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Analysis of Chekhov's "Misery"
By Kim Guevara


Anton Chekhov's short story of a father and his great despair for his dead son has many translations. The most commonly used translation is "Misery." In one word the title accurately summarizes the mood the story carries, and leaves it's reader to contemplate the harshness of human nature. Written in 1886, "Misery" portrays the overwhelming grief of Iona Potapov, a Russian sleigh-driver, and his futile attempts to share with strangers the despair in the loss of his son. The story takes place almost a week after his son's death. Disturbing and inconclusive, "Misery" is not unlike a documentation of human suffering, specifically in the loss of one's child. Chekhov achieves a detailed portrayal of one man's grief, his attempts to ease his heartache, and his final comfort in sharing his story with his horse.

Stricken with an immobilizing grief, Iona Potapov has isolated himself from reality and his present surroundings. And with a morbidity vivid description the central character is introduced:

Iona Potapov, the sleigh-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to brush it off....
(Matlaw)

Iona's physical body, too, has been effected by the onset of his great despair. He has taken on a white, cadaverous appearance and is physically doubled over in a fetal-like position. The falling snow blankets him and he consciously decides not to brush it off. Wallowing in his despair he seems almost dead to the world.

Even in his unstable frame of mind, he must perform his duty as a sleigh-driver. He is woken from his trance-like state by the call of a military officer. The officer believes him to be asleep, as Iona peers at the him through "snow-plastered eyelashes." Unable to control the reins, Iona takes the officer on a reckless ride. The narrator describes his driving:

Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed, as though he does not know where he is or why he is there.
(Matlaw)

He displays a likeness to one that is insane. And for the most part, he is. The uncontrollable physical ticks that he displays such as uncontrollable fidgeting, the jerking of his elbow, and the inconsistent movement of his eyes mirror the loss of his grasp on his emotions. The grief from the loss of his son has temporarily led him into the realm of insanity.

With a "wry smile" and "straining of his throat," Iona makes his first attempt in finding someone to share in his grievous story. He tells the officer that his son has died in the past week. At first the officer seems to be interested in the events that led to the boy's death. Sparked by this seemingly genuine interest, Iona turns his body full round to speak to the officer. Iona's careless motion only infuriates the officer. Turning around several times, Iona desperately wants to continue his verbal purging, but the officer "keeps his eyes shut" and is "apparently disinclined to listen." The officer does not want to be burdened by Iona's story, or by just the simple act of listening to it. And easily, he tunes Iona out.

In making his next fare, Iona picks up three obnoxious young men. The most obnoxious of the three, a hunchback, offers him twenty "kopeks," an unfair price. "He has no thoughts for that" and takes them. Unruly and offensive, the hunchback makes a reference to the ugliness of Iona's hat. Iona only laughs and agrees. He is too unstable and weak to offer a fight nor does his position as sleigh-driver give him any stance against them. The hunchback swears at him "till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets." This display is meant to belittle Iona, yet in another unsuccessful attempt he begins to tell them of his son's death. He is cut off by the hunchback as he tells Iona: "We shall all die." Iona will receive no sympathy this time.

Silence accompanies Iona when there is no one to tell of his despair. And in this silence he is only left to contemplate. He watches crowds of people go by and the narrator adds:

Can he not find among these thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery...His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight....
(Matlaw)

All of these emotions stir in his soul and yet there is no outlet for poor Iona. He is left to fester in his grief and it grows more with every passing person and minute.

When he can no longer bare the silence or his thoughts any longer, he and his horse go back to the stable. His last plea for empathy is made to another, younger cabman. Iona offers him a drink to quench his thirst. The young cabman accepts his offer. But without any consideration for Iona the cabman covers his head and falls to sleep. "Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he (Iona) thirst for speech." Will no one give the courtesy of listening to Iona?

Iona recognizes his need for speech and self-evaluates his situation. He wants to talk of his son's death "properly and with deliberation." He wants to describe every last detail of his son's illness to his death and funeral. He wants to tell someone of all these things yet no one will listen. It is driving him more into grief and into the lonely expanses of his emotions, only intensifying them.

Iona finally finds refuge in speaking to his little white mare. He pours his heart out to her. And unlike all the others--she listens. Or as it may seem to Iona, she appears to listen to him. Iona is greatly converted by her companionship. His despair may finally be elevated. The story is left with indecisive conclusion. Resolution is found in the verbal purging to his horse and working companion.

The story takes a powerful look at the lack of human involvement and compassion towards one man's grief. Iona tries unsuccessfully, three times, to find an outlet to his pain. Only resorting to the faithful ear of his horse, does Iona reach resignation from the death of his son. After having read "Misery," the harshness of human behavior , one is forced to take an introspective look at one's own attitude in regarding the sensitivity of others. Chekhov is a master at insightful studies of human behaviors. And even though his stories were written over a century ago, they are timeless classics, in that the moral value can still be carried on into our own present lives.

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Created by: Dan Piparo, Kim Guevara, Christi White, Phil Stanwick, Terra Bredeson
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