Today’s story is 3430 words long and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/088.html
Today’s story has a nameless tramp escorted by two peasant constables to the district town. It seems that his offense is not “remembering his name.” I can assume that strangers who wander into town are considered suspect unless they can identify themselves and produce a good story. In this case our nameless hero, while trying to protect his name, goes on to tell the guards of his crime and escape from prison. It’s like he can’t help being honest even though he is evasive about his name. Perhaps if he had conjured up a fake name and lied about why he stumbled through town, he might have been able to pass through or find work. His dreams, the title of the story, are about going to a commune in Eastern Siberia where he can fish all day. The guards try to imagine the dream too. “The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived; whether they vaguely recalled the images of stories heard long ago or whether notions of a free life had been handed down to them with their flesh and blood from far-off free ancestors, God knows!” It is almost like a foreign idea to them to enjoy life. The silent guard, Nikandr, crushes the optimistic dream with a peasant’s reality. It’s interesting that Chekhov describes the silent guard’s baldness as “For his wisdom God had added to his forehead…” Like he has the power of judgment. (Also my dad, who is bald, likes to say “God made a few perfect heads and the rest he covers with hair.”) Also, Chekhov makes a point of being uncertain of Nikandr’s soul-crushing motivation: “ Whether he envied the tramp’s transparent happiness, or whether he felt in his heart that dreams of happiness were out of keeping with the grey fog and the dirty brown mud.” I’m sure the nameless man, true to Nikandr’s prediction, will die shortly as he malnourished and weak. I’m not sure if it is a victory for the imperious guard, but he seems to be miserable person and misery loves company.
Today’s story is about the nameless recess within the mind that longs for a life obtainable only through dreams. We find a peculiar vagrant who is concealing his surname while being escorted by two peasant constables through a dense fog. Chekhov entertains a host of possible professions for our tramp prior to revealing the true nature of his journey:
“He was more like an unsuccessful priest’s son, stricken by God and reduced to beggary; a clerk discharged for drunkenness; a merchant’s son or nephew who had tried his feeble powers in a theatrical career, and was now going home to play the last act in the parable of the prodigal son; perhaps, judging by the dull patience with which he struggled with the hopeless autumn mud, he might have been a fanatical monk, wandering from one Russian monastery to another, continually seeking ‘a peaceful life, free from sin,’ and not finding it…”
All of these possible professions play with the idea of life’s reality intruding upon the aspirations of man. This passage was followed by a detailed account of the environment in which the three men were walking. It was reminiscent of the nightmare of running in place while being pursued or never attaining your goal. “They went on and on, but the ground remained the same, the wall was no nearer, and the patch on which they walked seemed still the same patch.” Our tramp turns out to be an escaped convict condemned (loosely) for being an accomplice to a murder presumably committed by his mother. By not revealing his name and the specific details of the crime, he hopes to be sentenced to Siberia where he can fish and live a commune life. To reveal his true identity would likely result in hard labor which would undoubtedly be a death sentence given his poor physical condition. As he talks about the dream of being sentenced to Siberia (perhaps the first time I have ever heard of this fate as a “dream” state), the two constables reflect on their own state. “The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived…” Their dreams were shattered when the reality of distance and health took hold. It’s not so much that Siberia was far away (“…vast expanse dividing them from the land of freedom.”), but that all of their dreams were out of reach. It was more than the tramp could tolerate. “He trembled, his head shook, and he began twitching all over, like a caterpillar when it is stepped upon…” I enjoyed the story as much as anybody on the verge of turning 40 who looks ahead at what is obtainable only through dreams. I’ll never be the concert pianist, the renowned artist, the multibillionaire founder of a social media company, or a Siberian prisoner fishing for my next meal.