“The Death of a Government Clerk” Write Up by Eva Trakhtman

In Anton Chekhov’s “The Death of a Government Clerk,” Ivan Dmitrich Tchervyakov, a government clerk, is watching an opera when he is overwhelmed by the sudden urge to sneeze, which he obliges. After wiping his nose, he realizes that he sneezed all over a civilian general named Brizzhalov. Tchervyakov apologizes to Brizzhalov and is quickly dismissed. When he goes to apologize again, Brizzhalov is slightly annoyed. Tchervyakov returns home and explains his dilemma to his wife; she doesn’t react with as much urgency as Tchervyakov would’ve expected. The next day, Tchervyakov freshens himself up and goes to Brizzhalov to apologize. Brizzhalov, who is in the middle of a meeting with petitioners, is not happy by Tchervyakov’s presence. He hears him out one time, slightly annoyed, then the second time slams the door on his face. Tchervyakov, offended, wants to write Brizzhalov a letter, explaining he had no evil intentions when he spattered him, but decides against it. Tchervyakov then proceeds to apologize again in person. During the interaction, Brizzhalov, now extremely angered, yells at Tchervyakov and chases him away from his office. A defeated Tchervyakov heads home, lies down on the sofa, and dies.

One of the techniques I tracked in this story was the overdramatization of simple things. Ivan Tchervyakov took everything Brizzhalov did and made it seem worse. For example,

“Oh, that’s enough . . . I’d forgotten it, and you keep on about it!” said the general, moving his lower lip impatiently.

“He has forgotten, but there is a fiendish light in his eye,” thought Tchervyakov, looking suspiciously at the general.

After Brizzhalov assures Tchervyakov that he is not in the wrong, Tchervyakov continues circulating all his thoughts around the idea that Brizzhalov may somehow hold this against him in the future. Chekhov, by adding these cases of over-dramatization, helps create a comedic and surrealistic reading experience. The last, most dramatic part of the story is included at the very end:

Something seemed to give way in Tchervyakov’s stomach. Seeing nothing and hearing nothing he reeled to the door, went out into the street, and went staggering along. . . . Reaching home mechanically, without taking off his uniform, he lay down on the sofa and died.

This line is probably the most unexpected line in the whole story. How can a simple sneeze lead up all the way to a fatality? This story has a deeper meaning behind it, which is underlined by the extreme over-dramatization added to the story.

I got two meanings from this story, the first being that you shouldn’t cycle over your mistakes because it will lead to your downfall. The second representing strict rule following back in Communist Russia and that ignoring the law (in this case refusing to bother Brizzhalov), will lead to punishment and in a way, to self-destruction.

The second technique that I tracked in this story is the rising action through another character’s reactions. In this case, I used Brizzhalov as my topic, because of how his reactions proportionately reflected the sequence of apologies.

For example, at the beginning Brizzhalov is a bit disgruntled, but not a lot seeing as this is the first time that Tchervyakov apologizes.

“I spattered you, your Excellency, forgive me . . . you see . . . I didn’t do it to . . . .”

“Oh, that’s enough . . . I’d forgotten it, and you keep on about it!” said the general, moving his lower lip impatiently.

Next, Brizzhalov, who just got out of a meeting with petitioners, after interacting with Tchervyakov gets slightly more annoyed, seeing as he had already left it all behind. Finally, when Tchervyakov goes to see Brizzhalov for the last time, Brizzhalov (who is now very angry at Tchervyakov for pestering him constantly), yells at Tchervyakov to get out and to stop annoying him.

“Be off!” yelled the general, turning suddenly purple, and shaking all over.

“What?” asked Tchervyakov, in a whisper turning numb with horror.

“Be off!” repeated the general, stamping.

Because this story is in omniscient third-person point of view, the reader doesn’t get to see the rising action from Tchervyakov’s perspective, seeing as Tchervyakov is not aware that what he is doing isn’t right. For this exact reason, Chekhov implemented Brizzhalov’s reactions as a way to show how the tension is rising. I really like this technique because it still allows the reader to understand the story.

What I would like to try and imitate in my own story is the comedic, surrealistic turn on a message. I realized, by reading this story, just how greatly it can impact one’s perception not only of the story, but also of the message that the story is trying to convey.

Sidenote: Chekhov is famous for using interesting and unique last names for almost all of his characters in almost all of his stories. In this case, Tchervyakov has a root in the name which means “worm” and

Questions:

Are you satisfied with this perspective, why or why not?

What other meanings can be shown in this story?

Why do you think Chekhov used over-dramatization to prove a point?

 

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