Today’s story is 1314 words and is available here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/061.html
Today’s story makes we think of a penniless Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. Entitled and focused on the vanity of appearance over subsistence, Vanda ebbs and flows between confidence and humiliation. The world revolves around her as she feels that “the very horses and dogs were staring and laughing at the plainness of her dress.” Seeming to not have any income, she searches for a gentleman friend that she knows from the clubs. Her sole purpose in finding a man is get some rubles in order to buy fashionable clothes which will get her back into the “Renaissance.” It seems to me that she is a party girl, through and through. The scene in the dentist office is funny, as she not only loses her nerve, but a tooth. I love how the dentist never recognized her. That in itself seems to reinforce her earlier fears that she is a nobody without expensive clothes. Also, to see Vanda, spitting blood while walking down the street and contemplating life is great. It’s the first time she has some introspect in this entire story. But Vanda is a fighter and delusion is her weapon as the next night “she was back at the “Renaissance,” and dancing there. She had on an enormous new red hat, a new fashionable jacket, and bronze shoes.” She hooked a merchant who will spoil her for a night or two and then she’ll be searching for a new man. A cycle that will continue until she won’t be able to lure men any longer.
I have to admit that the meaning of today’s title is obvious in hindsight but was completely transparent to me before reading the story. I expected a much different story but was pleasantly surprised by the brevity and potential depth of this tale. We are introduced to the “charming Vanda” as she was leaving a hospital. We are never told why she was in the hospital or for how long, but her discharge has left her without money and wearing rags fit for a laundress or sewing girl. She is preoccupied with her appearance and longs for decent clothes…specifically, “a fashionable short jacket, big hat, and pair of bronze shoes.” Here the meaning of the title is revealed:
“If only I could find a gentleman friend,” she thought to herself, “I could get some money…There isn’t one who would refuse me, I know.”
As she thinks about likely candidates to visit, she settles on a Jewish dentist named Finkel. She recalls nights at the ‘Renaissance’ club where she would pour beer on his head as he spent his money freely on women. Upon ringing the bell at his home, her otherwise “bold and saucy” personality fails her and she lies about the reason for her visit. Of course the dentist in his sober state doesn’t recognize her. Claiming she has a sore tooth, he immediately begins to examine her mouth and soil her lips and gums with his “tobacco-stained fingers” (I particularly enjoyed that imagery). Pulling her tooth and demanding payment, she is forced to relinquish the only money she has…a ruble she received by pawning her jewelry after discharge from the hospital. She leaves his home feeling ashamed and now destitute. Never fear…Chekhov lets us know in the closing paragraph that she returned to the ‘Renaissance’ and was dancing again the following day…wearing a new red hat, fashionable jacket, and bronze shoes. She had found yet another gentleman friend. I will make the assumption that the Russian version of the title holds the same meaning as its English translation. In our story, the phrase is more of a professional title than a polite adjective/noun pair. To be a friend and a gentleman are admirable and even more so if you are both a gentleman and a friend…but a gentleman friend as a profession seems empty and superficial. It is therefore appropriate that Vanda’s real name is Kanavkin which suggests the Russian “gutter” or “ditch”. Vanda is given a glimpse of her future self as she spits blood from the tooth extraction and laments her recently impoverished state assuming she will endure insults and poverty until her death. This will likely be her ultimate fate…but not for today’s story.