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The tale opens with a priest, Father Khristofor Siriysky, and a merchant, Ivan Kuzmichov, traveling across the Steppe to sell some wool. The men are accompanied by Kuzmichov's young nephew, Yegorushka, who is being taken to school in another town. The little boy records the monotonous yet seemingly ever-changing sights and sounds of the Steppe with a child's nonjudgmental eye. A windmill is said to look like "a tiny man waving his arms" while scythes make "[s]wish, swish" sounds as they are wielded in unison. The priest and the merchant discuss the merits of education, particularly their own, and talk about the object of their trip, which is to find the wool-merchant Varlamov. Meanwhile, Yegorushka stares in fascination at the baked landscape surrounding him. He is particularly intrigued by the wiry peasants of the Steppe, such as the woman with "long thin legs like a heron" whom he watches sifting grain. Storm clouds gather and dissipate seemingly without reason, and the protagonist sweats under the merciless sun.
Although most of the action centers on events in the natural world, Yegorushka also has a series of adventures with intriguing characters. One, a Jew named Solomon, is contemptuous of sycophants and those who believe that they are superior to others. Another is the beautiful Countess Dranitskaia, looking to find the elusive Varlamov, who thrills Yegorushka by kissing him on the cheek. When the chaise encounters a long wagon train, Yegorushka's uncle hands the boy over to one of the drivers and explains that they will travel the next leg of the journey separately. Yegorushka then spends many days traveling with the wagon band, during which time he gets to know all of the drivers by name and learns all about their characters and life stories. Yegorushka is surprised to discover that every man has "a splendid past and a very poor present." He becomes particularly friendly with an old driver named Pantelei, whose "true" tales are either made up or outrageously embellished. The little boy also meets a delighted Ukrainian named Konstantin—who rejoices in the beauty of his young wife—and a violent and vindictive wagon driver named Dymov. Yegorushka even comes across the wool-merchant Mr. Varlamov, a "short, little grey man in big boots," whom he finds to be rude and condescending.
Following these events, Yegorushka is forced to endure a terrible storm in which he catches a fever. By the time he reunites with his uncle at a nearby inn, he is exhausted and delirious. Father Khristofor and Ivan Kuzmichov greet the boy and discuss the large profit they have made from selling the wool. The priest then rubs Yegorushka down with oil and vinegar and puts him to bed. When the protagonist awakes the next day he feels significantly better and is given a lecture about the importance of schooling by the priest. His uncle then takes Yegorushka to stay with a friend of his mother's named Nastasia, leaving the little boy to wonder sorrowfully about his new life. The tale ends simply with the question, "What would that life be like?"
Steppe was published in 1888, the year Chekhov was awarded the Russian Academy's prestigious Pushkin prize. Sweeping in theme and long in length, it marked a major turning point in the twenty-eight-year-old author's career. Donald Rayfield notes that this tale was Chekhov's "memorial to a wild countryside that was now engulfed...Steppe is literally a masterpiece." Readers see how the author foregrounds his environment within the story and concentrates on descriptions of the landscape's arid beauty. For instance, his lyrical inventory of "[t]he sun-baked hills, brownish-green and violet in the distance, with their quiet shadowy tones, the plain with the misty distance and, flung above them, the sky" evidences Chekhov's profound engagement with this environment. But the author does not refrain from also conveying the dreariness and "oppressive" heat of the plains. Little ironic flourishes such as, "the disillusioned steppe began to wear its jaded July aspect," tell us much about the landscape's coarseness as well as its more poetic qualities. Thus, Chekhov's hymn to the steppe of his youth—which would later be developed by an army of western industrialists—is in keeping with the awesome majesty of its terrain. Readers both marvel and shudder at its vast scope which, if it does not entirely dwarf the characters, at least trivializes their concerns. Like young Yegorushka, we too tune out to the adult characters' dry sermonizing on education to let our eyes roam the countryside.
Our reactions to the steppe's magnificence are further heightened by Chekhov's use of a child protagonist. Yegorushka's descriptions range from the endearingly naïve—he talks about how his grandmother "just slept and slept" in her coffin following her burial—to the unconsciously profound, rendered all the more impressive by their simplicity. We thus read how "[t]he blackness in the sky yawned wide and breathed white fire," while the stillness of night was troubled by a "growl of thunder." The author changes his tone with subtle sleight of hand: at one moment we listen to a small boy discussing peasant fish stew, the next we wonder along with an anonymous narrator at the "sense of loneliness" one feels staring at a night sky strewn with stars. Readers feel the alien power of the steppe through Yegorushka's awed descriptions of terrific storms, endless vistas, and strange, haunting sounds. But there is also silence on the plain, and even the occasional birdcall fails to "stir the stagnation" settling over the parched ground. We thus see how the author interweaves episodes of frenetic activity with silence to hint at the timeless immensity of the land. Even the plethora of supporting characters—the genial and diminutive priest, the refined Countess, and the sadistic wagon driver Dymov—fail to divert our attention for too long away from the landscape. Chekhov, of course, does not intend them to: it almost seems that he downplays plot in order to emphasize setting. Rayfield notes that many story lines—such as Kuzmichov's search for Varlamov, and the Countess's mysterious appearance at the inn—just "peter out," as though such action is secondary to the text's central focus. Ultimately, we see that Chekhov's tale is a testament to the boundless natural world; against the steppe, human lives seem episodic and impermanent.