"'My life is going bad, worse than any dog's
And I also send greetings to Alyona, to one-eyed Yegorka, and to the coachman, and don't give my harmonica away to anybody.'"
Chekhov is master of ironic pathos: his readers regularly find themselves chuckling and sobbing at the same time. Recall the early story "Vanka" in which a nine-year-old orphan stays up late on Christmas Eve to write his grandfather a plea for rescue from a miserable existence in which the boy serves as apprentice to a cruel and tyrannical cobbler. The narrative situation, revealed in the story's first paragraphs, is already shot through with pathos—a bathos, even, that would seem to preclude the reader's genuine emotional engagement with story. Yet it is not the situation per se that finally elicits an emotional response from the reader but rather the boy's representation of this situation through his writing. It doesn't much matter, ultimately, whether the boy's life is worse than any dog's but only that the boy chooses to make the comparison. What moves us here is the difference between what we would expect a boy aged nine to write of "his life" (if, indeed, he were to write anything at all) and what this sad, profound Vanka has to offer: "My life is going bad, worse than any dog's
" Perhaps what stirs us most of all is the clash between the writer we would imagine as the agent of such melancholic reflection (someone of the cobbler's age and disposition, perhaps) and the reality of its authorship (a little boy with his legs dangling from the chair, cataloging his many woes).
The second part of the quotation is inherently incongruous. As it is placed directly after the boy's comparison of his existence to a dog's (the ellipse is Chekhov's), we may read this abrupt shift as a turning-away by the boy from his acknowledgment of the horror of his existence toward the comforts of an imaginary mode of life in which gestures of friendliness and compassion still obtain: "greetings to Alyona, to one-eyed Yegorka, and to the coachman." Why does the boy turn away? He is embarrassed by what he has written, ashamed of his desire to improve his life
and his shame results in a momentary displacement. But the displacement is soon undone as the boy's mind lurches back to an immediate desire: "and don't give my harmonica away to anybody." The sentence employs anacoluthon—the expected progression of sentence has been upset—to create a childish logic in voice as well as to grammatically index the struggle of conflicting desire within the boy. And once again, we struggle to suppress a grin: the uncontainable desire which is the boy's longing for his harmonica bursts through his new resolve for its suppression such to disrupt the syntax of sentence. (We cynics might perceive the boy clumsily attempting to cloak his desire in the syntactic clothes of an afterthought.) The sentence's performance of desire and displacement centers around the boy's hesitancy to suggest that he deserves any better. Of course the irony here is that it is precisely his hesitancy that stands as the greatest proof that he does.
These pointed differences between expected and actual phenomena are the distances we travel in order to appreciate the moment of Chekhovian pathos.