Today’s story has 1233 words: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/039.html
The motivation of today story reminds me of bad New Year’s resolutions. Often it’s not that the goal that is bad, but the administering of it sets one up for failure. When Podtyagin, a ticket collector on a train, decides to give up drinking and work honestly at his job, that sounds like noble resolutions. What’s bad is that he decides to ask for tickets at one in the morning. He sets himself up for failure much like a person resolving to run a marathon by signing up for the race in a couple of weeks without prior training. While he earns the ire of the passengers, he still gets their tickets. That is until he wakes an “invalid.” I wonder if the man really is suffering from rheumatism because he protests passionately, but never produces a ticket. (I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s line: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”) The third time the man is awoke, he jumps out of his seat. His un-invalid behavior makes me think he is a cheat, but the public’s reaction to the Podtyagin’s “abuse” of the “scraggy-looking man, pulling a woebegone face” causes a total breakdown of Podtyagin’s newly resolved goals. In the end “Podtyagin empties a bottle straight off and thinks no more of work, duty, and honesty!” Which is often the case with dull-witted extremists. (Are there any other kind?) Everything is black and white with no moderation or gray. It doesn’t pay to be sober or honest for Podtyagin. But he did a fool’s experiment with a fool’s interpretation setting himself up for failure and a return to the bottle.
People like Podtyagin make great DMV employees. They take their job very seriously. Here Chekhov introduces us to a very dedicated ticket collector aboard a train–perhaps the contemporary Russian version of the DMV. We don’t know where the train is going but we do why Podtyagin believes it is his duty to punch tickets of sleeping passengers…because it’s his duty! The public can be so ungrateful. He happens upon a sleeping second-class passenger who is described as a “lean, scraggy-looking man, wrapped up in a fur coat and a rug and surrounded with pillows.” We only know him as “the public” as he is apparently representative of all whom Podtyagin encounters. He is repeatedly awakened in a comedy of errors as Podtyagin tries to punch his ticket on separate occasions. During their initial encounter, “the public” tries to explain himself and his need for sleep due to a poor medical condition. Podtyagin tries to justify his actions by later bringing aboard the station-master and re-awakening “the public” to explain his earlier insistence on checking his ticket. We are led to believe that these actions indeed wake the wider public as a fellow passenger joins the cause of “the public” to seek an apology from Podtyagin after enlisting the help of the engineer. Podtyagin gives in and returns to the passenger waking him again to administer his apology. All is lost of course and “the public” has had enough. It is Podtyagin’s complete ambivalence toward the public and blind administration of his duties that Chekhov highlights. The story ends with Podtyagin turning toward the very thing he cast away in the beginning…alcohol. We are left with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conclusion but of course there is an alternate interpretation. Podtyagin was an jerk. An ambivalent jerk…but a jerk none-the-less.