The Overcoat

The Overcoat Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The overcoat (symbol)

The overcoat becomes for Akaky symbolic of a higher purpose in life and another way of living, to which he dedicates himself with obsessive fever. He begins to feel “as if his very existence became somehow fuller, 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” (406). Simon Karlinsky, with reference to Gogol’s possible homosexuality, argues that the overcoat is also a stand-in for a female lover, drawing from the fact that the narrator literally compares Akaky’s bond with the overcoat to that with a wife or companion.

The name “Akaky Akakievich” (symbol)

Gogol uses the name “Akaky Akakievich” as a meaningful symbol of the protagonist’s character. As the narrator makes clear, it is an absurd name, meaning “Akaky, son of Akaky,” that his mother only chooses reluctantly because the options presented by the church calendar are even more ridiculous. “Akaky Akakievich” is also reminiscent of a Russian word meaning “to cover with excrement.” Both these things reinforce Akaky as a ridiculous and pathetic character. However, “Akaky” also derives from the Greek “Acacius,” meaning “immaculate,” suggesting also a kind of underlying purity.

Akaky Akakievich’s vague language (symbol)

Akaky, the narrator tells us, speaks in an extremely vague way that is almost meaningless: “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” (402). That Akaky speaks in this way is used as a humorous symbol of his inefficacy and insubstantiality as a person. He cannot help speaking in this way even in the more assertive afterlife, telling the terrified general when he attacks him in his sleigh, “At last I’ve sort of got you by the collar!” (423)

The picture in the lighted shop window (symbol)

On the walk to the party at the clerk’s house, Akaky’s eye is uncharacteristically caught on an advertisement in a shop window of “some beautiful woman taking off her shoe and thus baring her whole leg,” while, behind her in another room, “some man stuck his head out” watching her (410). The picture is a clear symbol of sexuality. Akaky chuckles at it, perhaps, the narrator notes, because he is “encounter[ing] something totally unfamiliar, of which everyone nonetheless preserves some sort of intuition” (410). The moment suggests both his innocence—his complete ignorance of sexuality even though he is a middle-aged man—and the fact that Akaky might be changed by this new overcoat.

The blizzards and winds of St. Petersburg (motif)

The hostile weather of St. Petersburg is mentioned repeatedly throughout the story, for both practical and symbolic reasons. “There exists in Petersburg a powerful enemy of all who earn a salary of four hundred roubles or thereabouts,” the narrator says (399). “This enemy is none other than our northern frost, though, incidentally, people say it is very healthful” (399). These powerful frosts are the reason why Akaky must invest in a new overcoat, and they are also, in essence, the cause of his death; he contracts a quinsy while walking around, mouth agape, during a blizzard. However, the frosts are also a metaphor that capture how certain things afflict all people, regardless of rank: as with other misfortunes, “even those who occupy high positions” are susceptible to “have an ache in their foreheads from the cold” (399).