In February of 1902 Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to his editor that if the censor cut or changed even one word of his short story “The Bishop,” Chekhov would not authorize its publication (Brown 12). Such a bold authorial demand suggests that multifaceted significance to every detail underlies a seemingly simple account of the death of His Reverence Pyotr. In an incredibly compact space, Chekhov offers a suggestive study of the effects of public authority and the modern world on a man’s private life. On first reading, the tale barely resembles a story; the plot seems largely circular, and the action consists at first of the bishop’s moving to and from church, conversing with Father Sisoi and a few others, feeling ill, and crawling into bed. However, all of the particulars of exposition, dialogue, and behavior point to a gaping hole in the bishop’s life: he fails to make personal connections to other people. A New Critical approach, which attempts through close reading to “unpack” a text, reveals Chekhov’s nearly impossible attention to each and every particular of lighting, numbers, color, and time.
New Criticism, though it has fallen in and out of vogue since its creation and presently resides in the shadow of new historicism, is a fundamental tool for many students and scholars. New Critics abandon concern with a work’s historical or authorial context and return focus to the text itself; attention to authorial intention or the reader’s emotional response represents a “fallacy” that contradicts the impersonal nature of literature (Selden and Widdowson 15). Also called formalism, this technique emerged in the United States in the 1920s following the publication of T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which the author describes the depersonalized relationship between artist and art. Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson suggest that New Criticism grew popular in the 1940s and 1950s because its ahistorical foundation and its accessibility– one needs only the text itself to engage in formalism– allowed people diverse in linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds in the new “melting-pot” of America to engage in practical, theoretical discourse (14). “The Bishop” pulsates with this transcendent quality that intrigued critics of the modern and postmodern eras. Mark Schorer, who first applied New Criticism to prose fiction rather than poetry, could have been describing Chekhov’s story when he discussed the “unconscious patterns of imagery and symbolism (way beyond the author’s intention) present in all forms of fiction” (Selden and Widdowson 18). While Chekhov’s threat to his editor suggests a careful narrative construction, “The Bishop” rewards formalist examination with multifaceted implications that elevate the text to an isolated plane of its own.
Images of light dominate the first section, in which the reader observes the bishop’s aversion to moonlight. While the parishioners enjoy the moonlit garden outside the chapel, their bishop hurries for cover. Later, in the sitting room, Chekhov places the bishop just outside of the beams: “The moon was shining in through the window, and the floor was lit by its rays while he lay in the shadow” (16). On the following night, His Reverence sleeps with a blanket up to his ears, but still “the moonlight trouble[s] him” (19). Chekhov hints at the significance of light in his third paragraph as pilgrims walk alongside the bishop’s coach: “Everything around them, the trees, the sky, and even the moon, looked so young and intimate and friendly that they were reluctant to break the spell, which they hoped might last forever” (13). Moonlight fosters human bonding and conveys a divine presence. That the bishop avoids the moonlight indicates his incapacity for emotional intimacy.
Instead of moonlight, artificial light seems to pervade the bishop’s world. The story begins with twilight: “the little icon-lamps were growing dim; their wicks had burnt low, and a soft haze hung in the chapel” (12). Chekhov then experiments with chiaroscuro as the coach moves from the church to the monastery and passes Erakin’s new electric lights “flashing so violently that a crowd had collected in front of the store” and then “dark streets in endless succession” (13). The electricity represents an obnoxious intrusion on the soft nights and makes Sisoi later grumble, “I don’t like it at all. . . . I hate it” (17). The young “millionaire merchant” Erakin and his electricity become symbols of the outward distractions that dominate Bishop Pyotr’s life. At one point Erakin insists on meeting with the bishop and “stayed about an hour talking in a very loud voice, and it was hard to understand what he was trying to say” (22). His boyish enthusiasm and the shocking gaudiness of his lights contribute to the bishop’s feeling of asphyxiation. As he cowers from the false light, His Reverence also shuns the natural, restorative light of the moon.
Candles become an intermediate incandescence. On the three occasions he visits the bishop’s chamber, Father Sisoi, the essential secondary character of the story, always carries a candle. Sisoi is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Gloucester, who enters with a torch into the storm scene of King Lear. While Shakespeare twists the archetype of light as knowledge, a character’s entering with a luminous source also recalls the Lucifer (literally, Light-bearer) of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Perhaps Sisoi, like Gloucester, ironically bears light but lacks enlightenment. Conversely, perhaps the character incarnates a fallen servant of God and the Church.
It seems that Chekhov reinterprets the Shakespearean and the Miltonian uses of conceit. In his final encounter with the bishop, Sisoi, perpetually grumbling, says, “Yes, I am going away tomorrow. Bother this place!” (26). The narrative presents Sisoi as the drifter, who can “never stay long in one place” and who “never could make out why he had become a monk,” as a foil to the bishop, whose duties and public persona consume him (26). Sisoi’s way of life seems to serve him well; he has “lived with bishops all his life, and [has] outlasted eleven of them” (22). Yet, it is “hard to tell from what he said where his home was, whether there was anyone or anything in the world that he loved, and whether he believed in God or not” (26). Sisoi offers an alternative approach to life, but authorial judgment never falls on him. While the bishop says the priest is the “only person who behave[s] naturally in his presence” (22), Sisoi converses normally with the mother only out of her son’s sight. Sisoi’s coughing and growling and his denial of communication– even to the point of urging the mother not to bother the dying man at the end– make the priest seem cold to readers. His connection to candlelight ultimately seems ironic because Sisoi cannot offer the Bishop the personal intimacy and warmth he craves.
With verbal economy, Chekhov layers irony with Biblical allusions in numerical symbolism. In the first scene of the story, the Bishop believes that he gives a palm leaf to his own mother, whom he has not seen for nine years (12). Chekhov also reveals that the mother has nine children (14). The connection to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno suggests an unfathomable gap between the two people. Furthermore, Chekhov shows how, ironically, nine years of disconnection eclipse the nine months of prenatal intimacy.
Along with her nine children, the mother has “about forty grandchildren” (14). The Biblical significance of forty relates to purification. The Genesis flood lasts forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12). Furthermore, women, punished with the ordeal of childbirth following the Edenic fall, are supposed to spend forty days purifying themselves after bearing a male child (Leviticus 12:2-4). The Israelites spend forty years wandering in the desert before they reach Canaan (Numbers 14:33-34), and, from the New Testament, the penitential period of Lent occurs during the forty days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Christ, as well, enters heaven forty days after His resurrection. With her forty grandchildren, the mother is ready to return to her son the bishop and reconnect with him. That moment, however, never seems to be realized.
Most importantly, the divine number three, connected with the Trinity and the resurrection of Christ on the third day after the crucifixion, plays a heavy role in the last days of the bishop. While the multiple encounters with parishioners seem ritualistic and formulaic, Chekhov develops three distinct moments of potential for meaningful human connection. The first occurs during the luncheon scene when the bishop confesses how much he has missed his mother and his home during his time abroad. Following his extension of feeling, “His mother smile[s] and beam[s], and then immediately draw[s] a long face” (19). The spark of hope for intimacy vanishes as she replies, “Thank you very much!” (19). Next, the niece Katya offers the bishop a hand to grasp as she begs for his financial and practical support of her family. The bishop cries for a moment, but he defers the discussion: “Wait until Easter comes, then we will talk about it. I’ll help you” (24). Predictably, the connection never blossoms. Finally, in his third discussion with Sisoi, the bishop makes a last, desperate attempt to communicate, “‘I ought to have been a village priest, or a deacon, or a plain monk. All this is choking me – it is choking me–” (27), but Father Sisoi hushes him and leaves him at rest.
Interestingly, American author Herman Melville in his enigmatic short story from 1853 called “Bartleby, the Scrivener” gives the withdrawn, uncommunicative title character three similar opportunities for contact with the intrigued narrator. At these moments a connection seems close, but all of the potential breakthroughs fall flat. As Paul Lauter notes, the three broken moments of “Bartleby” echo Peter’s three denials of Christ in the New Testament (Mark 14:67-72) (Lauter 1078). Like Bartleby and like Peter, the Bishop Pyotr denies (or is denied) human contact three times.
Another scene occurring thrice in the story is the bishop’s weeping. In the opening section His Reverence, distributing palm leaves and feeling ill for the third day in a row, cries when he thinks he sees his mother. Next, at what could perhaps be the climax of the story (appearing, in proper Aristotelian form, at the end of the third section), the bishop sits in church and sheds tears during the ceremony of the Bridegroom. In this passage, Chekhov makes his most important foray into the bishop’s consciousness: “his faith was unsullied, and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It still seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all” (22). The bishop weeps for a third time in his conversation with Katya.
Each time His Reverence cries, the source of his incompletion seems to surround him; the maternal presence, the song of the Bridegroom, and the loving child represent the personal warmth missing from his life. A flashback includes the ironic detail that in his earlier life, the bishop “had nearly lost his eyesight” (19). Like Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and again Gloucester of King Lear, Chekhov draws on an archetypal reversal of seeing: physical eyesight does not coincide with self-knowledge. Perhaps if the bishop had lost his vision, he would have made time for other people. Now, in his old age, though the he can still see, he fails to recognize the gaps in his relationships.
The number three in its Biblical context recurs in the penultimate passage of the story, in which three doctors come to consult over the bishop’s deathbed. The doctors ironically mimic the three wise men who visit the baby Jesus at the nativity. Chekhov enhances the analogy by having the bishop shrivel up like a baby in his final hours: “He felt as if he were the thinnest, weakest, puniest man in the whole world” (27). The mother, in addition, reverts to treating him as a child and calling him “Little Pavel” (27). He enters a prenatal state of disconnect: “And he, he was speechless, and knew nothing of what was going on around him” (27-28). As Bartleby dies in a fetal position surrounded by walls, so in death the Bishop also returns to the womb.
Color Patterns: Walls, Beards, and Halos
Like his numeral patterns, Chekhov crafts each detail of color in his story. White appears everywhere around Bishop Pyotr. The tablecloth at the luncheon with his mother and Katya gleams with whiteness under the sunshine (17). Father Sisoi enters his room in a white cassock (16). The church from abroad is new and white in his memory (20). Most poignantly, the white walls of the monastery enclose His Reverence (13); the bishop’s life is sterile.
Besides white, the dominant color in the story is green. The two minor occurrences of the color feel random and yet somehow vital to the story. In his memory-sequence in the first section of the story, the bishop recalls the second priest of his childhood in Lyesopolye, who was “a hard drinker who sometimes even went so far as to see green snakes” (15). Chekhov draws on the connections of the color green with natural life and also with evil. The snakes recall the serpent of Edenic myth or the hair of the Gorgon sisters, particularly Medusa, whose sight turns people to stone in Greek mythology. Seeing snakes becomes ominous, and the nickname “Demian the Snake-Seer” is especially sinister for a priest. Chekhov offers a momentary glimpse of another deeply troubled priest in juxtaposition with the two leading clergymen.
Another strange detail of greenness in the story accompanies the snakes; in the next section, Katya asks Sisoi, “Why, Father, your beard is green?” (20). Hearing the little girl’s question, the bishop laughs because he remembers that the beard really does “verge on green” (20). Chilean author Isabel Allende, in her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits, similarly creates an ethereal mermaid-girl with greenish hair. Chekhov’s early hint of the modern Latin American element of magical realism marks the sole oddity of the story. Perhaps green connects Sisoi to a more primal existence that allows him to lead a nomadic, solitary lifestyle and to treat the bishop without deference.
The third striking recurrence of color imagery appears in Katya’s red hair. Chekhov twice describes her hair as a “halo” (18, 23) as though Katya represents a visiting angel. Indeed, she is the only character who attempts to establish emotional contact with the bishop, and her fiery hair harks back to the memories of his childhood that burn “every brighter and brighter in his heart like a flame” (15). The simultaneity of Katya’s visit and the bishop’s death, as well, implicates her presence as an angelic messenger. Every time she appears, Katya seems to break some piece of glass. Her clumsiness, made all the more endearing by Sisoi’s grumbling, perhaps signifies her mission to break the wall separating the bishop from normal interaction and intimacy.
Chekhov’s investment in hair of all colors would fascinate Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s 1927 essay “Fetishism,” both hair and velvet (Katya’s hair tie is a velvet ribbon (18)) represent commodities of sexual substitution for the male, who obsesses over the female’s supposed castration (Freud 954). A Freudian psychoanalytic critique would suggest that when the bishop strokes Katya’s hair, he exhibits repressed sexual desire. Regardless of the Freudian interpretation, the bishop certainly displays a need to bridge the distance between himself and other human beings. Katya offers a hand, but even the child-angel cannot spark a connection.
In an intriguing connection, the color scheme of “The Bishop” again recalls Herman Melville’s technique. White becomes a major motif in Moby Dick; the blank face of the leviathan comes to symbolize an indifferent, unresponsive cosmos. And what does Melville suggest as a comfort and shield from the universe? The final scene of the novel summarizes the vision; just as Ishmael clings to his friend’s coffin as a life-raft, a person can cling only to camaraderie and human connection for stability and sanity. This message resonates in Chekhov’s work. Furthermore, Melville’s “Bartleby” develops color patterns identical to those in “The Bishop.” White walls surround the Wall-Street law office of Bartleby’s new employer, and while one of the secondary characters is perpetually red-faced, a green folding screen isolates Bartleby’s work space. In addition, Bartleby dies in the courtyard of the white Tombs with green grass sprouting. The greenness of life, of Father Sisoi’s beard, eludes both of the title characters. Like Melville’s eponymous figure, the Bishop seems impossibly walled off from human contact.
Rhetoric of time permeates Chekhov’s story. The continuum of action– or inaction, as seems the case here– spans from the eve of Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The bishop himself first appears to readers on Saturday night and expires the next Saturday at dawn. His final seven days, a physical progression into infancy, mirror the seven days of the Genesis Creation, and life ends as it began. Meanwhile the time of day, constantly announced by the monastery clock and bells and by the characters themselves, shadows the bishop’s every move.
Over a decade before authors in the Modernist movement begin to pay close attention to the theme of time, Chekhov notes the increasing pace of the modern world. Time preoccupies the bishop as it does Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or Clarissa Dalloway of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The bishop seems a perpetual slave to a schedule, and because he has no personal time, “all day his nerves [are] on edge” (21). On his deathbed, he confesses to Father Sisoi, “I want to have a talk with you – I never seem to have the time” (26). Commitment to the church blesses clergymen with a life of sacrifice, echoed in the pervasive Christian imagery. For the Bishop, sacrifice creates a private void.
Easter represents the eighth day of the story; the day of “new firsts” brings with it the themes of resurrection and renewal. The theme of Eastertide sets the story in April, that month that eludes and intrigues so many writers of the Christian era. The opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales celebrate growth and rebirth in April. On the other hand, T.S. Eliot begins The Waste Land with the assertion that “April is the cruelest month” (line 1) because natural regeneration only mocks the plight of the dead. Chekhov leaves springtime as an ambiguous choral backdrop to his story.
Sunshine and singing birds, signs of springtime, appear (naturally) three times in “The Bishop.” The author describes cheeriness first at the bishop’s luncheon with his mother and niece, then in the morning of the Washing of Feet festival, and finally on Easter day. The initial occasion sets an Edenic scene that shatters like Katya’s broken china when the mother and son fail to make a significant emotional connection. The second scene foreshadows Eliot’s vision; in malapropos obscenity, nature awakes just as the bishop gets into bed and locks his shutters. In his final image of nature, activity, and vivacity, Chekhov presents a rejection of the pathetic fallacy, the idea of nature as an empathetic reflection of human life. Along with the joyous citizens, the sun and the birds refuse to mourn the bishop’s death, and the celebration of the Resurrection fosters joy. Does the promise of renewal and perpetuation comfort the reader or, on the contrary, is the indifference to the passing profoundly and personally disturbing?
Formalist criticism promises an uncovering of hidden meaning in a text. Indeed, upon multiple readings “The Bishop” becomes a treasure chest waiting to be opened by the theory. However, there is no code to crack, and no epiphanic moment comes from a careful exploration of moonlight, green beards, or threes. What does accompany a dissection of close details is an appreciation of Chekhov’s craft and also, to reassure the critic and the reader that the work is not fruitless, a greater understanding of the bishop as a character and a man in the world.
Chekhov leaves his story without a strong, identifiable message and without instruction for appropriate behavior. Instead, “The Bishop” presents a case study of a phenomenon of the modern world: the inability of people to communicate and bond with other people. Herein lies the answer to the central question of the story: what is that elusive Something lacking for the bishop? What unfinished business makes him not want to die? Those electric lights, those nine years of distance, those white walls, those constant announcements of time of day consume Bishop Pyotr. Blindness and duty, as well as the aloofness of people around him, make him cower from the moonlight and withdraw from the angelic little girl who reaches with her heart to him. He needs a moment of connection, a flare of red, but three times the moment escapes him, and he dies alone in the midst of ambiguous indifference. Whether either hope or desperation comes at the end of the story depends, as Chekhov would have it, on the reader.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Bishop.” 1902. The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader. Ed. Clarence Brown. New York: Penguin, 1985. 12-28.
Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land. 1922. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2000.
____ “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” 1919. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2000. 2395-2401.
Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” 1927. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 952-956.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” 1853. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Selden, Raman and Peter Widdowson. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 3rd Ed. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1993.