Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Short Story
“Diary of a Madman” (Записки сумасшедшего translit. Zapiski sumasshedshevo), also less commonly known as “Memoirs of a Madman,” is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. It was first published in 1835 in his short story collection Arabesques. The protagonist, Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant who descends into insanity. To cope with his low social position and unfulfilled desires, Poprishchin escapes into increasingly bizarre fantasies, behaving in ways that are not rational.
“Diary of a Madman” is the only one of Gogol’s stories to be told from a first-person viewpoint, which allows the reader to experience Poprishchin’s growing madness directly. It is written in a diary entry format; the dates start off familiar and logically sequenced but soon take on unusual forms, reflecting the dissolution of conventional time in Poprishchin’s deranged mind.
Poprishchin is a minor civil servant in St. Petersburg who is deeply dissatisfied with his life. His department chief often reprimands him at work, and even the lackeys do not show him respect. Moreover, he is hopelessly infatuated with the director’s beautiful daughter, who would never notice him. Unable to cope with the frustrations of being a lowly cog in the bureaucratic machine, he slowly descends into insanity.
2. Story Summary
Poprishchin is a minor civil servant who sees and hears things others cannot. While walking to work one day, he stops to admire the director’s beautiful daughter, Sophie, as she alights from a carriage and goes into a shop. Ashamed of his shabby coat, he hides, not wanting to be seen by her. She leaves her dog, Meggy, outside, and Poprushchin hears Meggy talking to another dog on the street, Fidel, in human language. Meggy tells Fidel that she has written her a letter, intriguing Poprushchin. He then follows Fidel and her owners to their house, determined to investigate the matter.
At work, Poprishchin is often chastised by the department chief for handing in sloppy work, and the accountant refuses to give him an advance on his salary. Even the lackeys in the office failed to show him the appropriate respect. He takes pride in mending the director’s pens, reasoning that the department chief only reprimands him out of envy for his important position.
One day, the chief clerk admonishes Poprishchin for trying to court the director’s daughter. Poprishchin is indignant, believing that the chief clerk is merely jealous of the favor shown to him.
While mending the director’s pens, Poprishchin fantasizes about going into Sophie’s boudoir; he imagines the place full of scent bottles, flowers, and ethereal clothes. He had once tried to talk to Sophie’s dog, Meggy, in the director’s room so that he could find out more about her mistress. However, the dog ignored him and went out the door as though she heard nothing.
Since Meggy would not tell him anything, Poprishchin resolves to go to Fidel’s house to retrieve the letters between the two dogs. He goes to the house where Fidel lives and asks the girl there for permission to speak to her dog. Seeing Fidel’s sleeping basket, he snatches some papers from it and leaves.
From Meggy’s letters, Poprishchin learns that the director is ambitious and that Sophie is very excited to see a visitor named Mr. Teploff. Poprishchin is alarmed to read about him. Meggy writes that her mistress laughs at Poprishchin when she sees him mending her father’s pens in his writing room.
Reading this, Poprishchin is outraged and believes that the dog is lying. He blames the lie on the treachery of the envious chief clerk. Looking through one more letter, Poprishchin is informed that Sophie will soon marry the young chamberlain and that her father is very pleased with the match.
Dismayed at the impending marriage, Poprishchin criticizes the false status given to a chamberlain, saying that his nose is not made of gold and is just like anyone else’s. He wonders where these distinctions come from and why he is only a titular councilor. Poprishchin speculates that he may be a count or a general, noting that cases of mistaken identity have happened in the past.
Reading the newspapers, Poprishchin finds out about the succession crisis in Spain. The Spanish King has died, and the people’s representatives are scrambling to find an heir. It is said that the next ruler will be a woman, a notion that Poprishchin finds impossible. He thinks a woman cannot reign, and the real King of Spain must be hidden somewhere. Poprishchin becomes troubled over the crisis in Spain. He refuses to go to the office and spends most of his day lying on his bed, contemplating the situation.
Eventually, Poprishchin concludes that the King of Spain is none other than himself. When he returns to work, he signs a document with the name “Ferdinand VIII,” and a reverential silence ensues. Poprishchin then leaves the office and heads to the director’s house. He breaks in and enters Sophie’s room to tell her that unimaginable happiness awaits them and that despite their enemies’ devices, they will be united. Afterward, Poprishchin decides to acquire a new cloak so he can present himself at the Spanish court. Since the tailor he went to was incompetent, he made it himself.
In the early morning, Poprishchin is taken away by the Spanish deputies and taken to Madrid. There, he sees many people with shorn heads, who he assumes are grandees or soldiers. The Chancellor of the State beats him for calling himself ‘Ferdinand VIII,’ but he attributes this to the laws of chivalry. While studying alone, Poprishchin realizes that Spain and China are the same country. He also becomes disturbed by an upcoming event: according to the English chemist Wellington, the earth was going to sit on the moon the next day. When Poprishchin urges the grandees with shorn heads to save the moon, he is beaten by the Chancellor again.
Poprishchin is astonished at the strangeness of Spanish customs. They shaved his head and poured cold water on him. He believes the Inquisition may have taken him, and the Chancellor is the Grand Inquisitor. As the Grand Inquisitor continues to beat him, Poprishchin feels contempt for his powerless spite since he thinks the Inquisitor is only a tool of France and England.
Ultimately, Poprishchin can no longer bear the torture; he cries out to his deceased mother to save him.
3. Characters in Diary of a Madman
- Poprishchin – A minor civil servant
- The Director
- Sophie – The director’s daughter
- Mr. Teploff – Sophie’s soon-to-be husband, a young chamberlain
- Meggy – Sophie’s dog.
- Fidel – Another dog that receives letters from Meggy
- The Chief Clerk
- The Department Chief
- The Chancellor of the State – A man Poprishchin meets in Spain. He often beats Poprishchin with a stick.
Unlike Gogol’s other works, “Diary of a Madman” is written in a first-person perspective, letting the main character Poprishchin dominate the text. Other characters appear but flicker on the periphery of Poprishchin’s self-absorbed world. In his diary, Poprishchin articulately describes his humiliation as a low-ranking civil servant and his desire for a higher position in life. He is a stark contrast to Akakiy from “The Overcoat,” who cannot communicate his suffering to others. The story delves into his psychology rather than focusing on a social or moral message.
The first-person perspective lets the reader experience Poprishchin’s madness directly rather than have it described by a narrator. The disorientating effect of the jumbled dates in his diary and the impossible events described within allows the reader to sense the deep disorder in his mind. When viewing the world from Poprishchin’s eyes, the reader can better empathize with him instead of seeing him as just another madman.
Poprishchin’s accounts start off relatively sane but get more surreal and nonsensical over time. Towards the end, it is up to the reader to infer what really happened to Poprishchin as he is, by that point, completely out of touch with reality. The overall effect of this stylistic choice is that the reader is eased into the narrative and understands that Poprishchin’s insanity is a gradual process driven by his frustrations over his low social position and unfulfilled desires.
One unusual feature of “Diary of a Madman” is that in Poprishchin’s narration, no male characters are referred to by name. Instead, they are only referred to by their title, e.g., the director, the department chief, and the Chancellor. Only in letters supposedly written by Meggy, the dog, is the young chamberlain referred to as “Mr. Teploff.” Moreover, the readers do not learn the protagonist’s name until near the end of the story when the Chancellor calls him.
We learn that Poprishchin is a titular councilor long before we know his name. The absence of names suggests a cold and dehumanizing bureaucracy where people are defined solely by their rank, and their individual natures are not seen as important.
5.1. Rank and Status
In “Diary of a Madman,” the bureaucratic world depicted in the story is dehumanizing, where a person’s worth is defined only by rank and status. Poprishchin is in awe of the director because of his high position and imagines that others are jealous of him simply because he mends the director’s pens.
In Meggy’s letters, she recounts that when Mr. Teploff came visiting, Sophie was excited, and the first thing she told Meggy was that Mr. Teploff was part of the Royal Household. Because of Mr. Teploff’s high social position, Sophie’s father is keen for him to marry her.
Poprishchin is envious of those with a higher rank, like the young chamberlain, Mr. Teploff. He recognizes that they are not any more special than those lower down the hierarchy and resents the special treatment they receive. While seeing the absurdity of the bureaucratic system, Poprishchin desires to rise within it. He dreams of being a count or a general instead of a lowly titular councilor. Throughout the narrative, his determined assertion, “I am a nobleman!” underscores his hopeless dreams of attaining a higher rank.
Poprishchin feels victimized by his unjust society but cannot rebel against it as he has internalized its shallow values. He wishes not to break free of the system but to occupy a more comfortable position within it.
Poprishchin is deeply alienated both from his surroundings and from himself in “Diary of a Madman.” He does not get along well with his coworkers, constantly imagining them as envious of him and holding a judgemental attitude towards them. Although he is infatuated with the director’s daughter, he does not dare to talk to her, resigning himself to watching her from a distance. Poprishchin imagines that he can hear the dogs’ conversation, and it alludes to how he bears a similar status in society. Like the dogs, he is a servant of mankind who exists on the periphery of human society. He observes the interactions of other humans but cannot take part in them.
Apart from failing to establish human connections, Poprishchin lacks a strong personal identity and is disconnected from himself. He is deeply dissatisfied with his position as a titular councilor and does not identify strongly with it, instead dreaming of being a count, general, nobleman, or even a king. When fantasizing about having a mistaken identity, he says, “Perhaps I don’t even know who and what I am.”
As the strict hierarchy of his society constrains Poprishchin’s life, he cannot imagine any other forms of identity that are not tied to rank. Notably, the reader does not learn Poprishchin’s name until near the end of the story, when the Chancellor calls for him to come out of his room. Poprishchin does not react when his first name or last name is called but is on the verge of responding when the Chancellor calls him “Ferdinand VIII King of Spain.” This suggests that Poprishchin can only construct an identity in his fantasy world, where he can attain the desired status.
In “Diary of a Madman,” Poprishchin writes in his diary to escape his dull and unsatisfying life. In contrast to his reserved personality in real life, Poprishchin’s writings are verbose and often judgemental. In his diary, he can express his true feelings without fearing judgment from others. He can also present a fantasy version of himself as a nobleman or a Spanish King, allowing him to escape from the low status he holds in real life. Over time, he becomes more and more absorbed in the fantasy world he has created in his diary, causing him to lose touch with reality and descend into madness.
In addition to writing, theater helps Poprishchin cope with reality. On November 8th, Poprishchin writes that he went to the theater to watch the “Russian House-Fool,” followed by a musical comedy. The musical comedy was a satire that lampooned barristers and the sons of merchants. He says that “I am very fond of the theater. If I have only a kopeck in my pocket, I always go there.”
To Poprishchin, the theater is almost a necessity, as it allows him to laugh at the unjust society in which he is trapped. Furthermore, going to the theater gives him the feeling that he is superior to his fellow officials. He calls them “uneducated boors” who never go to the theater “unless one throws free tickets at their head.”