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In the courtroom

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Anton Chekhov

In the Courtroom, also The Red House, Before the Court, and In the Court(Russian В суде, V sude), is a short story by Russian writer Anton Chekhov, published in the Saint Petersburg newspaper Novoye vremya on 11 October 1886.[1]

When Tolstoy reviewed Anton Chekhov’s narrative oeuvre – consisting of nearly 500 titles – in 1903, he singled out fifteen texts from it as being of the “highest quality”. One of the outstanding titles was In the Courtroom.[2]

Vladimir Czumikov’s translation into German was printed in Simplicissimus on 3 April 1897 under the title Das rote Haus. Other translations: into Czech(U soudu) in 1891, into Serbo-Croatian(У очи судске расправе) in 1892, into Hungarian(A vörös ház) in 1898, into Finnish(Oikeudessa) in 1899, and into English(In the court-room) in 1903.[3]

Content

The text is written for the punch line: The defendant Kharlamov brings in his son Prokhor, who is present in the courtroom.

The peasant Nikolai Kharlamov, who is about 55 years old, tall and sturdy, is before the district court. According to the indictment, he killed the wife with an axe on June 9. The defendant pleads not guilty. The chairman has to doubt it, because Kharlamov ran away that day and stayed away for two days. Kharlamov confesses that he was afraid of the trial. Then the instrument of the crime is presented. It is not his axe, the defendant claims, because his son Prokhor lost it. The accused is again not believed. This infuriates him. Anton Chekhov relates, “‘Prochor, where is the axe?” he [the accused] suddenly asked in a gruff tone, turning violently to the soldier.”[4] The chairman has the guard soldier, that is, Nikolai Kharlamov’s son Prokhor, relieved. Thereupon the trial is continued.

Form

The reader learns nothing about the outcome of the murder trial, for the latter and its course are secondary. The social critic Anton Chekhov rather denounces the “bureaucratic indifference” in court. The presiding judge and, next to him, the associate judge are having a terse conversation about a private matter. The deputy prosecutor has even taken the Cain[5] of Lord Byron for light reading. Prosecutor, jurors with “tired expressions” and uniformed judges follow the trial “habitually and boredly”. Despite the monotony, one trial follows the next on this day. Before the Kharlamov murder case, “two people had already been… Been given penitentiary sentences, one privileged person had been sentenced to disqualification and imprisonment, one had been acquitted, one trial had been adjourned…”[6] Then, while Kharlamov’s case is on the line, the witnesses are examined in a rush. The hearing of evidence is concluded. The prosecutor – with whom Cain is busy – has no further questions. The defense attorney confuses the appointed doctor. “The chairman turned his sleepy, impassive eyes on the defender,”[7], writes Anton Chekhov. When, at the end of the story, the reader learns that the guard is the defendant’s biological son, all the bored participants in the courtroom also hold their breath, but only for a short time. After that, they all “continue with their previous occupation, endeavoring to make themselves appear as if nothing had happened.”[8]

Filming

  • 1969, Soviet Union, Mosfilm: The Chief Witness.[9] 70 min feature film by Aida Manassarova[10]

German editions

Output used

  • In the Courtroom, pp. 220-228 in Gerhard Dick (ed.) and Wolf Düwel (eds.): Anton Chekhov: The Swedish Match. Short Stories and Early Narratives. German by Wolf Düwel. 668 pp. Rütten & Loening, Berlin 1965 (1st ed.)

Web links

Individual references

  1. russ. Reference to first publication
  2. Düwel, p. 643, 10. z.v.o.
  3. russian. Translations references
  4. Edition used, p. 228, 12. z.v.o.
  5. cain (play)
  6. Edition used, p. 221, 7. z.v.u.
  7. Edition used, p. 226, 1. z.v.u.
  8. Edition used, p. 228, 3. z.v.u.
  9. russian. Главный свидетель (фильм, 1969)
  10. russian. Манасарова, Аида Ивановна