Discuss the story "Misery" and the characters of Iona and the horse.

In Chekhov's "Misery," Iona is a humble, kindly character who is desperate for human companionship as he grieves for his son. The passengers on his sledge see him only as a means to an end, meaning that he finds the nearest approach to humanity in his horse, to whom he pours out his sorrow at the end of the story.

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Anton Chekhov's "Misery" is aptly titled, as Iona, the protagonist, has an exceptionally hard and lonely existence. His everyday life is difficult enough, waiting around in the freezing weather to be cheated and abused by the passengers on his sledge. At this time, however, this misery is accompanied by a sharper grief: for the death of his son. Even under such a heavy burden, Iona still has to go out to work, but he is clearly desperate to talk about his sadness. The other characters in the story do not see Iona as a fellow human being—almost breaking under the weight of his sadness—but merely as a means of getting from one place to another as quickly as possible.

Iona is portrayed as an amiable and gentle soul. He does not protest at the rudeness of his passengers, treating them with respect and referring to them as "merry gentlemen," even as they curse at him. His good nature makes his plight all the more pitiful. It is ironic that the nearest approach he can find to human sympathy comes not from a human being but from the only character worse off than he is, the horse who has to pull the sledge he drives through the snow. Although the horse cannot understand, he finds something like sympathy in her tranquil presence and some catharsis in talking to her.

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Grief strikes all men at some time in their lives.  The stages of grief are similar for everyone; however, some people hold their feelings inside. There are those who need to share their feelings.  This is true of the protagonist in the story “Misery” by Anton Chekhov.  Iona Potapov wants and needs to talk to someone. Chekhov addresses the indifference that man can show to one another. 

The setting of the story is winter in Russia.  It is extremely cold with snow falling. The narration is third person point of view with an omniscient limited narrator.

Iona is elderly. He has recently suffered a grievous loss.  After a brief illness, his son has died.  Iona is beside himself with sorrow. There is no one to talk with about this tragedy, and no one with which to share his misery.  Iona "thirsts for speech."

He has been sitting in his sleigh with his little, white horse. As the story progresses, he does gain several fares.  None of which are interested in talking to the driver as each hurries to his destination. 

  • The first is an officer.  He does show some interest in the story of the death of the driver’s son.

      'H’m! What did he die of?’

        Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says

      ‘Who can tell! I must have been from fever…He lay      three days in the hospital and then he died…God’s will.’

That is the end of the discussion.  Iona is left with nothing to satisfy his longing to share his story.

  • The second fare is three young men. One of them is a hunchback.  He is particularly sarcastic and bitter about life.  The sustenance he receives from them is “We all have to die.”
  • The third encounter is a house porter.  He tells the driver to go on and leave him alone.

After this encounter, Iona gives up and returns to the yard for the evening. 

Iona sits in the cab room.  He thirsts for human conversation.  His son has been dead for a week.  He has been unable to talk to anyone about it.  He has a daughter who lives in the country, yet he has not been able to see her either. There is a young cabby in the room; however, he is thirsty and too sleepy to have any interest in the old man.

Finally, Iona decides to go outside and see about his horse.  When he sees her, she is munching on hay.  He begins to talk to her.  It as though she understands that he must talk about his son’s death. Iona is reduced to experiencing some relief in the warm, animal companionship of his horse.

The old man feels some release that the horse listens, eats, and breathes on him as he talks to her.  Having lost faith in man, he is warmed by his old friend, the horse, with whom he shares his life. Psychologically, his sorrow cannot be contained any longer.  He rushes to talk to anyone or anything.  He finds comfort being able to communicate even with an animal. 

The horse symbolizes what man will not give Iona: attention, reflection, and love.  This the horse willingly gives to the old man.  Sadly, humanity turns away from the old man who needs the attention.  The animal does not. 

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