Fear, Moral and Me: A study of two stories by Anton Chekhov
Fear, Moral and Me:
A study of two stories by Anton Chekhov
” “What’s this?” thought the Emperor.”I can’t see anything. This is terrible!
Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! – Oh! It’s very pretty,” he said. “It has my highest approval.” And he nodded approbation at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.
His whole retinue stared and stared. One saw no more than another, but they all joined the Emperor in exclaiming, “Oh! It’s very pretty,”… “1
In The Emperor’s New Clothes the king is fearful of what he cannot see. Thus, he starts questioning himself, his suitability to his royal position and his sanity.
This feeling is so intense, that the king prefers to reject his inner voice and walk naked before the world, rather than speak his mind and reveal the truth.
Bare flesh but not bare soul – that’s his motto.
Dmitri Petrovitch Silin, Anton Chekhov’s protagonist in Terror2, is an absolute contrast to the Emperor; at the beginning he acknowledges his emotional and intellectual weakness and declares loud and clear that he fails to understand the reality in which he lives: “I am incapable of distinguishing what is true and what is false in my actions, and they worry me. I recognize that…my whole life is nothing else than a daily effort to deceive myself and other people, and to avoid noticing it; and I am frightened at the thought that to the day of my death I shall not escape from this falsity. Today I do something and tomorrow I do not understand why I did it… I understand no one and nothing.”3
Life does not frighten Dmitri Petrovitch. He is not intimidated by possible danger, distress or tragedy. Dmitri fears the lack of meaning in everyday existence, the barren and monotonous occurrences that are spread about him. There is no logic or reason in his world. His actions are merely compulsion and not a true expression of his desire. Under this gloomy perception, Dmitri operates according to that which society expects of him. Social pressure drained of any personal feeling or private emotion. This is Dmitri’s betrayal of his own identity. Thus his actions isolate him from his inner self and turn him into a terrified human being. An individual lost in a chaotic world.
The root of Dmitri’s fear stems from an ongoing traumatic experience that Dmitri has had with his wife, Marya Sergeyevna4: when they first married, Marya declared that even though she did not love him, she would marry him and be his faithful wife. Her promise seemed to be solid and reasonable. However, when Dmitri tried to understand Marya’s statement, he found nothing in it but hollow words that turned his world upside down. It was then that Dmitri began questioning everything in his life5
Dmitri confides in his friend, the narrator; a nameless character whom Dmitri considers to be a close friend, both to him and to his wife. The fact that the narrator is also an integral part of the story, allows him to have a firm grip on every aspect of it: as a main character he promotes the plot and as the teller he is the interpreter of all that goes on and of Dmitri’s experiences in particular. His insight establishes Dmitri’s tormented personality but also serves as a poignant criticism to his own behavior.
The manifestation of this complexity is evident in the opening exposition, when the narrator relates Dmitri’s history as both an introduction and as an analysis of his character:
“Dmitri Petrovitch Silin had taken his degree and entered government service in Petersburg, but at thirty he gave up his post and went in for agriculture. His farming was fairly successful, and yet it always seemed… that he was not in his proper place, and that he would do well to go back to Petersburg… when, overcoming his sleepiness, he began in his soft, cordial, almost imploring voice, to talk about his really excellent ideas, I saw him not as a farmer nor an agriculturist, but only as a worried and exhausted man, and it was clear to me that he did not really care for farming, but that all he wanted was for the day to be over and “Thank God for it.” “6
The narrator senses the dissonance between Dmitri and his surroundings. Dmitri’s detachment and alienation from society is visibly evident in his behavior and appearance. However, the problem does not lie with Dmitri’s conduct. It seems that something else troubles his mind. Dmitri tries to “pass the time”, doing what he must – not what he wants. The work tires his body, but his soul is exhausted for another reason7
The narrator feels uncomfortable with the excessive affection that Dmitri showers on him. He would rather minimize their relationship to a superficial acquaintance and nothing more. He might even do so, if it was not for Marya, with whom he initiates a whimsical love affair. But when Marya confesses her deep emotion for him, the narrator feels suddenly uneasy: “In her love for me there was something incongruous and burdensome, just as in Dmitri Petrovitch’s friendship. It was a great, serious passion with tears and vows, and I wanted nothing serious in it–no tears, no vows, no talk of the future.”8
This confession portrays the narrator as a person who acts out of pure carelessness, the same carelessness that terrifies Dmitri: conduct that does not result from self-awareness but is carried away by circumstances as they occur9.
If Dmitri and Marya are two wretched, miserable characters, doomed to ongoing suffering, so is the narrator. In fact, it his conduct that leads him to discover a new, terrifying emotion of which he was unaware: fear10
Fear resulting from a misunderstanding is also the main core of the story Home11. A father, a district attorney, is required to rebuke his seven-year-old son, who was caught smoking. The father finds the whole incident amusing, but due the governess’s harsh demand he is asked to reprimand and admonish Seryozha, his son. Seryozha is indifferent to the reproach. Furthermore, it seems that the rare opportunity to spend some time with his busy father causes him joy and happiness.
Home unfolds the contradictions in the district attorney’s mind, as to the act he is required to do; Yevgeny Petrovitch Bykovsk, a smoker himself from an early age, deliberates and struggles to reconcile with the things he is compelled to say. It brings him to ponder the essence of the social cry to eradicate smoking as a crime and to wonder about the close relationship between his son’s lack of understanding of the seriousness of the deed and its condemnation:
“It really was horror. Children were mercilessly flogged and expelled from school, and their lives were made a misery on account of smoking, though not a single teacher or father knew exactly what was the harm or sinfulness of smoking. Even very intelligent people did not scruple to wage war on a vice, which they did not understand. Yevgeny Petrovitch remembered the head master of the high school, a very cultured and good-natured old man, who was so appalled when he found a high-school boy with a cigarette in his mouth that he turned pale, immediately summoned an emergency committee of the teachers, and sentenced the sinner to expulsion. This was probably a law of social life: the less an evil was understood, the more fiercely and coarsely it was attacked.”12
Bykovsky remembers himself and his friends: “Every urchin who was caught smoking was thrashed. The cowardly and faint-hearted did actually give up smoking, any who were somewhat more plucky and intelligent, after the thrashing took to carrying tobacco in the legs of their boots, and smoking in the barn.”13 Fearfulness was interpreted as weakness and spinelessness14 while the reluctance to accept obedience was considered worthy and honorable. Yevgeny therefore demands his son to be the very embodiment of everything that is contemptible and shameful in his own eyes.
In reality, Seryozha is an ordinary child; he has a nanny who starkly supervises his education, his carefully planned schedule and his very organized life. His mind is occupied with thoughts suitable to a child of his age and he plays, paints and babbles in a mischievous way, as children often do.
In the beginning, Seryozha does not pay much attention to his father’s efforts to reeducate him. The district attorney’s rationalist approach goes over his head: the scholarly arguments and the claims of the wickedness of taking tobacco without permission.
Yevgeny himself does not believe in what he is saying.
No wonder that Seryozha is not convinced.
Then, out of his inability to find the right words to convince his son, Yevgeny chooses the most effective way to make his point: Fear. He attributes the death of a family relative, Uncle Ignat, to the fact the man had smoked all his life. He even improvises a made up fairy tale about a handsome prince who died at an early age from smoking. The death of the prince broke the prince’s father’s heart and brought destruction to the magical kingdom.
The story and Uncle Ignat’s death strikes a nerve with young Seryozha:
“… distress and something like fear came into his big staring eyes. He was most likely thinking now of death, which had so lately carried off his mother and Uncle Ignat… This ending struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as absurd and naïve, but the whole story made an intense impression on Seryozha. Again his eyes were clouded by mournfulness and something like fear; for a minute he looked pensively at the dark window, shuddered, and said, in a sinking voice: “I am not going to smoke any more…”15
For Yevgeny Petrovitch Bykovsky, the lawyer who was often accustomed to handle a case without necessarily believing in its righteousness, the mission was accomplished16. However, young Seryozha was left with the memory of his late mother and uncle. Smoking had lost its innocent appeal and now served as an inevitable association with terrible loss.
Yevgeny Petrovitch Bykovsky does not understand the intensity of the feeling he has inflicted as a curse upon his son. Seryozha himself certainly does not understand, but he is nevertheless scared.
Lack of understanding and self-alienation lead to dishonest behavior and bears immoral implications: betrayal, adultery, lies and hurt. This common ground connects all characters:
The Emperor fears to acknowledge what is true and therefore condemns himself to unbelievable embarrassment.
Dmitri is afraid of the reality he does not understand and escapes from it as if bitten by a snake, into an abyss of sadness and sorrow.
The narrator eventually finds out he himself is tormented by fear and despair.
Yevgeny approves social conventions at the expense of his son’s fears.
Seryozha, who only wanted to spend time with his busy father, now has to suffer a substantial dose of admonition and paralyzing fear.
Each character operates within a narrow range, to serve an immediate purpose, without taking into consideration other people involved.
Each character looks away from the big picture and chooses the easiest way out, the cowardly solution, not understanding that it is the cruelest choice of all.
None of the characters do anything substantial to overcome their inner contradictions nor do they try to deal with reality.
None of the characters try to make a difference.
In the space between understanding and true connection to the “I”, subsists an emotional and intellectual numbness that leads to nothing but grief, regret and sorrow.
Anton Chekhov’s protagonists thus become unworthy and valueless individuals.
Their behavior leads to harmful and immoral consequences.