Dreams by Anton Chekhov: Summary, Analysis and Review

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“The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived; whether they vaguely recalled the images of stories heard long ago or whether notions of a free life had been handed down to them with their flesh and blood from far-off free ancestors, God knows!

Isn’t it funny that our dreams don’t care for the time of the day to sneak in on us- as though they are just lurking in the shadows nearby? 

Yet they seem so far-fetched as soon as the light – of what we think the reality is – shines upon us? The same dreams that give hope and purpose to life can cruelly take it away, as the dangers of them being quashed are ever so real.

Dreams, a short story by Anton Chekhov written back in 1886, touches the raw dreamy nerve.

Dreams by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens in Eastern Siberia, where two soldiers named Andrey and Nikandr are escorting a male in his early thirties. This unnamed guy doesn’t seem to have any remarkable trait except that he seems to have forgotten his last name. This man is an enigma to both the guards, mainly because he neither fits a peasant nor the nobility’s description. 

One of the guards seems fixated on finding out more about him and strikes a conversation in that attempt.

It turns out that the unnamed man’s mother was of a peasant family but served as a maid in the house of an aristocrat. As a result, He grew up in a comfortable setting, unlike a kid’s upbringing in a peasant family. 

He is well-mannered and can hold a conversation with the gentry. When asked about his father, he confesses to not knowing his identity and suspects that he might have been an illegitimate son of his mother’s – and that he could have had noble blood in him.

It turns out that the tramp was convicted for the murder of his master- that resulted from him handing over a glass of drink to his master. One he thought was soda and acid but was arsenic instead. 

Although he thinks his mother to be a pious lady, he seems to have suspicions with regard to her motivations for doing such a thing. 

Apparently, the master had taken on to another servant in the house, and that didn’t sit well with his mother. He and his mother were both tried – his mother condemned to penal servitude of 20 years, while he was given seven – on account of his youth.

The man ran away with a few other folks and chose not to remember his name, so he doesn’t get recognized and be sent back to penal servitude – a punishment that he deems unfit for a man in delicate health such as his. 

The hardships that he faced do not deter him from dreaming of a spectacular future – one replete with a house, land, living in a bountiful nature where rivers aren’t as bad as the ones in the city and are full of all sorts of fish and fowl. His daydreaming brings to his face a smile that persists. 

Andrey, the more talkative one, fell silent for a while, and so did Nikandr, as they were infected by the tramp’s dreams, thinking of their own. They snap out of it soon enough but not without bringing the tramp down with them. 

After all, he was no more than skin and bones, and he will soon die.

The reader is left with the feeling that the guards are as much prisoners of their circumstances as the tramp. Their freedom is ironic.

Dreams by Anton Chekhov: Review and My Thoughts

Let’s start with Chekhov’s description of the tramp-

His eyebrows were scanty, his expression mild and submissive; he had scarcely a trace of a moustache, though he was over thirty.

This seems like an attempt to establish that this man doesn’t have anything remarkable about him; he could be anybody. Maybe an attempt to say that dreamers are ubiquitous. (It also reminded me of one of my friends struggling with lack of facial hair back in college, the struggle is real, my friends! But I digress..)

When the tramp reminisces of incidents from his past life, there is a certain air of sophistication about his recollections. He does seem to want to stand apart from the peasant class; he doesn’t consider him crass, unrefined as that lot, and wants to be treated that way. 

After all , how many peasant children can eat real food and sleep in a real bed? Even as a grownup, he feels he is better, as he likes reading books and fancies fishing rather than vodka and lewd talk, which is the norm in an adult peasant class. 

She petted and spoiled me, and did her best to take me out of my humble class and make a gentleman of me. I slept in bed, every day I ate a real dinner.

Another man will take no pleasure in anything but vodka and lewd talk, but when I have time I sit in a corner and read a book. I read and I weep and weep.

Maybe I am only a peasant by class, but in nature a noble gentleman.

And I am not fit for penal servitude! I am a refined man in delicate health.

The guards find it unsettling not being able to clearly label the man.

“God knows what to make of you. Peasant you are not, gentleman you are not, but some sort of a thing in between.”

But it is the man’s dreams that got to me. Here is a man, helpless and in a very fragile state who knows not how many days he has got left to live, but comes the opportunity to dream up a world where all of his problems miraculously go away, he forgets all his misery. In the process, he also infects his companions – who seem to be conjuring up their own little heavenly lives, daydreaming.

There is no end of fish; and all sorts of wildfowl. And my greatest pleasure, brothers, is fishing. Give me no bread to eat, but let me sit with a fishhook.

The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived; whether they vaguely recalled the images of stories heard long ago or whether notions of a free life had been handed down to them with their flesh and blood from far-off free ancestors, God knows!

The peasants were racking their brains in an effort to grasp their imagination of what can be grasped by none but God- that is, the vast expanse dividing them from the land of freedom.

Realizing that their dreams are as ridiculous as the tramp’s, who is on the verge of death, they shut their dreams out of their mind and force the tramp to do the same, reminding him cruelly of his impending fate. 

How could you? Before you’d gone two hundred miles, you’d give up your soul to God. Just look at what a weakling you are! Here you’ve hardly gone five miles, and you can’t get your breath.

It’s better and practical to live in reality and keep the dreams at bay, the dreams that give them the feeling of fleeting bliss only to leave them thoroughly dissatisfied for much longer, knowing that they may never be able to realize them.

Although the story was heartbreaking, I seek solace in Chekhov’s words:

“We should show life neither as it is, nor as it should be, but as we see it in our dreams.”

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