Find today’s 1419 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/094.html
I believe that today’s story is more an indictment against Latin instructors than tale of animal cruelty. Since Steve has taken Latin, I’ll let him confirm or deny whether all Latin instructors are as merciless as Pyotr Demyanitch. I also don’t remember if in any other stories, Chekhov entered the point of view of an animal or if so, a cat in particular. (The horse and dog in The Dependents had some brief thoughts, but nothing as a thorough as today’s story.) The story itself is narrated from an unseen nephew describing his uncle’s dictatorial teaching practices when it comes to instructing a kitten how to capture mice. And it seems, according to the cat’s dreams, that Pyotr spoils what would have been an excellent mouse cat. “Obviously he was born a mouse catcher, a worthy son of his bloodthirsty ancestors. Fate had destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and cornbins, and had it not been for education . . . “ This is premise for the story. The lessons and punishments from Pyotr causes the cat to be fearful of mice by associating beatings with little furry, squeaky mice. Like a human suffering from PTSD, the kitten is traumatized from his experience. When “the thin, frail kitten had turned into a solid and sagacious tom-cat” encounters a mouse its “hair stood on end, he arched his back, hissed, and trembling all over, took to ignominious flight.” The same way that the narrator flees at the site of Latin. (On different note, I randomly happened to read an article tonight about a female solider who suffered from PTSD)
My Latin instructors were angels compared to Pyotr Demyanitch. Of course, let us not forget how ruthless Greek instructors can be in Chekhov’s world (A Classical Student). The reference to Darwin in today’s story was interesting as On the Origin of Species was published 27 years prior to this story. I wondered if Chekhov was trying to make an argument for environmental impact on behavior (e.g. classical/operant conditioning) rather than the evolutionary and instinctual “survival of the fittest” impact on behavior. Clearly the kitten learned to associate a neutral stimulus (a mouse) with a noxious consequence thereby over-riding his instinctual tendency to pounce. The problem is that Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning was not conducted until 1901 (15 years after this story). Skinner’s work on operant conditioning was not published until 1938. Maybe Pyotr (and Chekhov) were ahead of their time. Chekhov seems to be making fun of Darwinian thought with comments like “and a minute later she came in with the descendant of tigers in her arms.” Regardless of his intent, the methods of Pyotr clearly did not suit his being a teacher. I couldn’t help but wonder if the mouse had not eaten the Latin book would the nephew have received better instruction and this story never told…introduce chaos theory? At least chaos theory was around in the 1880’s! More than likely this was a simpler story about a kitten, an over-zealous Latin instructor, a vindictive nephew and a house full of plague. OK…maybe not the plague part. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoy how Chekhov tells a story about a story within a story.