Anton Chekhov’s story “Death of a Government Clerk” begins at a Russian opera. The protagonist, Ivan Dmitritch Tchervyakov, enjoys an opera and after a sudden fourth wall break sneezes. He is caught off guard when he realizes he had sneezed onto a civilian general at the government office he worked at, Brizzhalov. Ivan attempts to apologize for his uncivil action, however is left feeling guilty once Brizzhalov disregards the instance. Ivan apologizes again after the show, but is yet again brushed off by Brizzhalov. Ivan goes home to his wife and is told by her to continue attempting to apologize. He visits Brizzhalov’s office as he is talking with multiple petitioners. Ivan begins talking to him as soon as he can and once again apologizes for the incident yesterday and is berated by Brizzhalov who says that he has forgotten about it. Still feeling guilty, Ivan waits for all of the petitioners to leave to apologize once again but is aggressively turned away by Brizzhalov. Ivan thinks about writing a letter of apology but decides against it, instead apologizing yet again and was shouted away. Ivan goes home, lays on his couch, and dies.
The most prevalent element of this story that I noticed is the unnecessary apologies for a simple incident. This seemed to be innocent at first but began to increase to a level of obsession that seems unhealthy. The best example of this I noticed is the following sentence:
“I ventured to disturb your Excellency yesterday,” he muttered, when the general lifted enquiring eyes upon him, “not to make fun as you were pleased to say. I was apologising for having spattered you in sneezing. . . . And I did not dream of making fun of you. Should I dare to make fun of you, if we should take to making fun, then there would be no respect for persons, there would be. . . .”
Although it seems excessive that it should be considered excessive, Ivan’s wife encourages him to apologize more prominently. This begins the process of understanding Ivan’s actions. The fact of the matter is that a normal person’s conscience can easily feel guilt and when the normal person feels guilty they go to great lengths to apologize to the person they have transgressed. Combine this with the fact that the subject of his attention is his superior and can cause him to be fired. The combined guilt and fear may not allow for his actions to be considered reasonable but can still be related to. This is an element that Chekhov uses masterfully, creating an average situation and slightly increases the drama just enough to create an interesting, yet believable story much like a situational comedy. I would like to implement this concept of including basic elements of our lives into a story to allow a certain aspect of relatability within it.
I also enjoyed the use of irony in the beginning where Chekhov addresses the audience as such:
…opera glass at the Cloches de Corneville. He gazed and felt at the acme of bliss. But suddenly. . . . In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly.” The authors are right: life is so full of surprises!
This addresses a cliché directly which allows for its use to not be disregarded but instead serves as an element that the reader can enjoy instead of criticize for sticking to closely to the tropes of writing. I hope to use this in my writing to allow a moment of light-heartedness to relieve the tension or create a humorous element within my story.
One other element that interested me was the references to the setting. It is never directly stated that the story takes place in Russia but is easily inferred through names of characters, locations, and operas. Another thing that is hinted at is the fact that Ivan works within the government; this is in fact directly said but is constantly reminded without becoming excessive. I would like to use subtle hints within my own writing finding that sweet spot between over exposition and excluding necessary information. I also wish to implement them in such a way as Chekhov did, to where none of the information seems out of place and contains substance.
Overall, this story was an exquisite piece of work that used simple concepts to its fullest capability and I hope that someday my work can be half as good as this one.