Gogol As St. Petersburg Essay, Research Paper
Within Diary of a Madman, Gogol attempts a tale of epic proportions, if only for the schizophrenic mumblings of a character so immersed in his own psychosis that he fails to realize that the entire world does not share his own delusions. Through numerous journal entries, Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin leads us throughout his world, from his mediocre job and crush on his employer’s daughter, to his encounters with dogs of higher intelligence, to the torments he undergoes at the hands of the Spanish “Inquisitor.” This is a tale of suffering; Poprishchin is just a pathetic, Walter Mitty-esque soul who’s only pleasure lies within his own imagination. When his only possible bridge to an escape from this world collapses, when his employer’s daughter Sophie rejects him, his world ceases to exist in the normal realm, and wholly resides through his journal entries and his subsequent trek to Spain to claim what is rightfully his throne. In the end, this “throne” turns out to be the other side of his mind.
This decline in consciousness begins with the very first entry. Even upon writing this initial entry, one questions the reasoning behind it: why does Poprishchin decide to begin keeping a journal? Has he perhaps always kept one, but just needed a new book, or has someone given him a gift that he feels he must utilize? One possibility is that Poprishchin decides that something has finally happened in his life that is worth recording for prosperity. The very first sentence of the first record, dated October 3, rather proves this theory, “Today the most extraordinary thing happened to me.”1 Poprishchin then begins to tell of the day’s events leading up to this “most extraordinary” event, showing to the reader that he is rather unlearned in the art of journal writing–he writes of every little insignificant detail that happened to him from when he overslept in the morning to when he finally spies upon Sophie, the daughter of the director of his civil service department.
Sophie meets up with two other women in the street, and each party has a dog in tow. Poprishchin is shocked to discover that as each female party greets the other, their respective dogs exchange pleasantries as well. Before the dogs part company, Sophie’s dog Madgy reminds the other dog Fidele of the letter that is currently in route to her. At this point Poprishchin is still fairly comfortable within his sanity, in that he realizes that he’s never heard of a correspondence between dogs before; however, he then goes off on a tangent relating to an English fish that swam out from the beach, said two indecipherable words, and swam back out to sea, leaving scientists and grammatists stumped for the past few years. It seems that whenever Sophie is mentioned in his writings, Poprishchin’s sanity begins to falter. She obviously seems to hold the thread that keeps his reason intact.
Poprishchin then vows to discover what all is behind these dogs’ correspondence, especially Madgy’s, if only for the fact that Sophie is her mistress and she might say something revealing regarding Poprishchin. When he eventually comes across Madgy’s letters, he reads them, only to discover that not only is Sophie in love with an Equerry, but she thinks very little of Poprishchin himself. This only exacerbates Poprishchin’s weakening grasp of reality, and he puts the news off to the fact that these dogs aren’t really writing the notes at all. “It’s the doing of that section head. For the man has taken a vow of irreconcilable hatred to me…”2 The section head has, in Porpishchin’s eyes, an inexplicable loathing of him, and this would be his way of getting back at Poprishchin. This idea is almost as ridiculous as the dogs actually conspiring against him. “…His incipient madness is not so much the actual source of the fantastic nature of the proceedings as it is a handy excuse for it.”3 Witnessing the correspondence between the two dogs does not give him mental problems; rather, his blossoming psychosis extends itself in the form of two communicating canines, thus hindering any chance of full psychological recovery; it is this act that drives him further insane.
The next major act which threatens his sanity, again brought on by the mention of happenings in Sophie’s life, is the discover of Sophie’s pending marriage plans to the Equerry. At first Poprishchin cannot believe it; however he quickly abandons this approach for a more direct, whining tactic. He begins wondering why he wasn’t born into a higher social class, where he would have possibly had a chance to court Sophie. For his next entry, instead of continuing along this track, Poprishchin completely changes the subject, and begins writing of the current events in the monarch-less Spain. He becomes obsessed with the fact that Spain has no leader, specifically no king to lead the poor country in its time of need. At first, this digression makes no sense at all, as it appears to be a rather topical worry for a typical government worker to feel. However, this obsession begins keeping him from his work, until it leads to the obvious conclusion–Poprishchin is in fact Spain’s long lost king. Now that Sophie is completely out of reach, so is his rational mind.
Poprishchin finally goes back to work, under the guise and attitude of the Spanish monarch, and is curious as to why people treat him no differently than before. He cannot comprehend that anyone would act towards a king with such disrespect, thrusting work before him, or insinuating that he should sign a document at the very smallest part of the lower edge of the page. Poprishchin decides to leave work, but not without one final good-bye to his rationale. Sophie was sitting quietly in her room when Poprishchin announced to her that “happiness beyond [your] wildest dreams [awaits you]…despite the ploys of our enemies, we would be united.”4 Essentially, he really is speaking directly to his sanity. The only way for Poprishchin and Sophie to ever meet again starting from scratch would either be through a heaven of sorts, or some kind of reincarnation that would allow for blank slates. For Poprishchin to regain his mind, he must die, and it appears that this is what happens.
In his final entry, Poprishchin is a broken man. He has made his pilgrimage to Spain and, worse than being just laughed at, he is given to a set of monastic psychiatrists of sorts to be dealt with. They shave his head, and proceed to torture him, from dousing his head with cold water to poking at him with a sharp stick. Poprishchin begins speaking as though an unwilling martyr, “They won’t hear me, won’t listen to me. What have I done to them? Why are they tormenting me? What do they want from me, wretch that I am? What can I give them? I have nothing.”5 Poprishchin seems to be praying to his mother at the end, begging to be saved and taken away. What is almost imagined is an instant lifting, so high that without warning, Poprishchin can suddenly see France, and even the quality of the French king’s nose. All thoughts of Sophie are gone, either tortured out or replaced with a more basic longing for survival. He has been once again rejoined with his sanity.
Poprishchin really is one of the most pathetic characters in literary history. He seems to exercise no control whatsoever over the course of his life, but choosing rather to not choose and let his life be carried out as it will. The chasm that exists between his life and his rational mind grows ever more by the journal entry until they are finally so far apart that they join up again, but on the other side. This other side could be a figurative other side, such as complete dementia, or even autistic genius; it could also mean the other side of life: the afterlife and everything that comes with it. Which ever rejoining actually occurs, one thing is for certain: this rejoining is only possible once Sophie is out of the way, so to speak. For Poprishchin to ever have a chance at sanity, he must give up his one true, obsessive love.