Anton Chekhov begins “The Schoolmistress” with a mysterious sentence: “At half-past eight they drove out of the town.” Questions immediately arise in readers' minds as they wonder who “they” are, which town “they” are leaving and why, and where “they” might be going. One is not even sure whether the time is morning or evening. The setting, the characters, and the plot are all cloudy and vague, yet somehow this unusual initial sentence draws readers in, making them long to discover the answers to their questions.
The story's pacing is also somewhat unusual. Its plot is limited in scope and plods along like Semyon's old cart horse. The story focuses on a single day in the life of Marya Vassilyevna, and it is not even a particularly interesting day. She is merely riding home with Semyon after going to town to collect her pay. The plot thereby reflects the dull lives of the characters, lives in which nothing especially interesting seems to happen but that focus on the same tasks and concerns again and again, just as Marya's thoughts return to her school repeatedly.
As the horse plods along, so does the plot, for it moves slowly, relating minor incidents as a backdrop for Marya's inner reflections. Three times, however, the tension rises, leading readers to expect some major action or significant event. First, in the tavern, conflict looms as a man begins to swear and Semyon angrily admonishes him that there is a young lady present. Hostility nearly surfaces in sneering comments, including “Swinish crow!” The guilty man, however, quickly apologizes; the peasants realize that Marya is the schoolmistress; and tempers settle back down. Conflict has been averted, and the tension drops.
When Semyon and Marya approach the river, the tension returns as readers wonder if the cart will overturn and its passengers will be flung into the water and drowned. Again, nothing so dramatic actually happens. The horse stops briefly in the middle of the stream but then trudges ahead and crosses safely. Marya is soaked, as are her parcels of flour and sugar, but all she says is, “Oh, Semyon, Semyon! How tiresome you are really!” Then the cart and the plot move along.
As the cart stops for a passing train, however, the plot picks up speed. As Marya watches the train, she notices a woman standing on a platform between two carriages, a woman who looks exactly like her mother. Marya's mind suddenly blooms with images of her family and her past. Joy overwhelms her, and she is happier than she has been in years, so happy that she begins to cry. Hanov drives up at that moment, and Marya greets him, not as a schoolmistress but as a friend. Readers wonder, just for a moment, if perhaps Marya has reached a turning point, if she will finally find break out of her dullness and isolation. But the moment quickly passes when Semyon calls Marya's name. The dream vanishes, and Marya is thrown back into reality, “shivering and numb with cold.” The tension falls, and the story resolves back into the plodding mundane.
While the slow plot and dreary characters might turn some readers away from this story, Chekhov's use of language is sure to attract those with an eye for vivid images and interesting figures of speech. In the second paragraph, Chekhov vividly describes the April morning scene, which Marya fails to notice. “Winter, dark, long, and spiteful,” he relates, personifying the season, “was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden.” Readers are invited to picture the “languid transparent woods.” This is actually a strange way to describe a forest. “Languid” implies that the trees are somewhat weak or perhaps relaxed. The author may mean that they are basking lazily in the warm sun. “Transparent” cannot be an entirely literal description, but perhaps the rays of sun are gliding down through the trees, lighting them from...
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