In Day 19 of my thirty-day short story reading challenge, I tip my hat to Mr. Chekhov. And laugh a little.
“An Upheaval” by Anton Chekhov
Why was one drawer of the table pulled out a little way? The money box, in which the governess put away ten kopeck pieces and old stamps, was open. They had opened it, but did not know how to shut it, though they had scratched the lock all over. Her linen-basket, too. The linen had been carefully folded, but it was not in the same order as Mashenka had left it when she went out. So the search had been thorough, most thorough.
Mashenka Pavletsky, a governess in the home of Madame Kushkin (aka lady of the house Fedosya Vassilyevna), returns from a walk one day to find the household in an uproarious state. Shouting can be heard from within, and when the porter opens the door for Mashenka he is red as a crab. In the hall she passes several maids; one of whom is crying.
Nikolay Sergeitch, Madame’s husband, comes storming out of her room—Mashenka’s room. Curious and confused, the young girl finds Madame in her bedroom, going through her work-bag in a frenzy. When Madame sees Mashenka she startles, muttering that she had knocked it over, and gets up and abruptly leaves.
Mashenka is left gaping and uncertain. Her whole room, she realizes after looking around, has been turned inside out and searched. But for what? Did it have anything to do with the red-faced porter or the crying maid? Was she in some sort of trouble?
A maidservant comes in and enlightens her: Madame has lost a brooch worth 2,000 rubles. Everyone else has already been searched, she explained—not only were their quarters hand-inspected by Madame, but she also personally strip-searched every one of them.
Mashenka is astounded. But why would they search her room? She’s an educated, respectable person. She isn’t a servant; she’s a boarder. The servant reminds her that she is living with strangers; she is, one way or another, a (public) servant herself; it’s not like she’s living with her parents.
Left alone, Mashenka weeps into her bed. She feels insulted and violated and dependent and she hates it. Why wouldn’t they trust her? She would swear her innocence at every court in the land if she had to…
When a servant announces dinner is ready, Mashenka isn’t sure she wants to join them. But she decides she’d better; she doesn’t want to appear guilty. Naturally, Fedosya Vassilyevna is the first to speak; apart from the instance of the brooch, between her husband and herself it is she who is head of the household. Nikolay Sergeitch, placating, weakly attempts to comfort his wife/dissuade her from being upset about the brooch. Fedosya makes a production of it, a fat tear rolling down her cheek as she says it’s the fact of thieves—ingratefuls—in her own house that upsets her.
Mashenka begins to feel that everyone is regarding her with suspicion. Unable to contain her emotion, she quietly excuses herself from the table and goes to her room.
At length—after Mashenka has had plenty of time to mope and wish Madame could know poverty and she be the one providing, lending mercy and kindness; to fume and realize she is perfectly wretched there; that she can’t stay another minute and must start packing—Nikolay appears at her door. “What’s this?” he asks, point at her half-packed basket. “I am packing.”
Mashenka tells Nikolay straight: she is insulted by the search and will not stand for it. He understands, he says, but nonetheless begs her not to go; to be accepting; he even apologizes, first for himself and then for his wife. He entreats her to stay.
When Mashenka resists, saying it is not his fault but she must go, the confession comes: Nikolay is the one who stole Madam’s brooch. He is bitter: it is his house, his money that buys everything (including the brooch), and yet Madam runs the place; he is trapped, as in a cellar…
“If you go, there won’t be a human face left in the house.”
Nikolay must go; his wife yells for him downstairs. Mashenka finishes packing and leaves.
“Mashenka threw herself on the bed and sobbed bitterly.”
Now, you might think me cruel if I say so, but to me this line was hilariously melodramatic. This is nothing literary; just me finding amusement where no amusement was intended, like in that movie Chronicle when two of the kids with superpowers are arguing and one of them “storms off” by abruptly turning and out the window.
It may also have had something to do with the adverb.
OH, THE HUMANITY! *Hurls self into the bed and weeps bitterly*
This seems to be a story driven by character and show of human nature. My guess is that the “upheaval” the title refers to hints at the revelations and changes Mashenka experiences: that, though she thought of herself as a good, respectable person, once accused (because she comes from a poor family) others were quick to assume the worst about her; and that also, when the real thief turns out to be Nikolay, the gentleman of the household, he gets away with it. The supposedly good, “respectable” person stands idly by while everyone in his house is violated.
A fine literary work (much literature is about the way a person, or persons change) but certainly not the most compelling story I’ve read this month. I may not get to it this month, but I will have to read more Chekhov. Considering the other story I’ve read by him as well as how prominent his name is in literary circles, this story weighed in somewhat below my expectations.
But I did win some fancy new words from the deal…
upheaval: a violent or sudden change in/disruption of something
governess: a woman employed to teach children in a private household
barbarous: savagely cruel, brutal; uncivilized (exactly as it sounds: barbaric)
abominable: (realizing that the only context I can put this in is “snowman,” and that “snowman” is not a definition): causing moral revulsion; very unpleasant (that definition is verbatim, btw)
kopeck: Russian currency; 100 kopecks = 1 ruble
alms: money or food given to poor people
avowal: a statement asserting the existence or truth of something