Study Guide

The Diary of a Madman

By Nikolai Gogol

The Diary of a Madman Introduction

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.

Wait, what?

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.

What is The Diary of a Madman About and Why Should I Care?

Say you're finishing college, and hope to make it as…well, you tell us: the newest SNL memberHBO show creatorLiterary star?

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?

The Diary of a Madman Resources

Websites

What those Folks at Harvard Are Saying About It
If you were taking a course at Harvard titled "Writing Across Cultures," this is what you would find in your course-wiki entry on "The Diary of a Madman."

Movie or TV Productions

TV-Adaptation of an Off-Broadway Production
This one is from 1964, folks.

Short Film Adaptation, Part 1 of 3
The first part of a short film of Colin McLaren's adaptation of "The Diary of a Madman."

Articles and Interviews

Geoffrey Rush is a Madman (Actually, He Just Plays One on Stage)
A New York Times review of the stage adaptation starring Geoffrey Rush. Spoiler: the reviewer says it's "entertaining," but not "truly scary" enough for his taste. Funny, that's what your cousin Ned said about Paranormal Activity 4.

Is Gogol Russian or Ukrainian (or Both)?
Even though Gogol is thought of as one of the best-known writers of Russian literature, he was actually born in Ukraine. That means the Russians and the Ukrainians are still fighting over him.

Video

Excerpt from a Stage Adaptation
Were you picturing Poprishchin as a redhead? Well, here's a ginger Geoffrey Rush playing Poprishchin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on the 86th of Martober, 2011.

Audio

1963 Recording by Kenneth Williams
You shouldn't miss the chance to hear your favorite quotes in Williams' incredibly cool British accent. The legendary actor reads the whole story here.

Images

Poprishchin, painted in
An oil painting of Poprishchin by well-known Russian painter Ilya Repin.

Poprishchin, sketched out
A sketch of Poprishchin by Ilya Repin.

Gogol, looking all noble
A painting of Gogol by F. Moller.