‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is surely the most compassionate writer there is. His worldview allows for all kinds of failures and he fully accepts human weaknesses, able to see the beauty in even the most ugly behaviour. I can’t find my copy of this story but I remember its contrasts – of dark night and harsh weather against the warmth of the women’s fire, their lack of education compared with the eponymous student’s. What stayed with me, strongly enough to feel as if my brain chemistry might  be altered by it, is the shape of the story and its movement from distance (the student’s observations of the “tall fat old woman in a man’s coat” and her daughter’s “stupid’ pock-marked face”) through emotion (the widow wipes her tears away with her sleeve), to catharsis (the student surveys his village from a hilltop and understands the meaning of life). The women are reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches as they wash up their cauldron and wipe away their tears and the student casts himself as St Peter as he warms himself by their fire. It isn’t lost on me that the women’s connection is human and small scale while the (male) student’s is epic, vast, historical, as he experiences connection with landscape and time. This is Chekhov’s point. I experience the catharsis he describes as I read his story, to such an extent that I feel physically transformed. This is also the effect of the Kafka and Welty stories I have chosen.

First published in Russian in Russkie Vedomosti, 1894. First translated by Constance Garnett in 1914. Available in various editions and translations since, including online here, no translator credited: boo!

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