The Diary of a Madman

The Diary of a Madman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nikolai Gogol's The Diary of a Madman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol lived in the Ukrainian village of Sorochintsy with his parents, who belonged to the “petty gentry,” a class of society distinguished by self-management of its lands and farms. In 1828, Gogol traveled to St. Petersburg to acquire a civil service job and work on achieving literary fame. Unable, at first, to form the connections necessary to secure a job, he traveled to Germany and returned to St. Petersburg only when his money ran out. He then took up a low-paying bureaucratic job and published sporadically for periodicals until achieving his literary breakthrough with Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. He continued to write throughout the 1830s, releasing Mirgorod and two volumes of prose titled Arabesques. His play, The Government Inspector, was performed as a result of a direct order from the tsar, Nicholas I. Gogol traveled through Germany and Switzerland before settling in Rome, where he finished the first volume of his book Dead Souls. Dead Souls was published in 1842, the same year that his first collection of his worksfeaturing the famous short story “The Overcoat”was released. Gogol attempted to finish the next volume of Dead Souls for the next few years, but his creative output declined. He returned to Russia in 1848 and eventually turned to the aid of a priest, Matvey Konstantinovsky, who prescribed intense ascetic practices and fasting; this caused Gogol’s spirits to deteriorate further. He eventually burned the drafts of the second volume of Dead Souls, began refusing food, and died shortly thereafter.
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Historical Context of The Diary of a Madman

“Diary of a Madman” was written in 1835, during the reign of the autocratic tsar Nicholas I. Corrupt bureaucracy and militarism marked this time period in Russian history, with Nicholas I relying on military men to circumvent the normal administration of a kingdom. This atmosphere of bureaucratic secrecy and inefficiency is the backdrop for Gogol’s story, which depicts the life of Poprishchin, a low-level councillor St. Petersburg. Gogol’s story also references other European aristocrats; it makes allusions to the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833 as well the politician Jules-Armand, minister of foreign affairs under King Charles X of France.

Other Books Related to The Diary of a Madman

Like “Diary of a Madman,” many of Gogol’s other works, such as “The Overcoat” and the play The Government Inspector, feature protagonists who are low-level civil servants or bureaucrats. In addition, “Diary of a Madman” contains elements of gothic horror and surrealism; these elements have much in common with those found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Gogol’s use of satire has also led some theorists to link his work with the stories of Laurence Sterne. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground features a first-person point of view, much like “Diary of a Madman.” Dostoyevsky is said to have cited Gogol as the major influence for the Russian realist writers of the 19th-century.
Key Facts about The Diary of a Madman
  • Full Title: The Diary of a Madman
  • When Written: 1835
  • Where Written: St. Petersburg
  • When Published: 1835
  • Literary Period: 19th-century Russian realism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: The story takes place in a section of the city of St. Petersburg. After Poprishchin descends into insanity, he believes he is living in Spain; he is actually in an unnamed insane asylum.
  • Climax: Poprishchin begins to believe he is Spain’s long-lost king and is taken away to an insane asylum.
  • Antagonist: Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, the lord chancellor (a worker at the insane asylum)
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Diary of a Madman

The Northern Bee. Poprishchin mentions reading the Bee, short for the Northern Bee, a newspaper circulated in St. Petersburg. The newspaper, often read by those in the middle class, covered domestic and foreign affairs and sometimes printed stories about literature and philosophy. The Bee also featured stories about insane asylums, which may have provided inspiration for “Diary of a Madman.”

The Inquisition. When Poprishchin is in the asylum, he believes his capture and torture is a result of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition was a judicial institution established in Spain to persecute heretics who held opinions contrary to orthodox Christian beliefs. The inquisitors who carried out the mission of the Inquisition were known for their brutal tactics.