Find today 2059 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/048.html
Societal prejudices can run deep, even against family members. Such is the case for Andrey Andreyitch, a shopkeeper who believed he was doing the right thing by requesting a prayer for his departed daughter. The problem is how he wrote the note. “For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.” Andrey, can’t understand why Father Grigory is so upset. His daughter was a famous actress, to his shame, and she is therefore a harlot. Sort of a peasant’s 1 + 1 = 6 equation. What’s funny is that he is more comfortable using the word harlot than the word actress. “But you know, she, . . . excuse my mentioning it, was an actress!” I recently took a tour of downtown historic Los Angeles hotels run by the group Esotouric. There were several hotels in LA during the late 1800s to early 1900s that prohibited actors from staying in their establishments. Andrey carries this same repulsion of actors. (I also feel today in America families are experiencing unnecessary divisions with stupid conservative/liberal hate.) Chekhov shifts the from a comical tone to more a more serious and sentimental one when a requiem is performed for the daughter at the father’s request. During the service, Chekhov inserts flashbacks of Andrey’s rise up the socio-economic ladder and a scene with Mariya at home. It allows us to see the daughter for the first time and empathize with her since her father doesn’t seem capable of it. Overall I liked the story. Chekhov toys with the emotions of the reader going from comical and shocking to spiritual and sad and back to comical. Unlike early Chekhov stories where he ends on a punchline, he delivers one and then continues on for three more paragraphs. It feels that as a writer he is maturing.
Today’s story takes place in the small village church of Verhny Zaprudy where we find Andrey Andreyitch sitting after mass. He is a shopkeeper and relatively upper-class having worked his way up the social ladder over a lifetime. The description we are given of his appearance is typical for what one would expect for church attire but his mood is unique. We are told he “expressed two contradictory feelings: resignation in the face of inevitable destiny, and stupid, unbounded disdain for the smocks and striped kerchiefs passing by him.” I’m not sure what Chekhov intended with this observation other than perhaps to explain a potentially self-important man stuck in the realities of life in the village. As he sits and waits, the priest summons Andrey and begins to chastise him for submitting a prayer request for his recently deceased daughter, Mashutka. It was the wording of the request that warranted the rebuke as Travis noted above. I too found it interesting that Andrey had a harder time saying the word “actress” than “harlot”. I have previously noted that Chekhov often writes contemptibly about actors. His actress characters on the other hand tend to be either successful or naive (cf: Mari D’elle and A Tragic Actor). Here we are left to wonder if Mashutka was truly a successful actress or indeed a harlot. I suspect the story represents a generational and ideological divide between father and daughter. We can assume that this divide was fueled by his lack of participation in her upbringing aside from the occasional remembrance of his daughter while meeting her in passing or teaching her prayers and scripture. By his account, she was given ample education and likely lived a rather exceptional life with opportunities for independent thought and artistic expression. Her return as an adult (3 years prior to the story) revealed her occupation as a self-described successful actress and set in motion the disdain her father brought to the church that day. In his grief, he requests a requiem and stifles the painful memories by rapidly crossing himself as he listens to the music. The irony is that his fabricated memory of what he suspects she became is likely more than the real memories never forged as a father in her youth. What is suspect becomes truth and he cannot shake it from his reality. His only recourse is to request forgiveness for sins he only imagines she committed. Interestingly, we are never told the cause of the daughter’s death. Therefore, I will take the advice of the priest and not judge our poor Andrey. My first impulse was to assume he was wrong about Mashutka, that he was a bad father bent in his conservative ways and unyielding in his self-righteous judgment of his daughter. In doing so however, aren’t I making assumptions and inventing a story never told? Would it change my opinion of Mashutka if she had been killed by her pimp following a drunken orgy in the slums of Moscow? I suspect Chekhov left off the detail of her death on purpose. After all, he put everything else in this story including a description of a one-armed boy. This is why I love Chekhov…often his best stories are the ones imagined…the ones kindled but never told.