The Black Monk
Perspective and Understanding in Chekhov’s “Misery”
Written by master realist Anton Chekhov, “Misery” is the story of an old man’s grief for having lost his son. He keeps looking for somebody with whom to talk about the death of his child. Throughout, the use of the old man’s narrative perspective enables the reader to understand misery of Iona, the old man, through an approximate stream of consciousness technique which deals with the real flow of human thoughts.
The beginning of the story unfolds on quite depressing and heavy atmosphere, where there is “full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people” in “familiar gray landscapes” which seem to relate to Iona’s grief and misery. The range of vocabulary pertained to the depressing atmosphere, employed by Chekhov in the first paragraph depicts the intensity of sadness in Iona. He is even described as “white as a ghost” to underline the fact that he is lifeless; Iona is here just because death came at the “wrong door.” In addition to this, pathetic fallacy is also notable, since nature reflects the state of mind of Iona, who does not even bother to shake off the snow that falls on him. This makes the reader understand how life has stopped moving for him. He has gone through worse by losing his son and that much snow on him will not do much harm. He dissociates himself from the world and is caught up in his own misery. The cold weather as well symbolizes an atmosphere of mourning. Chekhov, at every point of the story, related to the title of his story. He justifies the title by placing emphasis on Iona’s misery and gives much weight to it.
The narrative perspective seems to point out how feelings were barely important in a materialistic world. But no money, high-paid job, or people from the higher social ladder can bring back a lost loved one. Death is normalized by the words of the revelers who say “death is inevitable,” but it is the person who loses someone who feels the impact of it greatly. The passengers that Iona meets reflects people in real life who fail to understand the grief of others just because they are all so preoccupied with their own life. No respect is given to Iona and to the job he occupies. Indeed, he is paid by his passengers but this is no reason why he should be treated in a way that makes him feel bad or inferior. The way the passengers treat him gives the impression that Iona is a slave who ought not have feelings instead of Iona earning his life honestly. This highlights the injustice towards Iona whose ‘misery’ is once again felt by the readers. His misery “is immense, beyond all bounds.” He is also a victim of class inequalities. The people he encounters offer no sympathy for him.
Although human beings live in the same world, the dichotomy between the people Iona encounters and the grief that Iona feels in the same world is noted when the wording “merry gentleman” is used in contrast to “the old man.” “Me-er-ry gentleman” reflects the life of the revelers, where there is no worry, while Iona is leading an empty life, with no one besides himself. The narrative perspective does sympathize with Iona but does not condemn the other characters for not listening to Iona’s grief. Rather, it gives people the liberty to live out independent existences. The above mentioned quotation “death is inevitable” can have a different meaning when they aim to console someone instead of pointing out we should accept it and continue living. The revelers seem to be people who enjoy life and by saying such words, they imply that there are much more to discover in life, so we should not miss any opportunity by focusing only on something which went wrong. Iona feels much better when he has passengers, because as soon as the revelers go, “the misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever.”
Furthermore, the narrative perspective seems to take a philosophical direction. Chekhov pointed out how Iona’s misery remains unnoticed by the other characters and how they are not to be condemned for not noticing it. Not only did people from the upper class not notice his suffering, people from the same social class as Iona could not notice it too. Iona is left all alone with his horse at the end of the story. The readers noted points at which Iona communicates with his horse to give instructions as a result of habit. But in the end, this action might indicate that Iona has nobody else to talk to except the horse who will not judge him. When he relates the misery to his horse, he is convinced that the horse was listening to him and it enabled him to continue sharing his grief.
Chekhov provides a very symbolical ending of the story to enable the reader to understand how the outside world can be cruel at times. No one is really concerned for the grievances of others. But, even if the horse does not respond to Iona and it keeps “munching,” at least it neither gives orders to Iona nor does it judge Iona for feeling miserable. This was just what Iona was looking for, someone to whom he can talk to and voice out his grief completely to empty himself from what he is suffering inside so that he feels relieved. The only difference is that, instead of talking to another human being, he ends up talking to his horse. Many readers can in fact relate to Iona’s suffering because at one point in time, we have all felt misunderstood and alone despite being among people. Iona, too, feels alone although his job enables him to encounter with people. He feels the time pass whenever he is alone and this is reflected by “one hour passes, and then another…” It seems that time is not able to soothe the burden of his grief since his grief keeps growing with time.
Finally, although Iona is deeply shattered he continues to work. Indeed, life continues no matter what tragedy happens. All that matters are how one deals with one’s suffering. The narrative perspective employed by Chekhov enables the readers to understand Iona and sympathize with him. Readers are thus able to feel emotional engagement and identification with Iona.
Symbolism of Colors in Chekhov’s “The Black Monk”
Written in 1893, Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Black Monk” is one of the most potent and revealing works of the writer. It reflects the profound philosophy of the author, as well as the feelings of worry and anxiety which, according to the memoirs of him contemporaries, pursued Anton Chekhov at that time.
The author himself described his work as follows: “This is a medical story, historical morbi” (Carter). Indeed, Chekhov draws attention to what kind of disease his hero Kovrin is suffering; this disease is megalomania, a disease many Russian people of the nineteenth century had suffered from. Apparently, the main theme of the story is to show how a person’s life could be broken by this sizzling passion and all the artistic means used are strengthening the understanding of the topic. Chekhov is one of the greatest masters of the written word, and of sensory details in Russian literature. But in this work he showed himself as a great master of painting, for color, for every mention of color in this story is loaded with meaning.
The action of the narrative is connected with a garden, which itself should speak of the variety of colors. At the beginning of the story we really read: “such a wealth of flowers, in fact, Kovrin had never seen anywhere as at Pesotsky’s” (Chekhov). But, oddly enough, Chekhov does not describe any of these “various colors,” and indicates a clear distinction: “all possible shades, from glistening white to sooty black” (Chekhov). Underlining these unusual colors for the garden, Chekhov shows their symbolic meaning.
The symbolism of white and black colors goes back to the ballads. Maybe this is what is Chekhov meant when he wrote that Kovrin “found in some book” a legend or “heard it somewhere.” And indeed the legend that struck Kovrin has the character of a ballad about the monk who for his sins had to wander the universe forever, and always at night when pale moon appears in the sky. It is the combination of the black appearance of a monk and the pale moon or dawn, or combination of black robes and white face (“pale, terribly pale face!” – as described by the author) explicitly directs the reader to the connection with a traditional romantic ballad. And what do these colors mean in a ballad? White – the color of youth, life and goodness. Black is always a symbol of death.
If the contrast between black and white is looked into even deeper, it can be seen that it goes back to the Bible, or, more precisely, to the Apocalypse. In “The Black Monk,” the date of appearance of the black monk is exactly specified – a thousand years ago. In the Apocalypse, the thousand years is the time of the devil’s confinement. It is quite possible that the black monk is a devil, the one whose presence goes beyond the earth for a thousand years (the universe in the romantic tradition is often identified with the abyss). Chekhov thus opens another facet of color symbolism: the white color symbolizes God’s chosen one. A man worthy of wearing white clothes is a man sinless, blameless. At the beginning of the story Kovrin calms himself: “I will not do evil; So, in my hallucinations there is nothing wrong,” but the monk who visits him is dressed up in black.
White in the story appears only once more, at the very end. Kovrin breaks Tania’s letter and throws the scraps on the floor, but they turn white and give him no rest. The easiest solution would be to link in this episode symbolism of white with an image of Tanya, but such an interpretation would not be entirely accurate. Kovrin picks up the scraps of the letter and throws them out of the window, but wind blowing from the sea scatters the pieces on the windowsill. A few minutes later a black monk appears to take Kovrin’s life. The dying Kovrin is on the floor defeated, and above him is the unfortunate letter, which he needs right now most of all. It seems that the white color – the color of life, which is in the garden, and a field of rye, and youth, and courage, joy – represents all that Kovrin had sacrificed in the name of his idea of chosenness.
To finish the color palette of the work, it is necessary to mention one more important detail. Color adjectives are presented meanly and monotonously throughout the story. And only in the end of the work are there two wonderful descriptions of the Crimean Bay: the blue-green water, moonlight, “a lot of blue, dark blue, turquoise and fiery eyes.” Just before his death Kovrin saw the real beauty of the world. So uselessly has his life been lived!
With full confidence, the reader can say that Chekhov in the short story “The Black Monk” presents himself as a true artist of the world. The author is able to raise the color scheme of the work to the level of symbolism, and to show what opposes Kovrin’s delusions by contrasting black and white colors.
Carter R. (1996) “Anton P. Chekhov, MD (1860-1904): dual medical and literary careers.” The Annals of thoracic surgery: 61 (5): 1557-63.
Chekhov A. (n.d.) “The Black Monk”. Retrieved from http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/blackmonk.htm