To be accused of witchcraft is to receive an execution sentence. These accusations served to systematically root out female power and autonomy, as well as those that posed a threat to the structures and systems of society. Anton Chekhov’s “The Witch” tells the story of a disgruntled sexton and his young, beautiful wife. The two lead an isolated, miserable life in their secluded land by the church. The couple’s increasingly contentious relationship leads the sexton to accuse his wife of witchcraft.
Feminism and feminist theory explore dominant traditions regarding gender that have been internalized by society and, therefore, normalized. Anton Chekhov’s “The Witch” explores how the concept of gender roles reinforce established and internalized stereotypes through use of contrast and juxtapositions. At the heart of Chekov’s story is the demonization of a woman and the perception of magic where nature lies.
The lovely Raissa, adorned with floor-length silver plaits, is not a witch, but a lonely woman trapped in an unfulfilling, dull existence. After avoiding going to bed with her husband one night, he becomes violently angry, hurling accusations of dark magic towards her. The sexton, Savely, believes she is responsible for the violent snowstorm, as he asserts she created in order to lure men into her waiting arms. A postman and his coachman become lost in this storm and knock at the couple’s cabin door. As Raissa greets the stranger, the postman becomes enchanted, bewitched, by Raissa’s countenance.
Chekhov relies on dialogue to express the thoughts and motivations of the characters, as well as the reason the sexton persists so adamantly that his wife is a witch. When describing Raissa, the woman accused of witchcraft by her husband and the titular character of “The Witch,” Chekhov utilizes imagery and metaphors to examine her outward appearance. Chekhov presents Raissa initially as a simple-minded, obedient and submissive housewife, “No desire, no joy, no grief, nothing was expressed by her handsome face with its turned-up nose and its dimples. So a beautiful fountain expresses nothing when it is not playing” (2). In his characterization, Chekhov presents Raissa as a submissive housewife, which is concurrent with common female stereotypes in literature. Raissa is presented as seemingly devoid of life when not performing, almost catatonic in her misery and longing. Raissa’s physical description contrasts with the much more extensive description of her husband, who is characterized as an expressively violent man, very vocal about his tumultuous emotions. By creating this juxtaposition between the Sexton and his wife, Chekov conveys that to conform to societal norms, women must be much more subdued and repressed in the expression of their thoughts and ideas than their male counterparts.
Utilizing strong imagery and metaphors, Chekhov creates a repressed, fragile woman who is revealed later in the plot to be strong and defiant; very different from how she appears. This displays the rejection of standard gender roles by Chekhov in a nuanced, yet powerful way, as represented by Raissa.
The character of Raissa is shown to deeply long for similar companionship, something she cannot find in her husband, who subjects her to belittlement and accusations of witchcraft. Her delicate neck contrasts with her broad shoulders, typically a trait present in men, which serves to contribute to her overall image of refined beauty and blatant, unapologetic femininity. Perhaps representative of all women, Chekhov contrasts the feminine beauty and delicacy of her neck with strong, broad shoulders, capable of bearing the weight of the continuation of humanity. The contrast is similar to that of her hands with the rough hemp fabric of the sack she was sewing, which can also go to reflect the different qualities placed in value by Chekhov.
Raissa’s neck also serves as an object of desire and lust for the visitors, which promotes the common belief that women serve to be objects of physical desire under the male gaze in literature. It takes the attention of another man for the sexton to display affection for his wife and defy the male stereotype of refraint of expressions of sensitivity. Raissa describes the postman as attractive, an object of desire, but it is only in comparison to the Sexton that he is so extraordinary “It did not matter to her that his face was covered. She was not so much interested in his face as in his whole appearance, in the novelty of this man. His chest was broad and powerful, his hands were slender and well formed, and his graceful, muscular legs were much comelier than Savély’s stumps. There could be no comparison, in fact” (7). Perhaps, just as Raissa is beautiful, but when seen in comparison to her dingy, filthy surroundings, she becomes a creature of supernatural attraction. Chekhov reveals the only way Savely can see his wife’s beauty is when she is a source of conflict for him and another man. However, as the sexton Savely’s frustration and perhaps fear regarding his wife, he finds he is attracted to her even more, but he perceives magic where natural lust lies; “this mysteriousness, this supernatural, weird power gave the woman beside him a peculiar, incomprehensible charm of which he had not been conscious before… in his stupidity he unconsciously threw a poetic glamour over her made her seem, as it were, whiter, sleeker, more unapproachable” (9). This idea of desirability is a result of established gender roles commonly prescribed to the female character to serve as an object of internal conflict for men. It is in this instance that the sexton begins to perceive human lust, both unaware and unable to recognize the natural phenomenon he is experiencing, which renews his accusations, which he screams in an enraged fervor.
Chekhov’s “The Witch” explores how these concepts of gender roles have reinforced internalized stereotypes. When Chekhov shows Raissa defying societal boundaries and exercising autonomy by defying her husband’s wishes, she is accused of witchcraft. Chekhov used “The Witch” to comment on the way society views the expression of autonomy, independence and defiance of gender roles specifically by women as an abomination, a source of dark magic, a corruption and darkening of the soul. As in many instances where one is faced with something they do not understand, it is viewed as a threat, something unnatural, and something to fear.