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"The Death of a Government Clerk": Learning How Not to Apologize

By Briennewalsh @BrienneWalsh
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“The Death of a Government Clerk”: Learning How Not to Apologize

By Bianca Ozeri

Still falling prey to an inexcusable lethargy, I’ve continued reading short stories instead of returning to Shantaram, the 900-page novel I picked up six months ago about an Australian bank robber fugitive who escapes to Mumbai, joins the mafia, and falls in love. I’m about half way through, and my temporary abandonment of the narrative is no indication of it’s value. It is triumphant prose, all the more dazzling for being written by this guy (for real):

I’m sure I’ll pick it up again soon, but for the time being, I’m reading short stories: ephemeral things I think on for days.

Today I read the hilarious, “The Death of a Government Clerk” by Anton Chekhov, a man who, if I’m not mistaken on her taste, could easily end up on Brie’s “Dead Men I’d Like to Have Married” list.

(Side note from Brie: Yum.)

The story, published in Russia in 1883, begins at Les Cloche de Corneville, an operetta characterized by serene melody, myriad orchestral techniques, and the gentle power of any successful operatic performance. Ivan Dmitritch Tchervyakov, a government clerk, sits behind Brizzhalov (whom we’ll refer to as Brizz), a higher government official in the Department of Transportation, on whom Ivan unintentionally sneezes during the show. 

The story then follows Ivan from his seat, to the opera house lobby, to Brizz’s office; all places at which Ivan apologizes incessantly for his sneeze, perpetually convinced, by a “fiendish light in [Brizz’s] eye,” that “His Excellency” is unsatisfied with the apology, shan’t forget about the bodily function, and will hold against Ivan an eternal grudge. 

As you’ve predicted, Brizz is fucking irate. After Ivan’s second apology he’s like—in, of course, more elegant Chekhovian quotation—“What the fuck are you doing? It’s not a big fucking deal. I’ve forgotten about the whole fucking thing. Fuck you. You’re a fucking blockhead. WHO ARE YOU AND WHY ARE YOU HERE?” Pallor descends upon him. Ivan, holding to an obstinate belief that the livid complexion is a symptom of the sneeze, apologizes again.

After Brizzhalov’s final dismissal of the clerk — “Be off!” he yells at him, with all the fervor of a high-ranking Russki — Ivan staggers home, takes off his uniform, lays on the couch, and dies. 

Chekhov’s story, an impressive 950 words bare of even a beat of superfluousness, opens up a treasure trove of themes: the involuntary respect we feel is owed to the upperclass; a blinding guilt complex that too often gets the better of us; the notion that the ineptitude of some politicians goes alllllll the way through…

Seeing as I myself am politically inept though, I won’t concentrate on all that government jargon. I was struck more by Chekhov’s examination of apology and forgiveness. It seems to me not that, as I’ve heard many people suggest, we’ve forgotten how to apologize; but rather that we’re apologizing in situations when it’s unnecessary, and standing ground where we need to be vulnerable. 

I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m a flimsy twenty-three years, but I am an over apologetic girl: “Sorry for interrupting…” (even though I’m doing my job); “Sorry for running into you,” (even though you ran into me, and crushed my toes in the process); “Sorry for asking you this question,” (even though you will probably enjoy answering it)…

Sorry has become something of a dictum for me; a word I’ve come to believe assures my interlocutor of my respect for them; even if it simultaneously cuts down respect for myself, which, as Chekhov has taught us, kills ya! 

That’s the problem with these “small” sorries: they lack the nobility of a true apology, leaving me with an obscured version of myself. They are the type that make me feel further away from the person I needn’t be apologizing to, and from myself. I may as well walk up to the barista and say, “I’m gravely unsure of myself, I’m constantly wrestling with my own self-worth, I have no idea if I deserve your regard, but if you would so kindly make me an Iced Chai Latte, I would gladly accept.”  Where I thought that these kinds of apologies were a sure form of people-pleasing (a questionable quality in itself), I’ve learned that they’re actually quite annoying, a waste of words, and dignity, and time.  

Contrarily, I’ve learned, the types of apologies that help to build character are, unsurprisingly, the colossal ones (although I hope they will feel less so as I get older).Tthe ones that, these days, seem tragically difficult for people between fifteen and twenty-four to utter. The ones that say definitively and without excuse, “I’m sorry, Mom, you are right, and I am wrong. I’ll be more conscious of it next time.” You think you’ll puke before the words make it out the mouth, but as soon as they do, a pastel peace falls over you — the feeling of being blanketed as a baby, a feeling of maturity, and responsibility for yourself. 

Clearly, the humor — and the lesson — in Chekhov’s story lies not only in Ivan’s folly however, but also his subsequent death. Empty of any biological explanation, the final scene offers an absurdity at which it’s difficult not to laugh. The more I thought about it though, the sadder Ivan’s death became: the end of a witlessly subservient man whose self-certitude came only from service to and approval from authority. It was, perhaps and simply, the insecurity that killed Ivan.

So, at the risk of an improper conclusion because I have to go babysit, I’m just going to tell you to make sure you love yourself a little bit more today. Make sure when you apologize you really mean it, make sure it’s your approval that matters most, make sure self-respect is a priority on your to-do list, and make sure you read “The Death of a Government Clerk”, because even after this post, I think it will give you a bit of a laugh. 

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