Civil servant Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin spends his personal time writing in his diary, where he is able to express his true feelings. By contrast, his daily interactions, oftentimes brief and dull, do not accurately reflect his thoughts and aspirations. Despite providing a more accurate view of his internal state, however, Poprishchin’s writing also presents a decidedly fantasized version of himself at odds with reality. In fact, writing allows Poprishchin to explore multiple fantasies: he imagines that two dogs are capable of writing letters to each other, and he writes many diary entries claiming that he is a forgotten heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s story illustrates how writing offers an escape and a space for fantasythough these fantasies are sometimes misleading, grandiose, or damagingfor characters like Poprishchin, who live unhappy lives.
Gogol’s story is written in the form of diary entries, a formatting choice that emphasizes how important writing is in Poprishchin’s life. These entries, a form of escape for Poprishchin, reveal his inner monologue to be more judgmental and verbose than his day-to-day speech. For example, Poprishchin’s behavior at work is markedly different from his internal thoughts. Poprishchin holds little authority in his job, but he is often dismissive of his superiors when he writes about them in his diary. He describes his section chief as a “cursed stork,” and claims that the treasurer is a miserly and dictatorial colleague, even though in the treasurer’s home “his own cook slaps him” and rejects his authority. Poprishchin never verbalizes this scornful commentary, however—he only expresses these thoughts in writing.
This mismatch in Poprishchin’s written and spoken language continues with other figures in his life. Besides using his diary for secret expression of his scorn, Poprishchin also uses his entries to express hidden, happier emotions. He is infatuated with the director’s daughter, Sophie, and writes about her with fond, poetic language—noting, for instance, that she descends from her carriage “like a little bird” and comparing “her glance” to “the sun.” When Sophie talks directly to him, however, Poprishchin is monosyllabic in response.
In another scene illustrating Popishchin’s sheepishness, he is unable to talk to the director at his job. Poprishchin insists that he has “several times” intended “to strike up a conversation” with the director, a man he considers “a real statesman.” He writes in his diary that he wishes he could learn the “equivocations and courtly tricks” of men like the director. These written entries reveal Poprishchin’s true thoughts, illustrating his high-class aspirations and his belief that he can learn what elite men “do in their circle.” The self-assurance, sense of superiority, and keen observations depicted in Poprishchin’s diary are complete fabrications, however; in reality, Poprishchin is barely able to speak to the director, and does not, despite his wishes, ever. attempt to start a conversation on noble etiquette.
Gogol continues to populate the story with scenes showing writing to be a form of both genuine expression and fantasy. In one encounter, Poprishchin runs an errand and sees Sophie, who has left her lapdog Medji outside while she conducts her trip. Poprishchin believes he hears Medji “speak in human language” to another dog, Fidèle. Medji claims she has written a letter to Fidèle, revealing that, even in Poprishchin’s unrealistic fantasy, he focuses on writing as a form of self-expression. In Poprishchin’s world—where writing is a vehicle for expressing true thoughts—dogs that behave like humans must also write like humans.
Poprishchin later travels to Fidèle’s home and steals some “little papers” from the dog. He believes these papers will “reveal everything,” such as “political relations” and the true feelings of Sophie, his beloved. Poprishchin’s hope that the letters will disclose secret information is an escapist fantasy; the letters’ made-up contents are not likely to enlighten him. In fact, the letters only reveal Poprishchin’s paranoia; they depict an obsession with class and status, indicating that he likely hallucinated their existence in the first place. One of the dog’s letters discusses Poprishchin’s physical qualities scornfully, and he thinks it is the work of his envious coworkers. Another letter reveals Sophie’s infatuation with another man, who belongs to a higher class than Poprishchin. Even in Poprishchin’s fantasies, expressed through these made-up letters, his fixation on status and reputation leads to overt paranoia. Like his diary entries, then, the dogs’ letters allow Poprishchin to spin fantasies and express his hidden mania.
To distract himself from the letters, Poprishchin reads a story in the newspaper which discusses how Spain’s “throne is vacant” and how “a queen” will “ascend” if no heir is found. In his diary, he begins to fixate on this state of affairs, as a kingdom must have a king. Eventually, Poprishchin is so obsessed with the mystery of the missing king that he starts claiming he is “that king.” Poprishchin’s fantasy is so thorough that he even imagines it is a day in the distant future and dates his entry to the “year 2000.” Poprishchin’s entries become an escape route for him, allowing him to fantasize that he is not living life as a miserable “councillor,” but as a lost heir to a distant throne. The headlines, too, provide Poprishchin an escape from his life, and an outlet through which to express his madness.
After Poprishchin concludes that he is Spain’s lost king, he gains the courage to act rebellious at his office. Poprishchin’s fantasy has kept him away from work for “three weeks,” and he returns only “as a joke.” When documents are “placed in front” of him, he merely signs them “Ferdinand VIII.” Through this signature—fittingly, an act of writing—Poprishchin finally expresses the hidden sense of superiority he feels for his coworkers.
In Gogol’s story, writing is vital to Poprishchin inner life and his only true form of expression. Poprishchin’s diary entries allow him to express criticism and social commentary that he is too timid to say aloud. His writing also allows him to create a fantasized version of himself, who can interact gracefully with his superiors and learn their ways through observation. While this fantasized version of Poprishchin never translates off the pages of his diary, he nevertheless feels a sense of self-assurance and superiority via its imagining. Poprishchin’s final diary entries allow him to live out his fondest wish: to be a highborn citizen, greater and more respected than his peers. Although Poprishchin’s writing is mainly fantastical and tinged with madness, it nevertheless allows him to escape from his lowly circumstances.
Writing, Escapism, and Fantasy ThemeTracker
Writing, Escapism, and Fantasy 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…
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.”