Today’s story is 1819 words and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/065.html
Today’s story reminds me of Chekhov’s early writings between 1882-85 when many of the stories ended with a punch line. In this case, a love letter from a secret admirer is sent to Pavel Ivanitch. The man with “eight years of married life” which has lost “all sentimental feeling.” He tries to ignore it, but his curiosity and obsession (a frequent Chekhovian trait) force Pavel to make the rendezvous mentioned in the note. There is never any doubt that Pavel would eventually go to the appointed arbor, but what is surprising is that his brother-in-law, Mitya, is there too. The absurdity of the two men, telling the other to leave while not giving their true reason for being there, is the best part of this story. The dishonesty, tension, and insults are terrific. When “a woman’s face with a turn-up nose peeped into the arbour,” I was disappointed that she runs away. I wanted an explanation of why there were two letters, like there was a mix-up and both letters were intended for Mitya. When it was revealed later that the wife is behind the scheme all along in order to “scrub the rooms out this evening,” I groaned practically hearing a rimshot. Surprising, yes, but also disappointing. This reminded me of less-than-great detective novels where the murder/evildoer is revealed without any setup at all. While I liked most of the story, I feel Chekhov could have pulled off a better ending.
I couldn’t help but feel smug satisfaction that I understood how today’s story would end before I even turned the first page. My feelings were reinforced with each passing paragraph as I resigned myself to the belief that Chekhov was incapable of surprising me. We have had several stories in recent memory where the ending followed a predictable course and I felt confident today’s story was another example. Boy was I wrong. The inconsistencies toward the end should have been my first clue but I dismissed them as careless oversight not wanting to recognize that Chekhov was setting his trap. The story focuses on Pavel Ivanitch, “a practical married man”, who in the beginning of the story receives an anonymous love letter. In the letter, his anonymous admirer implores him to rendezvous in the park. I loved the way Chekhov began the story with the mysterious letter in order to hook the reader. The story unfolds with Pavel rationalizing the eventual rendezvous he would make which he initially dismisses as a demoralization. He imagines the letter having come from a particular “delicate ephemeral creature” who he happened to recall meeting on his walks at the villa. Arriving at the arbor he is surprised (and irritated) to be interrupted by another man. His name is Mitya and we are told that he is a student staying with Pavel and is equally annoyed with Pavel’s presence in the arbor. So who did the letter come from? Up to this point, I had assumed that Pavel had mistakenly intercepted a letter intended for his wife and Mitya would be her lover. Not so fast…Chekhov quickly dismisses this possibility by introducing Mitya as the brother of Pavel’s wife. So was the letter intended for Mitya who is here to rendezvous with an anonymous lover? Indeed the young girl of Pavel’s fantasy turns up briefly but quickly disappears reinforcing this hypothesis…but then how did Mitya find out about the rendezvous if Pavel intercepted the letter? It wasn’t until the last page that the truth was revealed and the calculating intellect of Pavel’s wife is seen in its full glory. I thoroughly enjoyed this sitcom-worthy story and tip my hat to Chekhov for surprising me.