The Portrayal of Power in Anton Chekhov’s Selected Stories and Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
We often attribute power, when not wielded properly, to destruction and downfall. The concept of power plays an essential role in both Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Anton Chekhov’s Selected Stories, but each author portrays the idea in different light. There is contrast between the satirical and light-hearted approach to 19th century Russian society’s perception of power, depicted through Chekhov’s stories, and the serious tone compounded with heavy irony and sarcasm employed by Böll to criticise his characters’ abuse of institutional power and power of authority in post-World War II Germany.In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, the excessive power of the German yellow press is directly responsible for the demoralisation and ruin of the novel’s protagonist. “…the News had transformed his statement that Katharina was intelligent, cool and level-headed into ‘ice-cold and calculating.’” Words and statements are intentionally manipulated by the newspaper to generate controversy, and the story is maliciously blown out of proportion into a full-fledged “conspiracy.” Böll once stated that “words can be more destructive than punches and pistols.” This is indeed the case as Katharina’s entire life is utterly destroyed by headlines.Böll criticises sensationalist media’s one-sided distortion of facts and unnecessary slander through his mimicry of tabloid journalism as a form of pastiche. Yet in the novel, The News is the peoples’ main source of information, therefore its reliability is rarely questioned. The journalist responsible, Tötges, is able to dismiss his drastic falsifications as merely “helping simple people express themselves more clearly.” Although language is central to the defamation of Katharina, it is also the only remaining instrument of power she is able to wield. She “was remarkably meticulous is checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record.” Böll describes the absurdity of her request in the eyes of the policemen with distinct sarcasm – a “regular argument as to definition.” They find this tedious and Katharina is blamed for her own prolonged interrogation. In contrast, a difference in language between the magistrate and Denis Grigoriev in Chekhov’s story “The Malefactor” demonstrates a substantial power gap between the two characters. Grigoriev is a simple-minded peasant who when asked to stand before the magistrate, is only able to spout out information about his profession. This is of no use to the magistrate, who sees him as a menace, consequently calling him a “donkey”, “idiot” and “fool,” when Grigoriev genuinely does not understand why he has been put on trial. Furthermore, when attempting to justify his actions, the magistrate repeatedly orders Grigoriev to “Stop talking!” and “Don’t interrupt!” The condescending tone employed by the magistrate when denouncing Grigoriev is reflective of his level of power.Although the story appears to question justice and fairness in the Russian legal system of Chekhov’s time, this is only on the surface. Chekhov, unlike Böll, does not entirely sympathise with his powerless character. Grigoriev has a rustic understanding as to the danger of removing nuts from railway lines, as illustrated through the magistrate’s exclamation, “one of the trains might have run off the track and killed everybody…you would have killed them!” There is no distinctive antagonist in the story, unlike in Böll’s novel. Although the magistrate wields power over the peasant, the actions of Grigoriev could indeed result in ghastly consequences. Since Grigoriev is unable to comprehend his wrongdoings, the magistrate’s annoyance and subsequent sentencing is to an extent justified. The overall tone of the story is also light-hearted in comparison to Böll’s novel. Grigoriev’s various statements such as “To prison? Your honour, I haven’t time!” and the magistrate’s increasing frustration in response, generate a substantial amount of humour.Power is not only wielded by people and institutions in Böll’s novel, but also strongly abused, particularly by men possessing power of authority. In his characterisation of Katharina, Böll presents her as “extremely sensitive, almost prudish, in sexual matters.” However, Beizmenne “alleged[ly]” asked Katharina, “‘Well, did [Götten] fuck you?’ ” This crude and direct manner of questioning is completely irrelevant to the situation at hand, and serves to explicate the idea of the male gaze throughout the novel. Likewise, the policemen willingly diverge from proper police conduct whilst Katharina is interrogated. The narrator is scornful towards these men, finding their actions incredulous, particularly when Beizmenne loosens his tie, unbuttons his collar and begins to “not only look paternal but… behave paternally.” The notion that she is being constructed by how men view her is further emphasised by the final line of the chapter where her inability to tolerate these patriarchal actions is interpreted by “the two policemen… [as] no sense of humour.” In Chekhov’s story, Agafya, the dominance of men and repression of women is also addressed. Savka is an attractive man who is often visited by married women. The narrator states that “Savka despised women. He treated them carelessly, in an offhand way, and even sank so low as to laugh with contempt at their feeling for himself.” The tone Savka uses in reference to women is blatantly mocking. He remarks, “they won’t listen; the idiots don’t care.” Yet Chekhov is sympathetic towards Agafya. She, like many other married women were not satisfied with their banal lives, resulting in a desperate need to escape. This is where Savka’s male dominance originates from.Agafya is depicted as a docile young woman at the beginning of the story. She “faltered, dropping a little bundle she carried and glanc[ed] at me. ” Yet Chekhov concludes the story with a twist. Agafya “jump[s] up, thr[ows] back her head, and advance[s] with firm footsteps towards her husband.” Much like Katharina, it is an act of retaliation. Katharina kills Tötges to preserve what little amount of feminine dignity and honour she has remaining. Both characters, atypical to that of most females in their time, display no remorse for their actions, and are effectively empowered.In Böll’s novel, it is evident that social status also plays a key role in determining the power one possesses. This is shown through the egotistical Alois Sträubleder, a wealthy industrialist and highly influential politician. He is the embodiment of power in society. Although also closely connected to the police investigation into Götten, his treatment by all institutions is drastically different to that of Katharina’s. “…who was going to believe…a woman like herself, a domestic, that she would resist [him]?” Despite repeatedly making unreciprocated advances towards Katharina, his name is kept out of the News and the police do not even consider holding or interrogating him. Sträubleder is thus self-assured and able to confidently state, “‘The News…is no threat.” In fact, when Götten is found on Sträubleder’s property, the newspaper immediately accuses Katharina of “gambl[ing] the reputation of an honourable man, the happiness of his family, and his political career.” Ironically, Else Woltersheim’s partner, “Konrad Beiters… admitted to having once been a Nazi and …this… explained why…no one had paid any attention to him.” Not only Konrad Beiters, but Sträubleder, Lüding and others in the novel with former Nazi affiliations were all exempt from scrutiny and questioning purely due to their elevated role in society.Similarly, in Chekhov’s story “Lean and Fat,” power is closely associated with one’s place in society; however the individual possessing power instead finds it unseemly to have attention drawn to it. The narrator demonstrates the disparity in power between classes as soon as the two old friends are introduced. The fat man’s “lips were still buttery and as glossy as ripe cherries” after finishing a scrumptious meal, and in contrast, the lean man “smells of ham and coffee-grounds.” Once the fat man reveals his title, “The lean man… paled and stood rooted to the spot…he shrivelled and shrank and stooped.” The fat man is highly uncomfortable at being repeatedly addressed as “your Excellency” so openly by his friend, yet the power gap between hierarchies deems this necessary. Chekhov clearly disapproves of the 19th century Russian preoccupation with social class. This is done cleverly by ridiculing the lean man for his pitiful behaviour. “The lean man took three fingers of it, bowed with his whole body, and giggled like a Chinaman: ‘Hee! hee! hee!’ ” This satirical approach further serves to highlight the insidious nature of power whereby only the mention of fat man’s title wholly changes the lean man’s attitude towards him.“Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whatever it touches.” It is evident that power is the root of the many issues in both novels. The bitter consequences, such as a loss of friendship and a character’s utter ruin are all the result of an individual or institution wielding too much power and often abusing this power. Whilst one author emphasises the absurdity of reverence to power and rank, the other condemns those in positions of power for their ability to destroy what little those without significant power possess.