Summary

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Cab driver Iona Potapov is physically miserable, sitting motionless on his sleigh, bent double with falling snow covering him. His horse also is motionless, and the snow covers her, too. She is lost in thought, psychologically miserable, as anyone would be who finds herself taken away from her quiet country home and cast into the chaos of busy St. Petersburg.

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After a long wait, Iona gets a fare, a military officer. Iona appears to be a bad driver, weaving through the street and obstructing other travelers. His clumsiness comes from lack of attention; what he really wants to do is tell the officer about the death of his son. He cannot drive and tell his story at the same time, so the officer, who seems somewhat sympathetic, insists that he attend to driving.

After a few more hours, three young revelers demand his services. They are less sympathetic than the officer. In fact, they treat Iona much as they treat his horse: Both must take them quickly to their destination, or be beaten if they are not fast enough. Iona may prolong this trip unconsciously in order to have their company longer. Although they abuse him, he would rather be with them than alone. When he confides in them, one of the passengers, who may be trying to avoid facing his own case of consumption, generalizes that we all die and reiterates his wish to hurry to the destination where more pleasure awaits him.

When Iona is left alone again in the falling snow, he finds his suffering unbearable. He is silent and isolated in a crowded, noisy city. He realizes that he cannot appeal to these people to listen. He returns to the yard and his fellow drivers who are off duty but finds no one among the exhausted drivers who will listen to him. Everyone is absorbed in his own life, getting a living, and resting from it. Again alone in a crowd of people, Iona pictures what he wants, to tell the whole story of his son’s life and death to sympathetic listeners who will help him to habituate himself to this breach of his sense of life’s order.

Finally, he goes to his horse, the nearest he is able to come to finding a sympathetic listener. He imagines the horse as one who has suffered loss, thus creating a small community. Having done this, he cannot help but tell her the whole story.

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Themes