Gogol’s The Overcoat: A Whisper of ChangeAt first glance of Nikolay Gogol’s novel The Overcoat, one would onlysee a short story about a poor man wishing to survive in a cruel world. However,in looking further into the story, deep symbolism can be found.
Gogol lived inRussia during the rise of the communist party, and was a great dissident ofcommunism. He believed the inevitable end of a communist government was totalfailure. He also criticized the other government of the world for failing toaid Russia in its quest for a better system. Gogol used his creative mind andhis writing abilities to speak out against the evils of the Russian government.He used symbolism to prove his points, and often risked exile by his owngovernment for expressing such radical views. Many different objects in TheOvercoat can be mirrored with the objects of true life.
Everything from AkakyAkakyevitch’s coat, to his administrator is used by Gogol to symbolize thesituation of Russia during Gogol’s time. In truth, the Russian government wasagainst the free-thinking man, and so was against Gogol.Akaky himself is used as a symbol of the Russian people. The communistswere against any sort of free-thinking, and respected any man who performed hisduties without question.
Akaky is described in the story as being a quiet,hard-working man. He keeps mostly to himself, having very little to do with theoutside world. His entire life centers around his profession. Akaky’s lifechanges only after he buys his new overcoat. The overcoats in the storysymbolize different governments. Akaky’s original “dressing jacket,” is theRussian government in power before communism took over. The government, likethe overcoat, once served its purpose, but is now worn thin and needs areplacement. The original color of the coat cannot even be seen anymore.
Eachtime a tear appears in the coat, it is patched and forgotten, but the coateventually cannot be patched any longer. Akaky is extremely hesitant in buyinga new coat, claiming it would be too expensive. This compares to the hesitationof the Russian population to switch to a new government.
However, the coat nolonger serves its intended purpose, and Akaky is forced to either purchase a newcoat or freeze in the cold. Akaky’s new coat symbolizes the establishment ofcommunism over the Russian people. At first, the coat serves its purpose,keeping Akaky warm. Though it looks nice and expensive, the overcoat isactually made of fairly cheap materials. The overcoat gives Akaky a quickglance of happiness, but is quickly stolen by robbers on the street. Gogol usesthe new overcoat to make a statement about the communistic government. In thebeginning years of communism, the people of Russia believed the system to beefficient and superior to all others, yet the government eventually proved to bea failure, falling far short of the people’s expectations.
Akaky’s fellow workers, the other clerks in the office, are symbolic ofother countries. The clerks neglected Akaky and teased him about his old coat,but after he purchased his new overcoat, the other clerks gained much respectfor him, admiring his new coat and inviting him to dinner. Akaky was pleasedwith being treated as an equal. This is representative of the other countries’view of Russia. During Russia’s previous government, the other countries of theworld both pitied and laughed at the once great nation. However, aftercommunist took control, Russia was viewed with more respect among the countries.Other nations now recognized Russia as an equal.
The Person of Consequence is symbolic of a great democratic nation,possibly the United States. The Person of Consequence is portrayed as anegotistical person, afraid of showing weakness to the “lower grades, ” butalways willing to smile and enjoy himself in front of his equals. Here Gogolshows his opinions of the democratic nations. The democratic nations treat eachother with respect and admiration, but each looks upon the communists withdistrust and conceitedness. The nations believe that no cowardice must ever beshown to the communists.
Gogol believed that, once the chains of communism hadbeen broken by the Russian people, the democratic governments would be hesitantin helping the struggling country. In the story, Akaky seeks the help of thePerson of Consequence in retrieving his stolen overcoat. However, the Person ofConsequence shows no respect for Akaky, yelling at him and ignoring his pleas.Thus the predictions of Gogol are portrayed through the actions of the Person ofConsequence.After Akaky’s death, his ghost haunts citizens on the streets ofPetersburg, robbing them of their overcoats. The hauntings continue until Akakysteals the overcoat of his enemy, the Person of Consequence. The ghost thendisappears, with only rumors of further sightings of the ghost.
Gogol usesAkaky’s ghost to predict the future of Russia. Once communism falls, the peoplewill begin a search for a new government. The search will end with Russiaevoloving into a democracy, though the democratic nations are the enemies ofcommunist Russia during Gogol’s life. The rumors of coninued sightings of theghost perhaps suggest Gogol’s believe that some will not be satisfied under ademocratic rule.Nikolay Gogol was able to escape exile from his country only by hidinghis opinions through the use of symbolism. No one will ever know the truemeanings put forth in The Overcoat, yet Gogol’s general opinions can berecognized. In a country so against the right of mankind to voice his opinionsfreely, Gogol was able to successfully speak his mind by using his creativityand his talents.
Gogol’s works paved the way for many other Russian authors who,by using Gogol’s actions as inspiration, now had the courage necessary forfighting against the power of the majority. It is men like Gogol who shape thenations of the world. His influence in Russian society could be compared tomany great authors who have influenced the people of the United States, such asJohn Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Without writers such as these, the opinions ofthe oppressed could never be made audible, and the desires for a greater futurecould never become a reality.