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Poprishchin is the eponymous "madman," and he delivers by going from relatively sane to completely insane during the course of the story, and very believably so. In fact, his character's madness is so convincing that it's considered to be one of the earliest and most accurate depictions of schizophrenia in literature. He hallucinates about dogs speaking (1.2) and writing each other letters (8.1), and later has grandiose delusions about becoming the king of Spain (12.1).
But wait, there's more. He's got lots of other classic symptoms of schizophrenia: he becomes anxious, withdrawn, distracted, and irritable (11.1); he becomes paranoid and thinks he is being persecuted: "Oh, he's a sly customer, Polignac! He's sworn to injure me as long as I live. And so he persecutes me, persecutes me" (18.1). He starts deriving hidden meanings from words:
I discovered that China and Spain are absolutely one and the same land, and it is only out of ignorance that they are considered separate countries. I advise everyone purposely to write Spain on a piece of paper, and it will come out China. (17.1)
On the other hand, Poprishchin doesn't always seem totally crazy, even after he starts to think he is the king of Spain. He can still write. He keeps trying to make sense out of what is happening. He pleads to be saved. But then the last sentence of the story is complete nonsense, so he must be crazy, right?
Well, it's a paradox. As the smart guys at Harvard put it, Propishchin is using rational logic to explain his madness. The story might be called "The Diary of a Madman," and Poprishchin is a very believable madman, but Gogol still seems to want us to think hard about this one. Just don't end up in the asylum trying to sort this one out, okay?
Even if you decide he is mad, we feel that just calling him a madman and leaving it at that is still kind of unfair. That would make him a lot more two-dimensional than he actually is. He has so many more qualities than just being crazy.
To begin with, he is also foolish. By foolish, we mean he's kind of silly and ridiculous—common sense is definitely not his strong point. He says, for example:
Our director must be a very intelligent man. His whole study is filled with bookcases. I read the titles of some of the books: it's all learning, such learning as our kinds can't even come close to: all in French, or in German. And to look at his face: pah, such importance shines in his eyes! (2.1)
But he can't even talk to the guy and actually find out for himself what is in the guy's supposedly intelligent mind.
News flash: the director is probably not that intelligent. He probably put some foreign books in his office to impress people, but judging from what the dogs say about him—"[Papa] is a very strange man. He's silent most of the time. Speaks very rarely" (8.12)—he's probably just an ambitious but not exceptionally bright guy. Even the dogs can see that he's not all that special.
Another great example: he thinks that sappy verses like "I was gone from her an hour, / Yet to me it seemed a year; Life itself turned me sour, / And the future dark and drear" make for great poetry (2.1).
And he continues to hope that all his pencil sharpening (6.1) will get him a promotion despite the fact that his section chief despises him and thinks his work is terrible (5.1). We are starting to pity the fool.
And that's not all. Being foolish isn't Poprishchin's only awesome quality. He also truly loves mankind in all its variety and has sweet and wonderful things to say about everyone. Umm, not really. Go ahead and impress your friends by describing our guy as a "misanthrope."
If you're French, for example, he can offer you "a good birching" (2.1). If you're Jewish, you're "a hoary devil" and "the last Judgment would come sooner" than when "you would hand out any money" (1.1). If you're an artisan, you're "vile" and you "produce so much soot and smoke in [your] workshop that it's impossible for a gentleman to walk there" (7.1). If you're a woman, you are "a perfidious being" who is "in love with the devil" (13.1). If you're a Finnish woman, you are "stupid" and "always cleaning at the wrong moment" (7.1). Heartwarming!
If you're looking for a reason as to why he might be such a curmudgeon, well, we don't really get a reason. There's no back-story. We don't know what kind of a kid Poprishchin was or who beat him up on the playground or ridiculed or ignored him to make him become so nasty, bitter, and insecure. But we can tell you what kind of effect his nastiness produces: it makes him really hard to identify with or pity during most of the story. So the nastiness helps out quite a bit with the whole satire thing. We don't feel so guilty laughing at him. Except maybe at the end…
Yes, he can be nasty and foolish and crazy, but you gotta feel some pathos for the homely, awkward, defenseless guy at the office who's the butt of everyone's jokes. And who wouldn't have some sympathy for poor Poprishchin when he's cringing in the corner of a dark, cold, cell, afraid and confused, waiting for the next beating? And crying for his mother? Excuse us for a moment while we pull ourselves together.
Now that we've looked at some of his personal qualities, let's explain some facts. Poprishchin is a titular councillor. According to the imperial Russian table of ranks, that technically makes him a member of the upper-class and a nobleman. But it's not hereditary nobility in his case, so it doesn't mean much (other than allowing him to have contempt for everyone lower in rank and class than him). To be a true nobleman who could pass on his nobility, he would have to be promoted to just one rank higher. He thinks that promotion might get Sophie's attention.
But being late to the office (1.1), missing days (11.1), doing sloppy work (1.1) and having your supervisor hate you (5.1) probably means: fat chance. Poprishchin probably realizes at some level that there's no climbing up that ladder, because he eventually creates his own reality and promotes himself all the way up to King. It's no coincidence that he chooses that as his delusion.
Yep, that's what Poprishchin is. That should explain why he feels "utterly lost" when he runs into Sophie and has to hide from her (1.2). Or why he wants to say to Sophie, "Don't punish me, but if it is your will to punish me, punish me with Your Excellency's own hand" (2.1). Creepy.
Speaking of creepy, he also stalks her: "In the evening, wrapped in my overcoat, I went to Her Excellency's front gates and waited for a long time to see whether she'd come out for a carriage, to have one more look—but no, she didn't come out" (2.1). He is desperate to get her attention but because he has zero social skills, the relationship can't get off the ground.
Anyway, he loses Sophie to Teplov, and given his insanity, foolishness, nastiness and lack of career prospects or income, he's not going to be updating his relationship status anytime soon.
So with Poprishchin, Gogol might have created an incredibly memorable madman, but that's not all. When you take the "mad" part away, what you end up with is a great satire of your average Russian low-level bureaucrat of the time: foolish, hateful, obsessed with social status and insecure in his masculinity.
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