In 1898, Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and one of the great masters of modern short story writing, wrote a short story entitled, “The Man in a Case”. It is one of the most agonizing works of Chekhov and the first of three interrelated short stories which became known as The Little Trilogy.
“The Man in a Case” is a frame story. It develops as frame narratives (a beginning frame and an ending frame), which envelope the story proper, that of a high school teacher of ancient Greek named Belikov. The story is told by Bourkin, a fellow teacher, to his friend Ivanovitch. The setting of the main story is a small Russian town of the end of the 19th century where old friends Bourkin and Ivanovitch live.
In Burkin’s description, extremely insecure Belikov continuously sings the praises of the past because of the fear of the present. He spends most of his life at home fearing that misfortune happens to him. He meticulously follows official rules and regulations, obeys all bans and venerates all prohibitions. He fears the idea of any kind of novelty, flexibility and tolerance in his surroundings.
Belikov is a small fellow who feels the morbid need to protect himself from the outside world, and to put order in everything. He creates for himself a carapace, a case based on his limited understanding of duty, conventions and hierarchy. Going out, he always wears his galoshes and carries his big overcoat and umbrella in summer and winter. He goes around only in covered carriages. He has a case for his watch, a case for his eyeglasses and one for his umbrella. While sitting with Burkin and his other colleagues at high school, he speaks to no one. They call him, « man in the case. » He also, slyly, forces those around him to submit to his oppressive way of imagining existence. During his fifteen years in the town, his narrow-mindedness has oppressed everyone and held the high school and the whole town hostage! He terrorizes everybody. His moral authority influences the teachers, the head-master, religious authorities and even the ladies of the good society who do not organize shows on Saturdays, for fear that Belikov should learn it.
However, with the help of the townspeople, this rigid and stern forty-something year-old man who seems completely sexless, nearly gets married to Varenka, the sister of a new teacher. She is a lively young lady of around thirty. Coming to unsettle his small world, she draws him into the world of songs, of promenades and of parties in the theatre. He seems to fall in love and marriage seems to be brewing. However, Belikov puts off the moment of proposal indefinitely. He receives a caricature of himself and Varenka (by) from an anonymous person, which pains him; then he sees her riding on a bicycle, which is embarrassing to him. She is therefore a living being, noncompliant to the museumification which he imposes on all who are around him. He cannot marry Varenka, because all that is human in him is confined in a case.
He goes out to announce his change of mind to Varenka and her brother.The woman is not home, and her brother, fed-up by his perpetual reproaches, kicks him out and makes him fall in a staircase. Varenka who appears at the foot of the staircase, laughs out loud without knowing how Belikov fell. Considering Varenka’s attitude diabolic and imagining that he is going to be the laughing stock of the whole town after his humiliating expulsion, Belikov goes to bed and dies one month later. But for “the man in a case” made of flesh and blood, is not the coffin the best “case”?
At the end of the story, Belikov’s victims are relieved. Burkin says, “One must confess that to bury people like Belikov is a great pleasure. (…). Ah, freedom, freedom! The merest hint, the faintest hope of its possibility gives wings to the soul, does it not?” However, he quickly adds, “…not more than a week had passed before life went on as in the past, as gloomy, oppressive, and senseless — a life not forbidden by government prohibition, but not fully permitted, either: it was no better. And, indeed, though we had buried Belikov, how many such men in cases were left, how many more of them there will be!”
Also, in the ending of the story, which comes immediately after Burkin’s above statement, his friend Ivanovitch says, “…isn’t our living in town, airless and crowded, our writing useless papers, our playing vint (*) — isn’t that all a sort of case for us? And our spending our whole lives among trivial, fussy men and silly, idle women, our talking and our listening to all sorts of nonsense — isn’t that a case for us, too? “ He later adds, “You see and hear that they lie, and they call you a fool for putting up with their lying. You endure insult and humiliation, and dare not openly say that you are on the side of the honest and the free, and you lie and smile; and all that for the sake of a crust of bread, for the sake of a warm corner, for the sake of a wretched little worthless rank in the service. No, one can’t go on living like this.”
Thus, the storyteller notices that the system which Belikov was only personifying is always in place. And Ivanovitch reminds us of the need to reconsider our own smallness, our own mediocrities, and to shake off the yoke of our self-imposed oppression.
These statements make us realize that our impression of Belikov as a little oppressor and the townspeople as his victims, as told by Burkin, are wrong. In fact, upon a second and a more attentive reading of the story, we will discern the townspeople whom we didn’t pay much attention in our first reading, as the thematic subtext of the story. It is true that the main character is desperate to find as tight a prison as possible, but he lives in the society of people who ultimately desire the same thing. Although, death is both a biological fact and the limit of one’s freedom, as a consequence of Belikov’s death, Burkin and his friend realize that it is not only death that limits our freedom, but also our day-to-day banality, mediocrity, fear and conformism.
Contrary to the appearances, the aim of the story is to make the townspeople including the storyteller and the listener, not Belikov, the central theme. Throughout the story, Burkin repeatedly mentions that Belikov is not the only “man in a case.” In the beginning frame, the two friends meet Marva, “a “woman in a case” who inspires Burkin to tell the tale of Balikov. He even opens his story by declaring that “There are plenty of people in the world, solitary by temperament, who try to retreat into their shell like a hermit crab or a snail.”
There is a reason for the confusion about the intentions of the author in this work, and others, for believing that Chekhov’s works are full of contradictory ideas and philosophies. The reason lies in the fact that many readers, and even critics, do not recognize that there are distinct and independent voices in Chekhov’s frame stories: his own and that of his characters. Burkin’s views are independent from the omniscient narrator of the story frames, Chekhov himself.
Chekhov says with great confidence that the business of fiction is “to tell the truth” or “Artistic literature is called so because it depicts life as it really is; its aim is truth—unconditional and honest.” He defines his dispassionate and non-judgemental style in a letter to his brother Aleksandr: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality; flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.” In opposition to Chekhov’s honest style, Burkin distorts the truth of Belikov’s life. In fact, while telling Belikov’s story, Burkin is constantly and severely judgmental towards him and, on many occasions, his opinions of him are not justifiable. Therefore, on the one hand, the reader should not assume that Burkin is Chekhov’s direct or indirect voice, and on the other hand, she should closely look at Burkin as one of the short story’s characters, as Chekhov the author and narrator does.
Burkin pretends to know all about Belikov’s thoughts and feelings while the hermit teacher has hardly ever shared them with him or anyone else. Furthermore, when Burkin tells Ivanovitch that Belikov oppressed everyone “with his sighs, his whimpering, the dark glasses on his pale little face, you know, like a polecat’s face,” it is obvious that Burkin has an ulterior motive, a dispute to take up with Belikov. There are also other reasons to suspect the veracity of his story.
To illustrate Belikov’s outing with Varenka, Burkin speaks of him as “a hunched-over little man, who looked as though he had been pulled out of his apartment with pincers”. How could such a man hold a town hostage? Belikov’s bad reputation among the townspeople could not be based on the despotic imposition of his wishes on others, because Belikov was not at all a headstrong man, but actually a terrified hermit who dwelled in his own fragile world.
Even his love relationship with Varenka is not formed by his own initiative, but by the interference of the bored townspeople. As everyone knows about their courtship, his embarrassment at seeing Varenka bicycling in public stems from his fear of having to come out of his shell. His fury at Varenka’s brother is a clumsy attempt at keeping his own privacy and not an effort to dominate others.
The discrepancy between Burkin and the townspeople’s inflated fear of Belikov’s so-called oppressive nature and Veranka’s brother’s easy and spontaneous expulsion of him is striking and significant. Veranka’s brother, a new teacher who is different from the townspeople, is fearless and does not even take Belikov seriously. The townspeople’s unreasonable fear of this little timid hermit has been created because these people themselves are in fact very much like Belikov, projecting their encased lives upon him as an outsider.
Considering that Belikov has very few mean streaks in his personality traits, Burkin’s descriptions of Belikov does not seem logical. It is simply implausible that a group of educated school teachers succumb to the authority of a timid and withdrawn man for fifteen years.
This is not a flaw in the storytelling, but an intentional device by Chekhov. In fact, the author intends to show that the townspeople banish Belikov as an outsider. There are countless details in the story, which enable the reader to construe Burkin and his fellow town meddlers as the actual oppressors. They seek callous pleasure in their little concerted conspiracy to convince Belikov that he is in love with Varenka and to plant the idea of marriage in his head. Thus, they impose this needless and unwanted situation on unsuspecting Belikov. Many characteristics attributed to Belikov belong to the townspeople: fear of people who are, or are perceived as, different and subsequent exercise of petty cruelties and oppression towards them – which signifies nothing but living in a “case”.
Beside this projection of evil that exists within each of the townspeople upon a single individual, there is also the theme of dishonesty in the art of storytelling. It is possible that Belikov is actually fearful, inhibited or slightly mean, but his viciousness is Burkin’s exaggeration and dramatization of his character. I believe that in this story, Chekhov is offerings his reader a socially and ethically enlightening story by displaying prejudices among characters and by depicting Burkin mainly as a dishonest storyteller. For Chekhov, what matters in storytelling is not the story’s “what and how”, but its truthfulness. He values art and honesty in art, but considers any attempt to persuade others by falsehood to be tantamount to narrow-mindedness.
All in all, The Man in a Case provides a sobering view of pettiness, cruelty and paranoia in a provincial Russian milieu of the end of the 19th century. However, at a deeper level, it is a merciless attack against the conformist layers of the society huddled within themselves, people who live standing aside, in mediocrity, maliciously and dishonestly, dominated by fear, terrified by the world which they consider to be opaque and dangerous, a world where it is necessary to join the side of the powerful, to be cruel to those who are real, and to fabricate stories in order to keep the social order as is. By being conformist to the social order, banal and stupidly cruel, the townspeople are “unfree” people who live a “case”. Chekhov expresses, in this story, the feeling that the absence of freedom is one of the worst evils of the social organization, and that it has been created by the very individuals who are often active helpers and associates, volunteers and vigilante for the social order in power.
(*) A Russian card-game.
Allen, David. 2001. Performing Chekhov. Routledge , UK.
Bartlet, Rosamund & Anthony Phillips (Traslators). 2004. A Life in Letters. Penguin Books, UK.