Find today’s 1568 word classic here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/020.html
Story number 20 is a classic. I read it over 15 years ago and even though I knew what was going happen, it still packed a punch. Stories like this are why I love Chekhov’s works. So many elements are at play here: physically and emotional fragility, a child’s curiosity and imagination, the harshness of income inequality, the burden of pride and the emasculating nature of begging. The story, presumably told by an adult looking back on his childhood, is wonderfully innocent and harsh. The boy is starving yet is mind is a vast fertile plain, trying to imagine what oysters are like. Another thing I like about the story is that the boy loves his father both in the present and the past. Also he doesn’t seem to hold bitterness to the men who laughed at him. It was just a life experience, sort of the way Frank McCourt’s children survive in Angela’s Ashes. My biggest problem is whether to award this story a 9 or 10.
What does poverty taste like? Here we have one of Chekhov’s classic short stories about income inequality, the innocence of youth, and the humiliation that comes with begging for food. I’m drawn most to the innocence in the story as the dire circumstances that surround the affair are palpable but just out of focus. The boy is certainly not oblivious to his situation but having known nothing different, he is less inclined to reflect upon it negatively. His mind is preoccupied with the disease that plagues him…hunger. Here Chekhov makes an observation that hunger is a disease that will not be found in the manuals of medicine–yet, by implication, deserves a place in the maladies of men. Seeing a new word on a restaurant sign, the young boy imagines what an “oyster” might look and taste like, and finds himself chewing after the thought. The image gets the better of him and he inadvertently blurts out, “Oysters! Give me some oysters!” at the same time his father finds the courage to mumble for help. Granting his wish for their own amusement, two stately gentleman pay ten roubles to watch the boy devour the salty morsel and laugh when he fails to yield to the shell. Naively unaware of the price paid for his inoculation, the boy settles his stomach and sleeps while his father is further consumed by the disease. I love this story. It is impossible to imagine what the father must have been thinking as he paced throughout the night. I am reminded of how Chekhov described the abused puppy in A Chameleon as having a look of misery and terror.