Themes and Meanings
Carver was a great admirer of Chekhov and his work. Like Chekhov, he was interested in the lives of common people struggling to get along in a difficult world, a theme Carver saw as central to his writing. Also like Chekhov, Carver died of a lung disease—cancer in Carver’s case. In “Errand,” one of the last stories that Carver wrote, he examines the ramifications of an artist’s life, using Chekhov’s life in part as a metaphor for his own. For example, he quotes Chekhov’s unsentimental statement about how peasants face death and his rejection of all philosophical or religious world views. That rejection left Chekhov able to record only the objective details of his characters’ lives—their births, marriages, deaths, styles of speech—the very material to which Carver limited himself in his own spare and undecorated writing.
Throughout “Errand,” Chekhov denies the seriousness of his illness until the very end (unlike Carver, who wrote about his cancer several times). Even the journey to the spa at Badenweiler suggests this denial. The crisis of the story moves the focus from Chekhov himself to Olga, who must cope with her husband’s death in the midst of strangers who cannot understand what has happened. Even after she has given the young hotel employee detailed instructions about finding a mortician, the name of the famous writer means so little to him that he can concentrate only on the champagne cork on the floor.
The champagne receives special emphasis in this story because it serves to link the opening scene in the elegant restaurant with Chekhov’s last moments. The doctor’s decision to order champagne, underscored by Carver’s comment on the rightness of the action, and later the hotel employee’s inability to recognize the significance of Olga’s instructions, all seem to recall Chekhov’s denial of his tuberculosis as well as his assertion that he will confine his fiction to the objective details of his characters’ lives.