‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘The Student’ is a very poignant story of a young student studying for the clergy. The setting for the story is the evening of Good Friday, the day when Christians commemorate the Lord Jesus Christ’s passion and death on the Cross. The weather is described as being cold. The world too was cold to the Lord’s death when this story was penned. There was unrest, uneasiness, and doubt clouding the minds of the people of Russia where this story takes place. The story seems to be a prophetic literary statement of what would happen in Russia in the years following the turn of the century. This is a story of reflective thoughts about who we as people are where Christian faith is concerned. According to Chekhov, he feels that Russia, the clerical student Ivan Velikopolsky, the two widows he encounters, and the people of Russia, represent Saint Peter who during Lord Jesus’ arrest denied him three times before the cock crowed. Saint Peter was afraid, unsure of himself, weary in spirit, and also someone who denied the existence of the love he had for Lord Jesus; in other words, he was denying his love for collective humanity. When this was brought to his notice by the crowing of the cock, he wept and was mournful. The two listening widows are distraught with the tale of Saint Peter. They feel they resemble him in some unmentioned way.
I want to dwell on the title of the story before I delve deeper into the analysis of this short story. We know that Ivan Velikopolsky is a student for the clergy or the clerical academy. But is he really ‘the student’ in this story? Sometimes when I read this story, I feel it is us, Chekhov is instructing. It is through the discourse about Saint Peter’s denial that Ivan Velikopolsky tries to bring out the secret of the two widows he encounters. He teaches them like they were his students, and they reciprocate their understanding of his words, not through words, but painful looks and sorrowful weeping. They feel from the bottom of their hearts that the denial of Saint Peter is something very close to the description of their lives. What their lives were about, we are hardly told in the short story. However, we know that the elder widow was the mother of the younger. The elder widow was more refined than the younger. They both were warming themselves near a fire, a ‘burning bush’ fire. They may have not followed the dictates of the church nor attended the Good Friday or Maundy Thursday service. We know that they may have not followed the observances of Good Friday because they had already cooked and eaten their dinner before sundown.
Ivan Velikopolsky is young and carefree. He preaches his discourse of Saint Peter with bravado. He has not gone through the harshness or cruelties of life yet and so comes out as being very ready to ‘preach’ to others. If he had maybe gone through even half of the pains and experiences of the widowed mother and the widowed daughter, maybe then he would have used a different tactic to get into a conversation with them. The widows may not have gone for Mass, but they had kept ‘the burning bush’ alive. They receive the words of Ivan Velikopolsky with their whole hearts and respond very genuinely to the sermon. Though Ivan Velikopolsky was the son of a sacristan, he has been having his share of personal turmoil and doubt. Maybe he was feeling like Saint Peter felt during the time of the Lord Jesus. Maybe he too, seeing the misery of the poor and their poverty, wondered was the Lord still with them or had he abandoned them without giving any proper warning.
There is a mention of Ivan Velikopolsky’s face ‘burning with the wind’ which is highly indicative that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was about to disclose a profound message in this story. Nature itself was cold and was feeling ill at ease, but it is even in such dismal situations that love comes into the world through the personage of Redeemers, in this case, the Redeemer is Lord Jesus, the Christ. Love is truth and beauty, according to Chekhov. Love had suffered for humanity from the garden of Gethsemane to the Cross and that is what he celebrates here through this very intensely Christian short story. This love had guided humanity from the beginning, and Ivan Velikopolsky feels that it would guide the widows, Russia, himself, and nature, into what would be beneficial to the people of Russia.
Coming to the setting of the story, the weather was harsh, wintry, and bitterly cold. It did not seem like it would soon be Easter. Again, this is indicative that redemption comes in the most unusual garbs and unusual ways. Coupling with winter was the poverty, desolation, ignorance, darkness, oppression, and misery of Russia. This is a direct reference to the turmoil in Saint Peter’s mind when the Lord Jesus was arrested. The Russia of Chekhov’s time was feeling just like Saint Peter was feeling that terrible night when Lord Jesus was arrested. There is a mention of Saint Peter being ‘hardly awake’. This is mentioned by Ivan Velikopolsky to the widows. This symbolizes the ‘sleeping conscience’ of the aristocrats and the elite in Russia to the pains of the poor and the downtrodden. It also symbolizes the sleeping consciences of the widows in a way that we have not been told by Chekhov. These consciences will have to be ‘awakened’ otherwise something awful would happen in the future. Note that the whole discourse given by Ivan Velikopolsky about Saint Peter’s denial of Lord Jesus is an amalgamation of all three Gospels in the Holy Bible. Ivan Velikopolsky is highly evangelical because he is yet to go through the hardships of life.
There are some takeaway points in this short story which are as follows:
- Ivan Velikopolsky was out snipe shooting before he met the widows. The names of the widows were Vasilisa and Lukerya. Vasilisa was once working for the army gentry as a wet nurse and then a children’s nurse and so she must have certainly seen a lot of terrible things in her life. However, she is not one to be beaten by any man. Her daughter on the other hand was quite mute, a peasant woman, and a victim of her husband’s abuses.
- The widows were not part of mainstream society. They lived on the outskirts.
- Just like Lord Jesus Christ loved to be in the company of ‘sinners’ whom he called ‘people who are sick and need a doctor’ in the same way, Ivan Velikopolsky wanted to help and evangelize the widows that day on Good Friday.
- The reference to the phrase ‘reading of the Twelve Gospels’ is indicative of the Orthodox Christian Church.
I love Russian writers and Anton Chekhov is one of my favorites. My all-time favorite Russian writer is of course Fyodor Dostoevsky whose works I love to read and analyze. You can check them out if you wish to. If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short story reviews, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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