The Party by Anton Chekhov, 1888
The magic trick:
Inviting the reader early on to eavesdrop and judge; and then leaving us there
It’s party time at the magic tricks site. Three stories this week. Three parties. None of them particularly fun.
Let’s start with maybe the bleakest of the bunch.
As per usual with our boy Anton, it’s all about observation and judgment. He’s the master of human knowledge, and this story begins by putting the reader in the observational viewpoint of the pregnant wife, Olga Mihalovna. She and we watch from a hiding spot in a nearby barn as her husband talks and flirts with a young attendee of the party. She judges. We judge. Olga is disgusted by the false characteristics her husband puts on in public, especially with women. We are disgusted by this too.
So far so good.
But our relationship with the story expands shortly thereafter. Soon the reader watches as Olga does many of the same things. Nothing lecherous. But she certainly puts on a show, wears a mask – any phrase you want to use – as the ever-proper party hostess. Now suddenly the reader is judging Olga too.
It’s as if she taught us what to look for in this society and then the reader turns against her by judging her for the same flaws. The story continues on and the plot thickens, of course, and the themes advance, but the message is clear: no one is wholly guilty and no one is wholly innocent. Only the reader is left to judge from our little hill outside the story, and it’s not a very comfortable position. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
Olga Mihalovna remembered how in the first months of her marriage she had felt dreary at home alone and had driven into the town to the Circuit Court, at which Pyotr Dmitritch had sometimes presided in place of her godfather, Count Alexey Petrovitch. In the presidential chair, wearing his uniform and a chain on his breast, he was completely changed. Stately gestures, a voice of thunder, “what,” “to be sure,” careless tones. . . . Everything, all that was ordinary and human, all that was individual and personal to himself that Olga Mihalovna was accustomed to seeing in him at home, vanished in grandeur, and in the presidential chair there sat not Pyotr Dmitritch, but another man whom every one called Mr. President. This consciousness of power prevented him from sitting still in his place, and he seized every opportunity to ring his bell, to glance sternly at the public, to shout. . . . Where had he got his short-sight and his deafness when he suddenly began to see and hear with difficulty, and, frowning majestically, insisted on people speaking louder and coming closer to the table? From the height of his grandeur he could hardly distinguish faces or sounds, so that it seemed that if Olga Mihalovna herself had gone up to him he would have shouted even to her, “Your name?”
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