By Nicholay Gogol (1809-1852)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......Working in a government department in St. Petersburg is an official known as a perpetual titular councillor. He is a short, red-haired man with a receding hairline and a ruddy complexion. Others in the department cannot remember when he began working there or who appointed him. It was as if he was born at his desk.
.......His name is Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin, a surname derived from bashmak, meaning shoe.
.......Akakiy gets no respect from his superiors or anyone else in his office. Even the porter refuses to rise when he passes. A supervisor sometimes tosses a document on his desk without offering a pleasantry or even saying, “Copy it.” But Akakiy copies it just the same.
.......The younger fellows in the office tell stories about him–that his landlady beats him, for example. Sometimes they rip up paper and drop the pieces over his head, calling it snow. Usually, Akakiy ignores them as he continues to do his work. However, if his taunters go too far, he says, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?”
.......Akakiy loves his work, for which he receives a salary of four hundred rubles. And he is good at it. When his pen moves against paper, he smiles and works his lips. A department director decided one day to give him a special assignment: to alter a letter, changing a heading and a few words, not merely copy the document. However, this project so tasked Akakiy that he asked only for copy work. Now, that is all his superiors give him, copy work.
.......Akakiy is not particularly careful about his personal appearance, for there is always something clinging to his uniform, such as a piece of hay or fuzz. When on the street, he tends to walk under a window just when someone is tossing out waste, so that he might enter his office with a melon rind on his hat.
.......At home after a day’s work, he eats cabbage soup and maybe a little beef and onions. Then, while all the other workers are enjoying their time off by going to the theater, playing cards, chasing pretty girls, smoking pipes, or otherwise entertaining themselves, Akakiy sits down and eagerly copies papers he has brought home with him. If he is all caught up, he copies another paper anyway, just for the pleasure of it. Then he goes to bed, content.
.......However, one day, his back and shoulders begin to bother him. The problem, he determines, is his cloak. It is worn too thin in the back to protect him against the icy northern wind that blows through the city each morning. So frayed is it that he can actually see through it. The lining is coming apart. His coworkers make fun of it, calling it a cape instead of a cloak.
.......Akakiy decides to take it to a tailor, Petrovitch, who keeps shop in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building with a dark staircase. He has only one eye, but he does good work when he is sober. Petrovitch was once a serf named Grigoriy, but he began calling himself Petrovitch after he received his liberation papers. He used to drink only on major holidays. However, in keeping with family tradition, he now drinks on all church festivals as well. If a cross appears on a day in a church calender, he drinks. His wife, whom he calls a “low female and a German,” wears a cap and dress and has a face that no one is particularly interested in looking at.
.......After Akakiy enters the apartment, he passes through a smoky kitchen where Petrovitch’s wife has been frying fish. Akakiy finds Petrovitch in the next room seated on a table as he tries to thread a needle. Akakiy had previously decided he would pay no more than two rubles for the work. When Petrovitch greets him, Akakiy speaks the way he almost always does–in phrases and prepositions without finishing his sentences.
.......“Ah! I–to you, Petrovitch, this–”
.......“What is it?”
.......“A cloak, cloth–here you see, everywhere, in different places. . . .”
.......Petrovitch examines the cloak and declares it too far gone to mend. When Akakiy asks whether it can be patched, Petrovitch says the cloak has nothing to which patches can be sewn. It is rotting. Akakiy tells him to strengthen the cloak, but Petrovitch says Akakiy has only one option: to get a new cloak. It will cost more than one hundred fifty rubles for materials and labor.
.......“A hundred fifty rubles for a cloak!” Akakiy says.
.......Petrovitch confirms the figures, adding that the cloak will cost more than two hundred rubles if it has a marten fur collar and a silk-lined hood. Akakiy leaves, disappointed. On the street, he mulls over his problem and concludes that Petrovitch’s wife must have been beating him. He decides to return to the tailor’s Sunday morning. At that time, he will be sleepy and cranky. He will want a drink but his wife will not give him the money. So he will be happy to mend the cloak to make an extra kopek.
.......When Akakiy returns, Petrovitch’s head is drooping for want of sleep. Still, he remains adamant about the cloak: It’s impossible to mend. Akakiy flashes a ten-kopek piece. It doesn’t do any good. Finally, he accepts the inevitable: He must get a new cloak. But how? He also needs new trousers and he already owes money to a shoemaker. Although he believes Petrovitch would probably make a new cloak for less money–perhaps eighty rubles–Akakiy still would be able to pay only about half that sum with the small change he has saved over the years and keeps in a small box. To get the rest of the money, he would have to cut back on tea and candles. He would also have to walk very lightly on the streets so as not to wear down his shoes. In addition, he would have to change into a dressing gown as soon as he got home in order preserve his work clothes.
.......After he begins his money-saving campaign, he doesn’t really mind it that much. Whenever he feels deprived, he thinks of his new cloak. It is like a new friend or even a wife. Then he thinks maybe it should have a fur collar. Once a month, he stops at Petrovitch’s to discuss the cloak.
.......One day, Akakiy receives a wonderful surprise–a pay raise to sixty rubles. Perhaps the director was aware that he needed a new cloak. Or maybe it was just good luck. Two months later, with his continued frugality, Akakiy has eighty rubles. So he goes shopping with Petrovitch, and they select a fine cloth for the cloak. For lining, they choose a cotton so thick that Akakiy thinks it better than silk. Because the marten fur is too expensive, they decide on cat fur for the collar.
.......In addition to the expenses for these items, Petrovitch charges twelve rubles for the labor after spending two weeks making the cloak. He delivers it himself just as extremely cold weather is setting in. Its arrival is a glorious moment for Akakiy–and Petrovitch, who points out what a bargain it is. Akakiy agrees and pays the tailor in full, then goes directly to work. When he enters the office, everyone inspects his new cloak and congratulates him. Someone suggests that he hold a “christening” party for it after work. He is pleased but very embarrassed. Then a supervisor butts in and invites everyone to his home instead to celebrate his birthday. They all accept the invitation and say it would be discourteous if Akakiy did not also accept it. So he does. Besides, he would have another opportunity to wear his new cloak.
.......At home after dinner, he spends time admiring his new cloak and comparing it with the old one, then leaves for the supervisor’s residence, located in an apartment on the second floor of a building in an upscale part of the city. There he encounters well-dressed ladies and men attired in coats with otter-skin collars. Upon entering the supervisor's apartment, he notices the array of coats and cloaks hung up along the walls. Some have beaver collars. After hanging up his own cloak, he enters an inner room, where there are lights, card tables, and lively conversations. After his coworkers greet him with a shout, they go into the ante-room to look at his cloak, then return to the card tables to play whist.
.......Akakiy is not sure what to do next. So he sits down to watch the card games. Eventually, he grows weary, since it is past his bedtime, but the men say he must drink champagne in celebration of his new cloak. After they all eat a sumptuous meal, they serve him two glasses of champagne. He feels a bit more chipper, but at midnight he decides he has had enough. When he goes out for his cloak, he finds it on the floor. After brushing it off, he puts it on and leaves.
.......The streets in the neighborhood are bright and cheerful in the falling snow, putting Akakiy in a good mood. But later, when he approaches his own section of the city, the lights dim and the buildings become plain and dreary. Entering a square, he begins to worry about his safety, “as though his heart had warned him of some evil.” Just ahead, he sees bearded men. One of them says, “The cloak is mine!” He grabs at the collar while a second man punches Akakiy in the mouth. Then they take his cloak and disappear.
.......When Akakiy recovers, he shouts for help and runs to the nearest watch box. There he lodges a complaint, and the watchman tells him to go the police the next day. After Akakiy runs home and informs his landlady of his misfortune, she advises him to report the theft to the district police chief himself–whom she knows–and not to a subordinate, who would only promise to investigate, then do nothing.
.......At the district chief’s office early the next morning, Akakiy presents his complaint. Officials there tell him the chief is still asleep. When Akakiy returns at ten o’clock, they tell him the chief is still asleep. When he returns at eleven, they tell him the chief is out. At noon, Akakiy asserts himself and demands to see the chief. Finally, the chief hears his story. However, he treats Akakiy as if he had committed a wrong, asking why he was out so late and whether he had been to a brothel. Akakiy goes home wondering whether the police are on his side. For the first time in his life, he misses a day of work.
.......When he enters his office the next day, he is wearing his old cape. After hearing his story, a few of his coworkers cannot pass up the opportunity to ridicule him. Others take up a collection for him. However, because many of them have already committed money for a director’s portrait and for the purchase of a book recommended by a department head, Akakiy receives only a pittance. One coworker advises him not to rely on the police. If they track down the cloak, he says, Akakiy may have a difficult time proving that it is his. Instead, he says, Akakiy should lay his case before a certain “prominent personage” who would speedily attend to it. This person had only recently become prominent. Before that, he had been an “insignificant personage.” This person sternly rules an office of ten persons, often asking them these questions: “How dare you?” “Do you know whom you are speaking to?” “Do you realize who stands before you?”
.......After Akakiy arrives, the prominent personage is talking with an old friend on matters of little importance. But he makes Akakiy wait in an ante-room just to demonstrate to his friend that he has the power to make people wait. When he finally receives Akakiy, the latter explains deferentially what had happened. The prominent personage tells Akakiy that he should first have lodged a complaint “at the court below” so that it could go through the proper channels: the department head, the chief of the division, and a secretary, who would refer the matter to him. He scolds Akakiy so roundly that the latter almost faints. Akakiy leaves in a daze.
.......On his way home through a snowstorm, he catches quinsy and by the next day is delirious with a burning fever. After a doctor examines him, he predicts to the landlady that Akakiy will be dead in thirty-six hours and tells her to order a pine coffin for the poor fellow. In his delirium, Akakiy imagines that cloak robbers are under his bed. Then he has a vision of himself standing before the prominent personage and saying, “Forgive me, your excellency!” However, a moment later he curses violently, shocking his landlady, and then lapses into gibberish and dies. There are no heirs to receive his property–some goose quills and paper, three pairs of socks, some buttons, and the old cloak. His is taken out and buried. Not until four days later do officials at his office hear about his death.
.......An official with slanted handwriting takes his place.
.......In the ensuing days, a rumor spreads that a dead man has been appearing on and near Kalinkin Bridge looking for a stolen cloak. Whenever anyone wearing a cloak passes, the dead man strips it away, claiming it is his. One department official actually sees the dead man and recognizes him as Akakiy. Terribly frightened, he runs off as fast as he can. Complaints mount throughout the city about stolen cloaks and cold shoulders. Police vow to catch the corpse dead or alive and punish him severely to set an example. A watchman and two comrades nearly catch him when he is stealing the cloak of a retired musician, but the watchman’s snuff–which he takes out to refresh his nose during the apprehension–causes the corpse to sneeze into the eyes of his would-be captors, and he escapes. Thereafter, watchmen in the city pass their hours on the job in mortal terror of the dead man.
.......Meanwhile, the prominent personage who had shouted at Akakiy feels remorseful when he finds out that Akakiy has died of a fever. To lift his spirits, he decides one day to go to a party at the house of a friend, where he spends a pleasant evening topped off with champagne. After the party, he decides not to go directly home but to visit a certain lady of his acquaintaince, Karolina Ivanovna. Such a nocturnal visit does not imply that he has a troubled family life. In fact, he has an attractive wife, two sons–one of whom is already in government service–and a pretty daughter.
.......On the way in his coach, he feels a tug on his collar. Turning around he sees Akakiy, who says, “I need your cloak; you took no trouble about mine, but reprimanded me; so now give up your own.”
.......Terrified, he throws off his cloak and orders his driver to make for his home at full speed.
.......The next day, his daughter comments on how pale he looks. But he says nothing about what happened the night before. At his office, he is now less stern and doesn’t often say “How dare you?”
.......Meanwhile, reported sightings of the dead man die down. Perhaps the prominent personage’s cloak fits just right and the corpse has ended his search. However, a few people still claim he appears in different parts of the city. Then one day, one watchman actually sees the corpse emerge from behind a house and follows it. When the corpse asks, “What do you want?” the watchman says, “It’s of no consequence.” The corpse then walks off while the watchman goes in the opposite direction.
The time is winter in the first half of the 19th Century in St. Petersburg, Russia, a port city on the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg was Russia's capital from 1712 to 1918. During the reign of Czar Nicholas I between 1825 and 1855, government offices in the the city employed an army of bureaucrats to carry out the czar's autocratic policies. Between 1914 and 1924, the city was known as Petrograd. Between 1924 and 1991, it was known as Leningrad. In 1991, the Russian government restored its original name.
Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin:
Bureaucrat in one of the departments of the Russian government in St. Petersburg,
the nation's capital city. Bashmatchkin, about fifty, is a quiet, self-effacing
man with red hair and a receding hairline. His job is to copy documents
such as letters. Although he enjoys his work and never makes a mistake,
he has no desire to take on more challenging work, realizing that he has
limited capabilities. Because he is meek and dresses shabbily, most of
his coworkers regard him as a nobody and frequently pick on him. When his
cloak becomes so frayed that it can no longer protect him against the bitter
cold, he dedicates himself to saving enough money to purchase a new cloak.
“The Cloak” is a tragicomic
short story in which the author uses droll humor to satirize the oppressive
bureacracy of 19th Century czarist Russia. The story was published in Russian
in 1842 and in English in 1850.
In a simple, straightforward style, the author presents the story of a common man enduring the oppression and ridicule of an unfeeling society and its bureaucracy during the autocratic reign of Czar Nicholas I. In drawing his portrait of the simple, hard-working Akakiy Bashmatchkin, Gogol highlights seemingly insignificant details and incidents to symbolize or call attention to the abuse suffered by an ordinary man:
[Akakiy] had a peculiar knack, as he walked along the street, of arriving beneath a window just as all sorts of rubbish were being flung out of it: hence he always bore about on his hat scraps of melon rinds and other such articles.Gogol never resorts to preachment or sentimentality when discussing the plight of his hapless protagonist. Instead, he uses humor, which is sometimes wonderfully bizarre. For example, after Akakiy rises from the dead to search for his stolen cloak, Gogol writes,
Arrangements were made by the police to catch the corpse, alive or dead, at any cost, and punish him as an example to others in the most severe manner. In this they nearly succeeded; for a watchman, on guard in Kirushkin Alley, caught the corpse by the collar on the very scene of his evil deeds, when attempting to pull off the frieze coat of a retired musician. Having seized him by the collar, he summoned, with a shout, two of his comrades, whom he enjoined to hold him fast while he himself felt for a moment in his boot, in order to draw out his snuff-box and refresh his frozen nose. But the snuff was of a sort which even a corpse could not endure. The watchman having closed his right nostril with his finger, had no sooner succeeded in holding half a handful up to the left than the corpse sneezed so violently that he completely filled the eyes of all three. While they raised their hands to wipe them, the dead man vanished completely, so that they positively did not know whether they had actually had him in their grip at all..
Bureaucratic and Class Oppression of the Common Man
As an employee of a government department, Akakiy Bashmatchkin endures the petty petty cruelties and jests of his coworkers. As a crime victim, he gets nowhere with the incompetent and abusive bureaucracy. As a member of the lower classes with an income to match his status, he must constantly struggle to eke out a meager existence. For example, while saving money for a new cloak,
Akakiy . . . . decided that it would be necessary to curtail his ordinary expenses, for the space of one year at least, to dispense with tea in the evening; to burn no candles, and, if there was anything which he must do, to go into his landlady's room, and work by her light. When he went into the street, he must walk as lightly as he could, and as cautiously, upon the stones, almost upon tiptoe, in order not to wear his heels down in too short a time; he must give the laundress as little to wash as possible; and, in order not to wear out his clothes, he must take them off, as soon as he got home, and wear only his cotton dressing-gown, which had been long and carefully saved.Many workers in czarist Russia were serfs, laborers bound to the farmland which they worked. Without permission of the landowner, they could not leave the land or get married. They were virtual slaves. In "The Cloak," Petrovitch somehow earned his way out of servitude to become a tailor. Still, he must work hard to make his way in the world. His heavy drinking and that of his family members before him suggests that alcohol has become an escape from the rigors of everyday life in an unfair government and social system. In 1861, Czar Alexander II issued an edict abolishing serfdom.
In the first half of the 19th Century, the Russian government was unwieldy and ineffective, in part because it was top heavy with unqualified or ill-trained officials who had attained power on seniority rather than talent. Their incompetence resulted in a fear of making decisions. Consequently, these inept bureaucrats frequently passed the buck or postponed decisions indefinitely, as in "The Cloak." Akakiy is as much a victim of bureaucratic inaction, which robs him of justice, as he is of theft.
Unappreciated and Unrewarded Underclass
Life was hard for the common man in 19th Century Russia. Pay for lower-class workers was meager, in part because of economic problems and in part because of a government tax policy that favored the nobility. In addition, the best jobs frequently went to persons with the best pedigrees. Lower-class citizens, regardless of their abilities, often had to settle for menial labor. Their contributions to society typically went unnoticed. Akakiy, though a devoted and highly efficient copyist, is regarded as a nobody, as the narrator of "The Cloak" points out after Akakiy dies:
And St. Petersburg was left without Akakiy Akakievitch, as though he had never lived there. A being disappeared who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, and who never even attracted to himself the attention of those students of human nature who omit no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly, and examining it under the microscope.Retribution
After he returns from the dead, Akakiy gains vengeance by terrorizing St. Petersburg and stealing the cloaks of pedestrians. Government workers appear to be his favorite targets. The narrator says, "Constant complaints poured in from all quarters that the backs and shoulders, not only of titular but even of court councillors, were exposed to the danger of a cold on account of the frequent dragging off of their cloaks."
The climax occurs when bearded men accost Akakiy Bashmatchkin and steal his new cloak.
Akakiy’s old cloak appears to represent a Russia whose humanity has worn thin. This Russia exposes citizens born without rank or privilege to poverty, hunger, cold, and indignity. The new cloak appears to represent warmth, acceptance, prosperity. When thieves rob Akakiy of his cloak, they rob him of all that matters in his life. And he dies.
When Akakiy returns from
the dead, he appears to symbolize divine retribution or moral indignation.
Like the Furies of ancient Greek mythology, he bedevils evildoers–in this
case, the bureaucrats and aristocrats who prey on the weak. And he brings
an implied warning from the author: Unless Russia changes, Akakiy will
be millions, and he will bring down society itself.
Is there anyone like Akakiy in your school or work group? If so, how do
people treat him or her?