Analysis and interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s short story A Dead Body*.
The narration is deceptively simple. The portrayal is intimate. And though the denouement is uneventful, the story is tellingly conclusive.
It is with a cold welcome that Chekhov invites the reader into the story. A still August night. A mist is rising slowly from the fields and casting an opaque veil over everything within eyesight. Without wasting words and the atmosphere set, we close in on the dead body, swathed in white and positioned under a young oak-tree: an oxymoronic image I will be returning to at the end of this analysis.
Two peasants from a nearby village are keeping vigil over the body – not of their own accord or for any personal motive, as the watch is clearly outlined as one of the most disagreeable and uninviting of peasants’ duties.
One is young, just starting to grow moustache, the other is Syoma, aged. The young peasant warns the other not to doze off, asking him to tell him something, revealing that without active company, he would be very frightened to stay there. When the other speaks silence, the young peasant is annoyed, spluttering without regard to age or respect, that Syoma is a dullard, a simpleton, and that he should gain more sense.
At this point in the story, the young peasant comes off as an intelligent, motivated kid, probably even a rare personality among his type. But what is also established is his frightful nature. In his bout of attack at Syoma, he is pushed to the extreme by the impulse of his fear. He is also definitely green at this kind of job; experiencing these wee hours for the first time, perhaps. When there is a distant rustle, he looks at Syoma enquiringly, to which Syoma, calm to the point of contrast, clarifies what must be behind the sound.
This interaction reveals the length of experience Syoma must have under his sleeves. He might be a simpleton from the perspective of the young and mindful peasant, but he is aware of the elements of his environment, the demands of the watch – so much that he is calm and usual in a situation that would rattle most of us. Why, the very sensible kid who advocates practicality sets to work with still more nervous haste.
Enter the religious man, the pilgrim. After the initial conversation he has with the young peasant, he comes to know of the dead body they are waking over, and this has, in Chekhov’s words, an overpowering effect upon him, flustering him to the point of stammer and repeat benedictions.
Though he has got his route mapped by the kid to proceed in, he is unable to weigh off the dead body from his mind. He keeps returning to the spot with questions as to the deceased’s background and nature of death. To one of the religious person’s frantic exclamations, the kid says the dead man’s soul is still hovering near his body and that it does not depart for three days, with which the religious man concurs.
Furthermore, when the religious man wants to share some money for the burial, the kid says the act would become a sin in case the man had committed suicide.
What does this interaction say? Clearly, the religious man indulges in the topic of aura, and more importantly, the young peasant is evinced as superstitious and believing. However, by Syoma’s absence in this conversation, it is safe to adjudge he does not have similar opinions, and that such imaginations have no hold for him. The person who was called a simpleton a while ago, is shown to have no irrational thoughts in him.
At the last stroke of his brush, Chekhov paints a transparent character. When the religious man offers five kopecks for company, the young peasant is unable to resist. There is a chance of escaping the eerie timepass of staying with the body during such a misty night, and then, there is tempting money.
“For five kopecks I might,” says the young man, scratching his head, “but I was told not to.”
Despite a superior’s order, the young peasant agrees to discontinue his vigil, unveiling his material desire.
Taking note of these characteristics of the young peasant, namely: inexperienced, fearful, believing and materialistic, it could well be concluded that he is the simpleton in the story, while Syoma, devoid of these characteristics, is the silent sage.
Finally, the image Chekhov introduces at the beginning of the story: A dead body, covered from head to foot with new white linen, is lying under a young oak-tree. To me, this one line summarises the entire story. We have a dead body – representing the saturation of life, the culmination of all knowledge and experience, a person who has been through life to the end of it, like Syoma. He is relaxed throughout the story and swayed least, physically and morally. (In fact, we are made to imagine him as close to dead in his introduction.) Having seen much of life, he seems to have risen above the mundane. And then we have a young tree, which has just sprouted out of earth and has got much to see in its lifetime, like the young peasant. He sways, he talks, he shivers, but only out of inexperience and what he assumes is wisdom. To me, the body-tree duo mirrors the characters of this story, visually arresting their lifetimes.
*If you have not read the short story, it is available here. This is my go-to website for searching and reading literature. Do share your own thoughts of the story; it would be enriching to know what your takeaway was.