Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The economy of Anton Chekhov’s style is a model for writers. The first paragraph identifies Vanka and establishes his plight in just ten quick lines. Grandad leaps to life in two sentences that fix his appearance and his habits. However, Chekhov’s genius for minute observation shows up perhaps most wonderfully in his characterization of the dogs. Kashtanka is old and resigned to a dog’s life, but the clever Eel is a treacherous thief animated by “the most Jesuitical spite and malice.” Eel is such a romantic, satanic figure of life in the servants’ quarters that Chekhov concludes the story with Eel pacing the floor, wagging his tail within Vanka’s dream.

The brief descriptive passages achieve genuine poetry. The desperate Vanka, struggling with his “rusty nib” and his “crumpled sheet of paper,” imagines the village on Christmas Eve: The air is still, “transparent” and “fresh” on a dark night; above the village with its white roofs, the sky is sprinkled with stars and the Milky Way stands out as clearly “as if newly scrubbed for the holiday and polished with snow.” When Vanka visits the forest with Grandad to get a Christmas tree, the young fir trees coated with frost stand “motionless, waiting to see which one of them was to die.”

The pathos of this story is so sharp that its depiction of childhood loneliness does not fade over time.