Autopsy of A Dead Body

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.

Image result for anton chekhov a dead body

Courtesy: Wikimedia

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.

Of Filth and Wealth

I am going to need a handful of Oregano to digest the unexpected developments of last week. The young, carefree minds that work in the fields of my mother’s native saying they don’t know who Trump is would register as uncommonness. While the same minds travelling to the nearest town to exchange their invalid notes of ₹500 and ₹1000, the possession of the latter being extremely rare, is the most common sight today.

Billionaire Trump rising to the top of the most powerful country took many by surprise, and Mr Modi’s announcement of demonetization hours before a midnight recorded a tremor of 7.3 on the Richter scale in the Indian subcontinent. While the poor who live in houses not more than one-storey tall escaped the quake, the rich who touch clouds if bored fell down spectacularly, although a bit tragically in their own eyes.

There are many Indians – notable economists and some others who don’t drink their morning coffee without The Hindu – who welcome the PM’s move with predictions of long-term benefits for the nation. And then there are others – Trumpish minds – who remain silly and naïve and ignorant and characteristic of all such synonyms that Oxford could give you, and painfully talk of long queues outside ATMs and create memes to ridicule this move.

And about this Trump, what he could do, no one can say, because, well, he himself doesn’t know. But there is some vague, indecipherable sense of satisfaction smiling deep within me at the thought of this win. A fleeting feeling of schadenfreude. All those relatives who have a natural awe for even the American illiterates and soggy minds would pause a minute to reconsider their admiration. Wouldn’t that be awesome, to see a false sense of respect become nothing in so little a time?

Now then, if you still have not exchanged your notes, join me tomorrow outside ICICI, Adyar at 9 sharp. Let us joke over America’s decision while progressing in the queue.