(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Chemist’s Wife” is told in the third person through the consciousness of the title character. The main action of the story occurs within the mind and the emotions of the chemist’s wife, who progresses from sleeplessness and boredom to the realization that she is truly unhappy. As in so many Anton Chekhov stories, there is very little external action; the action that is attempted is thwarted.

The story begins late at night, near dawn, in a little Russian town. The chemist is snoring contentedly, in a sleep so deep that nothing could awaken him, certainly not the restlessness of his young wife. Mme Tchernomordik cannot sleep; she does not know why. She feels close to tears; she does not know why.

Just at daybreak two officers appear, talking casually as they pass the chemist’s shop. Mme Tchernomordik hears them speculating as to whether she loves her husband and imagining how she looks in bed. On impulse, Obtyosov suggests that they ring the chemist’s bell and make a purchase; perhaps, he says, they will see the wife.

Now the mood of the chemist’s wife changes. She puts on a dress and hurries to admit the officers, who buy some lozenges. During brief conversation, Mme Tchernomordik keeps her eyes on the slender, rosy Obtyosov. Attempting to prolong the slight adventure, the doctor orders soda, and Obtyosov thinks of seltzer-water. When the doctor asks for red wine to go into the seltzer-water, the men have an excuse to sit down at the counter, and the little flirtation progresses. Soon the chemist’s wife is quite happy, and she even drinks some of the wine. At last the doctor suggests that the men return to camp. As Obtyosov pays the reckoning, he once again mentions the fact that the chemist is asleep.

When the officers leave, Mme Tchernomordik watches them walk a little distance, then stop and whisper. Obtyosov returns and rings the bell. This time, however, the chemist answers the door and sells the lozenges. Again, the chemist’s wife watches; Obtyosov throws away the package of lozenges, the doctor joins him, and the two men then walk away. Angrily, Mme Tchernomordik tells her husband that she is unhappy and bursts into tears. He merely asks her to put away fourpence that he left on the counter and falls asleep again.