The Cook’s Wedding by Anton Chekhov - Book Review
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? Have you ever been in a situation when you were treated like Pelageya or Grisha?)
*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.
Plot – brief analysis
Even if we haven’t read other works by Chekhov, we can see how his description of Pelageya, the servant/cook in The Cook’s Wedding, serves as a critique of the Russian social system of the time. Pelageya is patronized and mistreated by the family she works for. She is, later, treated similarly by the man she marries under pressure. The problem Pelageya faces in this story is the
one many women face, even nowadays. (Try to make a text-to-world connection here) Chekhov’s portrayal of this social system is both ironic and humorous. Let’s take a closer look at the characters and see what we discover.
Questions to consider:
Who is Pelageya? How is she described at the beginning of the story? Does she change throughout the story? If yes, how? What’s her relationship to the other characters in the story? How is she similar to Grisha?
If you read the story carefully, you’ll see some “warning signs” that appear earlier in the story that play a role in the turn of events later. Chekhov often gives us a surprise ending, something we weren’t prepared to see. How does Chekhov use dialogue and character description in the beginning of the story that help us better understand the characters or the plot?
Example: One could argue that the trap for Pelageya is set up at the beginning of the story. How is this? Take a look at the dialogue between the nurse and Danilo Semyonitch – the cabman. “A nurse put before the visitor a bottle of vodka and a wine-glass, while her face wore a very wily expression. ‘I never touch it…No…’ said the cabman’” ‘What a man! A cabman and not drink! … A bachelor can’t get on without drinking. Help yourself!”
Q: What do you conclude from the above dialogue? We can argue that we are introduced to the cunning nurse, who plays an important role, later, in Pelageya’s arranged marriage. Pelageya is also patronized by the family she works for (Grisha’s mother), as well as by the nurse. Take a look at this:
“Don’t be silly, you’re not a child” Grisha’s mom tells her. Later she refers to her as a “creature”.
“You’re talking nonsense. What sort of rascal do you want? Anyone else would have bowed down to his feet, and you declare you won’t marry him” the nurse adds.
It’s possible that the nurse and Grisha’s mother are friends, although they come from different social classes/backgrounds. We don’t have much information on the nurse and her relationship with Grisha’s family, but we can see that Pelageya is treated as a person of lesser value.
She doesn’t have a freedom of choice – cannot choose her partner, although Grisha’s mother tells her: “You can marry [the cabman], of course – that’s you business.” Do you recognize irony here? How is this ironical?
How is Grisha similar to Pelageya? Can we say that only Pelageya, like a seven-year-old Grisha (who is just an observer with a brief interaction with Pelageya at the end of the story) is unable to fully understand the plotting against her. Pelageya is naïve, inexperienced, and probably uneducated – therefore, easy to manipulate with. Grisha comes from a different social class but he’s just a child, and is also gullible and ignorant like Pelageya. They both react instinctively- they don’t like the cabman, although they don’t exactly understand why. Grisha understands that something “extraordinary, and in his opinion never seen before [is] taking place [in the kitchen]” and he is right.
Some questions to think about:
Q: What is Chekhov’s portrayal of children in this story? Can we argue that children are depicted as innocent and honest here? Take a look at Grisha’s thoughts, although he is afraid to share them openly with anyone:
“’She should say she doesn’t like him!’ thought Grisha”
“’It must be shameful to get married,’ thought Grisha.’”
After the marriage takes place, Grisha thinks:
“The poor thing [Pelageya] is crying somewhere in the dark! While the cabman is saying to her ‘shut up’”
Q: What do you think of these observations? How much information do they suggest about:
*Male – female relationships (working class)
*Gender roles at the time
Q: What do you think of Grisha’s father? Take a look at the following quote:
“What do you want to be getting them all married for? What business is it of yours? Let them get married of themselves if they want to.”
Q: What is Grisha’s opinion on marriage ? Review the following: “’The cook’s going to be married,’ [Grisha] thought. Mamma was married to papa, but one might be married to papa after all: [he has] gold watch-chains and nice suits, [his] boots are always polished; but to marry that dreadful cabman with a red nose and felt boots…Fi! And why is it nurse wants poor Pelageya to be married?’”
What do you think Chekhov argues here? How does a social class play an important role in marriage, for example?
Q: How is Grisha’s father different form the nurse and his wife?
Q: How is Grisha treated by his mother? Do you see any similarity between their relationship and the one she has with Pelageya?
Unexpected Turn of Events
As is the case in most other Chekhov’s short stories, this one comes with an unexpected turn of events at the end.
Q: What happens at the end of the story? How does the cabman change? Think about the following statement from the cabman:
“’Will you look after her, madam? Be a father and a mother to her. And also, madam, if you would kindly advance me five roubles of her wages. I have got to buy a new horse-collar.’”
Do you remember, from earlier in the story, how he declares that he makes enough money to support himself and his future wife? How does that information contradict the above quote?
Some popular themes discussed in this story are:
*marriage *gender inequalities *social class differences *childhood *family
You could possibly make an argument that Chekhov’s critique of the social system of the time is most evident in his portrayal of Grisha. Perhaps he argues that some things, like arranged marriages, are wrong. Interesting are observations little Grisha makes at the end of the story:
“Again a problem for Grisha: Pelageya was living in freedom, doing as she liked, and not having to account to anyone for her actions, and all at once, for no sort of reason, a stranger turns up, who has somehow acquired rights over her conduct and her property! Grisha was distressed.” He also calls her a “victim”. You may ask: what kind of a victim is Pelageya? Is she the victim of a social system? What do these closing lines suggest about Chekhov’s interpretation of the social system?
**In this analysis we’ve only looked, very briefly, at the characters, plot, diction and some themes.