Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Chekhov’s narrative is structured in such a way as to lead the reader gradually into the world of the rural mental asylum. The charged descriptions at the outset of the story communicate his indignation over the way society has traditionally dealt with the emotionally disturbed. His portraits of the patients in the ward, from the intellectual Gromov to a man who once sorted mail at the post office, convey his compassion for the plight of those who suffer from mental illness. Then, with the incarceration of Ragin in the ward at the end of the story, the reader perceives directly the true horror of the setting. Chekhov endows Ragin’s view from the asylum window with symbolic dimensions: The prison walls he sees echo his own involuntary confinement, and the bone mill also in sight stands as an emblem of impending death and destruction.

This symbolic mode of description surfaces again after Ragin suffers his fatal stroke. Ragin thinks for a moment about immortality, then dismisses it. Suddenly, he sees a vision of an extraordinarily beautiful herd of deer that race past him and disappear. Although Chekhov does not explain the significance of this vision, it is possible that the deer represent those aspects of life that Ragin himself ignored or overlooked. In his arid intellectual meditations he became divorced from the real world, from nature, and from living beauty. Only at the end of his life, when it is too late to change, does he undergo a mystical epiphany. This moment of beauty swiftly passes, however, just like Ragin’s life itself.

Not only do Chekhov’s descriptions of the natural environment carry symbolic associations; his descriptions of people, too, add depth to the reader’s understanding of character and personality. The fact that Ragin is physically imposing yet walks softly and cautiously mirrors the contradictions in his psychology, too: Although he is in charge of the hospital and possesses the power to try to make changes in the system, he is too timid to utilize his strength.

Complementing Chekhov’s charged descriptive passages are the passages in which Gromov and Ragin exchange opinions on life. As in several other of the short stories he wrote in the early 1890’s, Chekhov constructs a situation in which two individuals with differing approaches come together and conduct a debate with each other. Chekhov himself does not take sides in any obvious way. He prefers to let the reader evaluate the two viewpoints and decide for him-or herself the merits and flaws of each. In this tale, though, Ragin’s arguments are clearly exposed as the weaker of the two, because as he himself discovers, the sufferings one encounters in real life are not as easily dismissed as they are in an intellectual debate. Taken together, Chekhov’s evocative descriptions and his passages of intellectual exploration culminate in a striking indictment of the shortcomings of rural Russian society.

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