The setting for the entire story is the drawing room of Olga Ivanovna Irnina, a woman who is estranged from her husband and is currently involved with Nikolay Ilyich Belyaev. The story opens with a brief description of Belyaev: He is a “well-fed,” “pink young man of about thirty-two” years of age. He has three principal activities in life: He is a “St. Petersburg landlord,” he is “very fond of the race-course,” and he has a “liaison” with Olga.
This opening establishes that, as a landlord, Belyaev lives from the labor of others; that, as a racing addict, he has not closed the gap between his mental and his chronological age; and that, as a paramour, he prefers a liaison with Olga to marriage.
The epithets “well-fed” and “pink” applied to Belyaev are especially unflattering inasmuch as in Anton Chekhov’s works the color pink, when referring to a man, suggests the image of a soft, pampered, and effeminate individual, although the expression “well-fed” is an unmistakable sign of pettiness and vulgarity or, more precisely, what the Russians call poshlost.
The narrator observes that Belyaev looks on his liaison with Olga as “a long and tedious romance” that he has “spun out,” adding parenthetically that this is Belyaev’s “own phrase.” Here a more serious flaw in Belyaev’s character is exposed: He has been insincere about the nature of his relationship with Olga. Moreover, as the words “to use his own phrase” indicate, he has obviously made their “tedious romance” the subject of discussion with others, though not with her.
The inauthenticity of their relationship—its prosaic nature—is further underscored when Belyaev refers to it metaphorically as a romance, the first pages of which—“pages of interest and inspiration”—had been read long ago, leaving only pages containing neither novelty nor interest. Significantly, the word “love” does not appear in the description of even the initial phase of this romance; only interest and novelty are of primary importance to Belyaev. The irony is fully intended when the narrator, after presenting such an unflattering picture of Belyaev, refers to him as “my hero.”
As the story opens, Belyaev has come to visit Olga and, not having found her at home, lies down on the drawing-room couch to wait for her. He is greeted by Olga’s son, Alyosha, who is lying on a divan in the same room but whom Belyaev does not even notice. This incident betrays Belyaev’s treatment of the boy in the past and foreshadows the treatment that he will accord him later.
In describing Alyosha, the narrator notes that the boy is “about eight years old, well built, well looked after, dressed up like a picture in a velvet jacket and long black stockings.” Every detail bespeaks Alyosha’s excellent material well-being. However, here too, there seems to be a lack of something—an emphasis on the boy’s material well-being perhaps at the expense of his spiritual welfare. The single most disturbing detail is his being “dressed up like a picture.” He may appear to be “well cared for” but, as is eventually revealed, he is treated as an object—a pawn in a game whose principal players include his separated parents and Belyaev.
A close inspection of the description of Belyaev and Alyosha reveals considerable similarity between the grown-up man and the child: Each is a pampered, spoiled individual; the epithets “well fed” and “pink,” used to describe the former, echo the epithets “well looked after” and “well built,” used to describe the latter. Similarly, Belyaev’s playing the races with his income from tenants finds its parallel in Alyosha’s fascination with the circus and acrobats, which his mother’s money enables him to see. Even the minor detail that both of them are reclining in the drawing room at the opening of the story underscores their basic similarity. Alyosha strives to behave and talk like an adult but remains a child whose impressions of adults and their standards of morality and conduct are naïve and incomplete. For his part, Belyaev, who is...
(The entire section is 1697 words.)