‘Fat and Thin’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘Fat and Thin’ is a realistic short story penned by the greatest Russian short story writer of the nineteenth century, Anton Chekov. The story is sharp, crisp, lucid, and poignant. It brings out the truth of how, when old school friends become influential or famous personalities, we tend to do two things: Either we are jealous of them, or we try to curry favor with them. We don’t see them as old school friends anymore but as adults with power, fame, and money. We wish to make use of and remain in favor of the famous personality. The stark change in the thin man’s behavior when he realizes the fat man is a privy officer of great power and rank is unnerving and disgusting. Chekhov, through his lucid prose and dialogues, brings out this behavior very forcefully. The fat man leaves the thin man disgusted with his sudden change in behavior. The fat man realizes that he has lost a friend because of his power and prestigious position.
The story begins thus. The fat man and the thin man meet on the platform of the Nikolaevsky railway station. They were old school friends. I will now refer to the ‘fat man’ as the plus-size gentleman or Misha to not hurt sentiments. The thin gentleman’s name was Porfiry. However, Anton Chekhov can be very crude in his writing at specific points. One notices it here when he mentions that the plus-sized gentleman got a better job or high post because he led a sedentary lifestyle. He refers to the thin man as a ‘Chinaman’ because he bows to the plus-sized gentleman on hearing of his rank in the government. Chekhov’s orientalism comes out in this story, and one should take it with a pinch of salt. Nikolayevsky railway station probably refers to the Leningradsky railway station, a rail terminal in Moscow. The thinner gentleman and his family meet the plus-sized gentleman as they are getting off the train.
The meeting is full of tears, kissing, and at first, is a cheerful reunion. However, it is clear from the thinner gentleman’s dialogues and informality that the plus-sized gentleman used to be the butt of many jokes back at school. The thin gentleman mentions that the plus-sized gentleman used to be ‘teased’ in school. It is evident to us that the plus-sized gentleman was teased because of his weight. However, the thin gentleman adroitly changes the topic so as not to upset the reunion. He instead mentions the nickname by which the plus-sized gentleman was addressed in school.
The plus-sized gentleman was called ‘Herostratus’ at school because he burnt his school notebook with a cigarette. Herostratus was an arsonist who lived in Greece in the fourth century BC and attained notoriety by destroying the second Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The thin gentleman even mentions his own nickname at school, ‘Ephialtes’, which means a nightmare. The thin gentleman was called this because he was fond of telling stories. However, one notices that the plus-sized gentleman was not one of his main stories as probably the thinner gentleman did not think that this old school friend would amount to much. That is why his wife, Luise, and son Nafanail a third-grader, had not heard the plus-sized gentleman’s name ever mentioned before. The irony is that while the thinner gentleman was eking out a living doing several jobs, the plus-sized gentleman had risen in rank and had become a privy officer with two stars. The Privy Councillor or officer held a civil position in the Russian Empire. According to the Table of Ranks introduced by Peter the Great in 1722, the Privy Councillor held a civil rank of 4th class. However, from 1724 it was upgraded to the 3rd class.
The thinner gentleman was many things in one man:
- He was a collegiate assessor with Stanislav. A Collegiate Assessor was a civil rank of class four in Imperial Russia.
- He carved wooden cigarette cases for a rouble each.
- He served as a clerk and now was head clerk in the same department, which is not mentioned in the text.
We notice that the thinner gentleman speaks much more than the plus-sized gentleman. Misha lets his friend tell him all about himself. He is a good listener but is new to the groveling of school friends. Misha never thought that his rank would so remarkedly change the tone of the conversation of his friend. He was certainly new to the job. We see that even Luise and Nafanail follow the patriarch and smile and look deferentially at Misha. Before Misha mentioned his rank, they did not even bother to look at him.
The groveling of Porfiry is something that Chekhov wants to highlight in this story, albeit indirectly. His behavior was unnerving and inappropriate. Moreover, it was not in keeping with the way Porfiry had earlier been speaking to Misha and so comes out predominately as insincere. Porfiry squirms like a worm and rumples or crumples up in front of Misha. Probably he was one of the key figures who teased and made life miserable for Misha in school. He must have recalled it and felt that even the plus-sized gentleman recollected the past. But Misha was not thinking about the past. Notice that he is the first to recognize and spot Porfiry getting off the train.
Porfiry is a man who, on the surface, appears a proud personality but within is incomplete and wanting. He can’t mingle with people above his rank and treats even an old school friend in an obsequious manner that comes out as insincere. The thinner gentleman keeps on mentioning his wife Luise being of the Lutheran persuasion. Persuasion is something meant to get you to do or believe something. Being of a particular persuasion or belief means you have already made up your mind and have a Democratic persuasion or Lutheran persuasion. Since in Chekhov’s time, Russia was predominantly following Orthodox Christianity, the thinner gentleman had a lot of explaining to do regarding his wife’s religious leanings.
The story ends with Misha giving Porfiry a farewell handshake. This incident was probably a clue to Misha of the old friends he would meet in the future who, like Porfiry, would act just like him, if not worse. This short story is partly modernist, deriving a lot of subtle material from emotional psychology. We get a very graphic picture of the whole scenario, highlighting the notion of ‘friends in high places’.
I enjoy analyzing short stories by Anton Chekhov. I have his entire collection of short stories. I have a soft corner for Russian writers and Russian history.
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