In Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” the middling civil servant Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin gradually loses his sanity, resulting in his imprisonment at an asylum. Poprishchin’s insanity is exacerbated by his fixation on social class and statushe spends much of the story resenting his peers for their positions in society. In fact, Poprishchin constantly comments on others’ social status, even when he is merely traveling through town or doing errands. In Gogol’s story, this constant stream of commentary turns into mania, leading to the swift deterioration of Poprishchin’s mental state. Gogol’s story thus warns readers that fixation on others’ social class and status can lead to dangerous obsession, and even insanity.
Throughout the story, Gogol provides multiple examples of Poprishchin’s fixation on his own class. In on scene, Poprishchin has an interaction with his section chief, a manager at his job, who points out that Poprishchin is “over forty” and that it’s about time he “got smart” about his career. He tells Poprishchin to “take a look” at himself, as he is “a zero, nothing more.” Poprishchin, unable to take this criticism of his status, instead believes the section chief is “envious,” as Poprishchin sits in the “director’s study.” Due to his obsession with status, Poprishchin can only filter his manager’s valid critique through the lens of status.
The section chief’s questioning frustrates Poprishchin, and he mentally criticizes the section chief’s face and hairstyle. Poprishchin is unable to deal with the section chief’s questions in a levelheaded way, and instead assumes the section chief is “jealous” of him. He believes his manager perceives “the signs of benevolence” that are “preferentially bestowed” on him. Poprishchin seems to think his innate, imagined social status makes him better than his manager. Poprishchin then continues to obsess over the section chief’s comments, and writes out a litany in his diary, asking, “Am I some sort of nobody?” Poprishchin goes on to claim he is “a nobleman” and “can earn rank.” He continues to rage against the section chief’s criticism in his diary and claims his “reputation” can become “even better” than his manager’s reputation.
Poprishchin’s obsession with social class and status is pervasive, extending beyond himself and his peers. Multiple scenes in the story emphasize how Poprishchin continuously judges and assesses everyone and everything around him through the lens of class. For example, when Poprishchin goes for a walk, his descriptions of the people around him are solely based on their social status. He emphasizes that he sees “only peasant women,” “Russian merchants,” and “messenger boys.” He also points out that he only sees one person from “the gentry,” who is a “fellow clerk.” Even in casual encounters, Poprishchin focuses on strangers’ status and constantly compares those strangers with himself.
In another mundane scene, Poprishchin continues to fixate on class and comment judgmentally on everything around him. When he goes on an errand that requires him to walk through a particular neighborhood, he points out that he “can’t stand cabbage,” a common food whose smell “comes pouring out” from the shops. Moreover, he claims there is a “whiff of hell” coming from “each house” that smells so foul that he has to hold his nose and run past. He also emphasizes that the “vile artisans” in the city produce “so much soot” that it is “impossible” for a “gentleman” to “walk there.” Workers and strangers of every class, from artisans to cooks, draw his scorn.
Poprishchin not only comments on those he considers below his own status, but also fixates on the class and status of his superiors. He emphasizes the grace and intelligence of his director, pointing out how the director’s books contain “learning” that Poprishchin’s “kind” cannot “come close to.” Poprishchin does wish, in fact, that he could learn more from those with more social clout—he wants to see “what they do in their circle,” to better inform his own behavior.
Poprishchin’s obsession with social class, which dominates his work life and his casual encounters, eventually becomes an all-consuming mania. After reading a news article about a missing king in Spain, Poprishchin’s preoccupation with status—and his unhappiness with his own social class—leads him to fantasize about cases of mistaken identity. Poprishchin’s begins to wish that he was “some sort of count,” and claims there are many examples “in history” of men being “revealed” as a person of higher class. In his diary, he writes down his dream of being “promoted” to a role such as “governor general.” Poprishchin’s fixation on social status is so thorough that it leads him to imagine various scenarios where his true, higher social status is hidden, even from himself.
Amidst these dreams of mistaken identity, Poprishchin reads the newspaper and writes in his diary that there are “strange doings” in Spain, as Spain’s “throne is vacant.” In Poprishchin’s perspective, which is dominated by class hierarchy, this vacancy is illogical and contrary to the natural order of things. The abnormality of Spain’s missing king, combined with Poprishchin’s obsession with class, eventually leads Poprishchin to believe that he is the lost heir, and he names himself Ferdinand VIII. He realizes in a “flash of lightning” that he is not a lowly “councillor,” but instead a true nobleman. Poprishchin’s inner torment over his middling social status has consumed him so thoroughly that he must make up cases of mistaken identity to remedy his unhappiness.
Throughout the story, Gogol reveals how thoroughly class and social status infiltrates Poprishchin’s thoughts. Poprishchin’s obsession expands from a self-directed fixation, eventually permeating his entire life and affecting both his career and his wellbeing. Ultimately, Poprishchin’s unhappiness about his civil servant status leads him to spin a fantasy where he is a long-lost king, and it becomes clear that Poprishchin’s obsession has driven him insane. Gogol seems to warn readers that constant comparison, judgment, and anxiety over one’s status can lead to drastic consequences.
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Social Class and Status 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.
Our director must be a very intelligent man. His whole study is filled with bookcases. I read the titles of some of the books: it’s all learning, such learning as our kind can’t even come close to… A real statesman. I notice, though, that he has a special liking for me. If only the daughter also...
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’ve meant several times to strike up a conversation with His Excellency, only, devil take it, my tongue wouldn’t obey me: I’d just say it was cold or warm outside, and be decidedly unable to say anything else. I’d like to peek into the drawing room, where you sometimes see only an open door into yet another room beyond the drawing room. Ah, such rich furnishings!
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.