We treat you humanely, repay us in the same coin.
What comes to mind when you read this? Who do you think would have said this in a conversation between a rich and a poor man?
Enter Anton Chekhov’s The New Villa.
This is a short story Chekhov wrote way back in 1899. It is split into five parts and centered around the shaken moral grounds from which the peasants operate.
The New Villa: Summary and Plot Analysis
Kutcherov is an engineer in charge of building a bridge across the river two miles away from the village of Obrutchanovo. He is an honest and diligent man and treats the workers humanely.
His wife comes to visit him from Moscow and finds the village air comforting. They decide to purchase a parcel of land and build a home there.
Being the engineer he is, he builds a beautiful house adorned with stones and a fountain to greet visitors. This house soon begins to be called the New Villa.
The engineer and his wife are kind-hearted people and do their best to be good neighbors to the villagers. They attempt to befriend the local people, but the villagers continually complain about their poverty and misuse the newcomers’ goodwill.
Some villagers, influenced and led by the village blacksmith’s son Volodka, even let animals loose to graze around in the villa. Some village girls went and picked mushrooms from the engineer’s gardens, a few others disassembled the engineer’s cart and replaced the new wheels with the old ones, and some mistreat the engineer’s wife.
In their mind, building a bridge that they did not want was equivalent to the government meddling in their affairs. After all, they had lived without a bridge all their lives; why did things need to change now? What was the need?
Not all the villagers were thankless. Some villagers, represented by Rodion, advise the Kutcherovs to be patient. In time, the villagers will accept them and their idea of building the bridge and the school for them.
“You must work and work until you overcome them.”
Kutcherov’s patience wears out after repeated acts of vandalism, and the family moves to Moscow shortly after. The new villa, now inhabited by an important-looking but indifferent government clerk, isn’t the focal point of villagers’ wrath anymore.
The New Villa: Review and My Thoughts
This story brings strong memories of a movie I had seen recently called ‘The Parasite’. For the longest time, growing up, I would always assume that the rich treat the poor horribly and that poor people neither have a choice nor the voice to oppose their mistreatment.
I don’t know why that was. Maybe it was the kind of movies I saw, or the books and newspaper articles that I read. In short, poor people were virtuous and pure. They could do no wrong.
Along comes Chekhov and starts casting doubt on that long-held notion. You would think that born into a family of serfs, he would probably glorify that notion even more. But No! He was not the one to be swayed by the oft-quoted ‘nobility in poverty’ idea widely held in his time. Poor people can be as harsh to the rich as rich are to them.
See what the engineer’s kind family gets back from the villagers they treat so nicely? – Vandalised property, incessant bickering and whining over bridge being built, mistreatment of the family members.
The villagers’ high morals seem to apply only to their group; the ones outside them, the engineer’s family, for example, were fair game.
The peasants are typically scared of landowners because they know that they have the power to hurt them. Learning from the outset that the engineer and his family are nice and kind people who would never do such a thing, the villagers wield all the power, harassing the family for no specific reason.
You would expect a God-fearing folk to be kind to their neighbor but only to be mistaken. Their politeness is interpreted to be a weakness, and it seems like the so-called ‘weak’ poor would not waste a moment to be brutes to a well-meaning fellow human a few notches above them in financial standing.
Consider Volodka’s constant rant, for example.
“We got on all right without a bridge, we did not ask for it. What do we want a bridge for ? We don’t want it!”
The bridge is making the villagers’ life easy, the engineer has even promised to build a school that would make their children’s lives easier, but the villagers simply won’t have it. The fact that the villagers follow his mindless rant, in general, speaks to a broader societal issue.
Now, these poor villagers are the same ones that don’t shy away from accepting money from the engineer’s wife, citing their misfortunes – not only in their current state but also in their afterlife.
Speaking about their troubles brings them a weird joy – playing the victim is comforting to these folk –
“Dear lady”, the rich men will be alright in the next world, too. The rich put up candles, pay for the services; give to the beggars, but what can the poor man do? He has no time to make the sign of the cross. He is the beggar of beggars himself; how can he think of his soul? And many sins come from poverty; from trouble we snarl at each other like dogs… We have no luck in this world nor the next. All the luck has fallen to the rich.
She spoked gaily; she was evidently used to talking of her hard life. And Rodion smiled too; he was pleased that his old woman was so clever, so ready of speech.
The list doesn’t just end there, unfortunately.
The same people who were horrible to the kind engineer family were completely docile in front of the new owner, who never responded to their greetings and had an air of indifference about him. Since the new owner did nothing to help the villagers, why would they direct their wrath towards him? Care about them and they bite you in response, don’t give a damn about them and they leave you alone. Sounds insane, doesn’t it?
Chekhov’s story is unsettling and haunting.
But nothing you haven’t seen Chekhov do with his stories before.