Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many stories dramatize a young person’s loss of innocence, but few embody the theme in the misery of a child so young as Vanka. Only the waifs in Charles Dickens’s novels come readily to mind. Vanka’s plight is especially bewildering and painful for him because of the earlier good years with his mother and grandfather and others on the estate who petted him. As Vanka sits alone on Christmas Eve, watching for his tormentors to return and struggling to find words that will move his Grandad to action, he is a picture of forlornness.

Although this story has only four pages, it creates with swift characterizations a scene that goes far beyond a lonely boy’s composing of a letter that will surely never reach its addressee. A whole social world opens up in “Vanka,” with its rigid class system, its family life, and its cruel indifference to poor children. Much can be read into the narrative’s silence about Vanka’s father. Vanka describes himself as an orphan, but the story says nothing about his father’s fate. Did he die by farm accident? By typhus? The unnamed father remains hidden, just one among the thousands who died early and left no trace behind except in their progeny.

Vanka’s touching love for his grandfather, as well as his fond memory of bringing home a Christmas tree, suggests a kindly Grandad. Why then did the old man let the child be sent to such a cruel master? The most generous answer would be that a child with no...

(The entire section is 491 words.)