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Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” Essay

After reading Lu Xun and Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, it is apparent that the writing style and the choice of themes treated in Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” are influenced by Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, but Lu Xun presents the story in a more penetrating and elaborate way to accentuate the themes. Before revealing how Lu Xun incorporates Gogol’s ideas into his work, we first examine the contacts between Lu Xun and Gogol.

Lu Xun’s writing career began from his indignation and poignancy toward China’s underdevelopment and her corrupting tradition. Therefore, he advocated people to learn from foreign countries. He also read many foreign authors’ works and introduced them to Chinese readers. Among these authors, Gogol was the one whom he admired most. Starting from February of 1935, he spent almost a year to translate Gogol’s work ” A Specter’s Spirit” ( °èË) and later translated his other works “A Nose”(*@ q) and “Spying on Gogol’s mind” (0/00Êoe÷– “æV). Besides, later when Lu Xun commented on his early works, he said, “the theme of “Diary of a Madman” is to expose the vice in Chinese tradition. Its impact is broader than Gogol’s indignation and more concrete than Nietzsche’s remote and inscrutable superman.”(from the prologue of the second series of the New Chinese Literature) From these evidences, though they had not met each other, Gogol’s works indeed had great impact on him especially on his early works.

Though both stories are written in diary form, the concept of time and the narrative methods are presented differently. In Gogol’s story, time is expressed in dates. The dates become less understandable when time proceeds and the date in the last entry becomes upside down and inside out. The disorder of the dates reveals the madman’s increasing insanity and so indicates he further detaches from the reality and recoils into his own fantasy. Yet in Lu Xun’s story, the concept of time is indicated by the moonlight instead of dates and the revelation of his psychological state is reflected from his perception of the moonlight. The previous treatment presents the madman’s state in a more dramatic way while the later in a more romantic way. With respect to the narrative form, Gogol’s whole story is a collection of diary entries and in the last one, we know the madman is institutionalized and still severely suffered from the mental disorder as he regards himself as “the Dey of Algiers” (Gogol, p. 259), a deposed king.

Slightly different from Gogol’s form, Lu Xun’s story composes of a short narration and a series of diary. A man’s narration at the beginning mentions the madman “recovered and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post”(Lu, p. 7) This narration opens up the ending as we do not know whether the “madman” has returned to his previous life, conforming to the tradition or has made up other planning after an agonizing appeal to “save the children” (p. 18). The opened-up ending leaves more room for readers to contemplate the madman’s psychology and his degree of madness.

Also, they both used madmen to express their themes, but still there is discrepancy between the two madmen’s images. Monologues poured out by Gogol’s madman are sentimental and sometimes even hysterical but highly imaginative. When his-self image as a gentleman is thwarted in reality, he is capable to soothe himself with psychology victory over the defeats. Besides, he also composes the dog’s letters and expresses his own consciousness through the dog’s voice. Its narration reflects the reality like his conjecture of his Excellency’s courtly life, his public image and the impending wedding between his targeted lover and a court chamberlain. Yet, he suppresses his consciousness by denying the dog’s narration. After the denial, he falls into an utter madness and loses all traces of consciousness of the reality, which is only brought back to him briefly after intolerable physical suffering in the institution.

Opposite to Gogol’story, Lu Xun’s story contains not only his monologues but also his conversations with his elder brother and a young man. This gives us the sense that he is not totally isolated from the reality as he still maintains interaction with other people. Moreover, Lu Xun endows his madman with stronger reasoning power. His fear to be “eaten” is understandable and his accusation against his elder brother’s conspiracy to “eat” him is also sound when we understand the extensive use of symbols employed in the story. This literary technique not only visualizes spiritual corruption into physical suffering but also raises the aesthetic value of Lu Xun’s story.

Both stories intend to expose social vile and injustice through the victimization of the madmen, but Lu Xun’s work explores the themes more thoroughly and provides remedies for the corrupting tradition. It is because Lu Xun’s madman deeply grudges against the contamination of the tradition and his stance is never reconciling with it while Gogol’s madman is not so aware of the cause of social injustice and still maintains the hierarchical concept that limits his further exploration. In Gogol’s story, the main theme is to expose social hierarchy that suffocates social mobility and propagates the idea of inequality. Upper class enjoys all privileges while lower class is deprived of all possibilities to change their fates. In the story, though the protagonist is quite knowledgeable as he knows German and reads quite a lot, he can only work as a clerk and “sharpen quills for his Excellency.”(Gogol, p. 40) The society offers no chance for him to display his talent.

Frustrated by the reality, he can only satisfy himself in his fantasy and thus becomes a madman. It is the social inequality that drives him crazy. In Lu Xun’s work, the theme is to expose the faults in the tradition. Thus, Lu Xun’s madman is very conscious to reveal details of the faults in the tradition. Feudalistic beliefs like social hierarchy and class conflict are mentioned but Confucian beliefs are the most criticized as they uphold and strengthen feudalism. Therefore Confucianism’s essences, virtue and morality, are undermined into superficial hypocrisy disguising underlying barbarity. What’s more, as Confucian teachings emphasize on the difference between humans and animals, the madman undermines dignitaries’ servants into dogs to blur the boundary to attack Confucianism. Yet, among all Confucian beliefs, the most deep-rooted belief upholding the entire Chinese tradition stems from patriarchy.

Therefore, criticisms on it are also the most severe. It is his elder brother who “stigmatizes him as a madman.”(Lu, p. 16) and “eats” his younger sister. This incident may allude to foot binding. In Chinese society, women are the underprivileged group and the physical deprivation of their mobility embodies the suppression on women. His elder brother is the patriarch who implements and propagates the tradition in the family and oppresses people from reforming it. By this way, people continue unconscious of its corruption and pass the tradition from one generation to the next generation. Considering people’s ignorance, the madman persuades people releasing themselves from the “eating” tradition but fails. Thus, he realizes he can only place his hope on the new generation who has not been poisoned by Confucianism to remedy the ingrained tradition and liberate people’s minds.

Comparing these two works, we can find some traces of Gogol’s influence in Lu Xun’s story. Yet, Lu Xun exhibited his creativity and infused new elements into the story to make it not merely an imitation but a pioneering piece of writing in Chinese literary history.


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