What is the main theme in Chekhov's short story "Peasants"?
The main theme in "Peasants" is that violence, ignorance, moral degeneracy, and severe impoverishment were unfortunate realities of peasant life in nineteenth-century Russia.
In the story, Chekhov provides an honest portrayal of life in a Russian peasant community named Zhukovo. Newly unemployed, Nikolay Chikildeyev returns to his family home, only to be greeted by unadulterated misery and poverty. His wife Olga and daughter Sasha is with him. In due time, Nikolay discovers that his brother Kiryak is a dissolute alcoholic who routinely beats his wife, Marya.
Nikolay's other sister-in-law Fyokla also lives in fear of her husband, Nikolay's brother, Denis. Both Marya and Fyokla are illiterate and cannot recite even the simplest prayers. Unhappy in her marriage, Fyokla regularly engages in sexual liaisons with the stewards at the manor across the river. Meanwhile, Marya despises her life at Zhukovo; of the thirteen children she has borne, only six are alive.
Unlike Marya, however, Fyokla remains philosophical about the realities of peasant life. The author tells us that she relishes "the poverty, the uncleanliness, and the incessant quarreling" that assaults her daily existence. Fyokla has learned to numb herself to the degradation and poverty. In the story, she lashes out violently at Olga (Nikolay's wife) for the latter's city tastes.
Meanwhile, Olga (Nikolay's wife) readily admits that the peasants are "coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarreled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another." However, she also acknowledges their plight and how "hard labor. . . cruel winters. . . scanty harvests. . . [and] overcrowding" depresses the morale of many. Also, the peasants have "no help and none to whom they could look for help."
Unlike Tolstoy (who tended to romanticize peasant characters in his stories), Chekhov presents us with an honest portrayal of the Russian peasant. Thus, the main theme of the story concerns the violence, ignorance, moral degeneracy, and severe impoverishment that encapsulated peasant life in nineteenth-century Russia.
The main theme of "Peasants" is a painfully ironic one. Chekhov shows that in order to be a good peasant like Olga and Sasha became, you have to first be a good person. Nikolay says he became a good person because of the experience, work and training he received in Moscow. When Nikolay dies so suddenly before ever being able to return with his gentle and lovely wife and daughter back to Moscow, Olga and Sasha are forced to remain and to live in poverty like peasants. Yet they continue to wear smiles and to be good and happy. They continue to exercise the goodness that was bred in them in Moscow.
At the end of the story, Chekhov chooses a scene that shows their extreme poverty while at the same time showing their unchanged faith and goodness of heart. In the final scene, they bow themselves before the windows of wealthy strangers and chant sweetly for alms on Christmas Day. This theme asserts that Granny and the others were not good peasants because they did not have the experience, work and training in a place that cultivates civility, knowledge, courtesy and that provides ways to slake the mortal needs of the body so that other joys can be known. This is contrary to the pastoral ideal that elevates the country village simpleton over the calloused and mercenary city dweller. It also contradicts Tolstoy's image of the village peasant as the keeper of moral purity and goodness.
The main theme of the story is summed up by Olga as she and Sasha leave the village where they have been living with their peasant in-laws:
Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse.
The story shows how hard the lives of the Russian peasants are. When Nikolay, who has been working as a waiter in Moscow, gets sick and has to return home, penniless, with Olga and Sasha, all three are horrified at the dirt, drunkenness, and violence all around them. Cockroaches crawl amid the food, the sugar is gray, and the cat is deaf from having been beaten. Men drink and beat their wives. Everyone is hungry and lives in overcrowded conditions. People are either angry or frightened, and the peasants victimize each other. They find some solace, however, in the beauties of nature and some in the church, though they don't understand Christianity.
Even having witnessed all of this, Olga realizes that the peasants are still human beings and that they are more sinned against than sinning. The story neither glamorizes the peasants as pure or noble (as Tolstoy might) nor blames them for their lot. It invites us to look at them clearly and, at the same time, to feel compassion for them.