Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"The Student" - Chekhov
"The Student," published in 1894, is about 1,500 words long. It tells a simple story of a young clerical student returning home after hunting. He stops to warm himself at a fire and tells the story of Peter's denial of Jesus to two widows.
We'll start with a summary, then look at the theme, Ivan's epiphany, and some questions to consider.
"The Student" by Anton Chekhov Summary
The weather is good and there's the sound of birds in the forest. When it gets dark, it turns cold and quiet.
Ivan, a clerical student, continues walking after a day hunting rather than going straight home. He's cold and unsettled. There's a light in the widows' gardens. It's Good Friday and he hasn't eaten. He thinks about how others through history have felt the same cold wind he feels now, how the passage of time hasn't changed the desperation and oppression people feel. He doesn't want to go home.
The gardens he approaches are owned by Vasilisa and Lukerya, a mother and daughter, both widows. They're washing up after supper. Men's voices can be heard from the river.
Ivan greets the widows. Vasilisa recognizes him and they talk. He warms himself at the fire. He remarks that the Apostle Peter warmed himself on a similarly cold night.
Ivan tells the story of that night. At the Last Supper, Peter pledged his loyalty to Jesus. Jesus told him that he would deny him three times before a rooster crowed. Jesus then prayed intensely in the garden while Peter fell asleep. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. He was taken to the high priest and beaten. Peter followed at a distance.
Lukerya leaves her work and stares at Ivan.
A group warmed themselves in the yard and Peter joined them. A woman recognized him, saying he was with Jesus. Peter denied it. Shortly after, another person recognized Peter as a disciple, but he denied it again. A third person made the same claim and, again, Peter denied it. He heard a crowing and recalled what Jesus had told him. He left and wept bitterly.
Vasilisa starts crying. Lukerya flushes and looks like she's in pain. As the men return from the river, Ivan takes his leave.
Immediately, he's engulfed in darkness and feels the cold wind. Easter doesn't feel as close as it is.
Ivan thinks of Vasilisa and Lukerya's reactions to the story. If it affected them so deeply, it must be related to their lives now; it must be related to all people.
He feels joy. He thinks the past and present are linked by an invisible chain. He crosses the river and looks at his village. He thinks that truth and beauty continue to guide people today as they did back in the garden. He feels that life is wonderful and meaningful.
Theme: Isolation and Connection
At the beginning, Ivan feels isolated. The cold wind makes him think of the misery that has persisted throughout history.
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He also thinks of his mother sitting on the floor cleaning and his father coughing as he lay on the stove. He doesn't want to go home.
After his connection with the two widows, he's moved to think about the common feelings that link everyone. The feelings that motivated Peter still resonate with people today.
At the end when Ivan looks toward his village (where his parents are), he thinks of truth, beauty, and meaning. This contrasts sharply with the picture of home we were given earlier. Ivan wants to go home now. His attitude toward being around his parents has changed.
So, Ivan shifts from viewing the past in an impersonal way to viewing it as a chain of events that connect all humanity through shared emotion.
At the end of the story, Ivan believes "The past is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another." This leads him to think that "truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day . . . ."
Ivan expects to be happy and sees life as "enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning."
This optimistic epiphany arises from his interpretation of the widows' emotional reaction to Peter's story. What was in Peter's soul must have some relation to them and to all people.
The widows' reactions have caused Ivan to reinterpret his view of the past and present.
At the beginning of the story, Ivan thinks that the same cold wind had blown in the days of Rurik, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great. Also, the same "desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression," have existed in the past and will continue.
Note that in his isolation, Ivan recalled secular, depressing examples that supported his negative feeling. In contrast, when with company, he thought of a religious, moving example that caused a connection between him and the widows.
Time as a Link
Initially, Ivan believed the passage of time made no difference, as he took a pessimistic view of life.
Now, he believes that time links everyone because human emotions are always the same. The human experience is about being guided by truth and beauty. He takes an optimistic view of life, focusing on the positives.
1. How Do the Cold and Darkness Parallel Ivan’s Feelings?
- At first, the weather is "fine and still" and it's bright—presumably, Ivan feels as he usually does at this point.
- When it gets cold and dark, he feels that it "destroyed the order and harmony of things," "that nature itself felt ill at ease" and it's gloomy.
- After leaving the fire, the darkness and cold make him feel Easter is further off than it is.
- After his epiphany about the past's link to the present, no mention is made of Ivan being bothered in any way by the cold or dark. They don't parallel his feelings anymore.
2. How Does the Season Parallel Ivan’s Feelings?
The story is set on Good Friday, which commemorates the execution of Jesus. This was a dark day for His followers.
Ivan feels cheerless and lonely as he walks home, and that order and harmony had been destroyed. It's easy to imagine the disciples of Jesus feeling the same way nineteen centuries before.
After leaving the light and warmth of the fire, Ivan doesn't feel like Easter is only the day after tomorrow. Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, a time of joy and hope for His followers.
After his epiphany, Ivan's mood mirrors the mood of Easter. Ivan experiences a figurative resurrection, going from pessimism to optimism.
3. What Does the Title Mean?
The obvious answer is that the protagonist, Ivan, is literally a student who attends clerical school.
It's also possible it refers to him being a student of life, as he learns a lesson during the course of the story.