Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Diary of a Madman” is one of Nikolai Gogol’s most troubling and complex stories. It works on several different levels at once. On a psychological level, it is a surprisingly accurate account of the onset of a mental pathology, rendered decades before psychosis was carefully studied by European scientists. The story depicts a man growing increasingly psychotic. He misinterprets the information from his surroundings and gives himself an unrealistic, though more tolerable, sense of who he his. These reinterpretations increasingly remove him from the real world, and those around him begin to see him as a threat. They move to institutionalize him, this prescription for a cure accelerating the speed of his journey into insanity.

On a sociological level, though, this story is not so much about insanity as it is about the kind of society that causes it. The madman’s job, his acquaintances, and the characters he meets in the streets are so configured that his madness is in itself a “sane” response or adaptation to the social pressures around him. In this sense, the story is a realistic portrayal of a social system that drives at least one of its members crazy. Nineteenth century Russia’s emphasis on status, appearance, and bureaucratic rules, Gogol claims, creates an environment that encourages people to be more concerned with their roles than with their real selves: Their egos seem to have less value than the social positions those egos occupy.

Gogol here explores the effects of such a system, hinting that values such as these may tempt many into attending to the wrong things. His remains a portrait of madness, but a madness brought on by a society that in itself is more than a little mad.