Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Lottery Ticket and A Nincompoop by Anton Chekhov

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of short stories, was very popular during my school days, popping out of our English text books and regaling us with stories of despair and hope. The Russian physician and author often shared the 35-minute English period with other acclaimed writers and poets like Dickens, Shaw, Milton and Byron. He was the odd-man out but he didn’t seem to mind because he had the attention of the class.

Chekhov wrote about ordinary people who lived even less ordinary lives. The human life was central to his stories which revolved around the working class, the wage-earning proletariat, and their seemingly insurmountable problems and their unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Through his writings, he advocated just and equitable treatment of the less fortunate and strived to raise their lot. He captured the pathos of their situation like few did.

To give you a feel of Chekhov’s humane writing, in A Nincompoop, the master of the house says to himself in the end, “How easy it is to crush the weak in this world!” The “weak” in the story is Julia Vassilyevna, his children’s governess, who quietly walks out of the room with her monthly wage of eighty rubles—shortly after her master has played a cruel joke on her.

A few moments before, the man had summoned the governess to his room in order to settle her account and had proceeded to deduct a considerable amount from her wages on account of various reasons. A teary-eyed Vassilyevna accepts the final sum of eleven rubles with trembling fingers and whispers “Merci” to the visible anger of her master.

“For what, this ‘merci’?” he asks.

“For the money.”

“But you know I have cheated you, for God’s sake, robbed you! I have actually stolen from you! Why this ‘merci’?”

“In my other places, they did not give me anything at all.”

“They did not give you anything? No wonder! I played a little joke on you, a cruel lesson, just to teach you... I am going to give you the entire eighty rubles! Here they are in an envelope all ready for you... Is it really possible to be so spineless? Why don't you protest? Why be silent? Is it possible in this world to be without teeth and claws, to be such a nincompoop?”

A Nincompoop stands on its own and requires no further explanation, as does Chekhov’s other popular story The Lottery Ticket. If you’ve read Chekhov before then you might guess what this one is all about. I’ll tell you a bit about it.

This story is about a middle-class family, Ivan Dmitritch and his wife Masha, who are quite happy with their lot which includes a tidy income of 1,200 rubles a year. Then one day, after supper, Masha asks her husband to check her lottery ticket in the day’s newspaper. He does so and finds that the series number tallies. But does the ticket number tally too? If it does, then Masha stands to win the prize of 75,000 rubles!

The harsh reality of the story lies somewhere between the two numbers, as Ivan and Masha, married for several years and suffering one another, visibly so, dream about what each would do if they win it. I won’t spoil it for you any more. You have to read the story.


  1. I remember reading the Lottery ticket in school, but couldn't tell you much about it now. Definitely one of the more approachable Russian literary giants.

  2. Chekhov certainly was, Charles. I recall liking his stories in my school days. He has written a lot of short stories and I'm looking forward to reading them.

  3. Try "The Bet"'. It is my favorite Chekhov and one of my favorite of all short stories. His "Eard Six"' set in a czarist era mental hospital is also amazing

  4. Mel: I've heard a lot about "The Bet" which appears to be quite popular on the internet. It's already on my TBR list of short stories.