Today’s story is 4989 words and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/073.html
Chekhov takes an in depth look at human psychology and behavior, and the genesis of an extramarital affair in today’s story. The wife of a notary is living in a nameless summer village, but could have been called Eden. Ilyin is a lawyer, playing the role of the tempter serpent, (the pin he wears in his cravat is “a red snake with diamond eyes.”) Sofya Petrovna is cast in the role of Eve, tempted and falling for sin. At first Sofya thinks very little of Ilyin’s naked advances. She uses the phrase “sanctity of marriage” as a defense, which is interesting to me, because it is used in the US today by conservative politicians and pundits to vilify gay marriage. Ilyin’s selfish desire of Sofya at all cost, damn the consequences, also reminds me of the obsessive recklessness of Romeo. We know that did not end well for Juliet and obviously, it won’t for Sofya either. The title “A Misfortune” says that clearly enough. Chekhov spends a great deal of time on the minutia of her thoughts as she turns from loyal wife to adulteress. It is a fascinating character study and believable too. In real life I’ve seen this happen. Sometimes people get into situations that they logically know will not end well, but like the final line in the story “what drove [them] on was stronger than shame, reason, or fear.”
If yesterday’s story was a cautionary tale of the bad husband, today’s story is about the bad wife. Of course, the wife in today’s story, Sofya Petrovna, would disagree…or would she? The story opens during a rendezvous between Sofya and her lovesick admirer, Ilyin. After five years of “friendship” he has only recently fallen in love with Sofya, who we are told is married and has a daughter. Sofya claims the meeting in the woods was coincidental and implores Ilyin to stop pursuing her and remain simply a friend. She professes a love and respect for her husband and the loyalty to family life and peace in the home. Ilyin sees through her “copy-book maxims” about the “sanctity of marriage” having previously experienced her “chance meetings“. We are told, “his face looked angry, ill-humoured, and preoccupied, like that of a man in pain forced to listen to nonsense.” Sofya on the other hand “looked at him, and the egoistic feeling of the superiority of the woman over the man who loves her, agreeably flattered her.” She is toying with him and enjoys the attention never making it clear how she truly feels about him. Ilyin humiliates himself in front of her and even attempts a philosophical explanation of his situation for which she is completely ill-equipped to comprehend. At points in the meeting, Sofya seems willing to give in to Ilyin but eventually they part ways and she returns to wait on her husband at home. She overcompensates for her lustful indiscretion by abusing the cook for not having prepared dinner for Andrey, her husband. It is only through her guilty conscience that we meet her daughter, Varya, whom she picks up and hugs uncharacteristically. However, by the time Andrey arrived home, “the rush of false feeling had already passed off without proving anything to her, only irritating and exasperating her by its falsity.” Here Chekhov parts from the narrative to make an observation: “It is only by being in trouble that people can understand how far from easy it is to be the master of one’s feelings and thoughts.” With the imprint of Ilyin still fresh in her mind, she sees her husband through a derogatory lens noting the repulsive habits of eating and dress (c.f. Love and Strong Impressions). Her attempt to shake the impure thoughts of Ilyin, however sincere, are ineffective and she resigns herself to confess to her husband to absolve her of guilt. Of course, her strength fails her and instead she makes an attempt to convince Andrey to move the family. Failing to make the argument, she nevertheless remains delusional that she can convince her husband to leave with her and enters into evening festivities with a renewed sense of self-respect. These feelings were reinforced when Ilyin joins the dinner party in a downcast and depressed mood. “She felt sorry for him, but at the same time the presence of a man who loved her to distraction, filled her soul with triumph and a sense of her own power.” Sofya entertains her guests in a “reckless” and “half-intoxicated” oddly euphoric state choosing “sad, mournful songs which dealt with wasted hopes, the past, old age, as though in mockery of another’s grief.” Perhaps out of spite for the effect Ilyin had on her, she “wanted to tell him that she was going away with her husband, and to watch the effect this news would produce on him.” Upon leaving, she escorts Ilyin outside where he makes another attempt to convince her to leave. Chekhov again makes a semi-break from the narrative to make the observation that “all her vaunted virtue and chastity was only sufficient to enable her to utter the phrase used by all ordinary women on such occasions: “You must be mad.”” As she struggles with her own emotions, I believe never quite revealing their true state, she eventually confesses “love” of another man to her husband. He dismisses this as “fancy” and after a brief lecture on his opinions about the sanctity of marriage falls asleep. Chekhov gives us one more uncharacteristic observation related to Andrey’s opinions: “there are a great many opinions in the world, and a good half of them are held by people who have never been in trouble!” Sofya eventually leaves the house in search of Ilyin (I think) as we are told that a mysterious force drives her that “was stronger than shame, reason, or fear.” The story ends abruptly without a reunion with Ilyin or reconciliation of Sofya’s emotions. I must admit I remain confused by this story but on further reflection suspect the point Chekhov was making is that love is often not clean–it plays dirty with our emotions. Despite our efforts to drive it away by shame, reason, or fear it can preoccupy our senses and usurp deeply ingrained moral convictions about relationships. I want to hate Sofya for her weakness and inability to resist temptation as much as how she treated Ilyin. Then again, I want to applaud her for following her passions despite the fact I have no reason to believe she is worthy of such a pursuit. In the end, I guess I’m just as confused about my feelings toward Sofya as she was toward Ilyin. Maybe this is the “misfortune” to which Chekhov meant in the title.