Study Guide

The Diary of a Madman Madness

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"No, Fidele, you shouldn't think so," I myself saw Medji say it, "I've been bow-wow! I've been bow-wow-wow! Very sick." Ah you, pup. I confess, I was very surprised to hear her speak in human language. But later, when I'd thought it over properly, I at once ceased to be surprised. Actually, there have already been many such examples in the world. They say in England a fish surfaced who spoke a couple of words in such a strange language that scholars have already spent three years trying to define them and still haven't found anything out. I also read in the papers about two cows that came to a grocer's and asked for a pound of tea. (1.2)

So this is the first time Poprishchin is saying something obviously crazy. If you were Gogol writing this story, how would you make sure the people reading it believed the crazy guy? Well, Gogol himself makes the crazy guy say something totally sensible like "I confess, I was very surprised" and then shows him trying to make sense of it (but in a really silly way). Notice the paradox here: how rationally he's discussing a clearly crazy idea. Hey, have you heard the one about the two cows who walked into a grocer's?

I confess, lately I had begun sometimes to hear and see things no one had ever seen or heard before. (1.3)

Poprishchin might be hallucinating about dogs speaking, but that doesn't mean he doesn't realize he's kind of… different. The problem is that he would rather believe the hallucinations than worry about being different. And they're one of the reasons why psychiatrists think Gogol did a really good job making Poprishchin seem convincingly mad. Check out "Brain Snacks" for more on that.

I've long suspected dogs of being much smarter than people; I was even certain they could speak, but there was only some kind of stubbornness in them. They're extraordinary politicians: they notice every human step. (6.2)

Come on now, 'fess up: sometimes, when you look into the eyes of your uncle's dog Duke, you also wonder if he's actually smarter than all of us. If he could speak, what would he say, you wonder. We all have thoughts like this sometimes, and there's nothing unusual about that.

Poprishchin doesn't stop there, though. When he starts to hallucinate and doesn't know what to make of it, he remembers these very usual suspicions, and then starts to use them to rationalize his hallucinations.

Dogs actually do notice every human step. But Poprishchin observes this and sees a secret meaning: the dogs are psyching us out.

At that moment the dog ran in, barking; I wanted to seize her, but she, vile thing, almost seized me by the nose with her teeth. I saw her basket in the corner, however. Aha, just what I need! I went over to it, rummaged in the straw of the wooden box, and, to my great satisfaction, pulled out a small bundle of little papers. (7.1)

We're still close to the beginning of the story here. Poprishchin had just one crazy episode before this, but we still had a tiny glimmer of hope somewhere in our heads that he might go back to being normal. But then we get to this part and he claims he just found a bundle of letters in the dog's box. And there go our hopes for his sanity.

But then, wait, he's describing the whole thing in that totally matter of fact way again. So maybe it is actually happening. Is this all real or is he crazy? Gogol, are you playing with us?

I suppose the girl took me for a madman, because she was extremely frightened. (7.1)

Great job noticing that, huh? He just burst into a woman's apartment saying he needs a word with her dog, rummaged through the dog's basket, took some stuff, got bitten, and stormed out without saying anything. And this is what he has to say about it? Well, at least he acknowledges she might have taken him for a madman.

But what's really clear here is that he doesn't think he's acting that strangely. The woman is frightened but he thinks that's only because she's stupid. (Remember how he calls her stupid a few lines before this?)

Extremely uneven style. Shows at once that it wasn't written by a man. Begins properly, but ends with some dogginess. (8.17)

Applying literary analysis to imaginary letters seems pretty crazy.

I was just about to go to the office, but various reasons and reflections held me back. I couldn't get these Spanish affairs out of my head. […] I confess, these events so crushed and shook me that I was decidedly unable to busy myself with anything all day long. Mavra observed to me that I was extremely distracted at the table. And, indeed, it seems I absentmindedly threw two plates on the floor, which proceeded to break. (11.1)

Gogol is being spot on again about Poprishchin's mental breakdown. Schizophrenia isn't just about hallucinations. It also makes you withdrawn and preoccupied with your thoughts—sometimes so much so that the "real" world seems unreal. Take that last sentence: he says, "it seems" he threw two plates on the floor. He didn't notice himself doing it, but Mavra later told him he did it. And then, he says, "which proceeded to break," as if he himself didn't have any role to play in it.

The Year 2000, 43rd of April: This day—is a day of the greatest solemnity! Spain has a king. He has been found. I am that king. Only this very day did I learn of it. I confess, it came to me suddenly in a flash of lightning. I don't understand how I could have thought and imagined that I was a titular councillor. How could such a wild notion enter my head? It's a good thing no one thought of putting me in an insane asylum. (12.1)

This is the first entry in the diary with a crazy date. This is Gogol's way of showing that Poprishchin is really crazy at this point, so that we don't go thinking that he actually becomes the king of Spain. And then look at the way Poprishchin breaks the news: first, "he has been found." Passive voice means we don't know who found the king.

And then, "I learn[ed] of it." Okay, so we assume that means someone found the king and then told Poprishchin about it, right? But then he says, "I confess, it came to me suddenly in a flash of lightning." Riiiiight. So, that's when we get the truth: Poprishchin himself did the "finding."

Gogol writes so brilliantly from the perspective of a madman. And that last mention of an insane asylum: do you think Gogol is doing some foreshadowing or is he just having some fun?

Strolled incognito on Nevsky Prospect. His Majesty the emperor drove by. The whole city took their hats off, and I did, too; however, I didn't let on that I was the king of Spain. I considered it unsuitable to reveal myself right there in front of everybody; because, first of all, I have to present myself at court. The only thing holding me up is that I still don't have royal attire. (14.1)

So those wheels of logic are still turning in Poprishchin's head. But the fact that he is being logical doesn't mean he's connected to reality. Get that? Gogol seems to be showing something really important here: logic does not equal truth.

Being left alone, I decided to occupy myself with state affairs. 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 to purposely to write Spain on a piece of paper, and it will come out China. (17.1)

Cool fact: This one sort of works if you write "Spain" in the Cyrillic alphabet (Испания), and then read it as if you were reading something in the Latin alphabet. Also remember to squint a little. You don't see it? Well, we won't insist on this one. But there's something else to notice here: Poprishchin playing with words and extracting meanings that aren't there, another common symptom of schizophrenia.

[The moon] is made by a lame cooper, and one can see that the fool understands nothing about the moon. He used tarred rope and a quantity of cheap olive oil, and that's why there's a terrible stench all over the earth, so that you have to hold your nose. And that's why the moon itself is such a delicate sphere that people can't live on it, and now only noses live there. And for the same reason, we can't see our own noses, for they're all in the moon. (17.1)

Look at how these sentences connect to one another in a chain of reasoning with connectors like "that's why," "so that," again "that's why," "for the same reason," and "for" (as in because). Poprishchin is again trying to be logical in some way, but his logic has nothing to do with reality. Many people suffering from schizophrenia are able to construct very complicated logical arguments to explain pretty bizarre delusional beliefs.

Today the grand inquisitor came to my room, but, hearing his footsteps from far off, I hid under a chair. Seeing I wasn't there, he began calling out. First he shouted, "Poprishchin!" but I didn't say a word. Then: "Aksenty Ivanovich! Titular councillor! Nobleman!" I kept silent. "Ferdinand VIII, king of Spain!" I wanted to poke my head out, but then thought, "No, brother, you're not going to hoodwink me! We know you: you'll pour cold water on my head again." Nevertheless, he saw me and chased me out from under the chair with his stick. (19.1)

Poprishchin might be mad, but he is smart enough to know that he shouldn't respond to this guy (who is probably an evil asylum guard). And then we get a chilling dose of reality: the mentally ill used to get beaten up and tortured in asylums.

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