The “Little Man” in the Big City: Gogol’s The Overcoat

The title of the story is ‘The Overcoat’ published in 1842, authored by Nikolai Gogol, the father of modern Russian pragmatism. A Great Russian novelist, Gogol is acknowledged to have quite a name as a satirist. An artist of words he is known to exert enormous influence over Russian literature. Through his writings, he has proved to be an exposer of the defects of human character. He was believed to have a revolting outlook and was one of the first Russian writers to criticize his country’s way of life. (Gogol, 1997-2007).

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The Overcoat is a philosophical tale and is among his masterpieces. His imaginative power and linguistic playfulness had so great an influence on Russian literature that Melchior de vogue’s famous quote on it was, ‘we all come out from Gogol’s overcoat’. The Overcoat is a satire and an apt remark on the society and the general mindset of the people of the society who believe that it is a praiseworthy custom to attack those who cannot bite back.

We find such people in every society, more so in the city-culture where ‘culture’ exists no more, where mutual respect and care for each other has diminished, where people are least concerned about the problems of others. The little man in the story is the representative of all the poor people who is living life from hand to mouth and get little to save. It is a story on how the people of the lower strata of the society are tormented regularly by their better-off counterparts and how still they can do nothing to put an end to their misgivings. It also brings fore the plight of the poor and how they have to forfeit their one need to persuade their other necessities.

The little man here is an impecunious government clerk and copyist, Akakii Akakievich, little recognized in his department for his hard work and considered socially inept. He is a person who keeps to himself and relishes hand-copying the departmental letters. Still, the younger clerks mock him and interrupt his work. His colleagues and juniors showed no respect to him.

A thing that is a necessity to the rich is a chore to the poor. Akakii has a threadbare overcoat. When winters begin setting in he can no longer do with it. A new overcoat costs a fortune to him. Yet, having one meal a day and cutting on all his other expenses which can hardly be called leisurely he finally manages to get himself one. The author has chosen to say, ‘He even got used to going hungry in the evenings’ to imply the powerful desire of Akakii to have an overcoat.

The whole day was a triumphant festival day for Akakii. Unfortunately he gets robbed of it. He tries to complain about it to some important and high ranking official, and climbing up the governmental ladder reaches a general, but is treated with disdain. He is plunged into illness and dies soon after without putting up much of a fight. Soon Akakii’s ghost is reported haunting areas of St. Petersburg, taking off people’s overcoats. Finally, Akakii’s ghost catches up with the VIP, who since Akakii’s death had felt guilty over having mistreated him – scaring him severely takes his overcoat. This is depicted as the revenge of the oppressed against the oppressor. Akakii’s ghost is not seen after that. The story is a form of social protest. (Gogol. 2004)

Before Akakii’s overcoat was stolen he was a content, hopeless but functioning non-entity with no material success. His new overcoat, which everyone had praised so much, and which had made him popular among his comrades, had raised his expectations. Gogol has positioned much stress on the name of the little man in the opening passages, saying, ‘It may strike the reader as rather singular and far-fetched; but he may feel assured that it was by no means far-fetched, and that the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to give him any other name.’ This name has a humorous value to it. It also corresponds to Akakii’s role as an everyman.

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Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the Russian name ‘obkakat’ which means to smear with excrement. Thus here the objective is to put in the picture to the audience the low respect- self and attained, contempt and derision bestowed upon the character.

The overcoat stands for Akakii’s spiritual regeneration. The overcoat itself can take on religious connotations which often represent righteousness and salvation. The story has a much obvious and natural conclusion with Akakii’s death. All through the story he is rendered as an incompetent man. The author here has tried to point out to the addressees that the weak and oppressed too have a heart and have feelings, feelings of love, hate, disdain and loss but they do not have the power or the strength to fight back, to ask for their rights. When Akakii livingly could not fight for his cause, he chose to do so when he could do it uninhibitedly. He had no fear of anyone or of any losses as a ghost, so he chose a way which came easiest to him, a way which he could not have dwelled on while alive. (The overcoat/introduction, 2008).


Gogol, Nikolai. (1997-2007). Odessa Globe. Web.

Gogol, Nikolai. (2004). The Overcoat. Short story Classics. Web. (2008). The overcoat/introduction. Web.

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