This story is told in 9 chapters. It’s interesting that this rare supernatural tale about a “chosen one” not unlike popular culture’s archetypes Neo from The Matrix or Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker. Looking deeper into religious culture Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (who is mentioned in the text) have had heavenly callings. Korvin is a man who people see potential greatness. He has already made an impact, but has “…exhausted himself, and had upset his nerves.” For what the story is ultimately about (a parable of a man not using the full extent of his talents), Chekhov invests a lot of time in the coming and goings on Yegor Semyonitch’s famous orchid. Yegor is pretty much a surrogate father and his daughter, Tanya, is like a sister to him until a few chapters in the story. Korvin seems to passively ignore their neurotic antics intervening just once. Only when the Black Monk arrives on a tall black column like “a whirlwind or a waterspout” does the story seem to take off. I had no reason to believe that this encounter was real, but a delusion. Korvin has the intelligence to ask that question when they finally engage in a conversation. I’ve pasted the their conversation below:
“But I know that when you go away I shall be worried by the question of your reality. You are a phantom, an hallucination. So I am mentally deranged, not normal?”
“What if you are? Why trouble yourself? You are ill because you have overworked and exhausted yourself, and that means that you have sacrificed your health to the idea, and the time is near at hand when you will give up life itself to it. What could be better? That is the goal towards which all divinely endowed, noble natures strive.”
“If I know I am mentally affected, can I trust myself?”
“And are you sure that the men of genius, whom all men trust, did not see phantoms, too? The learned say now that genius is allied to madness. My friend, healthy and normal people are only the common herd. Reflections upon the neurasthenia of the age, nervous exhaustion and degeneracy, et cetera, can only seriously agitate those who place the object of life in the present — that is, the common herd.”
From this enlightened conversation Korvin is filled with intense joy. As a reader, I was hoping to watch Korvin blossom into a genius. While I wouldn’t expect smooth sailing with Chekhov behind the quill, I didn’t expect multiple tragedies. I understand that Chekhov’s and Black Monk’s underlying message is don’t spoil your gift, but exactly when did Korvin spoil it? Was it when he proposed to Tanya? When he allowed her to treat his nerves and limit his studies? When he did not convince her that he needed to talk to an invisible black monk? When he lashed out at her and her father? I’m curious where he went officially wrong since we are given so many details. Obviously when Tanya freaks out at him for talking to a chair and gets her father revved up is when the tragedy is set into motion. But the unpardonable sin Korvin commits is harder for me to pinpoint. At the end, Korvin and the readers know he has wasted his talents. Ultimately this is a story of what could have been and the awfulness of what really happened.