“Aborigines” by Anton Chekhov
Many works on racism are brimming with depictions of physical abuse and atrocities against the discriminated. Slavery and racial segregation are one among those that show how racism is apparent. On the other hand, Anton Chekhov, in his work “Aborigines,” shows how racism can be depicted even in the most subtle means without discounting its true severity. “Aborigines” was written in May 18, 1887 and published in the thirteenth volume of a collection of short stories by Chekhov entitled “The Tales of Chekhov,” under the chapter “Love and Other Stories.” In “Aborigines,” Chekhov sets out to demonstrate how the power of racism maintains regardless of form, by framing it in subtlety.
“Aborigines” follows the perspective of Ivan Lyashkevsky, a retired Polish lieutenant who had suffered from a head injury and is now living on a pension in a native town in Russia. Visiting him is Franz Stepanitch Finks, a German architect who is assigned to inspecting the deteriorating walls of a girl’s high school but decided to give Lyashkevsky a visit, presumably as a friend. A large bulk of the story revolves around the conversation between Lyashkevsky and Finks, who spend much of the day observing the actions of the native landlord through an open window. Their conversation is entirely pessimistic; at every turn and action – or lack thereof – of the native, Lyashkevsky speaks nothing more than scrutiny and ill-willed judgments against him. Finks, at best, supplements his sentiments at times, to the extent of forgetting his original mission for that day. Thrice, he attempts to depart for his job; thrice, also, Lyashkevsky convinced him to stay for leisurely activities as drinking tea, playing cards, and having dinner with him, all while continuing their scrutiny of the natives. This comes at Finks’ expense, as the day had stretched too far into the night for him to perform his original job. He devotes the next day for the job and departs from his supposed friend, Lyashkevsky, who reveals some animosity towards his brief German compatriot as well. Just as the natives, he expresses scrutiny towards Finks and, strangely, extends it to the very armchair on which he sits and even to the bed he lays on for its faulty springs. The story ends with Lyashkevsky on his bed as he dreams:
Pouring boiling water over the natives, Finks, and the old armchair.
The reader is met with two characters, each having honorable professions that pursue progress. Laying comfortably on armchairs under the roof of the house that protects them from the heat outside, they are situated in a perceived space of luxury and comfort. Opposite them is a perceived space of simplicity, containing the natives and the scenery of the village in which the entire short story is set. An open window divides the two spaces – but only as a means for the two spaces to see each other from a distance. The short story omits the use of the word “door” or any word alluding to it, indicating a lack of the possibility of close interaction. Not once did the occupants of the two spaces enter the other space. Even Finks’ departure is one with vagueness on the presence of a door; the story depicts his departure concisely as Lyashkevsky “seeing his visitor off.” This is not to say that there is no actual door at all. Along with the continuous unapologetic belittling of the natives, Chekhov intended this omission to emphasize the isolation between the two spaces and to amplify the perceived distance from which Lyashkevsky and Finks observes the natives.
Chekhov sets this to ground the avenue of racism in “Aborigines.” He frames it in a way that makes the discriminator distant from the discriminated, causing a rift of misunderstanding and obscurity that, in the story, leads to Lyashkevsky and Finks grossly oversimplifying the natives. But whereas other works that speak of racism depict it with physical violence and atrocities, chains and whips are completely absent in “Aborigines.” The most violent act ever committed is probably that of Lyashkevsky yelling at his native landlord that “the devil take him.” Clearly, verbal abuse alone is not a hurdle to progress, nor does it deal actual harm to the discriminated, as characteristic in racism.
The native hears this abuse distinctly, but, judging from the appearance of his crumpled little figure, it does not affect him.
The root cause of the entire story stems from Lyashkevsky’s animosity. “Aborigines” begins with a characterization of Lyashkevsky, part of which depicts a head injury some time during his career. This led to lasting side effects on his part:
Staring wrathfully at the blue trousers, Lyashkevsky is gradually roused to fury, and gets so excited that he actually foams at the mouth. He speaks with a Polish accent, rapping out each syllable venomously, till at last the little bags under his eyes swell, and he abandons the Russian “scoundrels, blackguards, and rascals,” and rolling his eyes, begins pouring out a shower of Polish oaths, coughing from his efforts. “Lazy dogs, race of curs. May the devil take them!”
A rage that is triggered by the atrocities of an individual is understandable; a rage that is triggered by an individual’s inoffensive outfit, to the point that politics and race become involved, is jarring – to foam from the mouth out of such sheer rage over blue trousers makes it even more so jarring. It is clear that Lyashkevsky’s head injury has caused him to have a profoundly embittered outlook – an origin for racism. Such resentment, however, is not isolated to racism; it seems that it extends beyond even to his armchair and his bed.
This is the foremost message of Chekhov in “Aborigines.” He frames racism as a form of hatred and bigotry, as Lyashkevsky demonstrates. At the same, through Lyashkevsky’s head injury, Chekhov frames racism as an aberration, an undesirable anomaly of the mind that causes one to be resentful not only towards a particular race but towards everything. Additionally, racism causes one to stay within the confines of his own perspective. The story depicts this not only through Lyashkevsky’s outbursts; it is also shown in Lyashkevsky’s isolation to the house throughout the entire story, as if to immerse readers in the pessimism of Lyashkevsky. His only vantage point of the natives being the open window strengthens the narrowness of his perspective.
Worse still, Chekhov frames racism as a disease that Lyashkevsky transmits to Finks. It is evident that Finks does not profoundly hate Russians; in fact, initially he offered consolation about them amid Lyashkevsky’s outcry.
You must not be too severe in your judgments, honored friend,” sighs Finks, mopping his big bald head with his handkerchief. “Put yourself in their place: business is slack now, there’s unemployment all round, a bad harvest, stagnation in trade.”
Despite his consolation, Lyashkevsky’s animosity comes unwavering, and Finks eventually shares his sentiments throughout the rest of the story. The severe outcome of this contagious animosity is that makes Finks stray from his original mission of inspecting the walls of the cellar of the local girl’s high school. The significance of Finks’ profession as an architect is that it represents the possibility of progress. If he accomplishes his mission, the high school, as an instrument of education, could function properly and become conducive to progress. Instead, he is swayed to stay with Lyashkevsky, to share the same luxuries and sentiments against the Russians. Stagnation strikes the village. Worse still, it is apparent that this is a routine occurrence between Lyashkevsky and Finks:
At every visit Finks has to listen to a tirade on the subject of the lazy good-for-nothing aborigines, and every time exactly the same one.
The story depicts that Finks’ visit begins between nine and ten in the morning, and ends between nine and ten in the evening – exactly twelve hours, half a day. The ultimate danger is thus: for as long as Lyashkevsky keeps stalling Finks from doing his job, the cracks of the high school cellar keep growing and the whole foundation will give way, causing the collapse of the high school. Education becomes no more; the village is plunged further into the very squalid state that Lyashkevsky and Finks criticize them in the first place. From initial stagnation, it becomes devastating regression – all over tea and playing cards: a fitting allusion of institutionalized racism.
Chekhov depicts racism as a whole in “Aborigines.” Lyashkevsky thinks and speaks from an imagined ivory tower, an altitude of power and authority that never truly existed. Because Finks comes to visit Lyashkevsky, he, too, views the situation from the same ivory tower. Their conjectures over the inferiority and backwardness of the natives are done routinely and collectively. The natives cannot do over what is beyond their control, yet Lyashkevsky and Finks do not see it that way. With racism, there does not have to be real shackles; only imagined shackles that tie down the native to apparent laziness – shackles imposed by the Lyashkevsky through the open window. For as long as Lyashkevsky stalls Finks from repairing the foundations of the local high school, that high school will collapse along with the natives.
Chekhov frames racism as this: it is a mental aberration. It is a disease – and a contagious one at that. Most of all, racism is powerful, no matter the form, no matter how subtle.
For many, “all hell breaks loose” with racism, as rife becomes violence, abuse, and discrimination. Chekhov, however, shows how racism can be dangerous in the most subtle ways. For one, racism among Europeans is not as widespread as the racial discrimination of Africans. There is no motion of violence in the story, either; only dialogue that does not seem to go anywhere. In fact, the story does not offer motion at all. There is only stagnation. However, Chekhov shows that there is more than what meets the eye: hell breaking loose partially is just as dangerous – almost no one would be aware that it is actually happening because there is only a single open window to view the situation. Anton Chekhov offers “Aborigines” to its viewers as a way to be aware of the machinations of racism beyond its most clear-cut manifestations. He offers readers to look beyond a single perspective, to pave a door outside of our minds. He invites people to inspect their minds – if inside them lurks a head injury.