I continue now with Chekhov’s “Home.” (You can read along in English here and in Russian here.) Seryozha has just entered the room; the father, Yevgeny Petrovich, must now explain to him that it is wrong to smoke. But he realizes that he has no idea how to do this.
He begins by declaring that he does not love Seryozha any more, that Seryozha is no longer his son. The little boy seems unaffected; the words have no substance for him. The father then proceeds to tell him about personal property: how each person has a right only to what is his own. As he speaks, he realizes he isn’t saying it right, that he is fumbling. He points out that Seryozha has little horses and pictures, and he doesn’t take them, even if he would like to. This logic does not work for the boy (or even the father):
“Take them, if you want!” said Seryozha, raising his brows. Don’t hold back, papa, go ahead and take them! That little yellow dog that you have on your table, it’s mine, but I don’t … It can stay there!”
— Возьми, если хочешь! — сказал Сережа, подняв брови. — Ты, пожалуйста, папа, не стесняйся, бери! Эта желтенькая собачка, что у тебя на столе, моя, но ведь я ничего… Пусть себе стоит!
Now the father tries to explain to him that once he gives something away, like the dog, it isn’t his anymore–and again he realizes he isn’t going about this properly. The words seem silly; his everyday logic seems illogical.
He now tries a different tactic; he tells Seryozha that smoking is bad for you–that granted, he (the father) smokes, but he knows it is not wise, and that Uncle Ignatiy might not have died of consumption, had he not smoked. (Seryozha’s mother is deceased too.) At the mention of Uncle Ignaty’s name, Seryozha looks at the lamp, touches the shade, lets out a sigh, and cries, “Uncle Ignaty played beautiful violin!” He understands what death is, but not in the way his father intended. Terror has not been struck into his soul. Yet he does hear and respond to his father; there is a conversation below the literal.
As this conversation continues, Seryozha begins to draw. He tells his father about the cook, who cut her finger and, instead of washing it, began sucking it. Then he tells about an organ-grinder who passed through the courtyard with a girl who sang and danced.
Evgeny Petrovich sees not only that his attempts are futile, but that he, a prosecutor, skilled in argument, has been rendered an absolute novice. “He has his own train of thought!” he says to himself. He looks at the drawing: It shows a house with a skewed roof and smoke coming “like a flash of lightning, in zigzags” out of the chimney; and next to it, a soldier with two dots for eyes and a bayonet that looks like a number four. His logical urges get the better of him again:
“A person can’t be taller than a house,” the prosecutor said. “Take a look: your roof goes up to the soldier’s shoulder.”
Seryozha climbed onto his knees and wiggled for a long time, so that he would sit more comfortably.
“No, papa!” he said, looking at his drawing. “If you draw a soldier small, you won’t be able to see his eyes.”
— Человек не может быть выше дома, — сказал прокурор. — Погляди: у тебя крыша приходится по плечо солдату.
Сережа полез на его колени и долго двигался, чтобы усесться поудобней.
— Нет, папа! — сказал он, посмотрев на свой рисунок. — Если ты нарисуешь солдата маленьким, то у него не будет видно глаз.
But what is going on here, throughout this dialogue? Yevgeny Petrovich finds some kind of comfort in his inefficacy. Here he is spending time with his son, who brings him a world unknown to him, or maybe long forgotten. Instead of getting angry, he observes the boy’s ways. There are hints that the boy sees something he does not–that when drawing a soldier, one must make him big enough for eyes, because what would a soldier or anyone be without eyes? The father sees that there is more to see than he himself knows:
Was there a point in arguing with him? From observing his son daily, the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages, have their own artistic perspectives and requirements, which grownups cannot comprehend. Observing Seryozha carefully, an adult might think him abnormal. He found it possible and wise to draw people taller than houses, and to convey in pencil, not only objects, but even his sensations. Thus, in his drawings, the sounds of an orchestra took the form of spherical, smoky blots; a whistle, the form of a spiral thread. . . . In his understanding, sound was closely connected with form and color, so that, when coloring letters, he always colored the letter L yellow, M red, A black, etc.
Нужно ли было оспаривать его? Из ежедневных наблюдений над сыном прокурор убедился, что у детей, как у дикарей, свои художественные воззрения и требования своеобразные, недоступные пониманию взрослых. При внимательном наблюдении, взрослому Сережа мог показаться ненормальным. Он находил возможным и разумным рисовать людей выше домов, передавать карандашом, кроме предметов, и свои ощущения. Так, звуки оркестра он изображал в виде сферических, дымчатых пятен, свист — в виде спиральной нити… В его понятии звук тесно соприкасался с формой и цветом, так что, раскрашивая буквы, он всякий раз неизменно звук Л красил в желтый цвет, М — в красный, А — в черный и т. д.
From this wonder, the father moves into a state of ease. He is thoroughly at home: in in his house, in his study, in his thoughts, in the company of his son, and in privacy. His purposes fall away, and something forgotten comes through.
The prosecutor felt his son’s breathing on his face; his hair brushed against his cheek now and then; and his entire mood became warm and soft, so soft, as if not only his hands but his whole soul lay on the velvet of Seryozha’s jacket. He gazed into the boy’s big, dark eyes, and it seemed that from those wide pupils, they looked at him: his mother, his wife, and everything that he had ever loved.
Прокурор чувствовал на лице его дыхание, то и дело касался щекой его волос, и на душе у него становилось тепло и мягко, так мягко, как будто не одни руки, а вся душа его лежала на бархате Сережиной куртки. Он заглядывал в большие, темные глаза мальчика, и ему казалось, что из широких зрачков глядели на него и мать, и жена, и всё, что он любил когда-либо.
I remember long ago thinking that the story showed a man who was closed off inside himself, who devoted so much to his work that he was not sure what to do or how to think when he came home. I now read it differently. It does not take him long to come into his own; this home, while separated from the rest of the world, has a porousness of its own. He sees his arguments break down; he sees and hears his son; he feels his breathing and his hair; and he senses the presence of others.
But there is a hint of turmoil in the story; I will take that up next time. Today I leave off where the father tells Seryozha that it is time for bed and Seryozha asks for a story. In the next post, I will go to the end of “Home.”
(For the introductory post and Part 1, go here and here; for the Russian text and Constance Garnett’s English translation, go here and here. In these posts, I provide my own translations of the quoted passages. The story itself is not divided into three parts, but this discussion is.)