The main themes in “The Schoolmistress” are dullness and isolation, corruption and mistrust, and providence and free will.
- Dullness and isolation: Marya’s repetitive thoughts reflect the repetitive nature of her life in the village, where she lives alone and finds nothing to interest her.
- Corruption and mistrust: While the locals mistrust the schoolmistress, Marya reflects upon the unscrupulous behavior of her own coworkers, and Semyon tells her stories of scandals in nearby towns.
- Providence and free will: Marya accepts her circumstances as hopeless and preordained, believing she has no choice but to endure.
Dullness and Isolation
Life plods along slowly and dully for the characters in Anton Chekhov's “The Schoolmistress.” Marya Vassilyevna's life most clearly exemplifies this dreary, wretched existence. As she begins her journey home from town, Marya notices nothing of the beauty of nature around her. The brightness of the spring morning fails to touch her mind or heart. She pays no attention at all; the way is simply too familiar to her, so she does not look at the “languid transparent woods” or gaze up at the “marvelous fathomless sky.” Instead, she dully turns to her own thoughts again and again, focusing on her difficulties at the school, the upcoming examinations, her disgust and fear of the board, and her abhorrence of the watchman and guardian. Her thoughts replay the same pattern over and over, tediously and sluggishly.
Indeed, Marya has little ambition and no enthusiasm for her job or her life. She is a schoolmistress by necessity, not by vocation. She cares little about the children she teaches. She does not think at all about enlightening their minds or forming their wills. She is not even particularly interested if they pass their examinations. She works as a teacher for one reason: to survive. She focuses on earning her food and firewood. In fact, the narrator comments that Marya and people like her are like “silent, patient cart-horses,” working hard but taking no interest in anything around them. They plod dismally through life, experiencing no joy, little real happiness, and hardly any pleasure.
Marya's dull, miserable life stems, at least in part, from her isolation. The schoolmistress is all alone in the world, for her parents are dead, and her brother long ago stopped answering her letters. She is completely disconnected from the life she had as a child and young adult. Marya lives by herself in a small room. She has no friends and few acquaintances. Apparently, she fails to connect with her students on any meaningful level, for she does not even think of them by name, nor does she ever mention the names of the watchman, school guardian, or school board members. In her eyes, those people merely exist as filling positions that interact with her own role as schoolmistress. There is no personal connection. Marya even fails at personal interaction with Semyon, although he tries twice to start conversations with her. She brushes him aside both times. Only Hanov holds some interest for Marya. She thinks about being his wife but cannot actually imagine herself living as such, and although she is attracted to the man, she lacks the motivation to pursue that attraction. Marya remains alone, unable to gather enough energy and interest to connect with the people around her.
Marya, however, is not the only character who lives a dreary, lonely life. Hanov, too, lives alone except for his servants, rattling around in his large house with no one to share his life. He wears a “listless expression” on a face that exhibits “signs of wear,” and according to local rumor, he drinks heavily. Marya can sense that he is a man “touched by decay, weak, and on the road to ruin.” Hanov, too, plods through his days mostly by himself, although unlike Marya, he tries to reach out for human companionship. He stops to...
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