“The Murder” opens with an orthodox religous service at a train station, where Matvey Terehov participates joyfully in the church choir, singing with great enthusiasm. When the service is over, Terehov, a middle aged man, goes to the station’s bar and tells the waiter, Sergey Nikanoritch, about his old tile factory’s choir and their skill. He reminisces about days gone and reflects on the current state of his current household, where he lives with his older cousins Yakov Ivanitch and Aglaia, as well as Ivanitch’s daughter Dashutka. Terehov laments that Ivanitch has taken to prayer and religious service with his sister only at home, scorning the clergy and involvement in the church. Terehov sees this isolation as a prideful sin, and tells his cousins to repent daily. Terehov goes home and reads a book borrowed from his police friend, Zhukov, before going to sleep. In the morning of Annunciation Day, Terehov returns to the station bar and tells Zhukov and Nikanoritch of his earlier religious experiences, where he strayed from normal church attendance and entered extreme piety until he was rebuked for becoming prideful and being a backslider from the church. Terehov describes Ivanitch as being in a similar state right now, despite his repeated attempts to get him to call off that way of life. Zhukov and Nikanortitch mostly ignore this and discuss how Ivanitch is rich and has screwed Terehov out of some inheritance. Meanwhile, Ivanitch reflects on his misery and troubles since Terehov returned from the factory and the way his cousin’s repeated insistences are beginning to undermine his thoughts and faith. Terehov is rebuked by Aglai for sending what money he had after leaving the factory to his former lover. Ivanitch calls her away to pray with him, and while they are praying Zhukov and Nikanoritch come to visit Terehov. Nikanoritch asks a baffled Terehov for money, prompting him to ask his cousin for money and a horse to leave town. Ivanitch considers it but decides that his money, wrapped up in banking and merchantism, is not available to him to lend. Ivanitch continues to question his religious faith while Nikanoritch and Zhukov continue to visit Terehov for money. After one visit ends and Ivanitch presumes Nikanoritch to have left, he begins his personal religious services but is interrupted by Terehov. This encounter causes Ivanitch to leave the room in anger. Terehov eats oil on a fasting day while the rest of the family watches, causing Ivanitch to angrily yell at him. In response, Terehov loses his cool and declares Ivanitch a heretic and backslider from God. Ivanitch and Agaila physically assault Terehov, accidentally killing him while Nikanoritch, revealed to still be in the house, witnesses. He initially flees the house but is bribed by Ivanitch to go along with the murder coverup. Ivanitch and Dashutka take his body away from the village and dump it on the road. Soon enough, the police catch up with the culprits and arrest them. At trial, the murderers are subjected to variously lengthening sentences of prison in labor camps. Ivanitch is sent to East Siberia, where after misery and a brief lack of faith he discovers what he believes is true faith and reflects tragically that he wishes he was able to attain it without so much early suffering. The story ends as Ivanitch works with other convicts in Siberia.
The acute tension is the increasing conflict between cousins Yakov and Matvey, while the chronic tension is the two’s majorly divergent religious practices which operate at the cores of their self-identities and internal struggles.
While on the surface Chekhov’s narrative is about a family feud that leads to a tragic death and its consequences, “The Murder” is a story that concerns itself with religious faith. Matvey and Yakov’s disparate religions drive the two cousins to deep conflict with each other, as the former’s persistent attack on Yakov’s beliefs drive him to fundamentally question his personal values and identity.
Chekhov uses this internal confusion to build tension as the story escalates, raising the reader’s anticipation of violence with each detailing of Yakov’s declining mental state and faith. This tension works in tandem with the story’s title- “The Murder” is a clear declaration of what the reader ought to expect, and as the story progresses, our anticipation of it grows higher.
When Chekhov begins to show the reader Yakov’s perspective, he reveals his religious perspective early on. Faith is central to Yakov’s identity and belief about the world, as is shown by this passage:
Man cannot live without religion, and religion ought to be expressed from year to year and from day to day in a certain order, so that every morning and every evening a man might turn to God with exactly those words and thoughts that were befitting that special day and hour. One must live, and, therefore, also pray as is pleasing to God, and so every day one must read and sing what is pleasing to God–that is, what is laid down in the rule of the church.
Yakov’s faith is extremely strong, but he commits to it on his own terms, viewing the local clergy and church as improperly devoted to God and sinful. Unfortunately for Yakov, his views closely mirror those that his cousin once held dearly but has since given up. Matvey’s own personal experiences cause him to have a particularly strong view of Yakov’s relationship with God, which he sees as inherently prideful and thus full of sin. Matvey acknowledges Yakov’s criticisms of the church, but views those flaws as being aspects of human nature, and thus part of God’s intended life. His cousin’s adherence to strict regimen alienates him to other members of the community, which to Matvey is far more dangerous and against god then drinking milk on fasting days. Matvey’s continual needling of Yakov leads to ruptures opening up in the latter’s mind, as his internal devotion to faith proves less firm then he thought.
But yet he was troubled and could not pray as before. As soon as he went into the prayer-room and opened the book he began to be afraid his cousin would come in and hinder him; and, in fact, Matvey did soon appear and cry in a trembling voice: “Think what you are doing, brother! Repent, brother!”
Though he regarded his cousin’s words as nonsense, yet for some reason it had of late haunted his memory that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, that the year before last he had made a very good bargain over buying a stolen horse, that one day when his wife was alive a drunkard had died of vodka in his tavern…
Matvey’s continued assaults on Yakov’s faith take their toll on him. And as Yakov’s mental state declines, the tension of the story rises.
…little by little the broodings settled like a burden on his mind, his head burned and he could not sleep.
Yakov begins to question his own religious beliefs when he witnesses his own daughter and neighbors’ lack of faith, but this questioning does not lead to positive revaluation of his own belief, but instead shakes him to his core.
He kept shaking his head, as though there were something weighing upon his head and shoulders, as though devils were sitting on them; and it seemed to him that it was not himself walking about, but some wild beast, a huge terrible beast, and that if he were to cry out his voice would be a roar that would sound all over the forest and the plain, and would frighten everyone.
Yakov’s deep faith is replaced by deep anger, mainly directed against his cousin and the doubts his presence has engendered within him. Tension is now reaching its critical boiling point.
He was afraid Matvey would come in, and was certain that he would come in, and felt an anger against him which he could overcome neither by prayer nor by continually bowing down to the ground.
It was clear to him now that he was himself dissatisfied with his religion, ant could not pray as he used to do. He must repent, he must think things over, reconsider, live and pray in some other way. But how pray? And perhaps all this was a temptation of the devil, and nothing of this was necessary? . . . How was it to be? What was he to do? Who could guide him? What helplessness! He stopped and, clutching at his head, began to think, but Matvey’s being near him prevented him from reflecting calmly.
Yakov’s anger eventually spills out into physical violence, leading to tragedy and tearing his family apart. Tension breaks with his religion, and as the story comes to rest at a less agitated tempo, Yakov loses and then rediscovers comfortable faith. Religion in Chekhov’s story is tied not only to its characters and themes, but to the pace of the narrative itself.
If Yakov’s primary conflict comes from his struggle with religious faith, Matvey’s comes from a more general dissatisfaction with his life. He constantly yearns for his former life at the factory, laments his inability to change his cousin’s ways, and feels constrained by illness and malady. Matvey reminisces on his former factory life often, and wishes to return to it.
“It is true we began St. Andrey’s prayers and the Praises between six and seven, and it was past eleven when we finished, so that it was sometimes after midnight when we got home to the factory. It was good,” sighed Matvey. “Very good it was, indeed, Sergey Nikanoritch.”
…he could hear that Matvey, too, was awake, and continually sighing and pining for his tile factory.
Matvey, hungry and melancholy, sat reading, or went up to the Dutch stove and slowly scrutinized the tiles which reminded him of the factory.
This attachment to his former life is noticed by the other members of his family, and Aglaia often attacks him with his factory experiences as the main subject of her bitter mockery.
Matvey wishes greatly to escape his living situation, believing his home to be a miserable place of resentment and anger. He asks Yakov for a horse so he can get away, which Yakov himself desires, but is unable- or possibly just unwilling- to spare the materials that will make that possible.
“Brother,” said Matvey, “I am a sick man. I don’t want possession — let them go; you have them, but give me a small share to keep me in my illness. Give it me and I’ll go away.”
Matvey’s dissatisfaction brings him into conflict with his cousin, as it partially motivates him to attack his cousin’s more rooted and sustained lifestyle and religion.
As far as what I’d like to learn from Chekhov’s writing and this story in particular, I think his method of building tension through internal reflection and a character’s crisis of faith is extremely skillful. The story builds and builds without much even happening for most of it, as most of the conflict occurs within Yakov’s and to a lesser extent Matvey’s minds. It is on the abstract level that most of the thematic and narrative events occur until Matvey’s murder, and even this viscerally physical act is only a final expression of Yakov’s previous internal problems. Chekhov’s dialogue is also very good, and his style of short but narratively important character discourse is something I’d very much like to take from. Hardly a word is ever wasted or expended pointlessly, and it creates a very sharp flow between characters that moves the story along effortlessly while still being captivating on its own merits.
- Why do you think Chekhov choses to open the story with two sections exclusively from the point of view of Matvey, leaving Yakov for later?
- Who do you think Chekhov places primacy on as the main character- Matvey or Yakov? Does the story end with either of their religious perspectives as triumphant?
- Does the story portray Matvey and his actions in a positive light? Do you think he’s any better than his cousin, or is he a hypocrite?