You may know Franz Kafka's "The Trial," a tale of nightmarish bureaucracy—but do you know Anton Chekhov's? Written in 1881, when Chekhov was only twenty-one, it contains the germ of much that would later come to be considered Chekhovian: petty cruelty, country life, and the inability of one generation to come to terms with the other. And because it's Chekhov's birthday today, we're publishing his short story, "The Trial," exclusively here in the blog. We hope you enjoy, if enjoy is indeed the word.
by Anton Chekhov
The hut of Kuzma Egorov, the shopkeeper. Hot and stifling. Damned mosquitoes and flies buzz near eyes and ears, a real nuisance. There’s a cloud of tobacco smoke, yet it doesn’t smell of tobacco but of salted fish. A heaviness hangs in the air, on everyone’s faces, in the buzzing of the mosquitoes.
There is a large table and on it scissors, a jar with a greenish ointment, a saucer filled with walnut shells, paper bags, empty bottles. Seated around the table are Kuzma Egorov himself, Theophan Manafuilov the village priest, Ivanov the medical assistant, the village elder, Mikhailo the bass, Parfenti Ivanovitch the godfather, and Fortunatov, a policeman from town who is visiting Aunt Anise. At a respectful distance from the table stands Kuzma Egorov’s son, Seraphion, who is apprenticed to a barber in town and has come home for the holidays. Seraphion feels very uneasy, and with a trembling hand fidgets with his mustache. Kuzma Egorov’s hut also serves provisionally as a medical -“station,” and out in the hall the ill have gathered: just now they brought in an old woman with a broken rib. She is lying there moaning, waiting for the medical assistant to finally grace her with his attention. Outside by the window a crowd has gathered to see Kuzma Egorov give his son a flogging.
“You keep saying that I’m lying,” Seraphion says to his father, “which is why I intend to keep things short. We are in the nineteenth century, Father. Words are meaningless, because theories, as you yourself surely know, simply can’t exist without some practical basis.”
“Shut up!” Kuzma Egorov sternly shouts. “Don’t change the subject; just give me the meat and potatoes. What have you done with my money?”
“Your money? But . . . surely, you yourself must be clever enough to see that I would never have touched your money. After all, you’re not hoarding it for me . . . I would never be tempted!”
“Be frank with us, Seraphion Kuzmitch!” the village priest exclaims. “Why do you think we are questioning you? We want to set you on the straight and narrow path to righteousness. Your father only wants what is good for you. . . . So he asked us over. . . . You must be frank with us. . . . Did you sin? Was it you who took the twenty-five rubles lying in your father’s chest of drawers, or wasn’t it?”
Seraphion spits into the corner and says nothing. “Answer!” Kuzma Egorov shouts, banging his fist on the table. “Was it you or wasn’t it?”
“Fine, have it your way, say it was me who took it! But there is no point in shouting, Father! No point in banging your fist till the table breaks into a thousand pieces! I have never taken your money, and if I did it was out of necessity . . . I am a living person, an animated noun, and I need money. I am not a rock!”
“Go earn yourself as much money as you need, then you won’t have to rob me blind. You’re not the only one in this family! There are six others!”
“I am fully aware of that, but due to the weakness of my health, as you know, I find it difficult to earn money. And how you can reproach me for nothing more than a piece of bread, you will have to answer to the Lord God himself . . .”
“Oh, weakness of health, is it? What’s so difficult about being a barber? All you have to do is cut a bit here and a bit there, and even that’s too much for you!”
“You call that a job? It’s not a job, it’s a feeble excuse for a job. With my education I can’t work in such -circumstances!”
“You aren’t reasoning correctly, Seraphion Kuzmitch!” the village priest says. “Your job is honorable, noble. After all, you work in the biggest town in the province, and you shave and barber noble, highbrow people. Even generals need your services.”
“Ha! I can tell you a thing or two about generals.”
The medical assistant is slightly tipsy: “According to my medical opinion,” he says, “you are turpentine and nothing else!”
“We know your medicine! . . . Who, if I may ask, mistook the drunk carpenter for a corpse last year and almost dissected him? If he hadn’t woken up, you would have cut his stomach open. And who, may I ask, always mixes castor oil with hempseed oil?”
“That’s medicine for you!”
“And who sent Malanya to kingdom come? You administered laxatives and then constipators, and then laxatives again, and she finally broke down. It’s not -people you should be treating but, pardon my frankness, dogs!”
“May Malanya rest in peace,” Kuzma Egorov says. “May she rest in peace. It wasn’t she who took the money, it’s not her we’re talking about . . . by the way, you didn’t give the money to that Alonya, did you?”
“Alonya! Shame on you to speak that woman’s name in front of a policeman and a man of the cloth!”
“So out with it! Did you take the money or didn’t you?” The village elder hobbles out from behind the table, lights a match by striking it over his knee, and deferentially holds it up to the policeman’s pipe.
“Damn!” the policeman shouts. “You filled my nose with powder!”
Puffing on his pipe, he gets up from the table, walks up to Seraphion, and maliciously looking him in the eye, shouts in a shrill voice: “Who the hell are you? What is this? Why! Huh? What does all this mean? Why don’t you answer the question? Insubordination? -Taking someone’s money like that! Shut up! Answer! Speak! Answer!”
“If . . .”
“If you could . . . be just a little quieter! If . . . You don’t scare me! Who do you think you are! You—you’re just an idiot, it’s as simple as that! If my father wishes to throw me to the dogs, then so be it! . . . Go on, torture me! Beat me!”
“Shut up! No conversation! I can see right through you! Are you a thief? What are you? Shut up! Do you know who I am? No debates!”
“Punishment is inevitable,” the village priest sighs. “When criminals don’t ease their guilt with a -confession, then, Kuzma Egorov, flogging is inevitable. My -conclusion is: it’s inevitable!”
“Whip him!” Mikhailo the bass says, in such a -thundering baritone that everyone jumps.
“For the last time: Was it you, yes or no?”
“If this is what you want . . . fine . . . You can flog me! I am ready!”
“You will be flogged!” Kuzma Egorov resolves, and he rises from the table, blood rushing to his neck.
The crowd outside pushes closer to the window. In the hall the sick flock to the door, trying to peek in. Even the old woman with the broken rib is craning her head.
“Bend over!” Kuzma Egorov says.
Seraphion tears off his jacket, crosses himself, and calmly bends over the bench.
“You may flog me,” he says.
Kuzma Egorov picks up the strap, looks into the crowd for a few seconds as if waiting for someone to help him, and then begins.
“One! Two! Three!” Mikhailo counts in a deep bass. “Eight! Nine!”
The village priest stands in the corner, leafing through his book with lowered eyes.
“Enough!” Kuzma Egorov says.
“More!” whispers Fortunatov the policeman. “More! More! Give it to him!”
“My conclusion is: definitely a few more!” the village priest says, looking up from his book.
“He didn’t even wince!” the people outside mutter.
The sick people in the hall make way, and Kuzma Egorov’s wife enters the room, her starched dress -crackling.
“Kuzma!” she says to her husband. “What’s this money I found in your pocket? Isn’t it the money you were just looking for?”
“Oh, it is! Seraphion, get up, we’ve found the money! I put it in my pocket yesterday and forgot all about it!”
“More!” Fortunatov mumbles. “He must be beaten! Give it to him!”
“We found the money! Get up!”
Seraphion gets up, puts his jacket on, and sits down at the table. Drawn-out silence. Embarrassed, the village priest blows his nose in his handkerchief.
“Forgive me,” Kuzma Egorov mumbles, turning to his son. “Well, you know, damn! Who would have thought we’d find it just like that?”
“It’s all right. After all it’s not the first time. . . . Please don’t worry. I am always ready to suffer any torment.”
“Have a drink . . . it’ll help heal the wounds.”
Seraphion drinks, lifts his bluish nose high into the air, and with a heroic flourish walks out of the hut. For a long time afterward Fortunatov the policeman paces up and down the courtyard, his face red, his eyes goggling, muttering:
“More! More! Give it to him!”