Peasant Wives by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Analysis

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“I took him for my soul’s salvation” –  Matvey Savitch tells Drudya, in Chekhov’s Peasant Wives.

You might read such a thing and your first guess would probably be that the character must be a highly conscientious person. 

Aren’t you in for a surprise!

Peasant Wives, is a short story by Anton Chekhov, that was first published way back in 1891, in an issue of Novoye Vremya. It was in Tolstoy’s favorite list and you will soon figure out why.

Peasant Wives: Plot Summary and Analysis

Set in the Russian village of Reybuzh, Peasant Wives is a story that revolves predominantly around the  character of Matsey Savitch, a trader, who comes to board at  the house of a man called Drudya, an elderly tyrant who has two sons, one called Fyodor who works and lives in the city, while his ailing wife Sofya lives with her in laws.

Another son called Alyoshka, a drunkard hunchback, lives with a very young and beautiful wife Varvara.

Travellers lodging at their house usually ask Varvara to serve them, as she is a ‘handsome woman, smart and buxom’.

The women are basically treated as servants at the house. Drudya, who likes hearing stories from his lodgers, strikes a conversation with their guest, Matsey Savitch, enquiring if the little boy accompanying him that day was his son.

He gets to know that the boy, Kuzka, is actually an orphan, which Matvey seems to have taken in for his soul’s salvation. He begins talking at length about his history.

Turns out that, back in the day in his old village, he was infatuated with the neighbor’s wife called Mashenka, whose husband was away on military duty. He seemed to keep finding excuses to be in Mashenka’s company, fixing windows, counting the pigeons and what not.

Not much time passed before he felt completely captivated by her beauty and declared his love for her.

That day on, Matvey and Mashenka started living as man and wife. The infatuation that he felt for her, eventually wore off, as his mother lined up potential matches for him.

Unsure of how to break the news to Mashenka, he kept postponing , until one day, Mashenka’s husband Vasya wrote him a letter that he was being discharged from military duty on account of him being ill.

Mashenka vehemently opposed the idea of living with Vasya, as she was now in love with Matvey and wanted to be with no one else with him. Matvey, tries to instill fear of God in her by quoting scriptures and emphasising the magnanimity of the sins they committed but Mashenka was not the one to hear.

The husband came back soon, visibly happy at being reunited with the family.

The happiness didn’t last long, as Mashenka couldn’t stand the company of her husband. Frequent scenes of Mashenka begging Matvey to take her back finally got to Vasya and he beat her up badly.

Soon after, Vasya died of something like Cholera, but it was later revealed that the guy was poisoned. Mashenka and Kuzka were taken away and imprisoned. Mashenka died soon after and Kuzka was sent home.

Matvey took him in , because ‘although he was a convict’s child, he was still a Christian

Matevy and the old man later retire to bed. 

Later that night, Varvara returns home after laying with the priest’s son and confesses in front of Sofya, without a shred of guilt.

Although considering that a sin, Sofya feels a bit sorry for herself that she didn’t try those adventures herself when she was young. They soon find themselves discussing Matvey’s story and ruminate on their own terrible lives. Varvara even suggests that they poison Drudya and Alyoshka to free themselves.

Although dazed by such a statement because of God’s wrath that it could invoke, Sofya still finds herself wondering about it before drifting off to sleep.

The next morning Matvey Satvitch settles his account and he and the boy leave.

Peasant Wives: Review and My Thoughts

I absolutely loved the story mostly because I hated it too much, I was filled with disgust at Matvey Savitch, pity for Mashenka, hatred for Drudya, hopelessness for Sofya and Kuzka, well, I don’t think I can put in words what I felt for the poor boy.

Not that Chekhov ever disappoints with any of his stories, but this was particularly haunting. Characters, however small their parts were, they all spoke.

Some Notable Quotes from Peasant Wives

As always Chekhov displays his astute writing skills, a good picture of peasant mentality is it not?

His elder son, Fyodor, is head engineer in the factory, and, as the peasants say of him, he has risen so high in the world that he is quite out of reach now.

Look at the variety of takes on role of women in the society

The house was left without a woman to look after it, and that’s for all the world like a man without an eye.

You are a Christian woman and have read the scriptures, What is written there? Once married, with her husband she must live.

From the womankind comes much evil in the world and every kind of abomination, Not we sinners only, saints have been led astray by them.

A year had not passed when the Evil one, the enemy of all mankind, confounded me.

Live like a dog and you must die a dog’s death.

Now with the opening sentence , you might be confused into believing that a woman, being a man’s eye(extremely important), would be afforded respect. 

Prepare to be mistaken! 

Drudya’s wives and daughters in law are no more than servants to him. And Matvey doesn’t seem any different in that regard either, so the emotion ranges far and beyond Drudya’s village.

This is actually a society wide norm. You are a good Christian woman only if you stick with your spouse regardless of how he treats you. You ,of course, can’t have a mind of your own, and God forbid, should you ever speak your mind. Oh how that makes me puke!

But If I actually had to choose someone from this story to reward them with the ‘Absolute hypocrite’ badge of honor, it would be Matvey Satvitch hands down. The guy single handed ruined a family – seducing a woman, and then growing un-enamored with her at the prospect of a match his mother was finding for him – and had the audacity of calling her a sinner.

As if that isn’t enough, he is implying that he was being a good Christian by taking in the son of a convict for his soul’s salvation.

No; adopted. An orphan. I took him for my soul’s salvation.

There is no salvation for you Mister Savitch.

All hope is not lost though, women although treated without any respect still haven’t lost their humanity. Looking at the poor orphan boy, Sofya’s maternal instincts kick in.

“The little orphan is asleep. He is thin and frail, nothing but bones. No mother and noone to care for him properly”

“Doesn’t remember his mother I suppose.. How could he remember.. And big tears began dropping from Sofya’s eyes”

Dreary as this story is, all hope is not lost for humanity.

Peasant Wives is, in many respects, a thematic prototype for many of Chekhov’s later stories which depict the cruel treatment of women among the peasants and the lower middle classes. 

You might be surprised to know that this highly remarkable story was banned from both the school and public libraries. Dmitry Averkiyev, the erstwhile committee member of the Ministry of Education deemed it unfit  for such distribution saying “The story is well written, but its moral foundations are too shaky for it to be considered fit for public libraries.”

Looking into the mirror is painful for our societies.

Thank you Chekhov for reminding us just that.

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