The Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol

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The Diary of a Madman Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 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...

(The entire section is 1,181 words.)