Tag Archives: Work

The Role of Bills: Marxist Implications in Chekhov’s “A Woman’s Kingdom”

22 Aug
Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s short story “A Woman’s Kingdom” opens not with a wry physical description of the liege of the titular kingdom, nor a rapturous, cinematic bird’s eye view of the natural landscape of the kingdom itself, but instead with the image of a roll of banknotes; prosaic, commercial, and dirty. This roll of fifteen hundred roubles plays a central role in the unfolding story. Far from being presented as a positive treasure, the roll of roubles serves as a bitter talisman, an emblem of shame and guilt for the story’s protagonist, Anna Akimovna, a young newly-rich bourgeois “benefactress” who finds herself unable to truly help anyone, least of all herself.

The roll of bills, we are told, was sent to Anna by a bailiff at her “forest villa,” and is the award from a lawsuit, the details of which Chekhov does not share with us, and of which, indeed, Anna likely does not even want to know. From the very start, Anna is painted as an unhappy young woman who remains completely mystified and alienated by her great wealth. Of her relationship to the roll of banknotes and its source, Chekhov tells us:

Anna Akimovna disliked and feared such words as “awarded damages” and “won the suit.” She knew that it was impossible to do without the law, but for some reason, whenever Nazaritch, the manager of the factory, or the bailiff of her villa in the country, both of whom frequently went to law, used to win lawsuits of some sort for her benefit, she always felt uneasy and, as it were, ashamed. On this occasion, too, she felt uneasy and awkward, and wanted to put that fifteen hundred roubles further away that it might be out of her sight.

Anna’s uneasiness seems to arise from her knowledge that she didn’t earn this money through any kind of labor, but instead garnered it through the efforts of others–efforts not on her behalf, precisely, but through the anonymous machinations of a legal system which, according to both Chekhov and Marxist doctrine, will always favor the owning class. In other words, Anna is a capitalist, and came by this sum simply by being a member of the owning class. Tellingly, this particular roll of banknotes was not even generated by any kind of physical or industrial labor at all, but by the legal processes of capitalism itself.

Anna’s emotional unease from this roll of bills, and more broadly, from the “role” of bills and of money in her life in general, dramatizes another important Marxist doctrine, which holds that alienation is a fundamental characteristic of capitalist society. Under capitalism, workers have no inherent stake in the fields they till but do not own, nor in the products they manufacture but do not profit from. Meanwhile the owners of the land and of the means of production likewise have no cause-and-effect human relationship with the money they rake in. Illustrating this economic disconnect, Chekhov shows us Anna recalling a past visit to her factory she owns, and which she perceives as

…an impression of hell. It seemed to her as though the wheels, the levers, and the hot hissing cylinders were trying to tear themselves away from their fastenings to crush the men, while the men, not hearing one another, ran about with anxious faces, and busied themselves about the machines, trying to stop their terrible movement.

All labor functions as crushing exploitation of humanity for purposes of capital; conversely, all capital results from exploitation of humanity. The “hot hissing cylinders” of capitalism are not seen to be making anything beneficial; the workers could as well be endeavoring to stop the “terrible machines” rather than to run them. Indeed, confronted with the absurd spectacle of labor in the factory: Anna looked, listened, did not understand, smiled graciously, and felt ashamed. To get hundreds of thousands of roubles from a business which one does not understand and cannot like — how strange it is!

Also, as if to underscore her appointed role in this capitalist system, Chekhov tells us that Anna receives “anonymous letters,” telling her “that she was a millionaire and exploiter — that she was devouring other men’s lives and sucking the blood of the workers.” This wording recalls the most extreme Marxist revolutionary rhetoric. Interestingly, Chekhov very well may be using the rhetoric of this anonymous letter to illustrate a flaw in Marxist revolutionary thought; after all, Anna isn’t purposefully sucking anybody’s blood; she’s not brutal, but helpless.

“A Woman’s Kingdom” is set at Christmastime, and the traditional holiday of giving only serves to underscore the bitterness at the story’s heart. While Anna regards herself, despairingly, as “silly” and “frivolous,” she does entertain a sense of responsibility, or at least noblesse oblige, regarding the roll of bills. However, she struggles with how to make the roll of bills actually benefit anybody. She considers breaking up the sum and distributing it to the workers, or to the poor, but each portion would be uselessly tiny. Here, Chekhov seems to suggest, is the fundamental, absurd tragicomedy of capitalism, laid bare: even a relatively well-meaning person, who may grasp the idea that the capital they have witlessly accumulated is a result of an unjust system, may have little power to ameliorate the exploitative conditions of the people from whose labor they profit.

Musing over her troubles, Anna becomes nostalgic for her childhood, at which time she had yet to become rich:

Anna Akimovna looked at the women and young people, and she suddenly felt a longing for a plain rough life among a crowd. She recalled vividly that far-away time when she used to be called Anyutka, when she was a little girl and used to lie under the same quilt with her mother…and she longed to wash, to iron, to run to the shop and the tavern as she used to do every day when she lived with her mother. She ought to have been a work-girl and not the factory owner! Her big house with its chandeliers and pictures … the young people of both sexes who came almost every day to ask her for money, and with whom she always for some reason felt guilty; and the clerks, the doctors, and the ladies who were charitable at her expense, who flattered her and secretly despised her for her humble origin — how wearisome and alien it all was to her!

The traditional Chekhovian theme of childhood nostalgia is made all the more poignant by the Marxist implications in “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Anna is further alienated in her capitalist wealth by being “of humble origin”; she experiences a kind of survivor’s guilt at having emerged from the working class into the owning class, and seeks a soulful connection with some kind of work, such as she felt she had as a child. Chekhov tells us that Anna sees the factory workers as not entirely foreign, as some in her exalted position might, but instead “was constantly recognizing in the crowd her own father or mother or uncle,” and that “she was no more afraid of peasants or workpeople, drunk or sober, than of her acquaintances of the educated class.” Here Chekhov shows sympathy for Anna, in that she recognizes the fellow humanity of the peasants and workpeople, and perhaps is not irretrievably identified with the “educated class”. But her flashes of empathy and idealism serve no social good.

For example, wanting to exorcise her guilt and shame at the roll of bills, Anna finally decides to award the entire sum to some disadvantaged person as a Yuletide windfall. She considers this an “amusing” idea, and takes “at random” from a pile of begging letters that of Tchalikov, an unemployed petty official with a tubercular wife and five daughters. However, upon visiting the family, Anna becomes disillusioned with her intended act of charity. The arbitrarily-chosen family aren’t as bad off as Anna hoped; Mrs. Tchalikov doesn’t appear to be consumptive, and the girls are “chubby,” not underfed. Most importantly, Anna takes issue with Tchalikov’s grasping entitlement. Though he maintains an obsequious facade, he makes continual “disparaging phrases about his gentle birth, and it was evident that he was humbling himself because he considered himself superior to her.” Tchalikov enacts yet another Marxist preoccupation, that of social class; Tchalikov is bitter at his fate as a fallen member of the gentry, and believes that due to his “gentle birth,” capitalism (as symbolized by Anna, the “benefactress,”) owes him a living. He, like Anna, is alienated from labor, but unlike the bourgeois-rich Anna, he has no capital.

Anna leaves the Tchalikov’s without giving them the full roll of bills, instead resentfully granting them only a twenty-five roubles. Before leaving the Tchalikov’s apartment Anna encounters their lodger, Pimenov, an amateur watchmaker who works in her factory. Pimenov captures Anna’s imagination with his air of forthright, hardworking masculinity. Here Chekhov illustrates the sexual element of Anna’s alienation; devoid of a suitor from within her own class ( due perhaps in part to her humble birth,) Anna objectifies Pimenov, making of him a romantic fantasy. For her, this working man becomes the emblem of her longing to return to a “rough life among a crowd”, as well as a possible resolution of her loneliness. She feels that the traditional female role, that of a wife and mother subservient to a  husband’s “manly strength” would absolve her of her guilt and unease:

“If I could fall in love,” she thought, stretching; the very thought of this sent a rush of warmth to her heart. “And if I could escape from the factory . . .” she mused, imagining how the weight of those factory buildings, barracks, and schools would roll off her conscience, roll off her mind. . . . Then she remembered her father, and thought if he had lived longer he would certainly have married her to a working man — to Pimenov, for instance. He would have told her to marry, and that would have been all about it. And it would have been a good thing; then the factory would have passed into capable hands.

Later in the story, Anna even half-jokingly confesses to a spinsterish local gossip, Spiridorovna, that she would like to arrange a marriage with Pimenov, and takes comfort in her fantasy of a peaceful future with him.

Standing in stark contrast to the workingman fantasy of Pimenov stands the character of “the lawyer Lysevitch,” an erudite, smooth-talking schemer. On Christmas Day, after skipping church and receiving various visitors who pay homage and ask for money, Anna entertains this aristocratic lawyer (as well as a dull civil councilor, Krylin, who dozes through most of his appearance in the story.) Anna has a long history with Lysevitch, who knew her father and her uncle, and who is tied through the processes of capitalism to her financial concerns:

Anna Akimovna knew that [Lysevitch] had nothing to do at the factory, but she could not dismiss him — she had not the moral courage; and besides, she was used to him. He used to call himself her legal adviser, and his salary, which he invariably sent for on the first of the month punctually, he used to call “stern prose.” Anna Akimovna knew that when, after her father’s death, the timber of her forest was sold for railway sleepers, Lysevitch had made more than fifteen thousand out of the transaction, and had shared it with Nazaritch. When first she found out they had cheated her she had wept bitterly, but afterwards she had grown used to it.

Thus, Chekhov shows us once again that Anna recognizes the injustice surrounding her, but that she has “grown used to it,” and hasn’t the “moral courage” to effect change. She is the very model of what critic Ronald Hingley identifies in Chekhov’s oeuvre as “dreary resignation.”

In true Chekhovian form, the characters in “A Woman’s Kingdom” are dwarfed by the faceless social institutions surrounding them. Nobody, Chekhov seems to be suggesting, truly benefits from an unjust capitalist system. The workers are exploited in their labor and wretched living conditions; the well-born gentry are resentful and entitled of the newly-rich bourgeoisie; and the bourgeoisie are alienated from those of lesser economic status, and are ripped off by their lawyers:

[Lysevitch] laid his cheek on [Anna’s] hand and said in the tone commonly used in coaxing little children:

“My precious, why have you punished me?”

“How? When?”

“I have had no Christmas present from you.”

Anna Akimovna had never heard before of their sending a Christmas box to the lawyer, and now she was at a loss how much to give him. But she must give him something, for he was expecting it, though he looked at her with eyes full of love.

“I suppose Nazaritch forgot it,” she said, “but it is not too late to set it right.”

She suddenly remembered the fifteen hundred she had received the day before, which was now lying in the toilet drawer in her bedroom. And when she brought that ungrateful money and gave it to the lawyer, and he put it in his coat pocket with indolent grace, the whole incident passed off charmingly and naturally. The sudden reminder of a Christmas box and this fifteen hundred was not unbecoming in Lysevitch.

In whose eyes is this grasping, entitled conduct of Lysevitch “not unbecoming?” Within the framework of the text, it is most obviously Anna who fails, or more accurately refuses, to see the injustice in Lysevitch’s request of the roll of bills. Anna hands over the “ungrateful money” without question. It is Chekhov who sees it as unbecoming, surely, and herein lies another Marxist principle; that the owning class keeps capital to itself. There is to be no redistribution of wealth in Chekhov’s story. Within the machinery of an unjust and exploitative capitalist system, labor goes unrewarded while capital generates more capital, which is always held firmly by those in power. Capital is exchanged from the wealthy to the wealthy in the form of bribes, crooked business deals, lawsuits, and “Christmas boxes.”

As for Anna’s alienation and loneliness, it only deepens after her parting with the “ungrateful” and “shameful” roll of bills. Alone on Christmas night, she reconsiders her fantasy of a simple married life with the workingman Pimenov:

…against her own will,[Anna] imagined Pimenov dining with Lysevitch and Krylin, and his timid, unintellectual figure seemed to her pitiful and helpless, and she felt repelled by it. And only now, for the first time in the whole day, she realized clearly that all she had said and thought about Pimenov and marrying a workman was nonsense, folly, and wilfulness. To convince herself of the opposite, to overcome her repulsion, she tried to recall what she had said at dinner, but now she could not see anything in it: shame at her own thoughts and actions, and the fear that she had said something improper during the day, and disgust at her own lack of spirit, overwhelmed her completely.

Try as she might to “escape the factory”, Anna Akimovna is mired in her woman’s kingdom. She is too rarefied to love a working man, too sensitive to enjoy her power and privileges ruthlessly, too fearful to effect social change, too newly-rich to escape snubbing. Marxist doctrines maintain that the machine of capitalism exploits the proletariat; but Chekhov illustrates its soul-numbing effect on its beneficiaries, as well.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Text found online at http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1271/ 05/12/07

Editors, Marxist Internet Archive, online text at http://www.marxists.org/subject/students/index.htm 5/12/07

Hingley, Ronald (quote from class handout)