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"Misery" by Anton Chekhov has a straightforward plot. Iona Potapov, the protagonist of “Misery,” is a cab driver in St. Petersburg whose only son has died the week before. Throughout the story he is surrounded by people, but he remains genuinely alone. He “thirsts” for the opportunity to talk about his grief, but no one will share the burden of his misery. Each of his cab fares brushes off his overtures for conversation. The hunchbacked young man, who one might think would be more compassionate to a fellow person’s affliction, is particularly cruel; after he hears Iona’s news, he strikes the cabby. Iona’s fellow lodgers offer no comfort either; a young cabman falls asleep when Iona tries to discuss his loss. Unable to sleep, the tormented Iona goes out to the stable. In Chekhov’s famous ending, Iona tells his mare the story of his misery.
A significant question to consider in Chekhov’s story is whether the final scene of “Misery” is purely pathetic or whether it contains an element of affirmation. The pathetic element is easy to see: poor Iona can find no human compassion for his suffering. In the populous city of St. Petersburg, he is utterly alone. Yet there is something nobly humane in Iona’s decision to go to the stable to visit his mare. Iona’s pain has not diminished his own compassion. Earlier that night, when he realized how little he had earned from his lonely night’s work, he worried about his horse as well as himself. When he tells the mare they cannot afford oats, he speaks in the first person plural: “wewill eat hay” (our italics). In speaking of his grief to his horse, he affirms his human need to articulate his own suffering. “Now, suppose you had a little colt,” he tells it.
Chekhov does not turn Iona into a saint, and he does not turn the other characters into villains. The passengers are unsympathetic, true, but chiefly they are busy with their own affairs, or they are drunk. (One of the drunks is a hunchback, and although we feel that he behaves badly toward Iona, we feel also that nature has behaved badly toward him.) Second, Chekhov does not simply tell us that the world is indifferent to Iona; rather, he takes care to show the indifference before we get the explicit statement that Iona searched in vain for a sympathetic hearer. Third, it seems to us that the episodes are carefully arranged. First we get the officer, who, despite his initial brusqueness, makes a little joke, and it is this joke that apparently encourages Iona to speak. The officer displays polite interest—he asks of what the boy died—and Iona turns to respond, but the passenger immediately (and not totally unreasonably) prefers the driver to keep his eyes on the road. Next we get the drunks, who can hardly be expected to comprehend Iona’s suffering. All of this precedes the first explicit statement that Iona searches the crowd for a single listener. Next, in an extremely brief episode (we don’t need much of a scene, since we are already convinced that Iona cannot find an audience) the house-porter dismisses him, and finally, again in a very brief scene, even a fellow cabman—presumably exhausted from work—falls asleep while Iona is talking.
The story has an implied theme: Deep suffering is incommunicable, but the sufferer must try to find an outlet.
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