The Diary of a Madman Introduction
In A Nutshell
You know how people might look at a Van Gogh painting, think about how he went crazy and cut off his ear, and say, "Yeah, look at all those flipped-out colors. He must have already been a little unhinged when he painted that"? Well, it's really tempting to read "Diary of a Madman," and think, "Of course Nikolai Gogol did such a great job writing about a crazy guy. After all, he himself completely lost his mind at the end of his life." But in 1835, when this story was published, Gogol still seemed very far from being the guy who, just before he died, refused to eat, burned his manuscripts, and claimed the Devil made him do it. He was a young, sane, and hopeful writer from Ukraine who had just published a few stories, but his most famous story "The Nose" or his satirical play "The Government Inspector" were still in the works.
This story is written as a diary—it's the "Diary of a Madman" after all, right? And our diary-writing madman is called Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin. If you think the name sounds like a tongue-twister, you're not alone—even the eloquent dogs in this story in the story find it strange.
Yep, the dogs in this story can speak, read and write, and they do it much better than most government clerks. At least that's what Poprishchin thinks, and that's just the beginning of his whole trip into madness.
Poor Poprishchin, like many lowly government clerks toiling away in 19th-century Russia, is obsessed with social status and really cannot understand why people don't appreciate that he should be given a higher rank and more Twitter followers than he actually has. The story follows his gradual descent into insanity after a bunch of failures in life and love.
Since we're watching a mental crack-up, Shmoop's summary may seem as hard to follow as our madman's thinking. So you first might want to loosen your own hold on reality for a few minutes, read the diary, and enjoy the wild ride. If you're feeling a bit unglued afterward, don't worry—we promise to put you back together again.
Why Should I Care?
But for now, you just need to get a job and make some dough. So you get an office job pushing paper around. It's awful, it kills your soul, and you're sitting around bored, embittered, and really on the verge of insanity. You look around at all the drones you work with and think, "Ha! One day, I will get out of here! I'll make it big and write something about all this and the whole world will see how they underestimated my awesomeness!"
Well, that's kind of what happened to Gogol. He did manage to get out of his mind-numbing office jobs, publish a few stories about his homeland, and become an overnight sensation, with all the celebs wanting a piece of him.
But guess what? He didn't forget that half-crazed moment in the office. He sat down and wrote "The Diary of a Madman" (but not without doing some research first—check out our section on "Themes: Madness" for more on that). The story became another sensation. So read it and tell us: if we end up bored, unappreciated, embittered and half-crazy at some soul-crushing office job, is there light at the end of the tunnel? Or is going insane the only sane response to a crazy, oppressive world?