Last week I wrote about the shock that follows hearing of a death. This week I’m analyzing the short story “Misery,” by Anton Chekhov, and its title leaves no doubt about what the tale involves. The narrative follows Iona Potapov, a sledge-driver whose son has just died. Potapov is naturally heartbroken, and wants nothing more than to share his pain with someone who will simply listen and sympathize. However, each customer of his brushes off his attempts at a human connection, and the driver is left alone with his misery.
The story opens with a question that encapsulates the protagonist’s dilemma: “‘To whom shall I tell my grief?’” This is what Potapov struggles with for the length of the tale. The first description of Iona is equally concise, and yet both of these quotes reveal a lot about their subject: “Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent.” It’s easy to glean from these lines that Iona is deeply depressed. He is so consumed by his grief, in fact, that he doesn’t even hear his first customer ask to be taken somewhere. The customer, an officer, has to repeat himself, and finally asks, “‘Are you asleep?’” Iona “starts,” but eventually cooperates, and begins driving. His unrelenting sorrow, however, is conveyed by the fact that he is not driving well: “‘You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,’” the officer yells at him.
After a time, Iona, flustered and desperate for someone to talk to, finally tries to communicate with the officer: “‘My son…er…my son died this week, sir.’” The officer’s only reply is, “‘H’m! What did he die of?’” After Iona begins to explain, the officer rudely remarks, “‘We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!’” After this customer is dropped off, Iona gets a request from a group of three. The driver is once again distracted: “Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that.” Despite the impoliteness of the young men he is driving, just being around others helps improve Iona’s mood: “He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart.” Feeling emboldened by the company, Iona once again endeavors to share his story: “‘This week…er…my…er…son died!’” And once again, the response is not sympathetic. It is merely, “‘We shall all die…’” And once more, Iona is rebuked for his slow driving by one of the passengers: “‘My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?’”
When the boorish customers ask the driver if he is married, Iona reveals that his wife is also dead. He then attempts to continue with his train of thought: “‘Here my son’s dead and I am alive…It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door…Instead of coming for me it went for my son…’” And yet, to this sad speech, the customers only react with glee at the fact that they have arrived at their destination. After they leave, Iona sits in silence and contemplates his situation:
“Again he is alone and again there is silence for him…. The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery…”
I feel that this perfectly illustrates the isolation that comes with grief. Even amongst hundreds, thousands of people, a person in mourning can feel completely alone. And yet, in this story, despite the people ignoring him, Iona isn’t actually alone. Chekhov cleverly inserts subtle mentions of Iona’s horse, making her sound like a concerned companion to her owner. In the very beginning, after Iona is described, she is characterized thus: “His little mare is white and motionless too…She is probably lost in thought.” The horse perfectly echoes Iona’s demeanor, showing how alike the two are. Throughout the story, the pair are continually described as parallels.
At one point, the mare is even made to look as though she can read Iona’s mind: “And his little mare, as though she knows his thoughts, falls to trotting.” And at the end of the story, after another failed attempt at telling someone about his son, Iona goes out to see his horse. As she stands there eating, Iona talks to her, and he finally gets the chance to say what he wants to say: “‘That’s how it is, old girl…Kuzma Ionitch is gone…He said good-bye to me…He went and died for no reason…Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt…And all at once that same little colt went and died…You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?…’” The mare, always understanding of her owner, wordlessly conveys her assent: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.” At last, Iona finds a way to get his feelings off his chest. The reader is left with a sense of victory, as well as the comfort of knowing that no one is truly alone.
- Read an interview with Dr. Lizabeth Eckerd, who specializes in grief
- Check out my analysis of Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son”