The following dialogue spoken by the character Smirnov in the farce "The Bear" by Anton Chekhov reads as follows:

[taps his forehead] Excuse my outspokenness, a sparrow can give ten points to any philosopher in petticoats...

Whom does the character refer to as sparrow?

  • 2
    One very common use of sparrow in literature is as an allusion to Matthew 10:29-31 — "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 6 at 16:16

1 Answer 1


Smirnov is not referring any one character in particular, but to women in general. In the lead-up to the quoted line, Smirnov is making a diatribe about the female sex, saying that he doesn't know how to talk to them, how to behave with them, and that furthermore:

all women, great or little, are insincere, crooked, backbiters, envious, liars to the marrow of their bones, vain, trivial, merciless, unreasonable

He then taps his head to indicate that he will now turn to critising their mental faculties, and says:

a sparrow can give ten points to any philosopher in petticoats you like to name!

A sparrow is frequently used to mean something insignificant. As remarked in the comments, a famous instance is in Matthew 10:29 "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father". This uses the image to emphasise God's omnsicience - even though sparrows are practically worthless (you can buy two for a penny), God nevertheless marks what happens to each of them.

So Smirnov is saying that in his opinion, women's mental powers are inferior even to those of a sparrow. To underline this further, he says that in a battle of wits between a sparrow and a woman (a "philosopher in petticoats"), the sparrow could give the woman ten points and still win. This is a sporting metaphor; suppose that two people are playing table tennis and the first to 21 points wins. If one of the players is much better than the other, they might give their opponent a start of 10 points to make the game more even. Similarly in a running-race, a good sprinter may give a slower runner a head-start of a few metres. Even with such an advantage, however, Smirnov claims that a woman would still lose.

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