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“The Man in a Case” is one of the most remarkable and well-known short stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. It begins when a teacher Burking and veterinarian Ivan Ivanych are settling down for a night in a shed of Prokofy, whose wife became an “obsessive solitary” (Loehlin 95). They started to discuss other anti-social people, and this is how Burkin began the narration about Byelikov, a teacher of Greek and the main character of the story. It is possible to say that through the image of Byelikov, a lifeless and constrained individual, Chekhov warns readers that any person can unwittingly imprison him/herself in a “case” or a “shell” by fixating on an unwritten set of rules and restrictions.
Dependence on conventions may turn into disease and prevent one’s rapprochement with others. Based on this, it is valid to presume that loneliness and freedom are two major themes in “The Man in a Case.” However, the implicit criticism of excess conservativeness is another significant motif in the story. The example of Byelikov demonstrates that strict adherence to conservative norms does not allow any spontaneity and change in individual lives and the community in general. In this way, it may be argued that when people condemn others and try to make everyone live according to their conservative ideas, it prevents the expression of individuality and interferes with the natural development of society.
Belikov: Character Description
The image of Byelikov was developed by the author as an opposition to life and freedom: he represented rigidity of rules and bureaucracy, which have nothing natural in them. Rehman et al. define the character as “a psychologically shrunk and socially enfolded person” (4). He was completely detached from other people. It is even possible to say that he deliberately sought solitude and separation, and fenced off from others by different means:
“He wore dark glasses, a sweater, stuffed his ears with cotton wool, and when he sat in a cab, he wanted the top up. In a word, the man showed a constant and insuperable yearning to enclose himself inside a shell, to wrap himself up you might say in a way that would isolate him, protect him from external influences.” (Chekhov 13-14)
While a peculiar manner of dressing represents only one, extrinsic side of the issue, blind compliance with rules, as well as the fear of everything that even a little bit deviated from a standard and created an insignificant disturbance to a quiet life in the shell, formed a kind of an internal constraint. These internal barriers were the thing that cut the character’s link to reality and, at the same time, protected him from it. As Burkin, the narrator in the story, noted, “reality irritated him, frightened him, kept him in a state of constant alarm” (Chekhov 14). It seems those fear and irritation translated into the pursuit of permanent order and responsibility to maintain it in Belikov.
Analysis of Byelikov’s Interactions with Neighbors
The character’s behavioral features and introverted mindset largely affected the way he interacted with his colleagues, students, and other neighbors. Not only did he try not to break the rules himself, but he also felt extremely uncomfortable when others deviated from norms. Thus, he observed other town residents and always let them know if they or others did something “wrong.” For instance, Burking says that Byelikov “had a strange habit of coming into our apartments. He’d arrive at a teacher’s place and sit in silence as if he was spying out something” (Chekhov 16). Because of this, the character’s colleagues felt “oppressed…with his prudence, his mistrustfulness, and his tidy all-encompassing judgments” (Chekhov 15). Probably out of fear or maybe because they had nothing to oppose Byelikov, they did not object to him too much.
They accepted and surrendered to his complaints, preferring to make changes in accordance with his conservative views. Thus, even though Byelikov also was a teacher like the majority of people whom he visited and observed, the habit of constant surveillance as well as the town residents’ reactions to Byelikov, indicate that, on a particular level, he was perceived as an authoritative figure because of his moral values and ideals. At the same time, as Rehman et al. state, although Byelikov had “a great sense of his moral responsibility,” his neighbors felt “a sort of tediousness in his company and had a kind of trepidation from his ethical ideology” (4). He did not let anybody live freely and made them adjust to his own views and made them afraid of everything. This is the reason why everyone felt a sort of relief when Byelikov eventually died.
Personal Examples and Experiences
It is possible to say that in the real world there are a plethora of people as reclusive as Byelikov, as well as those who see the propaganda of their personal moral philosophies as an important duty. Moreover, when creating the character, Chekhov himself could be inspired by real-life examples: eccentric educators in the school he attended and the author’s father who “may have tyrannized over his children” (Loehlin 4).
I would not say that in my life, there is such a grotesque figure surveilling every step others take like Chekhov’s character. Nevertheless, probably like many people, I had to rethink and change my behaviors when hearing someone’s disapproving opinions time after time. It seems many people have something of Byelikov in them because everybody sticks to their own beliefs of what is right and wrong. The only difference is that some individuals are more flexible in accepting unconventional and unusual things, while others are not.
Like in all times, today one may be condemned by anybody for the smallest things starting from the manner of dressing, dietary habits and ending with the choice of romantic relationships, profession, confession, overall lifestyle, and so on. Although such condemnation may come from individuals, it can be regarded as a form of societal pressure in general because it has the purpose of making one conform to certain rules and expectations accepted within the community.
I can say with certainty that I was influenced by people similar to Byelikov mostly when I was younger. They mainly were the authoritative persons such as teachers and other adults. In modern society, it is almost a norm for adults to oppress children, who are most of the time full of energy and unusual ideas, who are eager to take risks and explore new things. During my upbringing and early social integration, such behaviors were generally not approved. Like the man in a case, parents and teachers tended to forbid a lot of innocent things we liked to do as children because they were afraid that something bad might come out of it.
Although it may seem reasonable to control children as they do not have enough life experiences, it seems that many of the fears and constraints I have now, as well as negative opinions I may sometimes impose on others, originate from childhood and the time when my behavior and views started to be shaped in accordance with particular norms. Nevertheless, nowadays, being aware of the importance of individuality and having respect for diverse perspectives on life, I try to never fall under the influence of Byelikov-like people. Today, I usually regard open condemnation based on personal preferences and subjective views, even if they are consistent with the ideas of the dominant ideology, as a sign of indelicacy and bad manners. In my opinion, there is no obligation to accept it and comply with it.
Significance of Personal Freedom
Overall, the problems of surveillance, societal pressures, compliance with norms, and excess conservatism raise the issue of personal freedom, which is eloquently described and criticized by Chekhov in “The Man in a Case.” As stated by Simmons, the motifs of “aspiration for freedom, freedom from all the stuffy conventions of life, from the regimentation of authority, the imbecility of functionaries, from everything that tyrannizes and debates the human spirit” are traced in many of Chekhov’s stories (425).
Considering this statement and the findings of the character analysis, it is possible to suggest that the abundance of conventions and stereotypes can make a real personality fade and disappear. It means that the fear of new and unpredictable things can destroy individuality and make a person pitiable and helpless, unable to express even the simplest emotions. At the same time, the aspiration for freedom about which Simmons talks is introduced in Chekhov’s shorts story with the image of Kovalenko, a new geography teacher, and Byelikov’s antagonist, as well as his sister. These characters did not accept the life in the “case.”
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They are represented in the story as symbols of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and love for life. People like Kovalenko and his sister pose a significant threat to any form of conservatism and conformity. The fact that they became the cause of Byelikov’s death only verifies this assumption. According to Rehman et al., “when Byelikov dies and he is in his coffin his looks are calm and complacent which is the very proof of his love for his Shell” (4). It means that death was the only way for the character to fulfill his ultimate goal of detaching from life, its unpredictability, and diversity completely.
“The Man in a Case” makes a reader think if he or she encloses him/herself in a similar psychological shell as Belikov. It also makes a person reflect on the way his or her personal beliefs and views affect the manner of interaction with others, and the overall effects on their lives. Chekhov demonstrated that physical and psychological constraints, prejudices, and stereotypes cannot make a person or anybody around him or her happy because a psychological “case” is always associated with stagnation and the lack of newness. It is possible to say that the story has implications for both individuals and society as a whole. The author shows that each person can be an agent of social conventions and norms. At the same time, people can become agents of social change as well by rejecting all possible constraints and having the courage to express their true personal qualities.
Chekhov, Anton. About Love: Three Stories by Anton Chekhov. Biblioasis, 2012.
Loehlin, James N. The Cambridge Introduction to Chekhov. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Rehman, Hafiz Javed, et al. “It is very fine thing no doubt, but….let’s hope no evil will come out of it, Psychoanalytical Criticism of Anton Chekhov’s Short Story A Man Who Lived In the Shell: Procrastinate Belikov.” Research Journal of Language, Literature and Humanities, vol. 2, no. 5, 2015, pp. 1-5.
Simmons, Ernest J. Chekhov: A Biography. LLC, 2011.