This week I drew the King of Clubs, which corresponds to a very short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Ninny”. It’s a bemusing story. The scene is almost entirely dialogue between a governness, Yulia Vasilyevna, and her boss, the father of the children she cares for. He is also the narrator of the story. He commences:
“Just a few days ago I invited Yulia Vasilyevna, the governness of my children, to come to my study. I wanted to settle my account with her.”
He then proceeds to underpay her. It’s being just like Goneril and Regan when they reduce King Lear’s entourage of Knights down from 100 to zero very quickly.
He says she earns 30 rubles a month and when she replies it was 40 a month, he maintains it is 30. He says she has been working for 2 months; when she says it’s 2 months plus five days, he says that’s nonsense. He takes off money for the days her charges were ill and for the damage to a child’s trousers when he had climbed a tree. “Then around New Year’s Day you broke a cup and saucer. Subtract two rubles”. At the end, he offers her 11 rubles for what should have been somewhat more than 80 rubles as previously agreed upon.
Finally she accepts the 11 rubles and thanks him. He then proceeds to shout at her for not standing up for herself and demanding the 80 rubles. He calls her a nitwit–a ninny–for agreeing to be thus robbed. After shouting at her about her stupidity, he gives her the 80 rubles she has earned.
I felt some unease reading this story. I adore Chekhov. But is he depicting the woman as a nitwit or is he trying to suggest that the “nitwit” is the boss with all his capital and his standing? He ends the story (remember he is the narrator) thinking “How very easy it is in this world to be strong.”
I hope that Chekhov is spinning the story around so that we think how very easy it is for the powerful and the wealthy to be strong. They don’t need to fear unemployment; they don’t need to fear recriminations. There is also the powerful male/less powerful female dynamic here. He wants her to protest, but perhaps protest is too much of a luxury for her to embark upon.
Is Chekhov condemning the man for playing games with the hapless woman? I like to think so and that the “ninny” is not the poor woman but the wealthy man who can devise his own Stanley Milgram obedience experiment in his own house.
Several hours after posting this, I still am fuming. I keep thinking of all the ways the “boss” here is acting like Donald Trump–underpaying an employee, critiquing an employee, putting others into shameful situations.