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Yevgeny Petrovitch Bykovsky: Yevgeny is a prosecutor for a Russian circuit court and the father to Seryozha. Although Chekhov wrote this short story in third person, much of the story is filtered through Yevgeny’s thoughts through free indirect discourse. This literary technique allows readers to glimpse into Yevgeny’s thoughts. He is clearly a man of the court; he is methodical, logical, and thinks in terms of numbers. Occasionally, he lets his mind wander to memories of his childhood and schooling. His lack of imagination and originality makes it difficult to connect with his young son.

Seryozha Yevgenitch Petrovitch: Yevgeny’s seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been caught smoking. Seryozha is described as a pure, naive “cherub.” He has a vivid imagination and his mind flits rapidly from one thought to another.

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Text of the Story

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"embellishments..."   (Text of the Story)

An “embellishment” is a detail added to a statement or story to make it more interesting or entertaining. Here, Yevgeny laments that morality must be dressed up in the form of stories and anecdotes. He would prefer morality to come in “crude form,” or in other words, as laws and decrees.

"Like most people engaged in practical affairs, he did not know a single poem by heart, and could not remember a single fairy tale, so he had to improvise...."   (Text of the Story)

Because Yevgeny is “engaged in practical affairs,” he does not have the capability to think as creatively as a child might. In a final attempt to scare Seryozha from smoking, he tells a semi-autobiographical story. The fact that he cannot think of a purely original tale, and chooses instead to tell one almost identical to his own life, demonstrates his lack of imagination.

""A man can't be taller than a house," ..."   (Text of the Story)

It is worth noting that Seryozha chooses to draw a house. The image of a house, in his mind, is one of disproportionality, color, and a bit of chaos. Yevgeny does not identify his concept of a house with this image. If Yevgeny were to draw a house, readers might imagine that it would be perfectly angular and devoid of any character.

"Yevgeny Petrovitch sat down to the table and pulled one of Seryozha's drawings to him. In it there was a house with a crooked roof, and smoke which came out of the chimney like a flash of lightning in zigzags up to the very edge of the paper; beside the house stood a soldier with dots for eyes and a bayonet that looked like the figure 4...."   (Text of the Story)

Yevgeny’s world is like a courtroom: one of logic, order, and methodology. He cannot comprehend why his son would draw something so unlike his reality and finds fault with the crooked roof, the zigzagging lightning bolt, and the soldier who stands taller than a house. In his effort to understand the drawing, Yevgeny even compares the shape of the bayonet to the shape of the number four. In contrast, Seryozha makes sense of the disproportionally large soldier, because, he claims, that if he drew the soldier any smaller, “you would not see his eyes.” While Yevgeny cannot fathom a world of disorder, Seryozha finds logic in it.

"And it struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as strange and absurd that he, an experienced advocate, who spent half his life in the practice of reducing people to silence, forestalling what they had to say, and punishing them, was completely at a loss and did not know what to say to the boy...."   (Text of the Story)

Yevgeny is incredulous that his son could puzzle him, an accomplished and skillful prosecutor. He is overcome with a sense of confusion as he tries to reconcile two seemingly opposing concepts: logic and imagination. Eventually, as he speaks further with his son, he recognizes that these two seemingly opposing things are not mutually exclusive, but rather, compatible. Logic is nothing without imagination, and vice versa.

"That's why no one can take the place of a mother in bringing up a child, because she can feel, cry, and laugh together with the child. One can do nothing by logic and morality. What more shall I say to him? What?"..."   (Text of the Story)

Yevgeny associates emotion with femininity and logic with masculinity. Yevgeny admits that logic and morality are inadequate without emotional support. He fears that the lack of a mother, and the lack of emotional availability, may impede his son’s development. He recognizes that logic and imagination cannot function without the other.

"Death carries mothers and uncles off to the other world, while their children and violins remain upon the earth...."   (Text of the Story)

Seryozha’s naive and poetic understanding of death is captured in Chekhov’s imagery. He does not see death as final; rather, he envisions death as the transport of loved ones from the earth to the “sky beside the stars.”

"("A clever teacher, I am!" he thought.)..."   (Text of the Story)

This parenthetical interjection, unlike the others, employs irony. Yevgeny is attempting to prevent his son from smoking, despite the fact that he smokes himself. Yevgeny recognizes that his logic is irrational, and jokes to himself about how clever he is.

""Papa, what is gum made of?"..."   (Text of the Story)

This youthful interjection by Seryozha stands in stark contrast to his father’s lesson. Yevgeny does not indulge in his son’s irrelevant questioning and instead continues to instill his lesson on the dangers of smoking. As a trained prosecutor, Yevgeny is used to arguing and speaking over others. He has no time to entertain his son’s tangent.

"("I am not saying the right thing!" thought Yevgeny Petrovitch.)..."   (Text of the Story)

This is the first instance of an interjection formatted within parentheses. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Chekhov’s literary predecessor, was one of the first authors to use parenthetical interjections. For example, in Dostoevsky's novella Notes from Underground (1864), the author inserts parentheses to speak directly to the reader. In Chekhov’s story, the internal monologues, some of which are formatted within parentheses, have a similar effect. They provide space for asides and digressions that allow the reader to glimpse into the internal dialogue of a character’s mind.

"He was a child whose sex could only have been guessed from his dress: weakly, white-faced, and fragile. ..."   (Text of the Story)

This description plays into the image of the boy as an Edenic, virginal cherub. All of these descriptors associate the boy with purity and fragility. Everything about him is soft, down to the velvet on his jacket. He is even likened to a “hot-house plant,” which is a sort of plant that requires certain greenhouse conditions to survive. With the use of this simile, Chekhov suggests that Seryozha needs a nurturing environment in order to flourish.

"reveries..."   (Text of the Story)

The word “reveries” is synonymous with “daydreams.” This passage suggests a dichotomy between the two main characters’ ways of thinking. The nervous pacing heard overhead stands in stark contrast to the lulling, monotonous, dream-like piano scales. Perhaps these two opposing sounds mirror the father’s logic against the son’s vivid imagination.

"It was between eight and nine o'clock in the evening...."   (Text of the Story)

Throughout this passage, Yevgeny describes his surroundings in terms of numbers: it is between eight and nine in the evening; on the second story, four hands play piano; and in the nursery, two rooms away, the governess and Seryozha speak. Other notable uses of numbers throughout the story include Seryozha’s age and how, when Yevgenys looks at his son’s drawing, he likens the shape of the bayonet to the figure of a number four. The interplay of numbers throughout the story demonstrates Yevgeny’s ordered mode of thought. Because of his profession, Yevgeny spends the whole day thinking in “one direction.” Even after leaving the order of the courtroom, he cannot help but describe his home environment in these structured, numerical terms.

"The living organism has the power of rapidly adapting itself, growing accustomed and inured to any atmosphere whatever, otherwise man would be bound to feel at every moment what an irrational basis there often is underlying his rational activity, and how little of established truth and certainty there is even in work so responsible and so terrible in its effects as that of the teacher, of the lawyer, of the writer. . . ...."   (Text of the Story)

Yevgeny makes sense of this human condition by employing dry, scientific diction. He describes people as “living organisms” and employs the phrases “irrational,” “rational,” “truth,” and “certainty.” The ellipsis at the end of this phrase also indicates that this is one of his meandering, internal thoughts. Yevgeny is prone to losing himself in his winding thought processes.

"Even very intelligent people did not scruple to wage war on a vice which they did not understand...."   (Text of the Story)

The verb “to scruple” means to hesitate to do something that one thinks may be morally wrong. Here, Yevgeny makes the distinction between those who fight what they do not understand and those who accept what they do not understand. At the beginning of the story, Yevgeny’s behavior mirrors those of the headmaster; he is unable to accept that his son would take up smoking. However, as the story progresses, he resigns himself to the fact that he cannot always control others. As a prosecutor, who is constantly arguing in support of his clients, this realization is hard for him to accept.

"Seryozha..."   (Text of the Story)

Seryozha’s name (Серёжа) is a diminutive form of the common Russian name “Sergey” (Сергей). Yevgeny calls his son by this diminutive pet name, which indicates the informality and closeness of their relationship. Later on in the story, however, when Yevgeny tries to chastise his son for his behavior, he calls his son by his proper name, including Seyozha’s patronymic (“Sergey Yevgenitch”), to assert his authority.

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