THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and
shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off. . . .
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”
“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips. . . . Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir.”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever. . . . He lay three days in the hospital and then he died. . . . God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on! . . .” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box. . . . Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another. . . .
Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.
Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare. . . . The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.
“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg. . . .”
“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”
“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”
“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”
“Strike me dead, it’s the truth! . . .”
“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”
“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”
“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well.”
Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
“This week . . . er. . . my. . . er. . . son died!”
“We shall all die, . . .” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”
“Well, you give him a little encouragement . . . one in the neck!”
“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say? ”
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
“He-he! . . . ” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen . . . . God give you health!”
“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here my son’s dead and I am alive. . . . It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it went for my son. . . .”
And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. . . . The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery. . . . His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight. . . .
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.
“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.
“Going on for ten. . . . Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins. . . . He can bear it no longer.
“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!” And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early. . . .
“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work, . . . who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease. . . .”
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.
“May it do you good. . . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It’s a queer business. . . .”
Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. . . . Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation. . . . He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. . . . He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country. . . . And he wants to talk about her too. . . . Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . . It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.
“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep. . . . You’ll have sleep enough, no fear. . . .”
He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. . . . He cannot think about his son when he is alone. . . . To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish. . . .
“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away. . . . Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. . . . Yes, . . . I have grown too old to drive. . . . My son ought to be driving, not I. . . . He was a real cabman. . . . He ought to have lived. . . .”
Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:
“That’s how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . . He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . . . Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you? . . .”
The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
There is nothing one can say in order to enlarge upon a Chekhov short-story. It speaks for itself and says everything that can possibly be said about its subject. We can only justly speak about the the rock-hard grain of insight he has embedded in the heart of his account. The unblinking eye Chekhov casts upon human nature is coldly dispassionate, even as he urges us to feel compassion.
‘Misery’ is about a man whose heart is on the verge of crumbling into grief, but it is a grief which cannot be eased by sharing: Not because it cannot be spoken, but because there is simply no one in his whole world who will give him an ear, even for a moment.
The callousness and self-centredness Iona the cabman encounters in his passengers, so busy with their useless comings and goings, makes them oblivious to his pitiful situation. Somehow, the lack of awareness and feeling that blinds them to all but the most single-minded focus on fulfilling their trivial needs swamps their ability to be humane in the slightest of ways. Iona’s offer of a drink of water from the common pail to one of the lodgers in his flophouse fails to engage the young man in the conversation Iona longs to have, because the lodger is too exhausted himself to stay awake long enough to listen: exhaustion is just another type of incapacity.
Iona too is oblivious in his own way. At the careless bidding of his oafish passengers, he unhesitatingly brandishes his whip at his hard-working little mare, and it doesn’t seem to worry him that at the close of an exhausting day of pulling a hack in the bitter cold of a Russian winter, she goes unfed but for a little hay.
He knows he could confide in his daughter Anisya who lives in the country, but deigns not to, perhaps because she is unavailable at the time, but also perhaps because he finds women to be too foolish, and their emotions to be merely reflexive. These things – which the ruthless Chekhovian eye takes in, make it difficult for me to summon up the empathy and compassion I know I am being required to feel.
And that of course is something which could be construed as ‘original sin’ in us humans. It does not come naturally to most of us to care about others. We too keep missing the moment of potential connection, for any number of reasons – trivial or otherwise – or merely because of our unconscious habit.
Katherine Mansfield was a fervent admirer of Chekhov in general, but of this story in particular, and it is easy to see why. Like many of her own stories, it unfolds rapidly – over a single day – in this case a single evening. Chekhov differs from Mansfield in that his prose style has more weight – more gravity – and his narrative possesses more external and chronological order. On the other hand, one finds that Mansfield’s stories are more dominated by imagistic connections – we experience moments as being connected by perception rather than thoughts.
This is a shift that separates Mansfield’s ‘Modernist’ writing from all its predecessors. It is strictly a female innovation, though it was enthusiastically adopted by men such as James Joyce. One also feels that Mansfield observes and infers, but does not judge or conclude, whereas Chekhov does both, or at least he leads us to the edge of the precipice of judgement so forcefully that our own momentum carries us beyond it.
When we cast an historical eye backwards on the crushing exigencies of Iona’s life, events such as the Russian Revolution make much more sense – and with greater immediacy – than the most acute political analysis ever could. Chekhov sharply sketches the just complaints of one class against another and crystalises them with brutal economy.
When my mind inevitably turns to speculations about the fate of Iona and his little mare, the picture I see turns dismayingly from grey to black. Iona will whip her, and over-work her, and soon she will be on the brink of death of starvation and exhaustion. He will then escort her to the knacker’s yard, kiss her goodbye, and sell her for a few kopeks. Then he will make his way to the home of his daughter, and she will have to take him in, as the couple had to in Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’. Home usually turns out to be any place of last resort. Like his similarly unlucky biblical namesake, Iona’s time spent in the city, swallowed in the belly of leviathan, is likely to be returned by fate to the place where he is destined to be. We can hope that he will end his days working with his daugher on the farm he used to plough with his little white mare.
Chekhov died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of 44 – sixteen years before the Russian Revolution. He lived ten years longer than Mansfield, (who died of the same disease when she was 34,) and left behind a much larger body of work than she was able to. But in a sense, to me at least, Chekhov’s writing is ‘more of the same’. One reads his story as a listener, and not as an experiencer. Events are ‘observed’ from in front of the eyes, and not behind them, and that, to my mind, is one of the essential difference between Chekhov and Mansfield.