You can find today’s 1755 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/080.html
Another title for this story could be How The Cook Got Fired. Chekhov uses an enormous amount of restraint with today’s story as it could have easily become a bedroom farce with lovers hiding in closets or a crime story with the common man facing down an intruder. We start today’s story from the point of view (POV) of a wife, Marya, looking out the window in the middle of the night to see “a dark figure approached the window of the kitchen and… put one foot on the window ledge and disappeared into the darkness of the window. ” As readers, Chekhov let us view the intrusion into her house, before switching to the POV of the sleeping husband, Gagin. It’s interesting that Chekhov could have started the story later with the wakening of the sleep-drunk husband so that we share his same beliefs. But he opts instead to let us know that a man really did enter (unless Marya had a delusion, which Chekhov has never done before.) So when Gagin, goes downstairs and talks to his cook, Pelagea, her adamant denial made me think an actual intruder crept inside. And I had a little bit of sympathy for anybody who sleeps “on a box under a shelf of saucepans.” Gagin chalks up the misunderstanding to Marya’s wife’s nerves as he jokes to her, “You’d better go to the doctor to-morrow and tell him about your hallucinations. You are a neurotic!” But, when upstairs the couple smell “tar or something . . . onion . . . cabbage soup” and a match is struck, causing Marya to let out a “piercing, heartrending shriek” I almost half expected a man with a bloody ax in the corner. Holding evidence of Pelagea’s lie, unless the firefighter marries her, I imagine the cook will be missing the bed under the saucepans since Marya wants no “immorality” in her house.
Today’s story starts with a fly up the nose of a sleeping man named Gagin. I loved the way Chekhov opened this story wondering if the fly was “impelled by curiosity”. Regardless of intent, it resulted in a loud sneeze which woke the man’s wife, Marya. This was not the only disturbance in the night as Marya, unable to go back to sleep, sits at the window and sees a “dark figure creeping towards the house.” Alarmed that it might be a burglar she eventually wakes up her husband to investigate. I paused to wonder if the greater annoyance was being awoken by the fly or his wife? The husband believes the most likely explanation is the cook’s lover (a firefighter) but nevertheless goes downstairs to investigate. For Marya, the firefighter would be “worse than a burglar!” Cursing all the way, he eventually finds the cook in a “box under a shelf of saucepans” where she apparently routinely slept. She protests the accusations forcing Gagin to blame his wife for the intrusion on her privacy as he returns to his room after donning his dressing-gown. The punchline of this story is when everything finally comes to light (out of “the dark”) and the discovery of the cook’s lie is revealed in the final paragraph. The title of today’s story is particularly interesting in that everyone was literally and figuratively “in the dark” through much of the story. I also like how Chekhov played with the idea of a pest or annoyance from the initial fly, to the wife that could not sleep and awakens her husband, to the husband who buzzes around the house making inquiries late at night. I enjoyed the story but also half-expected a Hitchcock ending with a bloody axe. Alas, Chekhov prefers a laugh to a scream.
To honor the fly in this story, check out this 1965 classic I found: “May The Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”