Notes to Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of “Encasement” (One)
All three of the stories of “The Little Trilogy” are about the lack of freedom in human lives. They’re about people who live in shells, who build protective walls around themselves and stagnate behind those walls.
Russian critics have used the word “футлярность” [“Encasement,” taken from the title of the first story, “Человек в футляре, Man in a Case”] to describe “encasing oneself physically, morally and spiritually in order to reduce points of contact between oneself and the rest of the world” (the critic Karl Kramer).
Note that the idea of outside social or political restrictions on human freedom plays little role. In these stories, as well as in much of what Chekhov wrote, people are not free because they themselves choose not to be. As Ronald Hingley has written, “individuals were often as big a menace to their own freedom as any government, because of a tendency to accept from others, or to impose on themselves, unimaginative and stultifying patterns of behavior.” These stories are about how people encase themselves.
While embodied most obviously in the first story by the title character Belikov, the theme is all-encompassing. There is practically no one in any of the three stories who is not “encased.” Some more obvious examples: the gooseberry lover Nikolay Ivanovich in “Gooseberries,” the landowner Alyokhin in “About Love.” These are major characters, but the secondary characters live the same stultifying lives.
Mavra, the wife of the village elder (in “Man in a Case”) is “a perfectly healthy and by no means unintelligent woman, who had never been out of her native village in her life. She had never seen a town or a railroad, and had spent the last ten years sitting by her stove, venturing out only at night.” What is Mavra’s problem? We never find out. All we know is that she is another in the grand collective of encased humanity.
The list could go on indefinitely. There is the beautiful maidservant Pelageya, who turns up briefly in both “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” She is in love with the alcoholic cook Nikanor, an ugly violent character who beats her when drunk, but somehow she cannot make herself leave him. There is Anna Alekseevna of “About Love,” whose encasement leads her into emotional illness, but she is still in a case upon her final appearance. There are hardly any exceptions in the stories, not even Ivan Ivanich and Burkin, the hunters who narrate the first two tales. Only the first story is titled “Man in A Case,” but all three stories have people in cases.
The big moral question is why do people choose to give up their personal freedom and encase themselves? For different reasons. With Belikov in the first story the answer is obvious: the man is preternaturally fearful of practically everything in life. He keeps his shell on to protect himself from the world. But then, as we proceed with the narrative, things get more subtle. Alyokhin and his secret love, Anna Alekseevna in “About Love,” end up in a very complicated case/shell, provided by Life Itself, and they cannot find a way out of the shell.