The question of whether or not Sasha is a criminal takes up a great deal of the narrative of ‘‘A Problem.’’ It is clear that the Colonel sees Sasha as such. Aside from the fact that the Colonel’s name was the one forged on the promissory note, it is the Colonel who argues forcefully for allowing Sasha’s case to go to trial. The Colonel also avoids having any contact with Sasha on his way out of the study. All of Sasha’s family members are distraught and concerned by Sasha’s criminal actions. Yet Sasha remains unmoved. His friends do the same thing often, and even his uncles are in debt. The only time Sasha shows any emotion is at the idea that his uncle would call him a criminal for doing the same thing his friends do. Sasha refuses to think of himself in such terms. He is not a murderer or a thief, nor did he intend to do anyone any harm. He even gives money to the poor when he can afford to. Thus, how can he be a criminal?
Still, the only thing that Sasha cares about (aside from being called a criminal) is partying with his friends and girlfriends. He is not interested in making an honest living, even when that opportunity is handed to him. These latter circumstances signal the beginning of Sasha’s admission that he is a criminal. He is joyful at having escaped the consequences of his actions. But rather than consider how he can avoid making the same mistakes, he immediately thinks of his friend at the bar and his need for money in order to join in the festivities. Sasha then demands money of his uncle, and he continues to do so despite his uncle’s protestations. In fact, he succeeds by threatening to turn himself in over the forged promissory note, which would undermine all that Ivan has done for him. It is this act that finally allows Sasha to acknowledge, ‘‘Now I see that I am a criminal; yes, I am a criminal.’’
Another significant theme in ‘‘A Problem’’ is the question of honor and what it means. It is concern over family honor that exiles the servants to the kitchen or to the theater or circus. The family does not wish its underlings to know the family secret, nor do they want them to gossip about it. In this sense, family honor is maintained via keeping the failures of its members from coming to light. Additionally, honor is ostensibly what brings the uncles together to decide how to proceed. Certainly, that is at the crux of their debate. The uncles do not discuss the morality of Sasha’s actions, nor do they concern themselves with his potential prison sentence. Although Ivan speaks of other issues in pursuit of his argument, even he makes mention of the family name and its illustrious history. Yet the other uncles are concerned only with honor. The single intelligible remark that the treasury official makes is to acknowledge that he would hate to see the family’s name in the newspaper, especially connected to such a scandal. The bulk of the Colonel’s argument is that honor is not about hushing up scandals and forgiving infractions. Instead, honor is about rooting out infractions and ensuring that justice is done. Indeed, he maintains that the army remains an honorable institution precisely because it holds its members accountable for their actions. The Colonel sees no reason why the Uskov family should not uphold the same policy.
Despite the fact that the Colonel is in the minority in his views regarding honor and regarding Sasha’s punishment, he persuades both Ivan and the treasury official to agree with him. But as soon as they do so, all three uncles become dejected. Also of note, the concept of honor never occurs to Sasha. It is feasible that his concern at being called a criminal stems from his sense of honor. It is still more likely that it comes from his sense of pride, but given the way in which honor is treated in the story, the two are inextricably intertwined. On the other hand, there is something joyful about Sasha’s realization that he is, in fact, a criminal. Perhaps this epiphany, or sudden realization, forever frees him from the obligation of maintaining honor, or even its pretense.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.