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Travis Review:

Story number 20 is a classic. I read it over 15 years ago and even though I knew what was going happen, it still packed a punch. Stories like this are why I love Chekhov’s works. So many elements are at play here: physically and emotional fragility, a child’s curiosity and imagination, the harshness of income inequality, the burden of pride and the emasculating nature of begging. The story, presumably told by an adult looking back on his childhood, is wonderfully innocent and harsh. The boy is starving yet is mind is a vast fertile plain, trying to imagine what oysters are like. Another thing I like about the story is that the boy loves his father both in the present and the past. Also he doesn’t seem to hold bitterness to the men who laughed at him. It was just a life experience, sort of the way Frank McCourt’s children survive in Angela’s Ashes. My biggest problem is whether to award this story a 9 or 10.

Rating: 9.5

Steve Review:

What does poverty taste like?  Here we have one of Chekhov’s classic short stories about income inequality, the innocence of youth, and the humiliation that comes with begging for food.  I’m drawn most to the innocence in the story as the dire circumstances that surround the affair are palpable but just out of focus.  The boy is certainly not oblivious to his situation but having known nothing different, he is less inclined to reflect upon it negatively.  His mind is preoccupied with the disease that plagues him…hunger.  Here Chekhov makes an observation that hunger is a disease that will not be found in the manuals of medicine–yet, by implication, deserves a place in the maladies of men.  Seeing a new word on a restaurant sign, the young boy imagines what an “oyster” might look and taste like, and finds himself chewing after the thought.  The image gets the better of him and he inadvertently blurts out, “Oysters!  Give me some oysters!” at the same time his father finds the courage to mumble for help.  Granting his wish for their own amusement, two stately gentleman pay ten roubles to watch the boy devour the salty morsel and laugh when he fails to yield to the shell.  Naively unaware of the price paid for his inoculation, the boy settles his stomach and sleeps while his father is further consumed by the disease.  I love this story.  It is impossible to imagine what the father must have been thinking as he paced throughout the night.  I am reminded of how Chekhov described the abused puppy in A Chameleon as having a look of misery and terror.

Rating:  9

12 thoughts on “#020 Oysters

  1. I find the narrator’s calm tone quite frustrating as the gentlemen are obviously mocking the little boy: “Ha, ha! He is eating the shells,” laughed the crowd. “Little silly, do you suppose you can eat that?” He is “dragged ” into the restaurant and then watched and mocked – it’s despicable. It’s a haunting tale and I too am left with the image of the
    “frog sitting in a shell, moving its eyes” but also unsettled by the calm and almost nostalgic tone of the narrator ( who obviously survived his childhood poverty…what about his father?)

    1. Reading the story, I couldn’t help but think of “Angela’s Ashes” where awful parental decisions lead to poverty, starvation and death. Yet Frank McCourt doesn’t hold much bitterness as he reflects on his life through the eyes of child. Chekhov’s narrator had an active imagination and a hungry belly. The men would have been better to either give the father money or treat them to a better meal, but they were arrogant and awful, using the kid for a laugh.

  2. I was disgusted by how the rich were laughing at the boy, but when thinking about it I realise that if I saw a really poor person on the street begging for some expensive food i’d find it funny as well, which is very annoying because it shows me how ignorant the society can be towards people. The poverty and hunger of the boy and how it drives him to illness is well described and influences me to think about the social issues and starving kids.

    1. It is great when a story can make you reflect on yourself, Fatima. I’m sure Chekhov would be happy to know that that over a 100+ years later his stories are causing readers to have introspections.

  3. In this short story, i realised the importance of hats that were mentioned twice throughout the story. In the beginning fathers’s cap is mentioned and later the tall hats of wealthy men are mentioned, this shows the class difference between the people, and then again helps us understand the class that the father comes from.

    1. Great catch Zara. Comparing similar items is a great way to contrast different social and economic standings.

  4. What really struck me about “oysters” is the overwhelming sense of desperation shown by the child and his father. You can see the pair hold onto their pride until the child can bear the hunger no longer. As soon as he sees his son begging him for food all pride is lost and the father starts doing what he can for alms. The child, even after picturing this absolutely revolting creature as an oyster, still craves them like no other, and gobbles them down quickly when presented. This is one of the more interesting stories I’ve read, and it follows its siblings in “sleepy” and “enemies”.

    1. Thanks Nick. It is a great story showing human vulnerability and the effects of poverty in a city with wealth.

  5. I like how if you were to take certain parts out of the story and have them seperately, how differently we would perceive the small boy and the father. Although, taking things out of context like this would have the same effect on basically everything, I feel as though for this it is different, because it gives you the opposite effect of them compared to it altogether.
    For example, if you were just to take the bit out where he simply says how he is with his father begging, one may think that his father has taken him so he will get more pity therefore more money from the people in the street. Whereas if you were to read it with all the other details and the whole story, you can see that his father is desperate and he doesn’t even want to beg.

    I also think that although one may think that the little boy is the main character of this story, I still think that the father is a very interesting character to look at. The way he acts to cover up his poverty, his pride, and just how he is in general is quite interesting to look at. And to compare the father’s character to the son would also be interesting as the father has clearly realised that he has no other choice and that he is at his lowest, but the son seems to be happy or at least optimistic despite his horrible situation and his famine. For example, he doesn’t get angry at the men who laugh at him, and he never seems to speak badly about anything, and also does not put his father down for what he is doing but in a way praises him. This is perhaps because of the innocency he still has with his age, but it is interesting to see the contrast between him and the father, and the son’s attitude towards life however bad it is for him at that time.

    1. There is resilience in children that adults adults sometimes lose after life beats them down. The child, although he is hungry and laughed at, does not bear a grudge towards anybody.

  6. I’m curious as to how Chekhov came up with the idea to focus specifically on oysters as a means to study poverty. Did Chekhov encounter a situation like the one described in the story in his life, or did he simply choose the first dish to come to his head that was regarded as a course for the upper class? Would the effect of the story be any different if different food was used?

    1. Good question Anton. Without really knowing the answer, I felt like oysters were probably a high class food that a lower class or even middle class citizen is less likely to eat. Also, the slimy texture and hard outer shell make them an unusual, fascinating mystery for a child. If it had been fillet mignon, I don’t think the story would have had as many interesting details.

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