... while I sing a song for thee.
“Night. Varka, the little nurse, a girl of thirteen, is rocking the cradle in which the baby is lying, and humming hardly audibly:
Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,
While I sing a song for thee.”
“There is a big patch of green on the ceiling from the icon-lamp, and the baby clothes and trousers throw long shadows on the stove, on the cradle, and on Varka.”
So begins the Chekov story that tragically ends in infanticide.The story is about a teenager who is brow beaten to exhaustion by the parents of the child she is caring for. They are relentless in their demands, “Varka, heat the stove.” “Varka, set the samovar.” “Varka, clean the master’s galoshes.” “Varka, fetch some vodka.” “Varka, rock the baby.” This is the last order Varka hears, all of this from dusk till dawn.
“ And the baby screams, and is worn out with screaming…At last, tired to death, she does her very utmost, strains her eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch, and listening to the screaming, finds the foe who will not let her live.”
“The foe is the baby.”
“The hallucination takes possession of Varka…”
“Laughing and winking and shaking her fingers at the green patch, Varka steals up to the cradle and bends over the baby. When she has strangled him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughs with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as soundly as the dead."
The senses reel in disgust to learn in the last sentence that Varka has strangled an infant simply to allow her to sleep. The venerable Chekov seems to have over stepped his bounds. How could he, by what mind set, could he have Varka violate a sacred taboo by choking the life out of an infant?
It stirs the imagination to wonder if there could have been a different climax to the story without resorting to murder. Here is another possible, plausible ending.
“At last, tired to death, she does her utmost, strains her eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch and listening to the screaming, realizes the child will only be soothed from her own body.”
“Laughing and winking and shaking her fingers at the green patch, Varka steps up to the cradle and bends over the baby. “ Reaching down into the cradle, Varka swaddles the infant in a blanket and clasps him to her budding bosom. Varka rocks the baby, too and fro, for a minute or two until he begins to quiet. Then, with the infant cuddled in her arms, Varka lies on the floor on her back, covers them, and both are soon fast asleep.
Even today, there are women steadfast in belief of maternal instinct as a genetic disposition toward caring for young children. A differing feminist perspective by Elayne Tucker, a dissertation towards the degree of Master of Arts by advanced study in Women’s Studies, says maternal instinct is, “…a reflection of patriarchal ideology rather than women’s real expectations and experiences of maternity, and as such are oppressive and exploitative to women.”(March, 1999) A middle ground position of maternal instinct, according to demographer Caroline Foster says women have, “…an inherited propensity toward nurturing behaviors, necessitated by the prolonged helplessness of human infants.”
Although hypotheses of maternal instinct vary from oppression to instinct, there is, has been, little question that women are expected to care for young children through cultural imperative. It is quite likely that when Chekov published “Sleepy” in 1888, such an imperative was even more strongly enforced. When Varka sees strangling an infant as the only way out, even delirious, she violates one of the most powerful taboos imaginable.
It might have been easier to understand Varka’s murderous impulse if we knew her better. The story tells that she has recently observed her father die from consumption. She and her mother, Pelagea, are impoverished through her father’s death and fiercely struggle to make ends meet. This is all we know which makes life burdensome.
In today’s world, though, we have come to learn that violence is engendered by an experience of having been violated. Persons having been psychologically and physically assaulted by those they love, learn exquisitely how to victimize others. We also know that many, despite outrageous psychological and physical abuse, go on to happy and productive lives.
It may not be coincidence that “Sleepy”, first published in the Petersburg Gazette, did not contain the last sentence, “Having strangled, etc.” If an explicit infanticide is left out of the story it becomes less of a story. Maybe persons living in Petersburg at that time would have been offended by infanticide. The reason has remained a mystery. Rather the story ended, “…Varka steels up to the cradle and bends over the baby.” This as a final ending appears more typical of Chekov’s “impressionistic” style. Whatever happens from there is left up to the reader. Leaving the story up to the reader instead of the questionable, outrageous conclusion seems far more apt.
February 5, 2010