Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story appeared as the first of three works published by Chekhov in 1898 and linked through a number of structural and thematic elements. One such element is the use of the “frame tale” narrative technique, in which one character relates a personal anecdote to another character. This technique enabled Chekhov to provide the reader with some commentary on the narrated event through the reactions of the person who listens to the tale. Here, Ivan Ivanych’s indignation works to underscore the seriousness of the negative portrait of Belikov sketched by Burkin. Also evident in the frame of the narrative are deftly nuanced descriptions of nature.

After Burkin concludes his story, Chekhov focuses on the nocturnal landscape, creating a palpable aura of peace and calm that contrasts with the grim vision of human weakness and vice evoked earlier. As it does so often in Chekhov’s work, the world of nature offers a mute commentary on human life. The freedom and spaciousness found in the natural world expose by contrast the constriction and pettiness of everyday life.

Throughout this tale, one notes Chekhov’s characteristic reliance on symbolic or telling detail. It is ironic that Belikov is a teacher of Greek—a dead language—and that his favorite Greek word is anthropos (man); he himself is completely cut off from the world of humanity. It is also telling that Belikov shows a predilection for wrapping himself and his possessions in cases and boxes. Not only does this indicate his essential insularity, but it also foreshadows his ultimate resting place: a coffin. Chekhov’s entire narrative is constructed from such meaningful details as these.