I read ‘Vanka’ by Anton Chekhov for the first time recently and was amazed by what I discovered. As I sat down with the story and a cup of tea, I steeled myself, remembering what a hard slog it used to be sometimes to read classic authors when I was at school. Whilst I adored Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and voluntarily memorized pages of Milton’s Paradise Lost, other authors were a trial – Homer, Albert Camus, and some of Dickens’ less popular novels – yuck. I had always assumed anything by Chekhov would also be hard work. But I was wrong. What a delightful ten-minute read! ‘Vanka’ gallops along, is haunting, beautifully constructed and what’s more, very useful to writers.
Written in 1886, the story is set in Moscow, Russia. It’s Christmas Eve, and the protagonist is a nine-year-old peasant boy called Vanka Zhukov. Three months before, when his mother died, Vanka was sent away from his village and apprenticed to a cruel master, Alyakhin the shoemaker. The story is about the action the young and abused Vanka takes in response to his desperate situation, and the language is simple, elegant and effective.
This character Vanka, so brilliantly drawn, has become one of the cast of characters who loiter in my imagination. He pops into my mind at the oddest of moments, and whenever I think of how malnourished he was and how thin and gaunt his face must have been, I picture my own son and his sweet, full-cheeked face at 9 years old (he’s now 14), and I ache for how randomly cruel the world can be.
To read all of ‘Vanka’ and learn how Chekhov created a story with such emotional power, sign up for our newsletter ‘LITERARY DELIGHTS’ here. We’ll be sending it out shortly, and it will include the whole story, as well as an analysis of one point of craft used by Chekhov. You’ll be amazed at how a single sentence achieved an effect all writers need to understand if they want to engage readers’ emotions and write the most powerful stories possible. This technique works equally well in fiction, memoir or essays, and once you learn it, you’ll be able to put the same technique to work in your own writing.
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