Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Readers unfamiliar with Russian history may easily miss a crucial dimension of Anton Chekhov’s story. It is set in the period after the Great Reforms of the 1860’s. These reforms included freeing the serf farmers from virtual enslavement, followed by a long, complex, and often chaotic process of redistribution of land. Most of Chekhov’s fiction and drama is set in this period before the Revolution of 1917, which corresponds with his life span. The main features of this period were social ferment and disorderly economic change, and one major change was dislocation. Many rural people were forced to move, and among them were many peasants who went to cities to find work.

Iona is one such peasant who has come with his horse to St. Petersburg to drive a cab. His wife has died. His son, Kuzma, has followed him to take up the same work, and his daughter, Anisya, remains in the country. Iona, then, is an exile in the city. He comes from an old and comparatively rich peasant culture but now finds himself alienated and lost in a city that offers him none of the social support that his background has led him to expect. What culture he finds in St. Petersburg cannot meet his needs. The story is about Iona’s need to grieve. He is miserable because his son has died, and he needs someone to listen as he shapes this event into a story that will give it an orderly place in his experience. In the lost community from which Iona comes, the proper way to grieve...

(The entire section is 589 words.)