May 2, 2020

4 min read

Reading Chekhov — “The Letter”

The short stories, one at a time.

Another story about priests. Interesting thing about the Bishop, written in 1902, as Chekov was dying. He was writing about how it felt to die, staring at it nakedly, the way Rembrandt stared at himself with remorseless seeing in his self portraits.

In this story, we open with a priest, Father Orlov, who is being plagued with another Priest, an old man of sixty-five, Father Anastasi, who won’t leave after a three hour visit and is a little drunk. Anastasi doesn’t really want to stay, but can’t seem to go, and he keeps hinting that he’d like another shot of vodka.

Orlov is tired and wants nothing more than for the pest Anastasi to leave.

Anastasi had been accused of having taking money from the church and selling sacraments and so forth. He came to Orlov for help, but Orlov isn’t inclined to help him.

Orlov doesn’t believe Anastasi can change, or wants to change, so why help him? He thinks, the best thing Anastasy could do would be to die and depart from the world — there was no saving him here.

A knock at the door and a Deacon of the Church visits.

The deacon launches into it right away — his son Pyotr is a disgrace. Not living a Christian life. Dancing and singing and drinking the night away and living with a woman unmarried.

I’ve tried to talk to him but when I tell him he has to behave a certain way, he just asks, why? He won’t listen to anything I say.

Orlov’s reaction: you’re a horrible father, this is all your fault. The deacon says I try to teach him. Orlov says the time was when he was a child, not now that he’s a student. You can’t teach students anything.

Anasatsy listens and laughs, identifying with how fallible Pyotr is, relieved to hear he’s not alone in his sin.

The deacon wants to save his son — it turns out, because he fears answering to God for how the boy turned out. Purely selfish reasons.

When Orlov says, you should write him a letter, the deacon responds — could you dictate to me, you’re smarter than I am and your words would be better.

Orlov resists but then sighs and agrees. He dictates a letter telling the young man he’s a sinner and so on, you aren’t acting like a Christian, time for your to stop acting like a fool and live like one or face the fires of hell and so on.

Anastasi listens to all this and just keeps laughing at it.

When they’re done the deacon says, oh, this is the best letter anyone ever wrote! This will turn my son around.

Orlov, good good, now get out, would you? I need to sleep.

& & &

Anastasi and the deacon leave, the deacon happy, Orlov is so brilliant, so educated. And he wrote this incredible letter —

Look, deacon, Anastasi says, don’t send that letter. You need to forgive your son and just let him be.

How can I do that when I have to face God? the deacon says.

God will be good to you if you’re good to your son, if you forgive him. DON’T SEND THE LETTER.

This viper, this woman has gotten hold of him —

What, Anastasi says, if it’s he who has hold of her?

& & &

They get back to the deacon’s house — Anastasi says look, the world will chastise him plenty. That’s not what needs from you, his father. He needs your forgiveness.

Having said this, Anastasi sees his own condition in the world, a broken sinner, and realizes how much he wants the forgiveness of other people. He talks about his own need for forgiveness.

The deacon listens and all at once all he can think about his son is all the times they had together, the warmth of their home, the past years when the son came to visit him. He loves his son.

Don’t send the letter, Anastasi tells him.

But the deacon thinks he has to send it. He pulls down an envelope, but before he fills it he adds his own addendum to the letter, including some fun gossip about people he and his son know in common. He puts the letter in the envelope, unaware that he’s completely undermined the moralistic message of the letter, and he’s restored to humanity. He’ll send it and no harm will be done.

His son will see that his father didn’t write the first part, and will see that he did write the second, and so their relationship is saved and restored.

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