image of the black monk

When the Black Monk knocks, answer. Chekhov’s short story on mental illness.

In the short story The Black Monk Chekhov writes about death, faith, and individuality. Andrey Vasil’ich Kovrin, the main character of the short story died in a peculiar way.  He was visited by a fabricated phantom, started hemorrhaging, and then fell face first into a puddle of his own blood.  I took something surprising from the short story which changed my perception on living and dying. 

The main character Kovrin is overworked, nervous, and needs a break so he retreats to a friends country estate.

Chekhov introduces us to Kovrin, an avid reader and writer, whose nerves and job (he has a Master of Arts) have left him feeling ill.  A doctor recommends taking some time away from his life in the city and retreating into the country.

He stays with Egor Semenych Pesotski, and his daughter Tania, on their farm.  We later learn that Kovrin and the Pesotski’s have known each other before Kovrin moved to Moscow because he lost his parents in childhood.  While he enjoys learning about the orchards, dining on nostalgic food, and rekindling his relations with the family,  he still continues to read and write.  His work in the country differs from that in the city because he is feeling content and active, enjoying himself even though he barely sleeps.

Inspired by a Russian Serenade, Kovrin tells Tania about the legend of a black monk, and we start to realize that there is a connection between the serenade and the legend.

One evening neighbors visit the Pesotski’s estate and begin practicing Gaetano Braga’s Serenade, a Russian serenade for violin, piano, and vocals.  After being deeply moved by the lyrics,  Kovrin tells Tania a haunting legend of a black monk.  At this point, the main character is unable to recall the legends source, but the reader is able to recall that the lyrics of the serenade caused Kovrin to close his eyes, and this suggests he fell asleep.  The relevance of the reader’s insight is brought to light when, during Kovrin’s conversation with Tania, he confesses the legend could have been a dream.  This is our first clue that Kovrin might suffer from delusions or a kind of mental illness.

The serenade tells the story of a girl, who possesses a “diseased imagination”, and hears heavenly music in the garden and becomes convinced the music is incomprehensible for humans.

The legend Kovrin tells Tania carries a similar mysticism to the Russian song.  The monk, dressed in a black robe is walking in the Middle East (Syria or Arabia) but in the distance another black monk appears to a fisherman as a mirage.  Disregarding the law of optics, the mirage of the black monk continues to be reproduced throughout the universe. Coincidentally the black monk’s return is scheduled within the next day.

The monk first appears and we learn that Kovrin keeps the event to himself.

Unimpressed, Tania returns to her guests and Kovrin wonders through the garden and arrives at the river.  Conscious of nearby rustling rye fields, the setting sun, and a light breeze Kovrin witnesses a black column ascending from the sky.  It is the black monk and he whips by, leaving Kovrin pleased that the legend is true, but also hesitant to announce the monk’s arrival to Pesotski or Tania.

When the monk appears for the second time he reveals his true identity to Kovrin, we discover that the monk is a fabrication of the main character’s mind.  Kovrin accepts this turn of events.

Since his first encounter, the monk mostly disappears from the story,  and some time passes.  One day, after playing peacemaker for Tania and her father, Kovrin finds solitude on a bench in the garden. Elated and relaxed, the faint music of Braga’s serenade suddenly reaches his ears, and Kovrin is surprised by a man, the black monk, walking out of the nearby pine woods.  The ragged man sits down next to Kovrin, and they begin to converse.

During the conversation Kovrin learns that the monk is a phantom, or fragment, of his imagination.  We also learn that Kovrin, according to the monk, is one of God’s chosen people and now serves the eternal truth.

Distraught that he is mentally ill, Kovrin complains to the monk. The monk comforts the man, helps him to accept his illness, and forewarns that Kovrin must sacrifice more of his health to an idea and eventually in death.

Elated with the good news he learned from the monk, Kovrin returns to the house and proposes to Tania.

As the monk and Kovrin continue to secretly meet, we, the readers, become aware of the positive transformation the monk has on Kovrin.  Even though Kovrin is mad, his belief in a purpose focuses his energies, and he is filled with happiness.  

The monk and Kovrin frequently meet in the park, or at the house,  even at dinner. These meetings change Kovrin in two ways.  Externally he appears radiant and godly, and internally his worldview brightens and his writing take on the monk’s influences.

One night Kovrin, now married to Tania and living in Moscow, is talking to the monk, when Tania discovers Kovrin talking to himself.  He finally admits he is mad and mentally ill, and agrees to seek treatment.  We learn that without the monk, Kovrin becomes unrecognizable, his hair is shorter, skin sallow, and attitude pessimistic.

Back in the country at the Pesotski’s estate, milk and rest, helps to alleviate Kovrin’s madness.  But instead of feeling better, Kovrin finds the treatment having the opposite effect and draining his life of color.  He finds himself continuing to sink deeper into depression, and finally finds relief by leaving Tania, moving back to Moscow, and starting a relationship with an older woman.

Finally able to return to work, Kovrin is torn between falling back into his depression and returning to the madness caused by the monk.  One night Kovrin mentally battles these two sides but eventually succumbs to the happiness brought on by the monk.  He dies, but does so happy.

Kovrin, at his house in Moscow, contemplates how unfair life has become. He concludes life offers slivers of satisfaction and joy in exchange for stretches of suffering and pain.   At once he becomes distracted by bits of a letter from his ex-wife.  Throwing these out the window, a wind prevents their passing, and he goes out onto the balcony.  He hears a violin and two voices, the music of the Russian serenade, and he is overcome with happiness once again.  The monk returns and scolds Kovrin for not believing in himself, for giving up.  Reminding him that he was a genius and that he could have had a happy two years instead of two miserable ones.

Unfortunately, when Kovrin once again believes in the monk, he dies, but at least with a smile on his face.

What can we take from this short story?  

If you want to be happy, don’t betray yourself.

When Kovrin made the choice to turn his back on the monk,  he turned his back on true happiness.  For him happiness was a life dedicated to reading and writing, to the reasonable and the beautiful. But at the same time Kovrin was battling an internal conflict with social norms. When he chose to treat his madness, he let society win, and he suffered as a consequence.

In the end, he returned to his faith and died for what he believed in, and so died happy.

Check out more:

What Anton Chekhov’s short stories have you read?

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