Short Story Analysis: Sleepy by Anton Chekhov


Anton Chekhov’s “Sleepy”, was published in 1888. The author in his story describes in-depth how one feels when one is deprived of a need- a necessity. In this case, the need is nothing but the most basic necessity- sleep. Right from “half-open eyes”, and “her half slumbering brain”, to “…and Varka hears someone singing with her own voice”, the author has translated into English, what one exactly feels when one needs to hit the pillows! Though the obvious message of the story is that sleep is something that is inevitable and a person might even kill to get it, a closer observation may reveal that the author tries to convey to the readers the conflicts, imaginations, and unfulfilled desires that run in everyone’s mind every passing day.

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One of the specialties of his short stories is that they always carry an unexpected twist in the end, as seen in “The Lottery Ticket”, in which a middle-class couple, in their excitement and anxiousness to imagine the benefits a jackpot could bring them, realize that they are after all, not the beneficiaries of the lottery ticket, only after it’s too late. Likewise, all of his stories have a twist in the tale and “Sleepy” is no exception.

About the author

Anton Chekhov, considered today as the “founding father of modern theater” is a man whose life was shortened by chronic illness. He is a man who recovered from poverty and stabled his life financially and was considered famous as a leading prose-writer and dramatist in his time. He was born near a small seaport of Taganrog on January 17th, 1960, in southern Russia a son of a grocer. Chekhov’s mother, Yevgenia Morzov was the daughter of a cloth merchant daughter. Anton’s childhood was shadowed and gloomy due to his father’s religious obsession and the night stays in the store. He did his schooling in Taganrog- a school for Greek boys. In his college years at the Moscow University Medical School, he published many comics to support his family. Though Chekhov’s first novel was Nenunzhaya Pobeda in 1882, he shot to fame only by 1886. He gave European narrative fiction a new angle. He doesn’t impose any philosophies in his writing but, on the contrary, allows people to react as they wish and draw their conclusions. (Rayfield. D, 2000)

A brief review of “Sleepy”

Varka works as a babysitter for a boot-maker. Every morning, she runs errands for her master and mistress, while every night, she attends to their baby. It is evident what Varka is missing her sleep. Twenty-four hours a day is not sufficient for the poor thirteen-year-old kid as she cannot take some time off to rest her tired muscles. Try as she might, Varka finds it the hardest thing in the world to keep her eyes open and all she wants to do is sleep. However, in the end, she manages to get it. Failing to come out of the hallucination that she has been having, Varka realizes that the baby is the only thing that prevents her from sleeping and so strangles the baby and lies down to finally give it a break!

The nuance of language that the author uses is very appealing. For instance, the concluding line is as follows.

“When she has strangled him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughs with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as sound as the dead.” (Chekhov. A,1888)

These lines convey to the readers how possessed the little girl was by her hallucination. The phrase “as sound as the dead” contains words that suggest opposing ideas or meanings as in an oxymoron. Thus, the author’s usage of language also is more than impressive in this story. There is also an instance in the story where Varka imagines people with wallets falling on the liquid mud. When asked why they did so, they reply “to sleep”. The metaphor of the dream might be as follows.

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It is common fact that a person’s dreams reflect his wishes and desires. When Varka dreamt of people falling on liquid mud just to sleep, it implies that they were so tired that they were ready to sleep on liquid mud! This reflects Varka’s desires and needs to sleep then. In her half-sleep, Varka also recalls what happened when her father was on his deathbed and finally passed away despite medical aid. Thus, these dreams and imaginations indirectly convey how Varka felt when she was deprived of the most basic need. The author uses the stuffiness in the room as a metaphor for that in the life of the girl. And sleep itself is a metaphor for the rest that she yearns for.

This story holds my interest primarily because of the unexpected twist in the end and also because of the author’s effective description of one of our events and feelings. Thus, the twist in the tale and the effective description were the main reasons for choosing this story. Oliver Elton, in “Chekhov: The Taylorian Lecture” has called this story “a clinical study”. This term refers to stories drawing on medical expertise and depicting psychosomatic illness or the psychological effects of physical disease or disorder (Gosse. E, 1969). This book can be considered one as it deals with what Varka did when she was hallucinating. In this case, this disorder may be because Varka was not allowed to do what she needed to do. Hence, this story suggests what a person, regardless of whether he is a kid or an adult is capable of doing that which fulfills his / her needs and desires.


  1. Chekhov.A (1888): Sleepy (Electronic Version), Web.
  2. Rayfield.D (2000): Anton Chekhov: A Life (Electronic Version): Northwestern University Press. Web.
  3. Gosse.E (1969): Studies in European Literature (Electronic Version): Ayer Publishing. Web.
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