Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
Southern Russia is covered by a vast, prairie-like grassland, “the steppe.” Anton Chekhov’s story recounts the experiences of the young hero, Yegorushka, during his journey of several weeks across the steppe to the great city of Kiev. His uncle, Kuzmichov, and a family friend, Father Christopher, are accompanying a cart train of sheep wool being taken to market. They are also charged with taking Yegorushka and arranging for his lodging and schooling in Kiev. It is the boy’s first time away from his mother, the widow of a civil-service clerk.
The two men, in high spirits, set out early one July morning. Yegorushka is in tears as the dilapidated carriage leaves the familiar town and cemetery where his father and grandmother lie. The men chide the crybaby and discuss the questionable merits of further education, but soon fall silent, subdued by the monotony of the limitless steppe. Yegorushka’s feeling of desolation and loneliness deepens.
That evening the party briefly stops at an isolated inn to inquire about their wagon train, which has preceded them, and about the powerful Varlamov, with whom they have business. They are effusively greeted by Moses, the obsequiously affable Jewish innkeeper. While the two friends talk, Moses takes Yegorushka into his squalid quarters, where the boy meets the obese wife and several sickly children. Overcome at the plight of the orphan, the wife, after an intense discussion in Yiddish, gives Yegorushka a honeycake, a treat the family can ill afford. The boy returns to find the men talking with the half-mad Solomon. The bizarrely ill-clothed brother, as rudely arrogant as Moses is fawning, points out that as a poor Jew, he is doubly damned. Had he great wealth, however, even Varlamov would fawn on him. Their rest over, the party sets out again and soon overtakes the wagon train. Finding all well, they transfer Yegorushka to one of the wool carts and to the care of the head wagoner, old Panteley, while they, in search of Varlamov, will travel separately and meet in Kiev.
Yegorushka awakes in the morning to find himself high atop the last of the twenty carts in the train. A commotion soon brings the spread-out carters together. One, Dymov, has brutally killed a harmless grass snake. The older men are troubled by the needless violence and talk of Dymov’s character. When the wagon stops at a well, Dymov, noticing the boy, jokingly accuses Panteley of having given birth to a baby boy overnight. Offended, Yegorushka takes a strong dislike to the laughing carter. This dislike intensifies some days later when Dymov attempts to dunk the boy while the younger men are happily swimming and net-fishing in a river.
The wagons again move out in the cool dusk, and Yegorushka stares at the stars, troubled by feelings of his own insignificance and isolation. He thinks of death. At a rest halt the men gather around the campfire and tell stories prompted by the roadside graves of travelers killed by brigands. These gruesome tales are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, a hunter. He, too, has a story. After years of unsuccessful courtship, he has married the girl of his dreams. He is ecstatically happy. His account has a strangely depressing effect on the others. When Yegorushka awakes at dawn, he sees the men talking with the much-sought Varlamov, whose impatient figure radiates power and authority.
That night, the weather is oppressively close. The men are tired and ill-tempered, and Dymov picks a quarrel with the inoffensive Yemelyan. Yegorushka rushes to Yemelyan’s defense and is derisively brushed aside by Dymov. “Hit him, hit him!” screams Yegorushka, before running away. After eating, Dymov gruffly apologizes to both Yemelyan and Yegorushka, inviting the boy to hit him. The long-threatened storm finally breaks. The constant lightning and thunderclaps terrify the shivering boy, who unsuccessfully tries to hide. Under way again the next day, Yegorushka feverishly dozes and fitfully dreams of his recent experiences. In the late afternoon they at last arrive in Kiev, where he is reunited with his uncle and Father Christopher, who are elated at the successful sale and impatient with Yegorushka’s sullen, semidelirious state.
Yegorushka awakens in the morning recovered and refreshed, but surprised not to see sodden wool bales under him. After breakfast a grumbling Kuzmichov takes the boy in search of his new lodgings. Advance arrangements have not been made, but it is hoped that an old friend of Yegorushka’s mother will lodge the boy. At length, the widow is found, and with the departure of Kuzmichov and Father Christopher, “Yegorushka felt his entire stock of experiences had vanished with them like smoke. He sank exhaustedly on a bench, greeting the advent of his new and unknown life with bitter tears. What kind of life would it be?”
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