The Return of the Prodigal Father
The Return of the Prodigal Father
as illustrated in two stories by the authors
O. Henry and Anton Chekhov
One day, an eccentric old man, who wanted to unfold his life story as the wandering Jew, entered the offices of a newspaper editor in a small god-forsaken town. This is the essence of O. Henry’s story – The Door of Unrest: both historical and fictional epos.
Rothschild Fiddle, one of the Anton Chekhov’s best known stories, is the description of a maker of coffins last days, who’s sudden loss of his wife leads him to contemplate on his own wasted life.
At first glance it seems that there is nothing in common between the two stories, which spring from different experiences, in different countries and different cultures. Unlike the detailed portrayal of the wandering Jew in O. Henry’s story, Chekhov does not linger on his protagonist’s appearance; Yakov Ivanov is only described when there is a necessity to understand his actions and occupation:
“The coffins made by Yakov were serviceable and strong. For the peasants and townsfolk he made them to fit himself and never went wrong, for, although he was seventy years old, there was no man, not even in the prison, any taller or stouter than he was.”1
And yet, one motif, central and important, links the two characters: emotion.
Profound sadness is reflected in the eyes of the alleged wandering Jew – Michob Ader.
This arouses the editor’s curiosity and he wishes to know what has happened to the man, who’s “face was seared and lined and warped by a sadness almost incredibly the product of a single lifetime.”2
But Michob Ader is a riddle. On the other hand, Yakov Ivanov’s story is revealed early. The Chekhov narrator very carefully unfolds the truth about Ivanov’s identity in the opening exposition: “He lived as poorly as any common peasant in a little old hut of one room, in which he and Martha, and the stove, and a double bed, and the coffins, and his joiner’s bench, and all the necessities of housekeeping were stowed away.”3
It seems that Yakov, also called Bronze, has no feelings; he is estranged and alienated in his work, in his family life and even when he is engaged in soul searching. He does not show emotion; an inner sadness, hidden from his neighbors and his acquaintances, fills him. The neighbors continue to fear his strength and height, but the narrator and readers will share Yakov transformation at the end of the story.
Bronze lives in a world of losses. He does not initiate a practical strategy to gain profit, but always regrets the things he did not do: possibilities that came and went, business he could have done – but did not, opportunities he missed, people who refused to collaborate with his plans. He creates his own reality of failure. His fate is doomed. His end is near.
Michob Ader lives in a world of pain: he has practiced soul searching every single day for thirty years, ever since the life changing event that then had happened to him.
Bronze had experienced a similar life changing event, fifty years previously.
Michob Ader and Yakov Ivanov Bronze were both fathers.
Each had an only daughter.
Each daughter had died4.
Neither Bronze nor Ader directly faced their daughter’s deaths: Michob, who real name is Mike O’Bader, deteriorates into fits of drunkenness once a month and then considers himself to be the wandering Jew, the cobbler from Jerusalem who provoked Jesus on his way to the crucifixion and thus was cursed to wander forever, until judgment day. O’Bader – Ader repeatedly claims he is not a Jew5, but he deeply identifies with the legend:
“[…] he seized my coat, grovelled upon my desk, and burst again into distressful weeping. Whatever it was about, I said to myself that his grief was genuine.
“Come now, Mr. Ader,” I said, soothingly; “what is the matter?”
The answer came brokenly through his racking sobs: “Because I would not… let the poor Christ… rest… upon the step.”"6
Ader’s daughter had died a horrible death: she drowned in a mill pond, persecuted by a crowd of men and women, who wanted to deport her from the city. When the riot started, Ader’s daughter had run first to her father’s house and knocked on his door for him to rescue her. But the man who opened the door did not act as a father: he hit her, knocked her down and shut the door in her face.
Michob Ader does not mention this story to the editor, who had heard it from one of the elders of the city. Yet, the tragedy had created a scar in the heart and soul of Michob: “everywhere I go there comes storms and revolutions and plagues and fires”7 he says, talking about his punishment – to assist Pontius Pilate wash his hands on Good Fridays8, as a penalty for both of them over their act of treason.The editor tries to alleviate Ader-O’Bader’s broken spirit: “Cheer up, Mr. Ader [...]. this matter may blow over in a few hundred years more. There has already been a decided reaction in favour of Judas Iscariot and Colonel Burr and the celebrated violinist, Signor Nero. This is the age of whitewash. You must not allow yourself to become down-hearted.”9
These words pretend to be words of support, but actually they are a sophisticated allusion, placing Ader-O’Bader’s act of treason in relation to three of the world greatest traitors:
Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, who had turned him in to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver10 - the same as the number of years that had passed from Ader’s daughter’s death.
Colonel Burr, an American politician, notorious for his trial on charges of treason, from which he was eventually acquitted11.
Signor Nero is Nero Caesar, who was accused of causing the great fire of Rome12.
All four – Judas, Colonel Burr, Nero Caesar and Pontius Pilatus – embody three different aspects of treason: Judas and Pilatus represent religious betrayal, Burr represents political treachery and Nero represents deceiving the people.
Mike O’Bader represents them all – within himself.
Mike O’Bader is not only the shoemaker who slammed the door in the face of his desperate daughter13:
He is the father who hit his daughter and sentenced her to death; with that very stroke, with the refusal to stand before the bloodthirsty rabble, he denied himself – Fatherhood.
He rejects his Prodigal daughter’s wish to return home.
The implication to the allegory of the Prodigal Son appears already in the exposition:
“I sat an hour by sun, in the editor’s room of the Montopolis Weekly Bugle […]. The saffron rays of the declining sunlight filtered through the cornstalks in Micajah Widdup’s garden-patch, and cast an amber glory upon my paste-pot […]. The room, with its one window, was already a prey to the twilight […]. I listened, full of kindly peace, to the home-coming cow-bells and wondered what Mrs. Flanagan was going to have for supper.”14
The colors of the sun, the saffron, the amber and the twilight create affinity to Rembrandt’s famous painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son15. The old father, whose moustaches and beard had already turned gray, hurries to meet his son at the door and welcome him with the greatest fatherly love possible. His face radiates kindness and nobility. His wealth is recognized by his clothes: the coat of Ochre and Scarlet (which recalls the saffron), the yellow – brown and gold – olive sleeves, in contrast to his son’s tattered rags. The son who returned from his journeys appears wretched. One shoe is placed besides him (a fact that corresponds to the shoemaking business of Mike O’Bader). The son kneels before his father, who places his hands on his son’s shoulders in a gentle gesture16.
The tall man with the grave expression represents the older brother of the prodigal son, who opposes the father’s compassion towards his sinful son (a position expressed by his crosses hands).
The cows and (yellow) cornstalks also correspond to a painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio17 which bears the same name. The painting depicts the pleading faces of the son and his desperate cry, expressed in his tightly crosses fingers, to return to his family, under the protection of his father.
His clothes are torn but colorful, possible remains of what could have been a wealthy costume, maybe circus like, which echoes with Mike O’Bader’s daughter, who was “a right pretty girl. She was too gay a sort for Montopolis so one day she slips off to another town and runs away with a circus”18.
The man to his right carries a tray with a spectacular cloak, as a token to the father’s future forgiveness and the son’s return to his family. This appearance also resonates with the glamorous appearance of Mike O’Bader’s daughter, who came to visit him “all fixed up in fine clothes and rings and jewellery”19. The man who carries the tray is dressed in a yellow costume, which hints of the cornstalks, very much like the saffron gown of the embracing father. The boy who pulls the cart in the background recalls the home-coming cows in O Henry’s story. The meeting, very like Rembrandt’s painting, takes place over the threshold of the house. The warmth and fatherly proximityis in the paintings is in strong contrast to Mike O’Bader’s rejection of his own daughter on his own threshold, which was once her home20.
That and more: the name Micajah is a derivative of the biblical name Micah, which appears in the Judges, a man from mount Ephraim – a son who had stolen a considerable amount of money from his mother21.
The theft from his own mother expresses the element of treason, which is similar to the actions of Mike O’Bader.
The continuance of Micah’s story is difficult. It is about a woman being chased by a raging rabble and dying before a shut door, behind which is the man meant to be her protector22. The Door of Unrest has the same horrific pattern.
Yakov Ivanov’s daughter was also a prodigal daughter. She died in a way known to the reader, but unknown to Yakov Ivanov.
The death of the daughter was completely forgotten by the bereaved father. The coffin maker buried his own child, and that possibly was the reason why “he was always very reluctant to take orders for children’s coffins, and made them contemptuously without taking any measurements at all, always saying when he was paid for them: “The fact is, I don’t like to be bothered with trifles”.23
In Bronze’s world there are no friends or social gatherings. There are no holidays or festivities. There is no wife or spouse. The only reality Yakov Ivanov Bronze sees is the reality of loss: loss of dignity24, loss of money25, loss of family26.
Bronze does not recognize the gravest loss of all – loss of family: he does not pay attention to his wife and blocks out the memory of his daughter. The sudden deterioration in his wife Martha’s condition changes his attitude. The joy that washes over Martha when she senses her imminent death disturbs him: “He looked round at his wife. Her face was flushed with fever and looked unusually joyful and bright. Bronze was troubled, for he had been accustomed to seeing her pale and timid and unhappy. It seemed to him that she was actually dead, and glad to have left this hut, and the coffins, and Yakov at last [….] her face looked so strangely happy, and horror overwhelmed him.”27
Martha does not fear death. On the contrary: she longs for it. This is her liberation from the never ending everyday hardships and from the thickheaded man beside her28.
A man whose heart had turned to stone years ago and since then he is nothing but an angry and bitter person.
The emotional losses of Yakov Ivanov created Bronze.
Yakov understands the difficulty in his life but not the reason for it. Not even when Martha tries to arouse the memory of the dead child, she who was the cause of his alteration of character29.
Only when he finds himself on the river bank, next to the old willow tree – “suddenly there flashed across Yakov’s memory with all the vividness of life a little child with golden curls, and the willow of which Martha had spoken.”30
Yakov cannot reconcile to his daughter’s nothingness. His memory of her is only recalled in that place – under the willow tree; a beautiful moment when they were all together; a moment of love.
The death of the daughter was the reason that Yokov had turned into Bronze.
The death that had changed his perception of the world: people do not “live” – they just wait for death.
That death had made everything else meaningless.
Bronze could not handle it.
Neither could Mike O’Bader.
Mike O’Bader relives the tragic loss of his daughter every single day. The pain is scorched in his flesh, engraved in his face, “unexplained wretchedness, the problematic sorrow, the esoteric woe”31
Only at the end of the story the truth about the daughters of Mike O’Bader and Yakov Ivanov Bronze reveals itself. It is a deliberate deferral, which enables the reader to ponder on the troubled complexity of the characters; protagonists who conduct themselves in a confused manner (O’Bader) or sometimes in a rough and violent manner (Bronze).
“”When old Mike has a spell,” went on Uncle Abner, tepidly garrulous, “he thinks he’s the Wanderin’ Jew.”
“He is,” said I, nodding away.”32
Mike O’Bader takes on the role of Michob Ader.
Yakov Ivanov takes on the role of Bronze.
Their emotional masks show the truth, in a way that they never could.
Their mask is their opportunity to embrace the daughter they once had and lost and become, for one more moment, true fathers.
Like the prodigal son, they are also forgiven.