Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin is a middle-aged, low-level clerk who is fixated on social rank and status. He pores over the details of his life in diary entries, which often illustrate his frustration and anger. One day, he arrives late at his office, and decides to go for a walk through town. While walking, he runs into Sophie, the daughter of his boss, the director. Sophie is out doing errands at a local shop; her lapdog, Medji, waits for her owner outside.
Poprishchin suddenly hears a “voice” and realizes that Medji, the lapdog, is talking to Fidèle, another neighborhood dog. Poprishchin is at first “very surprised” to hear the dogs speak in “human language,” but then claims that there have been “many examples” of this type of animal behavior “in the world.” Poprishchin eavesdrops further on the dogs’ conversation, and hears that Medji has written Fidèle a letter. He ends that day’s diary entry by making a “note” of where Fidèle lives, and claims he will visit soon.
In the next day’s diary entry, Poprishchin recalls scenes from his office. He recounts how his boss’s study is filled with books with foreign titles, indicating that the director is an educated man. When Sophie walks into the office, Poprishchin is struck dumb by her appearance. In his head, he fantasizes about impressing her with well-worded phrases. In reality, however, Sophie drops her handkerchief and Poprishchin nearly trips over his feet to retrieve it for her; she then leaves, with the two of them having exchanged barely any words. A lackey comes in and tells Poprishchin to go home for the day.
The next few entries in Poprishchin’s diary describe mundane scenes from his life. He has an interaction with the section chief, one of his managers, about his unimpressive career trajectory. Instead of taking the criticism seriously, Poprishchin believes the section chief is envious of him for his innate social status.
Poprishchin’s diary eventually returns to the subject of the dogs’ letters. He admits to seeing Medji in town, and writes about how he asked her to reveal details about Sophie’s life. He then describes going to Fidèle’s home and stealing a “bundle” of “little papers.” Poprishchin believes the letters will help him “finally learn” about the “affairs” of his neighborhood, as dogs know “all the political relations.” Poprishchin does not seem shocked at his own behavior, and is fully convinced that the dogs are capable of writing each other letters about political intrigue.
Poprishchin reads the letters, which sometimes contain digressions about food and being petted by the dogs’ owners but also reveal the director’s political ambitions, as well as Sophie’s love interest, a low-ranking nobleman named Teplov. Poprishchin is infuriated by this news, and writes angrily in his diary about how richer men get “all that’s best in the world.”
Poprishchin continues to express anger and frustration in his diary entries, railing against what he believes to be an unjust world. He writes, somewhat hopefully, that he might be “some sort of count or general,” and that maybe his role as “councillor” is a mistake. He begins to think he may not know who he really is.
He then recounts reading a story in the newspaper, where there are “strange doings” in Spain. He reads that the “throne is vacant” and that Spain’s officials are trying to select “an heir.” Poprishchin expresses disbelief, claiming that a state cannot “be without a king.” He starts to believe that the king is merely somewhere “unknown,” or hiding due to mysterious circumstances.
Suddenly, Poprishchin’s diary entries change tone. He writes that it is the “Year 2000” and that Spain’s king “has been found.” He claims that he, in fact, is Spain’s long-lost king, and cannot fathom how he ever thought he was a mere “councillor.” Poprishchin’s diary entries continue to become more nonsensical. He writes in an entry dated the “86th of Martober” that he has not been to work for “three weeks.” When he finally shows up to the office, having been scolded by his manager, he signs papers as “Ferdinand VIII,” the name he has given himself as Spain’s lost king. He then begins a long, written litany against women, claiming that they are all “in love with the devil.”
Poprishchin eventually writes that “Spanish deputies” have taken him to Spain, but his descriptions make it clear that he is actually being imprisoned in an asylum. At this point, Poprishchin’s entries are devoid of any semblance of reality; he believes that “China and Spain” are “one and the same,” and is worried about a phenomenon where “the earth” sits on “the moon.” When he announces his worries to the other patients at the asylum, a staff member beats him with a stick.
Poprishchin’s fantasy persists, and he believes the various corporal punishments he receives are forms of “court etiquette” in Spain. This fantasy initially keeps him from realizing the bleakness of his situation, though he admits the “cursed stick” is “extremely painful.”
Eventually, however, this physical torture begins to take away the shine of Poprishchin’s royal delusion and he becomes aware of his total isolation. He claims his “head is burning,” and asks to be saved and carried “out of” the “world.” He imagines a scene with his mother in which he cries out for her to save him, her “sick child.” With this cry for help, Poprishchin briefly acknowledges his alienation from the world. He then adds, nonsensically, that the “Dey of Algiers,” a royal figure, has a “bump” under “his nose,” indicating that his insanity has returned.