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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Diary of a Madman

by Gogol, Nikolai

on 26/05/2010

Price: £2.99

Published: Apr 2007

Format: paperback

No Pages: 96 pages


ISBN-13: 9780486452357

Category: Fiction

Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman describes the gradual mental disintegration of the narrator; we are submerged into the distorted reality of the pathetic Poprishchin who goes from humble document copier to imaginary king of Spain throughout the course of the story. Gogol gives us a fascinating insight into the steady progression of psychosis, from an initial vague delusional mood:

“I couldn’t get that Spanish business out of my head. How could a woman inherit the throne? They wouldn’t allow it… I must confess these events shook me up so much I couldn’t put my mind to anything else all day.”


Soon Poprishchin becomes convinced that he is the rightful heir to the Spanish throne:

“Today is a day of 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.”


Further to the eloquently written prose, the ingenious use of increasingly bizarre neologisms in the dates of each entry (such as “86th Martober”) allows us to gauge the diarist’s progressive loss of contact with reality. When Poprishchin is finally admitted to an asylum, an experience which he interprets to be an inquisition by the Spanish, we are called on to provide meaning and coherence to the narrative that he himself cannot offer.


Diary of a Madman delivers a comprehensive ‘case history’ of illness and treatment from the patient’s viewpoint and allows us to better comprehend the lived experience of psychosis. As we meet Poprishchin before he deteriorates into insanity, we are given an insight into the prodrome of symptoms that appears to precede his psychotic episode. Indeed, as clinicians often only see patients at fragmented crisis points in their lives, narratives such as this can give an insight into the continuity and totality of patient’s lives that we would otherwise be unaware of.



Reviewed by Kate Burley, fifth year medical student, University of Birmingham


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