Orthodoxy and piety – “The Murder” by Anton Chekhov
Orthodoxy and piety –
The Murder by Anton Chekhov
On the scale between practicing belief and religious zeal, what is the criterion for the boundary separating acceptable religious practice from excess?
Anton Chekhov’s story, The Murder, opens with a positive exposition of one of the most outstanding markers of religious practice: the prayer.
This ceremony takes place perhaps in the most unlikely location imaginable: a railroad station.
It is certainly not the appropriate place to accommodate a service, for the railroad station is not designed for such. A railroad station separates people as opposed to prayer which unites them. Yet, precisely in this place, the evening service is being held: “Before the great ikon, painted in glaring colours on a background of gold, stood the crowd of railway servants with their wives and children, and also of the timbermen and sawyers who worked close to the railway line. All stood in silence, fascinated by the glare of the lights and the howling of the snow-storm which was aimlessly disporting itself outside, regardless of the fact that it was the Eve of the Annunciation. The old priest from Vedenyapino conducted the service; the sacristan and Matvey Terehov were singing.
Matvey’s face was beaming with delight; he sang stretching out his neck as though he wanted to soar upwards. He sang tenor and chanted the “Praises” too in a tenor voice with honeyed sweetness and persuasiveness. When he sang “Archangel Voices” he waved his arms like a conductor, and trying to second the sacristan’s hollow bass with his tenor, achieved something extremely complex, and from his face it could be seen that he was experiencing great pleasure.”1
The prayer brings transcendent bliss to Matvey Terehov, the protagonist. This is not a simple, mundane enjoyment but a sensation of sublimity, a feeling that lifts him from everyday reality to a heavenly experience. For him it is sometimes far more meaningful than the charm of the flickering candles against the storm outside: magic that germinates from the core of his soul and fills him with peace and serenity.
The prayer, the chants and the spiritual majesty are the uniting aspects that join the strangers in Progonnaya Station and turn them into a group with a united spiritual experience. The ceremony bonds the public who crowd together. Without it, they are merely citizens. The only commonalty they share is their presence. This is the shining light in the darkness of their day. Without there will be nothing left: “At last the service was over, and they all quietly dispersed, and it was dark and empty again, and there followed that hush which is only known in stations that stand solitary in the open country or in the forest when the wind howls and nothing else is heard and when all the emptiness around, all the dreariness of life slowly ebbing away is felt.”2
Matvey lives in his cousin’s tavern. Although no one was left at the station, he does not wish to return to where he lives. The main reason being that he does not wish to turn his back on the elevating experience he had had. Therefore he lingers and begins conversing with someone about himself.
Matvey is not content with his present life at his cousin’s pub. He has to lodge there due to his weak health, but he is distressed by the long distance from his church. The crude and vulgar manners of his cousin’s family also deeply upsets him: the swearwords, the dirt, the crowding. His cousin, Yakov Ivanitch, is a scrupulous religious believer. He often rebukes and reproaches everyone, strictly judging all those who do not practice the commandments (according to that which he considers to be right) and arranges religious ceremonies in his house, under the encouragement and support of his shriveled sister, who carries out this severity with great devotion.
A way to better understand the status of Yakov Ivanitch’s and Matvey’s house and inn, is to look at Sergey Nikanoritch.
Sergey Nikanoritch is a waiter in Progonnaya Station. He “had once had money of his own, and had kept a buffet at a first-class station, which was a junction, in the principal town of a province. There he had worn a swallow-tail coat and a gold chain.”3
Due to a chain of misfortunes, personal as well as professional, Sergey Nikanoritch ends up at the miserable, filthy and pitiable Progonnaya Station. Sergey Nikanoritch and Matvey Terehov both share the same wretchedness. They mirror each other. The measly house of the Terehov family is as every bit depressing as the railroad station and the emptiness of the inn resonance with the distressing decline of Sergey Nikanoritch. Yet whilst Sergey is ensnared in his disappointment and frustration, and wallows in it with increasing sorrow and anger, Matvey is able to create for himself a momentary but meaningful time in the improvised chapel. Prayer and religion are Matvey’s lifeline and his advantage over poor Sergey Nikanoritch’s ongoing misery. In a world without hope and possibilities, prayer and religion are his only anchor.
Matvey’s religious inclination began in his early youth, when he accompanied his mother on her summer pilgrimages. Later he joined the choir of the factory, where they used to linger over the prayers. The workers were not happy with this but Matvey was delighted. This old and sweet childhood memory brought him great pleasure in his old age. However, although he loved the naivety, or maybe because of it, his spiritual bliss was not complete in those innocent days: it was Satan, so he explains now, who changed his behavior and began enticing and persuading him to go to the extreme in his devoutness and religion. Thus became Matvey holier than thou: he started to abstain from eating meat, butter and oil, from drinking tea. He devoted himself to fasts. This physical self-mortification came too easily once he was accustomed to it and therefore he added more ascetic restrictions that tormented his body. To everyone he could demonstrate his deep commitment to religious life. His excesses brought Matvery to be pedantic with the priests, before whom he wished to confess, the cantors and the elderly vicars: they were frivolous and pleasure seeking in his eyes. It seemed to him that no one took the customs and sermons and commandments seriously anymore, certainly not with same gravity that Matvery did. No one was fit to guide public prayer or to hear confessions. No one was worthy enough. Therefore Matvery removed himself from the community and the company of “lazy, sinful public activists”. For him, they were all defiled. He wanted to establish a church for himself, by himself.
Retrospectively, Matvery understands that this behavior was not worthy religious orthodoxy, but vanity. However, back then his asceticism had crowned Matvery as a saint:
“I never had healed anyone, of course, but we all know wherever any heresy or false doctrine springs up there’s no keeping the female sex away. They are just like flies on the honey. Old maids and females of all sorts came trailing to me, bowing down to my feet, kissing my hands and crying out I was a saint and all the rest of it, and one even saw a halo round my head. It was too crowded in the prayer-room. I took a bigger room, and then we had a regular tower of Babel. The devil got hold of me completely and screened the light from my eyes with his unclean hoofs. We all behaved as though we were frantic […]. It was horrible! I, too, would shiver all over […]. I don’t know myself why, and our legs began to prance about. It’s a strange thing, indeed: you don’t want to, but you prance about and waggle your arms; and after that, screaming and shrieking, we all danced and ran after one another — ran till we dropped; and in that way, in wild frenzy, I fell into fornication […]. But I was not killed by a thunderbolt […]. When everyone in the town looked upon me as a saint, and even the ladies and gentlemen of good family used to come to me in secret for consolation, I happened to go into our landlord, Osip Varlamitch, to ask forgiveness… he fastened the door with the hook, and we were left alone face to face. And he began to reprove me […]. ‘I have been wanting to get at you for a long time, you rascal […]. You think you are a saint […]. No you are not a saint, but a backslider from God, a heretic and an evildoer! […].’ And he went on and on… He talked for two hours. His words penetrated my soul; my eyes were opened. I listened, listened and — burst into sobs! ‘Be an ordinary man,’ he said, ‘eat and drink, dress and pray like everyone else. All that is above the ordinary is of the devil. Your chains […] are of the devil; your fasting is of the devil; your prayer-room is of the devil. It is all pride,’ he said. Next day […if] it pleased God I should fall ill. I ruptured myself and was taken to the hospital. I was terribly worried, and wept bitterly and trembled. I thought there was a straight road before me from the hospital to hell, and I almost died. I was in misery on a bed of sickness for six months, and when I was discharged the first thing I did I confessed, and took the sacrament in the regular way and became a man again. Osip Varlamitch saw me off home and exhorted me: ‘Remember, Matvey, that anything above the ordinary is of the devil.’ And now I eat and drink like everyone else and pray like everyone else […]. If it happens now that the priest smells of tobacco or vodka I don’t venture to blame him, because the priest, too, of course, is an ordinary man. But as soon as I am told that in the town or in the village a saint has set up who does not eat for weeks, and makes rules of his own, I know whose work it is. So that is how I carried on in the past, gentlemen. Now, like Osip Varlamitch, I am continually exhorting my cousins and reproaching them, but I am a voice crying in the wilderness. God has not vouchsafed me the gift.”4
The women who come to Matvey seek refuge from their troubles and diseases. One can excuse their irrational behavior as lightheadedness but fundamentally the womens’ harsh life, single and married alike, had known their share of burden and grief. Therefore, with their painful yet fervent cry for redemption, they turn to who they consider to be on a higher plane and therefore – a savior. Matvey understands their actions perfectly well, and their desperate longing to find meaning. He drives from the same emotional base.
Matvey learned that belief is a powerful sensation; belief in superior powers or holiness – even more so.
However, Matvey past madness and temporary insanity, due to pride, did not end with Osip Varlamitch’s educated reproof. Now his cousins “suffer” the same extreme false perception, that makes them appear holier, purer and righteous in their own eyes. This perception encourages them to walk in the same path leading to perdition. Yet, whilst Matvey’s way led him to debauchery and the birth of illegitimate child, his cousins, Yakov Ivanitch’s and his sister Aglaia’s strictness reduce them to a much worse situation. They too needed someone to change their minds, a guide to expose their perception and compel them to change. Sadly for Matvey and to his great misfortune – as the story will show – there is no such guide around.
The narrator neither expresses his opinion as an explicit criticism nor supports the actions of Yakov Ivanitch and Aglaia. In stead, he stretches a fine but very perceivable line of denunciation, when he identifies their residence as the dwelling of witches and evil creatures.
First, by the snow – “clouds of snow were whirling round like witches on broomsticks.”5
Second, by the stormy weather outside that acts as if it is has an intention to warn Matvey of the danger ahead6.
Third, by the way random visitors perceive the inn in which he and his family live: “The dark roofed-in courtyard and the gates always kept locked excited, especially on moonlight nights, a feeling of depression and unaccountable uneasiness in people who drove by with posting-horses, as though sorcerers or robbers were living in it.”7
Even prior to their religious excesses, the Terehov’s family was not much-loved by others, certainly not with their constant angry faces, the over-priced charges of their inn the and the untidiness in their house, yard and animals. Yakov Ivanitch and Aglaia “preserved” the dirt, the mire and the disorder as they neglected the maintenance of their home. Furthermore, they maintained the same extreme religious strictness that ran through the family descendants from generation to generation. Some sort of a genetic flaw of the preservation of a tainted notion that was never rebutted, most likely because there was no one strong enough to challenge it:
“The Terehovs had always been distinguished by their piety, so much so that they had even been given the nickname of the “Godlies”. But perhaps because they lived apart like bears, avoided people and thought out all their ideas for themselves, they were given to dreams and to doubts and to changes of faith and almost each generation had a peculiar faith of its own. The grandmother Avdotya, who had built the inn, was an Old Believer; her son and both her grandsons (the fathers of Matvey and Yakov) went to the Orthodox church, entertained the clergy, and worshipped before the new ikons as devoutly as they had done before the old. The son in old age refused to eat meat and imposed upon himself the rule of silence, considering all conversation as sin; it was the peculiarity of the grandsons that they interpreted the Scripture not simply, but sought in it a hidden meaning, declaring that every sacred word must contain a mystery.
Avdotya’s great-grandson Matvey had struggled from early childhood with all sorts of dreams and fancies and had been almost ruined by it; the other great-grandson, Yakov Ivanitch, was orthodox, but after his wife’s death he gave up going to church and prayed at home. Following his example, his sister Aglaia had turned, too; she did not go to church herself, and did not let Dashutka8 go. Of Aglaia it was told that in her youth she used to attend the Flagellant meetings in Vedenyapino, and that she was still a Flagellant in secret, and that was why she wore a white kerchief.”9
Was it indeed a genetic flaw or was this madness influenced by the family’s isolation throughout the centuries? Are there people who are more inclined to act in an irrational manner and add restrictions when restrictions are not needed? Is it a tendency or is the danger present to everyone?
Be that as it may, Yakov Ivanitch, like Matvey, prohibits himself from praying the church because to him, public prayer is not as strict as it should be. The fact that, to him, priests drank and smoked was not acceptable.
Yakov Ivanitch does not think his life is wrong or distorted. Quite the opposite: his deeds seem to him proper and worthy. This is the path for every man – the only way to live: “He read, sang, burned incense and fasted, not for the sake of receiving blessings of some sort from God, but for the sake of good order. Man cannot live without religion, and religion ought to be expressed from year to year and from day to day in a certain order, so that every morning and every evening a man might turn to God with exactly those words and thoughts that were befitting that special day and hour. One must live, and, therefore, also pray as is pleasing to God, and so every day one must read and sing what is pleasing to God–that is, what is laid down in the rule of the church […]. The consciousness of this order and its importance afforded Yakov Ivanitch great gratification during his religious exercises. When he was forced to break this order by some necessity — to drive to town or to the bank, for instance his conscience was uneasy and he felt miserable.”10
Faith in life, as far as Yakov Ivanitch is concerned, is an important commodity. It helps people sanctify their secular, everyday routine and put meaning and worth into it. Therefore, faith should be respected and practiced, for it glorifies the one who pursues it. Yakov Ivanitch considers himself as a man who sanctifies and dedicates himself to a noble cause. He walks the religious path and every deviation is a sin that torments his soul.
Matvey constantly judges Yakov Ivanitch’s preaching. He undermines Yakov Ivanitch’s and Aglaia’s serenity as he condemns their actions. The worst thing of all is the fact that Matvey is not perceived as a worthy character but rather as a lazy type, who avoids effort and the devotion required for such spirituality. Yet Yakov and Aglaia do not accept his rebuke.
This can be interpreted as simple differences of opinion, as if it is not evident who is right and who exaggerates. However, the narrator positions Matvey’s confession about his blindness and sobriety prior to the description of Yakov Ivanitch’s disturbed behavior, thus presenting the latter with well-deserved criticism. That and more: in spite of Yakov Ivanitch’s tall and handsome appearance, his eyes express evilness and expose what lies beneath his impressive appearance and tailored clothes11. His mental state begins to deteriorate. Matvey’s words penetrate his conscience. He is swept again with delusions and hallucinations as the enduring cold, dark winter intensifies. Yakov Ivanitch’s soul ferments with agitation and constant desire to argue. His sleep becomes disturbed. In the midst of this turmoil, Yakov Ivanitch starts to reassess his life: when he looks at his daughter, who “[…] looked at her father in perplexity, dully, not understanding (gaze) […]. He would have admonished her, but she struck him as so savage and benighted; and for the first time he realized that she had no religion. And all this life in the forest, in the snow, with drunken peasants, with coarse oaths, seemed to him as savage and benighted as this girl, and instead of giving her a lecture he only waved his hand and went back into the room.
At that moment the policeman and Sergey Nikanoritch came in again to see Matvey. Yakov Ivanitch thought that these people, too, had no religion, and that that did not trouble them in the least; and human life began to seem to him as strange, senseless and unenlightened as a dog’s. Bareheaded he walked about the yard, then he went out on to the road, clenching his fists. Snow was falling in big flakes at the time. His beard was blown about in the wind. He kept shaking his head, as though there were something weighing upon his head and shoulders, as though devils were sitting on them; and it seemed to him that it was not himself walking about, but some wild beast, a huge terrible beast, and that if he were to cry out his voice would be a roar that would sound all over the forest and the plain, and would frighten everyone…”12
The disorientation makes Yakov Ivanitch lose his mind and he strikes Matvey who had annoyed him, yet again. His angry blow does not kill Matvey – Aglaia does that: she hits him with an iron, under her brother command, and never express remorse for her actions. Her hatred for Matvey only inflames her anger.
Yakov Ivanitch’s and Aglaia’s harshness had led them to perform a horrifying and cruel murder. They turn Yakov Ivanitch ‘s daughter Dashutka and Sergey Nikanoritch into accomplices. All four are judged, imprisoned and banished to Siberia Their lives, that never could be valuable, become even less tolerable. However, “ever since he had lived in prison together with men banished here from all ends of the earth […] and ever since he had listened to their talk and watched their sufferings, he had begun to turn again to God, and it seemed to him at last that he had learned the true faith for which all his family, from his grandmother Avdotya down, had so thirsted, which they had sought so long and which they had never found. He knew it all now and understood where God was, and how He was to be served, and the only thing he could not understand was why men’s destinies were so diverse, why this simple faith which other men receive from God for nothing and together with their lives, had cost him such a price that his arms and legs trembled like a drunken man’s from all the horrors and agonies which as far as he could see would go on without a break to the day of his death. He looked with strained eyes into the darkness, and it seemed to him that through the thousand miles of that mist he could see home, could see his native province, his district, Progonnaya, could see the darkness, the savagery, the heartlessness, and the dull, sullen, animal indifference of the men he had left there. His eyes were dimmed with tears; but still he gazed into the distance where the pale lights of the steamer faintly gleamed, and his heart ached with yearning for home, and he longed to live, to go back home to tell them there of his new faith and to save from ruin if only one man, and to live without suffering if only for one day.”13
In his acute understanding during the hardest time of his life, Yakov Ivanitch finally grasps the worthlessness of practicing faith out of ignorance. He finally sees the lie in a religion that condemns others for not being good enough. After all was lost, Yakov Ivanitch discovers the genuine essence of life – not the meaning he or his crazy family falsely considered to be the truth. When the fortification of inner conviction collapses and simple human sentiment emerges, then righteous faith can come about. This faith stems from compassion, inspiring a better life.
Yakov Ivanitch is the last link14. When he dies, his death will mark the end of the family’s religious madness.
Yakov Ivanitch’s false perception had led to murder and the destruction of family unity. His awakening was too late.
When will others wake?