‘A Tripping Tongue’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘A Tripping Tongue’ is a realistic short story published on the 27th of September 1886 by Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is one of the most unconventional writers of prose and short fiction the world has ever known. Instead of answering questions, he asks searching questions through his short fiction. This is evident in most of his writings, including this short story titled ‘A Tripping Tongue’. Here a young elite aristocratic married woman is caught in her own lies. The young lady’s name was Natalya. She tried to gossip and make up a pack of lies about her holiday friend Yulia to her husband, Vassitchka. But through her tripping tongue, she manages to indirectly blurt out the truth of her own scandalous behavior in Crimea in Yalta. Therefore, this short story shows how one cannot lie and gossip falsely about others without falling into the trap of one’s own lies. The poor, however, sometimes tell tall tales to ease the burden of poverty in their everyday life. One such short story is ‘Her Lover’ by Maxim Gorky. On the other hand, Natalya lies to curry favor with her husband. She spoils the name of another elite married woman who, like Natalya, had had several affairs while abroad on holiday in Crimea.
Note that Crimea is a peninsula located on the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe that is almost entirely surrounded by both the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov to the northeast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was reestablished as an independent state in 1991. Most of the peninsula was reorganized as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, while the city of Sevastopol retained its special status within Ukraine. Yalta is a resort city on the south coast of the Crimean Peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea. Attracted by the region’s scenic beauty and mountains, Natalya and Yulia had gone there on holiday to get away from their empty and boring conventional lives. Natalya’s husband, Vassitchka, was a civil councilor in the Tsarists Russian government and was a very influential person. He adored his wife and knew that she was given to babbling about things that interested her in the bargain, sometimes telling a pack of lies. He wasn’t ready for her indirect reference to a torrid affair she had in Crimea with her Tartar guide Suleiman.
The Tartars were members of the combined forces of central Asian peoples, including Mongols and Turks. There were many such adventurous and amorous Tartars in Crimea who acted as tourist guides. They were looked down upon by the Russians, who behaved in a racist way towards them. Natalya, too poses that she never had anything to do with a Tartar. No elite married woman in their right mind would dare indicate that they had feelings for a Tartar. However, in the course of holiday gossip, when Natalya tries to tarnish Yulia’s name, she indirectly lets on that she, too, like Yulia, had an affair with Suleiman, her Tartar guide, during her stay in Crimea. Perhaps, it was adventure or the boredom of conventionality that appealed to the amoral Yulia and Natalya to have sexual relationships with the Tartar guides.
Natalya tries to hide her story. She is ashamed of the fact that she had had an affair with Suleiman. While reading the text, we realize that the affair was getting serious when Suleiman keeps forgetting that Natalya was a married Russian woman. Natalya had many times to put the amorous Suleiman in his place though she was enjoying the attention. Natalya speaks to Vassitchka about the immoral Yulia and other aristocratic women. But she invariably shows her frustration. Being the wife of a civil councilor, she knew that even if her husband suspected that she had had an affair in Crimea, he would still not divorce her because of conventionality and social pressure.
Vassitchka is aware of the immoral behavior of the Tartar guides in Crimea. He read about them in a magazine while Natalya was away on holiday. He asks her whether they were indeed the Don Juan’s of Crimea. Don Juan was a famous lover and scoundrel who had made more than a thousand sexual conquests. His name is now proverbial for a captivating man known as a great lover or seducer of women. When Vassitchka asks Natalya whether she met any such ‘Don Juan’s there in Crimea, Natalya grimaces and is disdainful indicative that the affair with Suleiman had not ended well. Most probably, Natalya had broken Suleiman’s heart with no remorse on her side because she would rather keep her social status as a wife of a civil councilor rather than degrade her status by running off with a Tartar.
Coming to Yulia, who was a holiday companion of Natalya in Crimea, she too apparently had a torrid affair with her Tartar guide, Mametkul. Yulia was so amorous and sexually attracted towards Mametkul that she used to act that she was fainting to get physically close to Mametkul. She even sent Natalya and Suleiman off in a middle of a holiday expedition to be alone with Mametkul and probably have sex with him. Yulia conversed with Mametkul for hours in her holiday room right till the late hours of the night. Notice that all the details about Yulia are also applicable to Natalya because she did everything that Yulia did. What is more, Natalya was so shameless in her affection and sexual fervor towards the tourists guide Turks that she even managed to entice Mametkul to sleep with her when Yulia was away one evening. It is evident from the descriptions given by Anton Chekhov in this text that Natalya had slept with both Mametkul and Suleiman. Yulia was furious when she came back from her outing to probably find Mametkul in the arms of Natalya in a compromising position.
Natalya is now back from her holiday, telling her husband all that presumably Yulia had done. She tries to paint herself as a saint by narrating these torrid details about Yulia. Natalya’s husband is seething with anger and suspicion. This we know from the sarcastic way he answers her when she tells of her adventures in Crimea, and by the pellets of breadcrumbs he breaks in rage during the conversation. He realizes that his wife had had a good time, but he cannot do anything about it because a divorce would spoil his reputation in society. It is obvious Natalya has brought home her feelings for Suleiman to her husband’s house, and now there was no going back. We know Suleiman besots her by the way she describes his face, his dark eyes, and his behavior.
There is a strong racist hint here in this short story where Natalya mentions the other races and communities of people the Russians despised. These are Circassians, Greeks, and Moors. A Circassian is a member of a group of mainly Sunni Muslims of the north-western Caucasus. A Moor could mean anyone who was Muslim or had dark skin. Occasionally, Europeans would distinguish between “blackamoors” and “white Moors”. These ethnic races were looked down upon in Russia, and Natalya tries to mention it to prove to her husband that she had no dealing on her holiday with anyone who was a Muslim. However, she did because she needed a Tartar to tour the mountains. She was aware that Tartars were romancers and wanted to enjoy a physical relationship with them behind her husband’s back. Like Yulia, Natalya was a bon ton which indicates women with good manners and etiquette but who were sexually frustrated in their marriages and seeking lives where they could be free.
‘A Tripping Tongue’ is about Natalya’s tongue, who, through a slip of the tongue, mentions to her husband Vassitchka that she had had an affair with a Muslim in Crimea. We are left with mixed feelings at the end of the story for a person like Natalya. However, we do remember other Russian short stories of poor and downtrodden prostitutes penned by the Russian-Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who shows us that these poor prostitutes, if they had it their way, would not have been selling their bodies. They longed for the secure married life Natalya was blessed with. However, destiny is such that where Gorky’s prostitutes die due to poverty or concentration camps, aristocratic women like Natalya play the harlot with every man they meet without respecting their marital vows. To read more about Maxim Gorky’s works, you can check out my analysis of a few of his works here. Gorky gives a moralistic and existential element to his stories of sexuality and sexual profanity. Anton Chekhov, who mostly wrote about the rich and influential, lacks these elements in his short stories but brings out in the reader’s mind questions about the rich’s morality or lack thereof. Leo Tolstoy, a contemporary of Gorky and Chekhov, takes a religious viewpoint on the whole matter. You can check out my analyses of Leo Tolstoy works here.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov. He is one of my favorite short story writers of all time, and you can check out more of my analyses of his works here. I hope to read, review, and analyze more of Anton Chekhov’s and other Russian writers’ works. If you are interested in reading short stories about the LGBTQIA community, you can check out my award-winning book The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name on my blog’s products page. In the 2018 DBW Awards it was a winner in Short Stories and a finalist in Social Issues.
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Eva Hnizdo says
What a great commentary and knowledge of Russian literature. As a young teenager, I had a problem with anything Russian- they invaded my country when I was 14. But now there is a lot I like about classical Russian literarute