A Play by Anton Chekhov - Book Review

A Play by Anthony Chekhov

What is critical literacy? What does it mean to read critically?
Search it up and you’ll find lots of definitions on critical literacy. To simplify things for you, this means to look at the texts more closely and from various perspectives. If you read a text, you understand it and you are able to summarize it – that’s reading. However, if you read the text and ask questions to understand or reveal deeper meanings, then you’re reading critically. To read critically means to question. For example: What kind of language is the author using here? Does it reveal something about the character or the plot? Who is the narrator? Although I’m reading a story, I know it’s not just a story. Can I make a text-to-world connection here? Is there a hidden message in this text? What is the author telling us about politics, race, gender issues, etc.? – Questions like these will get you thinking about the broader picture and that is a part of critical literacy

If you’re looking for a summary of this great text, you can find it online. In this brief analysis I’m going to focus more on critical literacy and show you how I engage with texts when I read critically.  Let’s say you’re writing an essay and you wish to write about the use of irony in the text, or about a theme discussed in the novel. Whatever you decide to write about, you’ll have to ask questions.  How do you start? Let’s see!  

*Text-to-text connections (Think intertextuality – the interrelationship between texts, especially works of literature; the way that similar or related texts influence, reflect, or differ from each other: (dictionary.com definition source)

– In other words: Does this story remind you of other stories that you’ve read?

– You may also ask yourself: How is this story similar to/different from other stories Chekhov wrote?

*text-to-self connection (Can you make any connections between yourself and the characters in the story? )

*text-to-world (This is an interesting one. Think about making a connection/link between the plot and what happens in the world today)

Those are only some, but important, questions for you to consider while planning your written response outline. Let’s take a closer look at the story itself.

Characters – brief sketch

Q: What does the opening line of the story suggest? What kind of a character is Mme. Murashkin? Does she change throughout the story? (What do you think of this: she remains unchangeable throughout the story? She is very persistent and determined to have her work reviewed by Mr. Vassilyevitch. Perhaps, she is able to persuade him by appealing to his ego. She compliments him by referring to him as “magnanimous”. At the same time, she uses adjectives like “insolent [and] intrusive” to describe herself.)

Q. How does Chekhov use dialogue to reveal information about the characters in the story?

Q: Can you do a character sketch based on the dialogue in the story and description of Pavel Vassilyevitch?

Think about this: “Pavel Vassilyevitch liked no articles but his own. When threatened with the necessity of reading other people’s, or listening to them, he felt as though he were facing the cannon’s mouth.” Does this passage reveal much about Vassilyevitch? What kind of a person is he? How would you describe him, using your own words?

Q: What do you think about the character of Mme. Murashkin? What are some interesting things she says about herself when she introduces herself to Vassilyevitch?

Q: Why do you think Chekhov compares Mme. Murashkin with a “captured bird” earlier in the story? Is there a suggestion that she is already captured and has no way of escaping Vassilyevitch? (I like how this information is hinted earlier in the story. We know how the story ends: Vassilyevitch kills her. We don’t know if he literally or figuratively kills her, but we can assume that he completely destroys her. We could argue here that he possibly dismisses her work, calling it rubbish and worthless – which consequently destroys/kills her as the author. Chekhov writes that “the jury acquitted him”, but we’re still unsure if this should be taken literally. Who makes the jury? Is that the audience, fellow writers, who would also possibly agree that Mme. Murashkin’s work is worthless and deserves no attention? The story ends with an unexpected turn of events, caused by Vassilyevitch – who was earlier described as someone who “was cotton-wool at core”. That’s sarcastic, don’t you think? (language – sarcasm ). We could also argue here that the ending is simply imagined and exaggerated by Vassilyevitch –

because we know that he is used to imagining things. There are lots of different ways to look at the ending as well as the relationship between these two characters.

Humour and Plot – brief analysis

There is a (great) sense of humour in the story, wouldn’t you agree? If we forget about the ending for a moment, the story is hilarious. Think about poor Vassilyevitch described as a victim of Mme. Murashkin’s torturous reading. He’s suffering in agony. Her reading is torturing him mentally. Even his thoughts reveal it: “If this torture is prolonged another ten minutes I shall shout for the police. It’s insufferable.”

His focus is not on the speaker or the reader in this case. It’s on everything else but the speaker. Vassilyevitch is completely disinterested in that which he promised to hear and commit himself to.

Another comparison: Why does Chekhov compare Vassilyevitch to a dog? “During the sixteenth scene Pavel Vassilyevitch yawned, and accidently made with his teeth the sound dogs make when they catch a fly.”

You may argue that there are actually two comparisons being made here:

Vassilyevitch = a dog (obedient, but sometimes unpredictable)

Mme. Murashkin = a fly (very annoying)

Is there a hint that Vassilyevitch will have some kind of a breakdown/meltdown when he reveals: “Most likely I shall have a bilious attack”?

Why do you think Vassilyevitch compares himself to “a man condemned to be executed and convinced of the impossibility of a reprieve”? Do we get a sense here that he faces an inescapable death? What do you think about the twist of events at the end of the story?

Who is the victim here? Are you really surprised by the way the story ends?

**This story also reminds me of Branislav Nusic’s ridiculously funny short story Playwright (Dramski Pisac ) which is also about a character who stalks friends and colleagues in order to have them hear his latest play. I’m not sure if this story was translated in English, but if you can read Serbian, and you appreciate some good humour, you must read this one. It’s as funny as other Nusic’s stories and plays.

**As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways of looking at a text. You can take a closer look at the story within the story (Mme. Murashkin’s play) or the language (humour, sarcasm, choice of words, etc.) and write extensively about that as well. What are some ways Mme. Murashkin’s play mimics what happens in the story?

In this short analysis we only looked briefly at the plot, language, and the characters. You can read the play here: https://www.shortstoryproject.com/story/a-play/