Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Chekhov’s style in this story is that it is narrated in the present tense, which heightens the sense of immediacy of the events. The contrast with more conventional past-tense narration seems to suggest a closeness to events and an intimacy with Iona and his horse. One suggestive irony of this intimacy is that it tends to place the reader in the imaginary position of Iona’s horse, a silent and sympathetic listener. If the story as a whole works as it seems intended to, the reader may feel an intense wish to offer Iona the comfort he needs, a wish heightened by the immediacy of the unusual use of the present tense. In this way, Chekhov’s story might in a small way contribute to solving the general social problem that Iona’s plight illustrates, by stimulating the wish for the kind of community in which people of all classes and from all parts of society are sympathetic toward one another.

Another important and more characteristic feature of Chekhov’s style is his understated, almost laconic approach to the telling. This approach prefigures Ernest Hemingway’s characteristic style of conveying deep feeling in ways that avoid sentimentality. The story of a poor old man unable to find sympathy in a cold, hard world easily could become excessively pathetic, but Chekhov controls his tone carefully. He uses the setting and dramatic episodes to convey Iona’s suffering at first. As Chekhov gradually reveals Iona’s thoughts and feelings, the descriptions are spare and flat, explaining simply what he feels and what he needs. One result is that the story evokes the appropriate response from the reader without overspecifying what the reader should feel. One relates to Iona more as a person in a predicament than as a character created to elicit an emotional response for its own sake.

Control over tone is important to Chekhov’s purpose in the story, which includes helping his contemporaneous Russian readers to understand and sympathize more fully with one another. It also contributes significantly to the story’s continuing power to speak to readers who no longer fully recognize the story’s historical moment, leading them to consider, for example, the fundamental needs that draw individuals into communities.