Čexov’s Theodicy: Good and Evil “In the Ravine”

Lyudmila Parts, McGill University

The story’s utterly un-idealistic portrayal of peasant life is sometimes mentioned as a testimony to Čexov’s taking issue with Tolstoj’s and in general the narodniks’ view of the people. In fact, the story’s objective is more complex than merely correcting the naively exalted view of the peasant. Čexov, in his characteristically unobtrusive manner, challenges Dostoevskij’s theodicy, according to which a smallest act of good and love is capable of initiating the chain of good and of undermining the evil of the world.

In “In the Ravine,” arguably the darkest of all Čexov’s stories, a child suffers and dies. His mother, herself a child, asks why should an innocent child suffer so? Her question, one “in the spirit of Dostoevskij’s characters” (Bialy 51), is left unanswered. In fact, the death of her baby is not even the central event of the story, but rather one of the manifestations of the evil that spreads with almost tangible presence throughout the village lying in the ravine. Among the central characters of the story, the baby’s mother and his murderer form an opposition of pure Good and Evil. The third woman, Varvara, is a peculiar case: a good-natured and pious woman who gives alms and spreads kindness she should, it seems, represent the active love that in Dostoevskij’s novel provides an answer to Ivan Karamazov’s desperate questions. Her good deeds, however, prove not only to be inadequate to stop the spreading of sin but somehow, by the end of the story, seem to become a part of it. Čexov pinpoints the basic paradox of Dostoevskij’s theodicy: if everyone is responsible for Good and for Evil in others, then individual moral responsibility, crucial in Dostoevskij’s program, is in fact undermined. Čexov’s own high demands on the individual lead him not to answering but rather to “stating correctly” the problem of coping with Evil in God’s world.