The Colonel is one of Sasha’s two paternal uncles. He is a bombastic, haughty, and self-righteous man. When he is first introduced in the story, he speaks loftily but largely nonsensically. His blithering is underscored by the fact that the other uncles profess to understand him. When the Colonel finally begins to make sense, he makes it clear that he is in favor of Sasha facing the consequences of his actions. Though he understands that the honor of the family name is at stake, he implies that the name can have no honor if they allow criminals to go unpunished. The argument is indeed apt, and it is telling that the Colonel uses the army to drive home this point.
The Colonel is unpopular and is portrayed unsympathetically. His voice is twice described as ‘‘metallic.’’ He is the only uncle who wishes to see Sasha punished, and as events later show, he is the only uncle who is right. Sasha’s demands for money after being given a reprieve prove that, without consequences, he will not change the error of his ways. Still, despite the Colonel’s lofty arguments, it is notable that his name was the one forged on the promissory note. This could indicate the Colonel’s desire for personal vengeance. This motivation may be hinted at by the Colonel’s avoidance of Sasha on his way out of the meeting.
The Colonel’s wife knows of Sasha’s crime, though she initially pretends not to. She sits in the dining room with her sister and the family nanny as all three keep up a pretense of ignorance. But as the hours pass, she finally grows distraught enough to approach her nephew. She is crying and begging Sasha to lay himself at his uncles’ feet and entreat them for mercy. Her displays only cause Sasha to marvel at the upset he has caused. He cannot understand how his relatives can get so worked up over so small a sum.
Handrikov is one of Sasha’s so-called friends. He does not actually appear in the narrative, but he is referred to several times by Sasha. Sasha uses Handrikov’s bad behavior—being in debt, forging promissory notes—as justification for his own wrongdoing. Indeed, Sasha feels that his current situation is Handrikov’s fault. It was he who promised to give Sasha the money to pay off the note before it was due, and it was he who failed to deliver on that promise. Handrikov, however, is hardly Sasha’s friend. He abandons his friend in his time of need, and he also despises Sasha because the young man has no money.
Ivan Markovitch is Sasha’s maternal uncle. He is the most eloquent and well-spoken of the three uncles. For instance, he employs philosophical arguments in support of his opinion, cites Sasha’s youth, and also discusses Sasha’s pitiable upbringing as an uneducated orphan. Ivan employs every argument he can think of in support of his belief that Sasha should be granted clemency. In fact, he even goes so far as to suggest that it is their Christian duty to do so. Following this, he imagines that the spirit of Sasha’s dead mother is in the room begging them to help her son. Ivan’s loyalty to his nephew may well be connected to his grief for his dead sister.
Ivan clearly cares for and loves his nephew. He is the only uncle who speaks directly to Sasha and advises him on how to behave. He even plans to take Sasha under his wing and take him to work with him in the country. This decision presents Sasha with an opportunity to improve himself. Ivan’s efforts are all the more poignant when his nephew cruelly disillusions him at the story’s end. Ivan is clearly horrified by Sasha’s actions; he sputters incoherently and backs away from his nephew in shock.
The servants are not important to the overall story, but their presence, or rather their absence, is notable. They represent public opinion, gossip, and the Uskov’s family fear of these things. Their dismissal and exile in the kitchen at the beginning of the story set the tone for the action that follows.
The treasury official is one of Sasha’s two paternal uncles. He is in favor of paying off Sasha’s debt, but only because he is concerned about seeing the family name appear in a negative light in the newspaper. In fact, this is the only argument that the treasury official sets forth. He says little else and is only further described as mumbling. He is also the only uncle without any debt, and this may be due to his profession (or vice versa). In addition, it is likely that the house in which the meeting is being held belongs to him. The only indication of this is that the other uncles are described leaving, while the treasury official is not.
Sasha Uskov is the story’s main character, a twenty-five-year-old man who finds himself facing criminal charges after forging a promissory note. He is unremorseful and unrepentant. In fact, he cannot even bring himself to pretend as much when called upon to explain himself to his uncles. Sasha does not see the error of his ways, nor does he feel that he has committed a wrong. The only mistake he has made, as far as he is concerned, is failing to pay the forged note on time. Further justifications that Sasha sets forth are that his friends forge notes all the time; his friends are all in debt, as are two of his uncles.
Sasha is remarkably stoic throughout most of the story. He is not interested in begging for forgiveness, nor does he care whether or not he goes to jail. To him, his future is bleak since he has no money, is drowning in debt, and has been abandoned by his friends. Sasha’s lack of concern demonstrates that he feels that as long as he cannot go to bars with his friends, then he might as well be in jail. The only time he gets upset is at overhearing the Colonel call him a criminal. Sasha does not feel that his actions align him with the likes of thieves and murderers, and he offers numerous self-justifications to this extent. He even gives money to the poor, an act that is somehow meant to prove his moral standing. Yet, while Sasha believes that he did not intend to cause any harm by forging the Colonel’s name on the promissory note, it is telling that he later wishes to hurt the Colonel for passing judgment on him. Sasha openly despises the man.
Given that Sasha does not feel he has committed a crime, he cannot understand how his relatives can get so worked up over so small a sum. What he does not understand is that they are upset at the criminality of his actions, a fact that Sasha refuses to recognize. They are also upset at the thought of Sasha going to prison. Sasha’s relatives consistently demonstrate that they are more concerned about his well-being than he is.
Sasha remains passionless and emotionless until he learns that his debt will be paid. Only then does he feel ‘‘a gust of joy.’’ This feeling seems incongruous when compared with Sasha’s earlier stoicism. Sasha gives little thought to his uncle’s insistence that he go to work the next day and thinks instead only of partying. Thus, he demands money of his uncle Ivan. He does so despite his uncle’s protests and refusals. Sasha even resorts to threats to get the money. Afterward, filled with renewed hope at the thought of the alcohol and women that await him, Sasha finally understands that he is indeed a degenerate and a criminal.
Von Burst is one of Sasha’s so-called friends. He does not actually appear in the narrative, but he is referred to several times by Sasha. Sasha uses Von Burst’s bad behavior—being in debt, forging promissory notes—as justification for his own malfeasance. Von Burst is hardly Sasha’s friend. He abandons his friend in his time of need, and he also despises Sasha because the young man has no money. Nevertheless, this does not stop Sasha from wishing to join Von Burst at the bar at the end of the story.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.