‘Small Fry’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘Small Fry’ is a nineteenth-century realistic short story penned by the master of short stories, Anton Chekhov. The story highlights the tale of Nevyrazimov, a petty clerk working in the government department who is having an existential crisis on Easter vigil night. The town where he resides is celebrating Christ’s resurrection with a lot of pomp and sacred show. Nevyrazimov, the morose protagonist of this story, is not celebrating the feast with his community. Due to his family’s impoverished condition, he has not taken a day or night off on Easter vigil. Instead, he has decided to work in the office on Easter vigil night and Easter Day for two extra roubles and a necktie. His only companions that night was a porter named Paramon, a voice of reason in this short story, and a cockroach. The cockroach symbolized the trapped life of the protagonist and his dreary, monotonous life. In this story, the cockroach is burnt in the dying fire of Nevyrazimov’s kerosene lamp, which symbolizes the death of Nevyrazimov’s soul and spirit.
There is a didactic element to this short story. Easter Vigil is celebrated with candles’ lighting from the Easter candle’s fire, which symbolizes Christ’s resurrected body and soul. This light gives meaning and a purpose to life and the clear certainness to Christians that there is an afterlife. However, where Nevyrazimov is concerned, he has lost all interest in life. The light of Easter has not done him any good, nor has it penetrated his heart. He is poor, a clerk of middling rank, and is doomed to a monotonous bureaucratic life. He is also a person who plays the victim card. When Nevyrazimov converses with the practical porter Paramon, he complains that he was not free that night and that his station in life was inferior, and other details to gain sympathy from Paramon. However, Paramon is a practical gentleman and reminds Nevyrazimov that he was to blame for being busy on Easter Vigil night. This is because Nevyrazimov took Zastupo’s place that evening for two extra rubles and a necktie. It was not Nevyrazimov turn to be at the office.
Nevyrazimov is not convinced by the words of truth uttered by Paramon. He is bored, listless, and weary in spirit. He thinks of the Easter’s gone past, which he used to spend with his family amid a lot of white cloth, light, and warmth. He hears the Easter bells’ ringing, the cheering of a crowd, and the din of Easter revelers in the distance and wishes that he could participate in their festivities. Nevyrazimov had nothing to stop him but himself. He was his own enemy. He had many options before him to get out of his humdrum existence. Still, he liked playing the victim all the time and got metaphorically burnt or sacrificed in the fire of nineteenth-century Russia’s bureaucracy. If he were a bit more assertive and optimistic, he would not have experienced this existential crisis. His existential crisis and the dreariness of his job, compounded with the fact that he was writing an insincere Easter card to his employer, the General, adds fuel to the dying ‘fire’ of his enthusiasm for life. He feels the following situations in his life are useless:
- Without education or higher education, it was impossible to rise in the government ranks, making him despondent.
- Running away with stolen money to America was useless because he didn’t know where America was. Thus, he concludes that it takes an education to even run away to America.
- Leaving the office that night and going out to enjoy Easter because his place of residence was equally dreary, which he did not want to go back to.
- Celebrate Easter because he will have to come back to the same dull office with its dirty blue walls, dusty cornice, and other grey and depressing walls.
- It was equally useless to write a secret report against his seniors because no one would believe the lies he would write, and he would be found out. Besides, he was not like Proshkin, a man who had written a secret report and had risen in rank in the office. He was not capable of lying like Proshkin.
Notice that where each of his options is concerned, there is not one which is positive, optimistic, legal, or practical. All the possibilities are dwelt upon by Nevyrazimov with anguish and despair. He seems highly vulnerable, and this highlights how terrible government posts were back then in the Czarist Russia of the nineteenth century (it was awful after that too but let’s stick to the nineteenth century for now). Nevyrazimov seems to want to fly away from life’s realities, making him an easy target for those wishing to cause turmoil in the country. Also, he is as good as the little cockroach who is afraid and crawling about his desk. Nevyrazimov ill-treats the cockroach by smacking him with his palm and then picking the roach up by its leg and throwing it in the kerosene lamp’s dying fire just the same way his superior was ill-treating him. Nevyrazimov was cruel and vicious with the cockroach. He may have acted out of frustration and vexation, but the image of him killing the roach paints him in a sadistic light in our minds. Smacking the roach was fine, but did he need to burn the poor half-dying creature? This scene, which is the last scene in this story, shows that the middle-class and the working-class people in Czarist Russia were building up tension, which would ultimately result in what we today know as the Russian Revolution.
The title of this short story is poignant. The cockroach and Nevyrazimov are ‘small insignificant’ creatures in the world they were living. The roach is ‘fried’ in the dying wick or embers of the kerosene lamp by Nevyrazimov, who is the roach’s superior or predator. Nevyrazimov, on the other hand, is the prey of people in higher positions in the government ranks in Russia. Easter is where a ‘small fry’ messiah or prophet shone upon the world in a great big light. However, even Easter Vigil night could not remove Nevyrazimov’s dreariness of existence.
Thus, the story titled ‘Small Fry’ ends with Nevyrazimov remaining stuck in a monotonous job with only the diversion of polishing his boots and roasting a roach. There are fits and starts of color imagery in this story revolving around the dark colors of office life and the bright festive colors of Easter, which are effective in emoting the real significance of this tale.
I love to read and analyze short stories penned by Chekhov. I read this short story for the first time when I was in school in the higher grade. I have reviewed quite a few of Anton Chekhov’s short stories so you could check them out for your reference. I have mentioned that I have a fascination with Russian writers. I love reading their works and analyzing them. I believe the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian writers were talented, and their novels, essays, and stories can teach us a lot. I consider them to be real classics. If you are working with children and want to get your children to read the classics, you can check out my non-fiction book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on the products page. You will not regret it. I will read and analyze more of Anton Chekhov’s short stories soon. I have his entire collection of short stories among the 31,000 physical books in my possession. To learn more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check the products page on my blog. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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