The Head of the Family by Anton Chekhov
In The Head of the Family by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of depression, failure, domestic abuse, fear and paralysis. 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 depression. Zhilin after a night of heavy drinking or gambling wakes up depressed. It is as though he is unable to accept his failures when it comes to his drinking or gambling. So depressed is Zhilin that he has to take out his grievance on his family, particularly on Fedya. His young son who is unable to tackle or understand his father. Zhilin’s wife on the other hand is able for Zhilin. She questions him to the point in which the reader feels Zhilin is at pains to ignore his wife and continue criticizing Fedya. Who ends up standing in the corner of the dining room.
What is also interesting about the story is that Zhilin feels guilty later on in the day about how he has treated Fedya. However Fedya remains in fear of his father. Most likely because he knows his father’s moods can change on a whim or when drinking and gambling are involved. In reality nothing changes for Zhilin or Fedya. Things will remain the same which may leave some reader to suggest that both characters, like the other characters in the story, are paralysed. As head of the family Zhilin acts as a tyrant towards others. He blames them for his own short-comings and never checks to see if he and his drinking and gambling are at fault. In reality Zhilin acts as an abusive bully towards others. Though one might suspect he is polite and pleasant to those he drinks and gambles with. The role of the female also comes into question with Zhilin wondering about the purpose of a woman. This may be significant as Chekhov may be highlighting a common theme upon men at the time the story was written. Society was patriarchal at the time and women were meant to be seen and not heard. Yet Zhilin’s wife stands up for Fedya.
There may be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The drinking and gambling that Zhilin partakes in could symbolise that Zhilin lives an immoral life though he appears to wish for more. The soup being an example. Zhilin complains about the soup just as he complains about Fedya. Which would further suggest that Zhilin is looking for something he considers better in life. He wishes that Fedya was more intelligent or acted differently. The cold soup serves to highlight just how unhappy Zhilin is in life. Though Zhilin cannot understand he is in control of his own happiness. Should he stop drinking and gambling Zhilin would be much happier. Though this is not something that Zhilin can see. If anything the cold soup mirrors the cold mood that Zhilin is in. It is as though he due to being hungover is looking for any excuse to attack Fedya and the rest of the family.
The end of the story is interesting as Zhilin attempts to do an about turn and do the opposite to what he has previously done. As readers (and as mentioned) we know that Zhilin is feeling guilty about how he treated Fedya. However Fedya is only left confused by his father’s actions. It must be difficult for a child to try and interpret their father after being scorned by him and Fedya is no exception. One is only left thinking that Zhilin’s change in direction is a result of him sleeping off the alcohol he consumed the night before. It is as though he is a changed man. This may be significant as Chekhov could be suggesting or highlighting the fact that alcohol can change a person’s personality. Gone is the outraged father to the more kindly father. Zhilin is acting as a father should though the reader is left to suspect this change will not last long and once Zhilin has begun drinking again he will revert to his old ways and be abusive towards Fedya.