Returning to the department, the narrator describes how Akaky loves his work. He appears to find genuine joy in his copying work, seeing in it “some varied and pleasant world of his own,” and appearing not to recognize any world outside of it (397). The narrator suggests that if Akaky had been rewarded in the workplace in proportion to his dedication, he might have advanced “as far as state councillor” (397). However, Akaky himself does not show much interest in being promoted or taking on more complex work. One day a compassionate superior gives Akaky a marginally more complicated task than his usual copying. However, Akaky is so distressed by it that he soon goes back to copying, and no one ever gives him more complicated work again. The narrator notes how Akaky gives no thought to his clothes, which make him look somewhat absurd. The collar and color are strange, and there is always something stuck to his uniform. Unluckily, Akaky often passes under windows right as trash is being emptied out of them, and so he always has bits of rubbish in his hat. He never pays attention to what is happening around him, unlike other clerks. In everything Akaky merely sees “his own neat lines” (397), and hastily eats his dinner at home without any attention to how it tastes so that he can resume copying work. Even if there is no work he can bring home, Akaky copies for his own pleasure. He prefers documents addressed to important people over those that are beautifully written. Even though most of the clerks socialize with each other after work, Akaky has never been seen to attend these parties.
The northern frost in St. Petersburg is vicious, afflicting rich and poor man alike, though at least those in high positions can afford nice coats. Akaky Akakievich discovers that his coat is extremely worn down in the back and shoulders. The other clerks have previously made fun of Akaky’s coat, calling it not an overcoat but a housecoat - that is to say, unfit to be worn outside. Over the years Akaky has had the coat mended many times, such that the collar has gradually disappeared because the tailor has cut fabric from it to incompetently patch other parts of the garment. Akaky decides to take the coat to Petrovich, the partially blind and pockmarked tailor, deciding in advance that he will not pay more than two roubles for the repair. Unfortunately, Akaky catches Petrovich in a rare moment of sobriety, when Petrovich is “tough, intractable, and liable to demand devil knows what price” (401). Petrovich tells him the coat cannot be saved and that Akaky will have to have a new one made, at a cost of 150 roubles or more.
Leaving Petrovich’s house, Akaky wanders around in a dreamlike, distracted state, until he bumps into a policeman whose rebuke brings Akaky back to earth. He decides the trick will be to visit Petrovich again the following Sunday, when Petrovich will be dazed from the night before and in need of money and a drink. However, when Akaky visits him the following Sunday, Petrovich is indeed dazed, but refuses to budge on the matter of the new overcoat. At this news, Akaky descends into a despair, unsure how he will pay for the new coat. His expected holiday bonus has already been used up on other expenses. Thinking to himself, Akaky meditates on how he might ask for a larger bonus. He also knows that Petrovich operates at extremes—often accepting very little for his work, but at other times asking for far more than the work is worth—and so Akaky concludes that Petrovich will certainly agree to make the coat for 80 roubles. He can produce the first half, but where, he wonders, will he find the other half? The narrator interrupts Akaky’s musing to himself to inform us, the reader, of how it is that Akaky already has 40 roubles saved: he has practiced a habit for many years of saving a half kopeck for every rouble he spends, in this way accumulating around 40 roubles.
In order to generate the remaining half, Akaky devises a regime of extreme scrimping and saving. He stops drinking tea in the evenings, burning candles, and walks softly, almost on tiptoe, in the streets in order to avoid wearing down his shoes. Eventually he also stops eating dinner. At first Akaky finds these changes difficult, but eventually he begins to adjust, even to feel nourished and fulfilled by the quest to save for this new overcoat. It gives him a sense of purpose, and even of companionship: “it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him…and this companion was none other than that same overcoat” (406). The overcoat causes Akaky to manifest a determination and drive unlike anything he has ever possessed before, and his obsession with the overcoat distracts him enough from his work that one day he even almost makes a mistake. He seems to become a different person: “all hesitant and uncertain features—disappeared of themselves from his face and actions” (407).
After an unexpectedly large bonus of 60 roubles, Akaky is closer than ever to his goal. When he finally reaches 80 roubles, after about six months of saving, Akaky finds himself unusually excited. He and Petrovich go shopping, purchasing the best materials Akaky’s budget can buy. Petrovich labors over the coat for two weeks, receiving 12 roubles for his work. Petrovich, extremely proud of his handiwork, delivers the coat to Akaky one morning. Petrovich feels, like Akaky, that he is more dignified because of this project, having distinguished himself from those tailors who merely make repairs rather than those who also make new clothes. The coat fits perfectly, and Akaky sets off in it to go to the office. Petrovich follows him out and stands in the street for a long time watching Akaky in the coat, even running ahead of Akaky via shortcut so that he can admire the coat from the front. Akaky, for his part, is in “the most festive disposition of all his feelings” (409), aware at every moment of his new overcoat and even smiling to himself in satisfaction.
Somehow, at the office, everyone finds out about Akaky’s new overcoat, and everyone rushes to the porter’s lodge to examine the new coat. Everyone congratulates Akaky so profusely that, first smiling, he becomes embarrassed. They suggest that they drink to the new coat, even that Akaky throw a party to celebrate the new coat. Akaky is overwhelmed, unsure of what to do. He even begins to claim that it is not a new overcoat but an old one, to try to deflect the attention. Ultimately another clerk, one of superior rank, volunteers to throw a party because it is also his name day. Akaky tries to excuse himself from having to attend the gathering, but everyone tells him it would be impossibly rude. He eventually accepts the invitation, warmed by the idea that he will therefore also have an opportunity to go for a prolonged stroll in his new coat. He experiences the whole day “like the greatest festive holiday” (409).
In this section, Gogol introduces the theme of work as one’s world by discussing perhaps the one thing that actively distinguishes Akaky as a person: his absolute dedication to his profession. Gogol uses vivid imagery to suggest the degree to which Akaky is consumed by his work. Akaky’s love of copying above all things encloses him in his own world. The narrator characterizes the average clerk as so hawk-eyed when walking down the street that he would notice if the footstrap on the trousers of someone across the street had come undone. This seems in line with the culture the narrator describes of obsession with rank and attentiveness at all times to any opportunity for social advancement. But Akaky does not want to advance in his job, and likewise he is totally shut inside his own world. In one of the aforementioned examples of vivid imagery, everywhere Akaky looks he sees “his own neat lines, written in an even hand, and only when a horse’s muzzle, coming out of nowhere,” nudges his shoulder and blows wind in his face does he realize that he is “not in the middle of a line, but rather in the middle of the street” (398). Akaky’s dedication to and satisfaction with his work turns the lines of the letters he copies into physical space—the “middle of a line” is something more real to him as a location than “the middle of the street.” In a parallel to how his colleagues’ bullying only distracts him when they jostle his arm and obstruct his ability to do work, Akaky is pulled out of his reverie only when a horse literally places its head on Akaky’s shoulder and blows air in his face.
Gogol also makes a contrast between Akaky and his colleagues to reinforce this idea of Akaky’s love for his work. The narrator elaborates at length the many diversions to which the “clerical folk” ordinarily turn after a day at work: some go to the theater, some frequent shops, others chase women or go to parties, though most often they simply go to another clerk’s house to socialize amongst themselves (399). However, Akaky does none of these things, nor has he ever “been seen at any party” (399). Instead, he completes more copying work for fun after dinner, and goes to bed smiling contentedly, thinking of the copying work he will be given to do the next day. In this sense, Akaky is very distinct from his colleagues, who more predictably seek to entertain themselves. However, given that most of the clerks simply continue to spend time with one another and to trade society gossip, they too continue to occupy themselves within their working world even when they leave their jobs. In this way, one could argue that though Akaky is a grotesque exaggeration, he exists on the same continuum as his colleagues.
Immediately after the discussion of how happy Akaky is with his work and the status quo, Gogol introduces this saga of the overcoat. The overcoat represents a number of opportunities within the story. At the level of the author it is an opportunity for Gogol to satirize human aspiration. At the level of character it presents a break in the pattern of Akaky’s life and an opportunity for rapid change. Continuing the satiric project of “The Overcoat,” Gogol points to Akaky—as well as others—to lampoon the banality of human ambitions. The narrator describes how when Akaky begins to plan for his new overcoat he is suddenly possessed by a drive and ambition he has never displayed before: “Fire occasionally showed in his eyes, the most bold and valiant thoughts even flashed in his head: Might he not indeed put a marten on the collar?” (407) This is an example of satiric irony because the words “fire… in his eyes” and “bold and valiant thoughts” seem to prepare us for grander considerations than something as minor as what kind of fur Akaky will use to line the collar of his coat (407). Though Gogol targets Akaky as an object of satire, it is not a cruel kind of satire, but always somehow part of a project to make the reader sympathetic towards him. “The Overcoat” suggests that no one deserves to be treated inhumanely, even—indeed, especially—those who seem the most ridiculous and pathetic.
However, the overcoat also represents the possibility of change, even of companionship. The quest to save for the overcoat and the prospect of having it are the first thing in Akaky’s life, it seems, to excite him more than copying work. However, it differs from copying work in that the overcoat is an enthusiasm that brings Akaky out of his isolated interior world. It makes him bold and assertive in a way he has never been before. He no longer feels that he walks alone, but with the overcoat as a kind of companion. Akaky’s relation to the coat itself a kind of wife—foreshadows the strange ways in which Akaky seems to notice women for the first time after he receives the finished coat from Petrovich. However, this new Akaky and his enjoyment of the new overcoat both prove to be short-lived.