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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Anton Chekhov’s brief tale traces the thoughts and interactions of two sick men being transported in a ship infirmary from the Far East back to their native Russia. The first, an intellectual named Pavel Ivanych, delivers several angry speeches in which he criticizes injustice in Russian society. The second, a peasant soldier on an indefinite leave resulting from a severe case of consumption, listens only intermittently to Pavel Ivanych, preferring to think of life in his native village.

With these two characters, Chekhov presents two differing approaches to life. Pavel Ivanych is acutely sensitive to the way that defenseless or unsuspecting individuals can be mistreated by the authorities in Russia. In particular, he rails against the military, finding it disheartening that a man can be uprooted from his home and family and sent thousands of miles away to serve as a mere orderly for some petty officer. He also criticizes the Russian masses themselves, calling them dark, blind, and crushed, too willing to accept whatever they are told. He considers himself, on the other hand, to be “protest personified.” Claiming that he always tells people the truth to their faces, he states that he is not afraid of anything, and that he would continue to protest even if he were to be walled up in a cellar. He asserts that he is proud of his reputation as an insufferable person, and he considers this relentless zeal for protest to be real life.

However, while Pavel Ivanych rants on, Gusev ceases to listen to him. Indeed, as Pavel Ivanych concludes one of his fiercer lectures, Gusev pays no attention but rather looks out a porthole and watches Chinese merchants in small boats selling canaries in cages and shouting “It sings! It sings!” This image serves as an ironic commentary on Pavel Ivanych’s ineffectual monologue: He, like the caged canaries, seems merely to be singing an empty song. Shortly thereafter, he succumbs to his illness and dies, and his body is buried at sea.

With the death of Pavel Ivanych, Chekhov’s focus swings to Gusev. Unlike Pavel Ivanych, Gusev does not concern himself with social injustice. A...

(The entire section is 557 words.)