The first paragraph of Anton Chekhov’s “The Death of A Government Clerk” is interesting and unexpected. The language that’s used and the way it’s written gives this casual feeling to it. It almost feels as if the author is just having a conversation with you. It’s an interesting way to set the tone for the story, and I found myself intrigued by the tone the author chose for this story, considering the title. My theory on why the author chose this tone is because it’s strikingly different from what you would expect. The title is foreboding, but the tone is almost joyful and lighthearted. It makes the story sound like a joke.
The plot arc in this story is an odd one. For instance, if we go back to the beginning. The conflict is introduced almost immediately. There is almost no exposition, it just jumps right into the conflict and rising action. I thought the conflict itself was strange. Usually, the conflicts that we would consider “story worthy” are much larger, but this one is pretty much just an awkward moment gone haywire. One thing I thought was odd was how important it was for Ivan to apologize. It was like that was all that mattered in the world. It seems odd, because in our world, one might not even acknowledge that it had happened. I have two ideas. The first is that Ivan will be punished for not apologizing, but when he sees that the general is not in his department, he’s relieved, as if the general can’t touch him for that. The second is that this society is so driven by honor that if Ivan hadn’t apologized, he would be marked. Maybe it is very strict with its rules about when you “splatter” someone. Any theories?
I also think it’s interesting that the author makes almost no effort to tell us anything about Ivan except for the fact that he is sorry for sneezing on the general’s head. It adds to the casual tone and makes the main character seem almost unimportant. Maybe Ivan’s position in the government isn’t important. This would explain the dismissive way the general treats Ivan, as if he’s a lesser member of the government. However, when Ivan realizes that he splattered on the general, he doesn’t explain him as a superior. He doesn’t even show him as an equal. He just is.
The ending is just as striking as the beginning. The way that the author builds up the story makes this accident seem earth-shattering. Ivan tries again and again to apologize to this man, and each time he’s blown off. Every time he gets blown off, Ivan becomes more and more desperate, until the climax when the general tells him to go away. After Ivan has resolved not to write a letter to the general, it ends abruptly. The man goes home and dies. It’s matter of fact and sudden. When the author is talking directly to the reader in the beginning of the piece about the conflict being introduced with “but suddenly,” the reader is lulled into a sense of security. Then the end is the more sudden thing. A sneeze isn’t exactly sudden. You can feel it building up. But the way, or lack of way, that the author explains his death is most definitely sudden.
Something that we can incorporate into our writing is the use of tone to almost play with the reader’s expectations. Using techniques like casually breaking the story to speak to the reader directly can help turn tone in the way the author wants, if done well. It directly sets up a sort of feeling with the story. Along with that, the use of casual language, especially in this piece, can make the story feel like it’s being told word of mouth or even as a joke. I think integrating an acute awareness of our tone and the way we create that can help us steer the story and the reader in the directions we want.