Chekhov’s ‘‘A Problem’’ is an intensely intimate and detailed character study that also addresses themes of honor and crime. The story obliquely explores justice and the nature of the criminal mind. The story’s protagonist, the antihero Sasha Uskov, is certainly a criminal, albeit one who, for the bulk of the story, successfully attempts to convince himself that he is not. Despite this, Sasha exhibits all of the tendencies of a sociopath, an individual suffering from an antisocial personality disorder. There are numerous hallmark traits that define a sociopath, all of which apply to Sasha’s character. The first of these is that they do not learn from their experiences and that there is no change in their behavior following a punishment. This can be seen in the story when Sasha continues to amass debt despite being unable to pay the debt he has already accrued. He is determined to ‘‘borrow’’ money from Ivan even after spending hours waiting for his uncles to decide whether he should face punishment for forging the promissory note.
Sociopaths also lack any feelings of responsibility and are absent any moral sensibility. Certainly, Sasha’s belief that he has not done anything wrong speaks to both of these traits. Sasha feels that he has committed a victimless offense, that he did not intend anyone any harm, and that what he has done cannot be all that bad since his friends do the very same thing fairly often. These traits directly feed into yet another aspect of a sociopathic tendency—a distinct lack of guilt. Indeed, if Sasha believes that he is not in the wrong, then how can he even begin to experience guilt? Even more remarkable is Sasha’s continued lack of guilt when he finally acknowledges his criminality. At the end of the story, Sasha understands the immorality of his recent actions (bullying Ivan into giving him money), and thus he acknowledges that he is a criminal. But he still shows no traces of guilt. In fact, he experiences quite the opposite—a feeling of exhilaration and exuberance.
Sasha is also typical of a sociopath in that he is unable to form any meaningful human relationships. This trait is shown in several ways throughout the story. One example of this is the absence of character names. For example, the only character aside from Sasha to be named in full is Ivan. But the fact that Sasha is easily able to turn on him shows Sasha’s contempt for the relationship. Additionally, while Sasha’s friends are given names, they are referred to only by their surname, textually indicating that they are not seen as fully realized individuals. Still, they are afforded more importance than the rest of Sasha’s relatives, who barely even register as real people to him. His uncles are merely the Colonel and the treasury official. The Colonel’s wife is exactly that, nothing more. Sasha’s brief interaction with the Colonel’s wife also illustrates another common behavior of the sociopath, that of emotional immaturity. The Colonel’s wife is clearly upset, crying and fidgeting with her hands as she implores her nephew to beg for forgiveness. Sasha does not respond to her; he only sits impassively and wonders why everyone around him is so distraught. Sasha’s lack of emotional maturity is also felt when he is called upon to explain himself to his uncles. Despite being instructed by Ivan to be apologetic and ask for clemency, Sasha merely explains that he will repay them. While it is clear that he feels no remorse, he cannot even bring himself to pretend to feel it.
Because Sasha’s main pursuit in life is partying and gambling with his friends and girlfriends, one could argue that Sasha does not exhibit chronically antisocial behavior (another hallmark of the sociopath). Nevertheless, Sasha still thinks of his friends and girlfriends in terms of the pleasure they provide him. Again, he does not see them as real people, only as forms of entertainment. The feeling, it seems, is mutual, as all of Sasha’s associates do not care for him either. They are tired of his debt and his mooching. Handrikov’s failure to lend Sasha money despite his promises has led Sasha to the very situation that incites the beginning of the story. Sasha is only able to (partially) name two friends, neither of whom were friend enough to aid him in his time of need. Additionally, it is highly antisocial to proverbially ‘‘bite the hand that feeds you,’’ as Sasha does when he accosts Ivan, his only true ally, at the end of the story. This latter act also indicates Sasha’s inability to control his impulses, yet another behavior characteristic of the sociopath. While Sasha experiences joy at the realization that he has escaped punishment, he is unable to stop himself from repeating the behaviors that originally led to his nearly being incarcerated. This is yet another factor in Sasha’s final realization that he is indeed a criminal.
Still another mannerism typical of sociopaths is self-centeredness, and this trait seems self-evident in the story’s protagonist. Sasha does not see others as real people, only as figures moving about the periphery of his life. When he does not understand their emotions, he does not try to. The bulk of the narrative follows Sasha’s thought processes regarding his actions and his feelings about them. He gives no thought to how his actions have affected others. Instead, he only acts incredulous at the evidence of their effect. Additionally, as Sasha leaves the Uskov home with Ivan, he realizes that Ivan is talking to him, but Sasha does not listen. He is too self-absorbed to do so. Sasha is remarkably unaffected by all that goes on around him. Even the prospect of going to jail does not rattle him. His indifferent despair as his fate is being decided is pervasive, drowning out everything else. Sasha’s joy at reprieve is similarly all-encompassing. Certainly, it would seem that, given all of these examples, Sasha is inarguably a sociopath. Perhaps that is the very debate at the heart of ‘‘A Problem’’; the last line (‘‘Now I see that I am a criminal; yes, I am a criminal.’’) seems to indicate as much. This is the success of Chekhov’s character study. Even more remarkable is the acuity of Chekhov’s observations of human nature. Indeed, the term sociopath was not coined until 1930, roughly forty years after this story was written.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘A Problem,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.