“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.