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”.

Pre-Intermediate Vocabulary Help / Exercises

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

Intermediate Vocabulary Help / Exercises

The words and expressions in our Intermediate Level Simplified English story which are not in our 1800 word list are: , bucket, , , , , fare, fever, , funeral, grave, hay, , kopeck, , miserable, misery, oats, reins, , , sigh, sledge, , , , and whip.

There are also two words that are in our Intermediate word list but have a meaning in the story which is different to the one most commonly used:

  • We are told that Iona starts when he hears the army officer calling out for a sledge to Vyborgskaya. Here the word start means the brief, sudden movement you might make when you are d.
  • As Iona’a second fare (the three young men) come out of the restaurant, they are stamping on the ground to keep their feet warm. In this case the word means to bring your foot down heavily and noisily.

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. (โศกเศร้า)
(n: lament pl laments) 1. A show or expression of sorrow, etc. (ความเศร้า) 2. A song or poem that expresses sorrow for someone who has died or something that is gone. (เพลงไว้อาลัย) 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. (หายใจ) 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. (ถัง) 3000

crowd(n: crowd pl crowds) A large group of people who are together in one place. (ฝูงชน)
(v: crowd, crowds, crowded, crowding) 1. To come together in a large group. (ชุมนุม) 2. To fill too full by coming together. (เบียดเสียด)
(adj: crowded) Having or containing a lot of people or things. Crowded buses. (แออัด) 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. (ค่าโดยสาร) 2. A passenger who pays a fare. The taxi driver picked up a new fare at the airport. (ผู้โดยสารที่จ่ายเงินค่าโดยสารในรถที่จ้าง) 3000

fever(n: fever pl fevers) [An illness causing] a higher than normal body temperature. (การเป็นไข้) 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]. (งานศพ) 3000

gentleman(n: gentleman pl gentlemen) 1. A polite word for a man. Two gentlemen arrived this morning. (สุภาพบุรุษ) 2. A man who treats other people in a proper and polite way. He is a true gentleman. (สุภาพบุรุษ) 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. (หลุมศพ)
(adj: grave, graver, gravest) To look serious and formal in what you are doing. (ตรึงเครียด) 4000

grave grave look

hay(n: hay, noncount) Grass or other plants, cut and dried for use as food for farm animals etc. (หญ้าแห้ง) 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. (น่าเวทนา) 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. (ความทุกข์; ความทุกข์ยาก) 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. (ข้าวโอ๊ต) 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. (ความเจ็บปวด)
(adj: painful; painless) Causing pain. A painful injury. (ซึ่งก่อให้เกิดความเจ็บปวด) Without pain. Painless childbirth. (ซึ่งไม่เจ็บปวด) 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. (สายบังเหียน) 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. (ถอนหายใจ) 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. (ความเงียบ)
(adj: silent) Used to describe someone or something that is not making noise. (เงียบ)
(adv: silently) In a silent way. (อย่างเงียบ ๆ) 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

brandy(n: brandy pl brandies) A strong alcoholic drink made from wine. (เหล้าบรั่นดี) 5000

burst(v: burst, bursts, burst or bursted, bursting) To break open or into pieces in a sudden and violent way. The bag/balloon burst. (ระเบิด) 2. To come or go suddenly or violently. He burst into the room without knocking. She burst into tears. (พรวดพราดเข้ามา; เข้าสู่(สภาพ)ทันที) 3. [of rivers] To overflow or flood. The river has burst its banks. (ล้นทะลัก) 3000

cannot stand(v: cannot stand) [idiom] To hate; to dislike very much; to be unable to put up with something or someone. I can't stand people who smoke in public places.

carriage(n: carriage pl carriages) 1. A horse-drawn vehicle with four wheels that is used to carry people. (รถม้า) 2. [British] A separate section of a train. A railway carriage. (ตู้โดยสารรถไฟ) 4000

colt(n: colt pl colts) A young male horse, under 4 years of age. (ลูกม้าตัวผู้อายุไม่เกิน 4 ปี) 9000

flood(n: flood pl floods) A large amount of water covering an area of usually dry land. The river will flood with all this rain. (น้ำท่วม)
(v: flood, floods, flooded, flooding) 1. To [cause something to] overflow with water. (ทำให้ไหลไปด้วยน้ำ) 2. To [cause something to] go or come in large numbers or as a large amount. (เต็มไปด้วย มากมายไปด้วย) 3000

hunchback(n: hunchback pl hunchbacks) 1. A back in which the upper spine is bent out of shape. 2. [offensive] A person with a hunchback. (คนหลังค่อม คนหลังโก่ง)

layer(n: layer pl layers) A single thickness of a material that lies over or under another. (ชั้น) 3000

scratch(n: scratch pl scratches) A shallow and narrow cut in the skin or a surface caused by something sharp. (รอยขีดข่วน)
(v: scratch, scratches, scratched, scratching) 1. To make a line in a surface or object by rubbing or cutting it with a sharp point. (ข่วน; ขีด) 2. To rub your skin with something sharp to stop an itch. (เกา) 3000

shell(n: shell pl shells) 1. The hard outer covering of a shellfish, egg, nut, animal, insect, etc. (เปลือกหอย) 2. The hard outer structure of a building, car, airplane, etc. (ครงสร้างอาคารหรือสิ่งก่อสร้าง) 3. A metal case filled with explosives and fired from a gun etc. (ปลอกกระสุน) 1000

sorrow(n: sorrow pl sorrows) 1. [Something which causes] a feeling of sadness or grief, especially the loss of someone or something. I felt great sorrow over the death of my friend. He led a life filled with joys and sorrows. (ความเศร้าใจ) 6000

stable(n: stable pl stables) A building in which large animals are kept. (คอก สัตว์) 5000

testimonyswearing(v: swear, swears, swore, sworn, swearing) 1. To state (something) very strongly and sincerely. The boy swore that he was telling the truth. (สาบาน) 2. To use bad words or offensive language; curse. Don't swear in front of the children! (สาบแช่ง) 2000

startle(v: startle, startles, startled, startling) 1. To suddenly surprise or frighten [someone]. The noise startled me. 2. To move or jump suddenly because something surprises or frightens you. (สะดุ้ง) 6000
(n: start, singular) A brief, sudden action or movement. She gave a start when he touched her on the shoulder. (อาการสะดุ้ง) 1000

(v: stamp, stamps, stamped, stamping) To bring your foot down heavily and noisily. He stamped his foot in anger. She ​stood by the ​road, stamping her ​feet to ​stay ​warm. (กระทืบ; เหยียบ) 2000

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