"The Overcoat" tells the story of Akaky Akakyevich, an impoverished government clerk who lives a solitary life. One day he realizes that his winter overcoat has become worn out. He takes it to the tailor to be mended but is told that it cannot be repaired and that he will have to have a new one made. Akaky undergoes extreme deprivation in order to save money for a new overcoat. In the process, the coat begins to take a central role in his life and he begins to view the garment as the key to his future happiness. After he finally acquires the new garment, it is stolen. His calls for help and his subsequent pleas for justice go unheeded, and he falls ill with a fever and dies. After his death a ghost resembling Akaky roams the city stealing overcoats.
Gogol's blending of comic, grotesque, realist, and fantastic elements in "The Overcoat" has led to a wide range of opinions concerning the story's themes and the significance of its ending. The work has been interpreted variously as a story of social injustice, as tale of urban alienation and human isolation, and as a love story, with the coat serving as a metaphor for the love interest. The theme of the "little man" against "the system" was a popular one among Russian writers in the nineteenth century, and "The Overcoat" is one of many stories featuring the figure of the impoverished and mistreated government clerk. One significant way in which Gogol's story differs from others of this type, however, is its presentation of the main character. It is unclear whether the reader should feel sympathy for the poor clerk—the typical response toward such characters—or whether one should regard this as ultimately a comic tale with fun being made at Akaky Akakyevich's expense. It is also not precisely clear whether Akaky is victorious against the system. Despite such ambiguity, critics have consistently noted the resonant irony and lyrical power with which Gogol invested this story.
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