(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Against the solemn background of Holy Week, the most important week in the liturgical year, Anton Chekhov recounts the last days in the life of the protagonist, Bishop Pyotr, including his illness, the accompanying crisis and “awakening,” and death.

Bishop Pyotr officiates at vespers as the story opens on the eve of Palm Sunday. To the bishop, who is unwell, the congregation is an indistinguishable blur with “all faces alike,” “heaving like the sea.” That the congregation seems shrouded in mist suggests his isolation from his flock. Even as his own mother approaches him, he is unsure of her identity. When the bishop begins to weep, and the congregation with him, his tears are no doubt brought about by these imaginings of his mother as well as of his impending death. Suddenly the weeping stops and the narrator notes, “everything was as before”—words that are echoed at the end of the story following the bishop’s death. On his return to the monastery, the bishop identifies with objects in nature even if these evoke sterility and deadness. To the bishop, “everything seemed kindly, youthful, akin . . . and one longed to think that so it would be always.” Despite this desire for continuity of existence, his identification with such forms of nature strengthens the motif of his estrangement from his personal identity.

Returning to the monastery, the bishop rejoices to learn that his mother was indeed in town. The news quickens memories of his “sweet precious childhood . . . which seemed brighter, fuller, and more festive than it had really been”—a childhood when “joy was quivering in the air,” when he had had “naïve faith,” had been called Pavlushka, and had been “infinitely happy.” His pleasant reverie is rudely interrupted by the snoring of his aide, Father Sisoy, in the adjoining room—a sound that to him suggests “loneliness, forlornness, even vagrancy.” Descriptions of ominous nature—the “moon peeping” into the bishop’s window and a “cricket chirping”—intensify this mood; in Chekhov, such images are often associated with death.

Chapter 2, which begins on Palm Sunday, describes the everyday routine of Bishop Pyotr’s office, interrupted by lunch with Marya Timofeevna, his mother, and Katya, his niece. In this setting, surprisingly, his mother treats him as a bishop rather than as...

(The entire section is 969 words.)