“Peasants” (1897)


by Anton Chekhov


Chapter 1 “Blows”


Nikolai Tchikildeyeff, a waiter in Moscow, married and father of an eight year old girl, through no fault of his own, falls ill and loses his job. With nowhere else to turn, he and his family return home to the peasant hut in the village of Zhukovo where Nikolai grew up.


What do they find?

  • "... poverty, poverty! Hideous hopeless poverty from which there is no escape...."
  • What do you make of the natural beauty of the setting of this town?


Who lives in this hut?

  • the family home now to --- fifteen people: Granny and Old Father, Marya and Fekla and their eight children (Marya has given birth to thirteen children, but only six of them are living.)
  • Kiriak, Marya’s husband, comes home drunk, beats her, and then passes out.


How does Olga, Nikolai's wife, try to comfort Marya after she has been beaten by her husband?

  • By urging her to follow the Scriptures, bear suffering patiently, and turning Kiriak the other cheek. Good advice?
  • What do you make of the juxtaposition of the degenerate conditions of the hut with the calm, pastoral beauty of the natural surroundings (1-2)
  • And how lovely life would have been in this world, in all likelihood, if it were not for poverty, horrible, hopeless poverty, from which one can find no refuge!”


Chapter 2  Marya” (4-5)


The next morning Olga  takes Marya with her to church. While walking there, they pass Fyokla who is bathing shamelessly naked in the river after spending the night with stewards from the manor house. The morning is spectacularly beautiful.


What are we to make of Fyokla, the shameless sister who openly sleeps around while her husband is serving in the army?

  • "Fyokla, young and vigorous as a girl, with her black eyebrows and her loose hair, jumped off the bank and began splashing the water with her feet, and waves ran in all directions from her."


What is Marya getting out of the religious service?

  • At church, Olga admires the family from the manor house, but they make Marya uncomfortable. As she listens to the service, she hears her husband’s taunting call in the intonation of the priest’s prayers. “Mary-a!”


Chapter 3  “Songs”


It is Sunday afternoon: villagers visit the family’s hut, eager for news of relatives in Moscow.  They welcome the new family.

What jobs have the villagers traditionally been able to find in Moscow?

  • "All the lads of Zhukovo who could read and write were packed off to Moscow and hired out as butlers or waiters (while from the village on the other side of the river the boys all became bakers)..."


What is the villagers' immediate impression of Nikolai?

  • “You are not one to get on, Nikolay Osipitch; you are not one to get on! No, indeed!!” 


What limits to compassion are being defined? What is the bottom line in the village kokholz?


How do they regard Sasha?

  • She is a precious, little toy, this pretty thing with ribbons in her hair who can read: they pet her and marvel.


Who runs the family?

  • Granny, who measures all people purely in terms of their utility.
  • Very quickly, her sympathy for Nikolai will run out: “He’s no profit.”
  • Granny’s one rule is the most ancient one in Russian History: “You don’t work. You don’t eat.”
  • Yet it is this same despised Granny who takes care of everything in the hut, and she does it with her own hands: tending the stove, the samovar, the garden. She hassles everyone about food. She harasses everyone to work. She defends her garden from the neighbor’s geese.
  • How is food doled out?


What is Granny’s opinion of Old Father and all the other men?

  • She shames her husband, the drunk whom she calls, “Cholera.”
  • Kiriak is almost too hung over to talk. They celebrate Sunday with herrings from the inn.


Who runs the town?

  • Old Father (Osip) is complaining of his treatment at the hands of Antip Siedelnikoff, the headman in town (kulak), who beats him and cheats him when he sells his hay.


Yet at twilight there are the glow of the potter’s oven, the songs of the village girls, and the drunken songs of the men gathered at the inn.


Chapter 4  “Dreams” (7-10)


Just what composes the religious beliefs of the peasant?

You get a notion from the game that Sasha devises to play with Motka while she should be guarding the garden from the geese:

  • Sacha spins a tale about the god that lives in the church amid the lamps and incense; she imagines the churches of the country rising into heaven on the Day of Judgment; she teaches Motka how to squint while staring at the sky so that she can see angels.  They roll down the hill.
  • Then Granny beats them both for ignoring the garden and letting the geese get in. When Nikolai complains, Granny tells him, “Choke! You lie rotting on the stove, you corpse!  (one rule)


How do the little girls get their revenge on evil Granny?

  • In revenge, Sacha and Motka put milk into Granny’s bread crusts so that she will break the Sabbath and go to hell.


What point is Chekhov making about peasant religious belief?


Chapter 5 “Fire!” (10-12)


The peasants’ tenuous grip on life is rocked when a fire breaks out and destroys one family’s home.


How regular a part of village life is this type of catastrophe?


Yet, how well prepared are the peasants to deal with emergency?

  • "Uncle Semyon’s on fire!
  • The kulak, Antip Sieldnikoff, drunkenly martials the fire brigade: women carrying pails of water from the river and dumping them into a worn out pump. The men stand by and drunkenly watch.
  • Olga has a vision of the sheep and the doves flying about in the red glare of the fire: will the whole village burn?


Who comes to the rescue?

  • The young students arrive from the manor house with a fire engine. Some young women have come from there as well, to watch the fire. The young men break the hut apart to put out the fire, and the crowd taunts them. Kiriak confronts them, gets beaten, and crawls away.
  • Old Osip compliments the students and unsuccesfully tries to cage money for a drink from them.


What is Chekhov’s point?



Chapter 6  “The Hut”


In the next chapter, during a long evening, the peasants entertain themselves with tales about the old days when they had still been serfs.

Are they better off now than they were then?

  • The old Father says that they were better off as serfs; everyone ate cabbage three times a day. There was more order. Every man knew his place. There were shooting parties and free vodka. Granny remembers the adventure of helping one of the master’s daughters elope. The old cook, made homeless by the fire, is taken in for the night. They tell stories of the food at the manor house and the girls listen with bright eyes.


What happens during the wee hours of the morning?

  • The old ones suffer through a long night with fitful sleep; then Fyokla shows up naked. Olga gives her some clothes.


How would Chekhov answer the question, should the serfs have been freed?

  • Marya: “No, we’re better in freedom.”



Chapter 7 “Who Else?” (15-18)


In chapter seven we get to see local government in action.

What is Chekhov’s assessment of representative government, even in this limited form?

  • The Zemstvo: the village is in debt, more than two thousand rubles. The mir is dominated by Antip, the kulak, who, although in debt himself, takes the side of the authorities.


How does Antip, the kulak, use his authority?

  • Osip owes 119 rubles and his excuses about being cheated of his hay fall on deaf ears. Osip Seildelnikoff carries off the family samovar: he now owns nine of them. Granny blames Nikolai for not sending enough money home. Osip asks again for the samovar and is denied.


Who do the peasants blame for the corruption in the village?

  • The Zemstvo. Who else?” Today there are no secrets in Zhukov.


Why is limited capitalism not working in this village?


Where is Chekhov in the political spectrum?


Chapter 8  “Died” (18-20)


On the day that Nikolai dies the village is celebrating one of its Holy Days?

How does the village celebrate?

  • The village drinks on its Holy Days, but at one point during the special festival an ikon of the Holy Mother is paraded through the village, and the women, particularly Granny cry out to the divine image for intercession.
  • Even Granny suspends her constant focus upon poverty and hunger and indulges in hope in divine intercession for a moment.


Again, how is Chekhov characterizing peasant religious beliefs?

  • The Old Man does not believe in God, but he does believe in the supernatural.
  • The daughters cross themselves and fast but know nothing of religion. 


What are they praying for?

  • The peasants do not dread death, but they do fear illness.


How does Nikolai die?

  • Granny knows all the remedies and the doctors who propose them. She brings a Jewish doctor to treat Nikolai, and he bleeds the invalid. Later that night, Nikolai dies.


Chapter 9  “Give Alms” (20-22)


Winter ends and Spring arrives. Olga makes plans to return to Moscow. Kiriak decides to go as well and find work as a house porter.


How will Olga and Sasha obtain the money to pay their keep on the journey?

  • She will beg her way there.


Chekhov drops his narrative mask and speaks directly about his topic on  (p.21):


In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarrelled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who wastes and spends on drink the funds of the commune, of the schools, of the church? A peasant. Who stole from his neighbours, set fire to their property, gave false witness at the court for a bottle of vodka? At the meetings of the Zemstvo and other local bodies, who was the first to fall foul of the peasants? A peasant. Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labour that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize? (p.70) 21-22



Compare and contrast the visions of what is to be done to reform Russian society in the 1880’s and 1890’s of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Although they come from distant ends of the political spectrum, on what key ideas would they agree?