Vanka Irony

Misery at Christmas

Chekhov begins "Vanka" by explaining that his title character, a young boy, "did not go to bed on Christmas Eve" (49). From the time of year and the action described, a reader may be led to expect a pleasant, cheering story about a nine-year-old boy who eagerly awaits the coming of Christmas day. Yet "Vanka" is anything but festive, ironically defeating the (extremely reasonable) expectation that Chekhov's short narrative will treat signature Christmas themes such as community and compassion. In fact, Chekhov does exactly the opposite, portraying a boy defined by his estrangement from his home and focusing repeatedly on moments of cruelty, suffering, labor, and hunger.

Konstantin's Literacy, or Likely Illiteracy

Vanka himself is confident that Konstantin Makarich stands a reasonable chance of reading and receiving the letter, as some of the letter's opening lines indicate: "I am writing a letter to you. I send you Christmas greetings and hope God will send you his blessing" (49). As indicated by this excerpt and later by Vanka's vision of his grandfather reading the letter to the cooks (52), Vanka is confident that his grandfather is literate. Ironically, in light of the structure of 19th-century Russian society, the exact opposite is more likely. There is a very good chance that Konstantin Makarich cannot read: his job as a night watchman does not demand literacy, and he apparently comes from a peasant family in a country that had a literacy rate well below 50% before 1900. Vanka's youthful belief that his grandfather, as an authority figure, can read is ironically undermined by historical probabilities.

Vanka's Desire to Escape Moscow

Vanka is desperate to leave Moscow behind. As he at one point writes to Konstantin Makarich, "Dear Grandad for the dear Lords sake take me away from here take me home to the village I cant bear it any longer" (50, errors intentional). Although Vanka's distaste for his lifestyle in Moscow is understandable, it is also an ironic reversal of the associations sites such as tiny Russian villages and big cities normally carry. While a big city is often the site of opportunity and excitement, a 19th-century Russian village would be the site of poverty and stagnation; Vanka radically overturns these positive and negative connotations, casting a city as a place of confinement and ignorance, and a village as a place of beauty and fulfillment.

Sending the Letter Itself

In terms of postal address, Vanka's letter only carries two pieces of information: the phrases "To Grandfather in the village" and "To Konstantin Makarich" (52). Neither phrase would be enough for even the shrewdest postal service to direct the letter to its intended recipient; after all, neither the grandfather's last name nor the village's name is provided. Thus, the reader has spent the entire story watching Vanka compose an important, urgent letter that, ironically, stands almost no chance of reaching its destination.