A Worm's-Eye View ...
of Gogol's Diary of a Madman

This essay was adapted from 'Nikolai Gogol: The Other 19th Century Narrator', for inclusion in issue #3 of thi wurd fiction magazine in 2018. The original piece is available to read in the Essays section.

The title of this essay comes from the Russian critic Victor Erlich’s 1969 book, Gogol, in which he states that Nikolai Gogol presents his readers with a “worm’s-eye view of reality”. This phrase was used by Erlich in reference to the classic story The Overcoat, published in Russia in 1842, but I think it applies broadly to Gogol’s entire body of short fiction – and in particular to Diary of a Madman, a story I have read more than any other.

Diary of a Madman (1835) is a layered and complex narrative, the premise being that the reader must interpret and infer from the diary-writer Poprishchin's subjective account of events where the truth of the story actually lies. Poprishchin is a low-level clerk who dreams of the beautiful daughter of his department’s Director, and appears to be suffering the onset of a type of mental disorder. His high opinion of himself and his own status never falters, but the real genius of the story is in the “gaps and black holes”(*1) that exist in between Poprishchin’s frequent spells of bluster and vitriol (and later, delusion), which allow us both to see that he really has been relegated to a “worm’s-eye view” of the world, and to consider what Gogol’s use of this narrative perspective may mean.

This story could be considered in terms of its importance to the development of a tradition within the short story – the medium of a lone male narrator filtering the struggles of the modern bureaucratic and industrial world through his own intense inner dramas was to become an essential mode of short fiction through the work of successors such as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett, and so on. Yet I feel it’s the singularity of Diary of a Madman, its unique style and content within its own era, that is its true value, and not how it relates to or has influenced subsequent other fictions.

This sequence of diary entries is somewhat of an anomaly among Gogol’s short stories, as it was his one and only foray into first-person narration. And it is radically different when compared with the short prose of the times. Pushkin’s great stories, notably Tales of Belkin, and the best work being produced in Britain and Europe from writers such as Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, was far more uniform/conventional in structure and far more easily digestible in terms of style and content than the work of Gogol. In Diary of a Madman, the narrator's statements are immediately ambiguous. It is initially unclear whether these should be interpreted as playful and jocular, or unintentionally humorous on account of his infantile hubris, or more seriously, the burgeoning effects of a form of mania(*2). In this world there are dogs that not only can speak, but can write articulate (and spiteful) letters to one another. There are diary entries with dates like the 86th Martober, and a narrator who proclaims himself the King of Spain and marches round the city in a homemade cape, before he is finally incarcerated and subjected to torturous treatments.

While swashbuckling tales of adventure and of the heroic figures of history were popular throughout Europe and the West, it’s clear that Gogol was working toward a very different end. Diary of a Madman has been viewed as a light-hearted farce, as a psychological profile of a man suffering acute mental illness, a satirical account of the St Petersburg bureaucracy, and an allegorical attack on the governance of Russia using a true “worm’s-eye” perspective. It is the bizarre meanderings of the Diary, its pervasive lack of certainty, the dark comedy of this character and his plight, and the way it all resolutely rejects simplistic interpretation, that draws me to read again and again, and has inspired this brief consideration of some of the story’s central elements.

The distinguishing feature of the first-person Gogolian narrative (as set against his third-person style) is that the reader does not have the input of a chatty and opinionated narrator, passing comment on characters and events (ie, the ‘skaz(*3) narrative style as found in all of Gogol’s most famous stories, including The Nose and The Overcoat). Therefore, where there would have been discussion, conjecture and bias via the skaz mode, there is now a tapestry of blankness, opacity, where actions are taken without any stimuli for them being noted at all. Without a mediating storyteller between the events and the reader, there is only a void of complete subjectivity. Consider this section from the diary entry of November 6th, early in the story:

“The head of the department was in a terrible mood. When I got to the office he called me in and took this line with me: 'Will you please tell me what your game is?' 'Why, nothing,' I answered. 'Are you sure? Think hard! You're past forty now, and it's time you had a bit more sense. Who do you think you are? Do you imagine I haven't heard about your tricks?'” p179

There is no reference in the diary to what precipitated the incident, what Poprishchin's understanding is of the 'tricks' mentioned, nor what his response to this confrontation was at the time. After the Head of Dept's short monologue ends, Poprishchin is immediately back in the present of the diary-writing act, retrospectively ridiculing him in return: 'the way he holds his head up and smothers his hair in pomade!' (p179), so the context to this remains a mystery.

Gogol later uses this technique even more effectively: “The cloak is ready now. Mavra screamed when I put it on.” (p192) This omission of any description or explication allows the reader to see the truth within that gap between the focalizing character's knowledge/perception and the 'actual' reality in the story-world. We can’t know what the cloak looks like due to the absence of any descriptive detail, and although the narrator remains oblivious, Mavra's reaction is an obvious and powerful signifier of the state that has been reached within this ‘real’ world, the world external to Poprishchin that frames and surrounds his diary. Jean-Paul Sartre stated that great fiction must be populated by 'minds that were half lucid and half overcast'(*4), which is a perfect description of our diary scribe, who is unwilling or unable (or both) to confront himself and his life.

Despite his ever-degrading mental state, in Poprishchin we do see fully-realized aspects of a character that seem all too human – the ego, the delusion, the suppressed desires, the hopes and the emotions. The reader doesn't know what Poprishchin looks like; if he has black or red whiskers on his face or whether he brushes his teeth five times a day or not (the types of aimless and anodyne characteristics scorned by Gogol in other stories(*5)), but these conventional tropes of prose characterization have been replaced by the close, concentrated rendering of a strange and fragmented consciousness. Gogol’s representation of his narrator’s thought-processes comes to function as an examination of the schizophrenic mind(*6):

“Not the least remarkable thing about Diary of a Madman’ is that this tale, told by a madman and a dog, contains some of Gogol’s most believable and real human beings, including the dogs.”(*7)

The dogs narrate the story briefly via Poprishchin copying the contents of letters supposedly written by them, in an attempt to maintain a comprehensive account of all that is befalling him. The voices and opinions of the dogs are of course aspects and projections of Poprishchin's mind; a mind that may be deteriorating rapidly but is doing so in the fashion of an imploding star, producing ever more fantastical entries.

Though, it is the closing section of 'Diary' that is the most significant moment of character revelation for Gogol. In the final entry (with its garbled nonsense of a date title) Poprishchin at last snaps into lucidity, realizing that he is being tortured and imprisoned, and calls for his mother:

“No, I haven't the strength to endure it any longer! Good God, what are they doing to me? They're pouring cold water over my head! They don't heed me, see me or listen to me. What have I done to them? Why do they torture me so? … Mother save your poor son! Shed a tear on his aching head! See how they're torturing him! … Mother, have pity on your poor little child!

And did you know that the Dhey of Algiers has a lump right under his nose?” p196

The reversion in the last line to Poprishchin’s comic lack of awareness, the essence of his madness, can be read as Gogol's rejection of fiction where the characters would 'learn' contrived, simplistic lessons through the events of the story. It is an understated and humorous means of asserting that man cannot easily be labelled, or understood, or ‘cured’, or defined. Poprishchin has been designated by his society as a madman, but his mind still functions, still flickers into a state that invites our horror and our empathy. He is continuing to have these moments of clarity which resist such straightforward classification or categorization, and serve to sustain both his character and the tragedy of his tale.

It could be argued that Gogol is in conflict with much of the fiction of the times in this particular regard, as the mid-19th century in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) was a period where characters were often found to be little more than caricatures with predictably consistent emotions and actions(*8). On a superficial level, such characters (think of those great Victorian novels) may appear to possess a verisimilitude and a roundedness that Poprishchin did not, but to be moved around a pre-conceived and formulaic plot like a chess-piece, to experience predictably logical modulations in mood and personality, this surely just refuses them the perspective and in the end, the humanity, that Gogol had Poprishchin attain.

The ending of the story also serves to reinforce the absence of a 'grand narrative', as there is no real significance to Poprishchin as a person, or to his existence. He is no 'hero' figure, his life does not flow with the resonance or gravitas of any grand design – he is a loner, making his way around a bureaucratic world, overlooked and useless, until death means only that a desk will now be occupied by a different clerk. What makes his life into a 'story' is only the fact that, for whatever reason, Poprishchin is sitting in his little room in St Petersburg, writing down his opinions and his interpretations, and how this facilitates a view into this most maladjusted and tragic character's mind. There isn't a kind and sagacious narrator charting and explaining his psychological decline; instead it is rendered on the page organically, for the reader to decode and analyse. If there is meaning to be deciphered from this account, it is perhaps in how Poprishchin struggles to understand how 'places' are conferred in this world, his uncertainty over how meaning or value can be attributed to human beings:

“And what if he is a gentleman of the court? It’s only a kind of distinction conferred on you, not something that you can see, or touch with your hands. A court chamberlain doesn’t have a third eye in the middle of his forehead, and his nose isn’t made of gold either. It’s just like mine or anyone else’s: he uses it to sneeze or sniff with, but not for eating or coughing. Several times I’ve tried to discover the reason for these differences. Why am I just a titular counsellor? Perhaps I’m really a count or a general and am merely imagining I’m a titular counsellor?” (p187)

It is this questioning of the meanings of titles, how words are applied to him in the real world and whether Poprishchin could actively force a change into 'being' something else entirely, that precipitates his mental capitulation in which, to my mind, is Gogol's funniest, most poignant, most brilliantly-constructed work.

A conclusion
With Diary of a Madman, Gogol may even have been undermining his narrative, deriding his own work as well as the very practice of literary fiction: “Let’s look at another page and see if we can find something with a bit more sense in it.” (p183) Even in his state of disarray and disintegration, it’s difficult to fathom that a diary-writer would actually convey such a thought in the written word. Is it a comment on the absurdity of Gogol’s own fiction? Or maybe pre-empting the opinions of his contemporary critics? Or is this a means of questioning the first-person narrative’s capacity to express the conceptual nature of thought?

As ever with Gogol’s writing, an answer cannot be presented with any real conviction. In Through Gogol’s Looking-Glass (1976), William Woodin Rowe stated that Gogol’s work “may be seen as an effort to reach beyond the limitations of words, thoughts, and normal conscious perception” (Rowe p185). Any reader venturing into the world of Poprishchin will duly leave these limitations behind – most likely somewhere between the eleventh diary entry (8th December), and the twelfth, dated 43rd March. ●

*1. Nabokov (1981), p57 – chapter entitled Nikolay Gogol
*2. In the opening paragraph of the story, the head of dept criticizes Poprishchin for his muddled written presentation. Considering his later diary dates, the mistakes in his work (retrospectively) indicate his decline began before the first diary entry of the story.
*3. “[skaz]… replaces the author with a fictional narrator who tells the story in his, the narrator's, own words. With respect to the telling of the story, skaz is conceived to be specifically oral in its stylistic organization…” Rancour-Laferriere 1978, p17
*4. Sartre 1986 [1948], p165
*5. The teeth-brushing detail appeared in The Nose, p132, in relation to a doctor who was present in the story for one page. Gogol was possibly poking fun at such arbitrary details constituting characterization in fiction
*6. Schizophrenia was not a named/defined psychological dysfunction until the early 20th century, although cases which fit the modern description were recorded in 1809: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/throughout-history-defining-schizophrenia-has-remained-challenge/
*7. Karlinsky 1992, p122
*8. The classic example of such a character is that of Dickens’ Mrs Micawber from David Copperfield (1850), as cited by James Wood in How Fiction Works (2008), p98

Erlich, V (1969) Gogol, Yale Uni Press
Gogol, N 'Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector, & Selected Stories', Penguin Classics 2005 edition
Karlinsky, S (1992) The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Uni Chicago Press
Nabokov, V (1981) Lectures on Russian Literature, Harcourt Books
Rancour-Laferriere, D (1978) Out from Under Gogol's Overcoat, Ardis Publishers
Rowe, WW (1976) Through Gogol's looking glass, New York Uni Press
Sartre, J P (1986 [1948]) What is Literature? , Methuen & Co Ltd
Wood, J (2008) How Fiction Works, Vintage

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