For if man, the ruler of the world, the smartest of all breathing creatures, descended from the stupid and ignorant ape, then we would have a tail and a beastly voice.
It sounds like something an innocent kid might ask before having been introduced to evolution. Or probably a very, very older person, whom you may have had the pleasure of talking to.
Well, in this specific case, this is an old and conceited landowner from Chekhov’s short story called A Letter to a Learned Neighbour.
The story, published in March 1880 in The Dragonfly, was considered by his family to have been the first one. 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 Letter to a Learned Neighbor: Plot Analysis and Review
The story opens with a certain landowner, Vasily Semi-Bulatov, writing a letter to his neighbor, who seems to have earned a name for himself in the field of science. He begins with introducing himself to his neighbor, and the very outset belittles himself.
A whole year has passed by since you settled here neighboring me, and insignificant nobody, and you are still not acquainted with me, pathetic flittering insect that I am.
After offering all sorts of praise to his neighbor in his letter, he begins to express his reservations on the Scientific findings and goes on to say how distressing they are to him outright.
Every (scientific) discovery torments me like a sharp nail hammered into my back.
His letter is laden with spelling mistakes, exposing his boorish manner. He goes on, at length, at the so-called scientific findings that don’t make any sense to him. His reasoning for attacking such scientific findings is infantile.
Definitely chuckle-worthy. Consider, for example, these gems of wisdom from the old man.
I can not stomach it in silence when scientists reason incorrectly about the night’s loominary, that is, the moon, which replaces the sun for us during the hours of darkness, when people sleep, while you are conducting electricity from place to place and fantasizing.
(How) Could people live on the moon if it exists only during the night and disappears during the day?
How could you see spots on the sun when you can’t even look at it with plain eyes?
In the winter , day is short because , akin to other objects, visible and invisible, it shrinks from the cold, as the sun sets early, while the night expands from the illumination of fixtures and streetlamps because it warms up thereby. I have made many discoveries like this but have neither any award or certificates to show for it.
Now, you might brush his ignorance aside; it seems pretty harmless, but wait till you find out that his old man considers himself a man of science when making such scientific observations that he does not have certificates and diplomas to show for.
The letter ends with an invitation to his neighbor to come to visit their family and to bring along some clever books for her emaniseepated daughter to enjoy.
He also has specific instructions for the neighbor around the timing of the delivery of the letter. The learned neighbor had to make sure to slap the steward across the face if the letter was delayed beyond the specified time.
The old landowner doesn’t sound like an easy master, definitely quick to exercise his authority over those in a lower rung of society than him.
This letter should be delivered to you by my steward Trofim exactly at eight in the evening. If he brings it later than that, give him a couple of good slaps across his face, professional style.
And as if hell-bent on exposing his true nature, and his characteristic boorish stupidity, he signs the letter with:
I remain respectfully yours, the retired non commissioned officer of the Don Cossack Host, member of nobility, your neighbor – Vasily Semi-Bulatov
The element of irony that Chekhov loves so much is readily apparent in the story.
Vasily is a pompous buffoon, making scientific observations based on nothing but his own whims and fancies with significant blunders in spelling, syntax, and diction.
All of that, to sound knowledgeable, boast of his credentials to get in the good books of his learned neighbor.
It was fun to find out that this story used to be a skit that Chekhov performed for his guests. One where a third-rate professor goes on about his scientific discoveries in public. This character became Vasily Bulatov.
Another fun fact that I got to know was about the correspondence from the publisher.
After submitting the story to The Dragonfly, he received feedback from the publisher “not bad at all” followed by invitation to contribute more stories.
Say what you will about publishers, but this one seemed to have a head over his shoulders.