29 pages 58 minutes read

Anton Chekhov

The Death of a Government Clerk

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1883

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Summary: “The Death of a Government Clerk”

Anton Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860. His most celebrated works include the plays Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard and the short stories “The Peasants” and “The Lady With the Dog.” Chekhov was no stranger to comedy, but his humor is often couched within serious, unsettling situations, featuring characters who are unable or unwilling to overcome their shortcomings and help themselves. “The Death of a Government Clerk” contains some of these same elements. First published in 1883, the short story highlights the extreme anxiety of a low-level government worker after he accidentally sneezes on a high-ranking official at the opera. The story blends the absurd with realistic scenarios from late-19th-century Russian life. Some of its main themes include the struggle over class, the paranoia that results from a powerful bureaucratic state, and the dangers of conforming to the rules of that state.

This guide refers to the English version translated by Ronald Meyer and published in a 2014 Norton Critical Edition.

The story is told from a third-person perspective, with the narrator closely following the thoughts of the government clerk Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov. One fine evening, the clerk attends a performance of the comic opera The Bells of Corneville. Almost immediately, Chervyakov is gripped by a sudden need to sneeze. He delivers a forceful “Achoo!!!” and quickly checks around to see if he “troubled anybody” (Paragraph 1). At first, he seems content, but then he realizes that part of his sneeze has landed on the “bald spot and neck” of General Brizzhalov (Paragraph 1). The general is a high government official, and Chervyakov is horrified to realize his devastating social blunder.

When the clerk begs the general to excuse him, Brizzhalov brushes the incident off as “nothing at all” and asks to be left alone so he can enjoy the opera (Paragraph 5). Chervyakov becomes increasingly embarrassed and anxious. He appeals to the general once again for forgiveness, and Brizzhalov adamantly insists that he stop mentioning it. Chervyakov is not satisfied. He continues to worry and agonize over this situation.

Chervyakov goes home and tells his wife about his encounter with the general. She is initially alarmed but soon calms down after learning that Brizzhalov serves in a different department. She encourages her husband to visit the general and apologize more formally. Chervyakov is still anxious, noting that the general “didn’t say a single sensible word” in response to his earlier apologies (Paragraph 14).

Chervyakov goes out the next day to see Brizzhalov. He puts on a new uniform and gets a haircut before arriving at the general’s residence. There are already several petitioners seeking their own audience with Brizzhalov, but Chervyakov inserts himself into their company and once again recounts the story of the sneeze at the opera. The general interrupts him, referring to the story as “nonsense” and moving on to the next petitioner (Paragraph 17). Chervyakov is undaunted. He resolves to continue making his apology.

When the clerk approaches the general once again, Brizzhalov looks pained and claims that Chervyakov is mocking him. He then closes the door, leaving Chervyakov in further unresolved anguish.

Walking home from this encounter, Chervyakov decides to write a letter to the general. He thinks about what to say but cannot find the right words. He goes back to his original plan to visit Brizzhalov, hoping that once again trying to explain in person will get him the desired result.

Upon his next visit, Chervyakov insists that he is not making fun of the general. Instead, he wants to apologize for “splattering” Brizzhalov at the opera. This time, the general is enraged. He screams at the clerk, demanding that he leave. He stamps his feet and trembles in anger, all of which reduces Chervyakov to a whimpering, frightened figure.

This final confrontation has a physical effect on Chervyakov. Something bursts within his stomach, and he backs toward the door senselessly. He ultimately goes home, no longer thinking about what he is doing. Without even taking off his uniform, he lies down and dies.