The rebelled “Messiah” in The Bishop by Anton Chekhov
The rebelled “Messiah” in The Bishop by Anton Chekhov
When considering the concept of the “Messiah”, one tends to focus on the person who personifies the role of the Holy Savior: how does society accept him, how does he manipulate the world around him, etc. In most cases, such a person would feel confident in his identification and in his mission to redeem the world. He would be a leader and he would transfer his self-assurance to his flock, in order to stand against those who don’t believe. It would be interesting to deviate from this common pattern and to observe a state in which a person is crowned as a messiah against his better judgment and his own will. This creates tension between the person and the way he is perceived by society that worships him with fanatical admiration.
Bishop Pyotr is Anton Chekhov’s messiah1. A person imprisoned by the image of his majestic position (and the adoration that derives from it).
The story which carries the title of his rank – The Bishop2 – is a heart-felt narrative of a man who was born to poverty and made his way into one of the highest and most influential professions in the clerical world. The religious rituals create the scenery for the emotional experiences of the bishop. Those feelings begin on the eve of Palm Sunday, when Pyotr’s mother unexpectedly appears. They end on Easter day, when Pyotr’s reassessment of his life ceases tragically due to his premature death.
Pyotr3 turns out to be a complex character, who folds within himself two polar classes: a holy person and a kind and simple man, who wishes to use his position in order to help his followers and his community.
Chekov elaborates on Pyotr’s chronologies during the wide-spread-exposition. He uses Pyotr’s memories as a psychological tool and by that enables an understanding of his inner struggles4. The way he retreats to the narrative history, makes it possible to examine the bishop’s personal background and to contrast it with his formal present. In the serene, pastoral village of Obnino there was a boy named little Pavel. He was a very poor boy, but also very happy and joyful, and he loved the religious ceremonies and processions5. Those lively and colorful times came to an end when Pavel entered the world of Christianity. There he spent his days in dark halls, stuffy classrooms and a convent of silence. His health began to degenerate and his eyesight wakened due to poor lighting. Emotionally, the severe gloominess had saddened him and Pavel became Pyotr, a contemplative and submissive human being. He took comfort in his early memories and despised the faked awe that surrounded him as he portrayed the role of the bishop6.
Pyotr the bishop is not a happy man; he hates the polite, estranged manner in which his congregation addresses him. He hates their lies, their hypocrisy, and the way they ingratiate and deprecate themselves before him. The women of the church are aggravatingly stupid, the peasants rough and crude and the theological students don’t know the first thing about education7.
His followers treat him as if he were the messiah. They consider him to be a holy and sublime entity: His Reverence Pyotr. Someone they could never speak with directly or openly, but only according to a very strict set of rules. Their behavior deprives any humane aspect of the bishop’s life. He is merely a representation of his position, nothing else. This detachment between his emotions and his perception as an iconic symbol hurts Pyotr, especially since he knows the value of humanity. As a sensitive and tolerant man he wishes to bond with his congregation, to speak from the heart and to shake off the perceived persona which is a heavy burden on his shoulders. But no-one allows him to do so. His repulsion reaches its peak as hatred that threatens to stifle him. Pyotr begins to loathe the falsification of his people. He can’t breathe in the church. He can’t breathe as a bishop. And it only gets worse, as the tension between his desire for the truth and the lies he is compelled to endure continue to intensify8.
Pyotr knows all too well that his position, including ceremonies, his talks and meetings with his flock and believers, are all worthless. The way in which he is forced to carry on in this charade weakens his mind and soul and brings him closer to his inevitable death9.
The gap between his inner world and the obligations as The Bishop is expressed in the representation of the minor characters in the story: Marya Timofeevna, Pyotr’s mother10 and Father Sisoi, the housekeeper of the convent.
Marya plays an integral part in her son’s life: she represents childhood, the feelings and the freedom, the lack of commitment and pretense. Basically, she is a loving and caring mother, but even Marya can’t overlook her son’s high position and therefore she addresses him with fear and respect, as if he were a stranger:
” “How long it is since we have seen one another!” exclaimed His Reverence, tenderly stroking his mother’s shoulder and hand, “I missed you when I was abroad, I missed you dreadfully.”
“Thank you very much!”
“I used to sit by my window in the evening listening to the band playing, and feeling lonely and forlorn. Sometimes I would suddenly grow so homesick that I used to think I would gladly give everything I had in the world for a glimpse of you and home.”
His mother smiled and beamed, and then immediately drew a long face and said stiffly:
“Thank you very much!”
The bishop’s mood changed. He looked at his mother, and could not understand where she had acquired that deferential, humble expression of face and voice, and what the meaning of it might be. He hardly recognized her, and felt sorrowful and vexed”11
Marya thanks Pyotr twice with great respect (“Thank you very much!”), all serious and well mannered, as if she wasn’t facing her own son. The awe she feels towards his rank alienates her from Pyotr and from her motherly role.
Marya fails to understand how worthy her son truly is. She is blinded by his being The Bishop. This failure is supported by the reason that had brought Marya to visit Pyotr in the first place: not a desire to meet her son but a journey to ask financial support from the great bishop:
“In spite of the tenderness with which she said this, it was clear that she was not at ease. It was as if she did not know whether to address the bishop by the familiar “thee” or the formal “you,” and whether she ought to laugh or not. She seemed to feel herself more of a poor deacon’s wife than a mother in his presence…Why did she talk so freely to Sisoi when all the while she was so serious and ill at ease with him, her own son? It was not like her at all!”12
The pleasant festivity that accompanied Marya’s so called family visit13 increases Pyotr’s frustration: the detachment between them upsets him. Marya, like everyone else, sees only the Holy Cleric, an empty shell, as far as Pyotr is concerned. Only at the end, when his illness gets the better of him, will Marya return to be “just” his mother, and he will return to be “just” her son. But now, the burden of his occupation weighs heavily on him as it weighs heavily on Marya, underlining the false attitude to “The Bishop”. In Marya’s eyes, there is no Pyotr.
The only exception is Father Sisoi, “The only person who behaved naturally in his (Pyotr’s) presence, and who said whatever came into his head… And therefore His Reverence felt at ease with Sisoi, even though he was, without a doubt, a rough and quarrelsome person”14.
Being accustomed to serve bishops, Sisoi acts freely and openly with Pyotr and is not reluctant to share his views and opinions with him, even when they don’t reconcile with his official role15. Pyotr also speaks freely and openly with Sisoi and confesses his sorrows and pains. Sisoi is not alarmed nor is he excited when Pyotr reveals his vulnerable side. On the contrary: he gives all the help and support to Pyotr, so he can regain his strength and fulfill his “Bishop” role.
The old monk represents the unchanging circle of priesthood16: during his days Siosi had outlived many bishops and clerics whom he served. This fact intensifies the sense that the bishopric role is eternal and deprived of any meaning as to the people who occupied the position during the years. Indeed, as far as the congregation, the cathedral, the ceremonies and the rituals, Bishop Pyotr is only one small link in a very long chain, a part of an ongoing, endless tradition17. But where does he – as an individual – find himself in this old and long establishment?
The person behind the title and the obligation of the Messiah simple doesn’t exist.
It is not accidental that Pyotr’s death occurs on the Eve of Easter: the decease of The Bishop is the resurrection of the man. The lyrical description of Easter’s eve carries hope that Pyotr’s memory will remain long after he is gone. However, the narrator informs the readers that, from the moment that a new bishop is nominated, no-one remembers Pyotr anymore, apart from his mother, who lives in a far off district. Marya tells her friends about her son, but she does so carefully, fearing they might not believe her (“And, as a matter of fact, not all of them do”19.
Pyotr is an honest and commendable character, but no-one sees the honorable and moral person he is. They are too busy with praising his position. This dissolute approach turns “Saint Pyotr” to “Frustrated Pyotr”, confined between their madness and his own insanity.
As it often happens with sick people, Pyotr (who is suffering from a fatal illness) becomes irritated and aggravated during the course of the story. He perceives all the people around him as pitiful, selfish and uneducated human beings: “And he, who had never been able to say a harsh word in his sermons, and who never blamed people because he pitied them so, would grow exasperated with these suppliants, and hurl their petitions to the ground. Not a soul had spoken sincerely and naturally to him since he had been here”20
Nonetheless, Pyotr’s behavior is more than a sick man’s aggravation: it suffers from great discontent that increases as Pyotr (unknowingly) approaches the end of his life. The encounter with death gives him a new perspective as to what is desirable and right in the world and in his own life. Thanks to his mother and her visit, which starts off his emotional process, Pyotr examines his current existence in light of his memories. Finally he grasps just how deep the abyss between his inner self and his holy position truly is: even though he has reached the highest peak, the admired bishop is the loneliest person in all of his surroundings21.
The fracture between the man and his position, between Pyotr and the Bishop, between the image of the messiah and the man has never been more evident or more painful.
In everyday life people crown messiah-leaders, so they can show them the way and provide meaning to their lives. The problem of such a coronation is that it removes any sense of criticism and allows complete and absolute devotion to the Almighty Messiah.
Those who worshiped Pyotr truly believed that he would be the one to redeem them from their tragedies. They gave him the control and responsibility over their lives and walked away from their own duty to make a difference and change themselves for the better.
Pyotr the bishop couldn’t have redeemed his believers from their troubles and distress, but it was easier for them to believe he could, to perceive him as their savior. Thus they refused to see him as the person he was and brought upon themselves their own destruction: endless circle of endless mistakes with endless pain.
Pyotr understands the moral impediment of his congregation’s pettiness, their selfishness and the sins they carried out in the name of religion. This understanding had got the better of him. It tore him apart. Pyotr collapses under the burden of his image, under the rupture between “The Bishop” and the “I”, but, at the same time, by doing that, he reconnects with himself again, with the Pyotr that was left behind22.
Pyotr the bishop perished the moment a new Bishop took his place. But Pyotr the person with his honest and deepest morality was the truth which overcame the false pretense23 and continued to resonance long, ever after.