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Last Updated on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

"The Diary of a Madman" is a short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1835.

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The madman of the title is a forty-two-year-old civil servant who keeps a diary for four months. On a rainy day—Tuesday, October 3, 1833—Poprishchin is late for his job in one of the offices of a Saint Petersburg department, his only hope being to receive some money as an advance payment. On the way, he notices a carriage stopping before a shop, from which the lovely daughter of the director of the department flutters like a bird. He overhears a conversation between her dog, Meggy, and another dog, Fidel, who belongs to two ladies passing by. Surprised by this, Poprishchin follows the ladies instead of going to work and finds out that they live in Sverkoff's house.

The next day, Poprishchin, mending pens in the director's office, sees the director's daughter come into the room. Within a month, his fascination with this young woman becomes obvious to others. He is even reprimanded for this. However, Poprishchin secretly penetrates the house of His Excellency and, desiring to learn something about the young lady, tries to enter into a conversation with the dog Meggy. The dog does not want to talk with him.

Then Poprishchin goes to Sverkoff's house, where the dog Fidel lives with its owners, and steals from its sleeping-basket a packet of small pieces of paper. As is Poprishchin's guess, these are letters between the two dogs. He learns from their correspondence many things that are meaningful to him. He reads about the director of the department being conferred with a decoration and about the director's daughter (whose name turns out to be Sophie) being courted by a certain Mr. Teploff. He even learns something about himself.

He has an extraordinary name. He always sits there and mends the pens. His hair looks like a truss of hay. Her papa always employs him instead of a servant.... Sophie can never keep from laughing when she sees him.

Finally, Poprishchin learns from the letters that Teploff is going to marry Sophie soon:

the marriage will soon be celebrated. Her papa will at any rate get his daughter married to a general, a colonel, or a chamberlain.

The unrequited love for Sophie, coupled with some disturbing reports in the papers, finally damage Poprishchin's mind. He begins to be preoccupied with thoughts about the state of affairs in Spain in connection with the death of the king.

The year 2000: April 43rd.—To-day is a day of splendid triumph. Spain has a king; he has been found, and I am he. I discovered it to-day; all of a sudden it came upon me like a flash of lightning.

After three weeks of idleness, the "Spanish king" Poprishchin returns to his job. He does not stand up before the director, signs as "Ferdinand VIII," and then goes straight to the director's house. Entering Sophie's dressing-room, he tries to explain to her that "a happiness awaited her, beyond her power to imagine," at the same time making the discovery that women fall in love with the devil.

Oh, what cunning creatures these women are! Now I have found out what woman really is. Hitherto no one knew whom a woman really loves; I am the first to discover it—she loves the devil.

Poprischchin waits for the Spanish deputation. But the "Spain" to which he is taken when the "deputies" finally arrive is a very strange land. There are many "grandees" with shorn heads there. The "nobles" are beaten with sticks, and the attendants let cold water trickle on their heads. It is obvious that this land is ruled by the great Inquisition, which prevents Poprischchin from making great discoveries worthy of his position. Finally, he writes a tearful letter to his mother begging for help.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

“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 swan, and when she looked at me, I swear, it was like the sun.” His comments about Sophie reveal a mind gradually losing touch with reality. “Perhaps I am really a general or a count and only seem to be a clerk. . . . There are plenty of instances in history when somebody quite ordinary . . . turns out to be a public figure.” As the madman loses himself in this kind of wishful thinking, his personality begins to fragment. One part of him actually starts believing that he occupies a high place on the social ladder. Another part, the part that seems to need feedback from the “real” world, is reduced to a series of occasional hallucinatory experiences that tell him the truths he otherwise could not hear. He thinks that he overhears Sophie’s dog, Madgie, talking with another dog. He thinks that he intercepts some of the letters that the two dogs are secretly writing to each other; one reveals that “Sophie can hardly control her laughter when she sees him,” and another suggests that Sophie is about to be married.

As the journal entries start to show the fragmentation of the pathetic clerk’s mind, the sane part of him concocts “mad” explanations and the mad part of him that reveals “sane” truths grow further apart. In the gap, yet a third personality begins to emerge. “This is a day of great jubilation. Spain has a new king. They’ve found him. I am the king.” As a way of healing the disparity between who he is and who he wants to be, the madman comes to believe that he is the uncrowned king of a Western European country. At work, he takes to signing his forms as “Ferdinand VIII.” At the post office, he inquires about the arrival of his royal retinue. To his landlady, he shows off his new royal robes, patched together from pieces of his overcoat. Three-quarters of the way through the story, the clerk has clearly turned into a madman. His pathological behavior finds little understanding from those who know him, and he is committed to an asylum for the insane.

This attempted cure simply multiplies the madman’s disjointed personalities. As the king of Spain, he interprets what happens to him as an international conspiracy to keep him from his throne. He even sees the shaved heads of the lunatics in the asylum and thinks that they are Dominican or Capuchin monks. When his old personality returns and he again knows himself as a clerk, he experiences being beaten with sticks, a common “treatment” for the mentally ill in a nineteenth century European asylum. The beatings bring out an even more childish personality fragment. He cries, “Mother, save your wretched son! Let your tears fall on his sick head. See how they torture him!” The story ends with him once again retreating into his “king of Spain” fantasy, that being the psychological mode that seems to bring him the most comfort. The ending leaves the disconcerting suggestion that sometimes it is better to be mad and happy than it is to be sane but miserable.

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