The Man in a Case

by Anton Chekhov

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Last Updated July 2, 2024.

Introduction

"The Man in a Case" is a short story by Anton Chekhov, written in 1898. It explores the nature of fear and the lengths a human being will go to to protect himself from anxiety.

The story uses a frame narrative, making it a story within a story. Set in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, this tale of Byelikov, the titular man in a case, is told by his colleague Burkin to a friend he is hunting with. Readers, therefore, see the protagonist Byelikov only through Burkin's eyes.

Plot Summary

Veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch and schoolteacher Burkin are out hunting in the countryside. They spend the night in a barn, telling each other stories to pass the time. Burkin brings up his colleague Byelikov, a Greek teacher who recently passed away, and launches into a full description of this paranoid, meticulous little man who loses the will to live.

Byelikov is the kind of person who wears galoshes and a warm coat no matter what the weather. He always carries an umbrella, and all his possessions are neatly stowed away in cases. Byelikov even hides his thoughts in a case, never trusting anyone to hear his deepest ideas. He speaks only of his beloved Greek language and his hopes that things will not turn out badly.

"Reality," Burkin says, "irritated him, frightened him, kept him in continual agitation." Byelikov constantly clings to rules, especially those that forbid, and he is distrustful of permissions, thinking they will "lead to something." He frets about any breach of the rules and manages to make everyone around him nervous, especially since he tends to visit people and then sit in silence for an hour before leaving.

Because Byelikov lives in Burkin's boarding house, Burkin knows his routines. Byelikov tucks himself away "in a little bedroom like a box," constantly "afraid that something might happen." He keeps an old servant, Afanasy, to cook for him but never trusts the man.

Burkin relates that Byelikov almost gets married at one point. A new teacher named Milhail Savvitch Kovalenko arrives in town with his sister, Varinka. Varinka is a cheerful woman with "a ringing laugh," and she kindly pays attention to Byelikov. The ladies of the school community decide to try to make a match of the two.

It almost works. Byelikov begins to court Varinka and seriously considers marriage. Yet he hesitates, saying that one must think carefully about such things. His thoughts appear to bother him because he grows "thinner and paler" and seems "to retreat further and further into his case." Kovalenko's attitude does not help, for he despises Byelikov, calling him a sneak and "The Spider."

Just when Byelikov is on the verge of proposing, someone circulates a caricature, a humorous drawing, of Byelikov and Varinka. Byelikov is devastated by the joke. He is even more devastated when he sees Kovalenko and Varinka riding bicycles, for such an inappropriate activity horrifies him.

Byelikov goes to visit Kovalenko with his complaint about bicycle riding, but Kovalenko tells him to mind his own business and pushes him out the door. Byelikov rolls down the stairs just as Varinka comes in. She cannot help herself; she laughs.

The paranoid little Greek teacher is so horrified that he goes home and goes to bed. He refuses to say more than "Yes" and "No," and he dies a month later. Varinka cries at the funeral, but Burkin notes that most other people experience a certain "feeling of pleasure" to be rid of Byelikov, who has finally achieved his ideal, a permanent case that "he would never leave again."

When Burkin finishes the story, he and Ivan Ivanovitch curl up in the barn to sleep. Ivan, however, eventually gets up and goes outside, apparently melancholy as he considers Byelikov's story and the fact that so many people try to live their lives in a case, almost completely controlled by fear.

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