It is said that in a story, something must change. After all if nothing changes, what are we reading for? What is the point? But some feel that is a limiting art form, after all life is filled with people who do not change, who have the capacity to change, are presented with the opportunity to change but they don’t. And surely, if stories should reflect life, then these sort of people should be depicted as well.
Chekhov was mainly interested in stories with the epiphany does not occur, or if it did occur, it was a false one. Peasant wives is another story in that mode.
The story opens with Drudya and his family. At first glance, the opening is lacklustre, we are not immediately told what the conflict or the story problem is. We have his two daughter-in-laws, Varvara who is married to a hunchback and Sofna who is married to an absentee husband. At first glance, nothing seems wrong until Matyev and his Kuska come to Drudya’s inn and tells his tale of how he adopted Kuska.
Matyev had had an affair with Maschenka who was unhappily married. The tale ends up badly. Maschenka kills her husband, she dies on the way to prison leaving behind her son Kuska. Matyev thinks very little of his responsibility in the sordid affair, prefferring to believe that the Devil had tempted him in the guise of a woman. He only adopts Kuska out of christian duty not true love.
One wonders what the tale has to do with Drudya’s family. Then it becomes apparent that the situation of unhappy marriages is mirrored in the lives of Varvara and Sofna. Sofna retreats to resignation. Varvara has affairs. The daughter-in-law on hearing the tale dream about killing their husbands to be set free. But in true Chekhov fashion, it is only a dream. A short dream that goes away with Matyev leaving the inn.
The story really is so sad. Drudya has no sympathy for Maschenka either, calling her uncouth names. Matyev has no sympathy for Maschenka and he is even cruel to Kuska. His christian charity is a sham. But nothing changes. The girls remain chained. The men remain who they are.
I suppose in this case, the story works because we cannot help but feel for the characters even though nothing changes. Certainly is a downer to read. But hey that is life.