My son’s dead, but I’m alive…It’s a wonder, death mixed up the doors, instead of coming to me, she went to my son…
This excerpt from Chekhov’s short story Anguish explores the themes of grief, loneliness, and poverty in an indifferent society. The story is one of his earlier works published in 1886. 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.
Anguish: Plot Summary and Analysis
The story revolves around a poor cabby named Iona Potapov, who has just lost his young son. It opens with Iona and his horse waiting for passengers. Since they have set out that afternoon, they haven’t even had any passengers. Both seem to be deep in thought when they hear someone call for a cabby.
Iona takes the passenger on and seems to be wanting to speak with him; nothing comes out except for a wheeze. He tries again and tells the passenger that his son recently died.
The conversation soon dies, as the officer is more interested in getting to his destination than speaking to the cabby.
He drops the passenger at the destination and resumes the same morose posture as before, sunk deep in thought. This time, he receives three passengers who haggle over the fare, but Iona doesn’t care for the money. All he cares about right now is to share the grief and talk to someone about what he was going through.
Seeing that the men this time are more vocal – even the insults that they hurl at him for being so slow – don’t dampen his spirits much.
Pah, devil take you! Will you get moving or not, you old Cholera? Is this any way to drive? Beat her with the whip!
He hears the abuse aimed at him, sees people, and the feeling of solitude slowly begins to lift from his chest. The hunchback keeps pouring out abuse until he chokes on a whimsical six-story curse.
Sweet relief, he has a glimmer of hope now that he will be listened to. He launches the same conversation about his son’s recent death with the passengers.
My son’s dead, but I’m alive…It’s a wonder; death mixed up the doors, instead of coming to me, she went to my son…
Although the passengers are a bit more responsive this time than the last one, the journey ends soon enough, and Iona doesn’t get a chance to continue the conversation.
He is left alone again with the horse. From the sea of people around, he doesn’t have anyone to share his grief with. He feels utterly alone.
Iona’s martyred eyes roam anxiously over the crowds flitting by on both sides of the street: Might he find amongst these thousands of people just one who would hear him out?
He is back at the boarding house, and the fellow mates there are all asleep; there is no one to share the news with. He craves company.
At this point, he would love a female company, someone he can share with and get a reaction from. He hasn’t had success doing so thus far.
The listener should gasp, sigh, murmur something.. It is still better to talk with women. They may be fools, but they howl after a couple of words.
In the absence of human company to share the grief with, he opens up in front of the only living creature’s company he has—his horse.
So it is , my little mare.. Kuzma Ionych is no more.. Gave up the ghost.. Just died for nothing…. It is sad isn’t it?
The nag chews, listens and breathes on her master’s hands.
Iona gets carried away and tells her everything.
Anguish: Review and My Thoughts
The story was heartbreaking to say the least. The guy has just lost his son, hasn’t been able to process his grief yet, can’t make ends meet being a cabby, and can’t properly feed the only living creature that is his livelihood and his company.
There is almost nothing going right in this guy’s life. All he needs is someone to talk to. I just couldn’t help but remember this line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water everywhere, not any drop to drink.
Every opportunity that he gets for human company lifts his spirits in the hope that he might be able to unburden himself of the grief.
The man finds comfort in any human conversation, even when the passengers are hurling insults at him – just because he doesn’t feel alone anymore in that duration.
But with every dark cloud, there is a silver lining. His mind is still with him. His disposition is still somewhat sunny. He still likes to be in the company of people, years of solitude, and this sudden unfortunate event hasn’t taken humanity away from him.
Coping with grief is difficult even in the presence of loved ones; without it is virtually impossible.
John Donne wasn’t wrong when he said ‘No man is an island’.
Iona was able to find a solution to his problem when there was none to be found. Humanity can too.