A Nervous Breakdown
by A. Chekhov
At home he lay on
his bed and said, shuddering all over: "They are alive! Alive!
My God, those women are alive!"
He encouraged his imagination in all sorts of ways to picture
himself the brother of a fallen woman, or her father; then a
fallen woman herself, with her painted cheeks; and it all moved
him to horror.
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all
costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern
him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense
effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding
his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the
women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of
all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him.
And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method.
He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and
for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to
the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the
present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and
acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among
them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of
them had attempted to save women. . . .
"All these not very numerous attempts," thought Vassilyev, "can
be divided into three groups. Some, after buying the woman out
of the brothel, took a room for her, bought her a
sewing-machine, and she became a semptress. And whether he
wanted to or not, after having bought her out he made her his
mistress; then when he had taken his degree, he went away and
handed her into the keeping of some other decent man as though
she were a thing. And the fallen woman remained a fallen woman.
Others, after buying her out, took a lodging apart for her,
bought the inevitable sewing-machine, and tried teaching her to
read, preaching at her and giving her books. The woman lived and
sewed as long as it was interesting and a novelty to her, then
getting bored, began receiving men on the sly, or ran away and
went back where she could sleep till three o'clock, drink
coffee, and have good dinners. The third class, the most ardent
and self-sacrificing, had taken a bold, resolute step. They had
married them. And when the insolent and spoilt, or stupid and
crushed animal became a wife, the head of a household, and
afterwards a mother, it turned her whole existence and attitude
to life upside down, so that it was hard to recognize the fallen
woman afterwards in the wife and the mother. Yes, marriage was
the best and perhaps the only means."
"But it is impossible!" Vassilyev said aloud, and he sank upon
his bed. "I, to begin with, could not marry one! To do that one
must be a saint and be unable to feel hatred or repulsion. But
supposing that I, the medical student, and the artist mastered
ourselves and did marry them -- suppose they were all married.
What would be the result? The result would be that while here in
Moscow they were being married, some Smolensk accountant would
be debauching another lot, and that lot would be streaming here
to fill the vacant places, together with others from Saratov,
Nizhni-Novgorod, Warsaw. . . . And what is one to do with the
hundred thousand in London? What's one to do with those in
The lamp in which the oil had burnt down began to smoke.
Vassilyev did not notice it. He began pacing to and fro again,
still thinking. Now he put the question differently: what must
be done that fallen women should not be needed? For that, it was
essential that the men who buy them and do them to death should
feel all the immorality of their share in enslaving them and
should be horrified. One must save the men.
"One won't do anything by art and science, that is clear . . ."
thought Vassilyev. "The only way out of it is missionary work."
And he began to dream how he would the next evening stand at the
corner of the street and say to every passer-by: "Where are you
going and what for? Have some fear of God!"
He would turn to the apathetic cabmen and say to them: "Why are
you staying here? Why aren't you revolted? Why aren't you
indignant? I suppose you believe in God and know that it is a
sin, that people go to hell for it? Why don't you speak? It is
true that they are strangers to you, but you know even they have
fathers, brothers like yourselves. . . ."
One of Vassilyev's friends had once said of him that he was a
talented man. There are all sorts of talents -- talent for
writing, talent for the stage, talent for art; but he had a
peculiar talent -- a talent for humanity. He possessed an
extraordinarily fine delicate scent for pain in general. As a
good actor reflects in himself the movements and voice of
others, so Vassilyev could reflect in his soul the sufferings of
others. When he saw tears, he wept; beside a sick man, he felt
sick himself and moaned; if he saw an act of violence, he felt
as though he himself were the victim of it, he was frightened as
a child, and in his fright ran to help. The pain of others
worked on his nerves, excited him, roused him to a state of
frenzy, and so on.
Whether this friend were right I don't know, but what Vassilyev
experienced when he thought this question was settled was
something like inspiration. He cried and laughed, spoke aloud
the words that he should say next day, felt a fervent love for
those who would listen to him and would stand beside him at the
corner of the street to preach; he sat down to write letters,
made vows to himself. . . .
All this was like inspiration also from the fact that it did not
last long. Vassilyev was soon tired. The cases in London, in
Hamburg, in Warsaw, weighed upon him by their mass as a mountain
weighs upon the earth; he felt dispirited, bewildered, in the
face of this mass; he remembered that he had not a gift for
words, that he was cowardly and timid, that indifferent people
would not be willing to listen and understand him, a law student
in his third year, a timid and insignificant person; that
genuine missionary work included not only teaching but deeds. .
When it was daylight and carriages were already beginning to
rumble in the street, Vassilyev was lying motionless on the
sofa, staring into space. He was no longer thinking of the
women, nor of the men, nor of missionary work. His whole
attention was turned upon the spiritual agony which was
torturing him. It was a dull, vague, undefined anguish akin to
misery, to an extreme form of terror and to despair. He could
point to the place where the pain was, in his breast under his
heart; but he could not compare it with anything. In the past he
had had acute toothache, he had had pleurisy and neuralgia, but
all that was insignificant compared with this spiritual anguish.
In the presence of that pain life seemed loathsome. The
dissertation, the excellent work he had written already, the
people he loved, the salvation of fallen women -- everything
that only the day before he had cared about or been indifferent
to, now when he thought of them irritated him in the same way as
the noise of the carriages, the scurrying footsteps of the
waiters in the passage, the daylight. . . . If at that moment
someone had performed a great deed of mercy or had committed a
revolting outrage, he would have felt the same repulsion for
both actions. Of all the thoughts that strayed through his mind
only two did not irritate him: one was that at every moment he
had the power to kill himself, the other that this agony would
not last more than three days. This last he knew by experience.
After lying for a while he got up and, wringing his hands,
walked about the room, not as usual from corner to corner, but
round the room beside the walls. As he passed he glanced at
himself in the looking-glass. His face looked pale and sunken,
his temples looked hollow, his eyes were bigger, darker, more
staring, as though they belonged to someone else, and they had
an expression of insufferable mental agony.
At midday the artist knocked at the door.
"Grigory, are you at home?" he asked.
Getting no answer, he stood for a minute, pondered, and answered
himself in Little Russian: "Nay. The confounded fellow has gone
to the University."
And he went away. Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting
his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more
freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish
became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing
night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He
dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide
open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without
asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along
Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing.
Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened
at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by,
Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower;
then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya
Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of
vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached
Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets
in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the
old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one
can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks.
To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some
other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and
shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare
chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his
suffering either. Then he bent down over the rail of the bridge
and looked down into the black, yeasty Yauza, and he longed to
plunge down head foremost; not from loathing for life, not for
the sake of suicide, but in order to bruise himself at least,
and by one pain to ease the other. But the black water, the
darkness, the deserted banks covered with snow were terrifying.
He shivered and walked on. He walked up and down by the Red
Barracks, then turned back and went down to a copse, from the
copse back to the bridge again.
"No, home, home!" he thought. "At home I believe it's better. .
And he went back. When he reached home he pulled off his wet
coat and cap, began pacing round the room, and went on pacing
round and round without stopping till morning.