Anton Chekhov

The Death of a Government Clerk

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The Death of a Government Clerk Summary

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“The Death of a Government Clerk” is a comedic short story by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. First published in 1883, it involves Ivan Dmitrievich Cherviakov, a clerk who accidentally sneezes at an important general Brizzhalov. Though the general nearly instantly forgives him, Ivan panics and is unable to recover from the mistake, whose psychological weight ultimately becomes fatal. Like many of Chekhov’s works, “The Death of a Government Clerk”  mocks the absurd logic of bureaucracies and other modern power relations. It has been adapted into both a cartoon and a film.

The short story begins with Ivan reclining in a stall at the opera relaxing to the beautiful music. He sneezes but manages to catch most of it with his handkerchief. When he glances around the box to see if his sneeze offended anyone, he is horrified to see an older man wiping his neck with his glove. He recognizes the man as General Prizzhalov of the Department of Transport. While Brizzhalov neither works with nor knows Ivan, Ivan panics and whispers an embarrassed apology. Brizzhalov replies “never mind,” an expression just open-ended enough to cause Ivan even more anxiety. Ivan decides to elaborate with some context to help the general understand that he truly did not mean to sneeze on him, but only irritates the general. After apologizing several more times, Ivan becomes uncomfortable at the opera. He begins to perceive, inaccurately, a malicious glimmer in the general’s eyes and concludes that the general must secretly believe that he intentionally spit on him.

Once at home, Ivan tells the story to his wife. She is initially worried that they may be in trouble but is relieved when she finds out that he is from a different part of the government. Naively, she speculates that it would do some good for Ivan to go and apologize again in person. At work the next day, Ivan wears a new uniform and travels to the general’s office to apologize yet again. When he gets there, he is impeded by a group of petitioners who are being interviewed by the general. He waits for a while, then edges in after one petitioner concludes and apologizes for his lack of manners. Brizzhalov completely ignores him and continues to focus on the petitioners. Again, Ivan reads his reaction as ambiguous and concludes direly that Brizzhalov is still angry about the sneeze. After the interviews end, he apologizes again, causing Brizzhalov some frustration as he explains that it seems Ivan is mocking him with his incessant apologies. At this, Ivan is offended and decides to stop trying to get through with his apology.

Once back at home, Ivan tries to compose a letter to Brizzhalov but suffers from writer’s block. He resolves, a final time, to go back to the general’s office to apologize. This time, there are no petitioners, and he approaches him directly. Brizzhalov is clearly upset at Ivan’s imprudence and orders him to leave. Despairing, Ivan goes home but falls deeply ill while walking and barely makes it home. When he finally enters his house, he lies on the couch and dies. The trivial, unnecessary death of “The Death of a Government Clerk” thus points humorously to the strange ironies and experiences of strained deference to an arbitrary social order and its accompanying set of norms of interaction, which often obfuscate rather than illuminate meaning.