Sleepy by Anton Chekhov
In Sleepy by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of struggle, class, longing, acceptance, infanticide and desperation. Taken from his The Complete 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 struggle. Varka spends both her night and day struggling to sleep. She is under so much pressure from her master and mistress that Varka has no opportunity to try and get some sleep. It is as though she is being treated inappropriately by her master and mistress. Something that is clear to the reader by the way both bark orders at Varka. She has no time for herself during the day having to constantly be at the beck and call of her master and mistress. This may be important as Chekhov may be placing a spotlight on the conditions that some servants found themselves under when having to leave home and work for somebody else. It might also be possible that Chekhov is suggesting that as Varka’s parents are servants. The highest position she herself could have reached in life is to be a servant to. Something that would play on the theme of class. Chekhov most likely highlighting how difficult it might have been for an individual to raise themselves above the class they were born into.
What is also interesting about the story is the fact that Varka herself is only a child. She is just thirteen years of age yet she is expected to do so much by her master and mistress. If anything there is a sense that Varka is being taken advantage of. As readers we are only given an insight into one day of Varka’s life. Though if this day is to be taken as a normal day then Varka has no time for herself. Which might further explain as to why Varka has difficulty sleeping. She is constantly on the move doing work for her master and mistress. In modern terms it would not be incorrect to suggest that Varka is no more than a slave to her master and mistress. They treat her so badly by the way they speak to her and they give her no time to do anything that doesn’t involve Varka performing duties for them. At no time in the story does Varka have a moment for herself.
The fact that Varka dreams of her father and mother is interesting as Chekhov could be suggesting that Varka longs to return to her parents. Back to a place where she was happier. The fact that her father is dying in the dream may suggest that he cannot be there for Varka despite Varka longing for him to help her. Similarly when Varka sees everybody sleeping in her dream it is as though she longs to be just like other people. To have a moment’s peace so that she can rest. Something that is not possible due to the fact that Varka has to tend to the baby. It is also noticeable that Varka is a diligent worker. Perhaps because she has to be. She does not confront her master or mistress over her work load. Which may suggest that Varka is acutely aware of her lowly position in life. Unfortunately Varka is reliant on her master and mistress and has to tolerate how she is treated by them. Which may be the point that Chekhov is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that at the time the story was written the class system that was in place decided upon how an individual might react. Due to the fact that Varka is of a lower class than her master and mistress. She has to accept the position she finds herself in.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader realises that there is a sharp decline in Varka’s mental state. She believes that the reason she cannot sleep is because of the fact that she has to keep herself awake for the baby. Rather than abandon the baby (and her job). Varka takes the drastic action of killing the baby believing that this will help her to sleep. Which it does. However Varka’s one moment of madness will have a drastic effect. On discovery that her child is dead the mistress will immediately blame Varka. So too will the police. Life may have been difficult for Varka when she was working for her master and mistress but her action of killing the baby has left Varka exposed to a harsher life. If anything Varka has acted irrationally which may be the point that Chekhov is making. He may be suggesting that it is only natural for a person who has been deprived of sleep to act irrationally. However some readers might find it difficult to accept Varka’s actions. Considering perhaps that Varka had the option to leave her job. Though others will realise that Varka’s moment of madness has been triggered by desperation.