One of the most prominent themes of “The Overcoat” is the preoccupation with status and rank. Akaky’s status is one of the first things that the story mentions, “for with us rank must be announced first of all,” though the ironic tone of the narrator suggests that he does not endorse this obsession (394). People are constantly attentive to rank and status in a way that can corrupt their ability to act humanely towards one another and even lead to corruption. Akaky, notably, is not concerned at all with rank or status, making him very different from everyone around him. He has no interest in being promoted, tolerates mistreatment from everyone, and copies things for others at work regardless of whether they have the right to order him around. He pays no attention to what is happening around him, to the extent of bumping into people and horses in the street, whereas, the narrator says, “his young fellow clerk” is always looking around, “his pert gaze so keen that he even notices when someone on the other side of the street has the footstrap of his trousers come undone” (398). The “important person,” by contrast, is an example of someone corrupted by the obsession with rank and status, finding himself unable to act normally and humanely towards subordinates even though he is a kind person at heart.
Work as the world and the world of work
One theme of “The Overcoat” is the way in which, for its characters, work constitutes their world. This is seen metaphorically in the instance of the clerks, who are much concerned with their own advancement and spend their hours away from work socializing with each other, repeating high society gossip. Things that occur in the office can also function as metaphors for the world at large; the young clerk haunted by Akaky’s mistreatment by his coworkers is haunted by it for the rest of his life, taking it as symbolic of humanity’s capacity for cruelty in general despite superficial refinement and elegance. However, the idea of work as one’s entire world is literalized by Akaky, who literally works all day, including for his own pleasure at home, seeing nothing around him except neat lines of his own handwriting. Notably absent from “The Overcoat” are common themes like love, marriage, family or religion: this is a world entirely concerned by work, socializing with one’s colleagues, and determining how one may cement one’s social status.
Self-reflexivity as a work of art
One of the important themes of “The Overcoat” is its self-reflexivity and constant reference to itself as a work of art. The narrator continually refers to writing and the customs of writers, indeed often to make fun of them. He says, for example, that he should not have to describe Petrovich, but that since the literary fashion mandates the inclusion of all sorts of unnecessary information, he will have to give some biographical details. The narrator also mentions the fallibility of his own memory and the limits of his own interest. With regards to where the young clerk who hosts the party lived, the narrator says: “We unfortunately cannot say: our memory is beginning to fail us badly” (410). With regards to what happened to Akaky’s possessions after his death, the narrator comically admits: “God knows; that, I confess, did not even interest the narrator of this story” (419). This is distinct from a more traditional variety of omniscient third-person narrating that seeks to convey total realism. Self-reflexivity in the story often has a comic or clever effect, but this is not the sole reason Gogol employs it: in fact, it often facilitates his play with literary conventions and genres.
Destiny and fate
On a number of occasions the narrator references destiny and fate, often with a satirical tone. The narrator claims that it was inevitable that Akaky Akakievich be named Akaky Akakievich and that no other series of events was possible. Akaky makes an ugly face at his baptism, as if, the narrator jokes, he knows he is to become a titular councillor. In adult life, because no one can remember when Akaky was hired or who hired him, people become “convinced that he must simply have been born into the world ready-made, in a uniform, and with a balding head” (396)—that is, that not only was it is his destiny to become as he is, but that he has never been anything other than he is. Akaky, for his own part, is resigned to his fate, expressing contentment with his modest lot until life throws a complication in his path. Even in death, the narrator states that Akaky was “fated to live noisily for a few days after his death, as if in reward for his entirely unnoticed life” (420). Whether this fatalistic worldview is the only one possible is a question for each reader to decide.
Sympathy and fellowship
Gogol’s project of cultivating sympathy for his characters begins with the fact that he constructs as his subject the completely ridiculous Akaky, a figure who the narrator repeatedly emphasizes is interesting to no one and cared for by nobody. By emphasizing Akaky's extreme isolation and loneliness, Gogol paradoxically elicits sympathy and even interest for him from the reader. The young clerk who is haunted by Akaky’s remark is emblematic of this project. In the same way that Gogol makes us sympathetic towards the sad, ridiculous character of Akaky, a young clerk in Akaky’s workplace is suddenly struck by Akaky’s response to being harassed, hearing in it: “I am your brother” (397). “The Overcoat” arguably concerns itself with sympathy rather than empathy, because on numerous occasions in the story Gogol states that it is impossible to fully understand what another person thinks. But he nonetheless reinforces the importance being “capable of entering at least somewhat into another man’s predicament” (414).
Ghosts and the supernatural
Towards the end of the story, “The Overcoat” takes a fantastical turn. Akaky dies suddenly of quinsy and, as if to compensate for the way in which he was ignored in life, he looms terrifyingly over St. Petersburg in the days after his death. He becomes a ghost who haunts the streets, stealing coats from people regardless of their rank. Though this turn seems unexpected, Akaky’s supernatural power is in a way foreshadowed by the episode with the young clerk. Akaky haunts this young man too, in a psychological way, and he is also described there as exerting an “unnatural power” (396). The unexpected turn to the supernatural is facilitated by Gogol’s use, discussed above, of self-reflexivity—though it is a sudden turn, Gogol makes it work by acknowledging that it is a sudden turn. The ghost plot within “The Overcoat” also functions to produce a certain sense of justice within the story. Akaky is able to gain in death the kind of revenge he was unable to achieve in life, balancing the story to a degree and saving it from unredeemed tragedy. However, as the critic Simon Karlinsky notes, Gogol also seems to suggest that the ghost might simply be one of the same thieves who stole Akaky’s coat earlier: the thieves are described as being mustached, and the phantom is described at the end of the story as being “taller now,” with an “enormous mustache” (424). The question of whether Akaky truly receives justice, or whether the supernatural turn in the story is truly a supernatural one, remains open.
Though subtle, “The Overcoat” hints at a sublimated sexuality at certain key points in the story, an theme to which critic Simon Karlinsky draws attention (142). This sexuality is one which emerges with the advent of Akaky’s new coat, suggesting the ways in which the overcoat has the potential to change Akaky. First, when Akaky is saving for the overcoat, the idea of it is so substantial and such a comfort to him that it seems to him like being married and having a wife. This potential is brought out by Petrovich’s delivery of the coat, but prematurely extinguished by the theft of the coat. The first instance referencing this sublimated sexuality is when Akaky notices, for the first time, an advertisement featuring a woman’s bared leg, at which he chuckles for no particular reason. The second instance is when Akaky, leaving the party, is mysteriously possessed with the urge for the first time to follow an intriguing woman down the street. However, the story also seems to suggest that sexuality is dangerous, in a way that leads Akaky to disaster. When Akaky’s coat is stolen, the superintendent intimidates Akaky by asking him if he had been out late at night visiting a brothel, embarrassing him. It is almost as if Akaky is being punished—perhaps even with death—for his newfound awareness.
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.