“Sleepy” During Finals Week: an analytical satire on Anton Chekhov’s “Sleepy”

Anton Chekhov represents a literary legend with works that resonate in modern society and common allusions. Chekhov’s stories, though written in the 1800’s, can still be relatable in modern-day situations. Chekhov mirrors human nature in his stories which can be applied to a variety of real-life circumstances.
When selecting a story, I scanned the titles in the table of contents, looking for any that might catch my eye, even if they weren’t quite representative of the contents. I flipped through most of the short stories, paying the most attention to the endings. Endings, especially on short stories, are crucial because they bring the generally short plot to a close. If they are intriguing or unique, I am much more enthralled with the work. This, of course, also applies to television shows, books, and movies. The best kind of ending is one that surprises me.
At the risk of sounding haughty, that’s not easy to do. I tend to put myself in the author’s shoes in any of the aforementioned medias. Most of the time, I can tell by the writer’s style where the story will ultimately end up. I can tell who they will kill for the biggest impact, I can sense important foreshadowing because it’s exactly what I would do in their position. So when a story startles me, I am pleased.
Chekhov’s “Sleepy” caught me off guard in this fashion. For one thing, it describes exactly how I feel as I’m writing this paper: sleepy. Secondly, it has a very dramatic and unforeseen ending that stands out among the stories. For Varka, the thirteen year old servant girl and protagonist of the story, the whole world is acting differently––especially the green patch of light, the shadows of the hanging clothes, and the cricket in the stove––around her for the sole reason that she has lost too much sleep. She is hallucinating and becoming more and more ill physically and mentally. She is barely functioning enough to make through the day with all the chores her master and mistress dump on her.
This story of Varka immediately intrigued me. Not only that, it was remarkably relatable to the life of a college student at the close of a semester. Sleep is a valued treasure but it is often unattainable during finals week. In a week such as this, all professors are asking for final projects to close out the year. Essays, presentations, exams, and speeches are dumped on the heads of college students. One assignment after another wears them down and cuts in to the time they sleep. It is said of college that only two of the following can be achieved at any given time: school work, social life, or sufficient sleep. Especially at the end of a semester, if a student’s priority is in a choice GPA, the other two simply have to fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, when sleep falls by the wayside, so do mental functionality and focus.
This is the exact problem that Varka is encountering. Every time she is given a new task, it adds to her exhaustion. She drifts off as she rocks the baby into a world of dreams. Her memories stress her and make her fearful and paranoid in the real world. She is jittery and the tasks that require her to stand still are by far the most difficult. At least the active chores help keep her blood flowing.
Varka is also haunted by the past. As a servant girl from a poor family for a very rude cobbler, she has seen her share of hardship. The dreams she sees as she fades in and out of sleep are not just whimsical hallucinations, they are painful memories that follow her through time and do not let her forget. Her father’s death and her mother’s mourning become vivid as if she is reliving them in her waking hours. She is only dreaming, of course, but these haunting memories make Varka’s situation and continually growing exhaustion so much worse. Everything seems worse when one is deprived of sleep. Though these memories are not pertinent to Varka’s current position, they add to her stress.
A college student experiences a similar phenomena during finals week. Not only do the current assignments loom over them, so do past assignments, failures, and the ultimate question: “can I still pass?” Not just school work follows them into finals week, but also all the drama among friends and family, making it that much harder to focus. Stress has a tendency to pile. When stress is an issue in one part of life, all the other parts become more stressful as well. At times, this can even lead to hallucinations and insanity similar to what Varka experiences.
Though professors perhaps do not intend to fill the shoes of the tyrannical cobbler and his wife, they fit best into their position in this metaphor. Professors, though perhaps not as cruel as the couple in the story, are the student’s slave drivers. They give out regular assignments and ask every ounce of effort from their pupils. Instead of asking students to wash the steps, they demand an eight page essay. Instead of requesting peeled potatoes, they demand a fifteen minute presentation. They are the ones who smack the students on the back of the head to keep them awake through the night. Though perhaps unintentionally, the professors are the reason that students get no sleep during finals week.
Chekhov’s story has a very gruesome end. Varka is so deprived of sleep that she ends up strangling her master’s baby because it won’t stop crying long enough for her to rest. Her murderous instincts are a result of her hallucinations which are, in turn, a result of pressure and stress which was magnified by her sleep deprivation. Her retaliation is not only revenge against the baby, but revenge against the master and mistress who ask so much more of Varka than she can physically give. Her actions are directly the product of desperation, perhaps, but a desperation she was driven to by her surroundings: the oppressive masters, the chilling remembrances, the constant labor demands, and the wailing child.
Students at the end of a semester are not so far removed from the state of desperation Varka reaches. Lack of sleep can lead to a person’s crazy actions during wakefulness. As students wade through the stack of assignments they face at the end of the year, they get less and less sleep and their mind becomes more and more irrational. This scenario with Varka and the baby presents a fearsome warning to professors: be wary what you drive your students to during finals week or they may just kill everything you love. Perhaps this irrationality of the sleep-deprived mind explains how this essay turned from analytical to satirical.
The most notable thing Chekhov does not accomplish in his short story is italicizing everything.
Chekhov’s works should be remembered, not only because they are undying works of literary art, but because they are timeless. Varka’s story may be set in the 19th century, but her situation can still be recognized from a modern viewpoint. Therefore, Chekhov has created a piece of work that can be related to human circumstance for years after he penned it. These timeless tales are the ones worth reading, worth studying, and worth writing analytical satires on.

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