An anonymous narrator waits for a ferryboat to help him cross the river Goltva. He describes the beautiful night sky, filled with stars that "gently twinkled their rays." The man starts talking to a "dark figure" nearby, who explains that he is waiting to see the Easter "lumination" or display of fireworks. This old peasant tells the narrator that he cannot afford to take the ferry over to the church on the other bank. The peasant calls for Jerome the ferryman, just as voices cry out "Christ is risen." The narrator boards Jerome's boat and sets off into the "impenetrable blackness" of the river, gazing at the barrels of pitch burning at the water's edge. The ferryman and the narrator strike up a conversation, and Jerome explains that he is mourning his friend the Deacon Nicolas, who died that same day. The narrator is slightly annoyed by the man's philosophizing on death. However, he is intrigued by Jerome's comment that Nicolas had "the gift of writing akaphists"—special prayers sung to a saint on that saint's day. The ferryman explains the skill that is required to produce a beautiful akaphist, where each line must be "adorned with many things—with flowers and light and wind and sun and all the objects of the visible world." The narrator asks Jerome many questions about Deacon Nicolas's special talent but soon lapses into silence as the ferry nears the bank. He is shocked to find that Jerome—who is a lay brother at the monastery—cannot leave the ferry to worship that night because he has no one to relieve him of his post.
The narrator disembarks and follows a path in the darkness toward the church. He describes the confusion of animals and people milling around the monastery gates and the bustling activity inside the church. The narrator is caught up in the "ebbing and flowing throngs" and is filled with joy as he listens to the Easter service. However, despite his exultation, he also thinks how much Jerome would appreciate the music. The service ends, and the narrator imagines Dean Nicolas's and Jerome's faces in his mind's eye. He emerges into the dreary light of a cold dawn and boards Jerome's ferry to make his return journey across the river. This time, the narrator is joined by twenty men and women. The narrator sees the ferryman for the first time in the gloomy daylight and describes him as a "tall, narrow-shouldered man of thirty-five." He watches as Jerome navigates the ferry safely across the river, all the while staring at one of his young female passengers as though he "were seeking in the woman's face the sweet and gentle features of his lost friend."
This story introduces many themes and motifs that we see elsewhere in Chekhov's tales. In particular, the author toys with light and dark imagery to great effect. We see that the narrator is surrounded by "impenetrable darkness" which offsets the shimmering explosion of fireworks. Chekhov illustrates his mastery at succinct, poetic description in the phrase, "a rocket shot up to heaven like a golden ribbon, curved, and, as if shattering against the sky, was spilled in sparks." There is something magical about the river and the monastery: by day everything is shrouded in mist as a "chilly dampness" rolls in across the river. But at night, the riverbank and monastery come alive as though part of an enchanted landscape. The protagonist describes his surroundings as "a magician's land, smothered in choking smoke, uproarious with noise and light." The chiming of the great bell that rings to announce Christ's resurrection is similarly surreal. Thus, despite the religious overtones of Chekhov's tale—it is set on Easter day, and our attention is drawn to the joyous celebrations at the church—we see that the author delights in shifting the boundaries between reality and ethereality. The ambiguity of his story only adds to its feeling of truthfulness: no explanation is given as to why the unnamed narrator has arrived in this place to worship, leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Typically, Chekhov appeals to our imagination, as much as to our reason, in order to flesh out the details of his tale.
In particular, the author calls on our imagination to conjure up the peculiar figure of the ferryman. Initially, Jerome appears reminiscent of the Greek mythological figure Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx in the underworld. The narrator furthers this theme of death when he remarks that the ferry's outline looks like a gallows. However, Jerome himself is neither sinister nor threatening. We see that he is highly sensitive to the meaning and musicality of words and that he has been deeply moved by Deacon Nicolas's death. The ferryman's speech flows freely and is poetically cadenced, as seen in his description of an akaphist, "Every line must be tender and gentle and soft; not a word must be harsh or unsuitable or rough." Chekhov thus presents Jerome as a character of great ambiguity, albeit one who seems rather unremarkable by day. As the tale concludes in the "dull" light of morning, the author leaves his readers wondering whether the ferryman is a myth, a mystic, or simply a man grieving for his dead friend.
We see how Chekhov's gift at evoking atmosphere enables him to add depth and mystery to his characters. However, the author also uses humor to lighten his text. He describes how Jerome "bent himself into the form of a question-mark" to push the boat away from the dock and writes that the narrator adopted "a monkish tone" in order to appear more pious. Chekhov thus triumphs in this short tale by conveying both the comic as well as the tragic elements of human experience.