Style and Technique

The story is told by an omniscient narrator the year after Yakov’s death. Its formal structure is tripartite: the brief introduction that establishes the setting and the hero; the story itself, that is, the relationship between Yakov and Rothschild and the deaths of the wife and husband; and the ironic, bittersweet ending in which Rothschild plays Yakov’s song. As in many Chekhov stories, a key event (Yakov’s interaction with Rothschild) is repeated three times. The first two encounters are hostile, while the third depicts a reversal of the earlier ones. The last carries the story’s message—the breaking down of the isolation of the two men through art and the establishment of their shared humanity.

The narrative technique through which Chekhov makes his thematic statement should be noticed. Superficially, Yakov and Rothschild seem very different: The coffin maker is big, strong, and aggressive, while Rothschild is gaunt, frail, and cowering; Yakov prefers merry songs, Rothschild, mournful ones; the Christian Yakov despises Rothschild the Jew. The narrative, however, poses a series of parallels that point to their essential sameness. Yakov is obsequious to the “educated” medical assistant, just as Rothschild is to Yakov. Also noteworthy are the parallel scenes in which the Jew fleeing from Yakov’s fists is jeered by the village boys, who moments later jeer the bereaved Yakov. Both are “outsiders.” The most important parallel scene, the one demonstrating their common humanity, is that in which the two men cry together as Yakov improvises his own death dirge. This evolving pattern ends in the identification of the former enemies, each of whom had lived in his own profitless prison of the self.

Chekhov’s language is sometimes considered rather “flat,” a feature of much realistic prose. On close inspection, however, Chekhov’s language is not, in fact, “realistic” but rather evocative and impressionistic. The reader comes to know characters and their lives not through accumulated description but through the carefully chosen, evocative detail that suggests far more than it says. Similarly, the carefully elaborated formal structure contributes to the reader’s sense of a meaning that goes far beyond the limits of the brief tale.