Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
name is Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin, a surname derived from bashmak,
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
I–to you, Petrovitch, this–"
cloak, cloth–here you see, everywhere, in different places. . . ."
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.
hundred fifty rubles for a cloak!" Akakiy says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
official with slanted handwriting takes his place.
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.
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.
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."
he throws off his cloak and orders his driver to make for his home at full
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?"
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.
heavy-drinking tailor whom Bashmatchkin hires to make his new cloak. Petrovitch
was once a serf.
Wife of Petrovitch:
Woman of plain looks whom the narrator says Petrovitch calls "a low female
and a German" when they argue.
Men who rob Akakiy of his new cloak.
Landlady of Bashmatchin:
Elderly woman who advises Akakiy to report the theft of his cloak to the
district police chief.
District Police Chief:
Official who hears Akakiy's report about his stolen cloak. The policeman
asks Akakiy embarrassing questions, as if he were a criminal. The policeman
is of no help.
Employee With Advice:
Coworker of Akakiy who advises him to see a certain prominent personage
in a government office who will help Akakiy track down his stolen cloak.
Bureaucrat mainly concerned with demonstrating the power he wields as a
supervisor. He excoriates Akakiy for not going through the proper government
channels to get an interview. He is of no help.
called after Akakiy develops a throat infection. He tells Akakiy's landlady
to order a coffin.
Various Government Officials,
of Work and Years of Publication
“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
[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
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
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."
climax occurs when bearded men accost Akakiy Bashmatchkin and steal his
as a Symbol
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.
Corpse: Divine Justice
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Is there anyone like Akakiy in your school or work group? If so, how do
people treat him or her?
What was life like for lower-class Russians in the first half of the 19th
In Gogol’s fantasy world, does Akakiy really rise from the dead? Or is
the notorious cloak robber one of the bearded men who stole ....Akakiy’s
Akakiy is a copyist–that is, one who hand-copies documents. In the 19th
Century, copyists were fixtures in offices throughout the ....world.
What invention, or inventions, rendered them obsolete?
Petrovitch was a serf before he became a tailor. What was a serf?
What is quinsy, the illness Akakiy develops while walking through the cold,
blustery streets of St. Petersburg? Is quinsy commonplace ....today?
Write an essay comparing and contrasting the bureaucrats of today–in the
United States, England, and other countries–with the ....bureaucrats
of czarist Russia.