A Nervous Breakdown
by Anton Chekhov
Leaning against the
fence, he stood near the house waiting for his friends to come
out. The sounds of the pianos and violins, gay, reckless,
insolent, and mournful, mingled in the air in a sort of chaos,
and this tangle of sounds seemed again like an unseen orchestra
tuning up on the roofs. If one looked upwards into the darkness,
the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots:
it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they
floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily
fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round
Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows.
. . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.
"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev.
"Damnation take these houses!"
His legs seemed to be giving way from fatigue, simply from
having run down the stairs; he gasped for breath as though he
had been climbing uphill, his heart beat so loudly that he could
hear it. He was consumed by a desire to get out of the street as
quickly as possible and to go home, but even stronger was his
desire to wait for his companions and vent upon them his
There was much he did not understand in these houses, the souls
of ruined women were a mystery to him as before; but it was
clear to him that the thing was far worse than could have been
believed. If that sinful woman who had poisoned herself was
called fallen, it was difficult to find a fitting name for all
these who were dancing now to this tangle of sound and uttering
long, loathsome sentences. They were not on the road to ruin,
"There is vice," he thought, "but neither consciousness of sin
nor hope of salvation. They are sold and bought, steeped in wine
and abominations, while they, like sheep, are stupid,
indifferent, and don't understand. My God! My God!"
It was clear to him, too, that everything that is called human
dignity, personal rights, the Divine image and semblance, were
defiled to their very foundations -- "to the very marrow," as
drunkards say -- and that not only the street and the stupid
women were responsible for it.
A group of students, white with snow, passed him laughing and
talking gaily; one, a tall thin fellow, stopped, glanced into
Vassilyev's face, and said in a drunken voice:
"One of us! A bit on, old man? Aha-ha! Never mind, have a good
time! Don't be down-hearted, old chap!"
He took Vassilyev by the shoulder and pressed his cold wet
mustache against his cheek, then he slipped, staggered, and,
waving both hands, cried:
"Hold on! Don't upset!"
And laughing, he ran to overtake his companions.
Through the noise came the sound of the artist's voice:
"Don't you dare to hit the women! I won't let you, damnation
take you! You scoundrels!"
The medical student appeared in the doorway. He looked from side
to side, and seeing Vassilyev, said in an agitated voice:
"You here! I tell you it's really impossible to go anywhere with
Yegor! What a fellow he is! I don't understand him! He has got
up a scene! Do you hear? Yegor!" he shouted at the door. Yegor!"
"I won't allow you to hit women!" the artist's piercing voice
sounded from above. Something heavy and lumbering rolled down
the stairs. It was the artist falling headlong. Evidently he had
been pushed downstairs.
He picked himself up from the ground, shook his hat, and, with
an angry and indignant face, brandished his fist towards the top
of the stairs and shouted:
"Scoundrels! Torturers! Bloodsuckers! I won't allow you to hit
them! To hit a weak, drunken woman! Oh, you brutes! . . ."
"Yegor! . . . Come, Yegor! . . ." the medical student began
imploring him. "I give you my word of honor I'll never come with
you again. On my word of honor I won't!"
Little by little the artist was pacified and the friends went
"Against my will an unknown force," hummed the medical student,
"has led me to these mournful shores."
"Behold the mill," the artist chimed in a little later, "in
ruins now. What a lot of snow, Holy Mother! Grisha, why did you
go? You are a funk, a regular old woman."
Vassilyev walked behind his companions, looked at their backs,
"One of two things: either we only fancy prostitution is an
evil, and we exaggerate it; or, if prostitution really is as
great an evil as is generally assumed, these dear friends of
mine are as much slaveowners, violators, and murderers, as the
inhabitants of Syria and Cairo, that are described in the
'Neva.' Now they are singing, laughing, talking sense, but
haven't they just been exploiting hunger, ignorance, and
stupidity? They have -- I have been a witness of it. What is the
use of their humanity, their medicine, their painting? The
science, art, and lofty sentiments of these soul-destroyers
remind me of the piece of bacon in the story. Two brigands
murdered a beggar in a forest; they began sharing his clothes
between them, and found in his wallet a piece of bacon. 'Well
found,' said one of them, 'let us have a bit.' 'What do you
mean? How can you?' cried the other in horror. 'Have you
forgotten that to-day is Wednesday?' And they would not eat it.
After murdering a man, they came out of the forest in the firm
conviction that they were keeping the fast. In the same way
these men, after buying women, go their way imagining that they
are artists and men of science. . . ."
"Listen!" he said sharply and angrily. "Why do you come here? Is
it possible -- is it possible you don't understand how horrible
it is? Your medical books tell you that every one of these women
dies prematurely of consumption or something; art tells you that
morally they are dead even earlier. Every one of them dies
because she has in her time to entertain five hundred men on an
average, let us say. Each one of them is killed by five hundred
men. You are among those five hundred! If each of you in the
course of your lives visits this place or others like it two
hundred and fifty times, it follows that one woman is killed for
every two of you! Can't you understand that? Isn't it horrible
to murder, two of you, three of you, five of you, a foolish,
hungry woman! Ah! isn't it awful, my God!"
"I knew it would end like that," the artist said frowning. "We
ought not to have gone with this fool and ass! You imagine you
have grand notions in your head now, ideas, don't you? No, it's
the devil knows what, but not ideas. You are looking at me now
with hatred and repulsion, but I tell you it's better you should
set up twenty more houses like those than look like that.
There's more vice in your expression than in the whole street!
Come along, Volodya, let him go to the devil! He's a fool and an
ass, and that's all. . . ."
"We human beings do murder each other," said the medical
student. "It's immoral, of course, but philosophizing doesn't
help it. Good-by!"
At Trubnoy Square the friends said good-by and parted. When he
was left alone, Vassilyev strode rapidly along the boulevard. He
felt frightened of the darkness, of the snow which was falling
in heavy flakes on the ground, and seemed as though it would
cover up the whole world; he felt frightened of the street lamps
shining with pale light through the clouds of snow. His soul was
possessed by an unaccountable, faint-hearted terror. Passers-by
came towards him from time to time, but he timidly moved to one
side; it seemed to him that women, none but women, were coming
from all sides and staring at him. . . .
"It's beginning," he thought, "I am going to have a breakdown."