Today’s story is 2132 words and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/099.html
Today’s story is about Skvortsov, a successful lawyer, challenging a young, drunken beggar he caught in a lie the opportunity to work for money. It seems that he is trying to impart a little of the mantra “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When Skvortsov has Olga, his cook, take him to the shed to chop some wood, I expected an accident. “The beggar drew a log of wood towards him irresolutely, set it up between his feet, and diffidently drew the axe across it. The log toppled and fell over. The beggar drew it towards him, breathed on his frozen hands, and again drew the axe along it as cautiously as though he were afraid of its hitting his golosh or chopping off his fingers. The log fell over again.” I imagined that the rest of the story would be about Lushkov, the beggar, becoming a toeless, legitimately disabled dependent that the lawyer would support out from his “kindliness” and “feeling heart.” Miraculously the wood is chopped an hour later. And that hidden action becomes the turning point that the readers are not aware of until Chekhov reveals what really happens out by the shed at the end of the story. While Skvortsov might be a facilitator for Lushkov’s eventual sobriety and rise to notary position, it is the true kind heartedness of Olga’s actions that causes the beggar to turn his life around. This story could have been titled “What Happened by the Woodshed,” but that would have given the surprised ending away. I hope that, as these characters continue their lives off the page, that Lushkov will reach out to Olga, letting her know that her compassion had a positive, life-changing effect. While Skvortsov wants to feel charitable, Olga is the true giver.
Skvortsov, a Petersburg lawyer and someone who prizes in himself qualities of “kindliness, a feeling heart, and sympathy for the unhappy” is approached in the beginning of the story by a unnamed beggar who claims to be a unemployed teacher trying to make his way to another town where a job is available. Skvortsov identifies him as the same beggar who approached him yesterday in another location with a different story. Skvortsov was disgusted that the beggar would lie to get money noting, “you are poor and hungry, but that does not give you the right to lie so shamelessly!” What follows is an interesting debate about the plight of the homeless which could easily be heard between the political parties of today. The beggar notes that “with truth one may die of hunger and freeze without a night’s lodging!” while the attorney notes that “as soon as [the homeless] are offered [a job, they] refuse it.” Convinced that the beggar is just lazy and unwilling to engage in physical labor, he offers him a job chopping wood at his estate. Although he is in poor health and not experienced at this line of work, he eagerly accepts. Here we first meet Olga, the appropriately named irritable cook assigned to take the beggar to the wood shed for his new job. Things progress with regular weekly visits and meager pay until the lawyer moves and recommends the beggar for a higher paying position citing the obvious positive effects his job offer has had on the beggars life. The lawyer is so pleased with the role he assumes he has played in the reform of the beggar that he finally asks the beggar for his name–Lushkov. Two years later we meet Lushkov again but this time waiting in a line at a theater where Skvortsov is buying tickets. The attorney is so pleased to see the progress that has been made in Lushkov’s life, for which he takes personal credit. Lushkov notes, “if I had not come to you that day, maybe I should be calling myself a schoolmaster or a student still.” At this point in the story, I must admit that I was extremely frustrated with Chekhov. I assumed the optimism spewing forward was an attempt to make the argument that simple reform of the homeless is possible if we only made them do manual labor…they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Fortunately, Chekhov had something else in mind. It wasn’t until the last paragraph that we realize who Lushkov’s true savior and reformer was. The argument seems to be that only through compassion for our fellow man and embracing all the qualities that Skvortsov prided in himself but never modeled can we hope to change the lives of others. I am convinced that there is a deeper meaning in this story that plays on the false assumptions we make of others and how easy it is to ignore the human behind the beggar…and the cook.
As an aside, this story reminded me of two viral videos that touch on the themes of the homeless and the assumptions we make about people: