The Man In A Case by Anton Chekhov, 1898
The magic trick:
Using the frame story to provide a counterpoint to the internal Burkin story
Today we begin The Little Trilogy of stories involving Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch. Each story is built with a dual framework: an outer story features a character telling a story; the inner story being that story each character tells. In “The Man In A Case,” it is Burkin the school-teacher telling the story.
The framed outer story would seem to be much less important than the inner story, as it occupies probably but 10 percent of the overall story’s verbiage. However, it is crucial in providing a counterpoint to the ideas Burkin conveys in his story about a teaching colleague who lives his life within a figurative, protective case.
Ivan, notably, is outside the barn as he listens to the story. Burkin, meanwhile, is resting comfortably inside on some hay as he decries the faults of this man in a case. Burkin, it is clear, can be called a hypocrite for his harsh judgments. That is important, because it keeps the overall story from angling too far in one direction. Chekhov is not simply trying to present some kind of warning against the perils of shielding one’s self within conservative comforts. He holds every character up for critique during The Little Trilogy. Burkin closes his tale and falls asleep. Ivan, meanwhile, is not at peace. The story ends with him smoking a pipe, still standing outside the barn, contemplating life late into the night.
The stories in the trilogy are far more complex and subtle than they may at first appear. It’s the interaction between the inner and outer stories within the framework that provides so much of that nuance. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
“Yes, that is just how it is,” repeated Ivan Ivanovitch; “and isn’t our living in town, airless and crowded, our writing useless papers, our playing vint – isn’t that all a sort of case for us? And our spending our whole lives among trivial, fussy men and silly, idle women, our talking and our listening to all sorts of nonsense – isn’t that a case for us, too? If you like, I will tell you a very edifying story.”
“No; it’s time we were asleep,” said Burkin. “Tell it tomorrow.”