Reading Chekhov — “A Murder”
Quarantine reading and writing
This is a long story in seven parts. It’s one of Chekov’s best stories, written after his active work in prison reform. More on this to come.
At the Progonnaya Train Station in the town of Progonnaya, somewhere in Russia, Matvey Terehov is singing at a service on the Eve of the Annunciation, in the middle of a howling snow storm. He’s a forty-five year old factory worker who became ill and can’t work anymore. He has to live with his cousin Yakov and other family in the tavern they both own near the train station. Yakov is a religious fanatic who reads the mass himself because he dislikes the clergy. The waiter Sergey Nikanoritch serves him. Sergey had once done well serving prosperous stations and his fortunes have spiraled downwards until he ended up here.
Matvey goes home and finds Yakov Ivanitch, what else, praying, along with his withered old sister Aglaia, and Yakov’s ugly daughter Dashutka.
Matvey has borrowed a book from the station policeman, Kuzma Zhukov, another friend of his besides the waiter. He shares a room with Dashutka, who complains that he’s wasting money burning a candle. He replies that he bought the candle with his own money. She goes to sleep in her corner behind the stove. He reads himself to sleep.
The next day, Annunciation Day, Matvey is back in the refreshment bar at the Station, drinking tea with his friends, the waiter and the policeman.
We learn of his peculiar religious history. He used to follow all the feasts and fasts, from the time he was a boy. He didn’t smoke or drink. He fasted and followed Lent scrupulously, and did not permit himself the use of oil with his food, as it was forbidden during the Lenten season.
He does these things any many more penances as well. But one day realizes he’s following the rules better than the priests. The priest is eating sturgeon while Matvey makes do with Lenten oil!
Besides the ban on meat and dairy, Eastern Orthodox faithful abstain from olive oil during Lent, a tradition that began centuries ago when the oil was stored in sheep’s skin. Oil in the story specifically means olive oil. I guess Lenten oil is a non-olive oil, corn oil or some such.
Then he starts to find fault with all of them and he gave up praying and singing and going to church. So he builds his own prayer room and furnishes it and then resumes praying, this time constantly, even at work.
Rumor spreads that he’s a saint, a healer. The religious women flock to him. He expands the operation. He revels in his celebrity.
One day his landlord, on the Day of Forgiveness, gets him alone and reads him the riot act. This isn’t being religious or saintly, it’s practicing heresy. It’s all of the devil.
Matvey falls ill, stays in bed for six months, then comes to and leaves his madness behind, living again like an ordinary man, eating and drinking and praying like everyone else.
He explains that he reproaches his cousin, the religious fanatic, and tries to tell him what he’s learned, but so far to no avail.
His friends listen to Matvey, but don’t care about his story. They walk about how rich Yakov is: he must have at least thirty thousand, they speculate. Zhukov, the policeman, is regarded as a connoisseur of money. Sergey, the waiter, needs money badly. They understand that fifteen thousand of the thirty comes to Matvey from his and Yakov’s grandfather, and that they share ownership of the tavern. It was Matvey’s father who owned the tavern originally.
We understand that Yakov doesn’t see things this way: it’s all his. We also understand that Yakov is generally disliked.
His friends encourage Matvey to take his cousin Yakov to court, but Matvey isn’t inclined to do that. Why cause trouble, what good would it do? He’s there, they both know he’s not going anywhere, and he has money of his own.
We learn that Sergey is deeply envious of Matvey’s finances and is filled with self-pity about his own poverty.
Some family history: the tavern goes back to Alexander I, and was founded by a widow Terehov, Matvey’s great-grandmother. The place did well when there were no trains; when the train and station came, traffic on the road ceased and the tavern became a relic.
At first the station was just a platform, then they built it up. A little town grew up around the station. The inn became a restaurant, the upper stories were destroyed by fire but the Terehov family lived on in the place. Sometimes they think they hear voices up there on the burnt our floor.
It turns out the Terehovs are nicknamed the “Godlies”. Everyone knows they’re fanatics. They were given to dreams and doubts and changes of faith. The widow’s son, Matvey’s and Yakov’s grandfather, had become a fanatic late in life, had refused to eat meat and practiced the rule of silence. He sought hidden meaning in Scripture.
Nothing is said about their father.
They all had religious struggles. Matvey’s life had almost been ruined by it. Yakov was made a fanatic by his wife’s death. Yakov’s sister Aglaia followed her brother into madness, and when her daughter Dashutka came along (nothing is said about Aglaia’s marriage or husband) she ruined her child too.
All of this is about the desire to find something to do, to find some meaning, to establish some reason to live in the middle of wilderness, stuck in a home with nothing else to do. The tragedy is that these people are not wrong, their lives are desolate, their options few, religion provides order, structure, community, holidays. When they reject the community and make themselves the center of the practice, their pursuit of hidden meaning that they alone can know, that’s where heresy (and Protestantism, for that matter) comes from. Also note the conflict between the ordering of lives through legal systems and the fanaticism.
Yakov is ten years older than Matvey, tall, good looking. He is possessed with rigid behavior, wearing galoshes all the time, even in good weather. He pursues religious rules and places himself above others. No one is serious about religion but himself. All life should be expressed only through religious behavior: one way and one way only. His perfect execution of the rules gives him pleasure and a reason to live. Disruption of that perfection fills him with rage.
Then one day Matvey showed up and moved in like he owned the place. It had been Matvey’s father’s, but Yakov had assumed it was his years ago-albeit without a legal justification. Matvey had zero interest in joining in the daily religious ceremonies in the house or adhering to Yakov’s rules. Quite the opposite, he kept interrupting Yakov’s praying and told him his life was out of order, he deals in usury and selling liquor, and then poses as religious? He needs to set his life in order with his fellow man and then offer his life to God, not the other way around.
Yakov dismisses Matvey’s advice as evasion of religious duty, the sort of person who talks about loving your neighbor, finding peace with your brother, so they can evade following the rules.
But Matvey had spoiled his praying. He got no pleasure from it anymore. He kept hearing a voice in his head about how hard it was for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And he’d bought a stolen horse, and he’d given vodka to a drunk who had died from it.
Yakov fell into sleeplessness and depression.
Notes on the way the same frame of mind that makes Yakov treat the house as his own is a symptom of religous insanity.
As if things weren’t bad enough — now Dashutka is tell Aglaia that Uncle Matvey says she doesn’t need to fast.
Matvey overhears this and tries to do damage control. That isn’t what he said. Of course you should fast. What he said was, it doesn’t do a bad man any good to fast.
Aglaia uses this as an opportunity to attack Matvey — in particular to bring up his “Darling”, a sore point.
Who is his Darling?
It happened like this: back when he was a guru, before he came to his senses, he got a working woman pregnant and had a child by her.
When he’d returned to the tavern he’d given her all the money he’d saved from the factory — now he was mostly broke, just a few roubles left.
His Darling had written him a note not long after — the child was dead, and she asked him what to do with the money he had given her. Unfortunately, Aglaia intercepted the letter and snooped into it and exposed the relationship and went on a rant about him wasting nine hundred roubles on this “viper” instead of his own family. The hint of violence: she wishes she could find the viper and tear her to pieces.
She’s interrupted from her screaming only when Yakov calls her to prayer. She changed in the prayer room, became serene and soft.
Yakov begins reading the prayer and finds some relief. But then —
He hears the policeman and the waiter Sergey have come to visit Matvey. Yakov’s privacy is violated. He can’t pray and sing aloud and carry on when other people are in the house, he feels like an idiot. (Interesting perspective on public and private behavior).
The waiter is trying to talk Matvey into financing him in a new business, now that he realizes Matvey should have fifteen thousand roubles — there’s a business he can buy if Matvey will just loan him the money. Matvey appears to him now as a way out, a source of money and Matvey realizes it has changed their friendship. The policeman pressures him too.
Matvey tries again to explain to them: I have money only in your theory. In fact, without my going to court, it’s all Yakov’s.
Yakov clears his head and tries to pray again. But now Matvey interrupts him — he wants to borrow a horse. Yakov doesn’t want to loan him one. This turns into an argument about who has the right to use the horses.
Matvey, exasperated, says, look, give me a little money to cover me if I get sick and I’ll go away. I don’t really want to be here.
Yakov doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t really have any cash, it’s all sunk in their worthless business. And besides dividing the money would be ruinous for the family.
Key sentence: “Division means ruin.” Always look in fiction when a writer makes an equation. A character is making cause and effect for you: if there is division of capital, it will be the cause of the ruin of the family, the effect. Of course, the family is already ruined.
Matvey goes away but Yakov can’t pray, it’s ruined for him. His depression and black mood are overwhelming him. (A case of OCD in fiction, when Yakov’s order is disrupted it is a mood changer. It is a rigid tyrannical order of regulated and unchanging behavior to induce a mood of narcotic satisfaction.)
Yakov takes his horse and rides through snow so deep the horse is half buried in it to collect a debt. He hears a woman say, look, there’s Godly, meaning him, and pitying the horse he’s driving through the weather.
As Yakov struggles in the weather, he hates his life, he hates the life of trade and commerce, he hates his dreary routine. He dreads having to read the service and pray this evening: it gives him no pleasure or sense of meaning now. Finally, the cold, wind and snow are too much for him. He gives up, turns around and goes home.
Back at home, the day lasts forever. None of them have anything to do. Matvey is reading by the stove. Dashutka is asleep, then wakes up to take water to the cattle. The pail breaks and a laborer verbally abuses her. Yakov comes along just as Dashutka is verbally retaliating, but he didn’t hear how it got started so he blames her. He realizes he has failed, she is savage and benighted. He realizes she has no religion. None. He just waves her away, as far as he’s concerned she’s a lost cause.
She is eighteen years old.
He goes into the house to settle down but just then the policeman and waiter again come by to talk to Matvey. He thinks, these people have no religion, either. He thinks about how senseless human life is. They are no better than dogs.
He walks out into the snow, feeling like nothing better than a beast himself. The world looks black to him. He feels a huge earth shattering roar of pain building up inside him.
Yakov goes back to the house and, while the policeman has gone, the waiter is still there. Yakov remembers how the waiter used to come to the tavern every day to see Yakov, now he comes to see Matvey. You can feel Yakov’s resentment, that Sergey prefers to talk to Matvey.
The waiter is sitting with Matvey in his room, begging for money again.
After some time, Yakov sees that Matvey has gone into the kitchen to eat some potatoes, and he doesn’t see the waiter anymore — he must have left the tavern.
Yakov takes the chance to go into his prayer room and sing and pray loudly, without embarrassment. But as he sings and prays, he is in his heart praying, God save me, God forgive me, convicted of his sin, and he’s angry that Matvey has brought him to this point. The praying isn’t working.
Matvey comes into the prayer room again and tells Yakov he’s sinning, he should repent. Yakov stands up, in a rage, and leaves the room, to get away from him. Matvey angers him but more than that: religion isn’t working for him now, it does nothing for him. He has to repent, find redemption but how? How? He has no idea. How will he find his way back to God?
In the kitchen, Matvey asks Aglaia for some oil for his potatoes. Aglaia tells him he can’t eat oil during Lent, but he retorts I’m a layman, not a priest, and its for his health. Aglaia angrily bangs down the oil.
Yakov overhears and comes in screaming — you CAN’T HAVE OIL! He smashes Matvey’s bowl of potatoes. He orders Matvey out of his house. Get out of here, you devil!
Matvey says, angrily, you’re the one who’s the devil. You think you’re praying to God but you’re a heretic. Repent before it is too late!
Yakov grabs him by the shoulders and drags him away from the table. Matvey struggles to free himself. It looks to Aglaia like Matvey is trying to attack her brother, she shrieks and smashes the bottle of Lenten oil down on Matvey’s head. He is killed instantly. He falls onto the iron board which collapses under him with a crash.
Dashutka is terrified. Aglaia just snarls, holding onto the iron, why is she holding on to the iron?, he got what he deserved. No repentance, no empathy for Matvey at all. Sheer hatred of him.
The potatoes on the floor are soaking in a puddle of blood.
Then Yakov realizes someone is in the doorway watching — its Sergey the waiter. He had never left the house. There’s a witness.
Sergey leaves the house and Yakov follows him, desperate. Yakov imagines everyone seeing him and the sister and niece being led away by the police, laughing at the Godlies. He overtakes Sergey the waiter and offers him a thousand roubles, fifteen hundred, to forget he saw this. If Sergey doesn’t accept all is lost.
Sergey keeps moving away from Yakov, quickly moving away from him. He gets halfway from the railroad crossing to the station. Then stops, turns around and comes back.
I’ll take the fifteen hundred, Sergey says. I agree.
Yakov and Sergey go back to the tavern. Aglaia and Dashutka are in the counter behind the tea room, silently spinning yarn. They are terrified of course.
Matvey is in the same place in the kitchen, covered with a white sheet.
Yakov takes Sergey to his room, digs out a box, gives him the five hundred roubles he has on hand. The waiter takes it. He promises to say nothing.
The waiters says, it all was just a disagreement about oil. He shakes his head. Where’s the body.
In the kitchen, Yakov says.
Sergey says you need to take him somewhere.
They’ll load Matvey’s body into a car and drive toward the forest. They’d leave him on the road and tell everybody he’d gone out and hadn’t come home. He must have been killed by robbers.
He already realizes no one will believe him, but doing something was better than doing nothing.
He has Dashutka help him carry the body to the cart. Aglaia stays behind to clean up the blood.
Yakov and Dashutka drive out and then came back after the deed was done. At the railroad crossing are stopped by the signalman. So there’s already a witness to their leaving and returning in the cart.
They go in and go to sleep. All of them lay awake til morning. How many more nights would they sleep under this roof now?
They imagine they hear walking around in the burnt out story overhead. There’s no one there.
Two days later the police investigate. Yakov tells them that Matvey had gone out, he must have been killed by robbers.
But there was no blood where they found him in the snow, though his head was smashed in, and he was not wearing his cap — it was still at home. How could that be?
Yakov has no answers for them.
The police take them away, the Godlies. Everyone watches them marched out by the police. And so Yakov’s greatest social fear, the loss of his status, is fulfilled. This fear has been an unnamed driver for the character for all of his life, maintaining a once important status for appearance’s sake when really they are all just barely hanging on.
At the inquiry the policeman, Kuzma Zhukov, says Yakov and Aglaia killed Matvey rather than share money with him.
He says Matvey has money of his own, and if they can’t find it there, then Yakov took it.
The police had found no money of Matvey’s at the tavern.
Then Dashutka testified and tells them her uncle was so rich he had given his Darling nine hundred roubles.
Yakov and Aglaia are jailed.
Dashutka is left in the tavern by herself but she is arrested a few days later after they question the signal guard from the railroad crossing. Oh yes, he spoke to them when the came back, late at night.
Then they find several hundred roubles in Sergey the waiter’s boot in his home. They learn he had been present at the murder. He tried to say he had saved the money, but there were too many people testifying that he was destitute and always begging to borrow money.
The trial took place eleven months later, while they waited in jail.
Yakov looked old and sick, his body wasted. It was reported he didn’t attend church. The judge asks him if he’s a ‘dissenter’.
“I can’t tell,” Yakov answers him.
The author reports: “He has no religion at all now. He knew nothing and understood nothing; and his old belief was hateful to him now and seemed to him darkness and folly.”
Aglaia still rages against Matvey when she testifies, sealing her fate. Sergey lies obviously and gets laughed at. Dashutka had got fat and didn’t understand the questions. The stupid girl says that she was frightened when her uncle was killed but afterwards she felt better.
All four were found guilty. Yakov, twenty years. Aglaia, thirteen and a half. Sergey, ten. Dashutka, six.
Some time later, a foreign steamer stops in the river at Dué on the island of Sakhalin, Russia’s easternmost large island. They need coal but don’t want to wait too long. There’s a storm coming. The shores of the river can flood and the weather can turn violent.
A gang of convicts had been sent to the mine from Voevodsky Prison, the grimmest prison in Sakhalin. The prisoners load and unload coal. They line up now in their chains, barely awake in the morning hours, ready to work.
One of the prisoners is Yakov Ivanitch. No one calls him by his name anymore. They call him Brush or Yashka. His name no longer matters.
He was in this prison now, the worst one, because he’d tried to escape and go home three months after arriving in Siberia. He was then sentenced to prison for life, and had been given forty lashes (like Christ?).
He longed for home. The prisoner train had stopped at his home station, right outside the tavern, as it was taking him to Siberia. He had looked for his house that night but it was too dark.
He didn’t know where Aglaia had been sent. Dashutka had been sent to live with and ex convict on Sakhalin and had three children by the man now. This does not appear to be consensual, but Dashutka is stupid and might not know that. Sergey had become a footman for a government official and never wanted to see the tavern owner again.
The men lined up but they learned the weather was getting worse and there’d probably be no loading.
The man stares out in the direction he thinks is towards home. Ever since had landed here with men of every sort banished to the ends of the earth, he had listened to them, learned of their suffering and he had turned again to God. He had found the faith he and his family had always been looking for and had never found. He finally understood his place and the places of God and Man but he did not understand why learning it had come to him only after suffering, now and in the future.
He looks out through the mist and it seems to him he can see his home, Progonnaya, filled with savagery and indifference, brutes living in the darkness. He wishes he could go back and tell them what he has learned. If he could just save one man…
The overseer tells them there will be no loading. The anchor chain on the steamer is hoisted. A storm is coming.
You can find a complete list of the Chekhov I’ve read and discussed at the bottom of the page, here: