I need to stop talking about “The Steppe” and “The Cat’s Table” and move on, but I can’t resist one final post on two of the female characters in the stories. Many coming-of-age stories, including “The Steppe” and “The Cat’s Table” involve some kind of romantic or sexual awakening. Such stories always seem to involve one of two possible female archetypes: The Enchantress and The Temptress.
Chekhov inducts young Yegorushka into the world of romance with an Enchantress — the wealthy Countess Dranitsky. She first appears when the travelers have stopped at the inn of Moisei Moiseivich, sweeping into the room to inquire after the merchant Varlamov like a “big black bird.” This image, like adult romance, strikes the boy as bizarre and a little disquieting. He is relieved to realize that the figure is actually “…a young, very beautiful and shapely woman in a black dress and a straw hat,” who reminds him of a slender, handsome poplar tree that he saw on a hill earlier in the day.
When the Countess notices Yegorushka, he is able to see more details: “black velvety eyebrows, big brown eyes, and pampered woman’s cheeks with dimples, from which a smile spread all over her face like rays from the sun. There was a smell of something magnificent….
“ ‘What a pretty boy!’ said the lady. ‘Whose boy is he? Kazimir Mikhailovich, look, how lovely! My God, he’s asleep! My dear little chubsy…’
“And the lady kissed Yegorushka hard on both cheeks, and he smiled and, thinking he was asleep, closed his eyes.”
Countess Dranitsky’s presence at the inn produces a similar effect on the adult men there. She inspires the proprietor’s copious hand-wringing and humble self-effacement, and a sense of awe in Kuzmichov and Father Khristofor. They speak her name only in whispers, as does the driver Deniska, who doesn’t make noise by whipping up the horses until they’re a quarter-mile from the inn.
Our understanding of her “otherness” is deepened by the fact that her surname is Polish, not Russian, as is the first name of her escort (Kazimir). Yegorushka has heard other remarkable things about her:
“She, too, had several thousand-score acres, many sheep, a stud farm, and a lot of money, but she did not ‘circle around,’ but lived on her rich estate, about which [people] told many wonders. For instance, they said that in the countess’s drawing room, where portraits of all the Polish kings hung, there was a big table clock in the form of a crag, and on the crag stood a rearing golden steed with diamond eyes, and on the steed sat a golden rider who swung his saber right and left each time the clock struck the hour. They also told how twice a year the countess gave a ball to which the nobility and officials of the whole province were invited, and even Varlamov came, the guests all drank tea from silver samovars, ate all sorts of extraordinary things (for instance, raspberries and strawberries were served in winter, for Christmas), and danced to music that played day and night…”
In the eyes of a young boy of lower social standing, these things are exotic enough to transform Countess Dranitsky into a veritable Disney Princess of the Steppe.
Safely away from her disturbing presence, Kuzmichov becomes condescending. Noting that when he bought wool from her once, her escort claimed three thousand rubles of her profit, he says that Kazimir Mikhailovich “robs her good and proper.” Father Khristofor says you can’t expect anything else from a Polack, which prompts Kuzmichov to continue that the Countess is “…young and stupid. Wind blowing around in her head!”
Although Yegorushka is privy to this conversation, he continues to think of the Countess in “fantastic fairy-tale images.” Later, after hearing a peasant, Konstantin, rhapsodize over his young wife, Yegorushka daydreams about the Countess as he drifts off to sleep:
“He looked at the sky and thought about the happy Konstantin and his wife. Why do people get married? What are women for in this world? …[he] thought it is probably nice for a man if a gentle, cheerful, and beautiful woman constantly lives at his side. For some reason he recalled the Countess Dranitsky and thought that it was probably very agreeable to live with such a woman; he might well have married her with great pleasure, if it were not so embarrassing. He remembered her eyebrows, her pupils, her carriage, the clock with the horseman…The quiet, warm night was descending on him and whispering something in his ear, and it seemed to him that it was that beautiful woman bending over him, looking at him with a smile, and wanting to kiss him…”
Beauty and otherness enchant young Yegorushka, and awaken him to a dim awareness of the possibilities of future romance. By contrast, the narrator of “The Cat’s Table” is turned on to the complex power of female sexuality by a Temptress — his distant cousin, Emily de Saram.
Emily, 17, a kind of wild child who smokes Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes, is at first familiar and reassuring for the narrator. Earlier in his life, she had lived nearby. Their childhoods were similar “…in that our parents were either missing or unreliable.” After the narrator’s parents divorced, his mother left him with an aunt and went to England; Emily’s father had a temper, punished, was unpredictable, and made her nervous even when he affected kindness. He was also away often. Although Emily was several years older than the narrator, she listened to him, was honest with him, and served as his “link to the grownup world.” This observation foreshadows another way in which she will link the narrator to the grownup world later in the excerpt.
The narrator notes that his cousin is desirable, a free spirit, and a risk-taker. She gives him status by calling him over to her group of girlfriends to talk to him. When one of his tablemates, the botanist Mr. Daniels, makes it clear that he has a crush on Emily, the narrator tells Daniels what kind of cigarettes Emily prefers. To further the adult attention, he then lies that his cousin likes ice cream and wants to be an actress. As a result, Mr. Daniels asks the Jankla Troupe (shipboard performers, one of whom styles himself as the Hyderabad Mind) if he can introduce Emily to them. The narrator learns that Daniels’s attempt to ingratiate himself with Emily has backfired:
“I recognized him as the Hyderabad Mind, his face unpainted now. Somewhat surprisingly, he led us to Emily, who was leaning against a railing and wearing a white dress that seemed to glow as he came closer. The Hyderabad Mind half hid her from us, and Emily held his fingers cupped within her hands. We could not tell if they were talking or not….I saw the man move the strap of Emily’s dress and bring his face down to her shoulder. Her head was back, looking up at the stars, if there were stars.”
Emily’s risk-taking leads to potentially dangerous misbehavior. Forbidden (along with all the women aboard) to go ashore during a port call in Aden, Emily persuades Mr. Daniels to allow her to accompany him, dressed as a man, while he collects botanical specimens.
After the dog which the boys smuggle aboard kills the wealthy Hector de Silva, the narrator turns to his cousin in distress. Noting that he is “fondest of Emily when we were not with other people,” he goes to her cabin. His cousin greets him wearing only a dressing robe, which she removes when she slides back under the sheets. The narrator confesses his role in bringing the dog aboard; Emily orders him not to tell anyone else.
He then asks if she’ll be with him in England. She says no, and has the narrator order coffee. He brings her the tray, and when she sits up, she forgets that she is undressed and the young narrator gets his first look at — something, we’re not told exactly what — probably his cousin’s lingerie or even her naked breast. The sight elicits a cascade of emotions:
“…what I saw hit me in the heart.
“There was a tremor within me, a mixture of thrill and vertigo. Suddenly, there was a wide gulf between Emily’s existence and mine, and I would never be able to cross it…But where had it come from? And was it a pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? I felt as if I were lacking something essential, like water. I put the tray down and climbed back onto Emily’s bed. I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years. I had existed too cautiously….
“I knelt on her bed and shook. She leaned forward and held me, so soft a gesture that I felt barely touched, an envelope of loose air between us. My hot tears rubbed off on her cool upper arm. The small props of necessary defense with which I’d surrounded myself, and which contained and protected me, were no longer there….
“After I left Emily’s room — and there was to be no repeat of this kind of intimacy — I knew that I would always be linked to her, as if by some underground river or a seam of coal or silver. I had never known the grip of another’s hand, or the smell of a body that had just emerged from sleep. I had never wept beside someone who also excited me in a way that I could not fathom.”
Beautiful writing. Complex emotion. Completely appropriate to a loss of some childhood innocence to the Temptress.
I didn’t like the excerpt from The Cat’s Table the first time I read it. After rereading this scene several times, I’ve changed my mind. My initial discomfort with the piece was that it appeared to be a short story — the editors of The New Yorker apparently didn’t feel that it was necessary to note that it was a novel excerpt, and I didn’t get around to reading the Contributors page until I’d reread the story a third time. I felt irritated by a sense of loose ends, of unfinished business, of story waiting to be unpacked. Knowing that it’s a novel excerpt helps, and upon reflection, I think that the excerpt was well-chosen.
I’m also going to have to leave some business unfinished, an archetype waiting to be unpacked. I wanted to write about the Hyderabad Mind and the innkeeper Moisei Moiseivich’s brother Solomon as tricksters. Solomon was my favorite character in “The Steppe” — a fellow-traveler well met. However, I’m out of time for him. You’ll just have to read both stories and decide for yourself what Solomon and the Hyderabad Mind are all about.