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Nikolay Gogol’s Diary of A Madman: A Critique of the 19th-century Russian Society

Through the façade of a farcical first-person narrative of a madman, Gogol provided a critical reflection of Russia under Tsar Nicholas I

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St Petersburg Russia

Amidst the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I, Russian author Nikolai Gogol published a satirical novel in the form of a fictional diary supposedly kept by a minor civil official who descended into madness. Masqueraded as a primary account of a madman, Diary of a Madman is in fact a brutally honest and highly reflective criticism of Russian society in the 19th century. It is an overexaggerating depiction of a human mind trapped in a helpless desire to find purpose, sanity, and their place in a configured circumscribed world – ironically to the point of driving insane.

Russia in late 19th century. Source: Denis Shiryaev/YouTube

Choosing to write the story in the first person through the diary-entry format, Gogol starts off by describing the initially boring life of Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, a “titular counselor” – a lavish title for a minor clerk – who performs monotonously useless tasks like sharpening quills or copying documents in the study of a Director in St. Petersburg (Gogol 293). The protagonist seems to be discontent and hypercritical of everyone, from the downright Section Chief that criticizes his early signs of madness to the journalists portrayed in a theatrical play. This sets up the impression of a narrator who appeared to be an imperfect average figure with mundane thoughts that we can all relate to. It also allows the story to follow quite strictly to a bell-shaped curve, which starts with the aforementioned boring and normal daily occurrences of an initially sane Poprishchin before his gradual slide into madness and ends with the incoherent letter to his mother. Indeed, this casual slow-spaced storytelling tone filled with conventional-ish rationalization instead of extreme dramatic mental transformation allows the narration to retain a relatively stable personality, making the readers feel the diary very much authentic and somewhat believable. This is evident during Poprishchin’s encounter with the two talking dogs in the street, where he even questioned if he was “drunk” and confessed his “surprise[…] [when] hear[ing] [the dogs] speak in human language” before casually reaffirming that such incidents have happened before in England and other places (Gogol 281). Developments like these allow us to buy into the idea that Poprishchin is simply detailing his experience as it happens instead of consciously lying or tricking the readers. It also showcases his gradually loosening grip on reality, which appears progressively less subtly and more dramatic as the story goes on.

Besides serving as his subconsciousness, the dog’s personification … also hints at the narrator’s dehumanization as he descends into madness.

Besides a distinct tone and narrative format, Gogol also made extensive use of metaphor devices. One notable example of this is the personification of the aforementioned dogs, Medji and Fidele. These creatures serve as a device for Poprishchin to project his increasingly less dominant “sanity” part of his consciousness. The letters that Fidele sent to Medji – which idolizes the Director’s ambition, reveals his crush Sophie’s upcoming engagement, and describes Poprishchin himself through the eyes of Medji – represent the sane consciousness and sad reality that Poprishchin rejects and is increasingly disengaging. For instance, the dog’s description of Poprishchin as an ugly “perfect turtle in a sack” who “always sits and sharpens pens” is indeed Poprishchin’s self-consciousness, injured ego, and insecurity about himself. Ironically, the sane part of him appears only through a device that seems to be insane – letters written by a dog. In this regard, Poprishchin is both the protagonist, which is his “insane” and dominant side, and the antagonist – his “sane” side that projects into the figure of the dogs criticizing Poprishchin himself. Besides serving as his subconsciousness, the dog’s personification – through which the narrator understands canine communication and even refers to the dog as “her” – also hints at the narrator’s dehumanization as he descends into madness. Another effective metaphor is the diary’s entry date, which initially appears completely normal but gradually becomes more meaningless and absurd as Poprishchin becomes more detached from reality. Besides servings as the milestones of the narrator’s journey into delusion, it also mockingly alludes to the Julian calendar used exclusively by Russia during Gogol’s time as well as refers to the turbulent Russian society of the 19th century.

Indeed, the fantasy of being the rightful heir to the King of Spain, falling victim to an international conspiracy, and repeatedly blaming others’ envy for the unsatisfaction with his own life – even before descending into madness – reflect the very societal pressure that gradually and eventually drives the narrator to self-aggrandizement and insanity.

Despite being presented as a first-person account of a paranoid schizophrenia patient, Diary of a Madman’s main primary message is not on the psychological side but on the sociological aspect, namely the societal factors that drive a member of the society into literal insanity. Indeed, through the diary, we can imagine a 19-century Russia with immense social pressure that caused everyone to be obsessed with prestige and status. This proves to be particularly mentally taxing for people at the lower end of the social ladder like Poprishchin, who expressed deep resentment towards the kammerjunker and general – and broadly the elite class – by exclaiming that they get “all that’s best in the world” and “plucks [poor treasure] away from [him]” (Gogol 292). Yet, Poprishchin still greatly admired the Director, a member of the very same elite class that Poprishchin resented. This can also be seen through the honorific style “His Excellency” that the narrator uses to refer to the Director – not to fawn his boss, but because of Poprishchin’s sincere idolized respect and belief that the Director is “superior” to him. This paradox showcases the Russian plebeians’ obsession to become – and thus tacit support for – the very same aristocratic class that oppressed them. Additionally, the insanity of Poprishchin in this context can be regarded as an elaborate self-delusional scheme – or more accurately, a coping mechanism against the painful realization that one cannot advance further in the social hierarchy. Indeed, the fantasy of being the rightful heir to the King of Spain, falling victim to an international conspiracy, and repeatedly blaming others’ envy for the unsatisfaction with his own life – even before descending into madness – reflect the very societal pressure that gradually and eventually drives the narrator to self-aggrandizement and insanity.

… the narrator has finally been able to make a conscious choice. Being mad and happy or sane and suffering, it seems like Poprishchin has chosen the former.

The quite tragic ending of the story – where Gogol gives us the impression that Poprishchin is finally cured of insanity, only to finally descends back into madness in the very last sentence – stimulates in the reader a strong sense of pity towards him and, more broadly, the people of Russia in the 19th century. Such undesirable emotion aroused in the ending is an excellent example of catharsis. As the story finally ended, we also find that the narrator has finally been able to make a conscious choice. Being mad and happy or sane and suffering, it seems like Poprishchin has chosen the former.

With an occasional and conversational tone and effective usage of metaphors, Diary of a Madman succeeds in creating a relatively authentic tale of a troubled individual descending into madness. Through the façade of a farcical first-person narrative of a madman, Gogol had cleverly and subtly criticized the intense obsession with prestige and class of the Russian society at the time when censorship was highly invasive – even the character Poprishchin himself wonders how the vaudeville “written quite freely” get “passed the censors” (Gogol 284).

This article appears first on The Cosmopolite Guru. For the full list of references, please visit the original article.

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