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Michael J. Cummings...©
ragged panhandler with red cheeks and the look of liquor in his eyes appears
at the door of Skvortsov, a Saint Petersburg lawyer, and tells a hard-luck
story. He had been a schoolmaster, he says, but lost his job when officials
on the Zemstvo, a local governing body, told lies about him. Now he has
a job offer in Kaluga province but has no money to travel there.
help me!” he says.
recognizes the fellow as the same man who approached him in Sadovoy Street
two days before. At that time, Skvortsov says, “you told me . . . you were
a student who had been expelled.”
lawyer, threatening to turn the man over to the police, says being poor
and hungry does not entitle him to lie. The beggar denies lying
and says, “I can show documents.”
browbeats him further, telling him his lying is an insult to the compassion
that the lawyer ordinarily shows to the downtrodden. The beggar remonstrates
for a moment, then gives up, hangs in head in shame, and admits lying,
saying he had been a member of the Russian choir but was fired for drunkenness.
The lawyer tells him to get work, but the beggar says he can’t find a job.
the lawyer says.
tells the beggar he is just lazy, drinks too much vodka, and has become
“false and corrupt.” The beggar says he lacks the training to become a
shopman, the class background to become a house porter, and the skills
to work in a trade. He would chop wood, he says, but nobody’s hiring.
lawyer then directs his cook, Olga, to take the man to a shed to chop wood.
After the beggar follows her, the lawyer stands at a window to watch as
Olga and the beggar cross the yard, through dirty snow, to the woodshed.
The beggar promptly sits on a block of wood and leans his jowls on his
hands, but the cook throws an axe in front of him and begins barking orders.
After the beggar pulls a log toward him, the lawyer goes to his study,
satisfied that the work would be done. After an hour, the cook comes in
and announces that the wood has been chopped. The lawyer produces half
a ruble to give to the man, telling Olga that he may come to chop would
on the first of every month.
the first day of the next month, the beggar earns his half-ruble although
finds it difficult to stand up. In the ensuing months, the beggar again
appears, earning more money (and once a pair of pants) for doing various
odd jobs–sweeping snow, cleaning the shed, and so on.
so happens that Skvortsov is moving, and the beggar is supposed to load
furniture and other items. However, he spends most of his time hanging
his head and standing around while trying to keep warm. Luckily for him,
Skvortsov is not watching, but van drivers laugh at the beggar for his
ragged appearance and apparent laziness.
sending for the beggar, Skvortsov gives him a ruble, saying, “I see that
you are sober and not disinclined to work.” He then offers the man–Lushkov
is his name–less strenuous work copying documents. He is to take a note
to the lawyer’s colleague, who will assign him the writing. Happy that
he has put a man on the right path, Skvortsov shakes Lushkov’s hand before
the beggar leaves.
years later, Skvortsov runs into Lushkov at the ticket booth of a theater.
Lushkov tells him that he is doing well, earning 35 rubles working for
a notary. Skvortsov is happy for him.
know, in a way, you are my godson,” he says. It was I who shoved
you into the right way. Do you remember what a scolding I gave you, eh?"
thanks him, saying if Skvortsov had not set him straight he would still
be as he was when he met the lawyer. He is especially indebted to the cook,
Olga, whom he calls “a noble-hearted woman . . . who really saved me.”
Skvortsov asks what she did to earn such high praise, Lushkov says she
would scold him for drinking and call him a pitiable creature who has no
gladness in the world and would probably end up burning in hell. She would
cry for him and his lamentable lot in life.
says Lushkov, "what affected me most–she chopped the wood for me! Do you
know, sir, I never chopped a single log for you–she did it all! How it
was she saved me, how it was I changed, looking at her, and gave up drinking,
I can't explain. I only know that what she said and the noble way she behaved
brought about a change in my soul, and I shall never forget it. It's time
to go up, though, they are just going to ring the bell."
then goes inside for the performance.Settings
The action takes place in
Saint Petersburg, Russia, in the late 19th Century at the home of a lawyer
and at the ticket booth of a theater. Saint Petersburg–in northwestern
Russia on both banks of the Neva River–was the capital of Russia between
1712 and 1918. Its name was changed to Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in
1924, and back to Saint Petersburg in 1991.
Lushkov: Beggar who
lies about his plight to arouse the sympathy of a lawyer and thereby get
a handout from him.
who refuses to give Lushkov a handout but lets him work for money.
cook. When Lushkov comes to chop wood for Skvortsov, she becomes the beggar’s
Van Drivers: Workers
hired to transport Skvortsov’s furniture and other possessions after Skvortsov
decides to move. They laugh at Lushkov, who is to assist in the relocation,
when he merely stands around trying to keep warm.
Colleague of Skvortsov:
Person who gives Lushkov work copying documents.
Notary: Person who
hires Lushkov and pays him a salary of 30 rubles.
of Work and Year of Publication
“The Beggar” is a short story
told with realism and restraint. Chekhov completed it in 1887.
As in other short stories
he wrote, Chekhov assumes the role of a third-person narrator who reports
the details of a simple plot as if he is a witness observing the scenes
and listening to the characters. He does not enter the minds of Lushkov,
Skvortsov, or Olga to report their thoughts. Rather, he allows the characters’
actions and conversations to reveal their personalities and feelings. Chekhov
also presents the setting and the events as quite ordinary and mundane
even though what is taking place appears extraordinary in some way. The
writing is to the point, avoiding excesses in descriptions and striving
always to present a realistic and truthful portrayal of life in Czarist
Helping the Destitute:
Which Approach Is Better?
Skvortsov the lawyer helps
Lushkov the beggar only after the latter agrees to chop wood for the lawyer,
who believes honest labor will reform Lushkov. Olga, on the other hand,
helps Lushkov without making demands on him. True, she roundly scolds him
with a sharp tongue, but she ends up chopping the wood for him. Whose approach
to helping the needy is better, Skvortsov's or Olga's? That is an important
question Chekhov poses in this story as an articulation of his theme. The
author does not answer it; nor does he preach in favor of one approach
or the the other. Proponents of no-strings-attached government assistance
may fairly argue that Olga's approach is the more humane and more effective.
Proponents of bootstrap private-enterprise may fairly argue that Skvortsov's
approach is the more humane and effective because it forces Lushkov to
begin taking charge of his destiny.
The Effects of Alcohol
Lushkov began to reform after
abandoning his vodka habit, which was the agent that sank him into the
abyss of poverty, indolence, and beggary. Vodka was first produced in Russia
in the 14th Century. Russians of every era after that time turned to it
to soothe their pains and banish their worries. It was a friend when the
world had become the enemy.
climax occurs when Lushkov reveals that it was Olga who chopped the wood
and inspired him to reform.
From the Story
[uh MOR PRAW pruh]: French for self-esteem.
Province west of Moscow on the Oka River.
Currency unit worth 1/100 ruble.
Basic currency unit in Russia.
Elected council that administers government affairs in a Russian province.
Anton Chekhov was born into
a family of modest means and peasant ancestry, but he received a good education,
studied medicine at Moscow University, and graduated as a physician in
1884. He helped support his family by grinding out hack short stories for
newspaper publication. After he began writing more serious and more artistic
stories, he gained the attention of the public and the critics. Today,
he is recognized as one of the world’s most important writers of plays
and short stories. The first edition of his complete works was published
between 1900 and 1903. Click here for
a study guide on Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write an expository
essay explaining what life was like for the lower classes in Russia in
the second half of the 19th Century.
2. If a person like
Lushkov asked you for help, would you respond with the lawyer's or the
cook's approach? Explain your answer.
3. Which approach
do you think the author favored?
4. After Lushkov says
that it was Olga who chopped the wood and that it was Olga who truly reformed
him, the story ends. Write an .....alternate
ending that presents Skvortsov's reaction to Lushkov's disclosure.