A Sinner from Toledo by Anton Chekhov: Review and Analysis

the words "a sinner from toledo" written next to the portrait of anton chekhov

A Sinner from Toledo, the short story from Anton Chekhov, was first published in late 1881 in an illustrated literary, art and humor magazine called the Spectator. It is now available as part of a short story collection called Prank published by The New York Review books translated by Maria Bloshteyn.

A Sinner from Toledo: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens with a proclamation signed by the Bishop of Barcelona asking for the people to report the whereabouts of a witch called Maria Spalanzo, the reward for which would be absolution for their past sins. All of Barcelona, having read the proclamation, initiated a hunt for Maria, but she was nowhere to be found.

Maria Spalanzo happened to be the daughter of a successful Barcelona merchant of French origins and a Spanish mother. She inherited the best qualities of her father and mother – a cheerful temperament and a perfect figure. 

She married a sailor – handsome and supposedly learned- at the age of twenty. They loved each other and lived happily for about two days before fate struck a blow.

On her way to meet her mother, Maria asked a monk for directions. Her beauty in the moonlight was captivating, and the monk immediately thought her a witch and said so. 

Maria laughed it off and carried on her way before she was accosted by him and three other men all the way home. Archbishop Augustine was convinced that the woman was a witch. 

A few days later, Maria’s husband Spalanzo was summoned for an audience with the archbishop. The archbishop declared his wife to be a witch and ordered Spalanzo to turn his wife over. 

Convinced that she was not a witch but not happy about the chances of his argument given any weight vs Archbishop’s, he asked Maria to flee. 

Maria, who had never shed a tear before in her life, cried. 

Spalanzo devised a plan to hide his wife in his brother’s ship until the world moved past their superstition about witches.

Maria, heartbroken about her new fate, soon got used to her life hiding in the ship. Spalanzo came to meet her daily and brought her things that she needed. Everything seemed to be fine until one day, the poster landed in his hands, the poster offering absolution from all sins upon turning in the witch. His resolve to not turn in his wife shook.

He loved his wife – he loved her very much. If not for that love, a weakness despised by monks and Toledan doctors too, he would probably have spoken.

He showed his brother the proclamation and expressed his reservations about giving up all chances of absolution not turning in his witch wife. His brother liked the prospect of absolution very much but didn’t quite want to turn in such a beautiful woman. 

Spalanzo couldn’t turn her in alive, being her husband. So he decided to do what he thought was the next best thing – poisoning his wife to trick those fools into absolving him of all his sins. 

He was forgiven for healing people and studying chemistry and was even given a copy of a book that the archbishop had authored.

In it, the learned bishop explained that it’s because demons are black that demons so often possess black-haired women.

The Archbishop was a very learned man, and he derived the word femina from two words: fe and minus, because incontestably, a woman had less faith than a man.

All Barcelona would be convinced. Every last person! Fools will fall for a falsehood, and the people of Barcelona were fools to a man.

A Sinner from Toledo: Review and My Thoughts

I found the story more disturbing than funny. But then when is the herd mentality not scary? The archbishop concluded that the beautiful and festive Maria was a witch simply looking at her hair colour. 

Maria’s husband knew that she was not a witch and, although he was protective of her and cared for her initially, he couldn’t turn away from the temptation of absolution. 

What was funny and heartbreaking – was the sins he was seeking absolution for – healing and chemistry. And how does he go about getting absolved? By murdering his wife and tricking the archbishop into doing that!

Morality and logic both seem to be missing here.

Superstitions take centuries to fade away. Given how much of it we still have left in our societies across the world- I would say there are plenty of centuries more to go before we are absolved from our superstitions.

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