Ladies by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Review

the text "ladies written by anton chekhov" written next to the portrait of anton chekhov

Let’s consider the following two statements:

I’m surprised I didn’t think of it sooner! Listen, here’s what I can offer you.. Next week the clerk at our orphanage is going to retire.If you like, you can take his post! There you are!

I have no post for you! None, none! Leave me alone! Don’t torment me! Let me be, finally, do me a favor!

If I tell you that the same person said both of these things to the same person, what would your impression be of that person? 

Would you consider them bipolar, or would you give them the benefit of the doubt? 

I hope you chose the latter because the events that transpired between Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 are a fun ride!

These scenarios are from Chekhov’s short story Ladies is a comical take on the issues of nepotism and corruption in the Russian society. One of his earlier works, published way back in 1886, 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.

Ladies: Summary and Plot Analysis

Fyodor Petrovich is a director of public education in a Russian province. He considers himself a fair and generous man. The story opens in his office, where he meets a teacher, Mr. Vremensky. 

Vremensky, having recently lost his normal voice after a comic mishap, is considered unfit to discharge his educational duties and is being dismissed.

With such a voice, you can not go on working as a teacher. How did you lose it?

I was sweaty and drank a cold beer.

The teacher, who has a family to support, is distraught at the dismissal, and the director seems restless about leaving a man such as him to fend for himself after 14 years of service. The director suddenly has an epiphany and, realizing that a clerk in the orphanage was retiring, offers Vremensky his job. 

I’m surprised I didn’t think of it sooner! Listen, here’s what I can offer you.. Next week the clerk at our orphanage is going to retire. If you like, you can take his post! There you are!

The director feels good about himself, having done such a noble deed. 

His happiness, however, doesn’t last long when later at the dinner table, his wife asks for a favor for one of her acquaintances- happens to be for the same job that he previously offered Vremensky to a chap named Polzhukin. He tries to resist, but his wife is adamant that Polzhukin be given that job.

And you know my rule: I never make appointments through connections.

That fop? Not for anything!

Why not?

You see, my dear, if a young man doesn’t act directly, but through women, it means he’s trash! Why doesn’t he come to me himself?

It’s not for the salary, but just… After all, it’s government service.

Later the same evening, he realizes that he had received a letter from the mayor’s wife recommending the same guy, K.N.Polzhukin. After that, not a day passes when he doesn’t receive one recommending him. 

On one occasion, Polzhukin presented himself directly to the director. The director, visibly disinterested, is quick to express his dissatisfaction with how the solicitation has gone so far.

Listen, why is it you didn’t turn directly to me but found it necessary to trouble the ladies first?

Fyodor doesn’t understand why Polzhukin, a man hailing from a well-to-do family, would be interested in a clerical job. Polzhukin clarifies that it is not the money he was after but the government position. He finally produces a document that the director has no power to veto; he has no option now, but to give him the job.

He took a paper from his pocket and handed it to the director. Beneath the attestation, written in bureaucratic style and script, was the signature of the Governor. Everything suggested that the Governor had signed it without reading it, just to get rid of some importunate lady.

Unhappy about having to do that, Fyodor also has to rescind the offer for the same job that he had extended earlier to Vremensky. Unable to find the right words and tone to deliver the news, completely overwhelmed, he explodes on the very man his sympathies were supposed to be directed towards.

I have no post for you! None, none! Leave me alone! Don’t torment me! Let me be, finally, do me a favor!

Ladies: Review and My Thoughts

Fyodor started off as a strong, principled man who took pride in doing the right thing. He was obviously pained by Vremesnky’s calamitous situation, revealing that he has his heart at the right place. 

As soon as he had the conversation with his wife about the position, things started to change, followed by numerous other referrals for the same person, putting him on edge. These people were providing unsolicited referrals for someone that was already well-to-do. 

He does not like Polzhukin one bit, mainly because he has women doing his bidding. He also feels that with the comfortable financial standing that he is in, he doesn’t need the job as much as a relatively poorer Vremensky. 

All through this reader still has the impression that the guy is not going to break. But as soon as he sees the letter signed by the Governor, he gives up. 

The same man had remarked that he would never make appointments through connections. Now in Fyodor’s mind, it could have been a woman that could have prompted the Governor’s signature prompted by a woman’s persistent pestering, but how does that justify Fyodor or the Governor making the wrong call?

John Amaechi once said -’ You can not be a part-time man of principle’. 

Fyodor better sit up and take notice.

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