Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Anton Chekhov, considered by most students of Russian literature to be the foremost Russian writer of short stories, often uses exaggeration to point out a human foible. Olenka’s total inability to think, speak, and form opinions of her own is rarely, if ever, met in this world, but there is a kernel of truth in this caricature. Chekhov wishes to poke fun at people who rely on others to form opinions instead of forming their own, people who prefer to follow the crowd rather than question and probe. In a number of stories, the author uses the same technique with different types of examples to make the same point—too many people are prisoners of conformity and prefer to eschew critical thinking. Olenka’s complete lack of self-worth is evident as she goes through life repeating the opinions of other people, even a ten-year-old schoolboy.
The theme of love is also present in this story. The reader can find a pattern in Chekhov’s stories that concern love, a pattern that may reflect the skeptical and world-weary author’s own feelings about the subject. Love rarely works out to the satisfaction of the parties involved. Love is usually illusory. Either the love is not reciprocated, or two people who love each other are not aware of the other’s love through a lack of communication, or two people marry and become unhappy. In this story love seems to be successful, but fate intervenes to remove the two husbands and one lover. Olenka does not live happily ever after with a husband but is forced to transfer her enormous capacity for love to a child. Although the reader leaves Olenka at the end of the story in a very happy and contented state, it is also clear that the child will grow up and go his own way, once again leaving Olenka alone and probably very unhappy.