Because Chekhov often deals with the ironic difference between what people think and what they do, and because in this complex story he is dealing with several different major characters, he proceeds by exploring first the actions and thoughts of one character and then those of another. For example, after several sections in which Laevsky plans his escape from the woman whose heart he thinks he will be breaking, Chekhov moves into her mind, to reveal her own guilt, boredom, and deception, even her own relief because Laevsky has by his harshness provided her with an excuse for what she had already done. In other cases, too, both the ironic humor of the story and the thematic emphasis on human isolation come from Chekhov’s penetration of the minds of his characters—of the innocent deacon’s dreams of priestly power, conflicting with domestic bliss, for example, or of the scientist Von Koren’s joy at the prospect of killing a man whom he hates, a joy that is concealed within the ritual of the duel.
Finally, theme and technique merge in a clear didactic statement that is not characteristic of Chekhov. Because no one can know the heart of another, and because human beings can change for the better, like Samoylenko one should reserve judgment, act in kindness, and hope always for human progress.