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Toward evening, a magistrate and a doctor arrive later than expected in a village named Syrnia. Their task is to conduct an inquest concerning the apparent suicide of a young man named Lesnitsky. They are met by an old constable who takes them to view the corpse in an old zemstvo hut—a district council building. The magistrate, a young man named Lyzhin, debates with the elder official Dr. Starchenko about the motivations that drive men to take their own lives. The young man wonders whether it is more or less acceptable that men now commit suicide because they are "sick of life," as compared with the old days when they killed themselves over embezzling government funds. The constable tells both officials that local people are afraid of the dead man's ghost, which they are convinced will rise to haunt them. Instead of spending the night in the hut, Dr. Starchenko leaves to stay with a friend who lives nearby.
The magistrate drinks tea and passes the time talking with Loshadin, the self- styled local "Conshtable." The old man tells Lyzhin that he has been working for over fifty years and that he has endured many hardships in order to fulfill his duty. He affirms his own integrity by noting, "you won't survive in the world by lies" and recounts the circumstances that lead to the death of Mr. Lesnitsky. Loshadin explains how the young man's father forfeited all his wealth through gambling, thus forcing his son to earn a living as an insurance collector. The Constable speculates that Mr. Lesnitsky grew depressed as he wanted to have "a better life, and in better style and with more freedom." Despite the relevance of this information to his investigation, Lyzhin soon tires of listening to the Constable's prattling and asks the old man to leave. The magistrate thinks about how alien he finds provincial society and how different life in Moscow must be. He concludes that the inhabitants of Syrnia "are not human beings" but rather people who exist, in Loshadin's words, "according to regulation." To contrast with this life of duty and drudgery, Lyzhin dreams of working his way up through the ranks and entering Moscow society as a proven professional. The howling wind merges with the sounds in Lyzhin's dreams and the magistrate recollects meeting Mr. Lesnitsky; he remembers thinking that the insurance agent had a "disagreeable look in his eyes, like someone who has slept too long after dinner."
The magistrate is interrupted from his glum reverie by the return of the Constable, who asks for permission to inform the village "elder" of the officials' arrival. Lyzhin is irritated by this intrusion, but, after he hears the witnesses out in the hallway, he calms himself with the thought that they will make an early start on the inquest in the morning. Before long, the doctor storms in and wakes the magistrate from his heavy sleep. Starchenko informs Lyzhin that they are both going to stay with his friend Von Taunitz. The men drive away from the village on a sledge and, after running off the path several times, finally make it to the welcoming comfort of the Von Taunitz residence. Lyzhin passes a pleasant evening with his host's family but is soon troubled by thoughts that in this province everything is "intelligible" and that "this was not life, but bits of life, fragments." The magistrate and Von Taunitz discuss the suicide, which the latter concludes is an "unbearable" business, and Lyzhin passes a troubled night dreaming about Lesnitsky and Loshadin. Von Taunitz imagines the two men standing together singing, "We go on, and on, and on," and he describes the sound as if someone was "hitting his head with a hammer." Lyzhin miserably concludes that both the suicide and the old Constable's sufferings "lay upon [Lyzhin's] conscience." He becomes even unhappier when he wakes up and discovers that a snowstorm has forced the postponement of the inquest. On the morning of the following day, after the storm has died down, the Constable arrives to collect Dr. Starchenko and Lyzhin. The footman is contemptuous of the old policeman, but Loshadin ignores his insults and appeals to "your Honor" the magistrate to come and conduct the inquest.
"On Official Duty"—also known as "On Official Business"—was published in 1899 and won widespread acclaim from literary luminaries. One of its fans was the famous author Leo Tolstoy who, according to the editor Donald Rayfield, claimed that he had dreamed of Chekhov's old Constable. Clearly, "On Official Duty"'s themes of death and class distinction appealed to the sensibilities of many intellectuals in Imperial Russia and perhaps struck a chord with these scholars' perceptions of social inequality.
Looking at the text, we see that Chekhov's story examines the notion of dissatisfaction. Although Lyzhin and Mr. Lesnitsky are different in background, temperament, and circumstance, Chekhov draws parallels between the two men as characters both disaffected with their lives. In contrast, the older Dr. Starchenko is a stodgier and more plainspoken figure who feels secure enough to luxuriate in his superiority over others. He condemns the "age of nerves" which has bred a generation of "neurotics" and "egoists." It seems as though Chekhov is examining the tensions within Russian society, weighing in the balance those who are troubled by others people's plight and those who are not. Although it is not apparent at first, it becomes clear that Lyzhin is affected by nerves, just like the men whom Starchenko condemns. We see that fretful dreams disturb the magistrate's sleep, in which he hears noises like howling wind, and that his conscience begins to trouble him. Lyzhin also becomes increasingly concerned with the meaning of life, concluding that only if a person regards his or her own life as non-accidental can everyone become "part of one organism—marvelous and rational." This intense soul-searching, so common to members of the intelligentsia class in other Chekhov tales, points to the magistrate's deeper frustration with social inequality. We need only contrast Lyzhin with the "Conshtable," who receives a measure of satisfaction from his career and is gratified that he is fulfilling his duty, to see how unhappy and insecure the young man has become. Ambition has blighted the magistrate's view of the world, ensuring that he is less content than an old man whom no one values or outwardly admires.
However, despite the pessimism and seriousness of his subject matter, Chekhov's tone remains light-hearted and is even comic on occasion. For instance, readers cannot help but laugh when Lyzhin proclaims, "Yes, suicide is an undesirable phenomenon," in response to Von Taunitz's comment that it must be difficult for Lesnitsky's family to cope with his death. We see that Chekhov's humor is mostly wryly ironic, but occasionally it is used to introduce overtones of violence to the text. A clear example is Starchenko's malicious comment that he would "deprive" neurotics of the "right and possibility of breeding more of their kind." Nevertheless, despite its gloominess, the narrative presents a view of both man and society that is candid and good-humored. As always, Chekhov exercises his flair for language, as displayed in his wonderful description of the landscape after the snowstorm has passed when "it was dull and still, as though nature now were ashamed of its orgy, of its mad nights, and the freedom it had given to its passions." While the author suggests that man is ensnared by forces greater than his own will, we see that Chekhov's prose dances free from all constraint.