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Foolishness and Folly
It's true, our work is noble, it's clean everywhere, as you never see it in the provincial government: the tables are mahogany, and the superiors address each formally. Yes, I confess, if it weren't for the nobility of the work, I'd long since have quit the department. (1.1)
To begin with, tables being mahogany and the superiors addressing each other formally didn't really make the work more noble and clean. It just made it seem noble and clean. But then, mistaking style for substance is a classic sign of foolishness.
And Poprishchin's comment that he would have long since quit the department if it weren't for the nobility of the work is also ridiculous. He doesn't have any money. What would he have rather done, eat cabbage and work in some sooty workshop?
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)
Um, the director is probably not that intelligent. If we remember what Medji the dog has to say about the director—"[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 man. He might have just put some foreign books in his office to seem smart. So that makes Poprishchin seem doubly foolish and naïve for thinking the director is brilliant. And it's not like Poprishchin has ever talked to the man and actually found out whether he is smart or not.
(Disturbing insight: Shmoop has just taken a dog's word over Poprishchin's.)
I read the little Bee. What fools these Frenchmen are! So, what is it they want? By God, I'd take the lot of them and give them a good birching! I also read a very pleasant portrayal of a ball there, described by a Kursk landowner. Kursk landowners are good writers. (2.1)
The little Bee, aka The Northern Bee, was a popular political and literary magazine that Gogol thought was a sign of bad taste. Here, Poprishchin doesn't just read this magazine, but to add insult to injury (or foolishness to more foolishness), he makes really idiotic comments about what he reads. Give the French a good birching? Kursk landowners are good writers? It's actually really funny.
She looked at me, at the books, and dropped her handkerchief. I rushed headlong, slipped on the cursed parquet, almost smashed my nose, nevertheless kept my balance and picked up the handkerchief. Heavens, what a handkerchief! […] She thanked me and just barely smiled, so that her sugary lips scarcely moved, and after that she left. (2.1)
Poprishchin is so desperate for some attention from Sophie that he makes himself act and look totally ridiculous. Sophie takes advantage of it to get a good laugh at his expense.
At home I lay in bed most of the time. Then I copied out some very nice verses: "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." Must be Pushkin's writing. (2.1)
These verses are totally sappy, not "very nice." On top of that, they belong not to the great Pushkin, but to a second rate writer. That makes Poprishchin look pretty ridiculous, doesn't it?
Furious with the section chief. When I came to the office, he called me over and started talking to me like this: "Well, pray tell me, what are you up to?" "What am I up to? Why, nothing," I replied. "Well, think a little better! You're over forty—it's time you got smart. What are you dreaming of? Do you think I don't know all your pranks? You're dangling after the director's daughter! Well, take a look at yourself, only think, what are you? You're a zero, nothing more. You haven't got a kopeck to your name. Just look at yourself in the mirror, how can you even think of it!" (3.1)
In case we had any doubts about what Poprishchin looks like in the eyes of his superiors, here we get to find out directly. According to the section chief, nothing could be more foolish than Poprishchin's thinking he has a chance with Sophie.
I like going to the theater. As soon as I have a penny in my pocket, I can't keep myself from going. But there are such pigs among our fellow clerks: they decidedly will not go to the theater, the clods, unless you give them a free ticket. (4.1)
Before insulting his fellow clerks for their lack of interest in culture, Poprishchin should realize that vaudeville isn't exactly highbrow theater.
Today I sat in our director's study and sharpened twenty-three pens for him […] He likes very much having more pens. Oh, what a head that must be! Quite silent, but in his head, I think, he ponders everything. I wish I knew what he thinks about most; what's cooking in that head? […] I've meant several times to strike up a conversation with His Excellency, only devil take it, my tongue wouldn't obey me. I'd just say it was cold or warm outside, and be decidedly unable to say anything else. (6.1)
Sharpening pens was one of the usual tasks of a minor Russian clerk, and it sometimes did help him get ahead, but because Poprishchin doesn't do his job properly, sharpening twenty-three pens isn't really going to get him anywhere. And discussing the weather is probably the world's greatest cliché about foolish small-talk.
It seems to me that if she likes that kammerjunker, she'll soon be liking the clerk who sits in Papa's study. Ah, ma chère, if you only knew how ugly he is. A perfect turtle in a sack [...] He has the strangest name. He always sits and sharpens pens. The hair on his head looks very much like hay. Papa always sends him out instead of a servant. (8.22-24)
Ouch! Even the dogs make fun of Poprishchin. That's sad for him, but good for us. These comments, along with the ones the section chief makes, give us hints about how others see him. He's ugly, even the Russians think he has a strange name, all he does is sharpen pens, and he gets treated like a servant even though he is supposed to be a nobleman.
There are strange doings in Spain. I couldn't even make them out properly. They write that the throne is vacant and that the officials are in a difficult position about the selection of an heir, which is causing disturbances. This seems terribly strange to me. How can a throne be vacant? They say some doña should ascend the throne. A doña cannot ascend the throne. Simply cannot. There should be king on a throne. But, they say, there is no king. It cannot be that there was no king. A state cannot be without a king. (10.1)
Two things are going on here in Poprishchin's reaction to the news in Spain. First, he takes hierarchies so dead seriously that he cannot think about a throne without a king, which is of course something that frequently happens in monarchies after a monarch dies without a suitable heir.
Second, he thinks a woman cannot ascend the throne. Well, he would have been correct three years before this event. Before 1830, women could not really ascend the Spanish throne. But in 1830, Ferdinand VI looked at his life and thought: "Hmm, I have two daughters, and a horrible brother. How do I make sure my brother doesn't get the throne when I die?" So he changed the law. When he died three years later, a doña (his daughter Isabella) did in fact ascend the throne. When Poprishchin claims a woman cannot ascend the throne, he's just being his typical misogynistic self.
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