The Death of a Government Clerk by Anton Chekhov
In The Death of a Government Clerk by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of embarrassment, fear, anxiety, worry, insecurity and appearance. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Chekhov may be exploring the theme of embarrassment. Though sneezing is a very natural act Tchervyakov feels the utmost embarrassment for his actions. If anything he over plays the fact that he has sneezed on Brizzhalov. However it might be important to remember that Brizzhalov is of a higher rank in the government than Tchervyakov which may be the reason that Tchervyakov fears the consequences of his actions. There is a sense that Tchervyakov may feel as though he could be reported by Brizzhalov to his own superiors which may result in his dismal from his job. It is also possible that Chekhov is highlighting the very human fear that many government clerks or those in lowly positions in the government may have felt at the time when it came to their superiors. Each individual would have a set role to play and Tchervyakov would be at the lower end of the scale when it comes to his employment. A complaint by Brizzhalov could easily result in Tchervyakov’s dismal from his job.
How anxious Tchervyakov feels is also noticeable by the fact that he attempts on several occasions to explain himself to Brizzhalov. Not only does he confront him at the opera but he also goes to Brizzhalov’s place of work. This may be important as Tchervyakov may have very real fears that he is to lose his job over the sneezing incident and that Brizzhalov may consider the incident to be one of insolence. Should Tchervyakov lose his job he would end up living a very different type of life. Quite possibly a life in poverty. It might also be a case that Brizzhalov’s disregard of Tchervyakov apology is symbolic of how those in government, who wielded power, may have felt about those subordinate to them. They gave them little or no time. Which is very much the case when it comes to Brizzhalov and Tchervyakov. At no stage does Brizzhalov take Tchervyakov’s apology serious. Though it may also be important to remember that the incident itself is not worthy of the efforts that Tchervyakov puts into it. As readers we know that Tchervyakov’s sneezing was not only unavoidable but accidental too. We also suspect that Brizzhalov holds no ill will towards Tchervyakov and only becomes annoyed with Tchervyakov when he continues to attempt to apologize.
Some critics might also suggest that Tchervyakov is being paranoid when Brizzhalov has taken no obvious offence to the sneezing incident and there is some validity in this view point. However because of the structure of the government at the time and the obvious fears of Tchervyakov that he might lose his job the reader must also consider that Tchervyakov is being rational. Rational to the point of his understanding of how the government worked at the time. There may not have been very much job security for a clerk at the time the story was written. With each clerk being easily replaced by somebody else. If it is a case that Tchervyakov is paranoid about his actions this would lead the reader to consider the fear that Tchervyakov feels over the sneezing incident. Even his wife thinks that he should apologize to Brizzhalov. Considering should he not do so that Brizzhalov may think that Tchervyakov doesn’t know how to act in public. Which would play on the theme of appearance and the importance of appearance to some.
The end of the story is also interesting as Tchervyakov has magnified the incident to such a point that he ends up going home and dying of a possible heart attack. So concerned is he that he will be punished by Brizzhalov. Even though there is no evidence to support this. Brizzhalov throughout the story has placed no importance on the incident with the only person who is truly worried being Tchervyakov. So overwhelming are the feelings that Tchervyakov feels that he ends up dying from fear (and anxiety). Which as suggested already may mirror how many clerks in government felt when it came to an engagement with somebody more senior than themselves. Tchervyakov throughout the story is a man who appears to worry over the slightest thing and may have a predisposition to worry. A disposition that has cost him his life. It is also possible that Tchervyakov is so wrapped up in his job that he cannot see that what he has done is an accident. He appears to have a natural fear of authority. Which some critics may suggest is not justified yet there may be others who would suggest that Tchervyakov had every reason to worry as Brizzhalov on a whim could have changed Tchervyakov’s life. Being a government clerk at the time was most likely the lowest position that one could have within government. Answerable to others and fearful of the actions of those more superior than themselves.