By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Student’ is a short story by Anton Chekhov, published in 1894. It’s one of his shortest stories, running to just a few pages, and – in keeping with many of Chekhov’s best short stories, very little happens in the way of plot. Yet Chekhov himself considered ‘The Student’ his favourite of all his short stories. ‘The Student’, then, is a nice place to start exploring Chekhov’s distinctive style.
You can read ‘The Student’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Student’: summary
There isn’t much of a ‘plot’ to summarise for this story. A 22-year-old seminary student training for the priesthood, named Ivan Velikopolsky, is travelling home on Good Friday. He reflects how the cold Russian weather he is experiencing is the same as the cold that figures from Russian history, such as Peter the Great, would have felt.
On his journey home, he meets two women: Vasilisa and Lukerya, a mother and her daughter who have both been widowed. He joins them around their fire, and the conversation turns to the Gospels, since it is Easter.
Ivan tells the two women about the Denial of Peter, the story from the New Testament in which Jesus foretells that Peter will deny him three times before the crowing of the cock. In the biblical account, Peter followed Jesus upon Christ’s arrest, but, exhausted with fear and worry, Peter fell asleep. When he awoke, Jesus was being interrogated.
Peter joined some attendants around a fire – much as Velikopolsky has joined Vasilisa and Lukerya around their fire – and the attendants asked Peter if he knew Jesus. Three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus when he was asked. A cock crowed and Peter wept when he realised that Jesus had been right: he had denied Jesus three times.
Vasilisa begins to cry as Velikopolsky finishes recounting this story, while Lukerya struggles to conceal her pain.
Velikopolsky bids the two widows goodnight and continues on his journey home. He believes that Vasilisa had begun to cry because she identified with the story of the Denial of Peter in some way. He believes that this is true of all people living in the present: the tale of Peter from the Gospels relates to all people living almost two thousand years later.
Velikopolsky believes that the past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events, and this realisation causes a frenzy within his soul. As he rides the ferry on his way home, Velikopolsky feels an expectation of happiness and is overcome by a sense that life is filled with a sublime meaning.
‘The Student’: analysis
A key device in many Chekhov short stories is the epiphany: a sudden realisation or moment of enlightenment experienced by one of the story’s characters, usually the protagonist. In many ways, the epiphany can be said to perform a similar function to the plot twist or revelation at the end of a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) short story: the guilty character is unmasked at the end of a detective story, or the ghost reveals itself at the end of a ghost story, and so on.
However, as with the epiphanies in later modernist writers, such as Katherine Mansfield (who learnt much from Chekhov’s fiction) and James Joyce, we should appraise the ‘epiphany’ in ‘The Student’ with scepticism. Often in the work of Chekhov and the modernists, a character appears to have had a life-changing experience, a moment of inner wisdom and recognition, but it is destined to be fleeting and impulsive, rather than of long-lasting effect.
And in this connection, we should observe how young Velikopolsky is, and how suddenly his mood changes. Chekhov is also at pains to remind us that he is ‘only’ twenty-two years old at the end of the story. This cuts two ways: this could explain how such a powerful revelation could have such a profound effect on him (he is still young and is learning about the meaning of life all the time), but it also arguably invites caution concerning the longevity of his new-found wisdom.
Because young people are constantly discovering new things and are still forming their opinions about the world, today’s epiphany may well be overtaken by another (possibly contradictory) revelation tomorrow.
And this is what makes Chekhov’s short stories so rewarding to read and analyse: their open-endedness and ambiguity. ‘The Student’ appears to be the story of a young man realising how closely linked the past and the present are, and how hearing old stories – such as biblical stories – can form a kinship between all humanity, the living and the dead.
But because the third-person narrator sticks quite closely to Velikopolsky’s own perspective, we do not learn why, for instance, Vasilisa began weeping, or why her daughter looked so pained by the sound. Can Velikopolsky be so sure it was not because he told the story well? Must it be because the story of Peter itself struck a chord with Vasilisa? Did her daughter look unhappy because she was embarrassed by her mother’s crying, or because she shared her response to the story, but was determined not to show it?
The cleverness of Chekhov’s writing is in not revealing these things to us. Velikopolsky may think he has realised what’s happened, but these two women remain strangers to him, despite their brief moment of communion around the fire.
Velikopolsky is insufferable.
First: he knows full well that the two widows have heard the story of Peter’s Denial at the service of the Twelve Gospels. So he tells them the story again anyway!
Second: he says he knows that in Russia there is “the same desperate poverty and hunger”, and that “the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better”. Yet by the end he is asserting that truth and beauty guide “human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest”, and that, incredibly, it “continued without interruption to this day”. The widows might have had something to say about all this truth and beauty, had he cared to listen to them rather than preach at them.
As you say, it appears to be one thing but may be another. Superficially a tale of youthful idealism; underneath, a story of youthful priggishness.