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Anton Chekhov’s “In the Gully” (1900)


By Vladimir Nabokov

The action of “In the Gully” (usually translated as “In the Ravine”) takes place half-a-century ago—the story was written in 1900. The place, somewhere in Russia, is a village called Ukleyevo : kley sounds like clay and means “glue.” The only thing to tell about the village was that one day at a wake “the old sexton saw among the side dishes some large-grained caviar and began eating it greedily; people nudged him, tugged at his sleeve, but he seemed petrified with enjoyment: felt nothing, and only went on eating. He ate up all the caviar, and there were some four pounds in the jar. And years had passed since then, the sexton had long since been dead, but the caviar was still remembered. Whether life was so poor here or people had not been clever enough to notice anything but that unimportant incident that had occurred ten years before, anyway the people had nothing else to tell about the village of Ukleyevo.” Or, rather, there was nothing good to tell except this.

Here at least was a beam of fun, a smile, something human. All the rest was not only drab, it was also evil—a gray wasp nest of deception and injustice. “There were only two decent houses built of brick with iron roofs; one of them was occupied by the rural administration; in the other, a two-storied house just opposite the church, lived Grigori Petrovich Tsybukin, a merchant who hailed from Yepi-fan.” Both of these houses were abodes of evil. Everything in the story, except the children and the child-wife Lipa, is going to be a succession of deceptions, a succession of masks.

Mask One: “Grigori kept a grocery, but that was only for the sake of appearances: in reality he dealt in vodka, cattle, hides, grain, and pigs; he traded in anything that came to hand, and when, for instance, magpies were wanted abroad for ladies’ hats, he made thirty kopeks on every brace of birds; he bought timber for felling, lent money at interest, and altogether was a resourceful old man.” This Grigori will also undergo a very interesting metamorphosis in the course of the story.

Old Grigori has two sons, a deaf one around the house, married to what seems a pleasant, cheerful young woman but in reality a malicious devil of a woman; the other son is a detective in town, a bachelor as yet. You will notice that Grigori is immensely appreciative of his daughter-in-law Aksinia: we shall see why in a minute. Old Grigori, a widower, has married again, a new wife named Varvara (Barbara): “No sooner had she moved into a little room in the upper story than everything in the house seemed to brighten up as though new glass had been put into all the windows. The oil lamps burned brightly before the sacred pictures, the tables were covered with snow-white cloths, flowers flecked with red made their appearance in the windows and in the front garden, and at dinner, instead of eating from a single bowl, each person had a separate plate set for him.” She also seems, at first, a good woman, a delightful woman, and, anyway, she has a kinder heart than the old man. “When on the eve of a fast or during the local church festival, which lasted three days, Grigori’s store palmed off on the peasants tainted salt meat, smelling so strong it was hard to stand near the tub of it, and took scythes, caps, and their wives’ kerchiefs in pledge from the drunken men; when the factory hands, stupefied with bad vodka, lay in the mud, and degradation seemed to hover thick like a fog in the air, then it was a kind of relief to think that up there in the house there was a quiet, neatly dressed woman who had nothing to do with salt meat or vodka. ”

Grigori is a hard man, and though now in the lower middle class is of direct peasant descent—his father was probably a well-to-do peasant—and naturally he hates peasants. Now comes:

Mask Two : Under her gay appearance Aksinia is also hard and that is why old Grigori admires her so much. This pretty woman is a swindler: “Aksinia attended to the shop, and from the yard could be heard the clink of bottles and of money, her laughter and loud talk, and the angry voices of customers whom she had cheated, and at the same time it could be seen that the illicit sale of vodka was already going on in the shop. The deaf man sat in the shop, too, or walked about the street bareheaded, with his hands in his pockets looking absent-mindedly now at the log cabins, now at the sky overhead.

Six times a day they had tea; four times a day they sat down to meals. And in the evening they counted their takings, wrote them down, went to bed, and slept soundly.”

Now comes a transition to the calico-printing mills of the place and to their owners. Let us call them collectively the Khrymin family.

Mask Three (adultery): Aksinia not only deceives customers in the store, she also deceives her husband with one of those mill owners.

Mask Four: This is just a little mask, a kind of self-deception.

“A telephone was installed in the rural administration, too, but it soon went out of order when it started to harbor bedbugs and cockroaches. The district elder was semiliterate and wrote every word in the official documents with a capital. But when the telephone went out of order he said: ‘Yes, now we shall find it hard to be without a telephone.’ ”

Mask Five: This refers to Grigori’s elder son, the detective Anisim. We are now deep in the deception theme of the story. But Chekhov keeps back some important information about Anisim: “The elder son, Anisim, came home very rarely, only on great holidays, but he often sent by a returning villager presents and letters written by someone else in a very beautiful hand, always on a sheet of foolscap The opening page of Nabokov’s lecture on “In the Gully.” that looked like a formal petition. The letters were full of expressions that Anisim never made use of in conversation: ‘Dear papa and mamma, I send you a pound of orange pekoe tea for the satisfaction of your physical needs.’ ” There is a little mystery here that will be gradually cleared up, as in the “someone else in a very beautiful hand.”

It is curious that when he arrives home one day and there is something about him suggesting that he has been dismissed from the police force, nobody bothers about it. On the contrary, the occasion seems festive, encouraging ideas of marriage.

Says Varvara, Grigori’s wife and Anisim’s stepmother:

‘How is this, my goodness!’ she said. ‘The lad’s in his twenty-eighth year, and he is still strolling about a bachelor. . . .’ From the adjacent room her soft, even speech continued to sound like a series of sighs. She began whispering with her husband and Aksinia, and their faces, too, assumed a sly and mysterious expression as though they are conspirators. It was decided to marry Anisim.”

Child Theme : This is the transition to the main character of the story, the girl Lipa (pronounced Leepa). She was the daughter of a working widow, charwoman, and helped her mother in her various chores. “She was pale, thin, and frail, with soft, delicate features, tanned from working in the open air; a shy, melancholy smile always hovered about her face, and there was a childlike look in her eyes, trustful and curious. She was young, still a child, her bosom still scarcely perceptible, but she could be married because she had reached the legal age [eighteen]. She really was beautiful, and the only thing that might be thought unattractive was her big masculine hands which hung idle now like two big claws.”

Mask Six: This refers to Varvara, who though pleasant enough, is but a hollow shell of superficial kindness beneath which there is nothing.

Thus Grigori’s whole family is a masquerade of deceit.

Now comes Lipa, and with Lipa a new theme starts —the theme of trust, childish trust.

The second chapter ends with another glimpse of Anisim. Everything about him is false: there is something very wrong, and he conceals it not too well. “After the visit of inspection the wedding day was fixed. Anisim kept walking about the rooms at home whistling, or suddenly remembering something, would fall to brooding and would look at the floor fixedly, silently, as though he would probe to the depths of the earth. He expressed neither pleasure that he was to be married, married so soon, the week of St. Thomas [after Easter], nor a desire to see his bride, but simply went on whistling through his teeth. And it was evident that he was only getting married because his father and stepmother wished him to, and because it was a country custom to marry off the son in order to have a woman to help in the house. When he went away he seemed in no haste, and behaved altogether not as he had done on previous visits; he was unusually jaunty and said the wrong things.”

In the third chapter observe Aksinia’s green and yellow print dress for the wedding of Anisim and Lipa. Chekhov is going to describe her consistently in the terms of a reptile. (A kind of rattlesnake is found in eastern Russia called the yellow belly.)

“The dressmakers were making for Varvara a brown dress with black lace and glass beads on it, and for Aksinia a light green dress with a yellow front, and a train.” Although these dressmakers are described as belonging to the Flagellant Sect, this did not mean much by 1900—it did not mean that the members actually whipped themselves—it was just one of the numerous sects in Russia, as there are numerous sects in this country. Grigori even practices a deception on the two poor girls: “When the dressmakers had finished their work Grigori paid them not in money but in goods from the shop, and they went away depressed, carrying parcels of tallow candles and tins of sardines which they did not in the least need, and when they got out of the village into the open country they sat down on a hillock and cried.”

“Anisim arrived three days before the wedding, rigged out in new togs from top to toe. He wore glistening rubbers, and instead of a tie a red metal cord with little balls hanging on it, and on his shoulders, loosely, its sleeves empty, hung a short overcoat, also new. After crossing himself sedately before the icon, he greeted his father and gave him ten silver rubles and ten half-rubles; to Varvara he gave as much, and to Aksinia twenty quarter-rubles. The chief charm of the present lay in the fact that all the coins, as though carefully matched, were new and glittered in the sun.” These were counterfeit coins. An allusion is made to Samorodov, Anisim’s friend and co-faker, a dark little man with the beautiful handwriting in which Anisim’s letters home were written. It becomes gradually clear that Samorodov is the mastermind in this counterfeiting business, but Anisim tries hard to puff himself up, boasting of his wonderful powers of observation and of his talents as a detective. As a detective, and a mystic, he knows, however, that “anybody can steal but there is no place to hide stolen goods.” A streak of curious mysticism runs through this strange character.

You will enjoy the delightful description of the wedding preparations and then of Anisim’s mood in church during the wedding is worth noting. “Here he was being married, he had to take a wife for the sake of doing the proper thing, but he was not thinking of that now, he had somehow forgotten his wedding completely. Tears dimmed his eyes so that he could not see the icons, he felt heavy at heart; he prayed and besought God that the misfortunes that threatened him, that were ready to burst upon him tomorrow, if not today, might somehow pass him by as storm-clouds in time of drought bypass a village without yielding one drop of rain. [He knew how good detectives were, being one himself.] And so many sins were heaped up in the past, so many sins, and getting out of it all was so beyond hope that it seemed incongruous even to ask forgiveness. But he did ask forgiveness, and even gave a loud sob, but no one took any notice of that, since they supposed he had had a drop too much.”

For a moment the child theme appears: “There was the sound of a fretful childish wail. ‘Take me away from here, mamma darling!’ ‘Quiet there!’ cried the priest.”

Then a new character is introduced; Yelizarov (nicknamed Crutch), a carpenter and contractor. He is a childish person, very gentle and naive, and a little cracked. He and Lipa are both on the same level of meekness, simplicity, and trust —and he and she are real human beings despite their not having the cunning of the evil characters in the tale. Crutch, who seems vaguely to be endowed with second sight, might be trying intuitively to avert the disaster which the wedding itself will result in: ” ‘Anisim and you, my child, love one another, lead a godly life, little children, and the Heavenly Mother will not abandon you. . . . Children, children, children,’ he muttered rapidly. ‘Aksinia my dear, Varvara darling, let’s all live in peace and harmony, my dear little hatchets. . . .’ ” He calls people by the pet names of his pet tools.

Mask Eight : Yet another mask, another deception, relates to the elder of the rural district and his clerk, “who had served together for fourteen years, and who had during all that time never signed a single document for anybody or let a single person out of the office without deceiving him or doing him harm. [They] were sitting now side by side, both fat and replete, and it seemed as though they were so steeped in injustice and falsehood that even the skin of their faces was of a peculiar, thievish kind.” “Steeped in falsehood” — this is one of the two main notes of the whole story.

You will notice the various details of the wedding: poor Anisim brooding over his predicament, over the doom that is closing upon him; the peasant woman who shouts outside “You’ve sucked the blood out of us, you monsters; a plague on you!”; and the wonderful description of Aksinia: “Aksinia had naive gray eyes which rarely blinked, and a naive smile played continually on her face. And in those unblinking eyes, and in that little head on the long neck, and in her slenderness there was something snakelike; all in green, with the yellow front of her bodice and the smile on her lips, she looked like a viper that peers out of the young rye in the spring at the passers-by, stretching itself and lifting its head. The Khrymins were free in their behavior to her, and it was very noticeable that she had long been on intimate terms with the eldest of them. But her deaf husband saw nothing, he did not look at her; he sat with his legs crossed and ate nuts, cracking them with his teeth so loudly that it seemed he was shooting a pistol.

“But, behold, old Grigori himself walked into the middle of the room and waved his handkerchief as a sign that he, too, wanted to dance the Russian dance, and all over the house and from the crowd in the yard rose a hum of approbation:

“‘It’s himself has stepped out! Himself!’. . .

“It was kept up till late, till two o’clock in the morning. Anisim, staggering, went to take leave of the singers and musicians, and gave each of them a new half-ruble. His father, who was not staggering, but treading more heavily on one leg, saw his guests off, and said to each of them, ‘The wedding has cost two thousand.’

“As the party was breaking up, someone took the Shikalova innkeeper’s good overcoat instead of his own old one, and Anisim suddenly flew into a rage and began shouting: ‘Stop, I’ll find it at once; I know who stole it! Stop!’

He ran out into the street in pursuit of someone, but he was caught, brought back home, shoved, drunken, red with anger and drenched with sweat, into the room where the aunt was undressing Lipa, and there he and she were locked in.”

After five days Anisim, who respects Varvara for being a decent woman, confesses to her that he may be arrested at any moment. When he leaves for town, we have the following beautiful description:

“When they drove up out of the gully Anisim kept looking back toward the village. It was a warm, bright day. The cattle were being driven out for the first time, and the peasant girls and women were walking by the herd in their holiday dresses. The brown bull bellowed, glad to be free, and pawed the ground with his forefeet. On all sides, above and below, the larks were singing. Anisim looked back at the graceful little white church—it had only lately been whitewashed—and he thought how he had been praying in it five days before; he looked back at the school with its green roof, at the little river in which he used to bathe and catch fish, and there was a stir of joy in his heart, and he wished that a wall might rise up from the ground and prevent him from going farther, and that he might be left with nothing but the past.”

It is his last glimpse.

And now the delightful transformation that comes over Lipa. Anisim’s conscience had not only weighed upon him but had been impersonated in him and had been a dreadful weight on Lipa although she knew nothing of his complicated life. Now he and his burden are removed and she is free.

“Wearing an old skirt, her feet bare and her sleeves tucked up to her shoulders, she was scrubbing the stairs in the entry and singing in a silvery little voice, and when she brought out a big tub of slops and looked up at the sun with her childlike smile it seemed as though she, too, were a lark.”

Now Chekhov is going to do something quite difficult from the author’s point of view. He is going to take advantage of Lipa’s silence being broken in order to have her, the silent one, the wordless one, now find words and bring out the facts that will lead to the disaster. She and Crutch are coming back from a long excursion on foot to a remote church, her mother is lagging behind, and Lipa says: “And now I am afraid of Aksinia. It’s not that she does anything, she is always smiling, but sometimes she glances at the window, and her eyes are so angry and there is a greenish gleam in them—like the eyes of the sheep in the dark pen. The Juniors are leading her astray: ‘Your old man,’ they tell her, ‘has a bit of land at Butyokino, a hundred acres,’ they say, ‘and there is sand and water there, so you, Aksinia,’ they say, ‘build a brickyard there and we will go shares in it.’ Bricks now are twenty rubles the thousand, it’s a profitable business. Yesterday at dinner Aksinia said to the old man: ‘I want to build a brickyard at Butyokino; I’m going into the business on my own account.’ She laughed as she said it. And Grigori Petrovich’s face darkened, one could see he did not like it. ‘As long as I live,’ he said, ‘the family must not break up, we must keep together.’ She gave him a look and gritted her teeth. . . . Fritters were served, she would not eat them.”

When they come to a boundary post, Crutch touches it to see that it is firm, an act in keeping with his character. At this point he, Lipa, and some girls who are collecting toadstools are representative of Chekhov’s happy people, naive gentle people against a background of unhappiness and injustice. They meet people coming from the fair: “A cart would drive by stirring up the dust and behind it would run an unsold horse, and it seemed glad it had not been sold.” There is a subtle emblematic connection here between Lipa and the happy “unsold” horse. Lipa’s owner has disappeared. And another point, reflecting the child theme: “An old woman led a little boy in a big cap and big boots; the boy was tired out with the heat and the heavy boots which prevented him from bending his legs at the knees, but yet he blew a tin trumpet unceasingly with all his might. They had gone down the slope and turned into the street, but the trumpet could still be heard.” Lipa sees and hears that little boy because she herself is going to have a baby. In the passage “Lipa and her mother who were born to poverty and prepared to live so till the end, giving up to others everything except their frightened, gentle souls, may perhaps have fancied for a minute that in this vast, mysterious world, among the endless series of lives, they too counted for something,” I recommend to your attention the words “their frightened, gentle souls.” And notice too the beautiful little picture of the summer evening:

“At last they reached home. The mowers were sitting on the ground at the gates near the shop. As a rule the Ukleyevo peasants refused to work for Grigori, and he had to hire strangers, and now in the darkness it seemed as though there were men with long black beards sitting there. The shop was open, and through the doorway they could see the deaf man playing checkers with a boy. The mowers were singing softly, almost inaudibly, or were loudly demanding their wages for the previous day, but they were not paid for fear they should go away before tomorrow. Old Grigori, with his coat off, was sitting in his waistcoat with Aksinia under the birch-tree, drinking tea; a lighted lamp was on the table.

” ‘I say, grandfather,’ a mower called from outside the gates, as though teasing him, ‘pay us half anyway! Hey, grandfather.’ ”

On the next page Grigori realizes the silver rubles are false and gives them to Aksinia to throw away, but she uses them to pay the mowers. “You mischievous woman,” cries Grigori, dumbfounded and alarmed. “Why did you marry me into this family?” Lipa asks her mother. There is a certain gap in time after chapter 5.

One of the most striking passages in the story occurs in chapter 6, when absolutely and divinely indifferent to what is happening around her (the deserved fate of her idiotic husband and the terrible snake-evil coming from Aksinia), absolutely and divinely indifferent to all this evil, Lipa is engrossed in her child and proceeds to promise her little pinched baby her own most vivid vision, her only knowledge of life. She tosses him up and down and in rhythm with the tossing says in singsong tones : “You will grow ever so big, ever so big. You will be a man, we shall work together! We shall wash floors together!” Just as her own most vivid childhood memories are linked up with washing floors. ” ‘Why do I love him so much, Mamen’ka? Why do I feel so sorry for him!’ she went on in a quivering voice, and her eyes glistened with tears. ‘Who is he? What is he like? As light as a little feather, as a little crumb, but I love him, I love him as if he were a real person. Here he can do nothing, he can’t talk, and yet I always know what his darling eyes tell me he wants.’ ”

This chapter ends with the news that Anisim is to get six years of hard labor in Siberia. Then a nice touch is added; says old Grigori:

” ‘I am worried about the money. Do you remember before his wedding Anisim’s bringing me some new rubles and halfrubles? One parcel I put away at the time, but the others I mixed with my own money. When my uncle Dmitri Filatych—the kingdom of Heaven be his—was alive, he used to go to Moscow and to the Crimea to buy goods. He had a wife, and this same wife, when he was away buying goods, used to take up with other men. They had half a dozen children. And when uncle was in his cups he would laugh and say, “I never can make out,” he used to say, “which are my children and which are other people’s.” An easy-going disposition, to be sure; and now I can’t tell which are genuine rubles and which are false ones. And they all seem false to me. … I buy a ticket at the station, I give the man three rubles, and I keep fancying they are counterfeit. And I am frightened. I must be ill.’ ”

From that moment he is mentally deranged and is redeemed, in a sense.

“He opened the door and crooking his finger, beckoned to Lipa. She went up to him with the baby in her arms.

‘ ‘If there is anything you want, Lipynka, you ask for it,’ he said. ‘And eat anything you like, we don’t grudge it, so long as it does you good. . . .’ He made the sign of the cross over the baby. ‘And take care of my grandchild. My son is gone, but my grandson is left.’

“Tears rolled down his cheeks; he gave a sob and went away. Soon afterwards he went to bed and slept soundly after seven sleepless nights.”

This was poor Lipa’s happiest night —before the awful events that were to follow.

Grigori makes arrangements to give the land at Butyokino, which Aksinia wants for a brickyard, to his grandson. Aksinia is in a fury.

” ‘Hey! Stepan,’ she called to the deaf man, ‘let us go home this minute! Let us go to my father and mother; I don’t want to live with convicts. Get ready!’

“Clothes were hanging on lines stretched across the yard; she snatched off her petticoats and blouses still wet and flung them across the deaf man’s stretched arms. Then in her fury she dashed about the yard where the linen hung, tore down all of it, and what was not hers she threw on the ground and trampled upon.

” ‘Holy Saints, stop her,’ moaned Varvara. ‘What a woman! Give her Butyokino! Give it to her, for Christ’s sake.’ ”

We come now to the climax.

“Aksinia ran into the kitchen where laundering was being done. Lipa was washing alone, the cook had gone to the river to rinse the clothes. Steam was rising from the trough and from the caldron near the stove, and the air in the kitchen was close and thick with vapor. On the floor was a heap of unwashed clothes, and Nikifor, kicking up his little red legs, lay on a bench near them, so that if he fell he should not hurt himself. Just as Aksinia went in Lipa took the former’s shirt out of the heap and put it into the trough, and was just stretching out her hand to a big panlike dipper full of boiling water which was standing on the table.

‘Give it here,’ said Aksinia, looking at her with hatred, and snatching the shirt out of the trough; ‘it is not your business to touch my linen! You are a convict’s wife, and ought to know your place and who you are!’

“Lipa gazed at her in utter bewilderment; she did not understand, but suddenly she caught the look Aksinia turned upon the child, and at once she understood and went numb all over.

‘You’ve taken my land, so here you are!’ Saying this Aksinia snatched up the dipper with the boiling water and splashed it over Nikifor.

“There followed a scream such as had never been heard before in Ukleyevo, and no one would have believed that a little weak creature like Lipa could scream like that. And it was suddenly quiet in the yard. Aksinia walked into the house in silence with the old naive smile on her lips. . . . The deaf man kept moving about the yard with his arms full of linen, then be began hanging it up again, silently, without haste. And until the cook came back from the river no one ventured into the kitchen to see what had happened there.”

The enemy is destroyed, Aksinia smiles once more; automatically the land is hers now. The deaf man hanging up the linen again is a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part.

The child theme is continued when Lipa comes on foot the long long way back from the hospital. Her baby has died; she carries his little body wrapped in a blanket.

“Lipa went down the road, and before reaching the hamlet sat down by a small pond. A woman brought a horse to water but the horse would not drink. ‘What more do you want?’ the woman said to it softly, in perplexity. ‘What more do you want?’

“A boy in a red shirt, sitting at the water’s edge, was washing his father’s jack boots. And not another soul was in sight, either in the village or on the hill. ‘Doesn’t drink,’ said Lipa, looking at the horse.”

This little group should be noted. The boy, not her boy. All of it is emblematic of the simple family happiness that might have been hers. Notice the unobtrusive symbolism of Chekhov.

“Then the woman with the horse and the boy with the boots walked away, and there was no one left at all. The sun went to sleep, covering itself with a skeined cloth of gold, and long clouds, red and lilac, stretched across the sky, guarded its rest.

Somewhere far away a bittern boomed, a hollow, melancholy sound as that made by a cow shut up in a barn. The cry of that mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it was like or where it lived. At the top of the hill by the hospital, in the bushes close to the pond, and in the fields, the nightingales were singing their heads off. The cuckoo kept reckoning someone’s years and losing count and beginning again. In the pond the frogs called angrily to one another, straining themselves to bursting and one could even make out the words: ‘That’s what you are! That’s what you are!’ What a noise there was! It seemed as though all these creatures were singing and shouting so that no one might sleep on that spring night, so that all, even the angry frogs, might appreciate and enjoy every minute: life is given only once.” Among European writers you may distinguish the bad one from the good one by the simple fact that the bad one has generally one nightingale at a time, as happens in conventional poetry, while the good one has several of them sing together, as they really do in nature.

The men Lipa meets on the road are probably bootleggers but Lipa sees them otherwise in the moonlight.

” ‘Are you holy men?’ Lipa asked the old man.

” ‘No. We are from Firsanovo.’

” ‘You looked at me just now and my heart was softened. [An almost Biblical intonation in the Russian text.] And the lad is so gentle. I thought you must be holy men.’

” ‘Have you far to go?’

” ‘To Ukleyevo.’

” ‘Get in, we will give you a lift as far as Kuzmenki, then you go straight on and we turn off to the left.’

“Vavila [the young man] got into the cart with the barrel and the old man and Lipa got into the other. They moved at a walking pace, Vavila in front.

” ‘My baby was in torment all day,’ said Lipa. ‘He looked at me with his little eyes and said nothing; he wanted to speak and could not. Lord God! Queen of Heaven! In my grief I kept falling down on the floor; I would be standing there and then I would fall down by the bedside. And tell me, grandfather, why should a little one be tormented before his death? When a grown-up person, a man or woman, is in torment, his sins are forgiven, but why a little one, when he has no sins? Why?’

” ‘Who can tell?’ answered the old man.

“They drove on for half an hour in silence.

” ‘We can’t know everything, how and why,’ said the old man. ‘A bird is given not four wings but two because it is able to fly with two; and so man is not permitted to know everything but only a half or a quarter. As much as he needs to know in order to live, so much he knows.’ . . .

” ‘Never mind,’ he repeated. ‘Yours is not the worst of sorrows. Life is long, there is good and bad yet to come, there is everything to come. Great is mother Russia,’ he said, and looked round on either side of him. ‘I have been all over Russia, and I have seen everything in her, and you may believe my words, my dear. There will be good and there will be bad. I went as a messenger from my village to Siberia, and I have been to the Amur River and the Altay Mountains and I emigrated to Siberia; I worked the land there, then I got homesick for mother Russia and I came back to my native village. . . .And when I got home, as the saying is, there was neither stick nor stone; I had a wife, but I left her behind in Siberia, she was buried there. So I am a hired man now. And I tell you: since then I have had it good as well as bad. I do not want to die, my dear, I would be glad to live another twenty years; so there has been more of the good. And great is our mother Russia!’ and again he gazed on either side and looked back. . . .

“When Lipa reached home the cattle had not yet been driven out; everyone was asleep. She sat down on the steps and waited. The old man was the first to come out; he understood what had happened from the first glance at her, and for a long time he could not utter a word, but only smacked his lips.

” ‘Oh Lipa,’ he said, ‘you did not take care of my grandchild. . . .’

Varvara was awakened. She struck her hands together and broke into sobs, and immediately began laying out the baby.

” ‘And he was such a pretty child . . .’ she said. ‘Oh dear, dear. . . . You had the one child, and you did not take enough care of him, you silly thing. ‘

In her innocence Lipa never thought of telling people it was Aksinia who had killed her baby. Apparently the family believed that Lipa had just been careless and had accidentally scalded the child by overturning a pot of hot water.

After the requiem service “Lipa waited at table, and the priest, lifting his fork on which there was a salted mushroom, said to her: ‘Don’t grieve for the babe. For such is the kingdom of Heaven.’

“And only when they had all left Lipa realized fully that there was no Nikifor and never would be, she realized it and broke into sobs. And she did not know what room to go into to sob, for she felt that now her child was dead there was no place for her in the house, that she had no reason to be there, that she was in the way; and the others felt it, too.

” ‘Now what are you bellowing for?’ Aksinia shouted, suddenly appearing in the doorway; because of the funeral she was dressed up in new clothes and had powdered her face. ‘Shut up!’

“Lipa tried to stop but could not, and sobbed louder than ever.

” ‘Do you hear?’ shouted Aksinia, and stamped her foot in violent anger. ‘Who is it I am speaking to? Get out of the house and don’t set foot here again, you convict. Get out.’

” ‘There, there, there,’ the old man put in fussily. ‘Aksinia, don’t make such an outcry, my dear. . . . She is crying, it is only natural . . . her child is dead.

” ‘It’s only natural,’ Aksinia mimicked him. ‘Let her stay the night here, and don’t let me see a trace of her tomorrow! “It’s only natural” . . .’ she mimicked him again, and, laughing, went into the shop.”

Lipa has lost the frail link that connected her to the household and leaves the house for ever.

In all cases, except Aksinia’s, the truth gradually comes out.*

The mechanical quality of Varvara’s virtues is nicely exemplified by the jams she keeps making; there is too much of it, it goes sugary and uneatable. We recall that poor Lipa had been so fond of it. The jam turned against Varvara.

The letters from Anisim still come in that beautiful hand—evidently his friend Samorodov is doing time with him in the mines of Siberia, so that here too the truth comes out. “I am ill here all the time; I am wretched, for Christ’s sake help me!”

Old Grigori, half-crazy, wretched, unloved, is the most vivid representative here of truth coming into its own.

“One fine autumn day toward evening old Grigori was sitting near the church gates, with the collar of his fur coat turned up and nothing of him could be seen but his nose and the peak of his cap. At the other end of the long bench sat Yelizarov the contractor, and beside him Yakov the school watchman, a toothless old man of seventy. Crutch and the watchman were talking.

” ‘Children ought to give food and drink to the old. . . . Honor thy father and mother . . .’ Yakov was saying with irritation, ‘while she, this woman [Aksinia] has turned her father-in-law out of his own house; the old man has neither food nor drink, where is he to go? He has not had a morsel these three days.’

” ‘Three days!’ said Crutch, amazed.

‘ ‘Here he sits and does not say a word. He has grown feeble. And why be silent? He ought to prosecute her, they wouldn’t praise her in court.’

” ‘Who praised whom in court?’ asked Crutch, who was hard of hearing.

” ‘What?’ from the watchman.

” ‘The woman’s all right,’ said Crutch, ‘she does her best. In their line of business they can’t get on without that . . . without cheating, I mean. . . .’

” ‘Kicked out of his own house!’ Yakov went on with irritation. ‘Save up and buy your own house, then turn people out of it!

She is a nice one, to be sure! A pla-ague!’

“Grigori listened and did not stir. . . .

” ‘Whether it is your own house or others’ it makes no difference so long as it is warm and the women don’t scold . . .’ said Crutch, and he laughed. ‘When I was young I was very fond of my Nastasya. She was a quiet woman. And she used to be always at it: “Buy a house, Makarych! Buy a house, Makarych! Buy a horse, Makarych!” She was dying and yet she kept on saying, “Buy yourself a racing droshky, Makarych, so that you don’t have to walk.” And all I did was to buy her gingerbread.’

“‘Her husband’s deaf and stupid,’ Yakov went on, not listening to Crutch; ‘a regular fool, just like a goose. He can’t understand anything. Hit a goose on the head with a stick and even then it does not understand.’

“Crutch got up to go home. Yakov also got up, and both of them went off together, still talking. When they had gone fifty paces old Grigori got up, too, and walked after them, stepping uncertainly as though on slippery ice.”


* VN prefaces this section by the following remark to his class : “There is again a time gap between chapters 8 and 9. You will observe the delightful Chekhovian detail when the Khrymins, one of whom, if not all, is or are on intimate terms with his wife have ‘presented the deaf man with a gold watch, and he is constantly taking it out and putting it to his ear.’ ” Ed.


In this last chapter the introduction of a new character in the toothless old watchman is another stroke of genius on the part of Chekhov, suggesting the continuity of existence, even though this is the conclusion of the story—but the story will go on with old and new characters, it will flow on as life flows on.

Note the synthesis at the end of this tale: “The village was already sinking in the dusk of evening and the sun only gleamed on the upper part of the road which ran wriggling like a snake up the slope.” The brilliant, snakelike trail, an emblem of Aksinia, fades and vanishes in the serene bliss of the night. “Old women were coming back from the woods and children with them; they were bringing baskets of mushrooms. Peasant women and girls came in a crowd from the station where they had been loading the cars with bricks, whose red dust had settled upon their skin under their eyes. They were singing.

Ahead of them was Lipa, with her eyes turned toward the sky, she was singing in a high voice, carolling away as though exulting in the fact that at last the day was over and one might rest. Among the crowd, holding by the knot something tied up in a kerchief, breathless as usual, walked Praskovya, her mother, who still went out to work by the day.

“‘Good evening, Makarych!’ cried Lipa, seeing Crutch. ‘Good evening, dear!’

“‘Good evening, Lipynka,’ cried Crutch delighted. ‘Girls, women, love the rich carpenter! Ho-ho! My little children, my little children. (Crutch gave a sob.) My dear little hatchets!’ ” Crutch is the not very efficient but on the whole good spirit of the tale—in the dazed state he usually lives in, he had spoken words of peace at the marriage, as if trying, in vain, to avert the disaster.

Old Grigori dissolves in tears—a weak and silent King Lear.

“Crutch and Yakov passed and could still be heard talking as they receded. Then old Grigori passed in their wake and there was a sudden hush in the crowd. Lipa and Praskovya dropped a little behind, and when the old man was abreast of them Lipa bowed down low and said: ‘Good evening, Grigori Petrovich.’ Her mother, too, bowed. The old man stopped and, saying nothing, looked at the two; his lips were quivering and his eyes full of tears. Lipa took out of her mother’s knotted bundle a piece of pie stuffed with buckwheat and gave it to him. He took it and began eating.

“The sun had set by now: its glow died away on the upper part of the road too. It was getting dark and cool. Lipa and Praskovya walked on and for some time kept crossing themselves.”

Lipa is her old self, she dissolves in song, happy in the tiny enclosure of her limited world, united with her dead baby The final page of “In the Gully” in Nabokov’s teaching copy. in the coolness of nightfall—and innocently, unconsciously, carrying to her God the pink dust of the bricks that are making the fortune of Aksinia.