Akaky Akakievitch Bashmachkin is a tiny, nondescript, unremarkable man. He was born in St Petersburg. He works as a clerk at some unremarkable (but nonetheless, let’s have no names) government office in his hometown, and gets paid 400 rubles every year for his efforts. There is nothing especially distinguishable or memorable about him. But his is the story, written by Nikolai Gogol, which is the subject of the memorable quote ‘We all come out of Gogol’s Overcoat’ —famously attributed to Turgenev, Dostoevsky and other later Russian literary greats.
Bashmachkin is a copying clerk, he likes his job the way you like any regular routine—– it is what you do, and you are comfortable doing it. He is good at his job apparently, and is glad to do nothing more than this specific job of his. He earns about 400 rubles a year, which allows him a merely existential standard of living, alone in a small room in the shabbier parts of town.
The only bit of sadness in his life is the condition of his overcoat — much-used, much-repaired and much-patched-up. When the bitter Russian cold comes along again that year, Bashmachkin takes his overcoat to the tailor, Petrovich, who pronounces the overcoat irreparable, and that Bashmachkin will now have to get another coat.
But where will the money come from? Petrovich suggested that a new overcoat would cost 150 rubles, but Bashmachkin could understand that 80 rubles would give him a serviceable one. Still too much money. As fate would have it though, Bashmachkin gets a gratuity from office, and this enables him to buy….yes…his new overcoat! Was Bashmachkin ever so happy!
What follows is the tragedy of Bashmachkin losing his overcoat in a street mugging, and the futility in his trying to register his case with the authorities, and even being rebuked by a ‘Person of Consequences’ for bringing in such a meagre matter to his attention — to eventually his death, brought about equally by the loss of his overcoat, the sadness about his loss, the shame of the rebuke and the bitterness of the Russian winter. Oh and there is a denouement to the story too – which neatly completes the story and leaves the reader, and Bashmachkin with a sense of closure.
On the surface, this is a simple story of an everyman, his tribulations, and a final denouement. But when you go deeper, you’ll see a satire of the conditions of Russia in the early 1800s, and a parable of the yoke of feudalism and how it crushes individuality. Bashmachkin is the representation of the common man that is victimized under a feudal command system and its social and economic structure —he is a man who has no grasp at all of the true meaning of freedom. And Gogol expresses it through the fabric of a simple, everyday story of that nondescript copying clerk.
Gogol is considered the father of realism in Russian literature, and he, along with Pushkin brought about the emergence of Russian literature as we know it. He wrote about the people on the ground, his protagonists and, their troubles are your troubles and mine. The Overcoat is essential reading.