The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol, 1842
The magic trick:
Creating a protagonist the reader truly cares about
Finally, the famous overcoat story by Gogol. I’ve heard so much about it but never read it. So was it worth the hype?
Yep. Yes it was.
It is a marvel the way Gogol convinces the reader to care so much about the protagonist, Akaky Akakievich. Written contemporaneously with Dickens, the story’s Petersburg streets and characters could easily be imagined as part of Dickensian London.
Gogol has a lighter touch than Dickens when it comes to emotional manipulation. Certainly we are supposed to care about our poor protagonist, but it never feels as contrived as those Dickens bits of sentimentality (which I love; don’t get me wrong). We don’t see Akakievich going hungry because he spends the last of his money to help a dying beggar boy. We do, however, see him suffer real fear and agony over spending money he doesn’t have. We see him take great pride and joy in his work, in lieu of any real emotional connections or pleasures in his life. We see him do everything in an honorable, even noble way, hurting no one, asking no favors, living a quiet, respectable life. In short, it is all very realistic and very human. The reasons we like this protagonist never derive from cartoonish exaggerations. He is a real person on the page, which only makes us like him more. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.
It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is not enough to say that Akaky laboured with zeal: no, he laboured with love. In his copying, he found a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face: some letters were even favourites with him; and when he encountered these, he smiled, winked, and worked with his lips, till it seemed as though each letter might be read in his face, as his pen traced it. If his pay had been in proportion to his zeal, he would, perhaps, to his great surprise, have been made even a councillor of state. But he worked, as his companions, the wits, put it, like a horse in a mill.