“The meaning of life comes when one realizes that one is needed.”Frank. In “A Dreary Story”, the author describes an emeritus professor who is unable to find spiritual sustenance and meaning of life in his old age. The book is full of details about a dying old man’s life and his endless doubts and worries, the meaning of ‘dying’ is not just a physical death, but also a social death. Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer, who enjoys a high reputation and status in 1889 and became acutely aware of his social responsibility as a writer, searching for the purpose and meaning of life and wrote down this story since he found that few people could recognize the meaning of existence in Russia in the 19th century.
The story reflects the absurd sense of people alienation from life by describing the protagonist Nikolay Stepanovitch’s incomprehension of human nature, the isolation of himself and the indifference to his family, which leads to a meaningless life.
Initially, Chekhov illustrates the estrangement through Nikolay Stepanovitch’s lack of understanding of human nature. Although the “honoured and distinguished” name of the protagonist is known to every educated man in Russia and abroad, he finds it more difficult to read a letter of congratulation than a scientific article. This proved that he was unfamiliar with the basic method of expressing emotions. What’s more, despite his ugly appearance and illness, what he really cares about is “there is no slur on my learned name, and there is no complaint one can make against it”.
It means that he was more concerned with his reputation than with the realities of life. All his mind was on academics, and he put all his effort into it, he believed that only the academic work of his own understanding and creation was meaningful. Therefore, as a scientist, Nikolay is outstanding, but as a human being, as a human being with feelings, thoughts, flesh, and blood, Stepanovitch is a loser.
Secondly, Chekhov exposures the theme of alienation through Nikolay’s self-isolation. The story mentions that Nikolay used to has many friends whom bestowed upon him a warm and sincere affection. However, after all of his old friends passed away, he refuses to make new friends and also refuses to speak at his friends’ funerals. It is not to say that he cannot do it, he knows he can still perform well on lecture due to “his fervour, the literary skill of his exposition, and his humour”. The reason why there is no one for him to make friends with nowadays is just that he isolates himself and unwilling to connect with others. Socializing as a spiritual demand plays a crucial role in human life. As a result, his life is incomplete and meaningless since he has lost his capacity for this demand.
Finally, Chekhov reinforces the alienation through the attitude of Nikolay towards his family. At home, he views his wife with contempt and arrogance, noting only her demerit rather than her merit. He took the concern of his wife as hypocrisy, considering the conversation between them is boring and accused her ‘refuses to learn by experience’. Unlike his wife, he was indifferent to his son who is an officer serving at Warsaw. Even though he sends his son fifty roubles a month, Nikolay does not care for the emotional or physical concerns of his son. It seems like the affection between family members and that between lovers has disappeared. People are becoming indifferent, the reason for indifference is not the human nature itself, but the barrier between people, even family members have lost the ability to communicate with others, normal life is gone.
In conclusion, Nikolay’s unfamiliarity with human nature, unsocial characteristic, and the strangeness of family contribute to his tragic life, which also reflects the pathetic social environment at that time. At that time, people could not fit in the process of normal life, people were numbness, crooked, and apathetic. It is in this context, Nikolay got insomnia, he realized the weirdness of the society but he did not do anything to reconcile the disharmony. The sense of the absurdity of the story comes from the fact that people are accustomed to those things which supposed to be unusual in their daily life. The greatest significance of this novel is that it reflects the meaninglessness of life and one wonders what is the difference between living and dying if people do not have a connection with each other and out of the essence of life?