The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces

Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun chronicles a man’s descent to insanity or madness, as claimed by both the Madman himself and the society he lived in. As contextualized in the story, the Madman has already recovered from this ‘illness’ that befell him, and has since moved on and became a functional member of the society again, even taking up an “official post” or new function in the government.

The main focus or ‘preoccupation’ of the Madman in the story was his realization that in his society, ‘people are being eaten.’ There was no significant event that could have triggered the onset of the Madman’s downward spiral to insanity; but he suddenly realized that in the thirty (30) years that he has lived, he had been “in the dark.” ‘Being in the dark in the story’ literally meant that he suddenly observed his community as having fearful looks at him, which confirmed his initial suspicions that his fellowmen are capable of betraying, killing and eating the flesh of other people.

The idea of “humans eating other humans” is a confluence of different events happening and that have occurred in the Madman’s community. First, the Madman shared that his community, specifically neighbors, are not entirely foreign to the idea of social injustice. He mentioned that people he talked to and dealt with in the past 30 years “have been pilloried by the magistrate, slapped in the face by the local gentry, had their wives taken away by bailiffs… or their parents driven to suicide” (Chapter 3, par. 2). It also contextualized and gave the readers an idea about the social climate the Madman lived in at the time of his ‘unusual affliction.’ It highlighted the social unrest of the community in general, but this unrest has been an alien concept to the Madman until he had the realization of that humans are capable of eating other people at all, and thus began his descent to madness.

However, his descent to madness itself cannot just be taken literally. To the Madman’s own opinion, in addition to his family and community, he is indeed becoming insane. But contextualized socio-politically, the Madman’s madness is a rare social disease, a period of ‘enlightenment’ wherein the individual goes beyond his self and society and begins to question his existence and the realities he had been dealing with in the past years. Indeed, it cannot be helped that this is Lu Xun’s point in developing the story: humanity has progressed to such a degree that there occurred moral disintegration to a degree that humans are able and are willing to “eat each other.” As in the words of Lu Xun, “[w]anting to eat men, at the same time afraid of being eaten themselves, they all look at each other with the deepest suspicion…” (Chapter IX, par. 1).

This moral disintegration is a reality that the Madman tried to understand and perhaps, tried to escape (explaining his decision to succumb to insanity). What seemed to be madness to people is actually a moment of transcendence for the Madmen, an ascent towards a higher level of understanding. However, in the eyes of his society, the Madman is simply insane, and that his realizations about himself and his community are simply too much for one individual to think or contemplate about. Unfortunately, the Madman eventually gave up and recovered from his insanity. Ironically, the very system and society that he once questioned became his support when he was “normal” again. The Madman’s moment of enlightenment was gone, replaced once again by the ‘blindness’ to social injustice in the society and “human-eat-human” existence of people in it.


Lu Xun. Diary of a Madman. (1997). In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Expanded Edition in One Volume. Mack, M. (Ed.). NY: WW Norton Company.

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