Chekhov and Corporal Punishment
Monday February 25, 2008
Dear Alice Miller,
I am grateful to you for your profound discoveries about the dramatic and long term effects of child abuse.
Your eloquent works have helped and supported me immensely to overcome the bonding effects of my own childhood traumas.
I am also indebted to A .P Chekhov, the great Russian dramatist, whose clarity of style and his refined, graphic representation of the underlying truth have also been emotionally moving and liberating for me.
Recently I have read his short story “Three years” in which he clearly demonstrates and emphasizes the devastating effects of corporal punishment in childhood. And he has revealed that more than one hundred years ago!
Please, find below the two pertaining excerpts from the short story “Three years”.
With gratitude, AB.
“What do you mean by a distinguished family?” said Laptev, restraining his irritation. “A distinguished family! The landowners beat our grandfather and every low little government clerk punched him in the face. Our grandfather thrashed our father, and our father thrashed us. What has your distinguished family done for us? What sort of nerves, what sort of blood, have we inherited? For nearly three years you’ve been arguing like an ignorant deacon, and talking all sorts of nonsense, and now you’ve written — this slavish drivel here! While I, while I! Look at me. . . . No elasticity, no boldness, no strength of will; I tremble over every step I take as though I should be flogged for it. I am timid before nonentities, idiots, brutes, who are immeasurably my inferiors mentally and morally; I am afraid of porters, doorkeepers, policemen, gendarmes. I am afraid of every one, because I was born of a mother who was terrified, and because from a child I was beaten and frightened! . . . You and I will do well to have no children. Oh, God, grant that this distinguished merchant family may die with us!”
Yulia Sergeyevna came into the study and sat down at the table.
“Are you arguing about something here?” she asked. “Am I interrupting?”
“No, little sister,” answered Fyodor. “Our discussion was of principles. Here, you are abusing the family,” he added, turning to his brother.
“That family has created a business worth a million, though. That stands for something, anyway!”
“A great distinction — a business worth a million! A man with no particular brains, without abilities, by chance becomes a trader, and then when he has grown rich he goes on trading from day to day, with no sort of system, with no aim, without having any particular greed for money. He trades mechanically, and money comes to him of itself, without his going to meet it. He sits all his life at his work, likes it only because he can domineer over his clerks and get the better of his customers. He’s a churchwarden because he can domineer over the choristers and keep them under his thumb; he’s the patron of a school because he likes to feel the teacher is his subordinate and enjoys lording it over him. The merchant does not love trading, he loves dominating, and your warehouse is not so much a commercial establishment as a torture chamber! And for a business like yours, you want clerks who have been deprived of individual character and personal life — and you make them such by forcing them in childhood to lick the dust for a crust of bread, and you’ve trained them from childhood to believe that you are their benefactors. No fear of your taking a university man into your warehouse!”
University men are not suitable for our business.”
“That’s not true,” cried Laptev. “It’s a lie!”
“Excuse me, it seems to me you spit into the well from which you drink yourself,” said Fyodor, and he got up. “Our business is hateful to you, yet you make use of the income from it.”
“Aha! We’ve spoken our minds,” said Laptev, and he laughed, looking angrily at his brother. “Yes, if I didn’t belong to your distinguished family — if I had an ounce of will and courage, I should long ago have flung away that income, and have gone to work for my living. But in your warehouse you’ve destroyed all character in me from a child! I’m your product.”
Laptev went into the garden and sat down on a seat near the fence, which divided them from the neighbour’s yard, where there was a garden, too. The bird-cherry was in bloom. Laptev remembered that the tree had been just as gnarled and just as big when he was a child, and had not changed at all since then. Every corner of the garden and of the yard recalled the far-away past. And in his childhood, too, just as now, the whole yard bathed in moonlight could be seen through the sparse trees, the shadows had been mysterious and forbidding, a black dog had lain in the middle of the yard, and the clerks’ windows had stood wide open. And all these were cheerless memories.
The other side of the fence, in the neighbour’s yard, there was a sound of light steps.
“My sweet, my precious . . .” said a man’s voice so near the fence that Laptev could hear the man’s breathing.
Now they were kissing. Laptev was convinced that the millions and the business which was so distasteful to him were ruining his life, and would make him a complete slave. He imagined how, little by little, he would grow accustomed to his position; would, little by little, enter into the part of the head of a great firm; would begin to grow dull and old, die in the end, as the average man usually does die, in a decrepit, soured old age, making every one about him miserable and depressed. But what hindered him from giving up those millions and that business, and leaving that yard and garden which had been hateful to him from his childhood?
The whispering and kisses the other side of the fence disturbed him. He moved into the middle of the yard, and, unbuttoning his shirt over his chest, looked at the moon, and it seemed to him that he would order the gate to be unlocked, and would go out and never come back again. His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously, and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be. . . .
But he still stood and did not go away, and kept asking himself: “What keeps me here?” And he felt angry with himself and with the black dog, which still lay stretched on the stone yard, instead of running off to the open country, to the woods, where it would have been free and happy. It was clear that that dog and he were prevented from leaving the yard by the same thing; the habit of bondage, of servitude. . . .
AM: Thank you very much for your letter and the short story by Chekhov. He could see the truth in all of his writings, especially in “Uncle Vania”, but in his own life he was a most devoted son to his father, without any rebellion. The strong fear of the severely beaten child did not allow him to protest.