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