A Joke by Anton Chekhov
In A Joke by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of fear, confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, innocence, commitment, paralysis and love. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed male narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Chekhov may be exploring the theme of fear. Nadenka is afraid to go down the hill in the sleigh with the narrator. Not only is she apprehensive but she appears to be firmly rooted in her decision not to go down the hill. That is until the narrator persuades her to do so and it is by doing so that the reader suspects that Nadenka is overcoming the anxiety she feels about sleighing down the hill. It is also interesting that Nadenka at no stage in the story, not till the end at least, fully hears the words of love that the narrator speaks. It is possible that Chekhov by having the narrator whisper the words so quietly is attempting to add an element of confusion into the story. By not hearing the narrator Nadenka never really knows for sure if she has heard him correctly. Though the most important thing to remember may be that Nadenka longs to be sure that she has heard the narrator correctly. Something that is clear by her continuous wish to sleigh down the hill despite her fears.
Though some critics have suggested that Chekhov, by having Nadenka longing to hear the words ‘I love you’, is highlighting an insecurity within Nadenka it is more likely that the narrator is Nadenka’s first love. Though we do not know the narrator or Nadenka’s age they appear to be still relatively young. Which suggests that the love that Nadenka longs for or feels about the narrator is fledgling. It has not fully grown or matured in any way. Mirroring the possible youth of both characters. It is also interesting that Nadenka goes to sleigh down the hill by herself to see if it is her imagination that is playing tricks on her. So adamant is she to find out if it is her imagination that she overcomes all the fears she had previously had when it came to sleighing down the hill. Though it is also noticeable that she remains disappointed when she sleighs down the hill on her own. Which suggests not only the importance of love to Nadenka but more significantly the importance of being loved by the narrator. The narrator again in all likelihood is Nadenka’s first love.
It is also interesting that the narrator appears to be playing a game with Nadenka when he speaks the words ‘I love you’. At no stage does he follow through with his utterances of love. Which may possibly be the reason for the title of the story. The narrator is not taking the words seriously unlike Nadenka who is over joyed when she is finally sure of what the narrator has said. This may be important, the narrator’s lack of seriousness, as it suggests again that he may be still young if not immature. The word love is an important word which can at times be abused or used inappropriately which is very much the case when it comes to the narrator’s use of the word. Regardless of this the narrator does succeed in becoming a positive memory for Nadenka. For her he is her first love. A love she will not forget. Despite the fact that she is now married with three children there remains a sense of innocence in Nadenka’s love for the narrator. Though it never blossomed and remained youthful it still nonetheless has stuck in Nadenka’s mind.
The narrator on the other hand appears to be afraid of the word love, hence him using it in an inappropriate manner (as a joke). It is as though he is afraid to commit himself to Nadenka while Nadenka on the other hand is open to commitment. Something that is obvious to the reader by the fact that she has ended up marrying somebody while the reader suspects that the narrator remains a single man. It is also interesting that despite the passing of time the narrator is still unable to admit to himself that he loved Nadenka. He still fully believes that he was joking when the reality is that he may have been afraid of commitment. Afraid to tell another person that he loves them. For the narrator love is something that involves a deeper connection yet the narrator is unable to see this or to give the type of connection that is needed for love. Though the narrator spoke the words when he was a younger man time has not helped him to understand their meaning. It is as though Nadenka is the only one who has grown and the narrator remains somewhat paralyzed by circumstances. He can recall his youth yet he has very little if no understanding of the meaning of some of his actions. Which suggests that the narrator like the snow on the hill is frozen in time. Unable to grow as a person and left to wonder what his time with Nadenka may have really meant if he had only believed in the words that he had spoken to her.