Find today’s 1910 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/091.html
We have another story with children protagonists, and like most of the other tales, the kids learn a lesson about the adult world. In this case the lesson is about death and the callousness of adults. The brother and sister wake up to discover that the family cat has had kittens and that becomes focal point of their attention for the rest of the day and the story. The story is loaded with child cuteness, including the line “The cat has puppies!” and the two of them decide that the father of the kittens is “a big dark-red horse without a tail” from the toy relics stored under the stairs. In the past when Chekhov presents children, I’m predisposed to empathize – heart and soul – with their innocence. But this did not happen much with Vanya and Nina. Perhaps because they woke up moody or I felt at times the newborn kittens would be injured by their actions and over affection. I’m not sure. However, when they decide to introduce their uncle’s morose and dignified dog, Nero (a funny name for an oversized canine with a dash of foreshadowing), to the kittens, I was frightened at the horror they would witness. But Chekhov being Chekhov, he takes the violence off of the page, having a servant report Nero’s kitten dinner. Chekhov invests the final few paragraphs in the emotions felt by children at both the tragedy of Nero actions and the humor that their parents find in the death of innocent creatures. “The children expect that all the people in the house will be aghast and fall upon the miscreant Nero. But they all sit calmly in their seats, and only express surprise at the appetite of the huge dog.“ Also, a minor, but important character is the mewing mother cat, who I feel even more sorry for than the children.
The title alone should have served as fair warning for the ultimate outcome of what six year-old Vanya and his 4 year-old sister, Nina, would discover at the conclusion of today’s story. This isn’t the first time that Chekhov has told a story with a focus on the child perspective (c.f. Oysters, Children, Grisha, and The Looking-Glass) and in today’s story, Vanya and Nina learn an important lesson about death from an unfortunate source, the family cat. Waking up in an bad temper, their moods are instantly remedied by the knowledge that the cat has had kittens. I enjoyed the way Chekhov described the mother cat with more human qualities and self-reflection than the adult humans in the story. It was here that Chekhov explicitly states the role that animals unwittingly play in the lives of children: “Domestic animals play a scarcely noticed but undoubtedly beneficial part in the education and life of children.” As the children spent their day testing the patience of the mother cat and experimenting with the resilience of the kittens, I couldn’t help but worry about their ultimate fate. I would like to think that if they had been born one day later (or even a few hours) it may have made all the difference in the world. Having recognized the lack of a father, about which even the mother cat lamented, the children take it upon themselves to find a suitable replacement. A toy horse sufficed until the appearance of the ominously named Nero, “a big black dog of Danish breed”, who the children normally hate but made an exception given the circumstances. It wouldn’t take long for nature to take its course as Nero eats the kittens out of sight of the children and much to the apparent delight of the adults. The children go to bed with tears in their eyes and are sure to awaken the following morning much the same way they began today’s story. This led me to wonder what offense may have transpired the night previous that could have justified their ill-mood in the beginning. The lessons learned about birth, death, and natural order should be taught in measured doses by an empathetic teacher to avoid permanent scars. Animals are an obvious conduit for such lessons but not at the hands of callous adults. Later in life, I would not be surprised if Vanya and Nina will reflect on this moment (an incident) as the first in a series of events to explain their misery.
“From the look on her face it is clear that the only thing lacking to complete her happiness is the presence in the box of ‘him,’ the father of her children, to whom she had abandoned herself so recklessly!”
“I even fancy, sometimes, that the patience, the fidelity, the readiness to forgive, and the sincerity which are characteristic of our domestic animals have a far stronger and more definite effect on the mind of a child than the long exhortations of some dry, pale Karl Karlovitch, or the misty expositions of a governess, trying to prove to children that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.”
“The kittens throw everything into the shade by making their appearance in the world.”