A Dreary Story
by Anton Chekhov
I am in Harkov.
As it would be useless to contend against my present mood and,
indeed, beyond my power, I have made up my mind that the last
days of my life shall at least be irreproachable externally. If
I am unjust in regard to my wife and daughter, which I fully
recognize, I will try and do as she wishes; since she wants me
to go to Harkov, I go to Harkov. Besides, I have become of late
so indifferent to everything that it is really all the same to
me where I go, to Harkov, or to Paris, or to Berditchev.
I arrived here at midday, and have put up at the hotel not far
from the cathedral. The train was jolting, there were draughts,
and now I am sitting on my bed, holding my head and expecting
tic douloureux. I ought to have gone today to see some
professors of my acquaintance, but I have neither strength nor
The old corridor attendant comes in and asks whether I have
brought my bed-linen. I detain him for five minutes, and put
several questions to him about Gnekker, on whose account I have
come here. The attendant turns out to be a native of Harkov; he
knows the town like the fingers of his hand, but does not
remember any household of the surname of Gnekker. I question him
about the estate -- the same answer.
The clock in the corridor strikes one, then two, then three. . .
. These last months in which I am waiting for death seem much
longer than the whole of my life. And I have never before been
so ready to resign myself to the slowness of time as now. In the
old days, when one sat in the station and waited for a train, or
presided in an examination-room, a quarter of an hour would seem
an eternity. Now I can sit all night on my bed without moving,
and quite unconcernedly reflect that tomorrow will be followed
by another night as long and colourless, and the day after
In the corridor it strikes five, six, seven. . . . It grows
There is a dull pain in my cheek, the tic beginning. To occupy
myself with thoughts, I go back to my old point of view, when I
was not so indifferent, and ask myself why I, a distinguished
man, a privy councillor, am sitting in this little hotel room,
on this bed with the unfamiliar grey quilt. Why am I looking at
that cheap tin washing-stand and listening to the whirr of the
wretched clock in the corridor? Is all this in keeping with my
fame and my lofty position? And I answer these questions with a
jeer. I am amused by the navet with which I used in my youth
to exaggerate the value of renown and of the exceptional
position which celebrities are supposed to enjoy. I am famous,
my name is pronounced with reverence, my portrait has been both
in the Niva and in the Illustrated News of the World; I have
read my biography even in a German magazine. And what of all
that? Here I am sitting utterly alone in a strange town, on a
strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my hand. . . .
Domestic worries, the hard-heartedness of creditors, the
rudeness of the railway servants, the inconveniences of the
passport system, the expensive and unwholesome food in the
refreshment-rooms, the general rudeness and coarseness in social
intercourse -- all this, and a great deal more which would take
too long to reckon up, affects me as much as any working man who
is famous only in his alley. In what way, does my exceptional
position find expression? Admitting that I am celebrated a
thousand times over, that I am a hero of whom my country is
proud. They publish bulletins of my illness in every paper,
letters of sympathy come to me by post from my colleagues, my
pupils, the general public; but all that does not prevent me
from dying in a strange bed, in misery, in utter loneliness. Of
course, no one is to blame for that; but I in my foolishness
dislike my popularity. I feel as though it had cheated me.
At ten o'clock I fall asleep, and in spite of the tic I sleep
soundly, and should have gone on sleeping if I had not been
awakened. Soon after one came a sudden knock at the door.
"Who is there?"
"You might have waited till tomorrow," I say angrily, taking the
telegram from the attendant. "Now I shall not get to sleep
"I am sorry. Your light was burning, so I thought you were not
I tear open the telegram and look first at the signature. From
"What does she want?"
"Gnekker was secretly married to Liza yesterday. Return."
I read the telegram, and my dismay does not last long. I am
dismayed, not by what Liza and Gnekker have done, but by the
indifference with which I hear of their marriage. They say
philosophers and the truly wise are indifferent. It is false:
indifference is the paralysis of the soul; it is premature
I go to bed again, and begin trying to think of something to
occupy my mind. What am I to think about? I feel as though
everything had been thought over already and there is nothing
which could hold my attention now.
When daylight comes I sit up in bed with my arms round my knees,
and to pass the time I try to know myself. "Know thyself" is
excellent and useful advice; it is only a pity that the ancients
never thought to indicate the means of following this precept.
When I have wanted to understand somebody or myself I have
considered, not the actions, in which everything is relative,
but the desires.
"Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what manner of man
And now I examine myself: what do I want?
I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love
in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to
love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have
had helpers and successors. Anything else? I should like to wake
up in a hundred years' time and to have just a peep out of one
eye at what is happening in science. I should have liked to have
lived another ten years. . . What further? Why, nothing further.
I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however
much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it
is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great
importance in my desires. In my passion for science, in my
desire to live, in this sitting on a strange bed, and in this
striving to know myself -- in all the thoughts, feelings, and
ideas I form about everything, there is no common bond to
connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought
exists apart in me; and in all my criticisms of science, the
theatre, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my
imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find
what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.
And if there is not that, then there is nothing.
In a state so poverty-stricken, a serious ailment, the fear of
death, the influences of circumstance and men were enough to
turn upside down and scatter in fragments all which I had once
looked upon as my theory of life, and in which I had seen the
meaning and joy of my existence. So there is nothing surprising
in the fact that I have over-shadowed the last months of my life
with thoughts and feelings only worthy of a slave and barbarian,
and that now I am indifferent and take no heed of the dawn. When
a man has not in him what is loftier and mightier than all
external impressions a bad cold is really enough to upset his
equilibrium and make him begin to see an owl in every bird, to
hear a dog howling in every sound. And all his pessimism or
optimism with his thoughts great and small have at such times
significance as symptoms and nothing more.
I am vanquished. If it is so, it is useless to think, it is
useless to talk. I will sit and wait in silence for what is to
In the morning the corridor attendant brings me tea and a copy
of the local newspaper. Mechanically I read the advertisements
on the first page, the leading article, the extracts from the
newspapers and journals, the chronicle of events. . . . In the
latter I find, among other things, the following paragraph: "Our
distinguished savant, Professor Nikolay Stepanovitch So-and-so,
arrived yesterday in Harkov, and is staying in the So-and-so
Apparently, illustrious names are created to live on their own
account, apart from those that bear them. Now my name is
promenading tranquilly about Harkov; in another three months,
printed in gold letters on my monument, it will shine bright as
the sun itself, while I shall be already under the moss.
A light tap at the door. Somebody wants me.
"Who is there? Come in."
The door opens, and I step back surprised and hurriedly wrap my
dressing-gown round me. Before me stands Katya.
"How do you do?" she says, breathless with running upstairs.
"You didn't expect me? I have come here, too. . . . I have come,
She sits down and goes on, hesitating and not looking at me.
"Why don't you speak to me? I have come, too . . . today. . . .
I found out that you were in this hotel, and have come to you."
"Very glad to see you," I say, shrugging my shoulders, "but I am
surprised. You seem to have dropped from the skies. What have
you come for?"
"Oh . . . I've simply come."
Silence. Suddenly she jumps up impulsively and comes to me.
"Nikolay Stepanovitch," she says, turning pale and pressing her
hands on her bosom -- "Nikolay Stepanovitch, I cannot go on
living like this! I cannot! For God's sake tell me quickly, this
minute, what I am to do! Tell me, what am I to do?"
"What can I tell you?" I ask in perplexity. "I can do nothing."
"Tell me, I beseech you," she goes on, breathing hard and
trembling all over. "I swear that I cannot go on living like
this. It's too much for me!"
She sinks on a chair and begins sobbing. She flings her head
back, wrings her hands, taps with her feet; her hat falls off
and hangs bobbing on its elastic; her hair is ruffled.
"Help me! help me!" she implores me. "I cannot go on!"
She takes her handkerchief out of her travelling-bag, and with
it pulls out several letters, which fall from her lap to the
floor. I pick them up, and on one of them I recognize the
handwriting of Mihail Fyodorovitch and accidentally read a bit
of a word "passionat. . ."
"There is nothing I can tell you, Katya," I say.
"Help me!" she sobs, clutching at my hand and kissing it. "You
are my father, you know, my only friend! You are clever,
educated; you have lived so long; you have been a teacher! Tell
me, what am I to do?"
"Upon my word, Katya, I don't know. . . ."
I am utterly at a loss and confused, touched by her sobs, and
hardly able to stand.
"Let us have lunch, Katya," I say, with a forced smile. "Give
And at once I add in a sinking voice:
"I shall soon be gone, Katya. . . ."
"Only one word, only one word!" she weeps, stretching out her
hands to me.
"What am I to do?"
"You are a queer girl, really . . ." I mutter. "I don't
understand it! So sensible, and all at once crying your eyes
out. . . ."
A silence follows. Katya straightens her hair, puts on her hat,
then crumples up the letters and stuffs them in her bag -- and
all this deliberately, in silence. Her face, her bosom, and her
gloves are wet with tears, but her expression now is cold and
forbidding. . . . I look at her, and feel ashamed that I am
happier than she. The absence of what my philosophic colleagues
call a general idea I have detected in myself only just before
death, in the decline of my days, while the soul of this poor
girl has known and will know no refuge all her life, all her
"Let us have lunch, Katya," I say.
"No, thank you," she answers coldly. Another minute passes in
silence. "I don't like Harkov," I say; "it's so grey here --
such a grey town."
"Yes, perhaps. . . . It's ugly. I am here not for long, passing
through. I am going on today."
"To the Crimea . . . that is, to the Caucasus."
"Oh! For long?"
"I don't know."
Katya gets up, and, with a cold smile, holds out her hand
without looking at me.
I want to ask her, "Then, you won't be at my funeral?" but she
does not look at me; her hand is cold and, as it were, strange.
I escort her to the door in silence. She goes out, walks down
the long corridor without looking back; she knows that I am
looking after her, and most likely she will look back at the
No, she did not look back. I've seen her black dress for the
last time: her steps have died away. Farewell, my treasure!
privy councillor: 3rd grade, typically reserved for very
distinguished members of the Civil Service (Russian professors
held civil service ranks because Russian Universities were state
Ikonstand: the iconostasis, an icon-laden screen in Russian
Orthodox Churches that stood before the sanctuary
Pirogov: N. I. Pirogov (1810-1881) was a Russian surgeon and
Kavelin: K. D. Kavelin (1815-1885) was a Russian historian and
Nekrasov: N. A. Nekrasov (1821-1877) was a Russian poet and
tic douloureux: paroxysmal shooting pains of the facial area
around one or more branches of the trigeminal nerve
Turgenev: I. S. Turgenev (1818-1883) was a famous Russian
The Song the Lark was Singing: Was die Schwalbe sang, a German
novel by Friedrich Spielhagen (1829-1911)
Othello his Desdemona: cf. Othello, I,iii, 167-168
Gruber: V. L. Gruber (1814-1890) was an Austrian who taught
anatomy and pathology in Russia for many years
Babukin: A. I. Babukhin (1835-1891) was a professor of histology
and anatomy at Moscow University
Skobelev: M. D. Skobelev (1843-1882) was a Russian general who
fought in the Russian-Turkish war
Professor Perov: V. G. Perov (1833-1882) was a painter and
Patti: Adelina Patti (1843-1919) was an Italian soprano
Hecuba: cf. Hamlet, II:ii, 585; Hecuba was the wife of Priam,
King of Troy, in Homer's Iliad
white tie: doctors in Russia traditional wore white ties
Hercules: in Greek mythology Hercules was assigned 12 labors,
the most piquant of which was getting the girdle of Hippolyta,
Queen of the Amazons
Chinese mannerisms: excessive courtesy
attendants: in Russian theaters playgoers had to check coats in
the cloakroom before entering the theater
To be or not to be: the famous speech by Hamlet in III,i, 55-90
Woe from Wit: play in verse by A. S. Griboyedov (1795-1829); the
hero of the play is Chatsky
screwing up her eyes: Russian girls sometimes do this to flirt
Shakespeare's gravediggers: see Hamlet, V,i
today: first line of a poem by Mikhail Y. Lermontov (1814-1841)
migration question: Russian peasants going to Siberia in large
Dobrolubov: N. A. Dobroliubov (1836-1861) was an influential
Russian radical intellectual
Araktcheev: Count A. A. Arakcheyev (1769-1834) was a favorite of
Alexander I of Russia, and he became a symbol for extreme
ultima ratio: final argument
baldhead: 2 Kings 2:23
Gaudeamus egitur juventus: slightly distorted Latin for "Let us
rejoice while we are young"; a student song of German origin
sometimes sung at academic exercises
cross his legs: for Russians crossing one's legs is a sign of
Krylov: N. I. Krylov (1807-1879) was a professor of Roman Law at
clouds: from I. A. Krylov's fable "The Eagle and the Hens"
Niva: "The Meadow," an illustrated weekly magazine
Illustrated News of the World: Vsemirnaya illyustratsiya, a St.
passport system: Russians had to have passports to travel within