Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme of this story is Yegorushka’s awakening to the complex and often harsh world beyond childhood. The boundless steppe is Chekhov’s metaphor for life, and Yegorushka’s journey through a portion of it is an important stage in his growing up. If Chekhov’s steppe is life, it must have the same features: vast, incomprehensible, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful, often monotonous, and, most of all, desolate. Loneliness and isolation are the abiding essence of the steppe. The immensity of the landscape, the vastness of the sky, the infinite remoteness of the stars, all contribute to humanity’s sense of its own insignificance, the despair and horror, the solitariness that awaits in the grave. Yegorushka is unable to establish rapport with any of his companions. Closely akin to the isolation theme is that of death. Although the boy cannot yet encompass the possibility of his own death, the subject is ever-present. Yegorushka encounters evil for the first time in the quarrelsome and combative Dymov. Even more frighteningly, he recognizes his own powerlessness in its presence. Dymov haunts his fevered dreams.

Yegorushka’s education is social as well as moral, for he meets a wide variety of types ranging from the pathetic, disfigured, former singer Yemelyan to the ruthless, almost legendary provincial tycoon, Varlamov. The theme of social prejudice is also evoked in the encounter with the family of the Jewish innkeeper, especially the obsessed brother Solomon.

At journey’s end, Yegorushka has had many new experiences. He remains a nine-year-old, but one who has painfully surmounted his first rite of passage. A new stage of his journey, his school years in Kiev, lies before him. He looks forward to them with anxiety, for the school of the steppe has taught him something of the nature of life.