Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens“A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.