Every now and then, I would see some images being circulated in the media, beginning with ‘Happiness is..’ so and so. Eating, drinking, sleeping, talking, you name it.
All of those apply to me, by the way. Occasionally, all at the same time. Aside from that, maybe, meeting an old friend I haven’t seen in a very long time in a chance encounter would make the cut. Because it lets me do all the things I love over again… eating, drinking etc., you get the gist.
More often than not, friendship is built on similarities. I am sure you have heard of birds of the same feather flock together.
Now, what happens when you started off being similar, but then you grew more dissimilar over the years? Imagine you and your friend grew up to belong to different social strata; would that alone be enough to strangle your friendship?
“Enough now! Why this tone? You and I have been friends from childhood – no need to go bowing to rank!”
This excerpt from Chekhov’s short story ‘Fat and Skinny’ explores just that- themes of friendship, society, class, and hypocrisy. The story is one of his earlier works, published way back in 1883. It is also available as part of a short story collection called Fifty Two Stories published by Alfred A. Knopf, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Disclaimer: Fat and Skinny are just characters in the story; no offense is meant to people of either size by using the references. I have been part of both those size groups in my life so far and currently belong to the former group.
Fat and Skinny: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story opens with a chance encounter between two old friends at a train station- one fat and one skinny. Misha, the fat one, and Porfiry, the skinny one, are visibly happy seeing one another. The tears in their eyes are genuine.
While the fat one is traveling alone, the skinny one is traveling with his family and loses no time in making the introductions for Misha, his wife Louisa, and his son Nathaniel.
They begin talking about work when Misha asks if Porfiry worked for the government and if he had worked his way up. Porfiry makes his living working as a collegiate assessor, supporting his meager salary by a very modest side business and his wife’s music lessons. They are making it work somehow.
Porfiry enquires the same of Misha and gets to know that he has done very well for himself and holds an important government position.
Porfiry’s immediate reaction is of shock, which is quickly replaced by what seems to be a completely fake display of happiness and veneration.
The environment suddenly turns very formal. He starts addressing Misha as ‘sir’. His wife is in shock, whereas his child tries to look more proper for the occasion, standing in attention, buttoning up his shirt.
Misha, detecting a change in the environment, immediately asks his friend to drop the act; they were childhood friends after all!
However, this seems to have an opposite effect on Porfiry, who becomes more formal and servile in his conversations with him. This sickens Misha to the core, who turned to bid farewell; they part company but not before bowing down to Misha with his whole body.
Fat and Skinny: Review and My Thoughts
This story, laden with sharp observations, hits a raw nerve- drawing the contrast between the purity of a friendship in childhood to the utilitarian alliance between the same people in adulthood.
The love between the two friends is evident. Their eyes are filled with tears when they see each other (awwww!); everything between them is still very innocent and pure. They are nostalgic, reminiscing of all the fun they had as children, nicknames, and whatnot.
As soon as the topic of their work and the class came up; things began to change. Even the seemingly disinterested wife and child either cannot hide their shock or are too eager to impress. The minute the friend turns out to be from a different class, he is not a friend anymore – he is an authoritative figure to be revered or impressed.
Maybe Misha is not the one that cares about authority much, Porfiry is still the same childhood friend, but not. The divide of class between them is something that their friendship doesn’t survive. It’s sad to see two friends drifting apart because of that.
The story is sad and painful- because it is realistic. It happens all too often, regardless of whether you live and work in a country with a high or low power distance index. The story is just a painful reminder that there are friends that you are going to lose to sheer ‘class’.
The story made me sad, so I went to seek comfort in Mark twain’s words:
An enemy can partly ruin a man, but it takes a good-natured injudicious friend to complete the thing and make it perfect.
Losing a friend doesn’t sound half as bad now, does it?