Technically, the title of this story by Anton Chekhov usually carries the indefinite article rather than the definite, thus making it a story about “A Malefactor” rather than “The Malefactor.” Since there are only two major characters at play, what seems of little significance may actually be everything needed for a proper interpretation. The first appearance of the story was in the summer of 1885 in the Peterburgskaya Gazeta and it carried the seemingly superfluous subtitle “A Little Scene.”
Indeed, whether titled “A Malefactor” or “The Malefactor” and whether carrying the subtitle or not, the result at first seems surprisingly light and sketchy compared to the usually precise construction of Chekhovian short fiction. Consisting almost entirely of dialogue, the story essentially is the record of a court transcript in which a Russian peasant stands before a magistrate to answer charges against him of committing an injurious act to the railroad. The injury in question is nothing greater than the removal of a nut unscrewed from its position within the track. The Chekhovian magic that transforms what seems to be very little raw material from which to fashion anything worth reading is in characterization and it is worth remembering that in addition to being a short story writer, Chekhov is considered by many to be Russia’s greatest playwright.
The peasant seems pleasant enough as he starts to explain that he unscrewed the nut in order to use it as a weight for fishing, but the magistrate seems almost on the verge of mania from the beginning as he insults the peasant’s intelligence and makes clear that he doesn’t believe the man’s story about the fishing weight as his real motivation.
By the end, that initial reservation about perhaps not being as full-bodied as the typical Chekhov short story has disappeared. Taking what seems like some sort of Russian vaudeville comedy routine as his foundation, Chekhov examines themes related to social inequity, suspicion on the part of the authoritarian class to the motives of the peasantry and the ever-present danger of how a simple clash of cultures can lead to misunderstanding that threaten the very livelihood of the underprivileged. That the story speaks straightforwardly on these universal themes is made manifest by it being widely reprinted in other countries in translations of almost every Eastern European language as well as Germany and English.
A year after its initial publication, “A Malefactor” was included in the author’s first collection of short fiction, Motley Stories. Later, Leo Tolstoy would single out the story as the finest example of the essence of the art of Chekhov.