Sleepy by Anton Chekhov: Summary & Analysis

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.

Sleepy, by Anton Chekhov, gives a sense of what it must be like to suffer from sleep deprivation. What makes the story different is that it is from the perspective of a thirteen year-old girl. Her chores prevent her from sleep, and as a result, she takes drastic action to satisfy this physical need.


We all know what it is like to be tired. Staying up late and then having to get up early the next day, or perhaps not even going to bed at all. Eventually, however, we find the time to take a quick nap in order for our body to gain the rest it needs. In Anton Chekhov's short story, Sleepy, his young protagonist does not have that option. The constant demands of her master and his wife keep her from gaining any sort of respite. The inability to find a few hours to sleep will come back to haunt the shoemaker.

Varka is a young, thirteen year-old girl. She works for a shoemaker and his wife. She helps out with chores around the house, cleaning, cooking, splitting firewood for the stove, and even cleaning the master's galoshes. During the day, and into the night, she is busy with chores. All these tasks would be enough to make anyone tired at the end of the day. Unfortunately for Varka, her day isn't over. She also has the task of rocking the baby whenever it wakes during the night.

The baby doesn't want to sleep at night. He cries until he is 'hoarse and exhausted..but still goes on screaming, and there is no knowing when he will stop.' Varka is left trying to calm the baby by rocking him in his crib and singing. All the while, Varka is exhausted. She cannot nap, or her master will catch her and beat her. She struggles through with 'her eyes glued together, (and) her head drooping.' It isn't long before she does drift off.


Varka begins to dream. The rocking motion of the crib transforms into her father writhing on the floor. His pain and motion are similar to what Varka currently experiences with the baby. Her father, however, suffers from a hernia. Her mother, Pealgea, calls for a doctor, who indicates that Yefim Stepanov needs to go to the hospital for surgery. Yefim passes away the next morning. Just at this moment, Varka receives a sharp blow to the head. Her dream is driven away by the sharp tone of her master.

The wife comes and takes the child from Varka. She feeds him, and hands him back to Varka. Varka goes back to her task of rocking the baby. She drifts back into sleep, despite resting 'her head on the cradle' to try and stave off sleep. Just as she begins to enjoy a moment of sleep, orders come forth that she must light the stove. Her day begins again, and she hopes the chores will give her moving enough to keep her awake.


The constant movement of her chores, from breaking wood into splinters for the stove, cleaning and washing around the house, all these movements are sufficient to keep her sleepiness at bay. When she stands and peels potatoes, however, she begins to nod off. Varka finds that there is 'nothing so hard as standing in the same place.' She longs for a moment when she can 'flop on the floor regardless of everything, and sleep.'

When night comes, her daily chores have still not come to an end. Visitors come to the shoemaker's and she is busy with the samovar, making sure the water is heated for tea. She runs out for beer, and serves everyone vodka. Her sole task is to stand 'and wait for orders.' The guests leave, Varka's masters go to bed, and there is hope that Varka too will be able to sleep. Instead, there is the final order to 'rock the baby!' Her chores keep her busy, but do not alleviate her exhaustion.

Sleep Deprivation

Chekhov only presents about a twenty-four hour period in this story, but the sense is that every day for Varka is like this. With almost no opportunity to sleep, this deprivation will eventually create a desperate need for sleep. That is exactly what happens with Varka. She sings to the baby and rocks him, but again, he continues to scream. Varka sees her parents. Whether it is a dream or hallucination it isn't clear, but she finds clarity in this vision.

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