Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684
“The Man in a Case” chronicles the story of a narrow-minded schoolteacher named Belikov. Narrated by Burkin, a fellow teacher, to his friend Ivan Ivanych Chimsha-Himalaisky, after a long day spent hunting in the countryside, this tale provides a sobering view of pettiness and paranoia in a provincial Russian milieu. In Burkin’s description, Belikov—a teacher of Greek—emerges as a highly insecure individual obsessed with following official rules and fearful of any suspicion of permissiveness in his environment. From the very way he dresses (in a pair of galoshes and a heavy coat even in the warmest weather), it is clear that Belikov seeks to isolate himself and protect himself from the outside. Unfortunately for his colleagues, Belikov constantly strives to impose his own paranoia on everyone else. Not only does he cling to whatever official regulations he encounters, but he insists that others do so as well. Moreover, even if an activity is not expressly forbidden by some regulation, Belikov is wary of it, because one can never tell what harm might come from it. Because of his incessant criticism and intimidation, he almost always succeeds in getting his way. As Burkin recounts, not only are all of his fellow teachers afraid of Belikov, but the whole town lives in fear of him, too.
However, Belikov’s life of unswerving routine and eternal vigilance eventually receives an unforeseen modification. A new teacher named Mikhail Kovalenko is assigned to Belikov’s school, and he brings with him his lively and cheerful sister Varenka. Within a short time, the townspeople conceive of arranging a match between Belikov and Varenka, assuming perhaps that marriage would make the dour man’s life more complete. Thus, Belikov begins to pay visits to Varenka, and she appears to welcome his attentions; he even begins to speak of marriage. Belikov’s courtship, however, does not make him more sociable or relaxed; on the contrary, he becomes even more rigid and retiring.
Burkin believes that Belikov would have gone through with the marriage if it were not for a sudden, unexpected turn of events. Someone in the town draws a caricature of Belikov in his galoshes and umbrella with Varenka on his arm. This caricature is sent to all the teachers and town officials. Humiliated and angry, Belikov soon afterward catches sight of Varenka and her brother riding bicycles on the way to a school outing. For some reason, this strikes him as a shocking deviation from propriety, and he decides to stop in at the Kovalenkos that evening to convey his disapproval. Varenka is not at home, so Belikov begins to reproach Mikhail for his unseemly behavior. Mikhail, however, reacts indignantly to this interference in his personal affairs, and he rebukes Belikov in return. Horrified at Mikhail’s evident lack of respect, Belikov declares that he will inform the school principal of his insubordination. Thoroughly aroused, Mikhail shoves Belikov toward the staircase leading down to the apartment house entrance, and Belikov tumbles headlong down the stairs. At that moment, Varenka returns. Seeing Belikov in such a ridiculous position and not knowing the cause of his fall, she bursts into innocent laughter. Although physically unhurt, Belikov is devastated by this final humiliation. He returns home, takes to his bed, and dies a few days later.
Burkin concludes his tale with an account of the consequences of Belikov’s death. At first, everyone in the town feels an exhilarating sensation of freedom. Sadly, this atmosphere of freedom quickly evaporates, and before a week has passed, life has resumed its former routine: stern, tiresome, and senseless. As Burkin notes, although Belikov is buried, there remain many more such “men in cases.” Burkin’s friend Ivan Ivanych reacts to this story with dismay, and he delivers a disconsolate denunciation of the way people lie, endure humiliation, and abuse themselves all for the sake of a secure position or income. “No,” he declares, “one cannot live like this any more.” While Burkin himself retires for the night, Ivan Ivanych cannot sleep, and the story ends with him going outside to smoke his pipe.