Shifting the Binaries in “A Joke” by Anton Chekhov
The Anton Chekhov short story titled “A Joke” is an interesting read for the inquisitive readers. Very carefully written, the story allows the readers a chance to dive deeper into the unconscious of the characters and dig out layers of meaning behind the apparently normal words spoken and ordinary actions done by the pair of characters introduced in the story. The story concludes, shockingly enough, at the confusion the narrator is having of why he jested with his girlfriend. Throughout the story, the reader is made to feel that the narrator was just taking the idea of saying “I love you Nadia” to his girlfriend very carelessly and was perhaps doing it on purpose time and again to jest with her. On a deeper level analysis, however, binaries seem to shift quite swiftly when the reader traces the hints of the intensity the narrator experiences with his rising emotions.
Lets take a look at the apparent meanings that the plot of the story intervenes. First of all, the universally acknowledged dogma of the male being careless and the female being sensitive is somehow shown to be true. It is stated that whispering “I love you Nadia” in his beloved’s ears becomes sort of a sport for the narrator while on the other hand, Nadia starts to “crave this phrase as some people crave morphine or wine.” Secondly, whatever happens in the story somehow explains the miserable condition Nadia is in while there is no such trace of the narrator taking anything seriously.
On a closer look, however, revealing facts can come to light. First of all, the story is told entirely from the narrator’s own standpoint and understanding. If the narrator was just “jesting” with his girlfriend, why then did he remember each detail of how she felt? What evidence do we have that the whole thing was not just the narrator’s own imagination resulting from some emotional turmoil? Can’t it be that the narrator was in love with the girl but could not muster up courage enough to say it openly? Couldn’t that be the reason why he just whispered time and again and finding no answer, created the whole thing up in his mind? May be that is why her memories are still as vivid as ever while she is living a happy married life with her husband and kids and the story does not hint at the narrator settling in life afterwards.
It is interesting to note how the narrator is able to remember the tiny details of how it all started and the whole atmosphere, his girlfriend’s physical appearance and the surrounding particulars are as clear in his mind as ever. We learn that “the air was crisp with frost, and Nadia, who was walking beside me, found her curls and the delicate down on her upper lip silvered with her own breath.” The point is, if it was a matter of a joke for him, why is his mind perfectly recapturing a memory supposedly so trivial for him? Further on, we get to know that he is the one urging her in the first place to coast down while she is utterly reluctant in doing so. “Let us coast down, Nadia!” he begs, “just once! I promise you nothing will happen.” To our surprise, Nadia is “timid” and thinks that if she does take a ride, “she would die, she would go mad.”
This reluctance, on the surface level, is taken by the readers as an act of feminine cowardice which is fair enough an understanding. However, there could be other explanations if the binaries here are even slightly stirred. If we assume this reluctance to be just because she didn’t want to go with “him”, sufficient evidences from the text support this assumption. Even when she agrees to go with him because of his continuous begging and imploring, the uneasiness is there. “I could see from her face,” says the narrator, “that she did so, she thought, at the peril of her life.”
When they finally get seated in the sled, the narrator puts his “arm around her” and sled flies “like a shot out of gun.” The description here is very vivid. The narrator now starts to use “we” instead of “she” or “I” when he is describing the feelings of fear and anxiety. This shift from a singular pronoun to “we” might refer to the narrator’s urge to be one with his beloved. “The riven wind lashed our faces; it howled and whistled in our ears, and plucked furiously at us, trying to wrench our heads from our shoulders; its pressure stifled us; we felt as if the devil himself had seized us in his talons, and were snatching us with a shriek down into the infernal regions.” Now this is quite scary. The imagery used is intimidating enough to make one loose his memory. And yet, surprisingly enough, the narrator, in the middle of such horrifying situation, is able to whisper “I love you Nadia” in his partner’s ears. One explanation for this surprise could be that the narrator thought it to be the end of his life and wanted some emotional confessions before dying. Immediately after his utterance, the whole scenario starts to change. We gather that “now the sled began to slacken its pace, the howling of the wind and the swish of the runners sounded less terrible, we breathed again.” That sounds like pure magic.
When they get down, Nadia’s response is another shock for the readers: “Not for anything in the world would I do that again” says the “terror-stricken” woman. Could that be taken as an insult to his confession? From here onwards, the story takes a deeper plunge into more intriguing moments. “It was obvious that the riddle gave her no peace,” the narrator assumes. It seems as if Nadia suddenly hits a plan of jesting with the narrator and the story takes a very confusing turn. Enough evidence supports the idea that it is Nadia and not the narrator who has jested emotionally. It might sound like a farfetched fancy initially, but considering the textual evidences that support it, the idea seems to take a proper shape. “Oh, what a pretty play of expression flitted across her sweet face!” notices the narrator assuming she is unable to decide whether the words are spoken by him or not. But it seems as if she clearly knows that he has spoken them and instead of welcoming his confession, is up to some mischief. The naïve narrator sees that “she was struggling with herself; she longed to say something, to ask some question, but the words would not come.” We further learn that “she was terrified and embarrassed and happy.” If she is planning to make her lover suffer already, these feelings tend to have different origins. She is terrified because she is about to play with his feelings by making him confess again and again. She is embarrassed because may be deep down she realizes its not something she should be doing and she is happy because may be she can visualize all the fun this jesting is going to bring with it.
After this, for all the slides she takes with the narrator, Nadia clearly plays with his emotions. The quizzical look she has every time they get down might be a search for his open admittance while she is flirting with him so freely. After their continuous rides every other day, Nadia probably gets sick of his company and goes to the hill alone. The lonely ride she takes which is mistaken by the narrator as her urge to find out the source behind the words she hears might actually be just a run-away trick played by her. May be she is sick of his company and since he is blindly in love with her and is unable to see her disapproval, she plans to go alone sometimes. May be there are more times she has gone without him which he hasn’t found out. The condition the narrator describes as Nadia’s might actually be his own as he is the one relating all details from his own point of view. If not, why then is he peering through “a chink in the boards” to see Nadia? From a distance, he can see “her pale, sorrowful face.” Dramatically enough, he is even able to peep into her unconscious and share with us the source of her sadness. God knows what worldly distress or even some other love affairs are making Nadia worry but our naïve narrator is adamant in relating all her paleness and suffering to his going away from her.
Even though all of this “happened a long time ago,” and even though Nadia is married to “an official of the nobility” and has three children, the narrator goes on assuming she didn’t marry for love as she loved him only. He imagines, without any proof or evidence, that the memory of their coasting “is for her the happiest, the most touching, the most beautiful one of her life.” Did she call him up and explain all this? Did he receive a letter from her stating she wasn’t happily married? While our narrator continues to assume it was he who “jested with Nadia,” we as readers smile and pity him for not realizing it was actually she who made a joke of him.
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The Anton Chekhov short story titled “A Joke” is an interesting read for the inquisitive readers. Very carefully written, the story allows the readers a chance to dive deeper into […]