Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many of Gogol’s stories have such a contemporary ring to them that it is easy to forget that they were written a century and a half ago about a culture that had neither the industrial nor the urban attributes that are supposed to account for some of the characteristic themes and styles of modern fiction. Like many of his stories, Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman” studies how individual selves become alienated from the societies that are supposed to support them. This modern-day motif is developed with an equally modernistic approach to narrative style. In this story, Gogol explores alienation by studying its effects on an individual consciousness. Readers are eased into the conflict by being allowed to experience directly the narrator’s twisted thoughts. Like many moderns, Gogol avoids the comforts of a realistic plot and a detached, objective narration. Instead, he plunges his readers into a worldview in which the fantasies, projections, and hallucinations of the narrator are treated as if they were as “real” as the setting, the commentary of other characters, or the incidents of the plot.

Gogol, however, is a bit gentler on his readers than many moderns. He eases them into the fantastic and implausible patterns of perception characteristic of his narrator by starting them off with a relatively “sane” speaker who is keeping an apparently “sane” diary. Because Gogol’s interest is in showing how sanity can dissolve under societal...

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The Diary of a Madman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

By using the diary form for his story, Gogol sets for himself the task of limiting the point of view to first person while, at the same time, showing the progressive nature of the clerk’s madness and the reasons for it.

The clerk is a copyist living in poverty, subjected to and buffeted about by the whims of his superiors in the hierarchical order, without access to comforts or solace. Because of his daily frustrations, he withdraws to an imaginative world where he hears dogs speaking and reads their letters, where he fantasizes about his position, his goals, and his relationship with the director’s daughter. Since his life is so circumscribed, he experiences feelings of terrible impotence magnified by his reading that a woman could accede to the Spanish throne. The “Spanish question” together with the clerk’s questioning of his own identity and relevance trigger the final fantasy that the clerk is heir to the Spanish crown. Imaginatively caught up in his fantasies, the clerk loses all contact with reality. The dates of the diary move from entries normally made every few days to such nonsense recordings as “Year 2000, April 43” and “Martober 86. Between Day and Night.” Ultimately, in his confusion, the clerk juxtaposes and then equates Russia, the Spanish crown, and the Inquisition with the madhouse where he finally resides. The powerful image created by this surreal juxtaposition extends at the end of the story to portray the whole world where “China is Spain.”

The “diary” is not only a fine metaphor but also an apt device for telling this story. It allows for the fragmentation that mirrors the mind of the protagonist and the life he lives. It allows Gogol to present dramatically the various stages in the narrator’s madness while staying within his perceptions. It also makes possible the remarkably contemporary tone characterized by pity and humor.