Why you should read it
Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (also known as The Cloak) is a fantastic story that definitely deserves its place among the “Best Russian Short Stories”. But, I won’t lie to you. Not all parts of this story are exciting to read. Gogol published it in 1842 and the writing style was different then. Nevertheless, you should read the story because it is a classic, it is beautifully honest and in parts simply hilarious.
The Overcoat is about a Russian bureaucrat that seems like he “had been born in undress uniform with a bald head“. Gogol’s story is so full of delightful sarcasm, that one cannot help to smile. Of course, you have to be acquainted with the silliness of bureaucracy to get the joke. So, dear young readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure of banging your head against the wall of government bureaucracy, bear with me. If you don’t get it yet, you will in a few years, for sure.
Another great thing about The Overcoat is that we, as readers, are instantly on the side of Akakiy, who is the ultimate pitiable anti-hero. When it comes to Gogols realistic writing style it is amazing how he masters the art of making his story seem real by describing little details like the origin of the “Bashmatchkin” family name. Also, Gogol adds sentences on a meta level like “if my memory fails me not” to underline the factualness of his story. These details might seem trivial to an untrained reader, but it’s those little details that convey the impression that the author is telling, in fact, a true story while we know with certainty that he is not. That right there is the beauty of literature.
If you want to read the whole story, then please skip to the end of this post to find some sources where you can read it online. In any case, I have listed the parts you should definitely not miss out on. (But, I have to warn you: this list contains SPOILERS.)
Don’t miss out on:
- Chapter 2 + 3 about Russian bureaucracy, because they are accurate and hilarious.
- You can leave out the middle part about the tailor and the rotten cloak. It suffices to know that Akakiy’s cloak is beyond repair and Akakiy is pretty upset about it.
- Chapter 11 is important so that you get a feeling for how much the new cloak means to him. (If you want to skip this chapter too and get right to the action, here’a how much it means to him: A LOT.)
- Chapter 12: The perfect cloak arrives. We already know that something bad is going to happen to the cloak, with all the attention that was focused on its importance in the story so far. The cloak gets stolen and Akakiy from the department of justice has to experience that there is no justice at all. The justice system doesn’t work and Akakiy’s only hope is to talk a “prominent personage” into supporting his cause.
“The reader must know that the prominent personage had but recently become a prominent personage, having up to that time been only an insignificant person. Moreover, his present position was not considered prominent in comparison with others still more so. But there is always a circle of people to whom what is insignificant in the eyes of others, is important enough.” (Chapter 18)
- Chapter 18 + 19, because of how the need for power is depicted.
- Chapter 22: After being scolded Akakiy gets a fever, like it is almost always the case in Russian novels: the emotional state of mind causes the body to break down, get sick and die. This connection between the emotional and physical state is a recurring motif in Russian literature.
“A being disappeared who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, and who never even attracted to himself the attention of those students of human nature who omit no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly, and examining it under the microscope.” (Chapter 22)
- Chapter 23 to 26: Akakiy’s death is not the end of the story. “… and our poor story unexpectedly gains a fantastic ending.” (End Chapter 22)
I hope you are at least a little bit curious to read the story now. Find the version with the chapters this post refers to at eastoftheweb.com: The Overcoat. You can find a version without chapters at wikisource.org: The Overcoat.