Today’s story is 2626 words and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/085.html
It today’s story, we see the sausage making of the Russian judicial system. How little the officers of the courts are engaged with the proceedings, even when life or death drama is happening. “…the men here were as accustomed to the dramas and tragedies of life and were as blunted by the sight of them as hospital attendants are at the sight of death, and that the whole horror and hopelessness of his position lay just in this mechanical indifference.” The person who is taken back most by the aloofness of the proceedings is the peasant, Harlamov. “The charge of murder hung over him, and yet here he met with neither threatening faces nor indignant looks nor loud phrases about retribution nor sympathy for his extraordinary fate; not one of those who were judging him looked at him with interest or for long. . . .” The indifference for his situation is uncomfortable for him and the reader. The twist in the story, is that the soldier guarding the peasant is his son. (And perhaps the real murder.) The closest hint we got of this was the soldier dropping his gun when he first escorted his father into the courtroom. Since this is Chekhov and not an eighties action flick, there is no collusion with a planned escape. It seems that the assignment is random and at no point do we see the two communicating, let alone even acting as if they recognize each other. What the revelation did evoke, however, was some emotion from the jaded justice employees. “Everyone seemed to wince and as it were shrink together.” We’ll never know the outcome of the trial or even the relationship between the father and son. But the employees will have a story to tell about the guard/father mixup in a career of unmemorable cases.
Today we have a courtroom drama wrapped in the indifference of the legal system to which Nickolay Harlamov has been subjected for the crime of murdering his wife. Most of the previous cases came quickly, “like a church service without a choir,” and the building and mood of all those involved was “saturated with official indifference.” Upon entering the courtroom, the officer escorting Nickolay inadvertently dropped his gun much to the delight of those watching and much to the embarrassment of the officer. It was an odd introduction that begged for an explanation later in the story. Witnesses were called and the prosecutor, who would rather spend his time reading “Cain“, had about as much interest in the case as the defender. The defense attorney, bored with his own fate, “felt no excitement about the speech he was to make” and we get the sense that Nickolay’s fate was decided long before he entered the courtroom. The witnesses against Nickolay could have just as well been for the defense as nobody actually witnessed anything aside from the occasional beating he gave his wife…but “he never beat her except when he had had a drop.” The nature of the crime was particularly gruesome in that his wife was found with her “skull broken” by an axe. As if to highlight the indifference of those involved, the testimony from the doctor that examined her was recalled from what “he remembered of his report at the post-mortem and all that he had succeeded in thinking of on his way to the court that morning.” The only things that seemed to rouse the judges and attorneys was discussion over where to stay, acknowledgement of a wealthy citizen in the audience, and when to take a break. Their boredom was only momentarily broken when the defense attorney asked a particularly insightful question of the doctor. Upon seeking clarification however, the attorney withdrew his question recognizing that the “question had strayed into his mind and found utterance simply through the effect of the stillness, the boredom, the whirring ventilator wheels.” Nickolay, perhaps sensing the prejudice of the court for expediency over justice, spoke up about the origin of the axe used to kill his wife. Nickolay claimed that his own axe was taken by his son, Prohor, and lost two years previously. Then he called out the officer, named Proshka, that escorted him into the courtroom to describe where the axe had gone. Perhaps I was confused by a fact lost in translation, but the insinuation to me was that the escort was his son (Proshka being a simplified version of Prohor perhaps?). This caused quite the disturbance in the gentle balance that governed the monotony of the courtroom. “It was a painful moment!” but one that could be easily ignored for the sake of expediency…the guard was changed and everyone “went on with their work.” This isn’t the first time that Chekhov has given us a glimpse into the “official indifference” of the government systems in Russia (c.f. An Inquiry). What I found interesting was how much the court system depended upon monotony and boredom to operate. When confronted with an obvious deviation from the routine, they either dismissed it (as in the defense attorney’s question) or ignored it. As an aside, I also found it interesting that the prosecuting attorney was reading an adaptation of the Cain and Abel story as told from Cain’s perspective…not sure yet what that may mean.