Gogol′’s Revealing Overcoat: Akakij Akakievič’s “Šinel′” as a Symbol of Rank

Peter the Great’s introduction of the Table of Ranks had long-lasting consequences for nearly two hundred years in Russia. During the time in which N. V. Gogol′ lived, this hierarchal system was well ingrained. Throughout his work “Šinel′” it is clear that a protest is being levelled against this categorization of individuals and the behaviors prescribed to each rank. Our narrator explains at the very start that one’s rank must be established first and foremost. The world which he describes is itself divided between those elements which do not take rank into account (such as the frost and the ghost which strike indiscriminately of rank) and those which do (all else). It is in this world that Akakij Akakievič lives and it is only through his death that he is able to escape this system. But why has Gogol′ chosen to do this in a tale entitled “Šinel′”? The answer seems to lie in the fact that Akakij Akakievič’s new overcoat symbolizes his promotion in rank.

Professor Stilman notes that when writing this work Gogol′ may have had in mind the story of a clerk who worked hard to purchase a gun and then dropped it into the water (“Afterword” to The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, New York, 1960). Yet here we have an overcoat, not a gun. But an overcoat far better suits Gogol′’s purpose of criticizing the Table of Ranks since at that time such garments were used to signify one’s rank. A rise in rank would have been signalled by a new uniform. Thus Akakij Akakievič’s new overcoat could signal a rise in his rank. Then why is it that Gogol′ does not come out with this point? There is much information in what is said and in that which is not said. Akakij Akakievič himself speaks in only phrases and parts of speech; yet others are able to make something of what he says by filling in the gaps. Even Akakij Akakievič’s co-worker is able to find in his words “Ostav′te menja, začem vy menja obižaete?” the hidden thought “Ja brat tvoj” (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel′stvo xudožestvennoj literatury, 1959, 131). Thus if the text is looked at closely, Akakij Akakievič’s overcoat will be found to signal his new rank. When Akakij Akakievič learns it is time for a new overcoat, he meets this news with despair and worry. In much the same way, we might expect Akakij Akakievič to greet the news of a promotion in rank. He does not appear to like change, as is seen in his reaction to being assigned the task of changing pronouns in a certain document. It would not be surprising if at first he reacted to a promotion in rank in the same way. However, the decision to purchase a new overcoat and accept a promotion in rank grows on him and he begins to look forward to the day when Petrovič will bring his new overcoat. And when that day arrives, it is the most triumphant day in his life: “… den′ samyj toržestvennejšij” (142). He walks to work in a celebratory mood: “v samom prazdničnom raspoloženii vsex čuvst” (143). Akakij Akakievič’s co-workers gather around him in the office and congratulate him on his new overcoat. But can there not be more to this? These are the same co-workers who had ridiculed or ignored Akakij Akakievič. Suddenly they have taken notice of him. According to Helju Aulik Bennett, it was typical for co-workers to gather in an office around a colleague who had received a promotion in rank or an order even if they had, up to this point, ignored this fellow worker. In light of this historical observation of the society and times in which Akakij Akakievič would have lived, a striking similarity appears. It seems that Akakij Akakievič’s co-workers act as if he has been promoted in rank and that his new overcoat signifies this rise in stature. As we know, a change in rank would have demanded a new uniform.

There is more evidence which supports linking Akakij Akakievič’s new overcoat to a promotion in rank. If Akakij Akakievič had been promoted to a higher rank, new doors would have been opened to him. This is certainly what occurs when Akakij Akakievič is invited to the party of a co-worker. He has never attended such an event. At the party he feels awkward and does not know how to behave: “On prosto ne znal, kak emu byt′, kuda det′ ruki, nogi i vsju figuru svoju” (146). In fact, Akakij Akakievič’s entire routine changes the day he receives his new overcoat. He does not even work at home after dinner and he walks through the streets at night. Akakij Akakievič’s behavior after receiving his new overcoat and the behavior of the značitel′noe lico have much in common. The značitel′noe lico “… kak-to spytalsja, sbilsja s puti i soveršenno ne znal, kak emu byt′” (151). This uneasiness which both Akakij Akakievič and značitel′noe lico experience changes into assertiveness. Akakij Akakievič accuses the policeman of sleeping while he was being robbed and he demands to see the značitel′noe lico claiming to have come on business. The značitel′noe lico has established a chain of command and has practiced degrading those to whom he speaks.

Akakij Akakievič’s new overcoat and status afford him little protection from the world around him. As our narrator notes, all is relative. The značitel′noe lico is only important in comparison to others who are of lesser importance and Akakij Akakievič is only young when compared to a seventy-year-old man. Akakij Akakievič may have a new overcoat and may have been promoted in rank but there are still those such as the značitel′noe lico who can treat him poorly. He is driven to his miserable end perhaps by the very realization that even with his new overcoat and his new status he is still vulnerable to the abuse of others. In his death Akakij Akakievič is able to break free of the Table of Ranks and even seeks revenge against this very system. His revenge takes the form of stealing overcoats from any and all regardless of rank. Akakij Akakievič in his death is given the chance to interact without concern for rank. To live in such a system, Gogol′ suggests, is not really living and it is only when Akakij Akakievič dies and is no longer a part of the system that he is brought to life.