The Death of a Government Clerk: 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.

A simple act like sneezing develops into a huge incident for a government clerk as he frets over the act and how it might affect his job. Anton Chekhov's ~'The Death of a Government Clerk~' satirizes government officials through the comedic errors of his protagonist, Ivan Chervyakov.

A Simple Sneeze

You're sitting in a quiet auditorium. A cell phone starts to ring, or someone begins to cough. Allergies act up and you begin to sneeze uncontrollably. These sorts of incidents happen all the time, and at worst, they are minor annoyances. We don't give them a second thought. But what if your action affected someone higher up in your work organization? Would you be concerned, or simply apologize and forget about it?

Anton Chekhov looks at this question from the perspective of a lowly government official in the short story, The Death of a Government Clerk. The protagonist, Ivan Dmitrivich Chervyakov, attends the theater one evening, and during the performance, sneezes. He doesn't think much of the incident until he sees the man in front of him ''wiping his bald head and neck.'' He becomes more agitated when he recognizes the man as General Brizzhalov.

Why would this be a concern for Ivan? Ivan is a government official, but really holds no sort of authority. The general does. Although he doesn't work in the same department as Ivan, he could make a comment or two about Ivan's actions at the theater, and Ivan's career would be over. He would not ascend any higher within the ranks of the government. Ivan quickly assesses the situation and goes about rectifying this incident by apologizing.

Apology Not Accepted?

Ivan makes an attempt to apologize for sneezing on the general. He tells Ivan that it is no bother. Not satisfied with the response, Ivan continues and is told to be quiet. Ivan begins to worry about this. He feels that the apology has not been accepted, that perhaps he has offended the general by sneezing on him. During the intermission, he approaches the general again.

He again attempts to apologize, but the general brushes it off and tells him that the matter ''is already forgotten.'' Most people would be satisfied and let the matter drop. Not Ivan. His last name is based off the Russian word for worm (cherv') and perhaps he feels the need to ingratiate himself with the general. When the general tells him that he thinks nothing more about the matter, Ivan reads more into his words.

Ivan believes that the general is still upset. After his second attempt to apologize, he sees ''malice in his eyes.'' After the performance, Ivan goes home and talks to his wife. She is initially frightened but relaxes when she learns that the general works in a different department than her husband. Recognizing that this incident really shouldn't affect his career, she tells him to make an apology so the general doesn't think Ivan ''doesn't know how to behave in public.''

Continued Fretting

The next day, Ivan gets a haircut and puts on his best uniform in order to make a good impression on the general. He goes to the general's office and meets him in the reception room. Ivan goes up to him and again makes an attempt to apologize for his behavior the previous evening. Again, he gets a response from the general, that the matter is of little importance. He tells Ivan that it is 'small trifles' before asking if he can help him in any other matter.

To Ivan, this simply means that the general doesn't want to talk to him. So he waits until all the other petitioners have left before approaching the general again. He follows the general into the back rooms and starts to apologize. The general cuts him off and asks if ''he is joking.'' Ivan doesn't see this as a joke. To him, this is not a joking matter. His job, his identity as a government official, rests on the general acknowledging and accepting his apology.

The Last Attempt

Not giving up on the matter, Ivan returns to the general the next day. At this point, the affair has turned into a farce. The general doesn't care, but Ivan cannot accept this. He believes that if the general does not accept his apology, it could affect his job in a negative manner, and then where would he be? Who would he be then? The general reaches the end of his tolerance, and yells at Ivan to ''Get out!''

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