In “Diary of a Madman,” Gogol chronicles how Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin slowly descends into madness and is imprisoned in an insane asylum. Poprishchin begins the story seeming relatively ordinary, but his insanity soon manifests in multiple forms. For example, he believes that dogs can speak in human language and that they are capable of writing letters. Eventually, he suffers delusions of grandeur, and begins to believe he is a lost king of Spain. Gogol juxtaposes Poprishchin’s insanity—which results from common feelings like inferiority and envy—with moments of rationality, illustrating how imperceptible the line between madness and normalcy can be.
Gogol provides readers with various scenes that illustrate Poprishchin’s sanity, emphasizing his commonplace dissatisfaction with his career and station in life. Initially, Poprishchin is portrayed as a common workingman, a low-level clerk who mentally insults his colleagues and shirks his responsibilities. He admits to not wanting to go “to the office at all,” and thinks his coworkers are “envious” because he sits in the “director’s study.” Poprishchin’s inner monologue is petty but commonplace and does not reveal anything other than an overinflated sense of self-importance. In fact, Poprishchin’s commentary often reads like innocuous gossip. He discusses how in the “provincial government,” the buildings are dirty but the workers can rent a “country house” or wear a “beaver coat.” He admits that if it was not for the “nobility of the work” he would have “quit” his job a while ago. These observations and concerns, while indicative of Poprishchin’s unhappiness, do not reveal an inner madness or mania.
Gogol then slowly introduces scenes that illustrate Poprishchin’s insanity, juxtaposting them with other scenes of normality to show how subtle these shifts in Poprishchin’s perspective can seem. When Poprishchin runs an errand in town, he believes he hears one dog, named Medji, speaking with another dog, Fidèle. At first, Poprishchin is “very surprised” to hear the dog speak in “human language,” but he soon loses his sense of astonishment. Instead, he claims there have been “many such examples” of animals speaking in human languages. This sudden change in opinion begins to illustrate how quickly his thoughts go from rational to irrational.
Poprishchin then reveals that he has “begun” to “hear and see things” that “no one” else has experienced before. A few days after believing he has heard Medji and Fidèle speaking to one another, he convinces himself to “get hold” of the letters “exchanged” by the dogs. Eventually, Poprishchin retrieves the letters and begins to read them to himself. He admits there is “something doggy” in the letters, as they discuss ideas such as food and being petted. While the premise of the letters is clearly fantastical, these details lend them a sense of realism. Poprishchin’s ability to highlight unrealistic versus believable details blurs the boundary between reality and madness.
Poprishchin’s ability to discern reality from fantasy weakens further as the story continues. Poprishchin reads of “strange doings” in Spain, where the “throne is vacant” and there are rumors that a queen will ascend if an heir is not found. Poprishchin is unusually disturbed by this news and writes in his diary that “it cannot be” that Spain has “no king.” Poprishchin’s fixation on social status and hierarchy begins to reveal the mania that shapes his thoughts.
Poprishchin eventually begins to have delusions of grandeur, believing that he is the lost king of Spain; he names his royal alter ego Ferdinand VIII. He dresses himself up in tattered robes and announces his royal status to his housekeeper. This rapid descent into insanity leads him to lose his job, and he is taken away to the “Spanish border”—which is actually an insane asylum—by people he believes are “Spanish deputies.” Poprishchin can no longer separate reality from fantasy, indicating the depth of his insanity.
Poprishchin’s condition continues to deteriorate, but his belief in his royal status skews his rationality. When the staff of the asylum shaves his head and drips “cold water” on his head, he believes he is the victim of an unusual type of popular ritual, or “court etiquette.” His writing, paradoxically, reveals the truth of his miserable situation while maintaining his fantasy. Poprishchin understands that his treatment is unfair, but his fantasy of kingship keeps him from realizing why he is being treated poorly. Poprishchin inevitably fails to make sense of his surroundings, even though the truth of those surroundings is clear in his writing. He is ultimately unable to tell that his fantasies are false, a mark of his madness.
In Gogol’s story, the protagonist Poprishchin slowly loses his grasp of reality. While his commentary initially sounds like the complaints of an everyday worker, he eventually reveals how he hears voices and believes himself to be royalty. Gogol lists various scenes from Poprishchin’s perspective that are both realistic and fantastical to illustrate how quickly a character’s thoughts can shift between normality and madness.
Insanity Quotes in The Diary of a Madman
Ah, you pup! I confess, I was very surprised to hear her speak in human language. But later, when I’d thought it over properly, I at once ceased to be surprised… I confess, lately I had begun sometimes to hear and see things no one had ever seen or heard before.
So what if he’s a kammerjunker. It’s nothing more than a dignity; it’s not anything visible that you can take in your hands. Several times already I’ve tried to figure out where all these differences come from. What makes me a titular councillor, and why on earth am I a titular councillor? […] Maybe I myself don’t know who I am.
Spain has a king. He has been found. I am that king. Only this very day did I learn of it. I confess, it came to me suddenly in a flash of lightning. I don’t understand how I could have thought and imagined that I was a titular councillor.
They said the director was coming. Many clerks ran up front to show themselves before him. But I didn’t budge… What is a director that I should stand up before him… I was most amused when they slipped me a paper to be signed. They thought I’d write “Chief Clerk So-and-So”… Not a chance! In the central place, where the director of the department signs, I dashed off: “Ferdinand VIII.”
The mantle is all ready and sewn up. Mavra cried out when I put it on. However, I still refrain from presenting myself at court. No deputation from Spain so far. Without deputies it’s not proper. There’ll be no weight to my dignity.
I still cannot understand what sort of country Spain is. The popular customs and court etiquette are absolutely extraordinary… they began dripping cold water on my head. I’ve never experienced such hell before… Judging by all probabilities, I guess I may have fallen into the hands of the Inquisition, and the one I took for the chancellor may be the grand inquisitor himself.
Is that my mother sitting at the window? Dear mother, save your poor son! shed a tear on his sick head! see how they torment him! press the poor orphan to your breast! there’s no place for him in the world! they’re driving him out! […] And do you know that the Dey of Algiers has a bump just under his nose?