The Malefactor by Anton Chekhov
In The Malefactor by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of justice, poverty, responsibility, control and hardship. Taken from his Selected Stories collection the story is narrated in third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Chekhov may be exploring the theme of justice. There is a sense that the magistrate is not taking into consideration Grigoriev’s position in life, a life that is filled with poverty. He appears to be dispensing justice incorrectly without taking in the full facts or having a care for the facts. Though it is true that Grigoriev robbed the nut from the railroad he has done so because fishing is his livelihood. He needs to fish in order to survive. So petty is Grigoriev’s crime the magistrate cannot see it fit to be lenient on him. Imposing a harsh sentence instead. Though it is true that Grigoriev’s actions may cause an accident to date this has not happened due to Grigoriev’s consideration as to where he takes the nuts from. It is also possible that Chekhov is suggesting that though Grigoriev is technically a thief he is a conscientious one. The fact that he was also mistreated by the guardsman who hit him twice suggests that there may be two laws one for Grigoriev and one for others. In essence a law for the poor and a law for those who have the good fortune to have money.
It is also difficult to say as to whether Grigoriev is taking proceedings seriously which may be important as it might suggest that Grigoriev has no respect for the judicial system that is in place. He doesn’t really view his actions as being criminal and definitely does not consider his sentence to be fair. Such a severe sentence may also suggest that the magistrate is out of touch. Though he knows that Grigoriev was being practical (out of necessity) he does not take this into consideration. Chekhov may also be exploring the theme of responsibility. Though Grigoriev freely admits to his actions he is also quick to remind the judge that he is not responsible for the actions of his two brothers. That it is his brother Kuzma’s responsibility to ensure that the rent is paid. If anything throughout the story there is a sense of hardship when it comes to Grigoriev’s life. Though he is humorous in front of the magistrate he still nonetheless lives a life of poverty. At no stage while Grigoriev is in the courtroom is he in control. He only appears to be in control when he is fishing and selling his fish.
It is also possible that Chekhov is placing a spotlight on the hardships that existed at the time the story was published (1885). With many Russians having to break the law in order to make a living and survive. It is also noticeable that Chekhov on several occasions in the story refers to some of the characters (including Grigoriev) as being peasants. This may be important as Chekhov may be highlighting the lowly social position of each character. Which suggests that at the time there was a hierarchy with individuals like Grigoriev at the bottom of the hierarchy and the magistrate and the guardsman being of a higher social class. At no stage in the story is anything that Grigoriev says taken into consideration rather the magistrate feels as though Grigoriev is making a mockery of the court. Which may suggest that the magistrate is out of touch with how people live their lives and is unbending in his sentencing. He cannot see above the law and fails to show any type of practicality when it comes to dealing with Grigoriev.
The ending of the story is also interesting as despite being sentenced to hard labour, Grigoriev nonetheless accepts his position. He doesn’t challenge the magistrate as one would expect an individual to do. Which may suggest that Grigoriev accepts that he has no option but to accept the magistrate’s ruling. He possibly knows that there is one law for peasants and one law for those who have money. The final line in the story may also be important as Grigoriev is being critical of the magistrate even though he accepts his ruling. It would appear that Grigoriev is attempting to change the magistrate’s outlook on life and asking him to be more practical. To live his life as Grigoriev lives his (in poverty). To judge an individual on all the facts, guilty or not, and to be fair in their sentencing of an individual. Something that has not happened in the story. The magistrate at no stage has attempted to imagine how Grigoriev has lived his life. He has shown him no compassion or understanding for the difficulties that Grigoriev incurs in life. All due to his circumstances of being poor and being a peasant. Unlike the magistrate who has judged the case with middle class eyes and with no understanding as to how others might live their lives. Though Grigoriev is guilty he has not been given a second chance by the magistrate again possibly due to the fact that he is of a low social class and as such is being treated differently.