Akaky Akayevitch is a pitiable fellow. He is a low-level government clerk, doing nothing but copy documents by hand. He is friendless; both his superiors and his fellow clerks look down at him for his passiveness and meekness. Yet for all the insults, he has achieved the peace of a man who has found his place in the world.
“It would be hard to find a man who lived in his work as did Akaky Akakyevitch. To say that he was zealous in his work is not enough; no, he loved his work. In it, in that copying, he found a varied and agreeable world of his own. There was a look of enjoyment on his face; certain letter were favourites with him, and when he came to them he was delighted; he chuckled to himself and winked and moved his lips, so that it seemed as though every letter his pen was forming could be read in his face. If rewards had been given according to the measure of zeal in the service, he might to his amazement have even found himself a civil counsellor; but all he gained in the service, as the wits, his fellow-clerks expressed it, was a buckle in his button-hole and a pain in his back.”
Akaky is also poor, eking out a meagre living. His clothes are threadbare and repeatedly repaired, and the plot begins when he discovers that his overcoat cannot be patched. The tailor tells Akaky he has to replace it.
The tailor takes pity on him and, while he cannot reduce the price too far, he promises to make the best possible overcoat, lined with fur. And for the next several months Akaky saves and impoverishes himself still further, all the while fantasising of how wonderful it will be to own the overcoat.
You can probably guess the trajectory of the story. So much time is spent on Akaky struggling for the coat, dreaming of the time when he will own it, that you know something terrible’s going to happen as soon as he obtains the coat.
And you’d be right, but if that was the end of the story I likely wouldn’t be recommending it here. I have a dislike of never-try nihilism like that, but thankfully this story continues and ends on a somewhat different tone.
In researching this story I discovered this is meant to be one of the greatest classics of Russian literature, with Dostoyevsky supposedly saying, “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” While I wouldn’t go that far, it is certainly a good story. The build-up of Akaky’s character, and of the slow crawl towards his obtaining a new overcoat, is nicely excruciating. There are plenty of nice meaty themes in here, about the nature of human endeavour and life, fate versus chance, society and the individual, and various things like that. All this, and it’s even enjoyable to read.
The Overcoat (sometimes called The Cloak or The Mantle) by Nikolai Gogol
The translation quoted above is by Constance Garnett
Availability: free online (out of copyright)
Word count: 12,200
First published: 1942
Where to find it: Irritatingly the Garnett translation I quoted from, which is also in the public domain, does not appear on any reputable sites online. I found it in: Fiction 100, edited by James H. Pickering, 2011, Longman
Free versions include a translation by Claud Field (entitled ‘The Mantle’) on Gutenberg here
And an unattributed translation (entitled ‘The Cloak’) on Wikisource here
There are also many print editions to choose from. Indeed, there are many collections of Gogol’s short fiction entitled ‘The Overcoat and other stories’ which should be self-explanatory.