The Bishop by Anton Chekhov, 1902
The magic trick:
Two crucial heartbreaks
I’m not sure what I can say here about this story. I am too early in my apprenticeship to fully understand why this story is so good. I know enough to know it is good. Absurdly good. Not of this planet good. And yet I can’t tell you how he did it.
I can tell you about the two crucial heartbreaks in this story that haunted me.
First: that success on a large scale in precisely the way you always dreamed would happen does not equal happiness. The bishop loves what he does. He is loved and respected for what he does. And yet as he wilts with sickness he realizes he is not happy. He longs for the days of his childhood before he found so much success. That is sad.
Second: the success not only fails to guarantee happiness, it damages important relationships. The bishop finds his position in the church to be a barrier between he and his mother. She can only address him in official terms, using stilted language. Again, he longs for his youth when he was his mother’s son in the most loving and natural way. That is sad.
So, yes, I have failed completely at explaining how this story manages it’s magic. I can only explain some of the magic it conveys. Maybe someday I can revisit “The Bishop” and read it with more insight. Or perhaps it’s simply one of those works of art that defy simple explanation. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
His Reverence went to bed as soon as he reached home, and told the lay brother to close his shutters. The room grew dark. Oh, how tired he was!
As on the day before, the sound of voices and the tinkling of glasses came to him from the next room. His mother was gaily recounting some tale to Father Sisoi, with many a quaint word and saying, and the old man was listening gloomily, and answering in a gruff voice:
“Well, I never! Did they indeed? What do you think of that!”
And once more the bishop felt annoyed, and then hurt that the old lady should be so natural and simple with strangers, and so silent and awkward with her own son. It even seemed to him that she always tried to find some pretext for standing in his presence, as if she felt uneasy sitting down. And his father? If he had been alive, he would probably not have been able to utter a word when the bishop was there.