Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, an embittered and judgmental clerk, dislikes many of his coworkers and fixates on his low social status. Despite his verbose and critical inner monologue, which he records in his diary, Poprishchin’s outward persona is quiet and reserved. Poprishchin’s inability to talk to his peers and his judgmental stance prevent him from truly connecting with anyone. This total isolation leads to the rapid deterioration of his sanity, and he starts to imagine he is the lost king of Spain; his imagined royalty, in turn, helps him justify his separation from other people. Isolation, in Gogol’s story, is a powerful force that, if unchecked, can push people more deeply into the life of the mind for better or for worse, encouraging the creation of fantasy worlds as a means to find a sense of connection and belonging.
Gogol provides readers with many examples of Poprishchin’s dismissive internal commentary, emphasizing his inability to relate to his coworkers or peers. Initially, Poprishchin is introduced to readers a low-level clerk who scorns his colleagues. He describes his section chief as a “cursed stork,” and dismisses the treasurer as stingy and authoritarian. Poprishchin’s commentary lacks a single positive thought for his peers and extends to total strangers, indicating that even remote passersby are not exempt from his judgmental worldview. He has only pessimistic views of the clerks in the provincial government, and comments on their “vile” clothes and how they act “goody-goody.” When he meets a “fellow clerk” at an intersection, he judges the clerk for “ogling” a woman, insinuating the clerk is a superficial flirt. Poprishchin has no thoughts of sympathy or understanding for anyone, regardless of their relation to him.
Gogol then illustrates how Poprishchin’s inner commentary, which is sarcastic and scornful, does not actually align with his outwardly shy behavior. When Poprishchin’s boss, the director, tries to make small talk about the weather, Poprishchin’s response is short and dull, despite the in-depth observations he makes in his diary about his boss’s character. He admits he has tried “several times” to start a conversation with the director, but his “tongue wouldn’t obey” him. Poprishchin is also unable to share his amorous feelings with Sophie, the object of his affection. Poprishchin writes about his feelings with poetic language and eloquence, yet when Sophie asks him a question directly he only responds, “No, ma’am.” This incongruity between his private thoughts and his public actions reveals how little of his true personality Poprishchin reveals to others; he has completely hidden his feelings from the world, only revealing them through writing. Such a discrepancy keeps Poprishchin’s real character from being revealed to others, isolating him further.
Poprishchin, who is completely isolated from his peers, is then driven mad by his fixation on social status; he begins to believe he is Spain’s lost king, Ferdinand VIII. Poprishchin’s alienation from society is so thorough, it seems, that his hallucinations become his only means of interpreting his surroundings. He is taken to an insane asylum, imagining that “Spanish deputies” have come to retrieve him. He is then beaten but justifies this treatment by imagining it is a “knightly custom.” When the asylum’s workers shave off his hair and begin “dripping cold water” on his head, he assumes he “fallen into the hands” of the “Inquistion.” The staff’s actions further alienate and isolate Poprishchin, leading him to believe—mistakenly—that he is being persecuted as part of a historical plot.
This treatment eventually does begis to torment Poprishchin. His isolation is so thorough that he asks to be carried “out of this world.” He then imagines that he sees his mother “sitting” by a window and exclaims that there is “no place for him.” Poprishchin’s fantasy of royal blood, which temporarily protected him from recognizing his miserable fate, eventually fades. As a result, Poprishchin momentarily becomes aware of his total isolation from society. Poprishchin’s brief acknowledgment that he is utterly alone thereby provides a moment of deep self-realization amidst his delusion and mania.
In “Diary of a Madman,” the split between Poprishchin’s inner thoughts and outward behavior isolates him from other people. Eventually, this lack of connection—combined with his fixation on status—leads him into madness. Gogol highlights how madness at first protects Poprishchin from realizing his isolation. Eventually, however, Poprishchin’s sense of alienation is so thorough that it breaks through his fantasy of mistaken identity. He ultimately begins to realize there is “no place” for him “in the world.” Isolation, a powerful force, has brought Poprishchin to the depths of insanity, but has also provided him a moment of true clarity about his miserable life.
Isolation Quotes in The Diary of a Madman
It’s true, our work is noble, it’s clean everywhere, as you never see it in the provincial government: the tables are mahogany, and the superiors address each other formally. Yes, I confess, if it weren’t for the nobility of the work, I’d long since have quit the department.
Heavens above, how she was dressed! Her gown was white as a swan, and so magnificent… “Your Excellency,” I almost wanted to say, “don’t punish me, but if it is your will to punish me, punish me with Your Excellency’s own hand.” But, devil take it, my tongue somehow refused to move…
“You’re over forty— it’s time you got smart. What are you dreaming of? Do you think I don’t know all your pranks? You’re dangling after the director’s daughter! Well, take a look at yourself, only think, what are you? You’re a zero, nothing more. You haven’t got a kopeck to your name.”
I see why he’s angry with me. He’s jealous. Maybe he saw the signs of benevolence preferentially bestowed on me… Wait, friend! we, too, will become a colonel and, God willing, maybe something even higher. We’ll get ourselves a reputation even better than yours.
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?