In Chekhov’s ‘‘A Problem,’’ the Uskov family has a secret. As they discuss it, they send their servants away lest they overhear. Half are exiled to the kitchen and the other half are sent away, either to attend the theater or visit the circus. The servants that remain in the house are instructed not to allow any visitors. Some of the family members and servants know the secret, though they pretend not to. Namely, the Colonel’s wife, her sister, and the family nanny know what is happening, but they sit silently in the dining room. They avoid the study, where the family meeting is being held.
Twenty-five-year-old Sasha Uskov, ‘‘who was the cause of all the commotion,’’ is already waiting in the hall. His maternal uncle, Ivan Markovitch, has instructed him to act contrite and explain himself. Sasha intends to do as he has been told. Ivan will also be present during the impending discussion.
In the study, the family is meeting while Sasha waits. ‘‘The subject under discussion was an exceedingly disagreeable and delicate one.’’ Sasha is guilty of having forged a promissory note (similar to forging and then bouncing a check). The promissory note is now past due, which is why Sasha’s crime has come to light. Sasha’s uncles are debating what to do. They can pay the debt and restore the family’s honor, or they can allow Sasha to go to trial and face his crime.
Although the uncles have been discussing these options for a while, they remain undecided. The Colonel, one of Sasha’s paternal uncles, speaks nonsensically, and the other uncles say they understand. The Colonel then continues, albeit a little more cogently than before. He argues that by protecting Sasha from the consequences of his actions, they are still doing harm to the family’s honor. He uses the army as an example, noting that it retains its honor precisely because it holds its members accountable for any infractions.
Another paternal uncle, who works for the treasury, is mostly quiet. However, he does remark that the family’s name will appear in the newspaper if the case goes to trial. Because of this, he is in favor of paying off the debt. Ivan is also in favor of this. He speaks more eloquently than the other men. He talks with compassion of the folly of youth. He indicates that everyone, especially the young, makes mistakes. Even geniuses make mistakes, he says, particularly writers. Ivan also says that Sasha is uneducated and was orphaned at a young age. Sasha was not raised well (through no fault of his own) and some consideration should be granted him because of this. He also says that Sasha’s remorseful conscience is punishment enough.
Ivan additionally goes on to argue that it is their Christian duty to show mercy. As Sasha’s maternal uncle, Ivan admits that he is not a Uskov, but he still respects the family name. He knows that its history stretches back to the thirteenth century. Ivan says he would hate to see the family name besmirched over a mere fifteen hundred rubles (the equivalent of roughly forty-seven dollars; an amount that would have the purchasing power of approximately one thousand dollars in 2008). Next, he employs philosophy to argue that free will does not exist, therefore implying that Sasha cannot be held responsible for his actions since he does not have free will.
The Colonel remarks that Ivan’s dithering has gotten them no closer to a decision. Meanwhile, Sasha sits at the door impassively. He is not afraid of his fate or ashamed of his actions (as Ivan earlier implied). He does not care what happens to him, whether he goes to prison or not. ‘‘He was sick of life and found it insufferably hard.’’ This is because he has no money, is drowning in debt, and hates his family. His friends and his girlfriends despise him for constantly mooching from them. The only thing about the current situation that upsets him is overhearing the Colonel call him a criminal.
Sasha believes that criminals are murderers and thieves, people without morals. He is only in debt, which is fairly normal. Even Ivan and the Colonel, the very men deciding his fate, have debt. The only wrong Sasha has committed is forging the promissory note. And even that is relatively common. Sasha’s friends, Handrikov and Von Burst, do it all the time. The only difference is that they have managed to pay off the forged notes before they were past due. Even this mistake was not his fault; Handrikov promised to lend him the money before the deadline but then failed to do so.
Sasha admits to himself that it was wrong to forge the Colonel’s signature, but he meant no harm. Sasha thinks he cannot be a criminal because it is not in his nature to do harm. He even gives money to the poor when he has it to give.
On the other side of the door, the men continue their debate. The Colonel notes that even if they pay the debt, they have no reason to believe that Sasha will change his degenerate ways. In response, the treasury official mumbles and Ivan equivocates. Eventually, Ivan comes out into the hall. He is clearly distressed and tells Sasha to speak to his uncles ‘‘humbly and from the heart.’’
In the study, looking at his uncles, Sasha feels ‘‘suddenly ashamed and uncomfortable.’’ He promises to pay the loan back and explains that he was expecting to be able to pay off the note before things came to a crisis. But then he stops talking and sits down. He does not actually apologize, show remorse, or ask for mercy. Sasha wants to leave, but he also wants to stay and hurt the Colonel, whom he hates.
The Colonel’s wife is in the doorway. She begs Sasha to ask his uncles for forgiveness. She is crying and his uncles are distraught. Sasha does not see why his family is upset over so paltry a sum.
An hour has passed and Sasha is back in the hallway. The meeting rages on within the study. Finally, it seems that they have decided not to pay the debt. But following that decision, they are all sad. Even the Colonel, who has gotten his way, is dissatisfied. Ivan sighs for his sister, Sasha’s dead mother. He says he can feel her unhappy spirit in the room, begging them to help her son. Ivan is sobbing, and the uncles resume their debate.
It is now past two in the morning, and the meeting is finally over. The Colonel leaves the study via the vestibule to avoid his nephew in the hall. Ivan comes into the hall. He looks ill at ease but happy. Ivan tells Sasha that he can go home and go to sleep. The uncles have decided to pay the debt provided Sasha changes his ways. In fact, Sasha must go to work with Ivan in the country the very next day.
On their way out of the house, Ivan is giving Sasha advice, but Sasha is not listening. He is only relieved that he has escaped punishment. ‘‘A gust of joy sprang up within him. . . . He longed to breathe, to move swiftly, to live!’’ (This reaction is in stark contrast to Sasha’s earlier indifference as to his fate.) Sasha remembers that Von Burst will be at a certain bar tonight, so Sasha decides to join him. Then he remembers that he has no money and that his friends no longer pay his way. He asks Ivan to lend him one hundred rubles.
Ivan is shocked by Sasha’s audacity. Clearly desperate, Sasha threatens to turn himself in for the forged note if his uncle does not give him the money. Ivan is horrified, but he gives his nephew the money. Sasha walks away satisfied. He thinks of the liquor and women that await him at the bar. He thinks of the ‘‘rights of youth’’ that Ivan spoke of earlier, and of how he has just exercised his. Yet, Sasha also understands the immorality of his actions. He thinks, ‘‘Now I see that I am a criminal; yes, I am a criminal.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.