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“Diary of a Madman”

Russian author Nikolay Gogol was one of the most important 19th-century Russian realist writers. His short story “Diary of a Madman” (1835) was narrated by a lowly, downtrodden clerk caught up in an impersonal bureaucratic machine under Czar Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855. Tormented by his love for Mavra, a girl of a higher status, and his own seemingly unalterable social and economic position, the clerk eventually goes insane. In this excerpt, an excellent example of Gogol’s comic writing, the clerk obsesses on the successor to Spain’s King Ferdinand VII, who died in 1833, and eventually imagines that he is the king of Spain.

From “Diary of a Madman”

By Nikolay Gogol


December 5th
I spent the whole morning reading the papers. Strange things are happening in Spain. I read that the throne has been left vacant and that the nobility are having a great deal of trouble choosing an heir, with the result that there’s a lot of civil commotion. This strikes me as very strange. They’re saying some “donna” must succeed to the throne. But she can’t succeed to the throne: that’s impossible. A king must inherit the throne. And they say there’s no king anyway. But there must be a king. There can’t be a government without one. There’s a king all right, but he’s hiding in some obscure place. He must be somewhere, but is forced to stay in hiding for family reasons, or perhaps because he’s in danger from some foreign country, such as France. Or there may be another explanation.

December 8th
I was about to go to the office but various reasons and considerations held me back. I couldn’t get that Spanish business out of my head. How could a woman inherit the throne? They wouldn’t allow it. Firstly, England wouldn’t stand for it. And what’s more, it would affect the whole of European policy: the Austrian Emperor, our Tsar,…I must confess, these events shook me up so much I couldn’t put my mind to anything all day. Mavra pointed out that I was very absent-minded during supper. And, in fact, in a fit of distraction I threw two plates on to the floor, and they broke immediately. After dinner I walked along a street that led downhill. Discovered nothing very edifying. Afterwards I lay on my bed for a long time and pondered the Spanish question.

April 43rd, 2000
Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. Frankly, it all came to me in a flash. I cannot understand how I could even think or imagine for one moment I was only a titular councillor. I can’t explain how such a ridiculous idea ever entered my head. Anyway, I’m rather pleased no one’s thought of having me put away yet. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight.

I don’t really understand why, but before this revelation everything was enveloped in a kind of mist. And the whole reason for this, as I see it, is that people are under the misapprehension that the human brain is situated in the head: nothing could be further from the truth. It is carried by the wind from the Caspian Sea.

The first thing I did was to tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously never set eyes on the King of Spain before. However, I managed to calm her and with a few kind words tried to convince her that the new sovereign was well-disposed towards her and that I wasn’t at all annoyed because she sometimes made a mess of my shoes.

But what can you expect from the common herd? You just can’t converse with them about the higher things in life. Mavra was frightened because she was sure all kings of Spain looked like Philip II. But I explained that there was no resemblance between me and Philip and that I didn’t have a single Capuchin friar under my sway…Didn’t go to the office today. To hell with them! No, my friends, you won’t tempt me now. I’ve had enough of copying out your filthy documents!

                                                                              ***

Source: Gogol, Nikolay. Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories. Translated by Wilkes, Ronald. Penguin Books, 1972.

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