What Chekhov can teach us about the London riots

We missed a Dalrymple piece at the Social Affairs Unit last month, in which one of his favorite writers informs his views on punishment:

Chekhov has an interesting little story on the matter of crime and punishment. It is called A Problem. In it, a young man of ancient and distinguished lineage has forged a promissory note and is about to face trial for it. The family meets in council to decide what to do about it: to let the young man take his punishment or to pay the promissory note? Which is the best way to save the family honour?

The colonel, a most unattractive character, is for taking a hard [l]ine, as they do in such cases (he says) in the army. He argues against saving the family honour by paying the amount due:

How can you say that I don'[t] believe in family honour? I repea[t] [o]nce more: fa-mil-y hon-our fal-sely un-der-stood is a prejudice! Falsely understood! That’s what I say: whatever may be the motives for screening a scoundrel, whoever he may be, and helping him to escape punishment, it is contrary to law and unworthy of a gentleman.

… the maternal uncle, Ivan Markovitch, who is a relative of Sasha’s only by marriage, founds his arguments on those to be found in the Guardian:

He began by saying that youth had its rights and its peculiar temptations. Which of us has not been young, and who has not been led astray? To say nothing of ordinary mortals, even great men have not escaped errors and mistakes in their youth. Take, for instance, the biography of great writers. Did not every one of them gamble, drink, and draw down upon himself the anger of right-thinking people in his young days?

Then there is the story of Sasha in particular: They must remember that Sasha had received practically no education:

he had lost his parents in early childhood, and so had been left at the tenderest age without guidance and good, benevolent influences.

In short, to put it in modern psychobabble, he had no role models. Therefore:

Even if he were guilty, he deserved indulgence and the sympathy of all compassionate souls. He ought, of course, to be punished, but he was punished as it was by his conscience and the agonies he was enduring…

Who has not heard these things said of wrongdoers? Ivan Markovitch rises to a rhetorical crescendo:

Shall we be false to civic duty if instead of punis[h]ing an erring boy we hold out to him a helping hand?

Nor is that all:

Crime is an immoral act founded upon ill-will. But is the will of man free? The latest school [of thought] denies the freedom of the will, and considers every crime as the product of purely anatomical peculiarities of the individual.

Does Dalrymple side with the colonel or Ivan Markovitch? His answer may be more complicated than you would guess. Read the whole thing.

h/t Dave L.

One thought on “What Chekhov can teach us about the London riots

  1. Seymour Clufley

    I think this is a very good article.

    His final line pretty much sums up the goal and the problem: to be “judicially efficient” without losing compassion, to be compassionate without being mugs. How to punish while remaining decent?

    These are dilemmas which will probably never, ever, go away – as TD alludes when he says that the sentiments involved have barely changed in the century since Chekhov wrote.

    The short story in question seems like the kind of thing that used to be adapted so well on British TV in the 60s and 70s!


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