By Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......A 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.
......“Graciously help me!" he says.
......Skvortsov 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."
......The 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."
......Skvortsov 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.
......“Nonsense," the lawyer says.
......He 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.
......The 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.
......On 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.
......It 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.
......After 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.
......Two 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.
......“You 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?"
......Lushkov 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."
......When 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.
......"But," 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."
......Lushkov then goes inside for the performance.
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.
Type 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.
The climax occurs when Lushkov reveals that it was Olga who chopped the wood and inspired him to reform.
[uh MOR PRAW pruh]: French for self-esteem.
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.
Study 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.