Man’s indifference to the pain of another—this is theme of the story “Misery” by Anton Chekhov. The title symbolizes the feelings of the protagonist Iona Potapov, a Russian sleigh-driver, who is suffering from intense grief.
The setting of the story is winter in a Russian town. The time is the late nineteenth century. It is miserable outside. The weather is cold, bleak, and snowing. The surroundings in the story amplify the wretchedness of the main character.
“Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on the roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps.”
Iona Potapov has faced one of the most difficult events a parent can face. His only son has died from a fever after a short illness. He has been dead about a week. Iona’s overwhelming grief needs an outlet. He wants to talk to anyone he can about his misery.
The old man’s heartache is enhanced by the knowledge that he is really too old to be driving particularly in this kind of weather. His son had taken over for him; however, his horse needs to eat and his poverty demands that Iona try to find fares.
Throughout the night, Iona encounters four situations that should enable him to talk to someone. Yet, none of these people will engage the old man to allow him discuss the story of his son. He wants to tell someone that he wishes that it had been him instead of his son who had died.
An officer who has a harsh manner softens a little when he hears of the old man’s son. He yells at the old man’s incompetent driving. After a brief inquiry as to how the son died, the matter is dropped, and the officer returns to wanting Iona to hurry.
Three young men, one of whom is hunchbacked, get in the sleigh. The crippled one is the harshest toward Iona. They curse and shove each other for room in the small sleigh. The more that the men curse, yell, and call him names, the lonelier that Iona feels. He finally tells them that his son has died this week. The hunchback reacts by saying that everyone has to die.
A house porter carrying a package stands on a corner. Iona asks him the time. After the porter answers, he tells Iona to drive on.
This is the final straw. Iona determines to give it up for the night and return to the cab barn. He does not have the money to buy his horse oats, so she will have to eat the hay.
While the old man is inside the cab drivers’ area, he sees another younger driver. The young man gets up to get a drink. Iona tells the younger man that his son has died but gets no response form the other driver. Returning to his corner, the young man covers his head and goes to sleep.
The old man is “thirsty” to talk about his feelings. In his mind, Iona thinks a woman would be best to talk to since women “blubber at anything.”
He goes to check on his white mare. She is eating the hay. Iona talks to the little horse which seems to listen to him. He begins to tell the horse about his son. This does give him some relief.
Iona tries to relate to the horse that if she had a little colt and it died, the mare would be sad just as the old man. As he talks to her, the little horse looks at him, munches her hay, and breathes on the old man’s hands. Iona can share his grief with someone who will listen to him.