A Nervous Breakdown
When next morning
the artist and the medical student went in to him, he was moving
about the room with his shirt torn, biting his hands and moaning
"For God's sake!" he sobbed when he saw his friends, "take me
where you please, do what you can; but for God's sake, save me
quickly! I shall kill myself!"
The artist turned pale and was helpless. The medical student,
too, almost shed tears, but considering that doctors ought to be
cool and composed in every emergency said coldly:
"It's a nervous breakdown. But it's nothing. Let us go at once
to the doctor."
"Wherever you like, only for God's sake, make haste"
"Don't excite yourself. You must try and control yourself."
The artist and the medical student with trembling hands put
Vassilyev's coat and hat on and led him out into the street.
"Mihail Sergeyitch has been wanting to make your acquaintance
for a long time," the medical student said on the way. "He is a
very nice man and thoroughly good at his work. He took his
degree in 1882, and he has an immense practice already. He
treats students as though he were one himself."
"Make haste, make haste! . . ." Vassilyev urged.
Mihail Sergeyitch, a stout, fair-haired doctor, received the
friends with politeness and frigid dignity, and smiled only on
one side of his face.
"Rybnikov and Mayer have spoken to me of your illness already,"
he said. "Very glad to be of service to you. Well? Sit down, I
beg. . . ."
He made Vassilyev sit down in a big armchair near the table, and
moved a box of cigarettes towards him.
"Now then!" he began, stroking his knees. "Let us get to work. .
. . How old are you?"
He asked questions and the medical student answered them. He
asked whether Vassilyev's father had suffered from certain
special diseases, whether he drank to excess, whether he were
remarkable for cruelty or any peculiarities. He made similar
inquiries about his grandfather, mother, sisters, and brothers.
On learning that his mother had a beautiful voice and sometimes
acted on the stage, he grew more animated at once, and asked:
"Excuse me, but don't you remember, perhaps, your mother had a
passion for the stage?"
Twenty minutes passed. Vassilyev was annoyed by the way the
doctor kept stroking his knees and talking of the same thing.
"So far as I understand your questions, doctor," he said, "you
want to know whether my illness is hereditary or not. It is
The doctor proceeded to ask Vassilyev whether he had had any
secret vices as a boy, or had received injuries to his head;
whether he had had any aberrations, any peculiarities, or
exceptional propensities. Half the questions usually asked by
doctors of their patients can be left unanswered without the
slightest ill effect on the health, but Mihail Sergeyitch, the
medical student, and the artist all looked as though if
Vassilyev failed to answer one question all would be lost. As he
received answers, the doctor for some reason noted them down on
a slip of paper. On learning that Vassilyev had taken his degree
in natural science, and was now studying law, the doctor
"He wrote a first-rate piece of original work last year, . . ."
said the medical student.
"I beg your pardon, but don't interrupt me; you prevent me from
concentrating," said the doctor, and he smiled on one side of
his face. "Though, of course, that does enter into the
diagnosis. Intense intellectual work, nervous exhaustion. . . .
Yes, yes. . . . And do you drink vodka?" he said, addressing
Another twenty minutes passed. The medical student began telling
the doctor in a low voice his opinion as to the immediate cause
of the attack, and described how the day before yesterday the
artist, Vassilyev, and he had visited S. Street.
The indifferent, reserved, and frigid tone in which his friends
and the doctor spoke of the women and that miserable street
struck Vassilyev as strange in the extreme. . . .
"Doctor, tell me one thing only," he said, controlling himself
so as not to speak rudely. "Is prostitution an evil or not?"
"My dear fellow, who disputes it?" said the doctor, with an
expression that suggested that he had settled all such questions
for himself long ago. "Who disputes it?"
"You are a mental doctor, aren't you?" Vassilyev asked curtly.
"Yes, a mental doctor."
"Perhaps all of you are right!" said Vassilyev, getting up and
beginning to walk from one end of the room to the other.
"Perhaps! But it all seems marvelous to me! That I should have
taken my degree in two faculties you look upon as a great
achievement; because I have written a work which in three years
will be thrown aside and forgotten, I am praised up to the
skies; but because I cannot speak of fallen women as
unconcernedly as of these chairs, I am being examined by a
doctor, I am called mad, I am pitied!"
Vassilyev for some reason felt all at once unutterably sorry for
himself, and his companions, and all the people he had seen two
days before, and for the doctor; he burst into tears and sank
into a chair.
His friends looked inquiringly at the doctor. The latter, with
the air of completely comprehending the tears and the despair,
of feeling himself a specialist in that line, went up to
Vassilyev and, without a word, gave him some medicine to drink;
and then, when he was calmer, undressed him and began to
investigate the degree of sensibility of the skin, the reflex
action of the knees, and so on.
And Vassilyev felt easier. When he came out from the doctor's he
was beginning to feel ashamed; the rattle of the carriages no
longer irritated him, and the load at his heart grew lighter and
lighter as though it were melting away. He had two prescriptions
in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He
had taken all these remedies before.
In the street he stood still and, saying good-by to his friends,
dragged himself languidly to the University.
familiarity: literally, "men say 'thou' to them" (using the
Russian familiar "you" as one would to a child or intimate
St. Mary of Egypt: Mary of Egypt was originally a prostitute
shores: part of an aria in the opera The Mermaid by A. S.
Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869), who based it on an unfinished work by
Buona sera, signori: good evening, gentlemen
rigolleto -- hugenotti -- traviata: names of Italian operas that
the speaker uses for comic effect (Rigoletto, Les Huguenots, and
newspaper: Chekhov is more specific than this; the man is
reading The Moscow Leaflet, a political and literary newspaper
vis--vis: opposite; in this case, dancing partner
Marshal Bazaine: Achille Bazaine (1811-1888) was Marshall under
Napoleon III; he was found guilty of treason in 1873
kissed: it is not unusual for Russian male friends to kiss as a
sign of affection
Ada: 1871 opera by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), set in Egypt
Neva: The Meadow, a weekly illustrated magazine published in St.
Petersburg and widely read in Russia
Wednesday: Wednesday and Friday were fast days for members of
the Russian Orthodox Church