Vanka 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 tells a young boy's story in the tale ~'Vanka.~' The narrative explores the difficulties of life as an apprentice, particularly for an orphaned boy. Chekhov also examines the differences in lifestyle between Moscow and a village town.


Anton Chekhov's story about an orphaned boy seems reminiscent of some of the novels by Charles Dickens. The main character is an orphan, forced to work as an apprentice, and suffers numerous beatings and misfortune. Chekhov, however, does not provide a happy ending. Instead, he presents life as it is. Life isn't fair, and those who survive, learn how to make the best of the circumstances they have been given. Nine-year-old Ivan Zhukov still has plenty of lessons to learn.

Vanka, or more accurately transliterated as Van'ka to account for the palatalization or softening of the sound made by the letter ''n'', is not only the title for Chekhov's short story but also a diminutive form of Ivan's first name. He currently lives in Moscow with a master shoemaker, under whom he serves as an apprentice. Van'ka is also an orphan. His mother passed away not long ago. He went to live with his grandfather, but he sent Van'ka off to learn a trade.

Van'ka is unhappy with his current situation. He writes his grandfather a letter asking for him to come and take him back to their village. Chekhov constructs the short story as an epistolary, meaning told as or from a letter. As a result, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of this nine-year-old boy. Because of this, the reader must take into consideration that some of what the boy writes may be exaggerated to elicit an emotional response to his plight.


Based on the letter that Van'ka writes, life as an apprentice is miserable. He describes how he is ''thrashed with a belt... for falling asleep while rocking the baby.'' He indicates that recently the master hit him in the head so hard, he ''fell down and barely recovered.'' When he makes a mistake at any task, he gets it shoved back in his face for emphasis. The older boys, who also apprentice, tease him and make his life more difficult.

It isn't just physical abuse that he must suffer. He also goes without food. He tells of how he gets a piece of bread in the morning and in the evening, and a bowl of kasha, or porridge, for his midday meal. He complains of his constant hunger. The cabbage soup and tea are consumed by the others, leaving him with nothing else to sate his hunger. He writes that his life here is ''worse than any dog's.'' He needs his grandfather to come save him.


If life with the shoemaker Aliakhin is so intolerable, why doesn't Van'ka just leave? Surely, he could run away to someplace more amenable? The answer to this question can be found in Van'ka's letter. He mentions that he does not have any boots, and believes he would freeze without proper foot covering. This answer is somewhat ironic since Van'ka apprentices with a shoemaker. There is something more in his words than this though. Van'ka is homesick, yet also awed by what Moscow offers.

Van'ka lets his thoughts wander off to life in the village quite often while he writes his letter. He thinks about his grandfather, and the two dogs, Chestnut and Eel, who follow him. He misses the activities, especially cutting down of the Christmas tree and decorating with Olga. He is especially fond of Olga, perhaps because she taught him to read and write. These fond memories, however, fall short of the awe he feels when he walks the streets of Moscow.

Van'ka explains that Moscow ''is a big city.'' He describes how all the houses seem large, like mansions. There are numerous items in the windows of the stores, including hooks for fishing, guns, and killed game. Moscow is missing some of the more mundane activities, like singing in the choir, but it is evident that the plentiful choices have captivated Van'ka's imagination. He wants to go back to the village with his grandfather, but will he be the same after seeing what Moscow has to offer?

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