Vanka by Anton Chekhov
In Vanka by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of desperation, innocence, compassion, suffering and commitment. 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 just how desperate Vanka is to return home to his grandfather. By writing his letter to his grandfather Vanka is able to outline the mistreatment that he receives from Alyahin and how it affects him. Life with Alyahin is so much different for Vanka. There is no sense of compassion in their relationship. Something that Vanka has when it comes to his relationship with his grandfather. If anything the bond between both Vanka and his grandfather is so strong that it is difficult for Vanka to forget about his grandfather. He is not only unable to let go of the life he lived with his grandfather but he is also enduring severe difficulty under the guidance of Alyahin. Who appears to view Vanka as no more than a work-horse. Someone who will perform duties that he himself is not prepared to do. Though some critics might suggest that what is happening to Vanka is part of his apprenticeship with Alyahin it is more likely that Chekhov is placing a spotlight on life in Russia at the time the story was written. With Alyahin being no more than an example of how some people treated others. With a lack of compassion and understanding.
There is also a noticeable sense of naivety or innocence when it comes to Vanka addressing the letter to his grandfather. It is clear to the reader that because Vanka does not know his grandfather’s address he will never receive the letter. Leaving Vanka to suffer at the hands of Alyahin. If anything Vanka is facing a lost cause and he is to continue to suffer. All because of his youth and inexperience when it comes to matters of the real world. What is also interesting about Vanka’s letter is that he is able to show compassion to others. He has not forgotten people who he has previously lived with. If anything his heart is pure as one would expect a nine year old child’s heart to be. Though he is being mistreated he can still see the good in some people. Vanka is yet to be fully defeated by Alyahin. Though he finds things difficult while living with Alyahin he still has some hope or faith in man-kind.
It is also possible that Chekhov is exploring the theme of commitment. So determined is Vanka to leave Alyahin’s home that he takes the time to write the letter to his grandfather outlining the difficulties that he is incurring. As readers we are aware that Vanka has no option but to write to his grandfather. The option of running away from Alyahin has been taken away from him due to the fact that he has no boots to wear. He cannot walk the long road to his grandfather’s home without boots. Which in many ways is ironic considering that Alyahin is a shoemaker yet his apprentice has no shoes to wear. It is possible that Alyahin has deliberately not allowed Vanka wear shoes because he knows that Vanka might run away. If anything Alyahin may be completely conscious of how badly he is treating Vanka yet decides to do nothing about it. Which again places a spotlight on Russian society at the time the story was written. Young people like Vanka were seen as instruments to be used and abused rather than trained in any particular craft. Which was most likely Vanka’s grandfather’s expectations. That Vanka learnt to become a shoemaker and not having him treated as a slave to please Alyahin.
The end of the story is also interesting as though the reader knows that Vanka’s grandfather will never receive the letter Vanka himself is full of hope that he will be rescued from his situation. Something that is noticeable by how care-free Vanka becomes after sending the letter to his grandfather. No longer is he overly concerned about how he is being treated as he views his time with Alyahin as coming to an end. In Vanka’s eyes it will only be a matter of time before his grandfather comes for him. Though some critics might suggest that there is an element of sadness at the end of the story. Vanka doesn’t see things like that. He has no conception of how the world operates (address on letter) and is living his life with hope again. Though the hope may be short lived it is important nonetheless. As Vanka is allowed to be a child again at the end of the story. It is his firm belief that he will be taken away from Alyahin’s home and that drives Vanka towards happiness. That along with the fact that Vanka believes he will see his grandfather again suggests that Vanka will be happy again. Even if that happiness is only in his mind. The reality being that Vanka is to continue to suffer at the hands of Alyahin but for today he is a child again with hopes and aspirations. No longer beaten or defeated by Alyahin.