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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Overcoat

From Washington Lawyer, December 2003

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

But man, proud man,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most
   assur’d . . .
Plays such fantastic tricks before high
   heaven
As makes the angels weep.

 —Measure for Measure

When a lawyer complains that he has been stung by some mean-spirited person in brief authority, Akakii Akakievich comes to mind. Akakii is the hero in Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat.

Akakii was a minor Russian clerk in a minor Russian office in St. Petersburg, long, long ago. He needed a new overcoat. He spoke with a tailor about making him an overcoat. Although Akakii could not afford a new coat, he went ahead with the selection of fine cloth and a fur collar. By skimping and saving he put together enough money to pay the tailor.

When the coat was delivered and Akakii put it on, he knew all the effort was worth it. The high quality of the coat made him feel significant. His friends in the office were so impressed they gave him a new overcoat party. When he left the party late at night, he was a little dizzy from all the food, the drink, and the excitement. He got lost on the way home. He wandered into a bad neighborhood. Robbers stole his coat.

Akakii was inconsolable. His friends told him he must apply to a certain “prominent personage” for help in finding the robbers.

This prominent personage had recently been given a temporary position of authority in certain governmental matters. He increased his importance by redoing his office. A new desk, a new carpet, and new drapes—all way over budget. His conversation consisted of such phrases as “How dare you!” “Do you know who you are talking to?” “Do you realize who I am?”

Akakii presented himself to this prominent personage. Things did not go well. The prominent personage did not like Akakii’s general appearance. He had assumed that his position of authority protected him from seeing the likes of Akakii.

The prominent personage ordered Akakii to take his small problem to those persons who dealt with such trivial things. He directed Akakii to the door. Akakii tripped on the staircase. If the porters had not helped him, he would have collapsed. Outside it was snowing. When Akakii reached home, he was tired and sick. His sickness progressed rapidly. He died the next day.

A few days after his death a rumor spread through St. Petersburg that a ghost who looked like a certain Akakii Akakievich appeared on the Kalinkin Bridge pulling at the overcoats of the startled well-dressed pedestrians, especially those wearing coats with fur collars.

Complaints poured in to official quarters asserting that the coats of important people were disappearing in the clutches of that strange-looking person resembling that dead minor clerk named Akakii Akakievich. The police must catch this whoever or whatever it was, dead or alive. The coats must be returned to their rightful owners. One of the police officers caught Akakii right in the act of stealing a fur collared coat. Akakii retaliated by stealing the policeman’s coat.

Now we return to that prominent personage who had directed Akakii out of his office and into the cold a week earlier. As we look in on him, he is attending a party where everyone is of the same elevated rank as he is. This gives him a sense of exhilaration. He joins in the conversation and strikes the poses and uses the language of those who have unreviewable discretionary power over their inferiors.

He decides not to go home. He wishes to spend some time with a woman friend with whom he has developed an interesting relationship. Although he is a good husband and a good father to his children, is he not entitled to some diversion given the great responsibilities of his office? Therefore when he steps into his sleigh, he directs his coachman to take him to his woman friend’s house.

He wraps himself in his warm double-lined coat with the fur collar. He thinks to himself how good life is. Suddenly the prominent personage feels an abrupt pulling at the fur collar. He turns around and sees that unimpressive person who was in his office complaining about a stolen coat. He is a corpse come to life. The corpse yells at him, “It is cold out here. I need your coat. You took no trouble about mine. Damn you, now I take yours.” The prominent personage trembles with fright. Brave as he is in the office, he now wants to flee.

As the coat is pulled from his shoulders, he shouts to the coachman, “Take me home.” In a few minutes the prominent personage is home with his family. He no longer orders people around. He lets others finish their sentences before he interrupts. He is even kind to his family. It is hours before he regains composure enough to compose a story about losing his coat at a party.

He is overcome with guilt. He feels sorry for himself and everyone else. He whispers to himself a Russian proverb: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. He no longer uses the words he directed at Akakii and others, words such as “Do you realize who I am?”

There are no more reports of Akakii’s grabbing coats. Nevertheless, people of consequence (including prominent personages) take special care to stay away from the Kalinkin Bridge if they are wearing a fur-collared coat.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.