May 7, 2020

7 min read

Reading Chekhov — “A Nightmare”

Reading in the time of the quarantine

Kunin is a young man of thirty. He returns from Petersburg to his home distict and sends for the local priest, Father Yakov Smirnov (yes, like the comedian).

They’ve never met. Kunin is surprised by the youth of the priest: he’s twenty-eight.

Kunin dislikes the young priest immediately. He seems womanish, half formed. He seems more like someone disguised as a priest.

They sit down and try to talk. Kunin is freshly repulsed. He’s embarrassed that this man was made a priest.

Kunin plows into the business at hand. The Marshal of Nobility, whoever he is, has asked Kunin to take over supervision of the parish school. He’s accepted. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he’ll do what he can.

When were they going to open the school, he asks the priest.

The priest says they’ll open it when they can, but they hardly have any money. They need about two hundred roubles.

That’s more than Kunin has. He tells the priest they need to come up with a plan for funding the school.

The priest listens as Kunin talks but clearly something else is on his mind. Kunin is starting to think he’s stupid. Or maybe is just indifferent to the school.

The priest revives when the footman comes in with tea and cakes. Maybe he was just hungry. He certainly is hungry. He eats and drinks everything, even sneaking crumbs after everything is gone, when he thinks Kunin isn’t looking. This man is hungry.

Kunin is disgusted by such uncontrolled greedy eating.

The priest leaves.

Kunin thinks about how unpleasant the priest is, and how unsuited he is to be a priest, and how Kunin is stuck with him instead of an educated, capable man.

Kunin thinks about what an ideal priest is like and the kinds of sermons he’d make. Kunin starts writing a sermon in his head.

He decides he’ll go the church on Sunday and give the sermon to the priest, let him read it in church. Probably better than what he had.

Kunin drives over to the church. A beautiful morning, a beat-up church, only about half full. The priest wearing a ridiculous robe, cut badly, cheap.

Kunin thinks, anyone can pray here: it’s the simplicity and humility of the place, that’s how to look at it.

This generous feeling vanishes as soon as the priest starts his mass. He does everything hesitatingly or just wrong. Then singing (the sacistran), old gasping man and little boy with a shrill out of tune falsetto.

Kunin steps outside for a smoke to get away from it. He thinks, and people wonder why religion is fading away, with priests like this.

He goes in three times, trying to stay, and leaves three times.

After the mass, he goes over to the priest’s house. It’s a peasant’s house, a thatch roof, a clay floor, paper on the walls. The furniture was collected from donations or dumpster diving.

The priest greets him. Kunin asks for some tea.

The priest blinks, gasps, goes and finds his wife. Kunin can hear them whispering.

The priest comes back, tells Kunin tea will be ready shortly.

Kunin says he’s brought the rough draft of a letter to the bishop, they’ll read it after the tea.

The priest tries to change the subject. Where’s the damn tea?

Kunin paces up and down, sharing his thoughts on priests who don’t measure up morally or culturally. They’d be bad teachers, he explains. *He’s getting ready to lower the boom on the priest*

The priest’s wife calls for him. The priest disappears, goes to her.

Kunin thinks, I’m not getting any tea. I don’t need this. Something weird is going on.

The priest returns, tea-less. Kunin says goodbye and leaves.

Kunin is pissed off that he’s wasted his morning. He’s sure the priest could care less about the schools. He thinks, if the people in charge knew what was going on, they’d fire the priest but fast.

Kunin is distracted with hatred for the priest. He has fairy tale of religion in his heart and the priest wrecks it. The coldest man he’s ever met, indifferent, withdrawn.

(The idea of the significant fact: Kunin’s hatred, his feeling, is the significant fact in that last paragraph).

Kunin writes to the Bishop and shares his opinion about the disastrous priest. He falls fall short of the idea of who a priest is, what he represents.

Kunin finishes the letter and thinks: job well done! He sleeps like a log.

Still in bed, a servant tells him the priest has come to visit, and Kunin sends the message, “not at home.”

He leaves town til Saturday and comes back. He hears from the servants that the priest visited him every day.

Kunin sneers at this. The priest just wants more of his tea and biscuits.

The priest visits again. He’s brought a list of books for the school, he says.

But everything about him says he’s there for something else. (suspense, what could he be there for? Note, the reader may already have guessed the answer.)

The priest seems struck dumb, embarrassed, and this just irritates Kunin even more.

Then the priest tries smiling in a ghastly way and Kunin is positively repulsed by him. He tells the priest, sorry, we have to cut this short, I have an appointment anywhere else.

The priest gets ready to take his leave, Kunin says he’ll give him a couple more sermons he wrote…

The priest then surprises him — he hears that Kunin is hiring a secretary — could you please hire him, the priest, for the job?

Kunin says, what? This is the twist. It’s about the last thing we expected from a priest.

No, the priest says, he’s not giving up the church. The priest is ashamed to ask for the work. He feels greedy and ashamed.

He tells Kunin he’s getting a hundred and fifty roubles a year from his parish, but forty of that goes to support his brother at schol.

Well, so what, Kunin says.

He’s also supporting an aged priest — the one who was there before him and who is destitute.

The priest confesses, in short, that he and his wife are starving and in poverty- the looks on his face, the coldness, the distraction, have all been the looks of a starving man.

He didn’t serve Kunin tea? There was no tea in the house. They can’t afford to buy tea. He was too proud to say so. He is ashamed to be so proud. It’s a sin.

It’s bad enough that he’s starving himself with his poverty, but he’s starving his wife, who comes from a decent family. She is ashamed to show herself to people.

He and his wife don’t love each other: they feel pity for each other. What kind of a marriage is that?

Kunin chastises him — why are you so filled with self pity?

The priest asks forgiveness, then tells him how he saw the doctor’s wife washing her clothes in the river, away from the village so people wound’t see.

The whole village is starving.

The priest apologizes to Kunin — you sit there talking about the school and all I can think about is food. He excuses himself and leaves.

Kunin watches him go. He notices no horse. Surely he didn’t walk six miles here through the muddy roads. He did.

He sees the priest approached by a little boy who wants a blessing. The priest blesses him.

Kunin realizes there are tears in his eyes. He wipes them away.

He goes inside, sees his sermons, tears them to pieces.

Kunin feels like an idiot. It was right in front of him and he didn’t see it.

He must help them. He must help them.

He starts calculating how much of his salary he can spare. He’ll give some to the priest, and to the doctor’s wife. He’ll pretend to be sick to take care of the doctor’s pride.

He is worried about paying his servants if he does this. He thinks how he’s been wasting his money instead of helping people. When he was twenty he was buying gifts for prostitutes. He’d taken cabs everywhere, made presents to women he didn’t know.

That money could have fed people.

He must help them. He must help them.

Then he remembers the letter he sent to the Bishop, about the priest. He writhes inside, filled with shame.

The story ends with a note from the narrator: “So had begun and had ended a sincere effort to be of public service on the part of a well-intentioned but unreflecting and over-comfortable person.”

In other words, Chekhov doesn’t think much comes of his vow to give his money to the poor. On the whole, he’d rather keep his money, and in a couple of days, and with a new priest, he’ll forget about being ashamed and get on with his life. That’s the way it is with the poor. It’s not his job to save people.


You can find a complete list of the Chekhov I’ve read and discussed at the bottom of the page, here: