Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, a low-level clerk, describes his innermost thoughts through diary entries. Having woken up late for work, he rushes to the office. He knows his manager, the section chief, will berate him for being late, as he has criticized Poprishchin for other professional mistakes before. Poprishchin relates a previous argument he had with the section chief, in which he accused Poprishchin of confusing “a case” and pointed out that the “date or number” was left off the paperwork.
Gogol’s story is told through diary entries, a perspective that offers a biased view into Poprishchin’s character. Counteracting this, however, is Poprishchin’s willingness to write down his interactions in vivid detail—as such allowing readers to interpret the situations at hand for themselves. Here, readers can surmise that he has had professional troubles with his manager frequently.
Poprishchin then shares judgmental commentary about the coworkers in his office. He points out that the treasurer at his office is miserly, and that in the provincial courts, business is conducted differently. Poprishchin describes the type of “country house” a provincial worker rents, and the type of “beaver coat” they wear. Poprishchin then adds that the “nobility” of his career is what appeals to him.
After revealing his difficult relationship with the section chief, Poprishchin begins criticizing his coworkers. His comments illustrate the troubled nature of his professional relationships. Poprishchin’s fixation with social class has likely exacerbated these troubles: he is obsessed with statu, and constantly compares himself to his peers. Doing so isolates him, and he acknowledges that it is the dignity of his profession that sustains him, not camaraderie.
Poprishchin goes out for a walk with his old coat and umbrella, and comments on the “peasant women” he sees in the street, as well as the “Russian merchants” and “messenger boys.” He also notices a “fellow clerk” from the “gentry,” whom he believes is shirking his work and merely “ogling” the feet of a woman in front of him.
Poprishchin’s fixation on social class is so thorough that it shapes how he thinks about total strangers. When Poprishchin runs into a clerk, someone of equal rank to him, he dismisses him because he believes the other clerk is avoiding work by chasing women. Poprishchin’s obsession with social class keeps him from treating other people with openness; as a result, he is socially isolated, and constantly wrapped up in judgmental thoughts.
He then notices a carriage pull up to the shop, and realizes it belongs to his boss, the director. The director’s daughter, Sophie, has taken the carriage to go shopping, and when she gets out of the vehicle, Poprishchin poetically comments that she “flutter[s]” like a “little bird.” Sophie does not recognize or acknowledge him, Poprishchin believes, because he is wearing his “old-fashioned” and “dirty” overcoat.
Poprishchin notices that Sophie, the daughter of his boss, is shopping in town. Poprishchin is infatuated with Sophie and writes about her with poetic language; this is a change from how he describes other people. Even when he is praising Sophie’s charms, however, Poprishchin’s class fixation is present: he believes she does not recognize him because his coat is dirty, the mark of a poorer man. Even when he is love, then, Poprishchin thinks about relationships through the lens of social status.
Poprishchin notices that Sophie has left her dog outside while she shops. He remembers that he “knows” the dog, whose name is Medji. Suddenly, Poprishchin hears a voice greet Medji, and he then hears Medji say to another dog, Fidèle, that she has been “very sick.” Poprishchin wonders if he is “drunk,” and admits he is “surprised” to hear Medji speak “in human language.”
When Sophie enters the shop, she leaves her dog Medji outside. Poprishchin suddenly hears voices, and believes that Medji is speaking to another dog, Fidèle. At first, Poprishchin is disturbed to hear these voices and wonders if he is drunk. Poprishchin’s rationale provides a somewhat believable excuse for why he might think two dogs are able to talk like humans.
Poprishchin soon rationalizes Medji’s human speech, writing in his diary that there have “already been many such examples” of talking animals. Poprishchin then recounts that Medji claimed to have written a letter to another dog, Fidèle. Poprishchin is initially surprised, as he has “never” heard of a dog “being able to write.” He then confesses in his diary that he has “begun” to “hear and see” things that no one else has.
Poprishchin then changes his mind and claims that the dogs’ use of human language is logical. He explains that there are many examples of animals speaking like humans. Poprishchin then admits that he is seeing and hearing things. This admission is the first sign of Poprishchin’s insanity: he is confessing to hearing voices and hallucinating, both indicators of mental illness.