Diary of a Madman (short story)
"Diary of a Madman" (1835; Russian: Записки сумасшедшего, Zapiski sumasshedshevo) is a farcical short story by Nikolai Gogol. Along with "The Overcoat" and "The Nose", "Diary of a Madman" is considered to be one of Gogol's greatest short stories. The tale centers on the life of a minor civil servant during the repressive era of Nicholas I. Following the format of a diary, the story shows the descent of the protagonist, Poprishchin, into insanity. "Diary of a Madman", the only one of Gogol's works written in first person, follows diary-entry format.
The story centers on Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, a low-ranking civil servant (titular counsellor), constantly belittled and criticized for underachieving. He yearns to be noticed by a beautiful woman, Sophie, the daughter of his boss, with whom he has fallen in love. As he said in his first sight of her, just after being a beast of a civil servant himself, “A footman opened the carriage door and out she fluttered, just like a little bird.” Nothing comes of this love he feels for her; Sophie is effectively unaware of him.
His diary records his gradual slide into insanity. As his madness deepens, he begins to "understand" the conversations of two dogs and believes he has discovered letters sent between them. The style of the letters, including what Poprishchin terms “dogginess” and “canine nature”, convince him of the letters' authenticity. The letters provide Poprishchin with a much more in-depth view of Sophie’s life, including her engagement to another man.
In “The Year 2000, 43rd of April”, it is made clear that Poprishchin has now gone mad. This diary entry is the first of many which he has lost the ability to distinguish a true sense of time. He begins to believe himself to be the heir to the throne of Spain. He decides to make a Spanish royal uniform so that the common people will recognize him. Believing himself in Spain, waiting for the Spanish deputies to arrive, he then decides that he is in fact in China. This trip is actually an appearance of his imagination that has been translated from being maltreated in an insane asylum.
Descent into madness
In the realm of the method of Gogol’s madness, the only possible approach that can direct the reader to contextualize and reflect on such a subject that lies beyond reason is to follow in the path of madness and allow ourselves to be misled.
Poprishchin’s descent into madness stems initially from his outlook on society. Poprishchin is unhappy with every aspect of his life and is envious of anyone who he believes has it better than he, which is essentially everyone. His desire to achieve the dignity and authority that he sees around him, but never feels, yields frustration rather than motivation. His lack of motivation causes Poprishchin to fantasize about having dignity and authority, instead of actively trying to work toward this achieving this goal in reality.
Poprishchin’s relationship with three specific characters, the Director, the Section Chief and Sofi, contribute significantly to the downfall of his sanity. The Section Chief causes Poprishchin the most direct frustration through constant, yet legitimate criticism. Poprishchin responds to the Section Chief’s behavior with anger and aggression for trying to bring him into reality. The Director takes a much more passive role in affecting Poprishchin. Poprishchin actually idolizes the Director, a large part due to the fact that he remains distant from Poprishchin and never interferes in his personal life with comments or suggestions. Despite this initially peaceful relationship, Poprishchin finds a way to see a menace in the Director, mainly out of envy. Poprishchin notices that the Director has too much ambition, a quality that Poprishchin desires, but knows he cannot achieve in reality, and therefore turns his admiration of the Director into hatred. Sofi is a beautiful woman to whom Poprishchin has a strong sexual attraction. However, Poprishchin painfully discovers that Sofi finds him pathetic and ridiculous, and his inability to cope with this reality drives him further into madness. Interestingly, Poprishchin is enlightened about both the Director’s ambition and Sofi’s view of him from letters written by a dog. It is clear to the reader that the dog and letters are not actually real, but instead are fabricated from Poprishchin’s imagination, and represent the last bit of sanity he has. Expectedly, when Poprishchin is unable to accept what he learns from the letter, he destroys it. By destroying the letters, Poprishchin is detaching himself from the last bit of reality he had, ultimately marking the final step in his descent to full madness.
One disruptive force contextualized is the relationship between the individual and society. As we allow Poprishchin to mislead us in his madness, we gain insight on the theme of alienation. His struggle allows us to contextualize his alienation from society through a lense set in the time and place of Diary of a Madman, but also to compare and contrast it with a more general sense of any alienation from society. Poprishchin’s alienation from society is strongly rooted to the way he perceives and treats people around him. Poprishchin sees a menace in everyone and always finds a way to blame others for his personal frustrations, and consequently treats them with the aggression he believes they deserve. This behavior fuels a vicious cycle that justifies the negative perception and treatment that the real world exerts toward Poprishchin.
Public and private identity
The many illusions Poprishchin creates for his false reality are intended to improve either his public identity or his private identity. Power and dignity are the two most significant traits that Poprishchin fantasizes about. We see many attempts by Poprishchin to increase his power in his newspaper world by acquiring political rank, giving himself dominance relative to the general public and ultimately improving his public identity. This side of his fantasy is fueled by his desire of approval from others, a feat he can obviously not achieve in reality. Attempts to improve his private identity are synonymous with gaining dignity and self-respect - Poprishchin’s erotic fantasies are the primary result of this quest. Poprishchin does not feel love, but rather his feelings of humiliation and the need to assert himself serve as the main driver for his erotic fantasies.
There have been many professional analyses on Poprishchin’s unique diary entries attempting to interpret their meaning, with special interest taken to the entry: 43 April 2000. A freudian analysis performed by Professor Ermakov deducted that Poprishchin used this absurd date to avoid May 13, because the word maja suggests majat’sja, which in Russian means suffering. Richard Gustafson’s analysis of the entry title is more grounded in the contents of the story. He agrees that Poprishchin is indeed trying to avoid May 13, but his reasoning for such is that the letters from the dogs that exposed the grave reality of Sofi and the Director were presented exactly half a year earlier on November 13.
Juxtaposition is Gogol's ultimate method for presenting the distorted world in Diary of a Madman. The story juxtaposes the eccentric with the ordinary, the significant with nonsense, and ultimately reality with madness. Gogol's juxtapositions push the reader to have a complicated response to each of the story’s elements.
It is important to note that Poprishchin’s transition from sanity to madness is not instantaneous, but rather can be tracked through a sequence of events. At each point during his descent to madness, the reader can see a fraction of his sanity being replaced with madness, ultimately revealing the double perspective of sanity and madness.
Poprishchin dominates the narrative like no other Gogolian character. The 1st person perspective complements the themes Gogol is trying to display.
In 1963 Richard Williams began an animated version of the story, but the project was left unfinished. The narration by Kenneth Williams was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 1991 and included in a 3-hour special entitled Williams on the Wireless on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
In 1968 Alexander Belinsky directed a TV adaptation of the story for the Leningrad TV, starring Yevgeni Lebedev as Poprishchin. Both the director and the actor were critically praised, calling Lebedev's acting "unforgettable".
The story saw two opera adaptations: as "monoopera" in 1964 by Youri Boutsko, a Soviet composer from Ukraine, and in 1974 by Stanojlo Rajičić, a Yugoslavian composer (presented as TV opera in 1977).
The short story has been adapted for the stage by David Holman, Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield for the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and this production has also been presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the United States and at the Quintessence Theater Group in Philadelphia PA.
Lu Xun, the pioneer of modern Chinese prose, read widely in Russian literature and was inspired by this story to create his own in 1918. While Lu Xun borrows the Chinese translation of the title of Gogol's story, to avoid confusion, the English title of Lu Xun's version is usually translated as A Madman's Diary.
- Gustafson, Richard (1965). "The Suffering Usurper: Gogol's Diary of a Madman". The Slavic and East European Journal 9.3.
- Erlich, Victor (1969). Gogol. Yale University Press.
- "BBC Radio 4 Extra - Williams on the Wireless". BBC.
- Brooklyn Academy of Music
- "Quintessence Theatre Group". Quintessence Theatre Group.
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