Find today’s 1563 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/104.html
This story is a hybrid of situation comedy and the movie D.O.A. Chekhov gives us a few interesting details about the protagonist, Pyotr. He is the nephew of a colonel’s widow, “the man whose new goloshes were stolen last year“, and a reader of “religious and edifying books” who leads a sober life while keeping “a sanctimonious expression of face.” These details set up Pytor’s fall as he partakes of not one or two, but four glasses of vodka. “Spirituous liquors are like sea-water and glory: the more you imbibe of them the greater your thirst.” Upon returning home, he wants one more drink. But after he is “flung back from the cupboard to the chest with fearful force like a bomb,” he realizes he took a gulp of paraffin instead of vodka. At this point the story could go either tragic or comic. Chekhov pursues a comedy of errors as soon as Pytor’s sister-in-law opens her mouth. Everybody that Pyotr encounters thinks of themselves only and not the plight of the poisoned man. The funniest lines come from a pharmacist who after consulting a couple books comes to the conclusion: “the very fact that you feel unwell shows you ought to apply to a doctor, not a chemist.” He then responds later with “H’m . . . you don’t regard us chemists as human beings…” As though a poisoned man is not a human either and that he can chose when to call on a chemist in his situation. I thought that Chekhov might kill off Pytor even though it would shake up the tone. There could have been a post-funeral analysis of the townsfolk, showing whether they would remain in their selfish bubbles or turn somewhat regretful. But Pyotr survives the night, believing his “steady and regular life” has made him “unaffected by any poison.” The sister-in-law, not missing a beat, laments that it was because it was inferior paraffin – the world still revolving around the old maid’s miserable life.
In today’s story we meet Pytor as he returns home after 2:00 am from a christening party. We are led to believe that he is pious man who “reads nothing but religious and edifying books” and rarely drinks. However, tonight he has already drank four glasses of vodka and is looking for more. “Spirituous liquors are like sea-water and glory: the more you imbibe of them the greater your thirst.” Living with him is his sister-in-law, a widow, who serves as the maid and has a secret store of vodka which Pytor searches out. Regrettably, in his rush to quench his thirst while remaining quiet, he inadvertently drinks paraffin. The story provides little context for us to know if this is kerosene or the medicinal paraffin. Regardless, the effect on him suggests the former as he “was flung back from the cupboard to the chest with fearful force like a bomb.” Later he describes “flashes before his eyes” and “ringing in his head” with “colicky pain in his stomach.” All of this is suggestive of acute kerosene poisoning. Assured of his imminent death, he awakens his sister-in-law who shows little empathy or understanding as to the potential seriousness of the situation. Leaving her in the hope of finding a doctor he eventually gives up and settles for a chemist (“a doctor is only readily found when he is not wanted.”) The chemist also eventually shuns him whereupon our Pytor returns home to die…only he doesn’t. Convinced that he was saved by living a “steady and regular life”, he rejoices in having survived the incident. His sister-in-law however continues to nag and blames his survival on the “inferior paraffin”… I enjoyed this story with it’s humorous portrayal of an unfortunate man in an ultimately fortunate situation. Chekhov did a great job of helping us visualize his agony both physically and emotionally as he endured the nagging and selfishness of the maid and the chemist. I’m left wondering if he might have been better off to have died than to endure a life with his sister-in-law.