The story centers on the life and death of Akaky Akakievich, an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Akaky is dedicated to his job, taking special relish in the hand-copying of documents, though little recognized in his department for his hard work. Instead, the younger clerks tease him and attempt to distract him whenever they can. His threadbare overcoat is often the butt of their jokes. Akaky decides it is necessary to have the coat repaired, so he takes it to his tailor, Petrovich, who declares the coat irreparable, telling Akaky he must buy a new overcoat.
The cost of a new overcoat is beyond Akaky's meagre salary, so he forces himself to live within a strict budget to save sufficient money to buy the new overcoat. Meantime, he and Petrovich frequently meet to discuss the style of the new coat. During that time, Akaky's zeal for copying is replaced with excitement about his new overcoat, to the point that he thinks of little else. Finally, with the addition of an unexpectedly large holiday salary bonus, Akaky has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.
Akaky and Petrovich go to the shops in St. Petersberg and pick the finest materials they can afford (beaver fur is unaffordable, but they buy the best cat fur available for the collar). The new coat is of impressively good quality and appearance, and is the talk of Akaky's office on the day he arrives wearing it. His clerk superior decides to host a party honoring the new overcoat, at which the habitually solitary Akaky is out of place; after the event, Akaky goes home from the party, far later than he normally would. Enroute home, two ruffians confront him, take his coat, kick him down, and leave him unconscious in the snow.
Akaky finds no help from the authorities in recovering his lost overcoat. Finally, on the advice of another clerk in his department, he asks for help from a "Very Important Person" (sometimes translated the prominent person, the person of consequence), a high-ranking general. The narrator notes that the general habitually belittles subordinates in attempting to appear more important than he truly is. After keeping Akakii waiting an unnecessarily long time, the general demands of him exactly why he has brought so trivial a matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary (the procedure for separating the VIPerson from the lesser clerks).
Socially inept, Akaky makes an unflattering remark concerning departmental secretaries, provoking so powerful a scolding from the general that he nearly faints and must be led from the general's office. Soon afterwards, Akaky falls sick with fever, likely to die. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the VIP, who is again scolding him. At first, Akaky pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.
Soon, Akaky's ghost (Gogol uses "corpse" to describe the ghost of Akaky) is reportedly haunting areas of St. Petersburg, taking overcoats from people; the police refusing to approach and stop him. Finally, Akaky's ghost catches up with the VIP — who, since Akaky's death, had felt very guilty over having mistreated him — and takes his overcoat, scaring him severely; satisfied, Akaky is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city, but that one was taller and had a moustache, bearing a resemblance to the criminals who had robbed Akaky earlier.
Akaky progresses from an introverted, hopeless but functioning non-entity with no expectations of social or material success to one whose self-esteem and thereby expectations are raised by the overcoat. Co-workers start noticing him and complimenting him on his coat and he ventures out into the social world. His hopes are quickly dashed by the theft of the coat. He attempts to enlist the police in recovery of the coat and employs some inept rank jumping by going to a very important and high ranking individual but his lack of status (perhaps lack of the coat) is obvious and he is treated with disdain. He is plunged into illness (depression?) and cannot function. He dies quickly and without putting up much of a fight. The Overcoat is a philosophical tale in the tradition of a stoic philosopher or Schopenhauer.
The story's ending has sparked great debate amongst literary scholars, who disagree about the existence, purpose, and disappearance of Akaky's ghost. Edward Proffitt theorized that the ghost did not, in fact, exist at all and that Gogol used the ghost as a means of parodying literary convention. Proponents of the view that the story is a form of social protest prefer to see the ghost's attack on the Very Important Person as a reversal of power from the oppressor to the oppressed. Yet another view states that Akaky's return from the grave is symbolic of society's collective remorse, experienced as a result of failing to treat Akaky with compassion.
The appearance of the second ghost is similarly unexplained. A logical inference, considering the time of its publication, would be that the second ghost represents Russian society and the fact that all criminals were mere responders to the mistreatment and malnurishment suffered at the hands of their leaders. Others disagree. Was it the mustachioed robbers who stole Akaky's coat originally? Does this mean that Akaky was, himself, robbed by ghosts? Was he, perhaps, not robbed at all, or possibly never had the new overcoat at all? Akaky's deteriorating mental state, brought about by fever and malnourishment, may have been responsible for many of his sufferings, including the existence of an overcoat far superior to his own.
Another interpretation is that the story is a parable. Akaky's job, as a copier, can be compared to that of a monk, whose main job is to copy the Word, as Akaky does. He is taunted much by his fellow worker, much as Jesus was, and also like Jesus tempted by the devil, or the drunk, smoky, and harsh coat maker, marked as the devil by his habit of drinking on the sabbath. However, unlike Jesus, Akaky accepts the coat and becomes popular, until he has the coat stolen. One scene that shows what the coat has done to Akaky can be seen as he leaves the party, returning to his plain district before he has his coat stolen. As he returns to this area, he looks around and very much dislikes his living area. Before he had the coat, he was completely fine with his living area and completely fine with his life. With the overcoat, he finds he wants more. And after he loses his overcoat, he cannot function and simply dies.
A number of films have used the story, both in the Soviet Union and in other countries:
"The Overcoat (1951 film) -a film of Marcel Marceau's Mime Play with W. Schleif in Berlin
One film is currently in the process of being made: animation director Yuriy Norshteyn has been slowly and laboriously working on a (presumably) full-length animated film version of 'The Overcoat' since 1981. A couple of short, low-resolution clips from the project have been made available: .
A recent adaptation by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, set to various music by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, was performed by actors using dance and mime. A film version was produced by the CBC.
The Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt created a version for Dennis Nahat and the Clevelend-San Jose Ballet. The principal role was performed by Rudolph Nureyev at the world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1990.
Marcel Marceau adapted "The Overcoat" as a Mime Play in 1951. He revived his play in 1954 and 1959. His last version of "The Overcoat" toured the United States in 1960.
A short film by Jason Steele is called "The Cloak", and stars an anti-communism Cloak and the disembodied head of Noir Film legend Robert Mitchum.