Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697
The setting for the entire story is the drawing room of Olga Ivanovna Irnina, a woman who is estranged from her husband and is currently involved with Nikolay Ilyich Belyaev. The story opens with a brief description of Belyaev: He is a “well-fed,” “pink young man of about thirty-two” years of age. He has three principal activities in life: He is a “St. Petersburg landlord,” he is “very fond of the race-course,” and he has a “liaison” with Olga.
This opening establishes that, as a landlord, Belyaev lives from the labor of others; that, as a racing addict, he has not closed the gap between his mental and his chronological age; and that, as a paramour, he prefers a liaison with Olga to marriage.
The epithets “well-fed” and “pink” applied to Belyaev are especially unflattering inasmuch as in Anton Chekhov’s works the color pink, when referring to a man, suggests the image of a soft, pampered, and effeminate individual, although the expression “well-fed” is an unmistakable sign of pettiness and vulgarity or, more precisely, what the Russians call poshlost.
The narrator observes that Belyaev looks on his liaison with Olga as “a long and tedious romance” that he has “spun out,” adding parenthetically that this is Belyaev’s “own phrase.” Here a more serious flaw in Belyaev’s character is exposed: He has been insincere about the nature of his relationship with Olga. Moreover, as the words “to use his own phrase” indicate, he has obviously made their “tedious romance” the subject of discussion with others, though not with her.
The inauthenticity of their relationship—its prosaic nature—is further underscored when Belyaev refers to it metaphorically as a romance, the first pages of which—“pages of interest and inspiration”—had been read long ago, leaving only pages containing neither novelty nor interest. Significantly, the word “love” does not appear in the description of even the initial phase of this romance; only interest and novelty are of primary importance to Belyaev. The irony is fully intended when the narrator, after presenting such an unflattering picture of Belyaev, refers to him as “my hero.”
As the story opens, Belyaev has come to visit Olga and, not having found her at home, lies down on the drawing-room couch to wait for her. He is greeted by Olga’s son, Alyosha, who is lying on a divan in the same room but whom Belyaev does not even notice. This incident betrays Belyaev’s treatment of the boy in the past and foreshadows the treatment that he will accord him later.
In describing Alyosha, the narrator notes that the boy is “about eight years old, well built, well looked after, dressed up like a picture in a velvet jacket and long black stockings.” Every detail bespeaks Alyosha’s excellent material well-being. However, here too, there seems to be a lack of something—an emphasis on the boy’s material well-being perhaps at the expense of his spiritual welfare. The single most disturbing detail is his being “dressed up like a picture.” He may appear to be “well cared for” but, as is eventually revealed, he is treated as an object—a pawn in a game whose principal players include his separated parents and Belyaev.
A close inspection of the description of Belyaev and Alyosha reveals considerable similarity between the grown-up man and the child: Each is a pampered, spoiled individual; the epithets “well fed” and “pink,” used to describe the former, echo the epithets “well looked after” and “well built,” used to describe the latter. Similarly, Belyaev’s playing the races with his income from tenants finds its parallel in Alyosha’s fascination with the circus and acrobats, which his mother’s money enables him to see. Even the minor detail that both of them are reclining in the drawing room at the opening of the story underscores their basic similarity. Alyosha strives to behave and talk like an adult but remains a child whose impressions of adults and their standards of morality and conduct are naïve and incomplete. For his part, Belyaev, who is four times Alyosha’s senior, demonstrates through his selfishness, irresponsibility, and inconsiderateness of others that in many respects he, too, is still a child.
As he reclines on the divan, Alyosha imitates an acrobat, but his behavior equally conjures up the antics of an insect: “He lay on a satin pillow . . . lifting up first one leg, then the other. When his legs began to be tired, he moved his hands, or he jumped.” Next, he “took hold of the toe of his left foot in his right hand and got into a most awkward position. He turned head over heels and jumped up.” Shortly thereafter, Belyaev says to him: “Come here, kid” (he uses the word klop, which in Russian basically means “bug” or “bedbug” and colloquially “kid”). He adds: “Let me look at you, quite close.” The image of a barely perceptible bug is appropriate for Alyosha. In fact, to Alyosha’s greeting, Belyaev responds: “I didn’t notice you.” The irony and full implication of this statement become apparent when somewhat later Belyaev reflects: “All the time he had been acquainted with Olga Ivanovna he had never once turned his attention to the boy and had completely ignored his existence.” Now, as he examines Alyosha (the bug), he asks: “How are you?” In Russian, however, he simply asks “Zhivyosh?” which literally means “Are you alive?”—an ironic question as it reflects Belyaev’s attitude toward Alyosha up to now. The “awkward position” that Alyosha has got himself into while imitating the acrobat serves as a foreshadowing of the awkward position in which he will soon find himself vis-à-vis his mother and father after undergoing Belyaev’s close “examination.”
Alyosha is distracted by Belyaev’s watch chain and locket, both of which remind him of his father’s—a fact he inadvertently blurts out. Surprised by this information, Belyaev presses Alyosha for a complete confession: He and his sister Sonya, escorted by their nurse, have been seeing their father on a regular basis despite their mother’s forbidding them to do so.
To extract this information from Alyosha, Belyaev addresses him as a “friend to a friend,” requesting him to speak “openly,” “honestly,” and on his “word of honor.” Alyosha then obtains from Belyaev a promise that the latter will not say anything of it to his mother. When Alyosha requests Belyaev to swear an oath, the latter responds: “What do you take me for?” Belyaev’s later custody of the secret gives this question exactly the answer Alyosha—and the reader—feared.
Alyosha informs Belyaev that he and Sonya meet their father at Apfel’s sweet-shop, where he treats them to coffee, cakes, and pies, after which, at home, they try to conceal the affair from their mother by eating as much as they can. The father takes advantage of these meetings to extract information about the mother’s activities and to set the children against Belyaev. Such statements as “You are unhappy, I’m unhappy, and mother’s unhappy” strike even Alyosha as being “strange.” Alyosha tells Belyaev (of all people): “I can’t understand why mother doesn’t invite father to live with her or why she says we musn’t meet him.” Here Chekhov demonstrates not only Alyosha’s naïveté but also his own profound psychological insight into one of childhood’s predicaments: the confusion and uncertainty when caught between separate parents.
When asked by Belyaev what their father says about him, Alyosha, after obtaining Belyaev’s promise not to become offended, informs him that their father blames Belyaev for their unhappiness and their mother’s ruin. Accused of ruining the family’s happiness (Olga’s in particular), Belyaev explodes with anger. When Alyosha reminds him of his promise not to become offended, Belyaev, in another psychologically authentic response, notes: “I’m not offended,” and, after a brief pause, lashes out with: “and it’s none of your business!”—a reaction that reinstates the dynamics of the story’s opening, in which Belyaev considered Alyosha too insignificant to notice. Belyaev’s earlier feelings of being trapped in a dull, drawn-out romance have now become concretized in his image of himself as an animal who has fallen into a trap.
As Olga and Sonya return home, Belyaev continues to rant and rave, completely absorbed in his hurt pride. Behind his hysterics is his desire to end the unhappy romance with Olga. He has been looking for a pretext but has been either unable or too weak to find one. At last the opportunity has presented itself and he seizes it. The animal extricates himself from the trap.
As Belyaev begins to reveal Alyosha’s secret, Alyosha experiences a horror that reflects itself in “his face twisted in fright”—quite a contrast to his deliberately, acrobatically “twisted body” described in the story’s opening. Alyosha repeatedly reminds Belyaev of his pledged word of honor. Belyaev’s brutal response is perhaps the story’s best example of irony: “Ah let me alone! . . . This is something more important than any words of honor. The hypocrisy revolts me, the lie.” The man who demanded the word of honor from others and easily gave his own has proven dishonorable. Like a child, he has permitted his hurt feelings to take precedence over his word of honor. Now the biggest “hypocrite” and “liar” of all, he accuses others of revolting hypocrisy and lies.
The story comes full circle as Belyaev, absorbed in his insult, “now, as before, did not notice the presence of the boy. He, a big serious man, had nothing to do with boys.” The story concludes, however, with Alyosha’s final impressions. It is he who appears truly revolted by this entire experience—one that may have scarred him for life. How could a pledged word be so easily broken? How could it have so little value? The narrator concludes that this was Alyosha’s first encounter with the world of lies—his first awareness that in this world “there exist many things which have no name in children’s language.”
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