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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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. ●