Byron Chicklis Akaky Akakievich and the Tragedy of The Overcoat The hero of “The Overcoat”, Akaky Akakievich, engenders both hatred and pity from the reader. His meekness and his pathetic life deserve sympathy, while his utter detachment from his peers and his singular obsession with a coat are often despised. He is drastically different from any of his peers, but there is a certain purity in his way of life which the overcoat defiles. Akaky’s world is completely devoid of any excitement; his sole source of pleasure lies in his work.
However, his career itself is excruciatingly mundane and only a man as simple as he could extract happiness from it. Akaky is a ghost in his world, and only his death leaves any impression. Temptation, in the form of a luxurious coat, is forced upon him and upsets his peaceful life. Akaky should not be hated for his disconnection from reality or for his symbolic marriage to an overcoat; rather he should be pitied for his terrible fate. Akaky is doomed from birth. When his mother pages through the Russian Orthodox calendar for names for her son, each name carries the connotation of martyrdom.
She realizes that he will be unable to avoid a similarly miserable fate, and so resignedly gives him the monotonous name of “Akaky, son of Akaky”. Nothing about him, in fact, is either notable or appealing. Described as short, pockmarked, balding and ruddy-faced, Akaky is the antithesis of attractive. A fly commands more attention than he does. His diminutive salary prevents him from affording anything but the poorest of clothing, but finer garments could scarcely improve his looks.
Even the timing of his walks to work is cursed; he constantly finds himself the target of garbage thrown out of apartment windows and so is always covered in filth. His speech is so fragmented by pauses, prepositions and particles that is barely coherent. Fortune completely overlooks Akaky, and such tragic circumstances move the reader to pity. Akaky is employed at the most menial of tasks (copying documents), and yet his work is the sole source of joy in his life.
Despite the apparent tediousness of replicating letters for countless hours, Akaky works with absolute focus, never making a single error. Whatever he does not finish at the office he takes home to complete, smiling as he writes. He lacks any meaningful social relationships and so these letters replace friends. This love of transcription saves him from the vices which engulf those seeking pleasure. Rather than receive praise for his dedication, he is mocked by his coworkers. The world completely rejects him, so he creates his own world of compositions.
Akaky cannot be blamed for refusing personal associations, as his appearance and weak nature prevent him from forming any. Instead, his contentment with such a pathetic and solitary existence should be admired. Christianity emphasizes meekness and humility, and Akaky is the perfect embodiment of these qualities. Despite constant castigation from his peers, he never raises his voice in anger against them. When their assaults disrupt his work, he merely cries, “‘Let me be. Why do you offend me? ’- and in these penetrating words rang other words: ‘I am your brother. ”(p. 397). A certain superior notices the singular zeal with which Akaky works and offers him a promotion, but Akaky is too humble and simple minded to undertake anything but the most basic of tasks. “What would God send him to copy tomorrow? ” (p. 399). By this sentence Gogol implies that Akaky’s enthusiasm for such uncomplicated work is almost heavenly. His copying is a form of meditation, and it allows him to ignore the cruel taunts of his coworkers. Gogol appears to draw a comparison between Akaky and Christ.
If Gogol is indeed linking his hero with Jesus, then perhaps Akaky deserves some of the same pity which the Christian savior received for his persecution. Both individuals are born into modest families; Christ is the son of a carpenter and Akaky’s father is a shoemaker. The Virgin Mary and Akaky’s mother both were warned of the suffering which awaited their sons. The most immediately apparent parallel lies in the resurrection of both individuals after three days, and the fact that their deaths were necessary for their influence.
The strongest connection, however, lies in their shared ability to meet harassment with indifference. Christ’s refusal to show anger towards those responsible for his death was a powerful protest in itself, as was Akaky’s simple plea of “Why do you offend me? ” (p. 397). Temptation forces itself upon Akaky in the form of an overcoat and soon leads to his ruin. After his old coat is destroyed by years of use, he is left with the choice of freezing to death, or purchasing a new one. He takes the only option available to him, and this decision quickly destroys his formerly Christ-like traits.
Akaky has been denied anything of finery during his depressing life, and the prospect of a new and luxurious coat causes an immediate change in him. The joy he received from the simplicity of his work is replaced by grandiose notions about the overcoat. “…the most bold and valiant thoughts even flashed in his head: Might he not indeed put a marten on the collar? ” (p. 407). Gogol does mockingly characterize these new thoughts as audacious, however they are drastically different from Akaky’s former fantasies of “neat lines” (p. 398) of composition.
Once Petrovich completes his work, Akaky feels pride for the first time in his life. He even believes that the overcoat has won him the respect of his peers. Appearance, which was so critical in his society, seems to earn him what his former diligence could not. In reality however, the replacement of Akaky’s former mantle accomplishes nothing aside from affording his peers another opportunity to mock him. They throw a party under the guise of christening his new garment, and Akaky is too oblivious to notice that their excessive praise of his overcoat is actually sarcasm.
Clearly, even after he is corrupted by his new purchase he remains pitiable. His character is too weak to resist what he falsely believes the jacket promises him. Once the thieves steal Akaky’s coat and thus his pride away from him, he falls into a depression which leads to his death. Petrovich is the representation of Satan in the story and he deceptively replaces Akaky’s Christian virtues with his coat. The most obvious signs of the tailor’s evil nature lie in his wife’s complaints against him. She refers to him as “‘…the one-eyed devil…’” (p. 401) and claims that “‘…the evil one…’” (p. 06) inspires him to raise his prices.
Petrovich’s disgustingly oversized toenail also signifies his wickedness. Every religious holiday affords him the opportunity for heavy drinking, and so he seems to mock the Christian faith. His snuff-box with the pasted over picture of a general may hide the face of the “…certain important person…” (p. 415) whose cruelty weakens and ultimately kills Akaky. Fate is represented by the “…northern frost…” (p. 399) which, combined with the temptation offered by Petrovich and the brutality of the general, dooms Akaky.
His mother was correct in assuming his destiny to be inescapable. As Akaky is completely unaware of the pact he makes with the devil, he cannot be held responsible when the seemingly wonderful overcoat consumes his soul. Akaky cannot be despised for his obsession with an object because his pathetic life made his fixation unavoidable. The overcoat granted him his first sensation of pride, importance, and acceptance, and so he could not help but become attached to it. He was content before the garment entered his life, but Petrovich and the cold St. Petersburg weather force it upon him.