Today’s story is 2286 words and his first of 1886: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/041.html
In today’s story, we get to watch an artist at work. Seryozhka is an irascible “a short-legged, ragged, mangy-looking fellow” who has but one talent in the world. And to his credit, he uses it. His art allows him to be awful and eccentric, yet the citizens give him a free pass because he creates a thing of beauty. “[He] enjoys the peculiar position in which he has been placed by the fate that has bestowed on him the rare talent of surprising the whole parish once a year by his art.” But like a lot of art, others are involved behind the scenes. In this case it is Matvey, the church beadle. Much like Boxer in Animal Farm, Matvey labors hard and takes abuse for the greater good of the community. Chekhov spends a lot of time on the creation of the Jordan and the ceremony at the end, putting in more details than usual, which I enjoyed. There is something in this portrayal of Seryozhka that reminds me of the encounters in the writing world with James Ellroy. Both men are outspoken and outlandish, yet they are amazingly talented. I have to admit for all his bustle and abuse of Matvey, I didn’t think Seryozhka could pull off the work of art, but he did to the delight of thousands of worshipers and his own delight as his “soul is filled with a sense of glory and triumph.”
“A gloomy winter morning.” What better place to cast an artist? In today’s story, Chekhov introduces us to two peasants, but only one really matters. He is the craftsman Seryozhka and he is the epitome of an angry artist. He is “short-legged, ragged, mangy-looking” to name a few of his better qualities. We are told that he “obviously enjoys the peculiar position in which he has been placed by the fate that has bestowed on him the rare talent of surprising the whole parish once a year by his art.” So what does he do? He has a natural ability to cut ice and construct the “Jordan” for the annual celebration of the Epiphany. The people of the town are tolerant of his belligerence and accepting of his laziness so long as he continues the annual ritual of showcasing his talent for their spiritual consumption. It is a sight to behold too! Thousands flock from surrounding villages to “behold something extraordinary.” With the possible exception of Matvey the beadle, who endured the verbal abuse of Seryozhka in the construction of the Jordan and who disappears before the final masterpiece is unveiled, the other members of the church revel in the moment to prolong the joy of praying. For his part, Seryozhka enjoys the perception that all eyes are on him. His “sense of glory and triumph” does not come from the epiphany but from the assumption that the crowd gathers for his sake–to pay homage to the artist as well as the art. In reality, it is the art, and not the artist, that represents an approximation to Godliness in the eyes of the people. I doubt Seryozhka will ever appreciate this distinction.