As I wait for an ever so slow book to arrive in the mail, I decided to pick up some of Chekhov’s stories. The first nine of the stories in my copy are some of his very brief social commentary/comic pieces written before 1890 (when he really got his groove in the short story realm). I decided to split these first nine stories up into three parts, each focusing on three stories. This first part will focus on The Death of a Government Clerk (1883), Small Fry (1885), and The Huntsman (1885). Also, even though I rate mostly everything, these works are so short and so different than his normal output that I will not rate here. Instead, I’ll say if I recommend reading the individual stories (although in truth, they’re probably all worth reading).
The Death of a Government Clerk Analysis
This very early story is just over two pages long. It focuses on Cherviakov, a government clerk at a play who accidentally sneezes on a general sitting in front of him. He persistently and anxiously pesters the general at the play and over the next following days as he apologizes incessantly. Eventually, after apologizing too much, the general scolds him harshly and the clerk goes home and dies.
The story is likely not meant to be taken entirely seriously, as it is a brief, hilarious comic piece, but it somehow still captures much of the anxious repetitive thoughts that go on in one’s head after an embarrassing moment. “Should I apologize? Did they think I meant it? What will they think of me after seeing that? Are they still thinking about it? Should I apologize again?” Chekhov also seems to be commenting on social class. Without the vast difference in stature between these two characters, the clerk likely wouldn’t have driven himself to his own deathbed. The story helps illuminate what may have been a normal mindset in the pre-revolutionary days of Russia. But even now, it seems all too familiar to someone who has a similarly embarrassing moment.
Recommended Reading: Yes
Small Fry Analysis:
Another brief story about a clerk, Nevyrazimov, but this time, instead of the anxiety that comes with an embarrassing moment, it is about the anxiety, anger, and sadness that come with an impoverished hopeless life. The clerk is writing a letter, faking his enthusiasm, as he listens to the church bells outside. He longs for the days where he was able to relish in a better lifestyle:
The need for a new, better life wrung his heart with unbearable anguish… He wanted something he used to experience in childhood: the family circle, the festive face of his relatives, the white table cloth, light, warmth… He remembered a warm bed, a Stanislas, new boots, a uniform with no holes in the elbows…
Again, the story is taking place in pre-revolution Russia, where the plight of the worker was pervasive. No matter how hard or loyally one worked, if you were not born in the aristocracy, there was no hope of moving up. The story expertly captures these feelings of hopelessness. In the end, Nevyrazimov kills the cockroach (grasshopper in some translations) in his room and feels sudden satisfaction. But even this is only momentary, as he likely knows that after this elation is over, life will move on in the same way.
Recommended Reading: YES
The Huntsman Analysis:
Chekhov’s story about gender roles in 19th-century Russia. A husband and wife cross each other’s path in a forest. They discuss their lives, him as a free hunter able to go around and do as he pleases, and she stuck on the farm doing woman’s work. Again it’s quite a humorous story, as this time it’s not even revealed that they are married until partway through the story. Instead, they seem like one time lovers speaking of a moment long past. They discuss how he once beat her and yet she still wants him back, yet all he does is give her a rouble and is once again on his way. The story helps enlighten the hardships women are willing to go through to live a normal life, and how a man may struggle, but clearly has an easier path.
Recommended Reading: Yes
These first three stories are all worth reading, but truly the only one I would strongly recommend so far would be Small Fry. It has powerful writing and great social commentary, whereas the other two are simpler and feel a bit aged. Nonetheless, I still have yet to ever read a Chekhov story I would recommend against reading. The next three I’ll read will be The Malefactor (1885), Panikhida (1886), and Anyuta (1886).
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