Chekhov’s “Home”

doma3Anton Chekhov’s “Home” is just ten pages long, but it will take me a few blog posts to do it a sliver of justice. This post consists of three parts. You can read along in English here and in Russian here.

In Russian the title is “Дома” (“Doma”), which can be translated as “home,” “at home,” or even “in the family.” All of those senses come into play here.

A Reading of “Home”: Part 1

The father, who works as prosecutor for the circuit court, has just come home from work; the story begins with the governess’s voice, as she rattles off various news. People came by for a book, the postman delivered the mail, and now for serious matters (which she introduces with “kstati,” or “by the way”: For the third day now, Seryozha has been found smoking. Not only that, but when the governess tried to speak to him, he simply plugged his ears and started singing.

Amused by the picture, the father gathers some facts, as is his habit. How old is Seryozha? he asks. (What a question! we may think. But a judgment here would be too hasty.) Where did he get the tobacco? Having learned that he got it from his (the father’s) study, he asks to have Seryozha sent in.

Now come a series of subtle surprises. The story goes into the father’s own daydreams, which become the focus for a while. He starts imagining his little boy smoking, and for some reason the image makes him smile; yet the governess’s serious expression brings back childhood memories of adults reacting to smoking with horror, even though they could not explain what was wrong with it. (“This must be a law of society: the less an evil is understood, the more ferociously and crudely people fight it.”) He starts thinking about boys who were expelled for smoking and how this affected their entire lives; it occurs to him how little established truth there is, particularly in the great professions….

One might have perceived his thoughts as philosophical and morose, but the narrator takes a surprising turn. He (the narrator) reflects on the pleasure of letting the mind wander this way and that at the end of a long day. What seemed like sadness and depth now turns into air and light. I give my own translation here, followed by the Russian:

And similar thoughts, light and vague, the kind that come only to the exhausted, resting brain, began roaming in Yevgeny Petrovich’s head; where they come from and why, we do not know; they stay for a short time and, it seems, crawl over the surface of the brain, not going far below. For people obligated to think narrowly, in one direction, for entire hours and even days, these free, domestic thoughts become, in their own way, a comfort, an agreeable ease.

И подобные мысли, легкие и расплывчатые, какие приходят только в утомленный, отдыхающий мозг, стали бродить в голове Евгения Петровича; являются они неизвестно откуда и зачем, недолго остаются в голове и, кажется, ползают по поверхности мозга, не заходя далеко вглубь. Для людей, обязанных по целым часам и даже дням думать казенно, в одном направлении, такие вольные, домашние мысли составляют своего рода комфорт, приятное удобство.

In such a short time, Chekhov lets us know the father; he spends his day in court, thinking and speaking in rigid and bureaucratic terms, but when he comes home, he likes to let his thoughts go this way and that; and even melancholy thoughts afford a kind of pleasure, because of their very roaming. The adjective “расплывчатые” means approximately “vague, diffuse, dim” but also has the sense of spreading out over a large area. Later in this paragraph, the phrase “такие вольные, домашние мысли” (“these free, domestic thoughts”) depict these very thoughts as home.

But home is not sealed off; it has intrusions from other rooms, and even these have some good.

It was after eight in the evening. Up above, past the ceiling, on the second floor, someone was walking back and forth, and still higher, on the third, four hands were playing scales. The pacing of the man who, to judge from his nervous gait, was thinking of something troubling, or was suffering from toothache, and the monotonous scales gave the evening stillness a drowsiness that made way for lazy reveries. Two rooms away, in the nursery, the governess and Seryozha were talking.

Был девятый час вечера. Наверху, за потолком, во втором этаже кто-то ходил из угла в угол, а еще выше, на третьем этаже, четыре руки играли гаммы. Шаганье человека, который, судя по нервной походке, о чем-то мучительно думал или же страдал зубною болью, и монотонные гаммы придавали тишине вечера что-то дремотное, располагающее к ленивым думам. Через две комнаты в детской разговаривали гувернантка и Сережа.

So we hear the uneven beat of the pacing man, but then, farther away, the sound of scales played by four hands, a sound that adds to the dreaminess of the evening. There are numbers playing against each other too: the ninth hour, the second and third floors, four hands, the scale (with its implicit eight notes), the nursery two doors away, and the accompanied solitude of Yevgeny Petrovich.

I can imagine him shutting his eyes and hearing this mixture of music and everyday sound, of shaped and unshaped thoughts. Things come together in his mind and come apart. Troubles rise up and fade away. Then Seryozha’s voice:

“Pa-pa is here!” the boy sang out. “Papa–is–here! Pa! pa! pa!”

— Па-па приехал! — запел мальчик. — Папа при-е-хал! Па! па! па!

It is as though the piano, the pacing, and even the dreaming were all the overture for Seryozha; he enters, joyful, melodic, syllabic; climbs up onto his father’s lap; and kisses him on the cheek.

Now the father has to figure out what to say. I will pick up from here in Part 2.

A Reading of “Home”: Part 2

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 Part 3, I will go to the end of “Home.”

A Reading of “Home”: Part 3

Seryozha has just asked his father to tell him a story. His father starts making up a story, as he usually does. He begins with some familiar conceit (“Once upon a time, in a certain tsardom, in a certain country, there lived an old, old tsar with a long grey beard and a mustache like this.”) He tells about the glittering glass palace, the garden with birds, glass bells, fountains…. and the tsar’s only son, who is good in every way, except for his one fault: he smokes….” The prince grows ill and dies; the tsar is left helpless and alone, and enemies kill him and destroy the castle. After that, there are no more cherry trees, or birds, or bells.

Seryozha listens seriously and then says, “I won’t smoke any more….”

After he is sent off to bed, the father stays up for a long time, pacing back and forth and thinking about the conversation and the story. He recalls being told that when a story has an effect, it’s because of the beauty and form, but this does not comfort him. He worries about what just happens; he wonders why it is necessary to coat morality and truth with sugar and gold, like a pill. “It is abnormal… Falsification, deception, magic tricks…”

He thinks about how this has played out in his work (with jurymen making “speeches”). It troubles him that humans have depended on lies since the beginning of time; on the other hand, perhaps this is just as it should be. Unsure to the bones, he sits down to work but keeps thinking and thinking.

And here, the beautiful and cryptic ending:

He sat down to work, and leisurely, domestic thoughts roamed for a long time in his head. Past the ceiling, there were no more scales to be heard, but the inhabitant of the second floor kept pacing back and forth….

Он принялся работать, а ленивые, домашние мысли долго еще бродили в его голове. За потолком не слышались уже гаммы, но обитатель второго этажа всё еще шагал из угла в угол…

Part of what I love about this story is its lack of a takeaway. It says something about home, about parents and children, about the life of the mind, but it leaves nothing settled. In fact, it puts the onus on us. Have we, the readers, blithely accepted some sugar-coated truth? Is there something here that we would not accept in another form? If so, what would it be?

It might be that no happiness is complete; even the most intimate moments come with pain. Or maybe even that is just a partial truth; maybe truth lies in the wandering from doubt to doubt. Maybe home is a state of wandering and seeking.

Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: