Reading Chekhov — “The Bishop”

Last night I read, “The Bishop.” The story is told in four parts.


The story begins with a priest — a Bishop — leading the Palm Sunday service in his church. It’s a beautiful service but hot and foggy with incense, and as he’s serving people palms, flooded with emotion at the beauty of the experience, he thinks he sees his mother taking a palm from him — but it can’t be, he hasn’t seen his mother in nine years.

After the service he goes home to the monastery where he lives, and a cleric tells him his mother stopped by to see him. It was her at the church! It’s now eleven o’clock at night-he can’t see her until tomorrow.

We meet another priest, a cranky fellow. They talk, and we learn the bishop is chronically ill, and that other priest treats him by rubbing him with tallow.

The other priest, Sisoy. notes that they had the lights on at Erakin’s today. We don’t know who Erakin is yet.

He tries to sleep but is flooded with memories of his past life, of the town he was raised in and the other priests he knew growing up.


His mother comes to visit, and he’s surprised and hurt that she treats him more as a ‘a great man’ than as her son. With her is her grandaughter Katya, a clumsy child who breaks things. His mother keeps moving wineglasses and tumblers out of her reach.

He remembers how she took him to visit their relatives when he was a boy, based on who has the most money. He thinks about how all her life she has taken care of her children and grandchildren-that means getting on with business, doesn’t it?

His mother tells him about his family, how his brother in law has died and his sister and her four children are now stricken with poverty.

Another grandson has rejected the church and taken up medicine. Katya reports that he cuts up dead people.

He tries to connect with her, tell her how much he’s missed her, and she politely says, ‘thank you’ each time. He can’t understand the distance — all she has for him is respectfulness.

He’s not feeling well, and he’s pestered by people who come to see him about their affairs, some spiritual, some business. He also has to show up for morning and evening, matins and vespers.

His digestion isn’t working, he’s sicker today than yesterday.

He gets into bed. He can hear his mother chatting with the other priest Sisoy in the room next door, casual friendly chat, the kind they hadn’t had. But the priest keeps grousing at the little girl Katya.

Then the priest Sisoy comes in. The Bishop reports he has a fever. Sisoy rubs hom over with Tallow and complains about people he knows and he he doesn’t like him.


The bishop goes and visits another sick bishop, the bishop of the diocese. The sickness of the bishop of the diocene has stripped that man of religion, of sympathy for others, and he only talks about trivial things.

The bishop the story’s about had traveled abroad for many years and then had come home to Russia — and he found he disliked Russia. People were coarse and stupid. He tried to stay away from them as much as he could. He had lost touch with them, had separated from them. This story is about separation from concerns in preparation for death. Being grounded in money or religion means being grounded.

He hated that he inspired awe in people and although he was a very calm and patient man it made him angry. The whole time he had been home, no one had spoken to him as a simple human being — and now that included his own mother. He resented the way she chattered with Sisoy in the next room.

He’s sicker and more people come to see him, including the shopkeeper who had put up the electric lights — a man who talks loud, shouts, can barely be understood.

It’s time for vespers again and he goes to church. he’s moved again by the beauty of the service. he things of all the things he had attained. he thought about how things were not clear and how something was missing — he had missed what was most important — and how he had the same hopes for the future he’d had as a child.


Come Thursday he celebrates another mass, the Washing of the Feet. The world is full of blue skies and burbling water.

He goes home and gets into bed, sicker than ever. He can’t sleep, hasn’t slept for a long time. He’s in pain.

He hears Sisoy and his mother, Marya, talking happily next soor, and he resents it now —

The girl Katya drops a glass — Sisoy shouts at her angrily.

The bishop drifts off to sleep then he wakes up and Katya is standing in front of him. He talks with her about her daily, including the cousin studying medicine who cuts up dead people. e.

Finally Katya starts crying, and she begs the priest to help their family with money, they are wretched. He suddenly realizes how bad things are — he remember his mother’s stories of his family, of men dying and leaving the women and children destitute. How can he help. He promises to help.

It’s not said, but he realizes how badly off his family is and how he has not helped them — the thing that is missing? he pursues spirituality and success while his family suffers?

His mother comes in and cares for him as if he was a little boy — his sickness has opened a road to her caring for him the way she did when he was a boy. She had no idea how to relate to him as an adult, but she could as her child.

He has to go to service at the church again. He goes and conducts another mass. he stands in the middle of the church and imagines himself surrounded by all the people of his youth, remembers how much church had meant to him. He remembers that when he was in church he was happy.

He gets sicker and sicker throughout the service.

When it ends he goes home to bed and covers his head. Sisoy comes in and rubs him down again.

He thinks about what a character Sisoy is, never stays long in once place, hard to understand even if he believed in God. He tells Sisoy he’s going away tomorrow.

The bishop tells him he should never have risen to eminence, he should have been simple monk. Shut up, Sisoy says.

The bishop can’t sleep and in the morning he hemorrhages in his bowerls, he loses blood all day and fades away.

His old mother comes into see him, afraid — her hopes of rescue are dying with him.

He is already gone, can’t talk or understand anything. He is wandering in a field, under open sky and sunshine, free to go anywhere he liked.

Some doctors come and then they go out and talk to his mother: her son has breathed his last. He is dead.

The nex Sunday was Easter Sunday. The town rang with celebration, just as last year, just as they will next year.

A month later a new bishop was appointed and no one remember the one who had died anymore.

His mother is being supported by another son. She tells people sometime that she’d had a son who was a bishop. Some people believe her, some don’t.

May 1 2020

This is a list of stories I’ve read so far.

The Letter



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