"The Student” and the Reader

Marjorie Berger, Independent Scholar

In a compelling reading, Wolf Schmid ("Cechovs problematische Ereignisse," in manuscript) has shown that Chekhov’s student projects his cold and hunger onto the ages; that he tells Peter's story largely for his own satisfaction; and that he misses the personal reasons for Vasilisa's tears while finding in them a link to Peter, proof of the "unbroken chain" of time, and exhilarating thoughts of "truth and beauty" (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhnonsky, Stories, Bantam Books 2000). Ivan is not entirely wrong about Vasilisa, but he is not entirely right. What the story primarily shows, however, is his ignorance, not of her and Lukerya, but of himself, of how he is spinning his "lofty meaning" out of his aches and aspirations. In this paper I would like to note some gestures by which the narrative seems in effect briefly to point to this fact about itself, and where it also hints that the interpreting reader may be very like the student. These are the first paragraph; "- he was only twenty-two -" and the clauses that follow; and the way, when the student's musings join then and now, Peter and Vasilisa, the reader's interpretation makes the same move, connecting Peter and the student.

For example: Marijeta Bozovic ("The Chain of Continuity: Thematic Play through Linguistic Structures in Chekhov's 'Student,'" Midwest Slavic Conference, March 5 2005) has shown in sensitive detail that in the first paragraph of the story subjects are missing from the syntax as well as the scene. In this and other ways the paragraph shines a wavering spotlight on the absence of an observing or knowing consciousness. Without someone doing something, there lurks behind apparently straightforward description an effect of uncertainty (just where is this? when?) which makes for uncertainty about a possible knower. (Compare the effect if one reads the second paragraph as if it were the first; with a character who is named and "coming home from fowling," it doesn't occur to us that we don't know where the water meadow is, or when; we know enough to be getting on with, enough to feel confidence in the implied knower-narrator.) We notice that we don't know who fired the shot, and so may notice that we don't know to whom it sounds "boomingly and merrily." Again, is there anything intrinsically plaintive about "blowing into a bottle"? Built into the image is an interpretation. Whose? Often the paragraph give us neither objective fact, nor subjective impressions, but impressions without a subject. All this foreshadows, somewhat anxiously, the student's effective absence from his own responses and speculations. And the staged lack of a someone doing the knowing also stages the reader's own effective absence. For we cannot simply conclude, playing by the usual rules, that the shot was fired by the next character named; we must be aware of playing the game, and of the fact that we usually don't acknowledge it. We are all students.