After reading Chekhov’s A Dead Body (full text can be accessed here) I was curious to see how others interpreted it, so I looked online at a handful of analyses from the top literary sites that had done so and was quite surprised by the frankly unimaginative readings I discovered (and one perhaps overimaginative reading). They were mostly preoccupied with surface observations about stranger danger and speculations about a hidden murder mystery plot, but all the interpretations I found basically amounted to Chekhov cautioning us against trusting people too much, especially peasants. In my judgment, this doesn’t seem to be consistent with the kind of meaning-making Chekhov intends in his writing.[fn]
In my best judgment, the story is a parable about faith in a Christ, who at times seems as absent today as he was on Holy Saturday. Indeed, Christ is the dead body in the story, as the fire’s ‘purple glow’ is intended to reveal. Faith in the story is expressed by “keeping watch,” hence the two watchman, who had been ordered to “keep watch” like the ten virgins in Matthew 25. To keep the faith they, like the virgins, had only to keep the fire burning and keep watching.
Read in that light, the story ends with (a) the pious (but fearful) pilgrim and the smart (but prideful and also fearful) young man walking into the ‘outer darkness’ of the night, as it were, away from Christ, and (b) the simple, humble, and faithful watchman dying with Christ (staying with the dead body until he “fell into a gentle sleep”), and so being raised up with Christ. Allusions to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 throughout the story, but especially here at the end and at the central (purple glow) fire scene.
The last two lines leave the reader with (a) Syoma’s eyes closed, eyes which had been resolutely fixed on the fire from beginning to end, save for when left to gather wood to feed it (as the young man “shielded his eyes” from it), and (b) with the dead body “lost among great shadows.” Between his eyes closing and the shadows emerging, Syoma fell asleep and the fire went out. The fire is the substance of Syoma’s life, which is indeed his faith–it consumed all his attention and efforts from beginning to end, and so it should since his job as a watchman is to “keep watch”!
When his eyes are closed and fire extinguished, Syoma is left in darkness with the dead body. But “soon” after that, “the dead body was lost among great shadows.” The singular dead body is now gone from the darkened scene, replaced though with “great shadows.” How can “great shadows” appear in the darkness of a fireless night, a scene that leaves us no light to cast a shadow nor any to distinguish the shadows from the night? The only thing left to imagine in the scene is two men, one dead, one asleep, united in the darkness of the scene (now established in both 3rd and 1st person perspectives, (hence he fell asleep but only after he closed his eyes) until the former is lost in great shadows. We are thus forced to imagine a light “from above” that now only reveals that the body is gone, a light that itself is only revealed by what stands in front of it, as Syoma before the fire, casting its shadow. Indeed, the opportunity for the watchman has passed, the door of the banquet has shut, and the Light of the world now remains only in the great shadows of those who died with Christ, and so who have risen with him.
Ironically, both the smart young man and the pious pilgrim “knew” the soul stayed with the body until “the third day,” so their “superstition” condemns them in the end—the watchman for abandoning the body for profit (like Judas), the religious man for his fear of death and bribery of the watchman (like the Pharisees). Thus, “the sound of their steps and the talk died away into the night.” This is the dawnless night of death that will henceforth forever remain in the glorious shadows of life. To quote the pious pilgrim’s first words in the story: “Oh, ye that love not Zion shall be ashamed in the face of the Lord!”
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.—1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
A Dead Body was indeed written for our encouragement: keep the fire burning, and keep watching!
These readings, in my judgment, are too superficial for this story. When Chekhov lays the meaning out there on the surface it’s because the surfaces of his stories are designed to expose the contradictions we conceal on the surfaces of our lives. Thus he intends for the story to reach beneath the surface of his readers and expose the meanings that remain hidden to us in all that we hide from others. His genius is to make our depths accessible through even superficial observations. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I assume he has more to say through this story than the banalities suggested in what I found. The difference with this story, however, is that he doesn’t give us the meaning on the surface. Everything is hidden beneath, but only just beneath, so that once you see beneath any of it it doesn’t take much to see beneath the rest.
Then again, my interpretation may be no better than any other. Some stories can only truly speak when they’re allowed to speak for themselves.