Gogol, Nikolay (Vasilyevich)


b. March 19, 1809, Sorochintsy, near Poltava, Ukraine,

d. Feb. 21 [March 4], 1852, Moscow, Russia


Gogol: the author of “The Nose”, “Diary of a Madman”, The Government Inspector, Dead Souls, “The Overcoat”, and, alas, another suicide.


The Overcoat (1842):


Like The Queen of Spades and The Nose, The Overcoat is another brilliant Petersburg fable, which means that it is a political tract which engages the debate about the need for reform of serfdom and whether that reform should be Western:


A poor little clerk makes a great decision for the first time and orders a new overcoat. The coat, while in the making, becomes the dream of his life. On the very first night that he wears his new coat, he is robbed of it while walking through a great snowy square. His attempts to recover it are rebuffed, and he dies a horrible death, descending into fever, madness and rage, but his ghost haunts the city demanding justice.


Gogol’s art is so rich and ambiguous that his story has been embraced by critics across the political spectrum as the definitive expression of their particular ideology..


What is Gogol’s take on the debate about which direction Russia should take in the mid-19th century?


Let us consider the central character of this drama, Akaky Akakiievich Bashmachin. He has been called Gogol’s vision of the Russian everyman, but what exactly do we mean when we use that term? Is Akakii a creation of his environment, or was he born into his situation? Is he a product of social class (and thus an indictment of 19th c. Russia’s autocratic socio-economic structure), or is he, more simply, a basic representative of our species: man in the state of nature?  Of course, the first Akakii, the political football, he can be saved, altered, reprogrammed, but what of the second Akakii, the biological one, can anything be done to help him?


What is it about Akaky Akakievich Bashmachin?


For liberals, Akaki Akakievich Basmachin embodies Gogol’s perception of human nature reduced to its bare essentials: he is the greatest common denominator of humanity, and the challenge he faces are those faced by everyman.

Or for a radical Westernizer, Akaki is the humble Russian worker reduced to a poverty of such extremity that he nearly loses touch with reality, and when he finally must act, he becomes infatuated with bourgeois fashion and is destroyed.

The conservative Slavophile may regard Akaki’s story as a parable of self-destructive passion. The Devil angles for even the most insignificant and converts Akaki’s first desire to connect with the rest of humanity into egotism and vanity


Close Reading:


1.        the opening paragraph (p. 71)


-          The story’s first sentence veers off on a tangent before anything has been said, into a digression about some un-named District Police officer. This is Gogol’s narrative method: digression, parenthetical expression. The key ideas will be disclosed between the lines, not in a direct fashion. He challenges the reader to open their imagination to receive his true message, which is about as subversive as it can get.

-          The narrator describes a District Police officer who complains to the government about the sullying of his reputation in print! He submits “an absolutely enormous tome…in which nearly every ten pages a police commissioner makes an appearance, sometimes in a very drunken state.” (Can’t you see the pages turning, and ,like a pop-out character, this drunken commissioner comes up singing?)

-          Gogol’s narrator is pointing out how easily the censors jump on literature and claim it has been written as a scandalous character assassination of actual government personages. Therefore, he is at pains from the outset to avoid giving any occasion for this type of direct allegorical interpretation…. Buy it?

-          Gogol’s real purpose is to announce his intent: political criticism not of any individual government figure but of Russian society as a whole and every individual in it. He puts the reader on a paranoid edge to look for himself, to catch the author at character assassination. Finally, the remarkable tendency of Gogol’s sentences to breed is demonstrated by the way this one spawns a Police Officer whose fertile imagination spawns drunken commissioners. This reality stands next to other realities whose energy threatens to supercede our own. This remarkable, dangerous ability of the imagination to run with ideas is counteracted by a firm sense of self, the stable habits and routines of daily life.

-          By affirming this story’s artificial nature, Gogol hints at the artificial understanding we have of our own natures. The seemingly unassailable foundation of personality is on shaky ground in this unflinching depiction of human nature. That’s what Gogol is up to in “The Overcoat”.


2.        Akaky Akakievich Bashmachin  (71-72)


-          What is the literal meaning of Akaky’s name? (Ka-ka? Shoe? Sole/Soul?) Eh?

-          “…he just could not have been called anything else.” (72) His name is extraordinary in its very plain-ness. A plainer name could not be imagined. His mother chose to name him after his father because all the other ‘saintly’ names proposed were far too pretentious. At the moment of his christening, Akaky burst into tears “as if he knew then and there that he was fated to be a titular councilor.” (73)


3.        Akaky’s Humble Fate: The Life of an Anonymous, Petty Bureaucrat (73)


-          What is Akaky’s fate? Is Akaky’s fate the evil consequence of an inflexible class system?

-          “Everyone came to believe that he had come into this world already equipped for his job, complete with uniform and bald patch on the top of his head.” (73)

-          He seems to have hatched from an egg at the age of 50 something, ready made for his machine like role in the bureaucracy.

-          What is Akaky’s job, exactly? He’s a copier, a human Xerox machine. What’s worse, Akaky does not protest. He fulfills his function day in and day out, always perfect, despite being the butt of his co-workers jokes and jibes. He’s born to the job!


4.        The Famous Pathetic Passage (74)


-          The moment when a co-worker is stopped in his tracks after the office pranks have gotten out of control and interfered with Akaky’s penmanship!

-          Akaky said, “Leave me alone, why do you have to torment me?” (74), and something in his voice transfixes a co-worker with horror and fills his heart with compassion.

-          Soviet realists took this passage to be direct evidence of Gogol’s central purpose: to evoke compassion for those creatures who have been warped and tormented by the environment of capitalism. Is that Gogol’s purpose? Can it be argued instead that this co-worker glimpses something in Akaky’s persona that correlates to his own experience?


5.        Akaky’s Gift (74)


-          Should we pity Akaky? No, he did his work with love! (74)

-          In that copying of his he glimpsed a whole varied and pleasant world of his own. Akaky’s reason for being is copying. That might seem ridiculous, but it is somehow charming. He is entirely happy and comfortable in his niche.

-          What happens when Akaky is asked to write his own sentences for a report?  It is only when he is asked to do something outside of his niche, such as preparing a report of his own, or even changing the verb tense in a particular file, that Akaky goes to pieces.

-          Akaky is humble, but blessed, comfortable, happy, pleased with himself and his job; like some idiot savant he savors a world of letters divorced from any meaning, sounds before sense. Akaky exists in language’s UR-sense, at the formative base of the composition of identity.


6.        Akaky on the Street (75-76): Man in the State of Nature


-          “His neck… appeared to stick out for miles, like those plaster kittens with wagging heads foreign street peddlers carry about by the dozen.” (75) As he walks down the street, people dump their refuse on him, and Akaky walks on oblivious to everything but his own perception of the world. The best way to visualize his existence is, perhaps, as a stick figure in a puppet theatre, in which the very architecture of the city is revealed to be vectors of the Cyrillic alphabet. “All he ever saw on the street were rows of letters in his own neat, regular handwriting.” (76) Akaky has to stumble into a horse’s head before he realizes that he is not “in the middle of a sentence but in the middle of a street”. He is completely self-contained, on the verge between being and non-being. Piet Mondrian must have read Gogol before painting his abstract compositions in which the visual world is reduced to its component horizontal and vertical lines.

-          Gogol has pushed his creation to the absolute limits of credibility and in so doing he is asserting a conception of human nature that is very Russian and very different from our Western notion of man in the state of nature.  What is a man? Anything less than Akaky would cease to exist as human and either become animal or pure energy. He is the bare minimum, the least common denominator. (That means there is a little bit of Akaky in all of us!) His reality is so fragile that his place in it is constantly threatened by any idea that might come along with only the most tangential relationship to him. Or perhaps he firmly exists at the ground base of our own ontological relationship to the world around us.


Gogol’s point: a political statement? Perhaps, he means to celebrate our common humanity. Even this man who has been granted only the barest essential of self-hood is one of God’s children with peculiarly human attributes. He takes pleasure in copying; he exists for the mere


What are visions of man in the state of nature that were current in Europe after the Enlightenment?

Hobbes: (mid-17th century: English Civil War): People are innately selfish, grasping, envious, distrustful and treacherous. Society in the state of nature in Hobbes’ view was an incessant war of all against all. Absolute monarchy was the most logical and desirable form of government. To preserve their lives and property, men surrender their rights to one ruler, or to an assembly, and agree to submit to the will of authority. 

Locke: (late 17thc. English Glorious Revolution) Locke regarded people as rational beings endowed by nature and God with fundamental rights: the right to their life, liberty and property. The human ‘state of nature’ before the creation of the state had been free, rational, and equal. Rational people could recognize that their behavior ought to correspond to the requirements of the moral order. In establishing a government, people do not surrender these natural rights to any authority; instead, the new political society is formed to recognize and secure these rights.

Rousseau: For Rousseau, natural man, the individual prior to the creation of civilized society, was superior to the civilized man in several ways: he was stronger and healthier, and he had greater compassion for suffering humans. Separated from nature and leading an artificial existence, civilized man became feeble and anxious. Not simply content with satisfying natural needs, he becomes envious and greedy, pursues luxury and sinks into debauchery. He has lost much of his compassion for his fellow human beings. Rousseau believed the natural man was more willing to listen to the ‘first promptings of humanity’ which were moral. In the original state of nature there was little difference between individuals, but this natural equality ended when private property emerged, with disastrous results: insatiable ambition, jealousy, rivalry. Force and guile swept away the natural man’s goodness and pity.

Burke (late 18th c. after the French Revolution): Human wickedness was not due to a faulty environment; it was at the core of human nature. The authority of church and state was needed to restrain humanity's dark and destructive instincts. Tested institutions, traditions and beliefs held evil in check, not reason. Conservatives thought of society as a living organism held together by centuries old bonds, not a mechanical arrangement of disconnected units. Alone a person would be selfish, unreliable and frail; it was only as a member of a social group that one acquired the ways of cooperation and the manners of civilization. Individualism overturned the very bases of human society; it shattered traditional ties that made people care for each other and the community; it destroyed obedience to law and authority and fragmented society into disconnected parts:  isolated, self-seeking atoms devoid of any spiritual or civic purpose. The state determined what rights and privileges its people might possess. There were no 'rights of man', only rights of the English, the French and so forth, as determined by the particular state. Conservatives viewed 'political equality' as another of those pernicious abstractions that contradicted all historical experience.


7.        The Lives of Other St. Petersburg Bureaucrats (76-77)

8.       The Cold Russian Wind (77-78)

Akaky needs a new overcoat: to whom does he turn when the exigencies of life force him to get a new overcoat?


9.        Ivan Petrovich, the Tailor (78)

pp. 84-85 (78-79)  Describe Petrovich the tailor. What do you make of his many attributes? Are these naturalistic details or are they symbolic? Is Petrovich another brutalized victim of social oppression?


10.     Akaky’s Disturbed Reaction and then his eventual resignation to the Facts of Life: he needs a new coat


pp. 86-87 (81-82)  Petrovich says that there is nothing for it!  Akakii must have a completely new overcoat! Why is he so distraught? How has his whole universe been shaken?


11.     The Effect of Akaky’s New Economy, Discipline and Sacrifice: he starts to grow and change! (85-86)


pp. 88-89 (84-87) How is Akakii’s life transformed during the next few months as he saves the money to buy the new overcoat? With what fantasies does he indulge himself? Is this marked change in Akakii’s lifestyle a good thing or a bad thing? What point is Gogol making in his allegory?


12.     The Delivery of the Overcoat, the most triumphant day in Akaky’s life (87)


pp. 90-91 (87-90)   How does Akakii behave differently when he wears his new overcoat for the first time? How do his co-workers treat him differently? What does he notice while window shopping? Has he really changed?


13.     Akaky’s New Persona: Walking about town in his New Overcoat (88-89)

-          the intoxicating illusions of a fuller life with which the West beckons the East


14.     Akaky daydreams about his coat, not his writing (90)


15.     Walking Past the Picture of the Pretty French Girl (91)


16.     The Party (91) hissing samovars, Akaky’s overcoat is welcomed but not him. Akaky in the new world.

pp. 92- 93 (91-92)  Does Akakii have a good time at the party?


17.     Walking home, Akaky nearly chases after a lady, he inexplicably breaks into a trot. (93)


18.    The Great Square: Akaky robbed by the mustachioed men with thunderous voices. (93-94)

pp. 93-94 (93)        Describe the Square in which Akakii is assaulted. What is Gogol’s symbolic purpose?


19.     The District Police Superintendent: Akaky stands up for himself for the first time in his life! (95)


20.     The Very Important Person, the apotheosis of Self Defined by Rank (96-99)

pp. 96- 97 (97-100) How has the Important Person (to whom Akakii addresses his complaint) been unhinged by his new position of authority? How does he treat Akakii?


21.     Akaky is up-braided and then thrown out of the Office. (99-100)

22. Akaky’s Fever and then his Death Throes (100-101)

                                p. 99 (101-02)         What visions possess Akakii in his death throes?

22.     The Epilogue: Akaky’s Ghost Haunts the City

-          Ripping overcoats from people’s shoulders with no regard for rank or title (103)

-          Police are ordered to apprehend the ghost and punish it (to set a proper example)… the Ghost sneezes and escapes in a cloud of snuff (104)

-          The Important Personage’s remorse (104)

-          To salve his conscience, he decides to take an evening’s entertainment with his Mistress (105)

-          En route to her house, he indulges in all the pleasant fantasies associated with his high status (the witty talk and laughter of high society) and nestles closely in his fur overcoat. (106)

-          Akaky’s Ghost demands Justice and the Important Personage surrenders his coat (106)

-          Order is restored, and the ghost is never seen again.


23.     Reports of Other Ghosts dashing out of Fashionable Houses (spectral pigs with them) (107-08)

pp. 100-03 (103-08) How does Akakii’s Ghost wreak his revenge on the citizens of St. Petersburg?Contrast the status he achieves in death with the nullity of his life.


What is Gogol’s point? (What is the last image of the story as it spins off into oblivion?


  1. Gogol, the son of a Ukranian folk story teller and puppeteer:
  2. Identity is carved into the puppet’s smiling face…. Pinocchio can only play Pinocchio. (1881), and he must grin the same grin no matter what situation he finds himself in. His tragedy? He wants to become a real boy, and in the Western fable, he does (but only after passing harrowing tests, one in which other little boys and girls are transformed into swine!) The liberal dream suggests that Pinocchio, Petroushka or Harlequin or Spielberg/Kubrick’s AI can seize the puppeteer’s strings and cut them, thus freeing him to fulfill his heart’s desire. By holding fast to our innate sense of right and wrong, despite our desire to be accepted by others, we earn character, the ability to be free and creating our own destiny. Lovely story, but is it true? Gogol’s stories explore the darker potential of the puppet theatre. Anyone can seize a puppet’s strings and make the puppet dance in herky-jerky, grotesque movements to some Punch and Judy story, but only a master storyteller can imbue the puppet with life.
  3. We are programmed (by society or by nature?) to perform a particular routine
  4. Akaky, man in the state of nature: runs his routine and propagates his own universe. Russia, too, has been propagated by centuries of Akaky Akakyavichs.
  5. Gogol’s insight into the Western v. Slavophile debate: Peter’s attempt to Westernize has jumbled Russia’s programming. Without imposed structure, it runs the risk of jumping the tracks and heading into nightmare …
  6. Human Reality, historical or personal, exists within an incumbent situation which possesses a multitude of contingencies. We cannot control which direction history will take. Only the surrender of liberty can limit the number of possibilities.
  7. Nabokov’s poshlust: Gogol is funny but terrifying. He looked around himself in St. Petersburg during Nicholas I’s reign and saw an entire society living a ridiculous lie. Modernization, instead of bringing enlightened government and free thought to Russia, had brought a rigid bureaucratic hierarchy, an iron clamp on dissent, bogus pretentiousness, and outright selfishness to the nobility while hunger and misery continued to torment the masses. Russia had surrendered whatever its real identity had once been, and its upper class appeared in Gogol’s imagination as puffed up, preening buffoons, grotesquely aping foreign fashions and babbling effete sophisticated witticisms as they promenaded on the Nevsky Prospect. As flamboyant and affected as these outer selves appeared to be, Gogol recognized their essential fatuousness. Within, their souls had shriveled into puny insignificance. Cut loose form its moorings, Russia teetered on the brink of absolute absurdity. St. Petersburg appeared to him as a weird phantasmagoria inhabited by spectral half selves. It is his vision of Hell. In his stories, Gogol describes the moral catastrophe occurring around him. Bit by bit, people surrender real ideas, real responses, all their spontaneity, common sense and even their good old fashioned Russian grossness and physicality. In the place of these authentic characteristics are nothing but imitated gestures, borrowed ideas, and expensive, tasteless fashions. St. Petersburg is inauthentic. Russia’s intense, national inferiority complex threatens to deteriorate into a complete nervous breakdown.