Can you think of a storyteller so adept at his skill that his readers find themselves sympathetic to the murder of a baby? In the middle period of his career, Anton Chekhov accomplished just such a feat.
In Chekhov’s “Sleepy” (1888), a 13-year-old “little nurse” named Varka strangles to death the infant in her charge. The brutal and rather unexpected ending exemplifies Chekhov’s approach to story writing—that is, as he once admitted in a letter, he “conduct[s] the entire action peacefully and quietly,” then “bash[es] the [reader] in the snout.” But what is most remarkable about this story is the suspension of conventional morality Chekhov demands and receives from his reader. In the space of five short pages, the reader is lulled along, much like the main character, by recurrent dream imagery. What results is a reader who finds herself defending the act of murder.
The first of the dream images, a lamp’s green reflection, appears and reappears to draw Varka into sleep. The lamp makes its first appearance to set the scene: “When the lamp begins to flicker, the green patch and the shadows come to life, and are set in motion, as though by the wind.” Later, the same images lead Varka irresistibly into half-slumber as she rocks her mistress's baby:
The lamp flickers. The patch of green and the shadows are set in motion, forcing themselves on Varka’s fixed, half-open eyes, and in her half slumbering brain are fashioned into misty visions.
Beyond the lulling cadence of dream imagery, the reader is rapt by Varka’s sorry history. Her father has died an agonizing death. She longs for her mother. She has been born into subservience. It is through her dreams that the reader is delivered the girl’s exposition, and it is through the details revealed by this exposition that the reader develops sympathy for the girl.
Her dreams, however dismal in content, act as a hopeful alternate setting for both reader and protagonist. Perhaps not accidentally, she dreams of a “broad high road” that symbolizes possibility or a substitute reality wherein this duty-shackled girl might have access to opportunities offered by the wider world. And even though that road is one of “liquid mud,” the reader is invited to wonder whether Varka’s fate might lead her down a freer path than the one that binds her to a baby’s cradle.
Chekhov further earns his readers’ sympathy for the little nurse by illustrating a pattern of mistreatment. The first time she falls asleep she is called a “scabby slut” by her master and is administered a hit so hard to the back of her head, “that her forehead knocks against a birch tree.” Later her mistress calls her a “wretched girl.” Following her sleepless night, Varka must make good on a series of requests: “Varka, wash the steps outside…!” “Varka, set the samovar!” “Varka, fetch some vodka!” And signaling the conclusion of at least one sleepless cycle of night and day: “Varka, rock the baby!”
Finally, the reader cannot blame the girl for her heinous crime but instead must blame her situation or even indirectly her “fat, angry mistress.” Varka’s situation is so miserable, her perceptions so justifiably muddled by sleep’s beckoning that it is with complete understanding—even some relief—that the reader bears witness to the murder she commits. In a telling choice of words and voice—here dream images are active, the girl passive—Chekhov absolves Varka of guilt, painting her powerless over sleep’s active devouring of her:
The green patch and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes take possession of her brain again. Again she sees the high road covered with liquid mud.
Even the travelers in her dreams fall asleep despite circumstances that require their attention when they “fall on the ground in the liquid mud… ‘To sleep, to sleep!’”
The reader believes as heartily as does the main character that a force is at work in opposition to the little nurse. Forgivably, Varka has no clear sense of who or what is to blame for her present suffering: “…she cannot understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, weighs upon her and prevents her from living.” That the girl misplaces her blame then is not surprising: “That foe is the baby.”
The girl’s final action, according to Chekhov’s narrative equation, is the natural sum of her misfortunes, so the reader need not protest:
She gets up from her stool, and with a broad smile on her face and wide unblinking eyes, she walks up and down the room. She feels pleased and tickled at the thought that she will be rid directly of the baby that binds her hand and foot… 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 reader then, having been a docile witness to murder and moved to rationalize the little nurse’s actions, might rightly be called a guiltier party to infanticide than is the perpetrator herself.