Find today’s 1876 word story here: http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/072.htm
Today’s story is broken into 2 parts. The first part is told in an omniscient point of view giving general and specific details about a cavalry regiment coming to a small town and the frenzied effect it has on the town’s women. The second part is exclusively from the point of view of a sadistic husband. The frivolity and hopeful expectation the ladies have at beginning is fun and infectious. When the army band marches through the town, the women are euphoric. “Looking at their pale, ecstatic faces, one might have thought those strains came from some heavenly choir rather than from a military brass band.” A lot can be said about these industrious and bored-out-of-their-skulls-with-daily-routine women, who in a matter of minutes, salvage all the gossip they can about the regiment. “They already knew, goodness knows how, that the colonel was married, but not living with his wife; that the senior officer’s wife had a baby born dead every year; that the adjutant was hopelessly in love with some countess, and had even once attempted suicide.” And once an evening dance is underway in the evening, “The ladies felt as though they were on wings.” After that paragraph, Chekhov moves to the emasculated men of the town watching, and in particular, a horrible man named Shalikov. The tax-collector has a list of reason why is upset from not being able to play cards to the instruments being played, but those are secondary to what really irks him. “[A]bove everything revolted him and moved him to indignation was the expression of happiness on his wife’s face.” It is understandable for him to be jealous as his wife, Anna Pavolvna, dances her heart to the out to the masurka with another man. But what makes Shalikov a twisted “spiteful soul”, is that he hates that his wife enjoying herself. It’s probably not by accident that Chekhov casts his first tax collector as a cruel, sadistic bastard. Shalikov ranks at the top of the few of the villains that Chekhov has created. Most his characters are gray, shading closer to white or black. Few are as vile as this man. The closest three that come to mind are Kamyshev from In a Strange Land, Stepan Stepanitch from Head of the Family and Yagodov from At the Barber’s. I believe that Shalikov takes the top spot as he has no empathy whatsoever for his wife, and instead feels victory as he breaks her spirit. “[W]atching her downcast, sorrowful, humiliated little figure, he recalled the look of beatitude which had so irritated him at the club, and the consciousness that the beatitude was gone filled his soul with triumph.” Then Chekhov reveals something more, Shalikov not only hates his wife, but he is a full-fledged misanthrope. “He was pleased and satisfied, and at the same time he felt the lack of something; he would have liked to go back to the club and make every one feel dreary and miserable so that all might know how stale and worthless life is…” Yep, Chekhov painted his tax-collector in black. Definitely a man who would have no problem sending a debtor to prison. So with that in mind, enjoy the following George Harrison song as played and performed by the Beatles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oyu5sFzWLk8
Today’s story begins as a generic cavalry regiment stops for the night in the generic town of K—. Everyone is excited including the shopkeepers who can finally get “rid of the rusty sausages” and the ladies who the soldiers effect “beyond all description.” I thought it was humorous how the ladies “knew everything” about the new visitors including marital status and birthing abilities of the soldier’s wives. In the end, a dance was arranged where we finally meet the husband of the title, Shalikov, a tax-collector. Chekhov couldn’t have picked a more perfect profession for our husband as the “tax-collector” connotes a seedy self-important bureaucratic bastard to the modern ear. His wife, Anna, is among the other wives and daughters of the town who dance with the soldiers. The husbands “were perfectly aware of their inferiority” compared to the “accomplished and graceful officers”. Shalikov was particularly offended, but not out of jealousy. I loved how Chekov listed the offenses felt by Shalikov ending with the worst of all: “the expression of happiness on his wife’s face.” As Anna enjoyed the evening, “petty feelings of envy, vexation, wounded vanity, of that small, provincial misanthropy engendered in petty officials by vodka and a sedentary life, swarmed in his heart like mice.” This was one of my favorite among many favorite lines in this story. Anna’s happiness and renewed youth from dancing ignited a determination in Shalikov to ruin it all for her and remind his wife that “life was by no means so delightful.” In childish fashion, he threatens to “make a scene” if she refuses to leave immediately. When she reluctantly and with much embarrassment concedes to his wishes, the tax-collector (no longer referred to by his name) “saw how ashamed and miserable she was — and he felt a little happier.” Still something was missing. He wanted everyone at the dance to share in the misery. The irony is that the misery he describes is a hell of his own making, a “stale and worthless life”, which he forces upon his wife. I enjoyed this story and saw it as a cautionary tale of a human tendency to resort to the ‘crab mentality‘ (particularly in relationships) wherein a spouses perceived inability to be happy prevents the other partner from achieving happiness. I’m reminded of the opposite phenomenon engendered in the positive psychology movement proposed by Martin Seligman and others. How different the story would have been had Shalikov encouraged the happiness desired by his wife…how different the story would have been if he had only danced with her.