Today’s story is 1543 words. http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/031.html
Denis Grigoryev is a peasant who is woefully impoverished and in horrible health, but that’s not his biggest problem. His problem is that he is not very bright. He cannot understand why he is being brought up on charges of sabotage (or ” Article 1081 of the Penal Code”). He had been caught stealing a nut off of a railroad tie (“sleeper”). Why did he do it? To Denis, the reason is obvious: you use the nuts as weights for fishing. Obviously. He follows up by saying, “Of course anyone who did not understand might go to fish without a weight. There is no rule for a fool.” I love that last line. Mr. T could use it for a motivational speech. He goes on to name names of many other people in town who use stolen nuts for fishing weights or for nets. He argues as if the nut he stole is a natural resource that can be taken (unscrewed in this case) by anybody. He uses the everybody else is doing it logic and I’m not sure if it is even a defense as much as that’s the way it is. Denis is so dense that it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. He just doesn’t get it. I believe the magistrate finally believes the man is a fool, but still prosecutes because he broke the law. Regarding intelligence, Denis says, “That’s what you are educated people for, to understand… The Lord knows to whom to give understanding.” Even being hauled off to jail, he believes it was for his brother’s debts and not for an action that could have led to several deaths. It is interesting that Denis is described in detail, but the magistrate is not. Also outside of the beginning paragraph and three random sentences focused on Denis’ actions and a smile from the magistrate, the rest of the story is told through dialogue. Much like a play.
A barefoot peasant, Denis Grigoryev, is brought before the magistrate to answer for his crime of stealing a bolt from a railway tie. As if it should be obvious, Denis states that the bolt was necessary as a weight for his fishing line. From his perspective, it was an accepted practice of the village and thus the foundation of his defense. “We don’t unscrew them all…we leave some…We don’t do it thoughtlessly…we understand.” Unfortunately, Denis never quite understands the seriousness of the situation he is facing. At one point he yawns and later looks incredulously at the magistrate as if the proceeding is a formality to validate a common practice. I found it ironic that Denis exemplifies what he later claims is a common saying: “a peasant has a peasant’s wit.” Although he intended to highlight the uneducated status of the watchman (a fellow peasant), it is clear that our poor defendant belongs to that same class. When the magistrate describes the Penal Code associated with willful damage of the railway, Denis replies with a self-proclamation of ignorance. Here I think that Denis simply did not understand the legal jargon and regrettably sealed his fate as he admitted to additional theft and implicated others in the deed. His misunderstanding of the legal system goes from bad to worse as Denis confuses the reason for his prison sentence to be related to a brothers debt. I thought it was interesting how Chekhov chose to end the story with Denis making one of the more cogent arguments of the proceeding: “You ought to judge sensibly, not at random…Flog if you like, but flog someone who deserves it, flog with conscience.” There are rules against charging the insane because of their inability to comprehend the nature of their crime. However, as is often quoted, “ignorance of the law is no excuse” and there is no requirement for judicial literacy. Should Denis be labeled a criminal? Who is the real malefactor in our story?