Reading Chekhov — “Easter Eve”
At the speed of quarantine.
ON THE BANK
A man is standing on the bank of a river waiting for a ferry boat. The torrents of spring have overflowed the riverbanks and flooded both sides.
The stars above are so plentiful, they too seem to have come out for the holiday procession he’s attending.
It’s so dark out he can hardly see, even with the stars. Then he can make out a figure: a peasant holding a stick.
Is he waiting for the ferry boat? No, he’s here to see ‘the illumination’. We’re not quite sure what he means at this point.
The peasant remarks that he couldn’t afford the five kopecks for the ferry boat, and the main character says, he’d give him the money — class generosity, pity, the holiday? We’re not sure. But it establishes a social hierarchy, who has the money and who doesn’t, who can cross the river and draw closer to the ceremony and who can’t.
Still no ferry boat, but then a bell starts pealing. The peasant removes his hat — Christ is risen — the beginning of the holiday.
They hear shouting for the ferry boatman from the other side, so he’s somewhere in the middle of the river.
THE BOATMAN AND FERRY
Finally the boatman pulls up. As he arrives, rockets and sparklers start on the other side of the river — the fireworks the peasant had been waiting for. (Notice how this is payoff to a setup, the suspense of waiting for ‘the illumination.’)
The main character and the boatman, Ieronim, admire the beauty of the display.
The MC (nameless and placeless), avoids getting drawn into religious talk with the boatman. He mimics the boatmen ‘let it be God’s will’ and so on.
When the boatman observes that someone died, the MC just says well, everybody dies. (It means nothing to him, unclear what it means to the boatman).
The boatman goes on — the fellow who died was Nikolay — extraordinary intelligence, and gifted!
What gift? the MC asked, drawn in in spite of himself.
He was a hymn writer, Ieronim answers. No training at all, and he wrote beautiful hymns.
One of the other priests, highly trained, who’s writing a history of the monastery, had trouble even writing his sermons, but Nikolay easily wrote hymns.
Ieronim goes into detail: writing hymns isn’t easy: there are conventions to follow, certain words like ‘angel’ have to be in there at certain places.
And everything must be harmonious, brief and complete, and not one word should be harsh rough or unsuitable, they must be soft, gracious and tender.
All these adjectives are specified.
Tremendous feeling from the boatman for Nikolay. They were friends, but the boatman was in awe of Nikolay and his ability.
Pity he’s dead, says the MC, but really, can we get the ferry boat moving or I’ll miss the service.
Oh, right, Ieronim says.
CROSSING THE RIVER
Ieronim pushes the boat off. A rope crosses the river and is secured on both banks. Ieronim moves the ferry by hauling the boat along the rope, moving the boat over the water from bank to bank.
No one printed the hymns, the MC learns, and the other priests didn’t like them, or Nikolay. They might not have been very good.
Then we learn that only his friend Ieronim heard the hymns — no one else. He’s go to visit his friend Nikolay and they would sit and Nikolay would read him the hymns. (a big revealing moment, done very subtly).
We realize Ieronim was in love with Nikolay, would follow him around, idealized his compassion, tenderness and kindness, things Ieronim received little of. We also intuit that Ieronim has a great gift of true appreciation.
They approached the other bank of the river, a place filled now with smoke, crackling lights, uproar — after the fireworks, during more fireworks.
The MC learns that Ieronim will not be able to attend the service — he has to work the ferry. His relief hasn’t come — he is stuck at the ferry. It would mean everything to him to go now, on the day of his friend’s death — and he can’t. We learn he is a monk, a lay-brother.
The MC pays Ieronim five kopeks and leaves the boat.
OFF THE FERRY
He leave the ferry behind and moves through the chaos. The crowd, the horses, the people, the smoke and lights.
People are loading little cannon, firing them, and selling cakes. The cakes are to be blessed by the priests for the holiday.
INSIDE THE CHURCHYARD
He moves inside the monastery. Same hubbub but more discipline and order and the smell of juniper and incense.
In and out of the church, an incoming ceaseless stream of people and an outgoing stream, some recycling back in after they have come out.
People running around as if they were looking for something. No one was praying, too much commotion and noise.
INSIDE THE CHURCH
The Easter Service. Lights and candle and signing of hymns.
He’s part of a wave of people, one of a mass — pushed back with them when a priest enters to light a candle, pushed back when he leaves.
He thinks about Ieronim, feels injustice that Ieronim can’t be here and a part of it, because no one would relieve him.
The singing and service are beautiful. Ieronim would have appreciated all this most of all, but the man able to most appreciate this ceremony and feel its deepest meaning, the man whom the service is truly for, isn’t here. The way Ieronim gave Nikolay the appreciation and attention he deserved, the one man who could appreciate him for being the beautiful soul that he was.
Ieronim would have drunk in every word and been moved to ecstasy the by beauty of the service, by the community of it, by the sense of celebration. Instead Ieronim was moving back and forth across the dark water and grieving for his best friend Nikolay.
The wave pushed him back and out of the church.
BACK OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
He tried to find some image of Nikolay, the dead hymn writer, but finds nothing. He paints a picture of him in his imagination, the hymn writer who used to call to Ieronim over the water, and he thinks how he heard Nikolay’s voice when Ieronim quoted his hymns.
Morning has broken. The stars are gone, the sky is grey, not black. Now everyone is tired, exhausted, burnt out from the evenings activity. The fires are burn out heaps of ash. Everyone longed for sleep.
Now both banks were visible at once. A mist hangs over it. He sees the rope extending across the river.
The ferry arrives and he jumps onto it.
Through the mist he hears Ieronim voice. Then he sees Ieronim, still at his post on the boat. No one has come to relieve him yet. Ieronim tells him no one will be along til later in the morning, they’re all at the priest’s breakfast now.
Ieronim throws himself on the rope and the boat starts across the river again. He sits down and his eyes fix on the face of a young woman.
The MC realizes he’s not staring at the woman out of lust: he sees Nikolay in her soft and tender and kind face.
We’re left wondering if the other priests didn’t like Nikolay and Ieronim because they were gay, if Ieronim’s shunning for the service isn’t a kind of punishment.
The class difference is present in the MC’s pity for Ieronim, without his intention of helping — he could have taken over the boat for Ieronim to let him go to the service on the occasion of his friend’s death, but an act of pity is easier than an act of kindness.
You can find a complete list of the Chekhov I’ve read and discussed at the bottom of the page, here: