Watching A Dead Body in White Linen

A Dead Body  by Anton Chekhov (1886)

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror  June 4, 2013

How many stories have you read where the dead body is the main character? This short-short (really a snapshot of a moment in fiction, a 15-minute read) by Chekhov is probably not one his most praised pieces of work. We know Chekhov for his brilliant plays, for his literary and spiritual intelligence, but he’s not well known for his tales of terror. Most would be surprised to hear that his first short story sold to Dragonfly in 1880; thus began his career as a crime and mystery writer.

I liked A Dead Body because the story does not really “develop” for the reader, but more “envelopes” the reader. It’s highly mysterious and a puzzle that still haunts me with its drama and symbolism. In fact, everything here is emblematic and makes for a fascinating attempt to draw connections. Dan Brown could learn something from Chekhov’s subtle and elusive prose.

The scene opens on an August night in the misty forest. A dead man is shrouded  in white linen on the ground. A wooden cross is upon his chest. Two peasant men are sitting by “watching.”  One man is smart. The other man, Syoma, is not so smart and doesn’t really understand; he is told to “Think!”

There is perfect stillness.

There is sleepiness.  A small camp fire is burning down. There is mention of an owl … a crane … three minutes … three days. A soul.

The “watch” is silent.

And then a stranger in a monk’s cassock, a pilgrim, comes by. There is talk of outer darkness, murder, and suicide. There is an offer of money, five kopecks. The monk makes a movement of five steps.

There is the fear of the dead.

Chekhov weaves us into a moment of pure suspension. Don’t miss it because the ending will cause you to say, What? What happened here? Typical of Chekhovian endings, which often just suddenly stop or hit you with the unexpected. In fact, the absolute last image still has me captured … as it will you.

Take fifteen minutes to read this story that is likely a forgotten and puzzling tale. And if you have any insight as to the meaning of the last line, do post your thoughts in the Comments. I’m starving for opinions on this one!

Read the full text at The Literature Network


Filed under Anton Chekhov, fiction, literature, mysteries, short stories, supernatural, tales of terror, weird tales

5 responses to “Watching A Dead Body in White Linen

  1. I think it is a parable about faith in Christ as those who have been commanded to “keep watch,” like the ten virgins in Matthew 25, whose job was to keep the fire burning until the bridegroom comes. I think there are also allusions to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 throughout the story, especially the strange fire scene (re purple glow) and the final scene.

    Read in that light, the story ends with (a) the pious (but fearful) pilgrim and the smart (but prideful and also fearful) youth walking into the ‘outer darkness’ of the night, as it were, away from Christ, and (b) the simple, humble, and faithful watchman dying with Christ (staying with the dead body and only then “fall[ing] into a gentle sleep”), and so being raised up with Christ.

    The last two lines leave us with Syoma’s eyes closed, which had been resolutely fixed on the fire, save for when he gathered wood to feed it, and the body lost among great shadows. I think the fire represents the substance of Syoma’s life and faith–it consumed all his attention and efforts, and so it should if his job as a watchman is to “keep watch.” When his eyes are closed and fire extinguished, Syoma is left in darkness *with* the dead body. But “soon” after that, “the dead body was lost among great shadows.” The singular dead body was now gone from the darkened scene, replaced though with “great shadows.” I think the “great shadows” were that of the dead body and the lone watchman, who have been risen from the darkness into another kind of light ‘from above’—how could there be shadows in the night when the fire is out?!

    Ironically, both the smart youth and the pious pilgrim “knew” the soul stayed with the body until “the third day,” and their “superstition” condemns them in the end–the watchman for abandoning the body for profit (like Judas), the religious man for his fear of death and bribery of the watchman in leading him away from the body (like the Pharisees).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh yes. Very cool! Thanks, Mr. Jarus 🙂


  3. Tom Jarus

    World War Z.


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