Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Anton Chekhov’s major theme in this, as in many others of his works, is the isolation of the individual within himself and his often vain attempts to break out of his shell and establish meaningful contact with others. Yakov’s anti-Semitism is but a particular example of this more general malaise. Yakov finally succeeds in reaching out to others and does so in the form of his music: first to his archenemy Rothschild through his death song and the gift of his violin, and then through Rothschild, who brings Yakov’s harrowing melody to many others. Art is the means by which the two men, both deeply unattractive characters, surmount their isolation and manifest their shared humanity.

The theme of Yakov’s losses is also important. “Losses” is the most frequently used word in the story, and through repetition it assumes symbolic meaning, referring to far more than Yakov’s hypothetical financial setbacks. He is obsessed with his so-called losses. They have poisoned his life, and he has lost the capacity for love and simple pleasures (apart from his music). In fact, the death of his wife is the sole real loss that Yakov suffers, and it is only with this that he begins to reflect on his profitless, ill-spent life and his ill-treatment of his wife and Rothschild. This realization, especially in the face of his own imminent death, leads to his remorse and his final haunting melody. The final irony is that it is the Jew Rothschild rather than Yakov himself who profits and recoups the coffin maker’s “losses.”