Find today’s 1995 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/060.html
Chekhov uses an unusual method to tell the story of a young man being emotionally manipulated by lawyer. Similar to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Seventh Man,” a group of men are assembled and begin to tell each other personal stories, one of which dominates the rest of the story. In this case, the jurymen are “ransacking” their memories for awful things that had happened in their past. The first three memories are very dark with poisoning, drowning, and an unsuccessful suicide as the first three stories. It seems like the story that the dominate story would be one of an even grander tale of death or destruction, but instead it is a philosophical story. Early on, we already know that the “foppishly dressed, fat little man” who tells the story will end up with his beloved in spite of the following actions because he tells his audience he had been “head over ears in love with my present wife.” So when the man is persuaded by his lawyer friend that being married is a worthless endeavor and writes a letter to end his upcoming wedding, I wasn’t convinced it would happen. I was surprised the letter was dropped in the mailbox and wondered if story would be about him trying to intercept the letter. As it ends up, the lawyer was even more clever than I expected. I also found it interesting that the jurymen all slept together — talk about be really being sequestered.
Today’s story is perhaps a first, if memory serves, where Chekhov uses one of his characters to tell a separate story. The setting involves sequestered jurors each making the rounds telling the others about something horrible that has happened in their lives. The first three stories are all about escaping death from different perspectives (near drowning, accidental poisoning, and attempted suicide). However, it is the fourth story that captures the attention of the others and leaves a “strong impression”. Is it possible to convince another human of a reality contrary to their own conviction through words alone? The fourth juror tells of a gifted lawyer friend who was able to convince the narrator that his true love was not worth marrying only to make him reverse his opinion moments later. Lest we think the narrator was not firmly in love, he assures his fellow jurors that his love “was absolutely the real thing, just as it is described in novels — frantic, passionate, and so on.” I thought it humorous that Chekhov resorted to descriptions in novels to give credibility to the definition of love. The method the lawyer chooses is interesting in that he never reveals he is testing his friend. To his credit, the lawyer protested when our narrator pleaded for him to try and persuade him. He gradually begins by complimenting the narrator’s fiance, Natasha, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, moves into criticism which grows in intensity until the narrator adopts the lawyers emotion as his own. In hindsight while retelling the story to his fellow jurors, our narrator observes:
“What my friend said was not new, it was what everyone has known for ages, and the whole venom lay not in what he said, but in the damnable form he put it in.”
Only after our narrator has mailed a letter to Natasha to break off the marriage, does the lawyer reverse the opinion recently adopted. Fortunately, the lawyer smudged the address so it would never be delivered. Here our narrator finishes his story and turns it over to the next juror when a nearby clock tower strikes twelve midnight. With this unexpected interruption to their story-telling, each of the jurors pauses to reflect upon the fate of the man they are convicting. They suddenly have little interest in continuing their stories and instead turn their thoughts to the defendant. If the story of the letter to Natasha were true and performed at the hands of a novice lawyer friend, what might have been done to the convict and the minds of the jurors at the hands of more experienced criminal attorneys? Ironically in the last few weeks, I served on a criminal trial and was intrigued at how ‘truth’ was defined by how the jurors interpreted the evidence. The evidence, of course, was only as good as it was presented meaning the defendant’s fate rested on the abilities of the attorneys as orators. Chekhov never reveals any of the details of the case at hand but it is no surprise that the fourth juror’s story left the strongest impression.