessity and that to give him any other name was quite impossible.”
This is one of a number of statements in the story that refer to a kind of destiny, fate, or fatalism. At intervals throughout the story, the narrator suggests that the path of events is inevitable, that things could only have happened in that one way. However, as this quotation also demonstrates, it is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek discussion of destiny: the narrator assures the reader that it was unavoidable and necessary that Akaky end up with a completely ridiculous name.
"Something sounded in it so conducive to pity that one recently appointed young man who, following the example of the others, had first allowed himself to make fun of him, suddenly stopped as if transfixed, and from then on everything seemed changed before him and acquired a different look. Some unnatural power pushed him away from his comrades, whose acquaintance he had made thinking them decent, well-mannered men. And long afterwards, in moments of greatest merriment, there would rise before him the figure of the little clerk with the balding brow..."
This, along with the return of Akaky as a ghost, is one moment in the story that suggests that despite Akaky's helpless and pathetic demeanor—or rather, as a consequence of Akaky's helpless and pathetic demeanor—he possesses a curious power. This particular clerk, who picks up on the simple humanity in Akaky's habitual response to harassment, is haunted for the rest of his life by this image. Gogol suggests that it is in the most pitiful visions of humanity that our fellowship as human beings is made clear.
"It is not enough to say he served zealously—no, he served with love. There, in that copying, he saw some varied and pleasant world of his own. Delight showed in his face; certain letters were his favorites, and when he came to one of them, he was beside himself: he chuckled and winked and helped out with his lips, so that it seemed one could read on his face every letter his pen traced."
This quotation illustrates how work constitutes Akaky's entire world. This holds also for the other clerks in Akaky's office—they are concerned with rank and advancement in the workplace, and they most commonly spend time with each other in the evenings after work, drinking tea and sharing recycled high society gossip. However, Akaky literalizes this concept by constructing his entire world around work—copying is his greatest passion, and everywhere he looks he sees lines of letters.
“So flowed the peaceful life of this man who, with a salary of four hundred, was able to content himself with his lot, and so it might have flowed on into extreme old age, had it not been for the various calamities strewn along the path of life, not only of titular, but even of privy, actual, court, and other councillors, even of those who neither give counsel nor take any themselves.”
This quotation shows how Gogol cultivates empathy in "The Overcoat." In many respects "The Overcoat" seems like, and is, a story about a very specific kind of person, with a profession, social status, and concerns that may be foreign to the reader. However, Gogol gradually widens our circle of attention in the quotation in order to show that this story concerns not just Akaky, but in fact all people. Akaky, the narrator says, might have lived on in peace, if not for the "various calamities" that afflict not only titular but even "privy, actual, court, and other councillors," indeed, those who neither give nor receive counsel—that is to say, everyone. This is one of a number of quotations that suggests that certain things in life affect all regardless of status and misfortune can befall anyone.
"Of this tailor, of course, not much should be said, but since there exists a rule that the character of every person in a story be well delineated, there's no help for it, let us have Petrovich here as well. In the beginning he was simply called Grigory and was some squire's serf; he began to be called Petrovich when he was freed and started drinking rather heavily on feast days—first on great feasts, and then on all church feasts indiscriminately, wherever a little cross appeared on the calendar."
This quotation demonstrates Gogol's satire in "The Overcoat" of established literary conventions. The tailor, the narrator says, does not really need to be described since he is a minor character. However, "since there exists a rule that the character of every person in a story be well delineated, there's no help for it, let us have Petrovich here as well." And so the narrator goes comically in the other direction, supplying not only an unnecessary personal history of Petrovich (unnecessary because Petrovich's past as a squire's serf adds little to the story of Akaky and his overcoat) but also some unnecessary details about Petrovich's wife too.
“It should be known that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself mostly with prepositions, adverbs, and finally such particles as have decidedly no meaning. If the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the phrase at all, so that very often he would begin his speech with the words ‘That, really, is altogether sort of…’ after which would come nothing, and he himself would forget it, thinking everything had been said.”
This quotation is further evidence of Akaky's peculiar character as someone who is neither here nor there, neither one thing in particular nor any other. The narrator continues his comic construction of Akaky's character by pointing out that Akaky's speech is mostly meaningless, consisting of prepositions, adverbs, and particles. Akaky's way of speaking exemplifies his mode of being: he is there and not there, existing but having little effect, speaking but not communicating very much.
“From then on it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life’s companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him—and this companion was none other than that same overcoat with its cotton-wool quilting, with its sturdy lining that knew no wear.”
This quotation signals a turn in Akaky's life. At first he is depressed by the idea of needing to buy a new overcoat, because he is unsure where he will find the money. However, as he settles into the idea, the challenge of the quest and its sacrifices invests his life with a previously-unknown sense of purpose. In this way, the coat itself becomes a kind of companion, bringing Akaky out of his usually closed interior world.
“His usual conversation with subordinates rang with strictness and consisted almost entirely of three phrases: ‘How dare you? Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you realize who is standing before you?’ However, he was a kind man at heart, good to his comrades, obliging, but the rank of general had completely bewildered him. On receiving the rank of general, he had somehow become confused, thrown off, and did not know how to behave at all.”
Gogol's description of the "important person" is emblematic of his satire of the corrupting influence of concerns of rank and status. We see that he treats Akaky and other subordinates rather cruelly. However, the narrator clarifies that the "important person" is in fact essentially "kind at heart," and that he is merely, but somewhat tragically, confused. Because of his promotion to a higher rank, he now feels unable to behave naturally around people of a lower rank, even though until recently he too was among them.
The Overcoat Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Overcoat is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.