The first fare Iona Potapov picks up that night wants to go to Vyborgskaya. That name identifies the city as St. Petersburg, to be called Leningrad after the Russian Revolution and then changed back to St. Petersburg around the time the Cold War ended. It was the second biggest city...
The first fare Iona Potapov picks up that night wants to go to Vyborgskaya. That name identifies the city as St. Petersburg, to be called Leningrad after the Russian Revolution and then changed back to St. Petersburg around the time the Cold War ended. It was the second biggest city in Russia after Moscow. As in any other big city, people become alienated and indifferent to one another. There seems to be a rule that the bigger the city, the more insensitive the inhabitants will be to other people, and especially to strangers. It is not surprising that Iona should find it impossible to get anyone to listen to his tale of grief. Besides that, he is no good at expressing himself. For example, he says to his first passenger, a military officer:
"My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir."
He lacks the vocabulary to express his thoughts and feelings. He probably would like to be able to talk to somebody about his son because it would help him to sort out his thoughts and feelings. The passengers Iona picks up all illustrate the shells of indifference big-city people develop everywhere. The officer is in a big hurry to get to Vyborgskaya.
"Drive on! drive on! . . . "says the officer. "We shan't get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!"
There is something about a big city that makes people want to move faster. It seems natural that people in Manhattan walk at a faster pace than people in small towns. What's the hurry? It's the pressure of competition. The fear of being left behind, or left out. The struggle for survival. The jostling for living space. Perhaps also the fear of missing out on something.
Iona's next passengers are three young men. They are out on the town, having a good time. All of them are drunk. How should such young men take an interest in an old man's grief? They won't listen and couldn't understand if they did listen. The one who is a hunchback is especially cruel to Iona. The reader must understand that this particular individual is bitter about his deformity and this makes him mean-spirited, inclined to hurt others.
"Tfoo!" the devil take you!" cries the hunchback indignantly. "Will you get on, you old plague, or won't you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well."
He cares nothing about the old driver, and even less about the little horse. Even so, Iona tries to talk to these young revelers, whose high spirits create a sharp contrast with his sorrow.
"This week . . . er . . . my . . . er . . . son died!"
Cold and discouraged, Iona returns to the yard. There he makes an attempt to talk to a young cabman who had been asleep and only gets up for a drink of water.
". . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It's a queer business."
But the young man has already covered his head and gone back to sleep.
This is not a mere vignette or slice-of-life because Iona resolves his conflict when he goes out to talk to his little mare, who is munching hay because Iona had not earned enough to afford oats. The horse understands misery. She appears to listen and understand Iona's words. So he goes on "and tells her all about it." It is a pathetic ending with the old man talking to his horse because no one in the big city would listen.
Rather paradoxically, the author Anton Chekhov succeeds in making this humble character's grief felt by the reader. We understand the implicit message of this famous short-story. We ourselves are too preoccupied with our own affairs, our own pleasures and selfish interests. We should pay more attention to other people's feelings and not shut ourselves off and become increasingly hard and cold with the passing years.