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This story could be summarized as a life wasted. Unlike other peasants we’ve read about, (The Huntsman excluded) Grigory Petrov has a skill that is valued by others. His woodturning craftsmanship is squandered by drinking and quarreling. The story is told non-linearly through Grigory’s rambling as he madly races through a blizzard to save his wife. I’d argue that the story starts with optimistic hope along with the turner’s fear. He believes he’s going to make it to the doctor’s office and is already preparing himself to plead for the doctor to save her life. Grigory gives the dialogue between him and the doctor, revealing his penchant for drinking. “He had lived hitherto in unruffled calm, as though in drunken half-consciousness, knowing neither grief nor joy, and now he was suddenly aware of a dreadful pain in his heart.” From this moment the title “sorrow” takes hold of him, it becomes apparent that Grigory is not only a drunk, but has been abusive. Things get worse for Grigory’s mental state when “It struck him as strange that the snow on his old woman’s face was not melting.” Guilt compounded with sorrow at the thought that his wife of 40 years “died at the very time when he felt he was sorry for her, that he could not live without her, and that he had behaved dreadfully badly to her.” When Grigory passes out, I was okay with him freezing to death, but his fate ended up far worse. He is permanently useless without arms or legs and he is now loaded with guilt too, realizing that he caused the death of his wife.
Chekhov opens today’s story with a description of the main character, a peasant named Grigory, taking his “old woman” to the hospital amid a terrible snow storm. At various points in the story, Chekhov takes a break from the inner dialogue of Grigory to describe the limited visibility and horrible conditions associated with the journey. It is fitting that the conditions surrounding the journey represent the insight that Grigory had into his own life. Only at the end of the story did the sunlight illuminate what resulted from a wasted life. Grigory has talent as a turner, but is otherwise a “senseless peasant” and a drunkard. His wife of 40 years came from a well-to-do family but after decades of abuse is prone to have an expression that is “meek like that of a dog frequently beaten and badly fed”. Grigory longs for that expression now. We never really discover what happened to his wife on this particular night of drunken abuse but it resulted in her having an expression “like saints in the holy pictures”. He borrows a horse and begins a 20-mile journey in a blizzard toward Dr. Ivanitch. Along the journey, Grigory passes the time by making promises of redemption amid confessions of a wasted life. The weather gets worse and he realizes the snow is no longer melting against the face of his wife riding in the back. “She is dead, then! What a business!” Only then, with the passing of his wife, does he begin to appreciate the life he could have had. This realization comes slowly at first. He is annoyed by her death, rather than sorry, because she will never realize the true man he believes himself to be. He wishes she had lived another 10 years stating “as it is I’ll be bound she thinks I really was that sort of man.” Realizing the futility of continuing the journey to the hospital, he turns back toward home. In doing so, he also reflects more deeply on the last 40 years with his wife. The weather gets worse as dusk approaches and Grigory, in a state of confusion, turns back again toward the hospital mistaking it for the way home. He is cold and tired and mentally exhausted as the weather continues to worsen. Loosening his grip on the reins, presumably from frost-bite, he falls into a peaceful sleep having been “overcome by such inertia that it seemed better to freeze than move.” He wakes up in the hospital, bathed in sunlight, and professing the need for a requiem for his wife. But “it was all over with the turner.” A wasted life had taken its toll. Having lost his arms and legs to frost-bite during the cathartic journey he has lost everything. A worthless life, examined late. There is no redemption.