Find today’s 4182 word story here http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/054.html
This sad tale of adultery seems to hold a universal truth about some women’s attraction to condescending, scornful men. I was under the impression that what I’ve personally witnessed has been more of a late twentieth century American phenomenon, but the nineteenth century Russia also had cads with women fawning all of them. (I guess Austin’s England did too, but those men at least slyly hid their behavior behind chivalry.) Savka has the word loser practically tattooed on his forehead. Gifted with good looks and athleticism he squanders his life by doing nothing. Even having his mother beg for alms. He also has a talent for sitting for hours at time which is how he became a watchman. This isn’t the first time Chekhov’s also given a man a talent of standing still for hours at time (see Matvey in Art). In another first person narration, the author tries to figure out why women want to be with Savka. Is that he can’t take care of himself or that he rejects their emotional love? Regardless Agafya, the signalman’s wife, risks everything for a rendezvous for Savka. He in return, seems to want to sabotage her life considering that Savka is a man who “very rarely drank,” and yet he pushes vodka on Agafya by saying “Your heart will feel warmer…” His cruelty seems to have little personal consequence as Agafya’s husband waits for her the next day and will most likely dole out punishment on her alone. But who knows, perhaps some day Savka will end up murdered and all the town’s cuckolded husbands will be suspected, but the authorities might never be able to pin it on anybody since the motive is too widespread.
Chekhov introduces us to Savka, “a young man of five-and-twenty, well grown and handsome, and as strong as a flint.” But this is where the compliments cease for the rest of Savka’s story is one of arrogant pride and loathsome womanizing amidst shameless self-absorption and laziness. “His favorite attitude was one of concentrated immobility.” Nevertheless, everyone was attracted to him including our narrator. Their conversation while fishing was full of random facts about the landrail and nightingales and they seem to enjoy each other’s company. More central to our story however is Savka’s ability to attract women–especially married women. Despite the fact they shower him with gifts, he is bored and almost annoyed by their presence. Midway through the story we are told:
“Savka despised women. He behaved carelessly, condescendingly with them, and even stooped to scornful laughter of their feelings for himself. God knows, perhaps this careless, contemptuous manner was one of the causes of his irresistible attraction for the village Dulcineas.”
Savka tells our narrator that a “new one has asked to come this evening.” Enter Agafya, wife of a signalman, who seizes the opportunity to visit Savka while her husband is working. Upon discovering that Savka had company whom she recognized, Agafya begins to make up a story to explain the purpose of her visit. Savka laughs at her and tells her to stop lying, declaring “the gentleman knows why you have come!” The awkwardness is exacerbated as Savka leaves the two of them while he goes off to chase a bird for half and hour. Here the narrator makes the observation that Savka is always doing things the hard way citing examples such as “trying to catch little fish with a big hook.” I suspect this is the only way Savka feels challenged since the rest of his prey fall willingly into his lap. His only happiness from these nightly visits is a sadistic pleasure of seeing their husbands react. Following the longer-than-intended night with Agafya, Savka revels in the sight of her husband: “Her husband’s been standing waiting for her for a good hour…Did you see him?” The narrator sensing this tradition expresses disgust: “Savka said the last words with a smile, but they sent a chill to my heart.” I want to feel contempt for Savka and disgust for the narrator who seems to endorse the activity while passively witnessing the abuse. Instead, I think Chekhov wants us to focus on Agafya–thus the title. It was ultimately her decision to be deceitful and I find it difficult to believe she is a helpless victim of Savka’s charm. Is there a victim in the story or just guilty parties enjoying guilty pleasures? The true victim is Agafya’s husband, Yakov. Somehow the story would have been more tragic had it been titled after him.