The Witch by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Review

“A witch is a witch” – Savely, the Sexton says to his wife Raissa, in Chekhov’s ‘The Witch’.

Husband calling the wife a witch, is nothing we haven’t heard before. What’s new and refreshing, is a little Chekhov spin on it.

“The Witch” (Vedma) was first published in March 1886 in Novoye Vremya (Issue No. 3600). It made its way into the 1887 collection titled In Twilight, and was later reproduced, unchanged, in numerous subsequent editions.

The Witch: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves a woman named Raissa Nilovna, who is married to a sextant, Savely Gykin. It’s made apparent in the beginning that there is no love in the marriage. There seems to be a storm raging outside, and judging by the audible ruckus, it is a huge one.

Savely is quick to assume that nature’s destruction is pointed towards a specific person, and that his wife has played a huge role in bringing it about.

Raissa is a beautiful young woman. She seems distracted, while continuing to mechanically do her chores, completely indifferent to the presence of her husband.

Savely is convinced that his wife is a witch, that she has the power to conjure up storms and natural disasters which always result in young handsome men requesting a refuge at their home. He argues with her, while she logically denies all his claims.

No sooner are they are done arguing, they hear a loud knock at the door .Lo and behold! A handsome postman who seems to have had lost his way in the storm is standing at their doorstep with a carriage driver in tow.

Savely, cursing his wife under his breath, ignores the guest’s presence and goes back to bed, While Raissa blushes in the presence of the young postman. Savely can’t seem to ignore the man’s presence for long, still thinking of his witch wife’s malicious ploy.

He glances at his wife and finding her staring at the man, gets up from the bed and tries to cover the man’s face with the handkerchief to stop her from staring at him.

After all his efforts to stop her failed, he starts to wake the man from his sleep against Raissa’s requests to let the man stay and have some rest, He even offered to help carry the bags and show them the way so they leave their house pronto.

The postman, still quite sleepy and dazed, finding himself incredibly intoxicated with Raissa’s youth and beauty, the post man’s desire for her overpowers him. However, before he could do anything, he is told that the carriage is ready to go.

The postman, the carriage driver and Savely leave shortly and Raissa finds herself alone in the house. The sight of Savely’s unkempt bed repels her to the core, so much so that, she is ready to tear it to shreds but decides against it.

A couple of hours later, Savely returns and finds Raissa undressed and lying on the bed. Although having initially thought that he wouldn’t be touching her that day, he finds the idea of taunting her simply irresistible. Raissa retorts but soon starts sobbing at her misfortune of having Savely as her husband.

She finally calms down while the storm continues to rage outside. Savely tries to caress her neck boldly, a response to which is a hard punch on his nose by his wife.

The Witch: Review and My Thoughts

Sounds like a really loveless marriage, right?

What’s so special about it? You might wonder.

After all, it is nothing that you have not seen before, in some or the other form at least.

But this is no ordinary story. At least not to me.

Let’s start with Chekhov’s poetic expressions, some of them are downright swoonworthy, to say the least.

“So a beautiful fountain expresses nothing when it is not playing”- Chekhov beautifully portrays the mood and the atmospherics around her protagonist’s hopeless and loveless life as she has “No desire, no joy, no grief”. Nothing was expressed by her handsome face with its turned-up nose and its dimples”.

Look at his other vivid portrayals of scenes that normally, couldn’t be more mundane, Chekhov’s very special magic dust everyone!

“And the wind staggered like a drunkard,it would not let the snow settle on the ground, and it whirled it around in darkness at random.

“..jingling monotone like the shrill note of a gnat when it wants to settle on one’s cheek and is angry at being prevented”

 There is obviously no love in the marriage, how can there be? The husband is convinced of his wife’s witchery and the wife is disgusted by the man’s existence. When the wife comes right out and says:

“How miserable I am! If it weren’t for you, I might have married a merchant or some gentleman! If it weren’t for you, I should love my husband now! And you haven’t been buried in the snow, you haven’t been frozen on the highroad, you Herod!”

That statement followed by a hard elbow kick on the husband’s nose, hard enough for him to see the stars. There is not much room for doubt about the complete lack of love or empathy, Is there?

And then there is Savely’s steadfast belief that his wife is a certified witch. He is so convinced of it, that instead of being disgusted by his foolhardiness, you would start laughing at the comicality of it all.

Consider this –

 “Oh the madness! If you really are a human being and not a witch, you ought to think what if he is not the mechanic, or the clerk, or the huntsman, but the devil in their form, You’d better think of that”

“..Grin away! Whether it is your doing or not, I only know that when your blood is on fire there is sure to be bad weather, and when there is bad weather, there is bound to be some crazy fellow showing up here. It happens so every time! So it must be you!”

“I know that it’s all your doing, you she-devil! Your doing, damn you! This snowstorm and the post going wrong. You have done it all- you!”

With such sombre themes underpinning the story, humor would be the last thing  that you would expect Chekhov to come up with. That’s where you would go wrong probably. Of all the things I like about the story, the husband-wife bickering comes right on top! Here is a quick glimpse

Savely : The postman is lost in the storm. I know!.. Do you Suppose I don’t?

Raissa(eyes fixed on the window, looking for the lost postman) : What do you know?

Savely: I know it is all your doing, you she-devil!

Raissa(smiling) : Here’s a fool! Why do you suppose, you thick-head, that I make the storm?

Savely: H’m grin away! I only know that when your blood is on fire, there is sure to be bad weather, there’s bound to be a crazy fellow turning up here. It happens so every time! So it must be you!

Although having gone to bed, set on ignoring his women’s mischiefs and the postman, Savely kept peeking to see what his wife was up to, Upon seeing that she was continually gazing at the handsome young man, he couldn’t stay in the bed anymore and rushed to cover his face with the handkerchief.

The sexton cleared his throat, crawled down on his stomach off the bed and put a handkerchief over his face.

“What’s that for?” asked his wife

“To keep the light out of his eyes”

“Then put out the light!”

Just about to put out the light, he abruptly stops himself and remarks

“Isn’t that devilish cunning? Ah! Is there any creature slyer than womenkind?”

Unable to control his wife, he directs his attention on the postman instead.

“Hey, your honor, if you must go, go; sleeping won’t do”

“You, driver. What’s your name? Shall I show you the way? Get up; postmen mustn’t sleep!”

When are you going? That’s what the post is for – to get there in good time, do you hear? I’ll take you.

He even steps out in the God foresaken storm to rid them of the postman and the driver’s company. Interesting things insecure husbands do, no? Nothing unbelievable about that.

There are so many shades of human emotions in this delightful short story by Chekhov. I simply love it.

According to Chekhov’s 28 March 1886 letter to Dmitry Grigorovich, he wrote “The Witch” in a day.

One day, huh? I can’t say that I am surprised, given Chekhov’s genius. Can’t believe the story is  a century and some decades old now.

Written to last, they say.

No Act of Kindness, No Matter How Small, is Ever Wasted: Aesop

Growing up, Aesop’s fables were my constant companion- in and out of school. The very first illustrated copy that I owned was an abridged version for kids that contained a dozen short stories.

The Hare and the Tortoise, Crow and the Pitcher, Bell and the cat were some of the predominant few that are probably commonly known childhood staples.

Now these were no ordinary tales, although they would definitely seem so on the surface. Every story however small it was, would come with a moral, our teacher invariably asking after reading us a story, “So kids, what did we learn from this?”

The Hare and the tortoise teaches us that slow and steady wins the race, Crow and the Pitcher instills a sense of entrepreneurship and Bell and the cat focuses on devising ideas that are actually actionable.

The little kid brain of my mine would come alive with the chatter of those characters Aesop created, and as years passed by, all of these animals started becoming more and more human.

A classmate that just played and didn’t study became the grasshopper from the “Ants and the Grasshopper”, a very intelligent but lazy friend who was never a top 5 in the class became the hare from the “The Hare and the Tortoise” and the enterprising kid from a disadvantaged family became the Crow in the “Crow and the Pitcher”.

The lines between the stories and life became quite blurred. Needless to say his words were a huge influence on me growing up.

One story of his, which I have realized I have grown fonder(?) of, over the years is that of the Lion and the mouse. Let me quickly recap it for here for if you have never had the chance to read it or memory betrays you at this point. So, here goes:

There was a forest in which lived a lion and a mouse. The mouse accidentally ran over the Lion’s nose, which awoke the lion from his nap. The lion, visibly agitated, was about to kill the mouse when she begged him for mercy promising to help him in the future.

The lion, although amused by this offer, was generous enough to let her go. Some time passed, and one day, the lion was captured by the hunters and was roaring as he was trying to let himself free of the nets. The mouse, upon hearing and recognizing Lion’s voice, comes to the rescue, nibbles on the ropes of the net and sets him free, ultimately making good on his promise.

Every time I am done reading an Aesop fable, I still hear my Primary school teacher’s voice in my head. “So what’s the moral of story kids?”

Pretty simple and straightforward. Isn’t it?

No act of Kindness is ever wasted. But let me atrociously paraphrase it – BE KIND.

Given the situation all of us find ourselves in, with a virus bringing the world to an unanticipated grinding halt, I can’t stop myself from saying that doing that is more important now than ever.

It is so heart breaking to see stories of mass unemployment and people hardly being able to make ends meet.

But then I also see people stepping up and helping out – sometimes by funding campaigns to save local restaurants, sometimes, tipping a restaurant 200 times their check, there is even a group of young professionals in the apartment building that I live in – which volunteers to do the grocery run to help out the elderly so they help them avoid the risk of infection.

The full bins earmarked for food donation at the local grocery stores, make me hopeful.

The other day when I was out for a walk, I noticed a poster stapled to one of the pillars by the road side that said “A smile doesn’t cost you anything, but can make someone’s day”. Couldn’t agree more, having been on the receiving end of such kindness on so many occasions.

There is a colleague at the office, whom I have seen taking the kindness mantra to heart. She has a sticky note on her desktop that says:

BE KIND

BE KIND

BE KIND

BE KIND

BE KIND

(in bold letters, very hard to miss)

I just couldn’t help myself and ended up asking her, why so many times? And what unkind thing do you do anyway? (She is a really pleasant woman, you would love talking to, by the way) and she tells me this.

“When in conversations with people, I try to ‘really’ listen when they are speaking,

I try to make eye contact and smile every now and then.

Don’t think of me as Mother Teresa or anything, just that I hope that they extend the same courtesy to me when their turn comes”

This may sound selfish on the surface, but that’s one selfish thing that wouldn’t harm anyone in the world. Or would it?

Definitely not – Aesop agrees.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman: Summary and Review

Imagine a room.

Now imagine living there for a long time without having anything to do. For those of you who are millennials – Imagine a world without phones or any electronic devices.

If you are one of those very social people – your knee-jerk reaction would be, “No way in hell am I going to do that!”

But say, you have no choice and you just have to – how long before you think you are going to start imagining things?

Enter Yellow WallPaper!

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by the American writer Charlotte Gilman, first published in New England Magazine in the late 19th century.

The story, written as a series of diary entries, captures social perceptions and attitudes toward the mental and physical health of women at that time, and is widely regarded as one of the early feminist literary works, inspiring literary heavyweights such as Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker.

The story revolves around a woman – a young mother suffering from postpartum depression, and her relationship with her husband. Known for her recent hysterical proclivities following the birth of her son, her doctor husband believes it best for her to be removed from an active social scene in order to calm her nerves.

The woman finds the house generally strange, but cannot help noticing the strange wallpaper in the nursery, which has been removed in places. She is disgusted by patterns that the botched wallpaper creates in the room and experiences various emotional reactions to it over the course of time.

The second diary entry describes her feeling of failure and the threat of depression, that she felt that she could not function as well as she was expected to.

It is soon revealed through her diary entries that it was not the first occasion that she had let the inanimate objects get better of her- as a child she had been terrified and entertained by things as plain as blank walls, door knobs and chairs.

She was obsessed with the wallpaper – the color, the shapes, the pattern – all of that. So much so that most of her waking hours and even the hours she was half asleep, were spent thinking about it.

Her fixation with the wallpaper introduced the much needed excitement in her life. She ate better and was quieter. Her husband even mistook it to be her recovery inspite of the wallpaper, rather than because of it.

Now I know from the beginning that it is not your typical horror story, but the devil is in the details. The more I read it, the more spooky it got.

Here is the seemingly normal woman who expresses her reservations about a beautiful house being offered cheaply because it is a sign of something fishy:

I will proudly declare that there is something wrong with it. Else why would it be let so cheaply? And Why would it have stood so long untenanted?

Here is the same woman transforming suddenly to a wife and a mother..

John laughs at me of course, but one expects that in marriage.

I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby you see.

Of course, I don’t mention it to them anymore – I am too wise – but I keep a watch of it all the same.

Could be any random married woman you know, right?

And..

There is one comfort , the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy the nursery with a horrid wallpaper.

Could be any doting mother that dearly loves her child?

It would be a next door mom/wife had it ended there but No.

The same woman also thinks to herself –

Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.

You can sense that the woman feels empty and craves any sort of drive in her life, this is when she jumps head first into her pattern hunt, finding that invigorating rather than being creeped out by it like she was before.

Her obsession with the inanimate also accelerates her paranoia.

He asked me all sorts of questions and pretended to be very loving and kind.

As if I could not see through him!

Which ultimately drives her to insanity

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be an admirable exercise, but the bars are too high to try.

You will see that clues of her illness are scattered all across the story

I cry at nothing, I cry most of the times.

It is great effort for me to think straight,.. nervous weakness I suppose.

Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able, – to dress, to entertain , to order things.

Her husband seems to be a reasonable, loving and caring person, but she does not seem to feel heard by him and feels trapped in her life, which is why she wants the woman to flee from the wallpaper. In her mind, she is doing that imaginary creature, a service. A service noone she knows is ready to do for her. To set her free.

Gilman’s haunting portrayal has come to life in many film adaptations, and for good reason.

The story being as old as it is, makes me realize something: society’s attitudes to mental health issues have barely changed in the last century.

They were taboo then.

They are taboo now. .

Are we really free?

The Model Millionaire by Oscar Wilde: Summary and Review

Has it ever happened to you that you tipped someone you shouldn’t have tipped in the first place, or that you asked a saleswoman for help who you thought was one, but was actually a shopper like you?

Do you remember the look on their faces when you did that? It’s likely that they stared at you for a whole minute before they went their way, or were they one of those rare quiet angels who just shot you a broad smile and apologized for confusing you.

I am sorry to I made you go down the memory lane, but I promise that you’ll soon know why.

Without further ado Ado, Here is the model millionaire of Oscar Wilde for you.

The Model Millionaire: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story begins with an introduction to Hugh Erskine, affectionately known as Hughes. This guy is so charming that he could pull your socks off, but otherwise he is not very remarkable – neither intellectually nor financially.

He lives on an annual allowance of two hundred pounds from his aunt. He was in love with a beautiful woman named Laura Merton and wanted to marry her.

Laura’s father – a retired colonel, though he loved Hughes very much – would not hear of an engagement until he had ten thousand pounds.

One day, on his way to the Mertons, he stopped to see his friend, a rather strange-looking fellow, but a brilliant painter. His paintings were very much in demand.

Alan was busy painting a beggar when Hughie came into the studio.

Hughie instantly expressed his amazement upon seeing the model but felt really sad for the beggar right after. He asked Alan if a model could make good money for a sitting, and was disappointed with Alan’s answer.

Upon receiving a message that the framemaker had come to see Alan, he quickly excused himself asking Hughie not to go away. The beggar model took this opportunity to get himself some rest. He looked so forlorn that Hughie’s heart filled with pity.

He searched in his pocket, found some money and thought the beggar needed it more than him, quickly went to him and put it in the beggar’s hands. He had to walk home because of this extravagance.

Later that evening he met Alan in a club. He learned that the model had expressed great interest in learning more about Hughes and Laura.

Overcome with pity, he asked Alan if it was okay to give the beggar his old clothes. Alan laughed out loud and told Hughes that the beggar was actually Baron Hausberg, who was one of the richest men in Europe and had to come to Alan to make his own portrait.

Hughes was very embarrassed by the revelation and left shortly afterwards, leaving Alan in fits of laughter.

The next day Baron Hausberg sent a messenger to Hughes. Hughes was convinced that this visit was meant for him to apologize to Baron for this terrible mistake the other day.

Instead, the messenger brought him a sealed envelope.

One with a check for £10,000 in it.

On the outside was this message:

“A wedding present to Hugh Erskine and Laura Merton, from an old beggar.”

The Model Millionaire: Review and Quotes

Cute little story, right?

The story – as simple as it might seem, has one profound lesson- one that you have heard way too often:

Do not judge a book by its cover.

We see a pretty person and we instantly conclude them to be a certain personality (after going past the drooling-over-them stage of course). This story makes you question that.

There are gems lying all around this beautiful story, here are a few that I particularly liked –  

1 – Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow. Romance is the privilege of the rich and not the profession of the unemployed. The poor should be practical and prosaic.

2 – It is better to have a permanent income than be fascinating

Do you remember the book and its cover? Our films and television keep drilling this wisdom into our heads, don’t they?

How often is the millionaire picked up by the charming boy?

For many people, the idea of romance is the perfect holiday in an exotic place, a date in a fancy restaurant, parties in exclusive clubs and the like. Oscar Wilde was quite spot on with his observation back then.

You can’t help but root for Hughes when he shows compassion for the beggar – admittedly he had no fortune or much intellectual capital, but his heart was in the right place.

3 – Poor old chap, how miserable he looks ,But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune?

You artists are a heartless lot.

Compassion and good looks – our Laura Merton hit a jackpot!

4 – The old beggar as you call him is one of the richest men in Europe. He could buy all of London tomorrow without overdrawing his account

That sudden twist when the beggar turned out to be a millionaire was an awakening jolt.

The way his richness has been described brought back flashes of The Dark Knight, where Bruce Wayne accidentally walks upon Harvey Dent and his date at a fancy hotel. 

A scene from The Dark Knight

When they were married, Alan Trevor was the best man and the Baron made a speech at a Wedding Breakfast.

Giving the beggar his souvenir prompted Hughes to go home that night, but the next mention of the beggar elicited nothing but sympathy from him. He also offered to give him his old clothes. He tried to help the old man in every way possible.

One thing readily apparent from this is Hughie’s big heart but the other not so plainly seen is that one of the richest men in Europe did not take offence at being given alms. This is what an ideal world would look like.

A world where the rich are not servants of their ego and the attractive people still have their hearts in the right place.

Millionaire Models are rare enough, but, by jove, model millionaires are rarer still.

Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang: Summary Explained and Review

“It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely.”

With his award-winning short story, Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang takes us on an exhilarating exploration of the age-old myth of the Tower of Babel.

In this science fiction short story, Ted Chiang challenges the principles of cosmology which were widely accepted by the masses at the time, by a discovery as fantastic as the construction mega-project itself.

This might come as a surprise to some, considering the top-notch content and the awards that it has to its name, including the 1991 Nebula award, but this is Chiang’s first published work!

Tower of Babylon: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story is set in Ancient Babylon, where the construction of a majestic tower has been going on in full swing for many years; the tower is almost about to touch the heavens.

Our protagonist Hillalum is a miner that has been brought in from Elam with several others to work on digging up to Yahweh’s vaults to be able to see Yahweh and his creations.

After a feast in the town and having absorbed all the town’s excitement for an eventual rendezvous with Yahweh’s world, Hillalum and his friend set off on their journey to climb the tower. 

Although a little bit apprehensive about their ultimate work and scared about the heights they have been traversing, they get used to the routine and the job requirements. They pass workers coming down and dwellers as they continue to ascend.

On their rather strange journey to the top to dig up the vaults, Hillalum and his friend see extraordinary sights – night traveling up the tower, rain drying up from one level of the tower to another, plants growing downwards and sideways for sunlight. 

Through the miracle of astute engineering, dwellers living at unimaginable heights can also farm limited varieties of vegetables. Although he perceives their life as difficult, he can only sense an upbeat mood from fellow workers or dwellers.

They eventually reach the vault, a featureless plain that stretched endlessly in all directions. Their ascent now became slower than before as most of the crew were disoriented with the sight of something that was so-otherworldly to them.

They are also worried that they might hit the reservoir lying above them and this would bring a second deluge into the world. They eventually come to an agreement to exercise caution and use safe digging techniques prescribed by Egyptians. 

After priests seek forgiveness and offer prayers – the work to dig up the vault begins. The Elamites and the Egyptians continued working on the tunnel and this went on for years until one day, the reservoir breaks.

Hillalum and a few others get trapped, and with their descent locked out, they have no option but to count on the water current, helping them float to reach closer to the surface.

Struggling against the water currents and unable to hold his breath any longer, Hillalum starts drowning when suddenly he felt air above the water. The sight that awaits him when he gains full consciousness blows his mind. He realized that he was now on earth again.

Tower of Babylon: Review, Quotes & My Thoughts

I find the story surreal on many different levels- The fantastic nature of the project, tremendous engineering, transportation, curious natural phenomena – you name it. Vivid imagery by Chiang is breathtaking. 

Consider these for example:

“The earth was growing a limb into the sky.”

One cannot help but imagine what something like that would mean; thanks to Chiang and his very tangible description of the tower, imagining and appreciating the magnificence of it all becomes much easier.

“Hillalum imagined that he stood in the black gullet of Yahweh, as the mighty one drank deep of the waters of heaven, ready to swallow the sinners.”

The story takes place back in the era where geocentric models were the truth. Chiang creates a perfectly human description of what fears would plague people that lived in those times. 

Yet now that he stood at the base of the tower, his senses rebelled, insisting that nothing should stand so high.”

This is innate human nature. Isn’t it? Working relentlessly towards a goal and upon getting very close to realizing it, finding it all futile? Curiosity and homeostasis are not friends. 

“Yahweh had not asked men to build the tower or to pierce the vault; the decision to build it belonged to men alone, and they would die in this endeavor just as they did in any of their earthbound tasks.”

In Psychology, there is a term called Self Serving bias that means that all good in your life is your doing and everything unwanted is specifically not that. The acceptance of the simple truth of every manifestation in your life as your own doing is crippling and empowering at the same time.

“Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh’s work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh’s work was indicated, and Yahweh’s work was concealed.”

Somewhere in the beginning of the story, a trowel is said to be much more valuable than a human life. Loss of a trowel means debt for the bricklayer for months, while loss of a man leaving his trowel behind is a mere inconvenience. Work goes on. Life goes on. Hillalum tries to understand the reason behind this incongruent behavior but is laughed at. 

He would die closer to heaven than any man had ever before.”

Man and his unending quest to stand out, regardless of the kind of circumstances he finds them in. It’s embedded in human nature so profoundly that even the gravest of circumstances cannot deter him from reaching out quickly to sip from the overflowing river of ego. Even at that moment of impending death, Hillalum felt proud.

In his story notes Ted Chiang mentioned that the story was inspired by a conversation with his friend. The world certainly needs more of such conversations.

Happiness by Anton Chekhov: Summary, Analysis and Review

You may not be an Eckhart Tolle fan, but you do not need to be one to see the meaning in this. 

“Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it.”

He is not the only person that said that either. We have our publishers churning out treatises, the so-called experts giving us a step-by-step guide on how to achieve this ‘blissful’ state.

Some focus on continually evolving daily routines in constant pursuit of this elusive beast. And to quote from a scene from a lovely cinematic rendition of Chris Gardner’s life struggles Pursuit of Happyness, “why is happiness always a pursuit?”

This quest for happiness isn’t a new thing either. It is centuries-old, evoking interest from philosophers and authors alike.

Lucky for us, the beloved Russian Author Anton Chekhov was one of them as well. 

And in putting his pen to paper, out came this gem of a short story called Happiness. It was first published way back in 1887 in Novoye Vremya. This was translated into many languages in the author’s short lifetime.

Happiness by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves mainly around a conversation that two shepherds are having – one, a toothless eighty-year-old man and another, a poor young man guarding a flock of sheep. 

Both these individuals are spending the night by a broad steppe road when a rich and authoritative-looking stranger arrives on a horse to ask the shepherds a light for his pipe. 

The old man, assuming the stranger to be rich since he didn’t know him, proceeds with a conversation around a wicked old man called Zhmenya, who fashioned a conversation with women to be more suitable than attending church or larking in the street with lads.

He was cursed so much so that even melons whistled in his presence, and pikes laughed.

The old shepherd proceeds to recount a myriad of mysterious circumstances brought upon by this evil man’s presence, including the one whereupon being flogged, Zhmenya brought throat illness to the whole village.

Zhenya’s knowledge of where the treasure’s location made him invincible, which the old shepherd seemed to hate the most about him. 

Apparently, they are all surrounded by treasure, but under a spell to not be able to see it. It was only Zhmenya that was able to see them, but like a dog in the manger, he dies without digging the treasure or confiding in anyone about the treasure’s whereabouts.

The old man seems to be really passionate about treasures and has a bitter memory of a variety of failed attempts at locating them, including some of his own.

Some of his disappointment is also mirrored by the stranger, who, while listening to the treasure stories, feels a bit solemn himself.

While still distracted by the old man’s stories, he takes his leave.

The young shepherd, still looking to hear some fresh stories from the old shepherd asks the old man for some more, when he replies in a very distracted manner that he intends to dig up the place where the treasure is supposed to be.

When asked by the young man what he plans to do if he finds it this time, the old man is clueless.

The young man discovers that he was not interested in the fortune itself but the fantastic fairy tale character of human happiness.

Happiness by Chekov: Review and My thoughts

Full disclosure: This is not my favorite work from Anton Chekhov, but it comes close. What I love about this short story is that it packs the message about in the most splendid of ways in the fewest words possible. 

He doesn’t call happiness something it is not. He presents it the way it is in all of its majestic ambiguity. 

I loved many things about this story.. even his portrayal of sheep; at one point, it felt to me like Chekhov had become the sheep when he was talking about them.

Consider this for example:

Their (Sheep’s) thoughts, tedious and oppressive, called forth by nothing but the broad steppe and the sky, the days and the nights, probably weighed upon themselves, crushing them into apathy,and standing as though they are rooted to the earth, they noticed neither the presence of a stranger nor the uneasiness of the dogs.

When he talks about the old man- the way he thinks, and why he considers Zhemnya to be possessed by evil – looks serious but is comical if you peel off that layer of Russian Sombriety.

I have observed that if any man of the peasant class is apt to be silent, takes up with old women’s jobs, and tries to live in solitude, there is no good in it.

The way the old man’s passionate recounting of treasure hunt tales and his disappointment rubs off on the sophisticated stranger.

Your elbow is near, but you can’t bite it. There is fortune, but there is not the wit to find it.

The old man’s absolute certainty in knowing the precise location of the treasure. I must admit that this sexist remark pinched me, but then he was 80 years old from a world a century and a half ago. I will let that snide remark pass.

I didn’t tell Panteley – God be with him- but you know that in that writing, the place was marked out so that even a woman could find it. 

What I also found interesting was that it was the old man , tired and almost invalid, who had this inexplicable passion for looking for the treasure while the young man was wise and balanced.

Alexandar Chekhov’s, Anton’s elder brother, said in praise of this story:

“Well, my friend, you’ve made quite a stir with your last ‘steppe’ subbotnik. This piece is wonderful. Everybody talks about it.”

Now, I know that there is nothing new about this knowledge – either on Happiness or Chekhov’s writing prowess. Happiness is a unicorn on the human emotional spectrum for many. And at the very minimum, for the ones that are in the constant quest for it.

We are all a little bit like Chekhov’s old shepherd, aren’t we?

Crazy Glue by Etgar Keret: Summary, Analysis and Review

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read these two words:

Crazy glue

I bet you can recall at least an incident or two about crazy glue – maybe you were the victim to whom the ‘crazy glue’ happened, or you were the one that gave someone their ‘crazy glue’ moment. 

There are so many stories available on ‘crazy glue incidents’ of people’s lives – some tragic and some outright comical. I will let Google be your friend on that search.

So why are we talking about it?

Enter Etgar Keret and his remarkable short story Crazy Glue.

Etgar Keret takes crazy glue beyond the physical realms into something much more. Crazy glue is a story about a couple who seem to be struggling in their marriage – nothing will stand out for you initially till our beloved ‘crazy glue’ is introduced. 

Here’s how:

Crazy Glue: Summary and Plot Analysis

The wife asks the husband not to touch ‘it’ as it is super glue. The husband asks what the glue was for, to which, upon not finding a satisfactory answer, expresses his irritation – unable to understand why she is fixated on ‘buying all this crap.’ 

The wife retorts with ‘of course!’, mentioning that she buys these things for the same reason that she married him: ‘to kill time.’

The husband is in no mood to get into a fight, and so is the wife; the fight that never happened, ended there. 

The husband asks if the glue is any good, and the wife shows him a picture of a guy that seems to be hanging from the ceiling with his shoes glued there. The husband mentions that to be impossible and points her to look at – what he believes are flaws in this presentation. She does not look. He then rushes off to work.

At work, the husband calls someone named Mindy, with whom he seems to be having an affair. He mentions to her that he will not be able to make it that day as his wife might suspect something. Mindy expresses her confusion about the husband still being in a relationship with his wife when they were hardly doing anything together. 

They were so apart that they were not even fighting anymore. The relationship was completely dead. 

Mindy begins crying; the husband consoles her by saying that he will come the next day and lies to end that conversation early.

The husband returns home. He calls her name but gets no answer. The odd thing he notices is that the super glue tube is completely empty, and his wife has glued the chairs and tables to the floor and has glued the fridge shut. 

He is puzzled by his wife’s behavior. She had been reasonably sane so far. It just wasn’t like her. 

He tried to call her to see if she was at her mother’s but was furious to see that she had glued the receiver as well.

It is then he hears her laughing – a laugh that seemed to be coming from up above him. She was hanging upside down from the living room ceiling. It looked like she had glued her feet to the ceiling. 

Completely flabbergasted at this point, he assures her that he will get her down safely, seeking help from outside if needed. He stacks a pile of books and climbs on top to pull her down from the ceiling, but nothing happens.

He reassures her, to which the wife responds, amazingly calm and still laughing, “I’m not going anywhere.”

At this point, the husband starts laughing too. She finds her very pretty, natural, and incongruous and reaches out to kiss her on the lips; they kiss passionately.

The books slipped out from under the husband’s feet, who is now hanging by her lips. 

Crazy Glue: Analysis and My Thoughts

I loved how poignant the story is, and how power-packed it is with emotions. To top it all, he used so few words to convey so many messages. I am fangirling over it right now, but I will rein in my excitement and point out a few excerpts that stood out for me.

“There’s nothing that needs gluing together,” I snapped. “I can’t understand why you buy all this crap.”

“The same reason I married you,” she shot back, “to kill time.”

The usual couple banter. Isn’t it? (Unless you are one of those couples that get along on everything, because in that case, R-E-S-P-E-C-T!).

The conversation is so relatable. I have heard a variation of this dialogue by every couple I know. Keret’s understanding of the couple banter is on point. 

I didn’t feel like getting into a fight, so I kept quiet, and so did she.

‘I don’t see why you stay with her,” she whispered in the end. “The two of you never do anything. You don’t even bother fighting anymore. I can’t figure out why you go on like this. I just don’t get what’s holding you together. I don’t get it,” she said again.

Again, to its core, this is such an astute observation. Lack of communication kills a relationship, and it’s the same thing that was happening there. The couple didn’t fight. This indicates that they are not putting in efforts into their relationship, as if they are convinced that it is beyond repair.

And then..

She was so pretty and so incongruous, hanging upside down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downward and her breasts molded like two per­fect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her.

Yes, they seemed to have fallen out of love, the husband cheating on her and wife apparently knowing this treachery, choosing not to talk as she is too indifferent to care.

The husband engaging in an affair simply to keep out the boredom and avoid confrontation. Just like the crazy glue, they have shut each other out of their lives with a striking passive force.

But here, he brings the silver lining: the spark is still there. It’s just that the things that brought that couple together had faded into the background. 

But now, when they laughed together, the memories had all come rushing back and so had the passion. But does it end there?

My fiercely romantic side would say Yes! They live happily ever after. But my pragmatic side (I do have one, and I am amazed at that myself!) does not agree. It says it is another roller coaster ride. 

Highs and lows – guess that’s common between your friendly neighborhood stock market and and your neighbor’s (and may be your own) marriage(s).

Kyle Smith once remarked, ‘Keret can do more with six paragraphs than most writers can with 600 pages’

I couldn’t agree more. AND there is nothing crazy about that.

So, what’s your crazy glue story? We would love to hear from you! If you would like to rest your eyes and exercise your ears instead, Here is an audio podcast of this article.

Charles by Shirley Jackson: Summary, Analysis and Review

For those of you that loved The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, here comes another tale, less fictional and more realistic, atleast to the relatively new parents out there. It’s about Shirley Jackson’s early trysts with raising children that were, more often than not, outside her comprehension and control.

Loosely based on events from her own life while raising children in the 1940s, this is a humorous tale about gullible parents and the problematic child. 

Charles by Shirley Jackson: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves around a very young kid, Laurie, who has recently started Kindergarten. His mother is disheartened at the end of an era where his kid’s clothes have changed from a bib to jeans and a shirt and him enjoying the company of an older girl, not looking back to say goodbye to his mother.

At the end of the first day, when asked what he learned that day, Laurie quickly mentions that he “didn’t learn nothing” and quickly goes on to mention that a kid called Charles was spanked by the teacher for being ‘fresh’. 

A similar thing happens the day after, where Charles is the highlight of Laurie’s day. Charles was bad again today. He hit a teacher.

The parents, flabbergasted, had hardly digested the news when Laurie plays a trick with his dad that ends up with him saying to his dad, ’Gee, you are dumb.’

His parents continue questioning him about the events of the day and get to know that the reason for Charles hitting the teacher was simply an instruction to use a color of crayon that he didn’t particularly like. 

The events that follow get considerably more interesting. Charles, the little class rebel, seems to have become a highlight in all of Laurie’s daily reports – and has become a name evoking much interest in their household. 

Charles had all sorts of misbehavior under his belt – hitting a teacher, hitting fellow children, teaching classmates bad words, disrupting class, to name a few.

What seems curious is that Laurie mimics that behavior at home. His mother sees this and worries that Charles is a bad influence on her sweet little son. Charles is such a name in the household that they start calling mischief as ‘pulling a Charles’.

Laurie’s mother is looking forward to the PTA meeting, hoping to see Charles’ mother, who in her mind, would be the most haggard-looking woman at the meeting, thanks to being the mischief-maker’s mom.

She does not see anyone who matches that description. 

She meets the teacher and is surprised to discover that Laurie had difficulty adjusting to Kindergarten and that he has been improving now.

She discards that input considering it nothing but Charles’s fault.

The teacher is visibly confused hearing that name and tells her that they do not have any student named Charles, leaving it to an implicit conclusion that it was Laurie and not Charles that was causing all the trouble at school.

Charles: Review and My Thoughts

“Yes,” I said, laughing, “you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles.” “Charles?” she said. “We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

These two lines from the story encapsulate the complete story in them. 

How often do we look inward when questioned? 

How often is it the neighbor’s kid’s fault when our kid gets into a fight? 

And how often are other parents credulous having a kid ‘pull such a thing’ straight under their noses?

Guess ostriches are not the only creatures that close their eyes and believe that their hunter (problem) went away.

Its never our (our kids’) fault, Is it?

Shirley Jackson amazes us once again with her astute observations and excellent penmanship!

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro: Summary and Review

Where would your mind take you if someone said the words ‘the love of a good woman’ to you?

If your mind quickly takes you to classic romantic movies of yore, a wife tirelessly sacrificing her life for her husband, you are the same as the rest of us.

What’s more is that this titular story from this short story collection by Alice Munro is going to take you and that notion of yours for a ride.

The Love of a Good Woman: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story is a four part plot that starts in Walley. The first part – Jutland – begins with a museum.

A very strange exhibit is being displayed in the museum, a red box containing medical instruments which were once owned by an optometrist D.M. Willens.

Mr. Willens tragically drowned in the Peregrine river, in what seemed like an accident. The submerged body and car were discovered by three young boys – Cece, Bud and Jimmy.

Bud and Jimmy fail to inform their parents of their discovery, feel guilty about not doing so the first day. They try to go and meet Mrs. Willens, who seems to be completely unaware of her husband’s absence, hands the boys flowers to take home and retires back home.

The news does finally reach the police and Mr. Willens death is now known, and three of those boys have new nickname now: Deadman.

Part two makes an abrupt change to what seems like a completely different setting. (This reminded me of the time when I first read the Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and the abrupt plot change somewhere in the middle).

We are now tracing the life of Enid, a saintly soul as her mother calls her, is a middle aged nurse. She is currently employed by the Quinns, taking care of an ailing Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of a kidney failure.

Mr. Quinn is a farmer and an old classmate of Enid’s. They have two daughters.

Mr Quinn is shown to be a silent man, while Mrs Quinn is a cranky woman, who constantly whines about everything including her husband’s absence, albeit a lack of it doesn’t seem to comfort her much.

Enid, who is regarded by her mother as a saint for her selflessness, is constantly tormented by erotic dreams and is ashamed by them.

Part three connects the earlier two parts of the story by establishing a link between Mr Willens and this family, when one fine day, Mrs Quinn starts talking to Enid about Mr Willen’s death.

In her version of the events that led up to Mr WIllen’s death, Mr Willens, a lecherous old man, was touching her inappropriately while examining her.

Rupert, having witnessed this, in a rage of passion, grabs Mr Willens and bangs his head on the floor till he dies.

Suddenly realizing that Mr Willens is dead, Mrs Quinn proposes to dispose of the body in the nearby river in his car so as to make it look like an accident. She helps Mr. Quinn carry out this plan.

In a flashback, it is also shown how Enid having once seen his father with another woman, is silenced by her mother saying that it might have been a figment of her imagination

Fourth part of the story deals with the events that follow Mrs. Quinn’s death.

Enid, who seems to have developed feelings for Mr Quinn, is torn between her desire for companionship and her moral obligation to do what is right, which is to expose Rupert for the crime he committed.

There is no way for her to be sure that Mrs Quinn’s version of events was real or a figment of her imagination spouted by her disturbed mind in a diseased body. She devises a scheme to test Rupert, by asking him to row her out in the middle of the river and then letting him know what Mrs. Quinn told her.

Rupert will then have the choice to kill her and remove all the evidence of his crime.

The story closes with Rupert getting the oars while Enid waits for him and her fate at the riverbank. What happens next, is totally left to reader’s imagination.

Want to read The Love of a Good Woman?

The Love of a Good Woman is a short story which is published in a collection of short stories called The Love of a Good Woman. This collection won the Giller Prize and National Book Critics circle prize. You can use the links given below to check the price of this book:

Check Price on Amazon US
Check Price on Amazon India

The Love of a Good Woman: Review and My Thoughts

This short story collection by Munro went on to win many accolades – including the prestigious Giller Prize and National Book Critics Circle prize.

There is a reason why this story is celebrated the way it is. Such an astute description of a world built on lies! How change of perspective completely changes the story and that perception, more often than not is usually based off only a cursory understanding of events. The deeper you go, the more you discover.

It’s endearing to see that how remarkably real her characters are. As always she does magic with her kid characters, the way only she can. Consider for example the time that she has spent with the three kids – Cece, Bud and Jimmy.

The way she captures their innocence and their dark worlds is haunting.

Some endearing quotes from The Love of a Good Woman

And yet they hardly thought of each other as friends. They would never have designated someone as a best friend or a next best friend, or joggled people around in this position as girls did.

This brought back a flurry of childhood memories, where nothing in the world mattered more than your  friend reciprocating the esteemed honor of best friendship bestowed upon them.

Those walking home for dinner were mostly men. The women were already there- they were there all the time. But some women of middle age worked in store or offices for the reasons that were not their fault.

A little depiction of what the old world looked like, where women had very specific responsibilities in the family, it’s hard to believe that this was our world not very long ago. Working women a fault. Hmm.. Oh how the times have  changed and thanks for that!

A little sibling jocularity coming from Munro is the sweetest kind. This does not fail to put a nostalgic smile to my face every time I read it.

In a family of mostly females, a boy remarks about his sisters

“They stationed  themselves in front of every mirror in the house with the shelf underneath always loaded with bobby pins, pennies, buttons, bits of pencils”. Ah, the young vanity!

And then the sibling playfulness, the elder and the mighty playing with a younger one’s limited understanding of things around.

“Look, She’s putting lumps in the mashed potatoes again. He had his brother convinced that lumps were something that you added , like raisins to a rice pudding from a supply in the cupboard”

This is a perfect description of a mother with too many quarelling young kids to manage. This is in fact too real for me.

“Leave that pie alone. Stop swearing. Stop tattle-telling. Grow up”

You would feel that this can not be topped. Yet Munro seamlessly transitions from the children’s world to the adult world staying as true to the characters, as it possibly can be done. I marvelled at her deft maneuvering of both the worlds.

“Enid thought she knew what this meant, this spite and venom, the energy saved for ranting. Mrs.Quinn was flailing about for an enemy. Sick people grew to resent well people, and sometimes that was true of husbands and wives, or even of mothers and their children.”

By the time I was done reading the novel, I wondered and wondered, went on a lot of journeys. To the past and to the future. To memories with my siblings, to my classmates growing up, my girlfriends, my workplace, my mother, and that’s hell of an after effect of any story one could read. 

Alice Munro is often touted as Master of Contemporary short stories. And this book is a window to the reason behind that.

Taming the Bicycle by Mark Twain: Summary, Analysis and Review

I wonder what your first thoughts were looking at the title of the story.

Maybe a memory from childhood or a snapshot of some TV program where the protagonist ended up in a ditch, not able to control their bicycle?

Well, just when you thought you had seen it all and laughed all you could at your bicycle misfortunes, Mark Twain brings you some of his own with Taming the Bicycle, published as part of his collection What is Man and Other Stories.

Taming the Bicycle: Summary and Plot Analysis

In the early eighties, Mark Twain learned to ride one of the old high-wheel bicycles of that period, the form of bicycle that has long been antiquated. Twain’s account of his bicycle adventures are far from it though.

So Mr Twain saw an ad for a bicycle, thought he could do it and bought one alongwith a barrel of pond’s extract ( Guess what your friendly neighborhood Ponds cream was called back then!). He also hired an instructor from the company, who was to teach him the tricks to tame the wheely monster.

Mine was not a full-grown bicycle, but only a colt – fifty inch – and skittish, like any other colt.

The instructor explained a few key points and demonstrated how easy it was to ride one – mentioning that the tricky part was actually to dismount.

Twain soon realized that it was contrary to his own experience.

Although I was wholly inexperienced, I dismounted in the best time on record. He was on that side, shoving up the machine; we all came down with a crash, he at the bottom, I next, and the machine on top.

One crash followed after the other and regardless of how Twain, the bicycle or the instructor were positioned at the start of practice, the end result was always the same – instructor at the bottom, bicycle on top and Twain sandwiched between the two.

One of those practice runs even landed them in a hospital. Fortunately, the injuries were minor and Twain and his bicycle lived to tell the tale.

Twain notes: I attribute this to my prudence in always dismounting on something soft. Some recommend a feather bed, but I think an Expert is better.

The instructor was discharged from the hospital and shortly after, the practice sessions resumed – this time with four new assistants.

Twain continued to struggle with this new learning experiments; skills required to master this craft always seemed to be at loggerheads with his natural instincts. Seeing the error of his ways, Twain realized that he needed to do the intelligent thing – he needed to evolve.

The intellect has to come to the front now. It has to teach the limbs to discard their old education and adopt the new.

He ultimately draws learning from his struggles with the German languages to conquer his new enemy – the bicycle.

But I also see, by what I have learned of bicycling, that the right and only sure way to learn German is by bicycling method. That is to say, take a grip on one villainy of it at a time, and learn it – not ease up and shirk to the next, leaving that one half learned.

He continues to work his way around the bicycles – to master balance, art of mounting, art of steering and art of dismounting – all of which result in rather funny endings, but not without great lessons – mostly comic.

Mark Twain notes on the art of mounting: 

Then the mounting art is acquired and a little practice will make it simple and easy for you, though the spectators ought to keep a rod off or two to one side, along the first, if you have nothing against them.

And then the art of dismounting:

Try as you may, you don’t get down as you would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire. You make a spectacle of yourself every time.

After eight days of daily lessons, he is pronounced fit to paddle a bicycle without outside help. He tries to refute the argument that he could have done it himself without instruction by saying that such a  move could have been risky for him considering his natural clumsiness. 

Consider his thoughts on a self taught man, for example:

The self taught man seldom knows anything accurately.., and besides he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing as he himself has done. There are those that imagine that the unlucky accidents of life – life’s experiences – are in some way useful to us. I wish I could find out how. I never knew one of them to happen twice. They always change off and swap around and catch you on your inexperienced side.

He concludes that receiving proper instruction could have more than one benefit and in case of cycling, that added benefit could be saving up on Pond’s extract.

So the instructor, after asking a few questions about his strength and receiving unsatisfactory answers, eventually leaves him with the advice to keep practicing.

Then he left me, and I started out alone to seek adventures. You don’t really have to seek them – that is nothing but a phrase – they come to you.

Devoid of the encouragement from the instructor and his assistants, Twain takes a rather solo journey of  learning the bicycle. However unbeknownst to him a boy  gives him company in his adventure, though not in the form he expected. He paints a rather funny picture of this boy and the way he supported him through his practice sessions.

He was full of interest and comment.The first time I failed and went down he said that if he was me he would dress up in pillows, that’s what he would do.The next time I went down he advised me to go and learn a tricycle first. The third time I collapsed he said he didn’t believe I could stay on a horse-car.

Of course, Twain does not let this teasing get to him, he continues on with his practice sessions marvelling at how the bicycle has exposed unknown areas of the path he had been using for years. Little stones, cats, dogs, anything that came along his way, was bound to make him lose control and bite the dust, his falls usually resulted in injuries to him, while the bicycle stayed indestructible. 

Dogs eventually presented a bigger challenge than the stones on the path:

They all liked to see me practice, and they all came, for there was very little going on in our neighborhood to entertain a dog. It took time to learn to miss a dog, but I achieved even that.

Twain leaves us with a little bicycle wisdom as well:

Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.

I am afraid I can say the same for this essay by Mark Twain. Grab your copy and read it now!

Reading this essay, in addition to grinning like an idiot when not guffawing like one, I couldn’t help but think of my initial bicycle learning days when I was a kid looking like the Vitruvian man both when sitting on and falling off my bicycle, calling my mom every time I mounted or dismounted it.

I thought my days were hard, but when I looked at this picture to see the bicycle Twain conquered, my own traumatic ‘bicyclical’ past faded away.

Mark Twain and his bicycle are my new favorite , and there ain’t gonna be no dismounting that bookshelf soon.

The bicycle Mark Twain was trying to tame.

P.S. Assuming that I was able to convince you to read Taming the Bicycle by Mark Twain, and you eventually were able to find time to do so, what section did you like the most?

Did anything from the story remind you of your own bicycle adventures?

We would love to hear from you!