What is the main theme in Anton Chekhov's short story "The House with the Mezzanine"?
According to Carol A. Flath ("Art and Idleness: Chekhov's 'The House with a Mezzanine'"), one of Chekhov's signature themes is the contrast between work and idleness. As Flath says, this theme is featured prominently in his later plays such as The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vania. It is also the main theme of Chekhov's short story "The House with a Mezzanine."
The presence of this theme is quite obvious. The protagonist and first-person narrator, a landscape artist, makes a big show of describing his idleness and his enjoyment of the nothingness of his summer. When he finally meets the Volchaninov's, they remark that they are admirers of his work, which ironically and indirectly emphasizes the fact that he is doing no work, but only sleeping on a sofa in a barren manor house.
Two situations stand in contrast to the narrator's idleness. The first is Bielokurov's protestations of hard work as a gentleman farmer, protestations that Mr. N, the narrator, disbelieves:
What a stupid, lazy lout! When we talked seriously he would drag it out with his awful drawl--er, er, er--and he works just as he talks--slowly, always behindhand, never up to time ...!
The second is Lyda's industry on behalf of the local Zemstvo council meeting for which she establishes schools, dispenses medicines, advocates for hospitals and libraries, and tutors peasants in rudimentary reading and writing.
The presence of the theme contrasting idleness and work is obvious. What is less obvious is the complex pattern by which the theme fits with the whole story. Certain questions need to be asked. In particular, are any of the characters representative of a "good" value in the contrast between work and idleness? The narrator isn't, he makes it quite clear: "Doomed by fate to permanent idleness, I did positively nothing. ... once more it became tedious to go on living." Bielokurov isn't: "What a stupid, lazy lout!" Lyda isn't: "you enslave them even more." Genya doesn't work; she reads and exhausts herself by doing so: "Genya, pale with reading, and with her hair ruffled." Still, she is the only one to have independent thought and sees through Lyda's ideas: "she thought differently from the strong, handsome Lyda." Therefore it seems that Chekhov is denouncing all the representations and espousing the brand of work that Mr. N describes in his debate with Lyda: "If we all, in town and country, without exception, agreed to share the work."
Next, what is the point of Chekhov combining the story of Lyda's devotion to the Zemstvo and disagreement with Mr. N with a love story about sweet Genya? Since a significant argument in Mr. N's debate is that Lyda's methods are new slavery that force even more work on peasants, ("medical stations, ... only lead to slavery [and they] work harder than ever"), the connection between Lyda's story and Genya's story is seen as the illustration of Chekhov's point. Genya's story dramatically illustrates that Lyda's brand of people do enslave others who are more lowly and weaker than they are: people such as Lyda enslave people with their good works as opposed to liberating them with changes to the social order. The proof of the argument is that it is Lyda who orders Genya away despite the crying tears of both mother and Genya: what Lyda does proves to be a kind of enslavement.