Misery (The Lament)

miseryGood stories don’t just tell us how a character feels using adjectives like “happy”, “sad”, or “excited”. They help readers to feel the emotions for themselves by describing an event in which the character experiences them. Many of Anton Chekhov‘s stories deal with grief and suffering, but the story of Iona Potapov is about more than misery. Another translation of the title is “The “. It tries to answer the question: What could be worse than living in misery? Chekhov’s answer: To feel so lonely and cut off from the world that you have no one to talk to about it”.

English Learner Vocabulary Help

The words and expressions in our Pre-Intermediate level Simplified English story which are not in our 1200 word list are: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and .

General Comments on the Story

The way Chekhov builds this story shows his mastery of the short story form. In the opening lines, he uses a description of the setting to create an atmosphere of grayness and depression. He then introduces us to Iona, and we can see that something is very wrong before learning anything about him. His mind is not on the job as he picks up his first sledge passenger. He moves about nervously on his seat; he looks around as though he does not know where he is or why he is there; his driving seems to create chaos on the road. At first Iona finds it difficult to speak, and it is not until we are over 500 words (22% of the way) into the story that Iona utters the fateful words: My son… Er… My son died this week, sir.

The main theme of the story does not become evident until the passenger (the officer) asks gruffly: H’m! What did he die of?. Iona is desperate to share his grief and turns around, no longer watching the road. In short, sharp sentences he begins to pour out his story. But he is quickly cut short. The officer closes his eyes, signaling that he does not want to listen. This experience appears to affect Iona’s mind. When the next passengers (the three young men) start to make fun of Iona, his responses begin to include a rather out of place, mad-sounding laugh.

Next comes a roller-coaster of emotions for the old man. As they start off, one of the men (the hunchback) makes fun of Iona’s cap and swears at him for going too slowly. Shortly after this, Iona becomes aware that there are many people in the streets and we are told that: the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. This gives Iona the courage to try to tell his story again. This time there is even less sympathy expressed than before. We shall all die! says the hunchback, telling Iona once more to go faster and hitting him on the back of the neck. One of the other men seems to be embarrassed by this and asks politely (but in poor taste since Iona has just said that his son has died) if Iona is married. Iona uses this as an excuse to try to pour out his story once more. But he does not get a chance; they have reached their destination. As Iona watches the men leave we are told that: the misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. He looks around among the crowds and asks himself: Can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him?

One of the powerful things about this story is that almost all adults who read it will have experienced grief at some point in their lives. And any of those who had to face it alone, without the support of family or friends, will know exactly how poor Iona must feel.

Characters in the Story

Neither of the two sets of sledge passengers show any concern for Iona as a person or for his grief. The first is a military officer: demanding, aloof, perhaps symbolic of the government of the day. Next comes three young men: well-off party-goers, perhaps symbolic of Russian aristocracy or youth in general. One of the main themes of the story is how many people feel uncomfortable when faced with the problems of others; especially strangers. Another is the tendency to either overlook or show no interest in the problems of those of a different generation or social status.

An interesting question is why Chekhov chose a passenger with a hunchback as Iona’s main tormentor. The hunchback is cruel to Iona from the moment he steps into the sledge. He shows no respect, kindness or empathy for the older man. Yet in those days (and sadly, perhaps even today) a man with a hunchback would probably have experienced great feelings of isolation and “being different” himself while growing up. The hunchback introduces two other possible themes. His behavior may be a conditioned (unthinking) response as a result of bitterness towards the world because of his situation. On the other hand, peer pressure and the desire to “fit in” may have caused him to act in a way that deep inside he knew was wrong.

It is easy to overlook the importance of the next character in the story: the young man at the yard who wakes up for a drink of water. First, he shows us that Iona’s isolation is not just because of his job. The young man is a fellow sledge driver, but he also shows no interest in listening to Iona’s story. We learn through this that Iona does not appear to have shared news of his son’s death with the men he works with. This raises the question of whether Iona is partly responsible for his own misery by not talking earlier about it with his colleagues.

Then we come to the last paragraph (the climax of the story) where the faithful horse takes on an almost human-like quality:

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.

This is the second time that Chekhov used the imagery of feeling someone’s breath in the story. The first was when the hunchback was breathing down Iona’s neck as he settled into the sled. This suggested an uncomfortable closeness and perhaps even threat. The sensation of the horse breathing on Iona’s hands suggests an intimacy between the two. And it is this intimacy which finally enables Iona to open up and share his grief with a most unlikely friend.

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lament(v: lament, laments, lamented, lamenting) To feel or express great sadness, disappointment, or unhappiness about something.
(n: lament pl laments) 1. A show or expression of sorrow, etc. 2. A song or poem that expresses sorrow for someone who has died or something that is gone. 7000

breathe(v: breathe, breathes, breathed, breathing) To move air into and out of your lungs; to inhale and exhale. He was breathing hard from running.
(phrasal verb: breathe deeply) To take a lot of air into your lungs. 3000

bucket(n: bucket pl buckets) An open container with a handle that is used especially to hold and carry water and other liquids; a pail. 3000

crowd(n: crowd pl crowds) A large group of people who are together in one place.
(v: crowd, crowds, crowded, crowding) 1. To come together in a large group. (ชุมนุม) 2. To fill too full by coming together.
(adj: crowded) Having or containing a lot of people or things. Crowded buses. 2000

fare(n: fare pl fares) The money a person pays to travel on an airplane, boat, bus, train, or in a taxi. I need some coins for the bus fare. 2. A passenger who pays a fare. The taxi driver picked up a new fare at the airport. 3000

fever(n: fever pl fevers) 1. A body temperature that is higher than normal; an illness causing a higher than normal body temperature. 2. A state of excited emotion or activity. There was a fever of activity in the hours before the enemy attacked. 3. A state of great enthusiasm or interest. Every fall the town develops football fever. 5000

funeral(n: funeral pl funerals) The ceremony held for a dead person before their body is put in the ground [buried] or burned [cremated]. 3000

gentleman(n: gentleman pl gentlemen) 1. A polite word for a man. Two gentlemen arrived this morning. 2. A man who treats other people in a proper and polite way. He is a true gentleman. 2000
Used especially when speaking formally to a group of people. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

(n: grave pl graves) A piece of ground, or the hole dug in it, in which a dead person is buried.
(adj: grave, graver, gravest) To look serious and formal in what you are doing. 4000

grave grave look.jpg

hay(n: hay, noncount) Grass or other plants, cut and dried for use as food for farm animals etc. 3000

kopeck(n: kopeck pl kopecks) A Russian unit of currency equal to 1/100 of the ruble.

miserable(adj: miserable) 1. Feeling very unhappy, sick or unwell. (ทุกข์ยาก) 2. Very poor in quantity or quality. 3000

misery(n: misery pl miseries) [something that causes] Great suffering or unhappiness; a very unhappy or painful time or experience. The war brought misery to thousands of refugees. The last years of her life were a misery. 3000

oats(n: oats, plural) The seeds of the oat plant used as feed for farm animals and in foods [such as bread and oatmeal] for people. 7000

pain(n: pain pl pains) The physical feeling caused by sickness, injury, or mental or emotional hurt. He felt a sharp pain in his back. It caused him pain to talk about his wife's death.)
(adj: painful; painless) Causing pain. A painful injury.; Without pain. Painless childbirth. 2000

reins(n: rein pl reins) A piece of rope or leather used to guide and control an animal such as a horse when riding, driving a carriage, etc. 6000
Usually attached to a device [called a bridle] placed on the head of the animal.

sigh(v: sigh, sighs, sighed, sighing) To take in and let out a long, loud breath in a way that shows you are bored, disappointed, unhappy, relieved, etc. 4000

silence(n: silence, noncount) 1. A period of time when there is no sound. The teacher asked for silence in the room. I find it hard to sleep unless there is complete silence.
(adj: silent) Used to describe someone or something that is not making noise.
(adv: silently) In a silent way. 3000

sledge(n: sledge pl sledges) A vehicle mounted on runners and pulled by horses or dogs for transportation over snow. (เลื่อนหิมะขนาดใหญ่) 8000
Also known as a 'sleigh' in British English.

stove(n: stove pl stoves) A flat piece of kitchen equipment used for cooking on. She put the pot on the stove over medium heat. (เตาไฟ) 5000
Often set above an oven [a closed box-like space which is heated for baking or roasting food]. (เตาอบ) 3000

suffer(v: suffer, suffers, suffered, suffering) 1. To experience pain, illness, or injury. He died instantly and did not suffer. (ทนทุกข์ทรมาน) 2. To experience something unpleasant such as defeat, loss, or damage. Our country suffered a great deal during the war. (ประสบความทุกข์) 2000

whip(n: whip pl whips) A long cord or piece of leather attached to a handle, used for driving horses and forcing farm animals to move or work. (แส้) 3000

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