TORMENT--A LITTLE, TOO MUCH
Lt. Ryabovich, the main character in the short story, The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov, is tormented by not knowing the identity of a woman who gives him a clandestine kiss. Flora, the main character in Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The Revolver, is also tormented although differently so. Through a comparison of these two characters and the respective author’s use of torment as a theme, it is hoped that differences and similarities in the extent of each protagonist’s anguish will be revealed.
In The Kiss, Lt. Ryabovich is characterized by the narrator as “a short, somewhat stooped officer in spectacles, with whiskers like a lynx’s.” With such a description, the reader immediately wants to assume that Lt. Ryabovich is not a particularly good-looking fellow. In The Revolver, however, the narrator wastes no time in telling the reader that Flora now looks “maimed by suffering”; her former “beauty was effaced and gone...” One should not assume, however, that the young Lieutenant and the “woman of about thirty-five or thirty-six”, should be incapable of finding soul-mates, lovers, or spouses. In fact, Flora has indeed been married, and is now a widow. Ryabovich, on the other hand, has not yet married.
Lt. Ryabovich’s character finds himself, along with the other military officers of his artillery company, invited to join a local landowner and his family for tea. Accepting the invitation, Ryabovich and his fellow officers arrive at their host’s home to find an ambiance ripe for an evening of informal socializing. During the course of the evening Ryabovich finds himself walking through “an absolutely dark room” and is met by a woman who suddenly bestows a kiss upon his cheek. As suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared hurriedly out of the darkened room.
Unfortunately, the complete darkness of the room and Ryabovich’s stunned but pleasant surprise, prevented his identification of this woman who came upon him surreptitiously. Her kiss had doubtlessly shaken him emotionally, one who had heretofore never experienced a kiss with such a lingering effect. At the very spot on his cheek where the kiss had been planted, Ryabovich felt a “faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops...”, obviously the reaction of a novice lover.
For the rest of the evening, Lt. Ryabovich is perplexed as to the identity of this woman--a woman whose acquaintance he now longs for. His fantasy of finding this mysterious woman to experience once again the venomous kiss, allows his mind and heart no rest, thereby exposing him to the same irrecusable torment that befalls a jilted lover. The intensity of the torment might even be likened to that experienced by Flora.
Emilia Pardo Bazan explains Flora’s torment in a surprisingly different way. At age nineteen, Flora marries the forty-year-old Reinaldo, who after a year of marital bliss, develops a “violent, irrational jealousy.…” It is this jealousy and irascibility that motivate Reinaldo to perpetrate a sadistic plan of terror upon his vivacious and beautiful wife.
In telling Flora his plan, Reinaldo takes her by the arm, leads her into the bedroom, and while declaring his ever-increasing love for her, begins to unravel his willful and malicious intent. He takes out a revolver from a “drawer of the small inlaid cabinet”, shows it to her, and vows to shoot her in the head if he ever sees “something that wounds” him, alluding to the possibility of her committing an indiscretion with someone else. He then puts the revolver back into the drawer.
Immediately after the threat, Flora is tormented every waking moment of the day by the very thought that Reinaldo will kill her. This torment devastates her, both mentally and physically. After revealing that Flora had a debilitating heart condition most likely caused by never-ending stress, the author further describes Flora’s emaciated-like appearance: “her features had withered away; her complexion revealed those disturbances of the blood which are slow poisonings, decompositions of the organism.”
Thus, two different characters in two distinctly different situations have both experienced different forms of intrusive emotional disruption--torment. Lt. Ryabovich experiences a somewhat more fleeting type of torment, in that his torture lasts for only a summer--from May until the end of August. However subtle one may think the torment is, the impact greatly manifests itself daily. Chekhov describes Ryabovich’s initial physical reaction by simply stating that “his heart was palpitating and his hands were trembling so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back.” Then the Lieutenant’s emotional status suddenly changed. Chekhov introduces this change by writing, “he was tormented by shame...”, and “he shrank into himself...”, and finally, “he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced before in his life”. In spite of this, the Lieutenant reacts effervescently to the kiss.
In contrast, Bazan explains Flora’s initial physical reaction by powerfully overstating the obvious. [Flora] ...“was in a daze, unconscious. It was necessary to send for the doctor, inasmuch as the fainting spell lasted.” Flora herself professes the finality of the spirit by proclaiming, “...I began to consider myself as dead.” Surely this was unlike Lt. Ryabovich’s reaction, but at that very moment of uncertainty, the experiences could be thought of as similar.
On the one hand, Lt. Ryabovich’s torment is self-imposed, perpetuated by his fantasies of how love must be, having never experiencing it before the kiss. And, on the other hand, Flora’s torment is constantly being inculcated by Reinaldo’s warning of killing her by never showing “...the slightest sign that I am displeased...” Bazan emphasizes this negative nurturing, Reinaldo’s unflustered demeanor, when Flora describes it as a “strength and tyranny of a resolute will...” In other words, she knows that Reinaldo is strong-willed enough to carry out the plan without ever giving any hint of when this action might take place.
Ryabovich does not know his tormentor, and yet he finds in the kiss a transformation of the torment, and within it, a hope for a loving future. Flora knows hers, and through the revolver, finds only the thought of hoping to meet her creator.
Lt. Ryabovich ends his torment months later when an invitation is extended by yet another landowner to his “comrade[s]”. He is informed of this invitation by another soldier who is described by Chekhov as “an orderly.” “For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovich’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go.…”
Unlike Ryabovich, Flora’s torment never ends, despite the fact that Reinaldo dies four years after the threat. Bazan cleverly reveals that the “revolver wasn’t loaded.” This may have been Reinaldo’s assurance, even after death, that upon finding the truth about the missing bullets, Flora would enter into another level of perpetual self-torment. As Flora tells it, “And so, ...an unloaded revolver shot me, not in the head, but in the center of my heart...the bullet is unsparing...”
If one analyzes the lives of Flora and Lt. Ryabovich, one may easily balk at the suggestion that a fleeting kiss stolen in the night could compare to the long-standing, severe abuse inflicted by a husband upon his wife. But one must remember that unless emotionally dead to begin with, anyone can be tormented with even the slightest provocation. Although physical pain can be measured for tolerance in each individual, it isn’t so with mental pain. The only thing that one may be able to gauge is a person’s outward behavior, as Flora seems to be demonstrating.
Throughout the story Flora sits in a “bathing resort”, telling her unfortunate story to a total stranger. She obviously found this to be much easier than leaving her terrible past behind. Hence, Flora is still very much a victim of her torment, a torment that may remain until her demise.
Contrary to Flora’s treatment of her mental torment, however, Lt. Ryabovich seems to want to end it. Apparently he succeeds in this endeavor by not accepting the latter invitation to a social, thus putting closure to his daily mental anguish. Both characters had every opportunity to walk away from their respective situations. Only Lt. Ryabovich actually had the will to do it. Flora should not be blamed for her lack of will-power though, since fear can overpower the very soul of even the strongest person.
At this point, one should well remember that Flora’s torment was a factual death threat; Ryabovich had but a fantasy for his torment. It is very interesting to think that the real and the surreal can be compared merely by using two different methods of provocation, each with the ability to inflict, without impunity, a degree of mental suffocation. Unless one has experienced either of these two scenarios, he cannot begin to discern the effects of such predicaments.
In summary, one should not accept this comparison of torment as a trivialization of mental or spousal abuse. It is more of a literary observation by an unqualified critic in an attempt to convince a reader that an author’s treatment of torment as a theme, may be done so as to tug at the heartstrings and emotions of that reader. By employing this method, the author facilitates the reader’s ability to identify with the characters. A situation such as Ryabovich’s surprise kiss is a rare one. But, unfortunately and unacceptably, one too many women can identify with Flora and her years of mental abuse.
In retrospect, Ryabovich’s short-termed torment seems to pale in comparison to Flora’s anguish and inevitable destruction. But as a judge often vainly seeks the preponderance of the evidence, so does this humble writer conclude that the kind and severity of a person’s torment are based on the fragility of that individual’s mind, thus making it real and unmeasureable. Quite simply, there will always be a difference.
In Memory of
Marci D. Long, M.D.