In Siberia, "Old Semyon, nicknamed Canny, and a young Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the riverbank by the campfire;the other three ferrymen were in the hut." (p. 97) The Tatar is horrified by the prospect of exile, having left a beautiful wife behind. But Semyon counsels acceptance "You will get used to it," he repeats again and again.

Semyon tells him the story of Vasily Sergeyitch, a wealthy aristocrat who was sent into exile 15 years earlier. He was able to send for his wife and daughter. The wife agreed to come, but then ran away with a lover, and now the daughter who has spent her life in exile with him lies dying of consumption. The point of this story seems to be that the exiled man should accept his fate and forego desire, or the expectation of happiness.

Later, Vasily Sergeyitch hails the ferry to take him across the river. He is hastening to town to see a new doctor, whom he desperately hopes might help his daughter. Old Semyon mocks him: "Looking for a good doctor is like chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the tail." (p. 111) As the ferrymen try to sleep in the cold, windy hut, they hear the Tatar outside crying, and Semyon repeats, "He'll get used to it."


This is one of the few stories that arose directly from Chekhov's extended trip to Sakhalin Island in 1890. (The others include Gusev and, to a lesser extent, Ward 6," both annotated in this database.)

Old Semyon's gospel of resignation and acceptance appears at first to be spiritually enlightened, as well as highly adaptive to Siberian exile. Freeing oneself from worldly attachment is a major component of ascetic Christianity, and one of the Noble Truths of Buddhism. However, a closer look at Semyon raises unsettling questions. At the beginning of the story, we learn that he is unwilling to share his vodka with the other ferrymen. Later, we observe his insensitivity in the face of Vasily Sergeyitch's obvious desperation.

As the story closes, the door of the hut has blown open, but none of the men is willing to put himself out enough to get up and close it. In fact, Semyon's brand of resignation or fatalism is entirely self-centered, in contrast to Vasily Sergeyitch's seemingly maladaptive attempts to save his dying daughter.

Chekhov could not abide the Russian intellectuals of his day, who touted idealistic schemes for improving society, but sat around and did nothing. In this story we find evidence of the other common Russian ailment, the immovable fatalism of the masses, which, in its extreme form, justifies pickling one's life in alcohol because there is no sense in doing anything. [See Richard Peace, "'In Exile' and Russian Fatalism," in Jackson, R. L. (ed.) Reading Chekhov's Text. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1993, pp. 137-144.]


First published : 1892. Translated by Constance Garnett.

Primary Source

The Tales of Chekhov, Vol. 9: The Schoolmistress and Other Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count