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Travis Review

This story hit close to home for me. My first few jobs living in Los Angeles were in the entertainment industry. There were ruthless bullies who had power through celebrity, nepotism or position attained by calculative tenacity. In Mahenka’s case, she is working her first job as a governess for an overbearing mistress. She bristles at the attitude of her employer and the pants of the house, Fedosya Vassilyevna. Feeling violated after having her room searched and humiliated that she would be associated with the thievery, Mahenka becomes a unique Chekhov female character. Often the women he has portrayed have been passive and absorb humiliation on burdened shoulders (as have many men.) In this case, Mahenka, though teary-eyed, does not back down from her resolve to leave. Even when the “man” of the house begs her not to do so. This may be from a youthful spirit full of pride and even though she knows it will be rough on her, since she doesn’t have any other prospects, and on her parents, she sees one thing for certain, the environment that she is living in is toxic. Those who stay are bound to be cowed and subservient like the husband, Nikolay. (His wife, Fedosya, reminds me of a few bullies Chehkov’s written about including In a Strange Land and Head of the Family.) When Chekhov tells us who stole the brooch and the twisted circumstances behind it, I felt it was unnecessary for Mahenka’s motivation, but it did justify her escape even more by underlining just how twisted the situation in the house is. I wish the best for Mahenka as she tries to find a new life and a new employer.

Rating: 6

Steve Review:

Understand everything, pardon nothing.  Today’s story finds a young governess, Mashenka, returning to the household in which she works to find everything in disarray.  The lady of the house, Fedosya, is an arrogant employer to her servants and manipulative wife to Nikolay, her husband.  At one point she is described as “so obsessed by her illnesses and her supposed aristocratic rank, that everything in the world seemed to have become coarse and unattractive because this woman was living in it.”  The source of her current rant is a misplaced brooch worth two thousand roubles.  In her attempt to find the lost treasure she takes it upon herself to personally search the rooms of all who work for her.  Mashenka is not spared this violation of privacy and arrives to find Fedosya searching her things.  Mashenka is beside herself with disgust when “for the first time in her life, it was her lot to experience in all its acuteness the feeling that is so familiar to persons in dependent positions, who eat the bread of the rich and powerful, and cannot speak their minds.”  This was a defining moment for Chekhov as he allowed Mashenka to rise to the moral high ground and stand firm in her conviction that the best thing to do is leave.  Even upon discovering the fate of the brooch and despite much pleading from Nikolay, she does not waver.  Because of her actions, I don’t worry about her future as much as I do for Nikolay.  He recognized in Mashenka an independent rational spirit and was unable to convince her to stay.  I found myself feeling proud for her knowing that to stay would have only benefited Nikolay.  The part of the story that intrigued me most however was how Chekhov gave us a peek at the raw fantasy Mashenka entertains to cope with her situation.  I am convinced that Chekhov selected the titles of his stories to mislead the reader into making the obvious choice for its origin.  The upheaval I am most drawn to in this story is not the disappearance of the brooch but the “intense longing” that Mashenka entertained to “go and slap the cheeks of this hard, arrogant, dull-witted, prosperous woman.”  The vindictive fantasy that follows should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has felt the burn of someone else’s self-righteous contempt.  If not for the powers of the imagination to conjure such upheaval as a mature method of coping, I’m not sure our beloved Mashenka would have had the conviction to leave.

Rating: 6