Article abstract: Although Chekhov had a significant impact on the creation of modern drama with his four major plays, his most important influence has been on the development of the modern short story. With his numerous lyrical stories, Chekhov liberated the short story in particular from its adherence to the parable form and fiction in general from the tedium of the realistic novel.
Anton Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in a small port town on the Sea of Azov in the Crimea. His grandfather was a former slave who bought his own freedom. In what is perhaps the best-known remark Chekhov ever made about his life, he said he felt the necessity to “squeeze the slave” out of himself. Chekhov’s father, Pavel Egorovich, owned a small general store in which Chekhov worked as a child. When Chekhov was sixteen, however, his father had to declare bankruptcy and escape his creditors by going to Moscow. Chekhov’s mother, along with the two youngest children, followed soon after. Chekhov stayed behind as a tutor to the son of one of his mother’s former boarders.
After living in poverty and fending for himself for three years, Chekhov was graduated from high school in Taganrog and went to Moscow to enter medical school at Moscow University. Because his father had a low-paying job outside town and was only home on Sundays and holidays, Chekhov had to assume the role of head of his family’s household and find work. Having shown an early interest in writing while he was a child in Taganrog, he sought to supplement his family’s meager income by contributing anecdotes and stories to humorous magazines, especially at the urging of his elder brother Aleksander, who was already earning a small income by publishing in such magazines. At first Chekhov had little success with his writing efforts, but in March, 1880, his first story was published in the humor journal Strekoza (dragonfly). Chekhov later called this the beginning of his literary career.
In 1882, Chekhov became a regular contributor of jokes and anecdotes to a weekly St. Petersburg magazine, Oskolki (fragments), edited by Nikolai A. Leikin. He submitted a large number of short pieces to the journal, many under various pseudonyms. By 1884, he had published more than two hundred short pieces, but when his first collection, Skazki Melpomeny (1884; Tales of Melpomene, 1916-1923), was published, he included only twenty of them. Also in 1884, Chekhov finished his degree and began practicing medicine. By the following year, when he went to St. Petersburg, he found, much to his surprise (because he did not consider his work significant), that he was quite well known as a writer there.
Chekhov’s increasing desire to write more serious fiction, however, made him chafe against the restrictions of the humor magazines, as well as against Leiken’s insistence that he stick to jokes. Thus, when Aleksey S. Suvorin, the owner of the influential newspaper Novoye vremya (new times), asked Chekhov to contribute more substantial stories to his newspaper, Chekhov was pleased to comply. During 1886 and 1887, Chekhov wrote a large number of stories and short pieces for Suvorin, including some of his best-known stories. His second collection, Pystrye rasskazy (motley stories), was published in 1886, and a third, V sumerkakh (in the twilight), was published in 1887.
Still, Chekhov was not personally satisfied with his work, believing it to be ephemeral. Moreover, in 1886, he began to suspect that he had tuberculosis, although he refused to have another doctor give him an examination. In this spirit of anxiety about his health and dissatisfaction with his work, Chekhov left on a trip to his hometown in the Crimea to visit friends and relatives. This trip seemed to rejuvenate him, for several important stories of the provincial life of the people he encountered resulted from it. Perhaps the most important result of the journey, however, was his lyrical story “Step’” (“The Steppe,” 1915), which was published in a highly reputable literary monthly in 1888. Following the story’s publication, Chekhov was given the Pushkin Prize for literature by the Academy of Sciences. Even Chekhov himself could no longer doubt that his work had more than ephemeral value.
Also in 1888, Chekhov turned to writing plays, beginning with Leshy (1889; The Wood Demon, 1925), which was so poorly received that he quit writing serious drama until 1895. This failure, along with a general sense of malaise, what Chekhov called a stagnation in his soul, was the cause of his decision to take a most treacherous journey to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island in the Northern Pacific to learn about the living conditions of the prison inmates. Taking extraordinary means to study the geography and history of the island, he embarked on April 21, 1890, and arrived on July 11. Chekhov spent three months on the island and did enough research on the inmates, he said, for “three dissertations.” Although Ostrov Sakhalin (1893; the Island of Sakhalin) was the formal result of the trip, more lasting fictional results are such stories as “V sylke” (1892; “In Exile,” 1912) and “V ovrage” (1900; in the ravine).
On his return to Moscow, Chekhov once again had the urge to travel, this time to Europe. He found Vienna, Venice, Rome, and Florence overwhelming in the beauty of their art and landscapes. On his return, Chekhov purchased a country estate about fifty miles outside Moscow in Melikhovo, where he became a country gentleman and landowner and wrote many of his most famous stories, such as “Chorny monakh” (1892; “The Black Monk,” 1903), “Palata No. 6” (1892; ward no. six), “Student” (1894; the student), “Muzhiki” (1897; peasants), and “Dom s mezoninom” (1896; the house with an attic).
In 1895, Chekhov began writing plays again, working on Chayka (The Seagull, 1909), which was first staged at St. Petersburg in October, 1896, but, partly because of the nature of the production, was an abysmal failure. Once again, Chekhov swore never to write plays. Shortly thereafter, his health worsened and he began to hemorrhage from the lungs. After entering a clinic, he was officially diagnosed as having tuberculosis and was advised to spend the winter months in a warm climate; he soon left for Nice, France. While Chekhov was in France, the Moscow Art Theater asked for permission to stage The Seagull. Although Chekhov first refused, he later agreed and went to Moscow to meet the cast. Among them was Olga Knipper, whom Chekhov would marry a few years later.
Chekhov’s ill health again forced him to leave Moscow, this time for Yalta, where he had a house built. On December 17, 1898, The Seagull opened and was a tremendous success. Thus encouraged, Chekhov rewrote his first failure, The Wood Demon, and renamed it Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya, 1914), which the Moscow Art Theater staged in 1899. The following year, when the troupe began a tour of the Crimea with both The Seagull and Uncle Vanya among their repertoire, Chekhov was at last able to see his two plays on the stage. He was also able to spend more time with Olga Knipper. Soon after, Chekhov finished his third play, Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters, 1920). He and Olga Knipper were married on May 25, 1901.
In 1902, Chekhov’s health took another turn for the worse; it is a tribute to his determination and genius that during this year he worked on his final play, Vishnyovy sad (The Cherry Orchard, 1908), and completed it in October. It was scheduled to premier on January 29, 1904, on his forty-fourth birthday; it was also presented in celebration of his twenty-five years as a writer. When Chekhov arrived at the theater after the third act, much to his embarrassment, he was honored with speeches and applause.
Chekhov went back to Yalta for the rest of the winter; on his return trip to Moscow in the spring, his health became worse. On June 4, he and his wife went to Berlin to see a specialist; from there, they went to Badenweiler, a spa in Germany. Chekhov died early in the morning on July 15, 1904. His body was shipped back to Moscow, where he was buried by his father.
Anton Chekhov was one of the most influential literary artists at the close of the nineteenth century to usher in the era of modernism in narrative fiction, particularly in short fiction. When his stories were first made widely available in English in the famous Constance Garnett translations between 1916 and 1923, they were termed sketches or slices of life, lacking in all the elements that constituted the short-story form. Critics soon began to realize, however, that Chekhov’s freedom from the prevailing conventions of social realism and formalized plot indicated the beginnings of a modern kind of narrative, which combined the specific detail of realism with the poetic lyricism of Romanticism.
Chekhov’s most significant contributions to the short-story form, contributions which have influenced modern writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, include the following: the presentation of character as a lyrical or psychological mood rather than as a two-dimensional symbol or as a realistic personality; the conception of a story as a lyrical sketch rather than as a highly plotted tale; and the assumption of reality as basically impressionistic and as a function of narrative perspective or point of view. The final result of these innovations has been the modernist and postmodernist view of reality as a fictional construct.
With Chekhov, the short story took on a new respectability and began to be understood as the most appropriate narrative form to reflect the modern temperament. Today, most critics agree that there can be no understanding of the short story as a genre without an understanding of Chekhov’s contribution to the form.
Clyman, Toby, ed. A Chekhov Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A collection of critical essays, especially commissioned for this volume, on all aspects of Chekhov’s life, art, and career. Some of the most importnat critics of Chekhov’s work are represented here in essays on his major themes, his dramatic technique, his narrative technique, and his influence on modern drama and on the modern short story.
Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of Major Stories and Plays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Hahn focuses on The Cherry Orchard as the principal Chekhov play with which to introduce his dramatic technique, although she does discuss the earlier plays as well. This study is particularly notable for its study of Chekhov’s relationship with Tolstoy and of his depiction of women in his plays.
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. London: Unwin Books, 1950, rev. ed. 1966. Hingley provides a general introduction to the life and work of Chekhov, focusing on both Chekhov’s language and his relationship to the social issues significant in Russia during that time.
Hingley, Ronald. A New Life of Anton Chekhov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. A more detailed and more thoroughly biographical study than Hingley’s earlier work, this biography makes use of many documentary materials not previously available, particularly eight volumes of Chekhov’s letters. It also focuses more on the mysterious subject of Chekhov’s relationships with women than do previous studies.
Kirk, Irina. Anton Chekhov. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A general introduction to the life and art of Chekhov, focusing primarily on Chekhov’s stories as being the embodiment of the search for a philosophy of life and the search for love and home. Although most of the book focuses on discussions of the stories, one final chapter analyzes the plays.
Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Play: A New Interpretation. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973. A detailed discussion of the four Chekhov plays in the light of several premises Pitcher establishes about their basic nature: for example, that they focus primarily on the emotional side of life, that they follow a certain structural formula, that they follow the ensemble approach of the Moscow Art Theater, and that the language of the characters is dominated by a feeling of informality.
Pritchett, V. S. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. New York: Random House, 1988. This study by a master of the short story is neither straight biography nor literary criticism but rather a leisurely mixture of the two, with an emphasis on the latter. Pritchett discusses many of Chekhov’s stories in detail and attempts to distill the essential qualities of his art.
Winner, Thomas. Chekhov and His Prose. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. A chronological study of Chekhov’s development as a story writer, from his beginnings as a writer of humorist anecdotes, to his experimentation with his impressionistic style, through his final concern with the Russian social scene.