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The Student 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.

Anton Chekhov's short story 'The Student' may appear as a story that espouses the religious beliefs of its author. Instead, it is a story about a young man, a seminary student, who discovers how the past continues to affect the present. This recognition gives him a sense of hope and feeling of joy.

Ivan Velikopolsky

A story that begins with a solitary figure walking home with the sun dropping below the horizon conjures up eerie and mysterious gothic images. A cold wind begins to blow, and the character feels the sting as it bites into his flesh. Anticipation builds, and the expectation is that something unfortunate is about to happen. Not in this particular instance. Instead, Anton Chekhov's The Student introduces the reader to a seminary student, Ivan Velikopolsky.

Anton Chekhov
Photo taken by unknown author

It is Good Friday, and Ivan doesn't seem particularly happy. He doesn't see his life changing any time soon. Everything happens just as it always has. He mentions that the cold winds are blowing this night ''just as they had blown in the days of ... Ivan the Terrible and Peter (the Great).'' Everything around him seems to be going through the motions. As he passes through the widows' garden, he sees a campfire and heads toward the warmth.

The Two Widows

Vasilisa and Lukerya are mother and daughter but also both widows. Vasilisa was an older woman who had served in many capacities taking care of children. This was reflected in her voice which was 'delicate and gentle'. Her daughter, Lukerya, had a much more difficult life. Perhaps the result of an abusive relationship with her deceased husband, she was shy and very reserved. Since these two women tended the gardens, and were both widowed, the locals referred to the garden area as the widows' garden.

Ivan sees a fire burning and approaches. He notices Vasilisa standing there and strikes up a conversation. He greets her, which she returns. Only Vasilisa engage in the conversation. Lukerya remains in the background, seen but not heard. Ivan then makes mention of a similar figure who once stood at a fire as they now do. This man's name was Peter, one of Jesus' 12 apostles.

Ivan asks to make sure the two women are familiar with Peter's story. Learning that they are, Ivan still proceeds to provide a bit of background that leads up to the moment when Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Being a seminary student, Ivan is very familiar with the New Testament Gospels, and this is an easy way not only to proselytize, but also to share his education with others. As Ivan continues his narrative, both women are hanging on Ivan's every word.

Peter's Story

Peter denies Jesus
Peter Denies Jesus

Immediately Ivan mentions that the apostle Peter ''stood with the laborers near the fire and warmed himself as I am doing.'' As Peter stands there, a woman recognizes him as being with Jesus. Peter denies it. Two others come up at different intervals and also indicate that they have seen Peter with Jesus. Both times, Peter denies their statements. After the third denial, Peter hears a cock crow, just as Jesus had told him. Upon hearing this, Peter leaves, goes to a garden and weeps. As Ivan finishes his story, he sees that Vasilisa has tears in her eyes.

There is an indication that Vasilisa is smiling as the tears ''flowed freely down her cheeks,'' yet she takes her arm and covers her face to hide this fact. There is an indication Vasilisa is embarrassed that she is crying. Even Lukerya is affected by the story, presenting an expression ''of someone enduring intense pain.'' Why would such a story have such a dramatic effect on its audience? Ivan doesn't have an immediate answer but after he takes his leave of the women and bids them good night, he begins to think about what he just witnessed.

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