In the closed eyes of a dozing Perekladin, a fiery comma flew like a meteor. The golden commas spun around and raced off to one side. They were replaced by fiery periods.
This excerpt is from Chekhov’s short story Exclamation Point and is one of his earlier works, published way back in 1885. 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.
Punctuation marks were my regular tormentors for a good two months of my primary school student life. This was a painful reminder of those times of my life.
Oh, those commas, colons, and semicolons. In that, my torments were quite similar to the ones of Perekladin, but that’s where the similarities end. His story is way more fun than mine. Let’s get on with it.
The Exclamation Mark: Summary and Plot Analysis
Efim Fomich Perekladin is a collegiate secretary who is extremely pissed at the treatment meted out to him earlier that day at a party. A conversation on the importance of education pops at the party, and he ends up being a subject of conversation.
Efim, having a good post in government, is asked about the kind of education that he received.
For us, No education is needed
And where did you learn to write correctly?
Habit, sir… After forty years of service, you get a knack of it.
Embarrassed by Grisha’s response, the young man underlines the importance of a conscious understanding of language and discounts his understanding of education.
This unconscious reflex orthography of yours isn’t worth a kopeck. It’s mechanical production and nothing more.
Being the highly-placed government official that the young man was, Grisha chose to smile and stay silent. He was seething with anger inside.
Later that evening, when he gets home looking disturbed, he explodes on his wife when she asks him about the reason he looked gloomy.
Stop bothering me, you she-devil!
He replays the conversation in his head and feels angrier. After all, who was the young man to think that Efim’s education was mechanical and nothing more?
Unconscious Mechanical Production! Ah, you, devil take you! Anyhow, maybe I understand more than you do, even if I didn’t study in your universities.
He marinates himself in that line of thoughts so much that he starts dreaming of punctuation marks. He was desperate to prove that he knew where each of them applied.
They (question marks) are always used when there’s a request to be made or let’s say documents are being examined.
First the commas, then the periods, semi-colons, colons, he vividly imagined them all and felt triumphant placing them all correctly till he hit a snag with an Exclamation point. He had no clue where to use it, having never used it once, in 40 years of public service.
Devil take them.. When should they be used? Is it possible that I have forgotten or have I simply never used them? When does the long devil get used?
Completely clueless, he reaches out to his wife for help. After all, she boasted about completing boarding school. She would know!
Do you know , sweetheart, when to use exclamation points in documents?
The answer from his wife surprises him. The exclamation point is a punctuation mark to use when expressing happiness, indignation, joy, anger etc. What use was such a thing! Why would a government official feel the need to use it? When would it ever be warranted?
For forty years, he had been writing documents, he had written out thousands but didn’t remember a single line that expressed delight of any sort. But is there a need for feelings in documents? Even a man with no feelings can write them out.
Exclamation points still completely crowd Efim’s imagination; he sees them everywhere. Since he hasn’t used them yet, they will just not leave him.
Overcome with the impulse to use the punctuation mark, he settles down at his desk and writes his name followed by an exclamation point, feeling jubilant at finally making the exclamation points vanish.
Collegiate secretary Efim Perekladin!!! “There, take that! Take that!”
The Exclamation Point: Review and My Thoughts
The story was hilarious, I loved it immensely, but I have to admit, I did feel a little bit of regret for not having come across this before. It’s loaded with content that would have benefited me greatly. Oh! What would I have not given to understand the punctuation sooner (barring the peanut butter jelly sandwich lunch of course!).
I loved the story for many reasons – the childish fixation of an old man, the vivid imagery of the same old man, and his latent OCD, of course!
He was even treating the punctuation marks as people or ghosts in his imagination, to the extent of having conversations with them!
For him, somehow, the idea of education was totally reduced only to writing and then just the punctuation marks. I found it cute that instead of just hurling insults at the young man, in absentia, he was trying to prove to himself that he knew.
Efim Perekladin taught me many things – the most important of them being:
Don’t shy away from using emotions that warrant exclamation points!