(Short Story) The Malefactor by: Anton Chekhov
(Reaction) Mens Rea by: Antonio Conejos
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A clash of worldviews, between the simple outlook of Denis and the educated, nuanced vantage of the magistrate, is ultimately what forms the conflict in this short story by Anton Chekhov. Ultimately what the reader finds in the Malefactor is a failure to communicate. This in itself is ironic as most of the short story is given to dialogue, ie. the very medium of communication.
Denis Grigoryev is a simple thinking man. This is not meant in a derogatory sense. Rather, its a description of how he views the world, ie. he needs something (metal nuts which will be used as sinkers for fishnets or lines), what he needs can be found lying about (the nuts secure the bolts on railway tracks) and therefore he takes what he needs.
This simple world view however is incompatible with the considerably more complicated thinking of the (unnamed) magistrate who is trying his case. The magistrate is concerned about the consequences of Denis's actions;
How do you suppose train wrecks happen? Doesn't it occur to you that if a few nuts are unscrewed, you can have a train wreck?
In the mind of the magistrate, it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that Denis knew the consequences of his actions,
and for that matter you couldn't help knowing the consequences of unscrewing the nut.
It is equally clear though that Denis does not realize the gravity of his actions and that these may land him in prison. First, his answers are straightforward and do not demonstrate any guile or deceit,
I wouldn't have unscrewed it, would I, if I hadn't wanted it? In his mind, of course the nuts are perfect as sinkers,
Well, it couldn't be anything else, could it? I wasn't playing knucklebones with it, was I?
Second, he does not believe that taking a few nuts will case a train to derail,
we peasants have been unscrewing nuts for a good many years now... why, nothing at all... Now, if I took up a whole rail or put a big balk of timber across the track... But just an ordinary nut, pfui!
Third, he is genuinely stunned upon hearing his sentence,
Denis stopped blinking. Rasing his thick eyebrows, he looked inquiringly in the direction of the magistrate... 'Prison eh? Now, listen. If I'd done anything wrong, then I'd go... but there's neither rhyme nor reason in sending me... What for should I go to prison?'
Thus on one hand we have the magistrate insisting that Denis should have known, and therefore does know, the consequences of his actions while on the other hand it is plain that Denis does not understand the assumptions being presented by the magistrate.
That the magistrate is the only nameless character (even the solider who takes away Denis at the end is named as well as Denis's siblings and various individuals of his village) in the Malefactor is appropriate as the law here is anonymous and impenetrable, without a human face (think tinges of Kafka's hopelessness without the long drawn spells of absurdity).
The magistrate insists that Denis knows and understands the situation but it is clear that the latter does not. Thus, the story ends with a plaintive final word from Denis, a questions that encapsulates the crux of how the presumptions of the law fly in the face of everyday experience.
Understand? And from the law, the magistrate, there is nothing but silence.
Even a simple story such as the Malefactor (I'm relying on the translation by Robert Payne) illustrates Chekhov's skill in sketching his characters with little details. The magistrate for instance sounds like most lawyers, painfully exact (
On the morning of July 7...found you in proximity to the one-hundred-and-forty-first mile post) and punctilious about the law (
According to Article 1081 of the Penal Code...).
My reaction above would seem to indicate that I sympathize with Denis. I do, to an extent. But it would seem that he did commit, knowingly and willfully, the crime he was charged with.
Yet can his simple view of the world really be forced to accommodate the assumptions and presumptions of the law? That the law, with its jargon, its complexities and nuances, has slid further and further away from the realities of life is still a pressing concern in society today. This is especially so in poorer societies where the average
criminal may be like Denis who can't grasp the consequences of his actions.