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Travis Review

In today’s story there is a question of whether or not  Raïssa is a witch. Chekhov titled his story “The Witch” and her husband Savély — a sexton, who seems to be lucky enough to have a married a pretty, young bride and gained property (although it seems like the church has some rights to it) — accuses her of being one. Chekhov starts out with poetic language, delving into an epic battle of a snowstorm with phrases like “unceasing malignant roar,” “something vanquished was howling and wailing,” “[a] plaintive lament sobbed at the window” and “the wind staggered like a drunkard.” All of these phrases in the first paragraph set up for a very different tone than Chekhov’s usual stripped down prose. I found myself thinking of Poe as I did with a “Dead Body.”

The blizzard battle itself is presumably narrated through Savély mind. So when he looks up from his bed sheets and accuses Raïssa of casting a spell to cause the intense weather that brings strapping young men into their house, it sounds ludicrous. But sure enough a postman, along with a driver, knocks at the home, lost in the storm. Savély tries to go back to sleep, but can’t help but look at his wife who stares the postman with “eyes were glowing with a strange fire.” Up until this point, I’ve been willing to believe Savély is an obsessive, delusional husband with a peasant’s education and fears. Raïssa seems to be radiating strange energy and is at least a temptress as we find her later in the embrace of the postman, begging him to stay and drink tea. Her heart is lonely, and she desperately wants a man different than her greasy, repulsive husband. But is she a witch? The scene ends with Raïssa in tears and slamming her elbow into Savély’s nose, after he tries to touch her. Painfully bitchy, yes. But witchy, I still don’t know.

On another note there were several interesting phrases Chekhov used in this story. The anamorphic phrase, “a tin lamp standing on another stool, as though timid and distrustful of its powers, shed a dim and flickering light,” stood out to me. It lends to the creepy atmosphere and possible condemnation of Raïssa. I also liked the word combination “malignant joy” used when Savély returned home after sending the postman away.

Rating: 5

Steve Review:

Today story is about a one-man witch hunt.  Savély, a red-haired sexton, is laying in his bed as his wife, Raïssa, sits by the window watching an approaching storm.  I too was intrigued by Chekhov’s use of poetic language to bring the storm to life.  It felt so atypical of Chekhov that I wondered if he was experimenting with a fantasy novel.  Flight of the Valkyries was playing in my head as I read,

“And out there a regular battle was going on. It was hard to say who was being wiped off the face of the earth, and for the sake of whose destruction nature was being churned up into such a ferment; but, judging from the unceasing malignant roar, someone was getting it very hot.  A victorious force was in full chase over the fields, storming in the forest and on the church roof, battering spitefully with its fists upon the windows, raging and tearing, while something vanquished was howling and wailing…it sounded not like a call for help, but like a cry of misery, a consciousness that it was too late, that there was no salvation.”

Having no sense of the plot of the story at this point, and based purely on the title, I began to wonder if witches were flying around the church graveyard tormenting the buried souls and waiting for the moment to invade the home of the sexton.  Eventually, Savély rolls over to declare the that the storm confirms his suspicions that his wife is a witch.  I doubt he was capable, but it was almost as if the description of the storm being provided by Chekhov was a part of Savély’s inner thoughts.  The storm was not unique and several times in the past had resulted in stranded visitors to their cabin.  For her part, Raïssa, was sitting, quietly stoic, occasionally looking out the window as if conducting the storm or waiting for signs of the next visitor.  His suspicions were fueled when a postman and his assistant knocked on the door.  Accusations fly as remembrances of visitors past kindle Savély’s rage.  We have no reason to doubt possible marital transgressions on the part of Raïssa.  She is a beautiful woman who had the misfortune of being married off to Savély.  By Chekhov’s description, Savély should be lucky to have her.  She is bored with their marriage and full of regret that is only relieved by the occasional visitor.  One previous example was a government clerk.  Even the “drivelling scribbler” was better than Savély.  Of course he fails to acknowledge his own possible short-comings and instead accuses her of bewitching weather and men.  The weather I doubt, but she certainly is adept at bewitching men.  At the end of the story, the postman eventually succumbs to her beauty while Savély and the assistant are loading the wagon outside.

“And the postman, not yet quite awake, not yet quite able to shake off the intoxicating sleep of youth and fatigue, was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire for the sake of which mail-bags, postal trains…and all things in the world, are forgotten.”

Was Raïssa a witch?  No…she was just lonely and by making herself seem available was as intoxicating as a spell to all men.  Chekhov is describing the power of lust to overcome the greatest of men and make us all appear bewitched.  To compensate for the mystery of a woman he will always desire but never understand, Savély decides she must be a witch.  The fact that it was intentional on the part of Raïssa gives credibility to Savély who, lacking sophistication and the ability to be introspective, perceives magic where only nature dwells.

Rating: 6

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