ivantohelpyou via email  · ivantohelpyou on Twitter · ivantohelpyou on LinkedIn

"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter IV: Gogol's Ornamentation


Gogol’s Arabesques contains three short stories, each with considerable narrative complexity. “The Portrait” not only tells a story within a frame story, but that inner story prominently features a literal frame for a painting, creating convergence between the narrative structure and the content of the work. “Nevsky Prospect” sets the scene with an extended description of the road throughout the day, and then follows the parallel fates of Lieutenant Pigorov and the artist Piskarev in a manner that invites comparison.

 “Diary of a Madman” stands apart primarily in its use of the diary genre, the only appearance of the device in all of Gogol’s writing. [67] Through the diary form, the diarist “dominates the story as no other Gogolian hero does,” the content becoming “psychological, rather than social or moral, in focus, almost unique in Gogol’s work.” [68] It is also the only consistent first-person narration in Gogol’s fiction. [69]  Although, as with Hoffmann, the talking-dog story does not provide a clear-cut example of narrative complexity exceeding all others in the collection, the narrative devices in “Diary of a Madman” are unique both within Arabesques and Gogol’s entire body of work.

Waszink describes the workings of the diary novel, in which “the fictional hero is both the writer and the reader of his own diary entries,” [70] and how “a lapse of time is suggested between the moment the described event takes place and the moment of writing.” [71] We are to imagine that at the end of his workday copying documents, and then later at the asylum, the diarist carefully records his imagined experiences and thoughts. Furthermore, his copyist’s hand writes out the dog’s letters interspersed with his own exegesis and a madman’s marginalia. In terms of literary genre, the diary form is usually a document written for one’s future self; but this diary contains letters purportedly written from one dog to another. The monologue contains one side of a dialogue. Maguire interprets this diary as “a dialogic monologue,” [72] with the letters invented as a way for the intensely isolated Poprishchin to converse with himself. He writes:

The diary form has served Poprishchin well, enabling him to conceal his thoughts and actions (since diaries are intensely private documents), yet to reveal them with impunity, since he does not write for an audience. (Gogol never tells us how this document fell into his hands, or how it acquired a title that was obviously not supplied by Poprishchin himself.) It has also given him a way of creating other version of himself, with which he can talk and interact. [73]

By refracting his own personality, Poprishchin gives voice to his inner desires. The first letter offers the sentiment: “It seems to me that to share one’s ideas, one’s feelings, and one’s impressions with others is one of the greatest blessings on earth.” [74]   Maguire identifies this as one of “the clichés of the philistine” [75] shared by Poprishchin and the dog Madgie, yet at the same time it also contributes to the pathos of the story, that the diarist is so isolated that he must project his need to be heard onto an animal desperate for contact with the outside world. Just as Fido is anxious about receiving Madgie’s next letter, Poprishchin too seeks input from the outside world despite his inability to connect with others, perusing the papers and going to the theater whenever he has a coin in his pocket. [76]

The presentation of the madman’s diary is done without forewarning or explanation within the context of the collection. This is unlike Hoffmann’s Fantasy Pieces, which encapsulates stories within discovered manuscripts assembled as the “Notes from a Diary of a Traveling Romantic” sent to the author; or with a the frame story such as “The Deceitful Marriage,” which Cervantes used to introduce and explain the existence of “The Dogs’ Colloquy.”

The work nevertheless appeared within a larger frame in Arabesques, the 1835 collection in which it originally appeared. Arabesques includes thirteen essays, two novel fragments (omitted from the English translation), [77] and three short stories including “Diary of a Madman.” Arabesques is far from being what Gogol claims in the “Preface” to be random oddities collected and apologetically presented to the reading public, and Melissa Frazier writes that “textual evidence suggests all the articles were composed in the years 1829-33 and most probably with Arabesques in mind.” [78] By this, reasons Frazier, the genre of Arabesques intentionally followed Friedrich Schlegel’s artistic concept of “Kunstchaos, an artistic and artificial disorder.” [79]

In Romantic aesthetics, the arabesque reinterprets an ornamental tradition in Islamic art as a poetic genre “marked by either heterogeneity, fragmentariness, or both.” [80] The original meaning of the arabesque was that of “a specific genre of painting deriving from the Islamic prohibition of representative art, and so a primarily abstract design or ornament where flora and sometimes the outlines of fauna are employed to create an involved pattern of interlaced lines.” [81] Goethe, in a 1789 article, generalized the concept for European readers as an ornamental frame “turned both inwards and outwards, integrating the central painting with itself and out with the wall.” [82] Later, the idea was reinvented by Friedrich Schlegel as the instantiation of an ideal genre. Frazier writes: “The novel, the letter, the dialogue and the aphorism share a certain heterogeneity and fragmentariness, and that Schlegel seeks a real poetic genre with these particular qualities is because of the imaginary genre which is his ultimate goal.” [83] Gogol’s Arabesques was constructed with this heterogeneity and fragmentariness in mind, Frazier argues, and we can certainly identify both qualities in the collection as a whole and on the level of individual works.

From a narratological perspective, the most distinctive elements of “Diary of a Madman” are the explorations of narrative time through the diary and letter formats. Although the diary form breaks up the narrative into single days, the stories told within those days contain analepses, prolepses and other digressions. The first entry begins with a prolepsis (“Today an extraordinary event occurred.” [84] ) as if it is going to tell a straightforward singulative account, but then it quickly shifts into iterative descriptions of recurring events, such as that of the “sour face” of the section chief, the parsimony of the cashier, and the general characteristics of civil servants. This is the writing style of the madman—an inability to persist in a single method of storytelling without focusing and expanding upon various elements of the story in an observational vein. These observations frame the story of his real-world comings and goings in the manner of an arabesque frame around a painting. The digressions represent the arabesque ornamentation surrounding the singulative depictions of action such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, spying a woman and her dog, or following a dog and its owner to their home. Within the level of the story, the narrative itself exemplifies the art of the arabesque, the iterative framing the singulative, the ornamentation enhancing the story.

Although the diary form conditions the reader to expect a daily report, it is soon evident that Poprishchin writes only in manic bursts, his first two entries of October followed by five entries during one week in November, three entries in December, and the remaining entries positioned outside of accepted definitions of date and time. In the first edition, the story was labeled as “Scraps from the Notes of a Madman,” [85] which indicates that we are perusing a fragment of a larger diary that exists outside of the frame of the story. In according with the fragmentariness of the arabesque, the diary is incomplete. These ellipses of narrative duration contrast with Poprishchin’s frozen moments, those observational arabesques surrounding a single narrated event. Poprishchin stands outside the shop, listening to Madgie and Fido in the rain, and his inner monologue freezes the brief, imagined exchange so that he can summon forth references to other talking animals and his impressions of what he sees. From month to month and day to day, the text alternates between vivid moments and temporal gaps.

Gogol’s dogs lack the worldliness of Berganza and Scipio, adventuring only from one room of the house to the next, promenading in the city streets only with their owners. No doubt, they would be counted among the “insipid, puny parasites without any heroic character” that were “heartily despised” by the Traveling Romantic. [86] Indeed, Madgie knows “nothing worse than giving dogs little balls of bread,” [87] which puts her in direct opposition to Hoffmann’s Berganza, who graciously accepts an uneaten roll from the Traveling Romantic as a token of friendship. [88]

Even if dogs can write, they cannot provide food for the soul. With “Diary of a Madman,” Gogol has transformed the talking dog into a writing dog. Instead of brave survivors in a harsh world, Gogol’s dogs are letter-writers on “trifles,” household intrigues, and food. As such, Gogol’s dogs invert the talking-dog genre as pioneered by Cervantes and Hoffmann, themselves parodies and syntheses of existing genres. Yet on the level of structure, these talking dogs function similarly. Gogol’s Madgie provides a glimpse into the workings of a household, just as did the Berganzas of Cervantes and Hoffmann. All three authors use the dog as a way to avoid shifting the narrative mood to an externally-focalized, third-person narrator. By doing so, the complex narrative devices draw attention to the means by which stories are transmitted, a canine vector acting as a substitute for a detached authorial voice.

Poprishchin reads the dogs’ letters and finds them written correctly, but uneven in style and hopelessly doggish. He interjects: “I demand food – such as nourishes and delights my soul; and instead I get these trifles.” Dina Khapaeva suggests this outburst represents “an abrupt change of style and lexicon…and most important, a theme of literary polemic, which appears nowhere else in the diary since it is, like the literary style, profoundly alien to Poprishchin’s idiom and thought processes.” [89] The talking dogs can write, but while they are masters of the technical craft of placing words and sentences on a page to form letters as a chemist might mix potions, they lack the spirit of humanity, individuality and mystery that Poprishchin craves.

Just as the two little dogs contrast with the two Berganzas, the routine-clad, status-obsessed, furtive diarist Poprischin represents an opposite number to the Traveling Romantic. Hoffmann’s narrator is a poetic spirit with a finely developed artistic sensibility, and a prolific, faithful correspondent to his eager editor. They both attend the theater, but where the Traveling Romantic takes in Don Juan, for Poprishchin it is the Russian fool “Filatka,” vaudeville, and comedians, [90] the type of entertainment that Gogol describes in Nevsky Prospect as something that “greatly offends [the] fastidious taste” of middle-class officers. [91]

Yet even within Poprishchin there exists the spark of a higher artistic sensibility within his madness; or considering the restrictive circumstances of his life spent sharpening quills instead of using them to write, perhaps the repression of this latent artistic sensibility lies at the heart of his madness.  “Diary of a Madman” depicts a frustrated writer without an audience, seeking to achieve through invented status what he cannot achieve through words. He ends his story in an insane asylum tormented by a Grand Inquisitor, but even under extreme duress, he writes his final diary entry, retaining the possibility for transcendence through self-expression.





[67] Dina Khapaeva, “Unfinished Experiments on the Reader,” Russian Studies in Literature 46.2 (Spring 2010): 76.

[68] Richard F. Gustafson, “The Suffering Usurper: Gogol’s Diary of a Madman,” The Slavic and East European Journal 9.3 (Autumn, 1965): 268.

[69] Robert Maguire, Exploring Gogol (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1994) 50.

[70] Paul M. Waszink, “The King Knocks: Writers and Readers in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman,” Russian Literature 41 (1997): 62.

[71] Waszink 63.

[72] Maguire 53.

[73] Maguire 66.

[74] Nikolai Gogol, The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, ed. Leonard J. Kent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) 247.

[75] Maguire 53.

[76] Gogol 244.

[77] Melissa Frazier, Frames of the Imagination: Gogol’s Arabesques and the Romantic Question of Genre (New York: Peter Lang, 2000) 3.

[78] Frazier 23-24.

[79] Frazier 24.

[80] Frazier 8.

[81] Melissa Frazier, “Space and Genre in Gogol’s Arabeski,” The Slavic and East European Journal 43.3 (Autumn, 1999): 458

[82] Frazier, “Space and Genre” 457.

[83] Frazier, Frames of the Imagination 7.

[84] Gogol 239.

[85] Waszink 82.

[86] Hoffmann 66.

[87] Gogol 247

[88] Hoffmann 68.

[89] Khapaeva 77.

[90] Gogol 244.

[91] Gogol 227.