The Overcoat tells the story of the life and death of one Akaky Akakievich, a government official in a certain department. The first part of the story introduces us to the personality of Akaky and his poor living conditions. The job though satisfying doesn’t earn enough to keep him well clothed and bred. He is extremely reserved and becomes a constant subject of ridicule. Gogol plants Akaky well in the reader’s hearts in this first part arousing their compassion. Akaky, after much labour and suffering, becomes a proud owner of an overcoat. And here ends the first part of the story.
In the second part of the story, the reader learns the misfortune of Akaky. He is robbed of his overcoat; his efforts at recovering his lost property are rendered futile. His disappointment over his loss and the exposure to ill weather in its absence sees him to an early grave. But here the story gets better, for Akaky comes back from the dead to seek justice and takes revenge from those who had failed to help him!
This little story tells many things: It exposes the poverty-stricken lives of middle-class working people; it shows the uncompassionate and bullying nature of the humans; it brings to light the inefficiency and unjust and unsatisfactory conduct of government bureaucrats of Russia under the Imperial regime. Akaky’s ghost haunting the officials is kind of a hint that someday the tolerance for such governance might end in a catastrophe (as was seen years later).
Gogol is said to be a pioneer in realistic writing. His writing as is portrayed in The Overcoat is touched on real characters and real themes that concern human society. Dostoevsky once said that “We all come from Gogol’s Overcoat” and this is a very good indication that how influential Gogol’s work had been on Russian literature.
There is an easy grace in his writing which makes it undemanding to read. It is one of the best attributes of his writing. His direct and at times sardonic writing is quite appealing. It is not right to draw comparisons between the literary masters especially from different literary traditions, but so far the writing is concerned, I couldn’t help comparing his writing with that of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wild.
Overall, I enjoyed this short work. Personally, I cannot place Gogol in the same light as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but I do like his style.