Since conflict is the magnet that draws us to story and keeps us interested, we look at the conflict is this story and try to determine not what it appears to be but what it is. As the title indicates, the principal character is the “malefactor”, the peasant Denis Grigorvy on trial for sabotage. His antagonist is the trial judge. Grigoryev is the privileged character. The judge simply looks foolish. It is Denis Grigoryev’s world, a world of friends, family, community, a world of shared values, a very human world that is given priority in Chekhov’s portrayal, a world, though, in conflict with the nameless judge’s world of control, privilege, and power. And what separates those worlds is not class so much as literacy.
Grigoryev has been caught removing a metal nut from a bolt, one of several holding the railroad rail onto the railroad ties. He and his other peasant farmers use these nuts as anchors for their fishing lines. As he explains to the judge, “You can’t find anything better than a nut …. It’s heavy, and there’s a hole in it.” The judge responds to this reasonable and practical explanation:
He keeps pretending to be a fool! as though he’d been born yesterday or dropped from heaven! Don’t you understand you blockhead, what unscrewing these nuts leads to? If the watchman had not noticed it the train might have run off the rails, people would have been killed—you would have killed people.”
God forbid your honour! What should I kill them for? Are we heathens or wicked people? Thank God, good gentlemen, we have lived all our lives without ever dreaming of such a thing.
And so it goes. The judge calls for understanding, and Grigoroyev pleads for it. But what is at issue is what they each mean by “understanding.” The judge lives by the rule of law, the written law, the reason of the syllogism: if this then that. Grigoroyev lives by the practical reason of his everyday life. Unlike the judge, and we literates, he acts according to what he knows. Removing one nut won’t cause any train to derail: “We don’t unscrew them all…we leave some….We don’t do it thoughtlessly…we understand….”
About fifty years after Chekhov wrote the story [approx. 1885], the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria made a study of peasant culture [1931-32]. Luria demonstrated many of the profound differences between the oral culture of the peasant and the literate culture of the emerging middle class. Here is a typical case from Luria’s records of his interviews:
The cotton syllogism is presented.
Can cotton grow where it is cold and damp?
“No, if the soil is damp and chilly, it can’t.”
Now, in England it is damp and chilly. Will cotton grow there?
Subject’s wife volunteers, “It’s chilly here too.”
But there it is always cold and damp. Will cotton grow?
“Me, I don’t…I don’t know what the weather is like there!”
The non-literate peasant thinks logically, but it’s a situational logic, a logic based on personal experience (what other kind is there without literacy?), and it is barely comprehensible to the literate mind that left this logic behind in childhood.
The conflict between the “malefactor” and the judge of course involves class: privilege, power, control are all on the side of the judge. But it’s literacy that has brought about this imbalance. The overriding metaphor in the story is “telling”: the judge yells at Grigoroyev, “Hold your tongue.” Indeed. It is the only thing he can hold onto, and it’s what has got him into the courtroom in conflict with the judge.
Grigoroyev is imprisoned. The judge follows the letter of the (written) law. And we, the readers of the story are the judge and the judged with our own memories of the prison of orality, a prison that we often long to return to, the oral prison of childhood, which is only a prison looking back from the advantage of a literate culture. And it is this universal aspect of the conflict that provides both the humor and the pathos of “A Malefactor.” Interesting, too, is that our theory explains how the preferred translation of the title is “A Malefactor” rather than “The Malefactor”, a minor point certainly, but one that affirms the value of the theory. [“A Malefactor” implies one of a group, that Grigoroyev is not exceptional; “The” that he is.]