The Bear is one of Chekhov’s lesser-known plays performed in1888. It is subtitled ‘Farce in One-Act’. A farce is “a type of low comedy thatemploys improbable or otherwise ridiculous situations and mix-ups, slapstickand 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 ofwomen. 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 theproperty of men; The society was extremely patriarchal where the women weregiven a little identity. According to Tsarist law, women were not more thanmen’s slaves; by the law, men had the right to beat their wives. Apart fromthat most were not given a proper education. They were made to work in thefields and factories at the age of 12-14 years or even earlier.
The setting of the play is set in such kind of period wherewomen were not treated equal. In that light, the reader can understand thebehavior of Smirnov who displays much chauvinistic behavior before a widow. Insuch kind of time, Popova’s reaction to the boorish behavior of her oppressoris radical and rebellious. When it comes to the end of the play, Smirnov almostaccepts the right of equality and admires the way Popova behaves giving apositive end to the play.
Let us dig through the play to find out the places where thetheme of emancipation of women highlighted.
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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! Decentpeople don’t talk to a woman like that!
Popova’s rejection of Smirnov’s words of humiliation is thefirst step of her protest against male chauvinism. She implores her necessityto be addressed politely. Her utterances are an open request from theoppressing patriarchal agents to treat women with some honor. On the contrary,Smirnov believes in the social conventions and confirms that he speaks in thecorrect manner. For his response, the raged reply of Popova is an open slap tomale superiority calling that: only indecent, ill-bred people can treat womenwith disrespect.
02. Need of emancipation
Smirnov: … I used to chatter like a magpie aboutemancipation…
The emergence of a new social convention is introducedthrough the male-voice of Smirnov. He admits that he was used to havediscussion with women about emancipation. That reveals that there had been anecessity from both the parties for the emancipation of women.
In the period of Russian revolution, Lenin who was a leadingfigure in that declared that women engaging in labor in factories had had apositive 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 thenew 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 alapdog?...
… 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’tOnly freaks and old women are faithful and constant!
Smirnov keeps on insulting all the women in general - callingthem as inconsistent and unfaithful. His disrespectful and degrading attitudetowards women may be his negative personal encounters with women or it may bethe projection of social convention about the women. On the other hand, it maybe a script written by patriarchal society to suppress women psychologically toheighten the superiority of men. There might be other reasons like to cover upthe wrong practices of male and rationalize what they do. It seems to be forthis injustice Popova stands against.04. Popova’s reply:
Popova: Then, according to you, who is faithful and constantin love? is it the man?
Smirnov: Yes, the man!
Popova: The man! (laughs bitterly) Men are faithful and constantin love! what an idea! … I’ll tell you that of all the men I knew and know, thebest was my late husband… I oved him passionately withal my being, as only ayoung and imaginative woman can love… and and what then? This best of menshamelessly deceived me at every step! After his death I found in his desk awhole drawerful of love letters…
She bitterly rejects the idea of Smirnov that the man is theonly one who is faithful and constant in love. As we discussed earlier, thiscould be the common projection created by the society to condition the femalepsychologically. It is like: ‘Oh! Women, never trust them, that’s their nature;by nature, they are infidel, untrustworthy…etc.” Popova rejects this ideagiving examples from her own life. Though she had been a loyal wife, herhusband had been deceiving her throughout their entire marriage life.
It is a radical but socially unacceptable move taken byPopova to speak against her own husband whom she still loves. Her this defiantmove suggests the rejection of the injustice upon them shattering thepatriarchal social conventions in order to break free.05. Do not provoke me!
Smirnov: you may have buried yourself alive, but you haven’tforgotten to powder your face!
Popova: How dare you speak to me like that?
Smirnov: Please don’t shout, I’m not your steward! You mustallow me to call things by their real names. I’m not a woman, and I’m used tosaying what I think straight out! Don’t you shout, either!
The role-reversal is an important juncture in the play whereSmirnov has to request from Popova to be quiet. However, during his speech heshows that it is the usual way that women to be quiet before a speech of a maneven it is an insult. And further it reveals that men can speak straight outbut not the women. This reveals the patriarchal power men had under the Tsargovernment.
In that sense, Popova taking the role of the doer and startshouting at Smirnov, leaving him the option to request, it reveals therebellion unleased by the women against male chauvinism.06. Popova’s rage
Popova: (clenches her fists and stamps her foot) You’re aboor! 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 toinsult me?
Popova: And suppose I am insulting you? Do you think I’mafraid of you?
At the climax of Popova’s rage she takes the total controlof insulting calling Smirnov a bear. This had been an unexpected blow on thepart of Smirnov who had been practicing the superior power. His question ‘whatright you have to insult me?’ reveals the legal power of insulting possessed bythe men. As we mentioned earlier, it was a Tsarist low that husband can beattheir wives.
Popova acts total opposite way that the social conventionsexpect. This rebellious nature of her can be seen throughout the play. Therefore, we can understand Chekov’s use ofcharacterization to light the spark of women’s emancipation.07. Smirnov’s acceptance
Smirnov: It’s about time we got rid of the prejudice thatonly men need pay for their insults. Devil take it, if you want equality ofrights 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 onprinciple! But what a woman!
At the climax of the play Smirnov accepts women’s equalityof rights and further implores that to earn that, they have to fight. Popovaaccepting the duel against Smirnov though she does not know how to use pistols,shows her determination which amazes Smirnov. In that very moment, he considersPopova as an ‘equal sex’ which gives her an equal state to men.
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This is a deciding moment of the play that Smirnov shows hiswillingness for women’s emancipation and starts loving her because of hercourage and boldness.Though simple and humorous, The Bear is a rebellious move byAnton Chekhov during the period of pre-revolutionary period where women hadonly a little identity. Therefore, in the feminists’ view, this play has asocial reformative function too.
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So, we hope that the theme: women emancipation is evident toyou 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.