Gusev by Anton Chekhov: Summary & Symbolism

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Anton Chekhov's 'Gusev' tells the last days of Gusev as he sails home from the frontline in the Far East. The symbolism in the story speaks to the isolation and alienation of these men. There is hope within the symbolism as found in Gusev's last moments.


Writers enjoy using the ocean as a setting for their stories because of its immense size. The emptiness and solitude provide numerous challenges to all those who attempt to conquer it. Quite often, the setting of the ocean develops into a theme of man versus nature. In the case of Anton Chekhov's Gusev, having his characters travel across the ocean back to Russia becomes symbolic.

The main protagonist of Chekhov's story, Gusev, is 'a discharged private' who has contracted consumption, today known as tuberculosis, while fighting in the Far East. He is in the sickbay hold of a ship with a number of other soldiers heading home due to illness or injury. Many of them will likely die before they reach land. Their illness and death serve as symbols on several levels.


Gusev is a quiet and contemplative man. The instances where he does speak, he attempts to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook. This attitude is frequently challenged by Pavel Ivanovich, another patient isolated in the sick bay.

Pavel Ivanovich provokes those around him. He seeks a way to make his mark in the world, one that will ''leave behind a memory that will last a hundred years.'' His illness prevents this.

Pavel Ivanovich, much like Gusev and the other men in sickbay, are ill in one manner or another. For that reason they are kept away not only from the rest of those on board, but also all of mankind. Pavel Ivanovich attempts to explain the reasoning for this alienation.

He explains to Gusev that they are all on board this ship in order ''to get rid of us.'' It is expected that their illness and injuries will prevent them from returning home alive. The illness also symbolizes their isolation from God and nature.

The only time the sick men are allowed outside is when their bodies are buried at sea. Men like Gusev and Pavel Ivanocih are cut off from the rest of the world, even other men aboard the ship. It is important to note the importance both Pavel and Gusev place on rational thought. This isolation symbolizes how their reliance on rational thought has driven them away from spiritual belief and God. Death further symbolizes this separation.


Death comes quietly for these men, and when it does, it is rarely recognized by others. One of the unnamed men passes away, and it is Gusev who finally tells them that 'There's no breath in him! He's dead!'' A little later, when Pavel Ivanovich dies, Gusev is ''sitting and thinking about frost.''

Death removes these men from the mortal plane and separates them completely from all those around them. Just as the ocean around them, death ''has no sense of pity.''

To magnify how death separates man and creates an isolationist environment, when the men on die, their bodies will not be returned home. They will be given to the waters of the ocean. In essence, they are returned to nature. As Gusev's death will show, it is through death that a sense of hope is reestablished in man.

Gusev begins to feel suffocated in the room shortly after Pavel Ivanovich's death. He needs to get out and breathe fresh air. He gains assistance going topside from another injured man.

As they watch the undulation of the ocean waves, the man asks Gusev ''isn't it frightening to die?'' Gusev responds in the affirmative. Death is the ultimate act of alienation and separation of man from everything. But it also provides an opportunity to remove this alienation and return to the embrace of others.


Gusev returns to his bed in the sickbay. He begins to dream of baking bread and sleeps for two days. On the third day, his body is taken top deck, wrapped in canvas, another symbol of alienation, and then dropped into the ocean. Religious symbolism is strong, reminiscent of both Lazarus and Jesus. Gusev, like them finds new life on the third day.

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