Analysis of Anton Chekhov’s Short Story “Agafya”

May 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

Chekhov’s stories often describe the little intricate moments in Russian life, focusing in on one character’s experience of a normal event and in doing so commenting on the character themselves. Agafya is one of Chekhov’s longer short stories, and is told from the perspective of a man who returns to his old village to spend a night with an old friend, Savka. Savka is beautiful, but lazy – and he often entertains women from the village in exchange for food or clothing. One of these women, Agafya, used to know the narrator, who tries to warn her, before leaving them alone. Agafya stays the whole night and returns in the morning to her husband who sees where she was clearly. The story has elements of strangers, of class in the country, of the illusion of love and a sense of hopelessness. Throughout it all Chekhov uses a gentle tone, sympathetic to all his characters different motives and little symbols in the telling of these few hours.As in many of Chekhov’s stories, the characters are familiar, yet foreign. Though everyone in this story does know each-other, they have not been in close contact for an unclear amount of time. This level of un-familiarity and un-clear boundaries is evident. Even though the narrator suggests that “I knew Agafya well” when they are left alone together he speaks only “when it seemed awkward not to say anything”. Their conversation is brief, and there is almost a remorse expressed by the narrator as he warns her that Jacob might “find out”, and she dismisses this, though not confidently. She is clearly surprised to have been found in this situation, upon arrival she “faltered, dropping a little bundle she carried and glancing at me.” Without any further discussion on what past these two may have had, Chekhov creates a sense of embarrassment, disappointment and even defiant pride as Agafya remains despite her nerves and the warnings. They are not strictly strangers, but they are no longer close.Elements of rich and poor, or class separation, are subtly acknowledged though not commented upon. The three main characters all have different situations, for different reasons. Savka, the watchman is “not worth one copeck” despite his talent for hunting, his easy-going manner and his natural gift for relationships. He gets by on his “old man’s position” and the food they bring him, and despite the rough lifestyle, “that coarse, grey salt, those dirty, greasy cakes, those eggs as tough as India-Rubber: how good they all tasted!” there is a sweetness to his freedom and he seems entirely content with his way of life, “smiling with pleasure” – he doesn’t seem to mind that “he was known to everyone as a failure”. Agafya was “the switchman’s wife”, described as “a girl” – very young and who had married “a fine, bold peasant.” Her simple life is not satisfying though, and she puts herself through much discomfort to escape it; to meet Savka she “ford[ed] the river by night which had robbed her of her breath”, fearing her husband’s arrival she “impatiently wrung her hands”, and she “was trying, in a few hours of happiness, to make up for the torture that awaited her”. The narrator’s class is not quite so clear… Agafya refers to him as “master”, and he is a wise storyteller to Savka and he had clearly lived among these peasants previously, but how or why he left is unclear. The differences in class, and what can be expected of people in these different classes is what is interesting.The relationships between not only these characters, but also the other men and women in their lives seem to be the key point made by this story. Savka with his charm attracts the wives of the town, but “he despised women” even though “he was graceful and comely” and his “gentle caresses” won them over easily. He does not pretend to love them, but they seem to enjoy him; bringing him gifts “out of pity”. Agafya and the other women who come seem to have husbands – who care for them but “came home to [them] every night” after days working and although they easily become “the frightened husband, searching for his wife” without details we are aware that Savka has “a new one” not just because of his charm. These provincial lives are not idyllic and there seems to be no true affection except between friends.However despite these bleak realisations, Chekhov seems to sympathise with everyone; the “poor girl” who comes to Savka despite her husband, the husband who doesn’t understand where his wife went, Savka who is so skilled and yet lazy. The words he uses to portray Agafya who “seemed to be writhing under her husband’s gaze”, and Savka’s sympathetic and “aversion” to watching her suffer do not condemn or judge his characters, his task is simply to portray the moment. Furthermore, the narrator (who by first person discussion could actually be Chekhov) speaks mostly of birds who long to escape, who “fly away to escape being frozen to death” in their native land. This seems symbolic of the narrator himself, having left his hometown lest he be frozen in one place, in one situation. Chekhov’s little story paints a beautiful, almost tragic scene in which we see an “eternally-resting”, beautiful Savka, Agafya who in her torment “she was suffering… her whole figure expressed struggle and vacillation” and a freedom seeking narrator who finds himself at a distance from his old place.

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