Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2021

‘The Schoolmistress’ (‘In the Cart’) by Anton Chekhov, from The Tales of Chekhov, Vol 9, translated by Constance Garnett

Illustration of Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’ by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit c.1903

Chekhov’s ‘The Schoolmistress’ also translated as ‘In the Cart’ is the first of the stories referenced by author George Saunders in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  Since I prefer novels, I had never read the Chekhov story but I arced up immediately when I saw that Saunders’ instructions were to read the story a page at a time and reflect on what it is that makes a reader want to continue reading.  Even if I were a student in his course, that is not how I would have read it, approaching it with my mind as a blank slate, as it were.  When I was a university student I had always read the books beforehand during the school holidays.  There was no virtue in this: I was a mother, a full-time teacher, a volunteer at the Surf Life Saving Club and a home renovator, and it was prudent to have read coursework in advance in case Life Got in The Way during the academic year.  (Usually because I was so desperately well-organised, it did not, so I read each book twice, which made me a better, happier student.)

And anyway, that is not how Chekhov wanted anyone to read his story.  Let those who want to write short stories dissect them in this artificial way, (and to be fair, they are the audience for this book), it’s not for me.


I much prefer the title translated as ‘In the Cart’.  Yes, the story is about a lonely schoolmistress and her travails but the entire story takes place as Marya Vassilyevna travels in a cart to collect her meagre salary.  The circular nature of this journey in the cart captures the drudgery of bumping over poor roads that others with money have the capacity to improve, but the journey is going nowhere—just as Marya is going nowhere in a dreary life that she can’t escape.  According to Wikipedia, this story captures the dire state of education in Imperial Russia and the joyless existence of teachers marooned in rural areas.

The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but the snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, dark, long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden. But neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks of birds flying over the huge puddles that were like lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into which it seemed one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything new or interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart. For thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no reckoning how many times during all those years she had been to the town for her salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and she always—invariably—longed for one thing only, to get to the end of her journey as quickly as could be.

She felt as though she had been living in that part of the country for ages and ages, for a hundred years, and it seemed to her that she knew every stone, every tree on the road from the town to her school. Her past was here, her present was here, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again the school and again the road….

On the way she is overtaken by a neighbouring landowner called Hanov in a carriage with four horses, a man who could very easily spend the money to improve the road, but as his carriage squeezes the cart into the worst of the verge, he isn’t much inconvenienced by it.  He doesn’t take anything seriously.  Although he’s only a landowner, i.e. with no educational expertise, he is an examiner for the exams which cause her so much anxiety.  The previous year he had breezed into her classroom in a most disconcerting way:

This Hanov, a man of forty with a listless expression and a face that showed signs of wear, was beginning to look old, but was still handsome and admired by women. He lived in his big homestead alone, and was not in the service; and people used to say of him that he did nothing at home but walk up and down the room whistling, or play chess with his old footman. People said, too, that he drank heavily. And indeed at the examination the year before the very papers he brought with him smelt of wine and scent. He had been dressed all in new clothes on that occasion, and Marya Vassilyevna thought him very attractive, and all the while she sat beside him she had felt embarrassed. She was accustomed to see frigid and sensible examiners at the school, while this one did not remember a single prayer, or know what to ask questions about, and was exceedingly courteous and delicate, giving nothing but the highest marks.

Like women not just in Imperial Russia but all over the world in that era, Marya sees marriage as her only escape from the misery of her existence.  Any hopes she ever had vanished in her childhood when her parents died, and she is estranged from her brother who ceased correspondence with her some years ago.  That she fantasises briefly about marrying a man as flawed as Honov is a measure of her desperation; but that she dismisses these thoughts about him so easily is also a measure of her wisdom.  It’s not just that it’s socially impossible, it’s also because he’s a fool.

As you can see in the illustration by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit, where she is pictured having tea in the tavern, she is utterly alone, and would be the subject of ridicule had not Semyon, the driver of the cart, intervened:

A little pock-marked man with a black beard, who was quite drunk, was suddenly surprised by something and began using bad language.
“What are you swearing at, you there?” Semyon, who was sitting some way off, responded angrily. “Don’t you see the young lady?”
“The young lady!” someone mimicked in another corner.
“Swinish crow!”
“We meant nothing…” said the little man in confusion. “I beg your pardon. We pay with our money and the young lady with hers. Good-morning!”
“Good-morning,” answered the schoolmistress.
“And we thank you most feelingly.”
Marya Vassilyevna drank her tea with satisfaction, and she, too, began turning red like the peasants, and fell to thinking again about firewood, about the watchman….
“Stay, old man,” she heard from the next table, “it’s the schoolmistress from Vyazovye…. We know her; she’s a good young lady.”
“She’s all right!”
The swing-door was continually banging, some coming in, others going out. Marya Vassilyevna sat on, thinking all the time of the same things, while the concertina went on playing and playing. The patches of sunshine had been on the floor, then they passed to the counter, to the wall, and disappeared altogether; so by the sun it was past midday. The peasants at the next table were getting ready to go. The little man, somewhat unsteadily, went up to Marya Vassilyevna and held out his hand to her; following his example, the others shook hands, too, at parting, and went out one after another, and the swing-door squeaked and slammed nine times.

It is achingly sad, not least because Marya doesn’t react.  She is used to this kind of taunting, and by turning red like the peasants she becomes one of them, suggesting that her social status has not much further to fall.


So, what does Saunders make of this story?

Well, the most amusing thing he says is this:

One of the features of this page-at-a-time exercise: the better the story, the more curious the reader is to find out what’s going to happen and the more annoying the exercise is. (p.15)

I bet it is!

Anyway, amongst other things, he talks about the call-and-response nature of structure as being more useful to writers than ‘theme’, ‘plot’, ‘character development’:

We might think of structure as simply: an organisational scheme that allows the story to answer a question it has caused its reader to ask.

Me, at the end of the first page: ‘Poor Marya.  I already sort of care about her.  How did she get here?’

Story, in the first paragraph of its second page, ‘Well, she had some bad luck.’ (p.17)

(You either like Saunders’ chatty style, deliberately banal here… or not.  For me, it wears thin after a while and seems like unnecessary padding.)

I think, and not just from this chapter’s placement as first in the book, that this is from early in the course he teaches.  And if you’re an experienced reader, you can quickly move on.

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘The Schoolmistress’ also translated as ‘In the Cart’ in The Takes of Chekhov, Vol 9
Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, 2006, first published 1897, and (slightly revised) included in Volume 9 of Chekhov’s Collected Works published by Adolf Marks in 1899–1901
Free download here.

Image credit: Illustration by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit – http://apchekhov.ru/books/item/f00/s00/z0000025/st006.shtml, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60427156


Responses

  1. I was taught you read through the assigned piece once, no questions asked, just read, then read second time with more thought, etc. I do chuckle when you “arc up” and let rip. My whole life has been about that, lol. Good post. 🌷🎈🍪 Here is a flower, a balloon and a biscuit to settle you down. 🐧

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    • Ta muchly, and I do like the balloon!

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    • Americans would see that “biscuit” as a cookie. Especially as it has spots all over it. Are they chocolate chips? Or is it oatmeal raisin?
      Just asking. P.S. Chekhov is my namesake. Or am I his?

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      • Ha ha, Anton, Travellin’ Penguin grew up calling them ‘cookies’ too but she’s been in Australia so long, now she knows that cookies are those things that track our activity online!

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  2. Haha Lisa, you wouldn’t like my Jane Austen group then because we like to do this sort of reading sometimes. We call it slow reads and we’ll discuss a three volume novel over three months. We learn a lot about stopping at the end of a volume and thinking about what we are seeing in her writing. I think this sort of reading is not just for for people who want to write, but for people who love to think about what writers are doing? I’m forever thinking about that when I read, even though I have no plans to write myself, and haven’t since I was a teen!

    PS I love Pam’s response with her flower, balloon and biscuit.

    Oh, and it’s interesting that the translator is Constance Garnett. I thought that her translations have been overtaken in terms of Russian novels, but I’m wondering whether no-one else has translated the short stories, or whether it’s a copyright issue.

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    • Alas, no, I would not enjoy doing your slow reading, I’d be taking a sabbatical while you did that…
      Re the translator, Saunders has a newer translation, but since I was not going to read that one, I chose what was at Gutenberg, which was the translation by Constance. I’m fond of her: she is the one who translated all the Russians that I read as a girl, and I owe my love of Russian Lit to her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, yes, most of her work is in Public Domain I believe. She’s pretty well regarded particularly for what she did for Russian lit, but times have moved on. According to Wikipedia (to the critics they quote), she would sometimes just omit words or phrases she couldn’t understand, or “smooth” over others. I think these days her translations are seen as “of her time” and perhaps not reflecting the colour of the original works? However, there’s nothing like easy accessibility to foreign literature, is there.

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        • Oh, experts are always complaining about translations so that they sound clever, and sometimes they (meaning Nabokov) even say that if we can’t read in the original we shouldn’t read it at all. What a dull life it would be if we had to spend years learning all the languages of the world before we could read great books from those cultures.
          I take no notice of any of them!

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          • Fair enough, but I have put a couple of translations of Russians side by side and the sense and flow can be very different. You still get the story of course, but if you are interested in the reading experience it can be different depending on the translation. I think translation is a fascinating topic.

            It goes without saying that while I take Nabakov’s point I don’t agree with him!

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            • If all the world’s great lit was written in English, French and Indonesian, then I’d agree because I can read those languages and yes, there is nothing as good as reading the original. But the world’s great lit is written in a delicious variety of languages, and we cut ourselves off from wonderful books and the ideas they convey if we are snooty about translation per se. Of course some translations are better than others, and *blush* I’ve pontificated about that myself in my reading of Zola where from lack of choice at that time I could only get my hands on translations that were past their use-by date or failed to convey important aspects that Zola was on about, especially class distinctions.
              But translations are also a matter of taste. I think that Brian Nelson’s Zola translations are ‘better’ than anybody’s but that’s partly because he’s Australian and his style of writing is what I’m used to and he does it so well. An English or American reader might have an entirely different opinion to mine and think that a translation by a UK or US translator is ‘better’,

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I too read the public domain translation of the stories by C. Garnett. Took it on a long journey years ago – so long ago I don’t even remember if I read this story (I got about halfway through the collected stories). Dammit, that means I’ve got to go back and start again. I’ve heard her translations dismissed as too Edwardian/genteel, but lack the knowledge of Russian to comment on the validity of this criticism. An old friend of mine did grad research on DH Lawrence’s response to the Russian authors, and used these early translations on the basis that they’re the ones DHL would have read (and of course he was in the same cultural circle as the Garnetts); he was more than happy with their quality as translations, as Lawrence was.

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    • Well now, you see, I’m just about to publish my thoughts about the next story in this book of Saunders, where I discover to my astonishment that his students are discombobulated by 19th century writing style (and he indulges himself with a lot of ensuing waffle which is painful to read).
      I think that maybe the readers who dismiss Constance as ‘too Edwardian/genteel’ are readers who are indulging in a variation of the Dead White Males slur. Constance was translating for the genteel audience who were going to read the books. It’s just as valid as Zola’s earthiness IMO, and I am able to enjoy both.

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  4. […] with my previous post, I wrote about my response to the story before reading […]

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  5. I can never remember which Chekhov stories I’ve read and which I’ve not (partly because I think the titles vary a little with some, though not the better known, I don’t think?) and should perhaps consider a mini-course even beyond the Saunders volume (I’m aware that loads of blogs undertook the Chekhov oeuvre with the enthusiasm I directed towards Munro, Gallant, and MacLeod, but I’ve never happened upon one when I was ready to join, and I’ve also never found one that persisted and actually read and posted on all of his stories). It seems a bit unfair to pick on today’s students for unfamiliarity with the old-style language. I wonder how adept he is with hashtag and emoji conversations. Hehehe

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    • Hmm, it depends on the students. If they are studying literature for the purposes of becoming writers themselves, then (unless they just want to be the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown), they need to be comfortable with all kinds of writing, from 19th century old-style to modernism to all the weird and wonderful styles there are today. And they have signed up for a course that features the Russians—what were they expecting if not what’s in this course?

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      • I think many students arrive in college now without experience of other writing styles, so I wonder if they expect that the books/stories in this course will be about Russia but, otherwise, simply like all the other stories they read. One of my stepkids did have some Shakespeare, but the other (3 years younger) did not; the most classic text studied otherwise was The Catcher in the Rye and there was a vocabulary component to that book, too, taking Holden’s slang from an historical perspective. My copy of Saunders is chilling (in quarantine) in the hallway, so I’ll be getting to it very soon. 🤞

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        • I think it’s terribly sad, the way young people are short-changed like that…

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