The Lament – CBSE/NCERT English Elective Class 11 – Explanation

The Lament

by Anton Chekhov

Complete explanation of the short story ‘The Lament’ included in the NCERT/CBSE Elective English Class 11 book ‘Woven Words’

About the author

A literary star, who blazed a trail in the sky dotted by many other authors, Chekhov has carved out a place as a playwright whose works are treated as a gold standard by students all over the world. He studied medicine, and had never imagined that he would shoot to fame through his story writing instincts. Initially, he wrote to earn a little money, but soon admiration and fame followed him to put him in the galaxy of Russia’s greatest litterateurs.

About the story

The Lament is the story of an elderly person who has just lost his son. Iona Potapov can’t come to terms with the loss and his heart pines for his departed son. He wants to pour out his grief before someone, so that the scars become less painful, but he fails to get a patient listener. The burden of grief sinks him more into grief. The story leaves the reader bewildered about this ruthless, heartless world. The reader begins to lament for Potapov the same way he laments for his dead son.

The story

Iona Potopov makes his living as a sledge owner who ferries passengers to earn his fare. He lives modestly as the profession of a cab driver isn’t a very lucrative one. Just a week ago, he lost his son, who succumbed to high fever despite the medical attention he got in the hospital. Later, Iona had to go t the hospital to bring back the belongings of his deceased son. The loss of his son has come to Iona as bolt from the blue leaving him devastated and broken. His heart bleeds relentlessly as he reminisces about his departed son. He wants to unburden himself by narrating the manner of the death of his dear son, but struggles to find a listener.

It was an evening of heavy snowfall. There was snow everywhere making the streets, the carriages, the pedestrians looking white. Yet, the streets were lit and busy with traffic. Iona sits motionless on the driver’s seat of the sledge immersed in grief. A person, possibly an officer approaches Iona and wants to go to a place named Viborg. Iona receives him rather unmindfully. The travel starts. Iona fails to control his horse properly and the sledge strays to the wrong side. Passers-by yell at him angrily. The officer, too, pulls him up, and prods him to go faster. Iona, tries to explain his lethargy by stating that he has lost his son a few days ago. He narrates how he developed high fever in the hospital and died in less than a week. The officer listens to it, but before he can say a few kind words to Iona, the sledge reaches the destination point, and he hurries off.

Iona waits for the next customer sitting silently, and brooding his fate. Hours go by. The horse and the master wait patiently with snow pouring down on them. Finally, three boisterous young men, talking in profane language approach Iona, and offer to pay a rather low fare. Iona agrees to accept it with not much protest. Two among the three passengers were lanky and the third a little short. After some rancorous exchange, the dwarf guy stands and the other two sit down. They keep prodding Iona to go faster, but he, lost in his thoughts, barely reacts. They begin to shout at him. Rather imprudently, he narrates his sad fate and the loss of his son. The trio reacts nonchalantly to Iona’s sorrowful account, and quip how death is a fate accompli for every human being. Iona’s wound remains without a balm. After a while, the three passengers leave as they reach their destination.

After some waiting, Iona sees a haul porter carrying some baggage. To work up a conversation, he asks him about the time. He answers, but hurries off without giving a cursory glance at Iona. An underwhelmed Iona decides to return to the stable cutting short his time on the streets.

The stable’s inside is warm, dark, and smoky. A big old stove burns to radiate heat and keep the interior cozy. Tired, intoxicated cab drivers are resting on the benches, chairs and the beds. Iona warms up to a stranger and begins to speak to him. He offers the half-asleep stranger some drink hoping that he could lend him his ears. But, the man sleeps off even after Iona begins to narrate his personal tragedy. Iona is bewildered and befuddled. He abandons his effort to spot a listener and decides to approach his horse. He has to arrange fodder for the horse, but hasn’t earned enough even to buy the corn and the way etc. He had returned too early. He looks at the head of the horse and feels it is ready to listen to its master’s woes. Iona goes through his mournful story in great detail as the horse seems ready to hear him out and sympathize. Iona finally unburdens his heavy heart.

Understanding the Text

1. Comment on the indifference that meets a Iona’s attempts to share his grief with his fellow human beings.
Answer – Iona had lost his son after a brief hospitalization. The tragedy had doused Iona in a torrent of sorrow, dejection and gloom. The pain gnawed at him relentlessly. He felt lonely, lost in a desert of dry hot sand and no life. He wanted to narrate the circumstances of his son’s demise to anyone ready to lend him their ears, but the world around him was filled with humans with hearts of stone. No emotion, no account of pathos could percolate through them, nor did the stone ooze any sympathy or cordiality. Everyone seemed to be too busy with their routines, not ready to listen to Iona’s outpourings of grief. The officer to get into his cab did hear about the untimely demise of Iona’s son, but had to get down and leave on reaching the destination. He didn’t care to wait till Iona completed his mournful story. The three boisterous young men who came next were more like hoodlums than humans. Their casual comment about Iona’s grieving was more hurtful than helpful. The third target, the porter, was aloof, and totally unconcerned. The stranger in the stable was too sleepy to wait to hear Iona’s moan.
On the whole, Iona’s effort to spot a patient listener for his tragedy proved futile. All were indifferent, selfish, and unconcerned for Iona to unburden his heavy heart.

2. What impression on the character of Iona you get from this story?
Answer – Iona is a very affectionate, sensitive and dutiful person. He doesn’t get ruffled by other people’s bad manners, and insults. TO some extent, he is stoic too. This trait helps him to carry on with his daily routine despite the scar in his heart. He makes overtures to attract sympathetic people, but fails miserably. He is not embittered. This shows his dignity.

3. How does the horse serve as a true friend and companion to Iona?
Answer – Iona’s last attempt in the stable to spot a listener proves futile. He sheepishly walks up to his horse that has stood still. Neither during the day, nor in the stable, it has complained about the heavy snow. When Iona stares at his head and eyes, it seems to understand the grief in its master’s mind, and chooses to stand motionless like a rock. It conveys an impression that it is ready to listen to Iona’s account of his son’s premature death. The horse’s stance heartens Iona as he perceives that it is ready to hear out its master. So, the horse proves to be a friend and a companion of Iona.

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