An Inquiry by Anton Chekhov
In An Inquiry by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of corruption, power, ignorance, arrogance and acceptance. Taken from his The Collected Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Chekhov may be exploring the theme of corruption. To grab the attention of the clerk in the government office Voldyrev has to pay him three roubles. Otherwise the clerk will not pay Voldyrev any attention. It is as though the clerk is being not only ignorant of Voldyrev’s presence but he is also being arrogant. He knows that Voldyrev needs him more than he needs Voldyrev. The reader aware that all the power lies with the clerk rather than with Voldyrev. This may be important as it is possible that Chekhov is not only highlighting how corrupt government officials in Russia were at the time the story was written (1880s) but it may also be highlighting just how powerful they were when it came to dealing with the public. Rather than being there to help Voldyrev the clerk appears to be self-serving. Which is not the attitude that any clerk working for the government should have.
It is also interesting that the porter instructs Voldyrev to give the clerk three roubles rather than two. It is as though the porter knows just how much money is needed to get the attention of the clerk. The fact that the clerk is not named may also be important as it could symbolically suggest just how widespread corruption was among government officials. It is also interesting that Chekhov does not give the clerk a flattering physical appearance rather he appears to be unkempt. Symbolically Chekhov could be suggesting that just as the clerk looks unpleasant in his appearance likewise he may be unpleasant in nature. It is also noticeable that Voldyrev is aware that he must bribe the clerk. It’s just the amount of the bribe that he is unsure of. This would further lead the reader to believe that corruption is widespread among government officials. Though some critics might suggest that the clerk is lowly paid and needs the bribes to sustain a living this would not make the clerks actions acceptable. He has a job to perform and has no right to add his own enhancements to ensure he does his job correctly. Throughout the story all the power lies with the clerk. Rather than serving the public as a government official should do. He is serving himself.
The one thing that the clerk has and that Voldyrev doesn’t have is information and it is through the clerk’s knowledge that he is able to get his three roubles. It would have been just as easy for the clerk to tell Voldyrev what he needed to know as it would be to hold out for the three roubles. If anything with corruption comes greed and the reader is left wondering as to how many people on a daily basis have to bribe the clerk. The fact that he is not reported to his superiors by Voldyrev also suggests that Voldyrev accepts that bribery is part and course of any engagement with government officials regardless of their rank. Something that is clearer to the reader when Voldyrev hands another rouble to the clerk when he is leaving the building. Though he is a little uncertain as to why he has to do it having already paid the clerk the required three roubles.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader begins to realise that the wheels of government are oiled by corruption. A group of men who hold authority withhold their services to members of the general public despite receiving a wage from the tax payer to perform their duties. There also doesn’t appear to be anyone in authority to hold government officials to account. They seem to be a law unto themselves. Which suggests that corruption in Russia at the time was widespread from top to bottom. All those employed by the state to serve the general public may have only performed their duties when monies not due to them were forthcoming. Which may be the point that Chekhov was attempting to make. He may be suggesting not only is the system of government in Russia corrupt but that there needs to be a total overhaul of how things are run. An overhaul that is far reaching and widespread. One that places the general public first rather than those who are in authority. As mentioned it is unlikely that Voldyrev is the only member of the general public who has had to pay a bribe. If anything each individual who engaged with a government official would have had to pay a bribe. Despite there being no real need to do so if there was any honesty within the system. At the end of the day it is the general public who suffer when it comes to the corruption of government officials.