A Little Joke by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Analysis

the text "a little joke written by anton chekhov" written next to the portrait of anton chekhov

This is the time of the year when love is everywhere, absolutely everywhere! 

You just can’t miss the red roses, the greeting cards lining up the aisles everywhere you go. You might also be getting those subtle hints from your partner, your love interest, in anticipation of the gifts they are expecting, come the 14th of February! 

What if they say that you will be given a joke instead – a joke that will stay with you the rest of your life.

A Little Joke by Anton Chekhov is not your typical love story. The story is one of his earlier works, published back 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.

A Little Joke: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens with an unnamed young man and a young woman named Nadezhda Petrovna on a bright winter noon. The unnamed man, who is also the narrator of the story, tries to persuade the woman to slide down the mountain with him. The woman is petrified at the prospect and disagrees, but after multiple requests from the man, agrees to do so.

As they sled and are mid-air, the man whispers, ‘I love you Nadya’. They finally sled to the bottom and come to a halt. Nadya is completely harrowed from such a scary experience and vows never to do it again.

I wouldn’t do that again for anything. Not for anything in the world! I nearly died!

It’s not long after she starts wondering if he had said anything of the sort. She looked at the man’s face for clues that might reveal more, but there was nothing to be found. She wondered if nothing was said, and she imagined it all. 

The riddle obviously troubles her. Were those words spoken or not? Yes or no? Yes or no? It’s a question of pride, honor, life and happiness.

She is visibly disturbed by her cluelessness on the matter. The man offers to take her home. She declines. Determined to find out the truth for herself, against her better judgment, she asks the narrator if they could sled again.

I… I like sledding. Can we do it one more time?

They sled again, and the same thing is repeated. She is in agony and wants to know the truth. It still evades her. They retire for the day. Nadya leaves a note for the narrator that if he goes sledding, she would like to tag along.

If you go sliding down the hill for me, will you take me along?

They go sledding again, and the same incident is repeated. Nadya doesn’t have a clue if those words are actually being said or she has been imagining it all. But that doesn’t matter to her anymore.

She soon gets used to the phrase, as to wine or morphine. She can’t live without it. True, to go flying down the hill is as frightening as before, but now fear and danger lend a special allure to the words of love, words that constitute as much of a riddle as before and torment her soul.

Winter fades away, and Nadya is visibly sad now since neither the wind nor the narrator will be around to say those magical words to her, the latter on account of his long-term move to Petersburg. 

Years pass by, and the narrator reveals that Nadya is now married with children, and he is still not sure why he chose to joke with her.

As for me, now that I am older, I no longer understand why I said those words, why I was joking…

The readers are left wondering if it was actually a joke.

A Little Joke: Review and My Thoughts

If you ask me, I would call it a load of bollocks. No way! It could not have been a joke. But that is the die-hard romantic in me having a knee-jerk reaction.

Note to self: Calm down, tiger! Let’s try to be as logical as we can be.

The guy observes Nadya closely and is able to see the whole spectrum of emotions on her face. 

Strike one.

He knows what to say to make her feel happy when seeing her in pain. 

Strike two.

After years apart, he still thinks about her and their time together when they were young, eons ago. There you have it.

Strike three.

But the funny thing is being right about this (in my head) doesn’t make me happy. There is a lot of pain and regret about leaving things unsaid. The dark clouds of what – if is not something I would want hovering over my head for the rest of my life.

Would you?

Moral of the story: use your words. Enunciate. Life is loads of fun that way.

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