Status in Two Chekhov Stories In the introduction to our edition of Chekhov’s short stories, by George Pahomov, it is stated that Chekhov’s fiction “captured the burgeoning Russian democracy” and that “in Chekhov’s democratic world view, no one was excluded” (vii-viii). We see these ideals being put forward in the two stories by Chekhov that we will discuss in this paper. In these two stories, “The Resurrection” and “The Dance Pianist,” we can see how Chekhov depicts a world where the author’s own democratic ideals may be in mind, but which is in reality still very much based on the old-fashioned concepts of status and rank.
We will see that both of these stories center around the concept of social status, especially in the way that different types of people react to a sudden change in the social status of one particular character in each story. What these two stories have in common is that in both cases, the central character is the one suffering the sudden change in status, and having to tell the reader about it afterward. “The Confession” is an early story of Chekhov’s which deals with an unnamed, first-person narrator who tells the reader the story of how, one day, he received a small promotion at his work along with a small raise.
He goes on to describe how this seemingly minor change in his life caused him to experience a sudden and unexpectedly intense shift in the way he was treated by people around him, who already had known him for almost his whole life. Not only does this sudden promotion change the way others treat him, it also shifts the way he perceives himself, leading him to take dangerous risks that will result in a disaster for himself. At the beginning of “The Confession,” the narrator explains that “I was rejoicing over the promotion and the slight increase in salary, nothing more” (Chekhov 1).
And yet, he also realizes immediately that “all at once people appeared to have changed” in his mind. Even one of his superiors, Kazusov, who he used to consider an arrogant ogre, starts acting friendly to him and invites him to his house (pp. 1-2). The narrator’s mother and father start spending extravagantly, buying better food and clothes even though he warns them that he is really not making much more money: “you know, my salary wasn’t doubled. The increase was trifling,” he tells them (p. 2).
These early events give us the hint that others may be exploiting the man for their own ends, and this point will be important at the end. A hint of trouble comes fairly quickly in this very short story. Here, the narrator explains that the demands on him for money from his friends and family, and for his sudden wedding, have led him to take money from his workplace, even though he attempts to justify it in his mind: “Why not take it, when you know you are going to put it back as soon as you receive your salary? (Chekhov 3). Unfortunately, he never actually does return the money and is caught almost immediately, bringing disaster upon himself. Suddenly, no one wants anything to do with him anymore, and even his newfound friends abandon him: “Yesterday I was respected and honored on all sides; today I am a scoundrel and a thief” (p. 4). The point of this story is to realize that it is not about the making of a thief, or how a man turns dishonest due to outward demands on him.
Rather, the point is clearly about how others perceive one’s sudden change of status almost immediately, and will try to use it for their own benefit. The man’s friends and family have not turned away from him because they are so honest themselves, since they benefited from his generosity and even encouraged him to spend beyond his means. It is simply his sudden downturn in social status, the opposite of his sudden rise in status at the beginning of the story.
The second story also deals directly with a sudden shift in a character’s status is “The Dance Pianist. ” Like to “The Confession,” this story also centers around a single character, who tells the story of an event that has just taken place in his life. Unlike the first story, however, the character in this story has a name, Pyotr Rublyov. Also in contrast to the first story, he is telling the story not to the readers directly, but to another character, his roommate who is the first person narrator of the story.
A third contrast between “The Dance Pianist” and “The Confession” is that in the present story the status change is really a change in other characters’ perception of the main character’s status, rather than an actual shift in his status. In “The Dance Pianist,” the point is centered on a man who is mistaken for someone of more importance than he really is, and how society tends to treat people very differently based on perception of status. At the beginning of “The Dance Pianist,” our main character, Pyotr, a “former student,” comes bursting into his room late one night and after some prodding by his roommate tells his story of that evening.
He had been working as a paid pianist for society people at an aristocratic party, and says that he was kicked out for something that he will soon describe in detail (Chekhov 47). He complains about the poor way that he is treated by society people, which lays out the foundation for what is to follow: “And what am I, after all? A piano player, a domestic, a waiter that knows how to play the piano. In the homes of merchants I’m addressed as an inferior, given a tip, and – no offense intended” (p. 48).
He explains that a young woman at the party began speaking to him casually, and he soon realizes (due to an overheard conversation) that she has mistaken him for an invited guest of the party, not just a hired piano player. Pyotr goes on playing the piano, trying to forget the incident, but it keeps bugging him throughout the night: “I commenced thinking what rubbish I had turned out to be; that after traveling two thousand versts to reach Moscow, in the hope of becoming a concert pianist or a composer, I now find myself a dance pianist” (Chekhov 50).
Pyotr seems to feel bad for his roommate, a struggling writer, as well. Finally the point of the story occurs to him, and he explains it to his roommate, neatly summing up the lesson to be learned: What is it in the Russian character, I wondered, that makes it possible, as long as you are free, a student, or loafing around without a job, to drink with a man, slap him on the belly, flirt with his daughter; but as soon as you are in even a slightly subordinate relation to him, the shoemaker must stick to this last! Chekhov 51) As a result of this sudden realization, he finds that he can’t hold his embarrassment and shame inside any more, and gets thrown out of the party for losing his composure. The clear message we can obtain from this long anecdote is that something as simple as a change in other people’s perception of one’s status is enough to greatly influence the type of relationships that are possible or permissible for one.
As we can again read from the introduction, we find an example of the sort of situation where “human relationships then become vertical, subject to object” (xi-xii). In both of these Chekhov stories, the author has clearly set forward the reality of social status in the Russia of his own time, but he has also stated something universal about human relationships. We can see in both stories the sometimes disastrous effects that can result from either a real change in social status (as in “The Confession”) or even a perceived or mistaken one (as in “The Dance Pianist”).
Although Chekhov himself may have held democratic ideals (as mentioned at the beginning of this paper), in these stories he is able to describe the reality of a society in which status roles and social position are of high importance, and which imposes serious consequences for violations. Works Cited Chekhov, Anton. “The Confession. ” In Anton Chekhov: Selected Stories, pp. 1-4. New York: Signet Classics 1960. — . “The Dance Pianist. ” In Anton Chekhov: Selected Stories, pp. 46-52. New York: Signet Classics 1960.