Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like many of Chekhov’s stories, “The Chemist’s Wife” deals with loneliness. Even the title is appropriate; Mme Tchernomordik has no name, either to her husband or to the officers who flirt with her. She is simply an appendage of the chemist. When Obtyosov returns to the shop, perhaps on a dare, he hopes to steal a few words, a kiss, perhaps something more, if the husband remains asleep. However, to him it is only a casual adventure, the stuff of military boasts. Seeing the older, ugly man to whom the pretty, young woman is married, he and the doctor have sensed an opportunity. Their approach to her, however, is purely a matter of whim and chance. They happen to be passing the shop after a party; they think of her. Her husband is asleep, and she answers the door. While they are with her, the conversation rambles, leading to no certain conclusion. Only Obtyosov’s repeated comment that the chemist is asleep suggests the possibility of seduction. However, even his return is marked by irresolution; he and the doctor whisper at length before Obtyosov turns back toward the chemist’s shop; on reaching the shop, the officer hesitates, passing back and forth in front of the door before finally ringing the bell. When by chance the chemist wakens and answers the summons, Obtyosov is easily defeated. When he throws away the lozenges he has been forced to purchase, he is throwing away the whim, the passing fancy for the chemist’s wife. It really does not matter much to Obtyosov, nor, indeed, would have a brief relationship with her; that would have been quite as easy to discard....

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