At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov, 1900
The magic trick:
Portraying simple familial love as an impossible dream in the selfish, isolated world of turn-of-the-century Russia
Family love in a country home should go uncompromised by society. Especially at Christmas time! At least that is the angle from which Chekhov writes in this story. Unfortunately, the Russia Chekhov portrays here is bleak and self-serving.
It is an exceptionally short story, but the author packs an emotional wallop with at least three key relationships.
One: we see that Yegor veer from writing an appropriate Christmas letter for Vasalisa, and instead is more interested in expressing his own political agenda – an utterly absurd thing to tack onto a Christmas card.
Two: we learn immediately that Efimia’s marriage has isolated her away from her parents. The separation takes on a tragic tint when we see the married couple together later in the story. Efimia is miserable, terrified by the mere appearance of her husband, who, we also learn, has failed to send her previous letters home out of sheer negligence.
Three: we see the old general at the place of Efimia’s husband’s work. This relationship is more nebulous but still worth noting. The general is old, forgetful, incompetent and probably lecherous. While he doesn’t necessarily directly affect the plot, he is representative of a broken, corrupt Russian infrastructure, one that most definitely plays a broader role in keeping love and happiness away from the country peasants at Christmas time.
It all adds up to a damning portrayal of a nation, especially poignant when contrasted against a typical tale of Christmas sweetness. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
“This is from granny and granddaddy,” she cried– “from the village–oh, Queen of Heaven!– Oh! holy saints! The roofs are piled with snow there now–and the trees are white, oh, so white! The little children are out coasting on their dear little sleddies–and granddaddy darling, with his dear bald head is sitting by the big, old, warm stove, and the little brown doggie–oh, my precious chickabiddies–”
Andrei remembered as he listened to her that his wife had given him letters at three or four different times, and had asked him to send them to the village, but important business had always interfered, and the letters had remained lying about unposted.
“And the little white hares are skipping about in the fields now–” sobbed Efimia, embracing her boy with streaming eyes. “Granddaddy dear is so kind and good, and granny is so kind and so full of pity. People’s hearts are soft and warm in the village– There is a little church there, and the men sing in the choir. Oh, take us away from here, Queen of Heaven! Intercede for us, merciful mother!”