Theme: Emancipation of Women in The Bear by Anton Chekhov

 


The Bear is one of Chekhov’s lesser-known plays performed in 1888. It is subtitled ‘Farce in One-Act’. A farce is “a type of low comedy that employs improbable or otherwise ridiculous situations and mix-ups, slapstick and horseplay, and crude and even bawdy dialogue” (Murfin & Ray 2003) 

You can read the analysis of The Bear by Anton Chekhov here.

One of the major themes in the play is emancipation of women. The meaning of emancipation is to be free from the power of another. Then, from whose power the women in Pre-revolutionary Russia had to be free? The answer is: from the patriarchal grip they had in Tsarist government.

Before 1917 revolution, women in Russia were treated as the property of men; The society was extremely patriarchal where the women were given a little identity. According to Tsarist law, women were not more than men’s slaves; by the law, men had the right to beat their wives. Apart from that most were not given a proper education. They were made to work in the fields and factories at the age of 12-14 years or even earlier.

The setting of the play is set in such kind of period where women were not treated equal. In that light, the reader can understand the behavior of Smirnov who displays much chauvinistic behavior before a widow. In such kind of time, Popova’s reaction to the boorish behavior of her oppressor is radical and rebellious. When it comes to the end of the play, Smirnov almost accepts the right of equality and admires the way Popova behaves giving a positive end to the play.     

Let us dig through the play to find out the places where the theme of emancipation of women highlighted.

01. Popova’s refusal:

Popova: You don’t know how to behave before women!

Smirnov: No, I do know how to behave before women!

Popova: No, you don’t! You’re a rude, ill-bred man! Decent people don’t talk to a woman like that!

 

Popova’s rejection of Smirnov’s words of humiliation is the first step of her protest against male chauvinism. She implores her necessity to be addressed politely. Her utterances are an open request from the oppressing patriarchal agents to treat women with some honor. On the contrary, Smirnov believes in the social conventions and confirms that he speaks in the correct manner. For his response, the raged reply of Popova is an open slap to male superiority calling that: only indecent, ill-bred people can treat women with disrespect.

  

02. Need of emancipation

Smirnov: … I used to chatter like a magpie about emancipation…

The emergence of a new social convention is introduced through the male-voice of Smirnov. He admits that he was used to have discussion with women about emancipation. That reveals that there had been a necessity from both the parties for the emancipation of women.

In the period of Russian revolution, Lenin who was a leading figure in that declared that women engaging in labor in factories had had a positive effect on women to be free from the patriarchal grip in the household. The utterance of Smirnov may be a positive hint of that social outbreak of the new idea of equal right.  

 

03. Smirnov’s view point:

Smirnov: … All women, great or little, are insincere, crooked, backbiters, envious, liars to the marrow of their bones, vain, trivial, merciless, unreasonable, and, as far as this is concerned…

…have you met a woman who can love anybody except a lapdog?...

… You have the misfortune to be a woman. Tell me truthfully, have you ever seen a woman who was sincere, faithful, and constant? You haven’t Only freaks and old women are faithful and constant!

 

Smirnov keeps on insulting all the women in general - calling them as inconsistent and unfaithful. His disrespectful and degrading attitude towards women may be his negative personal encounters with women or it may be the projection of social convention about the women. On the other hand, it may be a script written by patriarchal society to suppress women psychologically to heighten the superiority of men. There might be other reasons like to cover up the wrong practices of male and rationalize what they do. It seems to be for this injustice Popova stands against.  

 

04. Popova’s reply:

Popova: Then, according to you, who is faithful and constant in love? is it the man?

Smirnov: Yes, the man!

Popova: The man! (laughs bitterly) Men are faithful and constant in love! what an idea! … I’ll tell you that of all the men I knew and know, the best was my late husband… I oved him passionately withal my being, as only a young and imaginative woman can love… and and what then? This best of men shamelessly deceived me at every step! After his death I found in his desk a whole drawerful of love letters…

 

She bitterly rejects the idea of Smirnov that the man is the only one who is faithful and constant in love. As we discussed earlier, this could be the common projection created by the society to condition the female psychologically. It is like: ‘Oh! Women, never trust them, that’s their nature; by nature, they are infidel, untrustworthy…etc.” Popova rejects this idea giving examples from her own life. Though she had been a loyal wife, her husband had been deceiving her throughout their entire marriage life.

It is a radical but socially unacceptable move taken by Popova to speak against her own husband whom she still loves. Her this defiant move suggests the rejection of the injustice upon them shattering the patriarchal social conventions in order to break free.  

 

05. Do not provoke me!

Smirnov: you may have buried yourself alive, but you haven’t forgotten to powder your face!

Popova: How dare you speak to me like that?

Smirnov: Please don’t shout, I’m not your steward! You must allow me to call things by their real names. I’m not a woman, and I’m used to saying what I think straight out! Don’t you shout, either!

 

The role-reversal is an important juncture in the play where Smirnov has to request from Popova to be quiet. However, during his speech he shows that it is the usual way that women to be quiet before a speech of a man even it is an insult. And further it reveals that men can speak straight out but not the women. This reveals the patriarchal power men had under the Tsar government.

In that sense, Popova taking the role of the doer and start shouting at Smirnov, leaving him the option to request, it reveals the rebellion unleased by the women against male chauvinism.

 

06. Popova’s rage

Popova: (clenches her fists and stamps her foot) You’re a boor! A coarse bear! A Bourbon! A monster!

Smirnov: What? What did you say?

Popova: I said you are a bear, a monster!

Smirnov: (approaching her) May I ask what right you have to insult me?

Popova: And suppose I am insulting you? Do you think I’m afraid of you?

 

At the climax of Popova’s rage she takes the total control of insulting calling Smirnov a bear. This had been an unexpected blow on the part of Smirnov who had been practicing the superior power. His question ‘what right you have to insult me?’ reveals the legal power of insulting possessed by the men. As we mentioned earlier, it was a Tsarist low that husband can beat their wives.

Popova acts total opposite way that the social conventions expect. This rebellious nature of her can be seen throughout the play.  Therefore, we can understand Chekov’s use of characterization to light the spark of women’s emancipation.

 

07. Smirnov’s acceptance

Smirnov: It’s about time we got rid of the prejudice that only men need pay for their insults. Devil take it, if you want equality of rights you can have it we’re going to fight it out!

… If she fights, well that’s equality of rights, emancipation, and all that! Here the sexes are equal! I’ll shoot her on principle! But what a woman!

At the climax of the play Smirnov accepts women’s equality of rights and further implores that to earn that, they have to fight. Popova accepting the duel against Smirnov though she does not know how to use pistols, shows her determination which amazes Smirnov. In that very moment, he considers Popova as an ‘equal sex’ which gives her an equal state to men.

This is a deciding moment of the play that Smirnov shows his willingness for women’s emancipation and starts loving her because of her courage and boldness.

Though simple and humorous, The Bear is a rebellious move by Anton Chekhov during the period of pre-revolutionary period where women had only a little identity. Therefore, in the feminists’ view, this play has a social reformative function too. 

You may also like to read: Portrayal of  Human Emotions  by Sarcasm in The Bear by Anton Chekhov

So, we hope that the theme: women emancipation is evident to you by now. If you have anything to clarify, please feel free to comment below. Share this post if you find this is useful for your friend or the student.

 

 

 

 

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