Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Diary of a Madman,” told in the first person, purports to be a diary kept by a forty-two-year-old clerk who has a meaningless job in the vast governmental bureaucracy of mid-nineteenth century Russia. His best prospects for advancement are far behind him, and his duties consist of routine tasks such as sharpening his employer’s quills or copying information from one departmental form to another. He is unmarried, bored, and treated without kindness or courtesy. “They don’t listen to me, they don’t hear me, they don’t see me,” he realizes late in the story. “I cannot bear this suffering.”
The daily entries in his journal reveal a man slowly going mad as he comes to understand his own insignificance. The narrator is scorned by his landlady, reprimanded by his boss, and accosted by strangers in the street. The diary shows how he manufactures explanations for these indignities. “There are so many crooks, so many Poles,” so many civil servants “who sit on top of one another like dogs.” He is quick to blame others for his shabby life. “I see through his indignation. He is envious,” he says of one foe who has belittled him. “Perhaps he’s noticed the marks of favor bestowed on me. A lot I care what he says of me.” Such entries show the clerk using the conventional and commonplace rationalizations to which many people resort to explain away their failures and to evade their own contributions to their unhappiness. “High officers, they get all the best things in this world. You discover a crumb of happiness, you reach out for it and then along comes a high official and snatches it away.”
Increasingly, these mild misperceptions cease to be effective. When reality metes out to the clerk more than his commonplace ideas can explain, he starts inventing more fantastic rationalizations, which seem to remove him further from reality. Adding to the pressures are his rare glimpses of Sophie, his boss’s daughter. He indulges in obsessive thoughts of love and devotion toward her that are far out of proportion to her occasional and demeaning comments to him. “Holy Fathers, the way she was dressed! Her dress was white, and fluffy, like a...
(The entire section is 893 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “The Diary of a Madman,” the eccentric clerk Poprishchin is infatuated with the daughter of his office director. He records in his diary that he has intercepted a letter from her dog to another dog. The contents eventually lead him to conclude that “women are in love with the Devil,” a fact that only he has discovered. Soon, he ceases going to work, where his main task is to sharpen the director’s quills, because he has become the king of Spain, although “Spain and China are one and the same country.” The flimsy moon, he relates, is inhabited by people’s noses, and that is why they cannot see them on their own faces.
Poprishchin (whose name evokes the Russian word for “pimple”) records October 3 as his first diary entry. Entries for October 4, November 6, and November 8 follow. As his insanity becomes more and more pervasive and debilitating, the entries are given dates such as “the 43rd Day of April in the year 2000” and “The 34th of yrae yraurbeF 349.” The reader begins to see shadows of reality in Poprishchin’s ramblings, as when he mentions the “Spanish court custom” requiring that his head be shaved and that water be dripped on it. In his last entry, Poprishchin longs for escape. He wants to return to his peasant home and to his mother, saying,O mother, mother, save your unhappy son! Let a tear fall on his aching head! See how they torture him! Press the poor orphan to your bosom! He has no rest in this world; they hunt him from place to place. Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?