"Dear Grandad Konstantin Makarich," he wrote. "I am writing a letter to you. I send you Christmas greetings and hope God will send you his blessings. I have no Father and no Mummie and you are all I have left"
In a quick yet effective manner, this early quotation from "Vanka" provides several of the essentials of the action that follows: the recipient of Vanka's letter, the fact of Vanka's orphanhood, and the hoped-for sympathy and connection between Vanka and Konstantin Makarich. Yet even though some of the central themes and facts of "Vanka" are evident here, Chekhov still leaves a considerable amount about Vanka himself unsaid and thus open to anticipation. How Vanka sees his grandfather is progressively explored in later paragraphs, as is the extent of Vanka's suffering. His status as an orphan is only one negative aspect of a situation that involves a hard life and daily acts of cruelty in Alyakhin's household.
He was a small, lean old man about sixty-five, but remarkably lively and agile, with a smiling face and eyes bleary with drink. In the daytime he either slept in the back kitchen, or sat joking with the cook and the kitchen-maids, and in the night, wrapped in a great sheepskin coat, he walked round and round the estate, sounding his rattle.
As "Vanka" proceeds, Vanka attaches strong positive sentiments to his grandfather, and strong negative sentiments to his master Alyakhin. However, this initial view of Konstantin Makarich does not in any way elevate the old man or exaggerate his traits for the better. If anything, Chekhov has simply provided a record of Konstantin's appearance, responsibilities, and habits of drinking and joking, at least for now leaving it up to the reader whether the old watchman is meant to be seen positively or negatively—or with a balance of positives and negatives.
He was an adept at stealing up, to snap at a foot, creeping into the ice-house, or snatching a peasant's chicken. His hind-legs had been slashed again and again, twice he had been strung up, he was beaten within an inch of life life every week, but he survived it all.
Here, after introducing Eel, Chekhov briefly describes a few of the dog's escapades. Although Eel is certainly not central to the conflict of "Vanka" in the manner of Vanka, Konstantin Makarich, or Alyakhin the shoemaker, this brief and memorable description is important for a few reasons. As a memory, it helps the reader enter into Vanka's perspective, since a young boy would naturally pay attention to a dog's personality and mischief in a manner that busier adults might not. And as prose, it demonstrates Chekhov's skill in elevating a mere peasant dog to the status of an amusing, multi-faceted side character even within a very short story.
"And yesterday I had such a hiding. The master took me by the hair and dragged me out into the yard and be a me with the stirrup-strap because by mistake I went to sleep rocking their baby. And one day last week the mistress told me to gut a herring and I began from the tail and she picked up the herring and rubbed my face with the head."
In this excerpt from Vanka's letter, Vanka lists a few of the instances of the rough treatment that he has received at Alyakhin's. His life is unpleasant, but he is not always punished with the same severity or in the same way; after all, his poor life comprises everything from beatings to scoldings to simple neglect. What is just as striking as Vanka's negativity, though, is the temperament that can be traced to Alyakhin and his wife in this account. The two of them react with undue and almost grotesque harshness to the minor and understandable errors of a nine-year-old boy, so that these two adults, ironically, come off as supremely childish characters.
"Moscow is such a big town there are so many gentlemens houses and such a lot of horses and no sheep and the dogs are not a bit fierce."
This quotation calls attention to one of the important exceptions to the often pleading and melancholy nature of Vanka's letter: the excitement that enters into the descriptions when Vanka considers the dynamism of Moscow. It is clear that, whatever his other faults, Alyakin has not restricted Vanka from taking in and appreciating these urban surroundings. And Vanka's engagement with the city is conveyed by the free-flowing style of the letter. While the lack of proper punctuation and conventional sentence structure often registers Vanka's youthful lack of refinement, the same qualities here give the description of Moscow a sense of exhilaration.
Vanka gave a sharp sigh and once more gazed at the windowpane. He remembered his grandfather going to get a Christmas tree for the gentry, and taking his grandson with him. Oh, what happy times those had been!
Much of what gives "Vanka" its sense of movement and variety is Chekhov's shifting among the different registers of the narrative: Vanka's actions, Vanka's memories, and quotations from Vanka's letter. This quotation is one example of how deftly such a shift can be handled, and of how much even a seeming transition can reveal. From present sadness and loneliness (the "sigh"), Chekhov quickly leads into Vanka's memory of "happy times," emphasizing the story's ever-important contrast between Vanka's fondly-remembered past and his bleak present.
Olga Ignatyevna used to give Vanka sweets, and amuse herself by teaching him to read, write, and count to a hundred, and even to dance the quadrille. But when Pelageya died, the orphaned Vanka was sent down to the back kitchen to his grandfather, and from there to Moscow, to Alyakhin the shoemaker...
With this quotation, Chekhov moves quickly through the chain of events that led Vanka to the apprenticeship with Alyakhin the shoemaker. This description is significant because it explains how exactly Vanka learned to read: by taking instruction from a member of a social class that is significantly higher than his own. Perhaps, however, this relentlessly forward-moving description is equally important for what it suggests about Vanka's present: his misery at Alyakin's is so all-consuming that the past is not worth dwelling on. The events that got Vanka to Moscow may be of little interest, since the plans that could free him from the city are what carry real importance in his mind.
"I have such a miserable life worse than a dogs. And I send my love to Alyona one-eyed Yegor and the coachman and don't give my concertina to anyone. I remain your grandson Ivan Zhukov dear Grandad do come."
In these few sentences from Vanka's letter, Chekhov covers a remarkable range of emotions and impulses: misery, consideration, courtesy, and urgency. Each of these aspects of the quotation fits what the story has already established about Vanka, particularly his sensitivity and his desperation to escape. Yet Chekhov does more than underscore key themes here: he indicates a world beyond the narrative. The people and objects that Vanka here mentions are never explained in any detail to the reader, but they constitute the sort of "inside information" that two family members might understand and that outsiders might not. Though insignificant in the structure of the narrative, Alyona, Yegor, and the concertina are significant in giving Vanka's letter an air of verisimilitude.
Vanka folded the sheet of paper in four and put it into an envelope which he had bought the day before for a kopek... Then he paused to think, dipped his pen into the ink-pot, wrote "To Grandfather in the village," scratched his head, thought again, then added:
"TO KONSTANTIN MAKARICH"
Here, Chekhov records the finishing touches that Vanka, with some deliberation, puts on the letter. A reader can immediately see that nine-year-old Vanka does not really understand how the postal system works, but Chekhov does not apply a mocking tone to Vanka. Instead, the prose stays very close to Vanka's actions and perspective, providing descriptions of his physical movements and passing ideas but not (as is characteristic of "Vanka") explicitly judging the protagonist as naive or misguided.
An hour later, lulled by rosy hopes, he was fast asleep... He dreamed of a stove. On the stove-ledge sat his grandfather, his bare feet dangling, reading the letter to the cooks... Eel was walking backwards and forwards in front of the stove, wagging his tail...
In this passage, which brings "Vanka" to a conclusion, Chekhov records the hoped-for outcome of Vanka's letter. Vanka's dream is not one of deliverance, however. Instead, Konstantin Makarich simply reads the letter, while other familiar figures pass through Vanka's mind. Although this dream does not accurately foreshadow the fate of Vanka—whose letter is not addressed in such a manner that it could easily reach its destination—it does reveal much about what Vanka desires. His vision is not one of exceptional joy or jubilation, but of stability and repose—qualities that he has had little of at Alyakhin's but may enjoy once again if he can return to his welcoming village.
Vanka Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Vanka is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Judicial spite means using casuistry reason to cause harm to one side. The comparison between Eel and an actual eel is not the only metaphorical turn that occurs in Chekhov's descriptions of this distinctive canine. Eel is also personified as a...