The Man Who Lived in a Shell | Summary, Analysis, Characters, Theme

The Man Who Lived in a Shell | Summary, Analysis, Characters, Theme

The Man Who Lived in a Shell by Anton Chekhov

The Man Who Lived in a Shell Introduction

The Man Who Lived in a Shell is a story about the class of a special group of people. These people always spend out their lives in a shell of their confinement and don’t see beyond themselves. They welcome no opportunities and remain closed behind all closed doors. They are incorrigible people. Mr. Belikov is the protagonist of the story who is a teacher of Greek Language by profession. He is an introvert and lives in his own shell. The Man who lived in a shell is most appropriate for him. Being unmarried, his bedroom was like a box and there was a canopy over his bed making it a perfect shell. When another teacher joined the school where Belikov worked, he joined as a teacher of history with his sister whose name was Varya. There is a discovery that Belikov is unmarried and can be married to Varya who wished for a change in his life. But it so happens that they represent two different poles of opinions and cannot be reconciled. It is due to the fact that Belikov is a man who lived in a shell so he cannot step out to see the light; the real state of affairs of reality and the true nature of things.

The Man Who Lived in a Shell Major Characters

There are three main characters: Belikov, Varya and Kovalenko.


Belikov is a teacher of Greek Language at a school and is bachelor. He is forty years of age. He is the man who lives in the shell. He keeps almost all his things in a case. His room is like a coffin or box where he must live forever and ever. He remains an isolated life like a snail. He has his own liking of certain papers and magazines. He is a strange man because he is disturbed by even a small change in society or one’s personality. He is a man who doesn’t like changes. Although he is sociable and likes meeting people; but his routine is strictly disciplined and never admits of varieties or changes. His bed room is small like his mind and thoughts. This is impossible to conceive these aspects of a bachelor’s life.

Varenka (Varya)

The second important character is Varya who is the sister of a new teacher of History who has come to stay in Belikov’s school. There is something in the air that Belikov and Varya will make a good couple and should marry soon and incidentally, they also get closer to each other but to find themselves too different from each other and unreconcilable. Varya is thirty years old. She is tall and noisy, loves the spirit of life. So to say, she is a peace girl who is supposed to marry a tomatoe. She belongs to a rich family but she has sincere feelings. But she wants variety as she is sick of the life she is spending with her brother.


Kavalenko is her younger brother who is a new teacher of History at the school where Belikov is teaching. He is young, tall and dark complexioned man of almost the same age as his sister. He is a disciplined man and cannot bear the indiscipline of the school. He is incompatible with Belikov.

The Man Who Lived in a Shell Summary

Mr. Burkin, a high school teacher spends every summer vacation in a village at the estate of count belonging to Mr. Prokofy, the village elder. This time Mr. Ivan Ivanoich (A doctor of Animals) is also with him. They talk about a woman Mavra who never comes out of her home. She always lives in her own world.

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Mr. Burkin remembers a person like Marva who lived in a shell. The name of the person is Belikov who was a colleague of Burkin in high school. Mr. Belikov was a hermit-crab sort of person. He lived in a very reserved manner. He liked to keep all his belongings in a case. Even his face was a sort of case. He always kept umbrella and overshoes. There was a canopy around his bed. He was suspicious about everything. There was a psychological fear in his mind which made him to fear even from beautiful things. If a person invited him to a reading-room or a café, he would say:

“It is very fine thing no doubt, but let’s no evil will come out of it …..”

Mr. Burkin said that he was able to draw his portrait in detail because both of them lived in the same apartment. He had only one servant who was an old cook Afanasy. He did not hire a maid-servant due to the fear of notions. He was even afraid of Afanasy that he might kill him some day. He was a Greek teacher and liked to live in the past and talked people about the things who had no value in present.

Two new teachers were employed in their school. One of them was Mr. Kovalenko and the other was his sister Varenka. They had come from Ukraine. They were broadminded, talkative and easy-going fellows. Varenka was a singer. Once in a party at head master’s residence, Varenka sung a song which was liked by all of them even Belikov liked her voice and thus a natural liking developed between them. The Headmaster’s wife and other ladies got a new issue. Headmaster’s wife gave them suggestion to marry each other. This suggestion was liked by all of them especially by ladies. Now they inspired Varenka to think about Belikov. Belikov was also seriously considering about Varenka. He placed a photograph of Varenka in his room and began to consider seriously about marriage and its problems.

Belikov was in habit of visiting all of his friends for hours but speaking nothing. He considered it his duty to visit his friend’s houses. Now he started to visit Kovalenko’s house, sitting in his usual manner, staring and talking nothing. Kovalenko did not like his manners. He had developed a disliking for him since his first meeting. Then one day, Headmaster’s wife asked Kovalenko that what would he do if his sister married a person like Belikov. He said that he had nothing to do with the lives of others. It is the choice of his sister to like a decent person or a vampire spider, he commented.

Varenka was not very happy with her boring life with her brother. A dull and drab discussion about books always took place between them. So there were chances for Belikov approval from Varenka. Moreover, her age was 30 years old and it was a suitable age for girls to marry.

One day a person drew caricature in order to amuse the people. He painted Belikov in overshoes and an umbrella over his head and Varenka walking arm-in-arm with him. There was an inscription:

“The Anthropos in love”.

Belikov was very much depressed by looking at the caricature. He was getting more and more pale by taking into consideration the responsibilities and different angles of marriage.

One summer day, there was a public gathering in front of their school. Everyone was happy. At that occasion Mr. Belikov got stunned by seeing Kovalenko and Veranka riding bicycles in a very careless manner.

Next day, Belikov visited Mr. Kovalenko’s house. After silence of ten minutes, Mr. Belikov said that he was not sort of person as someone had drawn him. On the contrary, he had always behaved gently in his life and next time he would not tolerate any caricature about himself. He further said that it was a displeasing activity for the bachelors to ride a bicycle. If the teachers would do that, their pupils would gather negative impression. Besides he also thought about the response of the parents. Kovalenko replied that if headmaster and Patrons tried to interfere his life, they could go to hell. Belikov said that he could not disrespect his superiors. That’s why before any person misinterprets their conversation, he would personally inform the headmaster about that conversation. At this point, Kovalenko pulled him against stairs. Belikov fell downstairs and stood with signs of disgrace he had met.

Suddenly Varenka appeared on the scene and looking at him, bursted into laughter, ha! ha! ha! He felt insult and broke off relationship with Varenka. After reaching home, he removed the photograph of Varenka. Then he fell ill and after one month, he expired. Professor Berkin says that he was not only one man of this sort. There are many persons like him:

“And plenty as yet unborn.”

Belikov dies with his instructions and prohibitions but life does not change its routine. There are still many people who live in a shell. Mr. Ivanovich comments that we are also in our ways, living in shells. He utters:

“And is not out living in towns, in our stuffy, cramped rooms, writing our useless papers, playing visit isn’t that living in an oyster-shell too”.

The Man Who Lived in a Shell Analysis

Chekhov’s stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. It is not only the immense number of stories he wrote for few, if any, writers have ever done more — it is the awesome frequency with which he produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish. Ernest Hemingway, another writer influenced by Chekhov, was more grudging:

“Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer.”

And Vladimir Nabokov once complained of Chekhov’s “medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions.” But he also declared The Lady with the Dog “one of the greatest stories ever written” and described Chekhov as writing “the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.”

For the writer William Boyd, Chekhov’s breakthrough was to abandon what William Gerhardie called the “event plot” for something more “blurred, interrupted, mauled or otherwise tampered with by life.” Virginia Woolf mused on the unique quality of a Chekhov story in The Common Reader (1925):

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped – without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based on the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way what we recognize. In doing so we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic- lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed – as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Chekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.

With all this discussion, Chekov comes up as a real craftsman of short stories and has thus produced a fascinating story of character. Chekhov uses the device of a tale within a tale. Two men (Burkin and Ivan Ivanovich) are lodged for the night in a barn and swapping stories; Burkin tells Belikov’s tale as an example of people “who try to retreat into their shell like a hermit crab or a snail.” At the end of the tale, the two friends look at the moon and breathe the night air, realizing that their life in town, with all its restrictions and compromises, is much like being in a shell or a case. In the country they feel peaceful and free.

We all have our shells, Chekhov seems to be saying. We all have limitations on our ability to love or to be open to others. Yet, openness and freedom can be experienced–at least, for a few moments. “The Man Who Lived in a Shell” is part of a trio of short stories in which Burkin and Ivan Ivanovich appear; Gooseberries and “About Love” are the others.

These act in a similar way should be challenging and even distressful. Chekhov’s “The Man Who Lived in a Shell” – told by a third person narrator- is a short story that from my standpoint talks about the idea above. Belikov, who is the character constantly struggling to live in mind-peace with his surrounding, is described as “temperamentally unsociable, who tries to withdraw into a shell like a hermit crab or a snail”. However, are there more people who under certain circumstances can be qualified like him, or is he the only one? Belikov’s behavior and ideas are brought to us by Burkin, the character who was telling the story. According to him, Belikoy was a man who lived under very strict ideas of how life should be taken. Always acting by the rules and if by any means something happened to be off his believes, he would get nervous, agitated, and most likely would start a whole drama out of that situation. That is why Belikov constantly tried not to have too much social interaction, be very cautious, and aware of what people did around him. As Burkin said, “the man showed a constant and irrepressible inclination to keep a covering about himself…..which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences.” Not only was he a man with many “prohibitions” and “restrictions”, but also he was afraid of his acquaintances just like they were afraid of him. However, Burkin was not trying to say that Belikov was a rare or unique type of human being; in fact, he gave some possible explanations to understand Belikov’s behavior. He said that perhaps it is just a matter of “atavism” which is the tendency to continue or imitate customs of earlier ways of living, or maybe it is only the fact of not being sociable enough, or might be “only one of the varieties of human character.”

The Man Who Lived in a Shell Theme

Psychological fear and skepticism is the central theme of the story. Belikov is a victim is isolation because of his fear. He is timid by nature and tries to justify himself by talking about past and about things even which had not existed. Mr. Belikov is a hermit crab sort of person. He is quite reserved by nature. He considers it his duty to visit his friends, sits with them but he speaks nothing.

Belikov is even afraid of hiring maidservant. He is too much concerned with the opinions of people. Belikov is a person who has closed himself in a shell and behaves authoritatively. He keeps all his school teachers, pupils and priests under his thumb. He wants to be a disciplinarian and taken to be as an exemplary person. He pokes his nose in everyone’s affairs by advising them. He criticizes Kovalenko and Varonka for riding a bicycle. He is careful and cautions that he wants to see the river of life by standing on the bank. He does not jump into the river of life. He has no courage to face criticism from different quarters. Belikov lives in a world of his make-belief. He does not want to change himself and accept bitter realities of life. When Belikov has to make compromise, he is nervous. The dilemma of modern man has been highlighted by Anton Chekov. At the end of the story, spokesman of Anton Chekov says:

“Though we have buried Belikov. There are still plenty of men live in a shell, and there are plenty as yet unborn….”

Dilemma of Belikov is the dilemma faced by many who live in their own shells because they don’t want to be mocked and ridiculed by others. As Belikov is ridiculed and hated by Varenka and his brother Kovalenko and under the influence on the criticism of both, Belikov falls ill and expires after one month.

3 thoughts on “The Man Who Lived in a Shell | Summary, Analysis, Characters, Theme”

  1. Dear Very impressive work but I feel(May be I am wrong) a little bit lack, there must be mention historical Background and the things which compelled Checkove to write such a story.



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