Analysis

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Last Reviewed on March 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

The story begins with a vivid and nauseating image. The bishop, who is passing out palm fronds to his parishioners on Palm Sunday, looks out at the people waiting to receive them and the crowd is described as "heaving like the sea" and being all enshrouded, in his view, in...

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The story begins with a vivid and nauseating image. The bishop, who is passing out palm fronds to his parishioners on Palm Sunday, looks out at the people waiting to receive them and the crowd is described as "heaving like the sea" and being all enshrouded, in his view, in a thick mist. This simile compares the crowd to the sea, creating an image of the mass of people moving and swaying. The bishop feels so ill as a result of this distorted vision that he does not even recognize, for certain, his own mother when she comes up to receive a palm. His role, his isolation from people, seems to contribute to his feelings of illness.

However, the narrator describes a beautiful image when the bishop finally leaves the church. He gets into his carriage and hears the bells chime in the garden filled with moonlight. "The white walls, the white crosses on the tombs, the white birch-trees and black shadows, and the far-away moon in the sky exactly over the convent, seemed now living their own life, apart and incomprehensible, yet very near to man." The peace the bishop felt when the woman he did not quite recognize as his mother smiled at him seems to permeate his view of his surroundings. There is no more pain or mist or feelings of illness. Instead, the scene outside in nature—with the trees and sky and moon—is tranquil and serene.

Nature, where the bishop's status as a higher-up in the clergy does not matter, strikes him as "kindly, youthful, akin, everything—trees and sky and even the moon, and one longed to think that so it would be always." He associates nature, then, with the joy he experienced in his childhood, joy that he now wishes he could sample again as an adult. He also associates it with something that is "akin" to him, something like family, something that is familiar and warm rather than isolated and stand-offish, the way people usually treat him as a result of his status. He recalls the naturalness of his childhood, running around happily with a bare head and bare feet from one village to another, the air "quivering" with joy. Then, when he is on his deathbed, he imagines himself to be a "simple, ordinary man" out in the fields under an "open sky bathed in sunshine" and he feels himself to be "free [...] as a bird" to go and do whatever he likes.

The thing the bishop seems to want the most is to be seen for himself, not for his status, and when his own mother is unable to treat him familiarly, it devastates him. The images of nature contrast with the stifling and stilted descriptions of his professional and religious life.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209

Chekhov’s impressionistic style, evident here, consists in juxtaposing complete scenes with a minimum of authorial comment. Multiple perspectives lend the story ambiguity, and a variety of rhythmic structures combined with a variety of artistic devices such as contrast, parallelism, carefully chosen metaphors and similes, dreamlike sequences, and recurring formulas make it an excellent example of the musicality of Chekhov’s prose. Among the story’s many symbolic elements are the ubiquitous sound of bells, the mysterious moon, the smell of pine, and the chirping cricket. The language is a masterly blending of levels of diction, including journalistic, Church Slavonic, and standard and substandard Russian (for example, the language of Father Sisoy and the mother).

Guiding the course of the story is the fatal typhoid that controls Bishop Pyotr’s thoughts and actions. “The Bishop” ranks as one of Chekhov’s best works portraying illness. Sharing numerous thematic and compositional features with Chekhov’s mature plays, it divides into four parts: The first chapter describes the onset of the malady; chapters 2 and 3, its duration; and chapter 4, the crisis followed by death. Hints throughout suggest that the bishop will die. Besides the symptoms of his disease that are scattered here and there, each chapter contains references and allusions to death.

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