Anton Chekhov 1860–-1904
(Born Anton Pavlovich Chekhov; transliterated as Čexov, Chekov, Tchehov, Tchekhov, Cechov, Cexov, Cekov, Cecov, Cechov, Chekhoff, and Chehov; also wrote under the pseudonym of Antosha Chekhonte) Russian dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.
See also, "Gooseberries" Criticism.
Chekhov is commonly recognized as the most significant writer of the literary generation that ended the Golden Age of Russian authorship—the era of seminal novelists like Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky—and began the Silver Age—when the Russian symbolist movement flourished. He is parlously distinguished for his formal and thematic innovations in the short fiction and drama genres, and Chekhov's writing is marked by a profound depth of insight into the universal human condition. Although his early work demonstrated subjective sentiments and observations, the ultimate configuration of Chekhov's short fiction was one of supreme emotional balance and tonal control. This detached, rational artfulness distinguishes Chekhov's work from the confessional abandons of Dostoevsky or the psychological fantasies of Nikoali Gogol. Due to this literary composure, Chekhov is often considered to be a master of the modern short story and is perhaps the most important short story writer of all time. His writings have widely influenced world authors, especially short fiction luminaries such as Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway.
Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom and Chekhov's father was a grocer in Taganrog, the village where Chekhov was born. When the family went bankrupt in 1876, the Chekhovs, without Anton, moved to Moscow to escape creditors; Anton remained in Taganrog until 1879, where he completed his education and earned a scholarship to Moscow University to study medicine. After graduation in 1884, Chekhov went into medical practice, gaining from this experience a wealth of knowledge that would later become evident in his fiction; in fact, Chekhov had already begun publishing sketches in popular magazines to help support his family. He wrote hundreds of light anecdotes and potboilers, mostly humorous, but failed to take them seriously. These early works, generally looked upon as the first major period of Chekhov's writing (1880–1887), did, however, display many Chekhovian narrative permutations in the short story genre: laconic introductions, impressionistic characterization through importance of detail, interior action, and surprise endings. Although the surprise ending did not originate with Chekhov's short fiction, he did coin the “zero ending,” as described by Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. This innovation being the penchant for dislocating the narrative of a story from its expected denouement and diverting, sometimes deflating, the story line itself, allowing a stress among the factual and the supposed. Skazki Mel'pomene (Tales of Melpomene), Chekhov's first collection of short stories, appeared in 1884 and soon after he befriended Aleksey S. Suvorin, editor of the conservative Moscow daily journal Novoe vremja (New Times), in which Chekhov contributed his first truly literary pieces. From 1888 to 1893 Chekhov was profoundly influenced by Tolstoy's ethics concerning morality, nonresistance to evil, and altruism; and this began the second epoch of Chekhov's fiction in which he experimented with lyricism and thematic contrasts: beauty, sensitivity, and life as opposed to hideousness, banality, and death. After Chekhov made his investigatory journey to the eastern Siberian penal colony at Sakhalin in 1890—a trip he would later use as the subject of his sociological monograph Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin, first published in the leftist monthly Russian Thought between 1893 and 1894; 1895 in book form)—he came to reject Tolstoyanism as an insufficient response to human suffering. This spiritual upheaval brought about Chekhov's third creative era during which he produced his most complex and unique short stories and dramas. In 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theater. Having earlier contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in 1884, Chekhov died at a German spa in 1904.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Chekhov's transition from the prodigiously written, early humor stories to tales marked by themes of isolation and concern with social and psychological problems was marked by experimentation, a philosophical searching, and a creative evolution from realism to a melancholic lyricism. Chekhov combined a keen use of brevity—gleaned from the stories of Guy de Maupassant—with a poetic and symbolic sensibility, culminating in new casts of short fiction, specifically the plotless story. “Step” (“The Steppe”), the long prose narrative published in 1888, is without external action and depicts an inner symbology expressed through the interaction of themes and counterthemes, motifs and countermotifs. Some early, serious stories produced by Chekhov were told from a child's point of view, a technique used earlier by Tolstoy. The tales are satires of the adult world as viewed through the lens of a child’s perception. An important story, “Spat khochetsya” (1888; “Sleepy”), depicts an exploited, young nursemaid who while watching the infant of her employers', strangles the baby in weariness and drops to sleep—relieved. Chekhov also included in this story an adept portraiture of a child's dreams. At the end of the 1880s Chekhov abandoned his pen name Antosha Chekhonte and adopted the doctrine of nonresistance to all evil, an influence of Tolstoy. This led Chekhov to write stories such as “Pripadok” (1888; “The Nervous Breakdown”), about the immorality of prostitution and “Khoroshie lyudi” (1886; “Good People”), a moralizing story that celebrates labor and passivity to iniquity. In further stories, such as “Nepriyatnost” (1888; “An Unpleasantness”) and “Vragi” (1887; “Enemies”), Chekhov advocated Tolstoy's belief in the immorality and futility of violence and anger. However, beginning in the 1890s, Chekhov no longer wrote stories overshadowed by Tolstoy's moral dogma. In “Palata No. 6” (1892; “Ward No. 6”), Chekhov rejected the religious and ethical tenets of Tolstoy's philosophy, specifically in that the character Gromov explicitly besets the tenet of nonresistance to wickedness. Chekhov's trip to Sakhalin was largely responsible for this narrative mutation and philosophical rejection of Tolstoy; for it produced in Chekhov a concern for social issues such as the injustice, corruption, and violence of Russian society, and it was after this experience that his writing was dramatically refashioned. The stories “Vory” (“Thieves”) and “Gusev,” both completed in 1890 after his return from the penal colony, along with “Baby” (1891; “Peasant Wives”) and “V ssylke” (1892; “In Exile”) all serve to demonstrate Chekhov's new social commitment. “Peasant Wives,” which depicts the oppression of women in a patriarchal peasant society, prefigures later Chekhov stories like “V ovrage” (1900; “In the Ravine”) which also demonstrates concern for the mistreatment of women. In “Zhena” (1892; “The Wife”), Chekhov renders the effects of famine on the Russian peasantry, coloring the landlords and philanthropic aristocracy as pococurante and ineffectual, and displaying a self-conscious didacticism. “In Exile” is also consumed with social evils and was inspired by the Sakhalin sojourn, but is more subtle in its portrayal of Siberian exiles—contrasting a young Tatar who longs for his wife and homeland with a patrician, abandoned by his wife, who yens for a doctor to save his dying daughter. During this time, Chekhov was not only absorbed with worldly issues, but also sought to establish his own individual philosophy toward the world. The stories “Skuchnaya istoriya” (1889; “A Dreary Story”), “The Duel” (1891), “Gusev,” “Ward No. 6,” and “Chorny Monakh” (1894; “The Black Monk”) consider specific philosophical questions and ideas, suchlike the human proclivity for the intellect and science. In “A Dreary Story,” a scientist is isolated and miserable due to his unhealthy obsession with the rules of science; “Gusev” satirizes the superciliousness of the intellect; “The Duel,” Chekhov's lengthiest story, describes a scientist consumed with the Nietzschean concept of a superman; in “Ward No. 6,” capitulation to evil is conjugated with an over-importance of the intellect; and “The Black Monk” renders a scientist visited by the specter of a monk who informs the former of his omnipotence—stemming from the scientific intellect. Of Chekhov's most mature stories, spanning the years 1894 to 1904, a common, uniting theme is one of concern toward the newly emerging strata of Russian society. Chekhov was interested in the keen sense of isolation felt by Russians in both the social orders of the new bourgeoisie and the village peasantry. Chekhov charged the stories “Babe tsarstvo” (1894; “A Woman's Kingdom”), “Sluchay iz praktiki” (1898; “A Doctor's Visit”), and “Novaya dacha” (1899; “The New Villa”) with motifs of solitariness and the failure of communication amongst humankind. In 1898 Chekhov published his short story trilogy “Chelovek v futlyare” (“The Man in a Shell”), “Kryzhovnik” (“Gooseberries”), and “O lyubvi” (“About Love”), which consider characters who insulate themselves from others and warns of man's inclination for social withdrawal and the spiritual stricture individuals place on themselves. Toward the end of his life, Chekhov underwent a transformation in his world-view through his short fiction. “Dushechka” (1898; “The Darling”), “Dama s sobachkoy” (1899; “The Lady with a Dog”; 1899), and his last story “Nevesta” (1903; “The Betrothed”) retain a tenuous and somewhat rueful optimism, allowing the characters sympathy and hope for spiritual fulfillment. “The Betrothed” exemplifies the pinnacle of Chekhov's innovation in the short fiction form. Herein one can grasp the radical character of Chekhov's prose: its manipulation of time and space, preference for an interior lyricism, and poetic and symbolic implementation of syncretism, all elements common to the contemporary short story.
Reception to Chekhov's short stories varied widely during his lifetime. Chekhov was often vilified in the press for his alleged indifference to the dolor of mankind, as well as to other social and political questions. A month before his trip to Sakhalin, Vukol Lavrov accused Chekhov so sharply of “unprincipledness” in Russian Thought that for the first and last time Chekhov wrote a riposte. Social concerns aside, however, Chekhov is acknowledged as one of the most illustrious writers of short fiction. In 1888 Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize for his volume of short stories, V sumerkakh (In the Twilight), published in 1887, and lauded by J. Middleton Murry as early as 1920 as “a standard by which modern literary effort must be measured.” Even though Chekhov has been viewed as an utter pessimist, largely due to his realistic portrayal of Russian society during an era of imminent revolution, his personally expressed view was one of uneasy optimism with regard to social progress and scientific advancement. Chekhov's literary artistry, combined with his medical knowledge and insight into human textures, resulted in short stories that have altered the narrative standards for an entire literary form.
Skazki Mel'pomene 1884
Pestrye rasskazy 1886
Nevinnye rechi 1887
V sumerkakh 1887
The Black Monk, and Other Stories 1903
The Kiss, and Other Stories 1908
The Darling, and Other Stories 1916
The Duel, and Other Stories 1916
The Tales of Tchehov 1916–1922
The Lady with the Dog, and Other Stories 1917
The Party, and Other Stories 1917
The Wife, and Other Stories 1918
The Witch, and Other Stories 1918
The Bishop, and Other Stories 1919
The Chorus Girl, and Other Stories 1920
The Horse-Stealers, and Other Stories 1921
The Schoolmaster, and Other Stories 1921
The Schoolmistress, and Other Stories 1921
The Cook's Wedding, and Other Stories 1922
Love, and Other Stories 1922
Ivanov: Drama v chetyryokh deystviyakh [Ivanoff: A Play in Four Acts] (drama) 1887
V sumerkakh (novel) 1887
Leshii [The Wood Demon] (drama) 1889
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SOURCE: Grossman, Leonid. “The Naturalism of Chekhov.” In Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 32–48. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
[In the following essay, originally published in Vestnik Evropy in 1914, Grossman describes the influence of several authors, including Maupassant and Flaubert, upon Chekhov and his use of symbolism.]
“In Goethe the naturalist got along wonderfully with the poet,” Chekhov wrote in one of his letters. And did he not in this brief sentence express with his usual compactness his view of the perfect artist while at the same time he neatly characterized his own art?
In Chekhov, as in Goethe, the poet wonderfully harmonized with the naturalist. His medical training and practice unquestionably played a decisive role in his creative work. They laid guidelines for his artistic method, introduced to him extraordinarily rich, living material for literary processing, structured his world view, deepened and to a great extent clarified his philosophy of life. It is no wonder that he took such pride in his medical profession, repeatedly called medicine his legal wife, and often turned from literature to the practical work of the physician. …
The impact of medical school appears first of all in his working methods. We are not surprised that he speaks...
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SOURCE: Lynd, Robert. “Tchehov: The Perfect Story-Teller.” In Old and New Masters, pp. 171–77. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919.
[In the following essay, Lynd discusses Chekhov's talent for portraying ordinary people as the basis of a tragic realism.]
It is the custom when praising a Russian writer to do so at the expense of all other Russian writers. It is as though most of us were monotheists in our devotion to authors, and could not endure to see any respect paid to the rivals of the god of the moment. And so one year Tolstoy is laid prone as Dagon, and, another year, Turgenev. And, no doubt, the day will come when Dostoevsky will fall from his huge eminence.
Perhaps the luckiest of all the Russian authors in this respect is Tchehov. He is so obviously not a god. He does not deliver messages to us from the mountaintop like Tolstoy, or reveal himself beautifully in sunset and star like Turgenev, or announce himself now in the hurricane and now in the thunderstorm like Dostoevsky. He is a man and a medical doctor. He pays professional visits. We may define his genius more exactly by saying that his is a general practice. There has, I think, never been so wonderful an examination of common people in literature as in the short stories of Tchehov. His world is thronged with the average man and the average woman. Other writers have also put ordinary people into books. They...
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SOURCE: Brewster, Dorothy and Angus Burrell. “Soundings: Fiction of A. P. Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.” In Dead Reckonings in Fiction, pp. 42–70. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925.
[In the following essay, Brewster and Burrell discuss the various critical opinions of Chekhov, including accusations of immorality, and compare Chekhov's and Katherine Mansfield's use of concrete imagery.]
Strether's experience in The Ambassadors took all his categories by surprise. Nothing better could happen to anyone, for categories are perilously convenient. We naturally tend to thrust people and all the relations between them into pigeon-holes; to accept, not as mere conveniences for business and intercourse, but as truths, conventional aspects of life. We are told that there are six (or two, or five), psychological types, and forthwith sort out our acquaintances. Chekhov, who disliked categories, remarks that Tolstoi, in Resurrection, divides all the convicts into five classes; why not ten, he asks? H. G. Wells has for years had his eyes so fixed on “constructive-minded” and “muddle-headed” people that he has gradually lost that fine capacity to realize imaginatively a muddle-headed person, which he had when he conceived Mr. Polly. And so he is capable of lumping together most of humanity as people who just shouldn't have been born. “The world swarms,”...
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SOURCE: Brewster, Dorothy and Angus Burrell. “Salvaging the Short Story: Chekhov and Mansfield Continued.” In Dead Reckonings in Fiction, pp. 71–100. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925.
[In the following essay, Brewster and Burrell continue their deliberation on Chekhov’s and Mansfield's short fiction.]
Although the stories we have been discussing [see previous essay] are not, according to conventional definition, Short Stories, something does happen in them by way of finality or climax. Yegorusha comes to the end of his journey; Harry Kember tries to seduce Beryl Fairfield. But what of the stories where absolutely nothing comes off?
Some things in life happen as they ought to, and some very much as they ought not to, and others just do not happen at all. Situations call for the gesture of understanding, the act of friendship, the offer of sympathy, the avowal of love. These possibilities are latent, but something prevents their realization. We may be aware of what has slipped past only after it is all over, or we may be acutely aware of it at the moment. External things intrude: the telephone rings, the waiter presents the bill; or internal things inhibit; and we say, “I've got an engagement at six o'clock,” instead of, “I'm in love with you.”
These moments are distressing to reflect upon. We can relieve the strain of...
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SOURCE: Poggioli, Renato. “Storytelling in a Double Key.” In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Background, Criticism, edited by Ralph E. Matalaw, pp. 307–28. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Poggioli comments upon Chekhov's early stories and their relative importance in anticipating the author's later, more accomplished short fiction.]
I. A CRITIQUE OF SIX CHEKHOV TALES
Chekhov's early stories are of some interest to the critic only inasmuch as they anticipate the accomplished master, destined to mature a few years later. Otherwise, their importance is slight, although it would be wrong to despise pieces that are still able to amuse and intrigue the reader. They were written in the early eighties, or about seventy years ago; and it is rare for any kind of writing, especially at the popular level, to survive with any effectiveness for such a long interval. This is even truer when one considers that the writing in question was never taken too seriously by the author himself. Both the critic and the reader should never forget that the young Chekhov wrote to entertain, and to add a little to his own income in the bargain.
The periodicals for which Chekhov wrote his early tales wanted to give their public cheap and easy laughter, rather than rare and thoughtful humor, and...
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SOURCE: Golubkov, V. V. “Čexov's Lyrico-Dramatic Stories.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 135–67. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1958, Golubkov inspects Chekhov's social consciousness, which continued to maturate throughout his life, and the lyricism so prevalent in his short fiction.]
Remember that those writers whom we call immortal or simply good and who intoxicate us have one highly important feature in common: they go somewhere and beckon you, and you sense, not with your intellect, but with all your being, that they have some goal, like the ghost of Hamlet's father which had a reason for coming and disturbing his imagination … The best of these writers are true to life and they present life as it is, but since their every line is saturated with the awareness of a goal, you feel life not only as it is, but also as it ought to be, and that is what captivates you. And we? We! We describe life as it is, period. Beat us further with whips, if you wish. We have neither immediate nor remote goals, and there is complete emptiness in our souls …
These hot, sad words of Čexov, written to Suvorin on November 25, 1891, mark a turning point in Čexov's activity. At that time he recognized quite...
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SOURCE: Derman, A. “Structural Features in Čexov's Poetics1.” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 107–18. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1959, Derman dilates upon Chekhov's technique for a story's beginning and ending.]
Čexov occupies one of the highest places among those literary artists who in their work not only use the resources allowed by scholarship—they all use them, even those who deny that they resort to them and state that they rely exclusively on their own intuition—but also among those who repeatedly express the principle of creative cooperation between the artist and the scholar …
There is something scholarly in his approach to the structure of a work; he divided it into distinct stages, and for each of them he had carefully reasoned methods for the creative embodiment of his ideas.
Regarding the first stage, one must say that if Čexov's poetics is, as a whole, polemical, that is, if he presents new devices in contrast to old ones, then it is especially polemical with even a paradoxical emphasis as far as it pertains to the first stage of structure, which is the so-called ‘beginning of the plot’,2 ‘preface’, ‘introduction’, ‘prologue’, etc....
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SOURCE: Chizhevsky, Dmitri. “Chekhov in the Development of Russian Literature.” In Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 49–61 Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Chizhevsky expatiates Chekhov's place in the history of Russian literature.]
Chekhov still has no firm place in the history of Russian literature. Of course, one often ranks him among the “realists”; thus one is compelled for chronological reasons to place him alongside such epigones of realism as V. Korolenko and D. Mamin-Sibiryak. Or should one identify him with such representatives of the new realistic trends as Maxim Gorky? Or find a place for him in the ranks of the modernists and early symbolists? This kind of classifying of a literary artist in a definite literary group, naturally, is not the most important problem of literary history, and it is also not absolutely necessary. It is, however, by no means unimportant to determine whether Chekhov was in close relationship to one or another literary trend of his time, or whether he ran his poetic course as an independent.
As is well known, Chekhov frequently helped young and minor writers and delivered gracious and friendly judgments about them; many of these judgments now evoke our surprise and lead us to doubt either the soundness of Chekhov's literary...
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SOURCE: Nazarenko, Vadim. “Imagery in Čexov.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 131–34. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Nazarenko discusses verbal imagery in Chekhov's writing.]
The key to the understanding of verbal imagery is not found in a narrow linguistic sphere. A word becomes image-bearing only when it proves itself able to evoke the images of the real world which are alive in us. The most sophisticated means of linguistic imagery of A. Efimov's sort can turn out to be fruitless.2 But even the most simple word can be a powerful image. The power of a word to create an image does not per se reside in the word, but rather in the way the word acts upon us. That is why a narrowly linguistic approach to the problem cannot reveal the basis of the artistry of the language of literature.
Thinking in images is not the property and privilege of the writer alone. All of us think in images—more or less. The worth of the writer consists then not simply in that he thinks in images, but in the strength and scope with which the ideas are born through his image-bearing thought processes.
It is clear that the mere ability to narrate something coherently and vividly does not yet constitute authentic art....
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SOURCE: O'Connor, Frank. “The Slave's Son.” In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, pp. 78–98. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962.
[In the following essay, O'Connor descants the changing face of the short story, particularly with Chekhov.]
There is still no satisfactory book on Anton Chekhov, and this is scarcely to be wondered at. He has been the victim of more enthusiastic misunderstanding than any short-story writer, praised for all the wrong reasons and imitated in ways that would have astonished him. In literature as in life he was a difficult man; diffident and evasive, hard to pin down to any positive statement except perhaps that Dreyfus was innocent or that Russian teachers were underpaid.
He must have been always difficult. Already in his youth there is a contradiction between the lighthearted young medical student who wrote stories that were sometimes less than edifying to support a family that seems to have been less than deserving. Of his brutal father no one seems to have a good word to say, and two clever brothers do not seem to have been much better. Chekhov's most positive statement about himself was made in 1889 when he was twenty-nine and had already achieved a considerable degree of self-mastery. In a characteristically impersonal way he suggested bitterly to his friend Souvorin that Souvorin should write a story about him, “a story about...
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SOURCE: Vinogradov, V. V. “On Čexov's Style.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 169–84. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1963, Vinogradov remarks upon speech characterization in Chekhov's short stories.]
In Čexov, the devices of socio-professional speech characterization reached great depth and stylistic subtlety.2 Commenting on the style of A. M. Fedorov's play An Ordinary Woman, he wrote the following in a letter to the author: “Volodja is good … but, he should be a mechanic or have been one. Then such expressions as ‘The steam is released’, and ‘The wheels will start to move now’, will not be empty, but will flow, as it were, from a depth.”3
It is obvious that even in a work of artistic realism there is no complete and direct correlation between the literary reproduction of a social style of speech and its socio-dialectal basis. However, the principles and tendencies which determine the degree of verisimilitude in daily speech and in the character depicted are very important. For example, take Čexov's story, “A Happy Ending”: the characteristics of social-speech style of ‘a person of experience’, a bourgeois with pretensions to education (“I am of the educated class. I can say that...
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SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “The First Serious Stories: From Antosha Chekhonte to Anton Chekhov.” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 17–44. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.
[In the following essay, Winner discusses Chekhov's transition from light, humorous fiction to the more serious stories of the late 1880s.]
The early Chekhov has been thought of only as a humorist. But some of the early works are serious in tone and begin to suggest the transition to be effected by the end of the 1880's, when Chekhov abandoned forever the role of Antosha Chekhonte for that of Anton Chekhov, the creator of the significant stories and plays on which his fame rests today. Although most of these early serious stories are still primitive and conventional, some of them begin to express elements of the new forms and styles of which Chekhov was to become master. In 1882, after only two years of writing, when Chekhov still signed his works Antosha Chekhonte, two serious stories appeared: “The Lady of the Manor” (Barynja) and “Late Blooming Flowers” (Cvety zapozdalye). Although neither of these stories are included in the collected works, they provide considerable insight into Chekhov's emerging style.
As early as 1883, the first year of his association with Leykin's Fragments, Chekhov complained of the constrictive narrowness of the humor reviews. Replying to Leykin, who...
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SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “Early Social Stories.” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 81–8. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.
[In the following essay, Winner dilates upon Chekhov's serious stories of the 1890s.]
In 1890, after Chekhov's visit to the Russian penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, he became increasingly concerned with a search for a more clearly defined world view and for an answer to the question of the moral responsibility of the writer. He also began to think more seriously of social problems, and his writings voiced a degree of social criticism previously unknown in his work. His observation of the sharp cleavages in Russian society brought about his final disenchantment with the Tolstoyan idealization of peasant life which had briefly attracted him. The only stories of 1890, “The Thieves” (Vory) and “Gusev,” both completed after the return from his voyage to Sakhalin in 1890, as well as “Peasant Wives” (Baby, 1891), “The Wife” (Žena, 1892), and “In Exile” (V ssylke, 1892), all reveal this strengthened interest in social problems.
“The Thieves” tells the story of a group of horse thieves who are observed by a medical assistant marooned in their hide-out by a snowstorm; finally, after being robbed by them, the medical assistant becomes a thief himself. Suvorin, for whose journal, New Times, the story...
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SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “The Searching Stories II: ‘The Black Monk.’” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 113–22. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.
[In the following essay, Winner attempts to connect Chekhov's later works, such as “The Black Monk,” with the earlier “searching stories” in terms of their philosophical leanings.]
In 1894 Chekhov completed “The Black Monk” on which he had worked during the summer of 1893, the fourth, and last, of the series of philosophical stories begun in 1889 with “A Dreary Story.” While in Chekhov's later works philosophical questions are no longer posed so directly as they are in the searching stories, we do not find a complete break between these and later works. Philosophical themes after this period are increasingly integrated into the psychological and dramatic action of the story, but the beginning of this trend can be observed within the philosophical stories themselves. Philosophical problems maintain more independence in “A Dreary Story” and in “Gusev,” in which there is little action, than in “The Duel” and “Ward No. 6,” in which dramatic conflicts are more important. The trend continues in “The Black Monk” in which philosophical questions, while still of greatest importance, are even more dependent on the artistic form and psychological action of the work.
Chekhov's philosophical searching is...
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SOURCE: Mathewson, Rufus W., Jr. “Intimations of Mortality in Four Čexov Stories.” In American Contributions to the Sixth International Congress of Slavists, edited by William E. Harkins, pp. 261–79. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1968.
[In the following essay, Mathewson examines the concept of immortality in Chekhov's stories “The Kiss,” “Gusev,” “Ionyc,” and “The Lady with the Dog.”]
From time to time characters in Čexov's stories look out at the natural world that encompasses their social existence. Their glances at the horizon, at the stars, the sunset, the sea, alter their understanding of the world, and thus reorder their experience in a profound way. In this sense these episodes bear comparison with the great “learning” scenes in Tolstoj, Prince Andrej on the battlefield at Austerlitz or Levin making hay in the meadow; or with Joyce's epiphanies, those random events which precipitate a new apprehension of the world. I have chosen episodes from four stories: “The Kiss”, “Gusev”, “Ionyč”, and “The Lady with the Dog”, in which the central character finds himself confronting a large natural scene. Each passage is set apart from the run of the narrative by its greater intensity of language and feeling. Each enlarges the story's perspective by setting the ordinary against the larger than ordinary—in each case the unexceptional...
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SOURCE: Cicerin, A. V. “The Role of Adversative Intonation in Čexov's Prose.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 187–91. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Cicerin refutes the common claim that Chekhov's stories are clear and simple, using as examples the indecisive and conjectural speech found in the stories themselves.]
“The style of Čexov's stories is clear, transparent, and simple; it is characterized by accuracy in every expression he uses.” There is no need to give the source of this quotation. It can be found in special articles, in courses in the history of literature, and in textbooks.
It is a commonplace.
But is it true? Is it completely true?
Čexov defended the idea that originality in a writer is a necessary characteristic of art. He said: “A writer's originality resides not just in style, but even in his mode of thought, in his convictions …”2 It is probable that the secret of Čexov's style lies not in such general features as accuracy and transparency but in something which sets him further apart, in something inherent in his style. There is a well known statement by Čexov: “If you want to describe a poor girl, the thing not to say is ‘a poor girl was...
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SOURCE: Pospelov, G. N. “The Style of Čexov's Tales.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 119–30. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Pospelov demonstrates how Chekhov used neoteric and original literary devices and principles to transcend traditional literary constructions.]
The stories which he wrote at the end of the 1880s show that Čexov was already surmounting the canons of sujet construction which had become traditional in literature and that he was advancing new principles. This primarily affected the construction of sujets of novel-like stories prevailing in Čexov—works wherein the basic goal consisted in disclosing the development of the principal hero's (or heroes') character in relation to his disaffection with the social milieu.
In the course of Russian literature, even from the time of the first novels and novel—like stories which possessed a concentric (and not adventurous) construction of the sujet, a certain principle of sujetal correlation and development of the principal heroes' characters received wide acceptance. This principle can be stated as follows: in the course of the events constituting the sujet of a work, the heroes and heroines with different characters and...
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SOURCE: Kramer, Karl D. “Short Story: The Art of Moral Revelation.” In The Chameleon and the Dream, pp. 11–27. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1970.
[In the following essay, Kramer scrutinizes the development of the short story by Chekhov and other authors, including the connection between the nineteenth century tale and the twentieth century short story.]
One of the most representative practitioners of the short story, Anton Čexov appeared at a point in the history of the genre when its fundamental qualities were undergoing refinement. Before looking at the process of Čexov's individual literary development, one needs to isolate these qualities of the genre and to indicate some of the ways in which Čexov's own refinements mark him as one of the first of modern short story writers. Like the elegiac poem, the short story is a form which shows us what a thing or person is or has been; but typically it is not concerned with showing us the process of becoming or going from. It is a literary type which has the extraordinary advantage of dispensing with time. It depicts things and beings in a state of stasis, and up to the present moment this is what it has best been able to do.
Often writers on the short story have sought its origins in Roman tales such as those of Apuleius, or at the very latest in Boccaccio's Decameron. While it is true that short works...
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SOURCE: Kramer, Karl D. “Stories of Ambiguity.” In The Chameleon and the Dream, pp. 153–73. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1970.
[In the following essay, Kramer discusses ambiguities in meaning as seen in Chekhov's stories.]
One could, with respect to terminology, talk about either ambiguity or paradox in describing that particular aspect of Čexov's work which in volves the concept of meaning in the later stories. If the term ‘ambiguity’ ordinarily denotes situations in which two or more interpretations can coexist, then it refers to a “both-and” type of relationship. The term ‘paradox’ normally indicates contradictory meanings, and thus refers to an “either-or” situation. The difficulty in regard to Čexov is that the two or more meanings of a given story are ordinarily opposed to each other. However, there is some precedent for calling this relationship ambiguous: William Empson's last two categories of ambiguity involve contradictory meanings,1 and Edmund Wilson's initial example of ambiguity in Henry James' work is The Turn of the Screw, where a choice of interpretations hinges on two opposed suppositions: the governess does see the ghosts; she does not see the ghosts.2 On the other hand, as Cleanth Brooks defines paradox in “The Language of Paradox”3 the contradictory situations which he cites are invariably...
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SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “The Student.” In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Background, Criticism, edited by Ralph E. Matalaw, pp. 335–38. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Rayfield examines the placement of Chekhov's story “The Student,” between the author's “Steppe” stories of the later 1880s and his more lyrical prose of the 1890s and early 1900s.]
The mystic side of Chekhov—his irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos, which aligns him more to Leskov than to Tolstoy in the Russian literary tradition—is very nearly suppressed in the Melikhovo phase, preoccupied as it is with the objective and concrete. But there is one work of 1894, “The Student,” which Chekhov insisted to Bunin was his favorite and most optimistic piece. It is the only story of the Melikhovo period which links the lyricism of “Steppe” with the late prose of “The Bishop,” and almost the only story of Chekhov's which can be read as a parable about art. Lyrical praise of nature brings about fusion of love and reflection. For the first time Chekhov shows that he has found out what makes art of crucial importance to humanity, and, as always when dealing with poetry or music, he sees it as its purest in an ecclesiastical setting. A seminary student is walking home on a wintry day just before Easter;...
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SOURCE: Hahn, Beverly. “The Short Story—I.” In Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, pp. 52–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Hahn examines Chekhov's correspondence with the older author Grigorovich, who urged him to pursue a more careful and refined writing style, and the profound effects this advice had upon the young Chekhov.]
The year 1886 was one of the turning-points in Chekhov's life and work. As “The Huntsman” and “Sorrow” show, his development from his often coarse and banal beginnings in such things as the Dragonfly ‘advertisements’ was quite rapid. But in March 1886 that development was given a sudden new impetus by the arrival of a letter from the noted older author Grigorovich.1 The importance of this letter and of Chekhov's reply to it warrants my quoting both in full:
Dear Sir, Anton Pavlovich:
About a year ago I read by chance a story of yours in Petersburg Gazette; I do not recall its title. I remember only that I was struck by its qualities of outstanding originality and chiefly its remarkable accuracy and truthfulness in its descriptions of people and nature.
Since then I have read everything that bore the signature of Chekhonte, although I was...
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SOURCE: Hahn, Beverly. “The Short Story—II.” In Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, pp. 69–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Hahn investigates creative tension in Chekhov's stories.]
Among the very finest stories of 1886 and 1887 are “Easter Eve” and the better-known “Enemies”. In their different ways they show Chekhov to be already a master of the short-story form. The limitations to which I have been pointing in the minor but serious stories up to this period—chiefly the over-dependence on a single landscape metaphor—are overcome here, and both stories make a positive value out of a creative tension now evident in Chekhov's artistic temperament. In “Misery”, the falling snow and the lights of the impersonal city, unheedful of Iona, insist imaginatively upon the transience of life and the loneliness of sorrow. That sense of things, and the images through which it is felt, are persistent elements throughout Chekhov's work. But in his longer and more significant stories he remains open also to other senses of life coming out of particular scenes and occasions, so that his works begin progressively to take shape as dialogues, behind which duelling elements of Chekhov's own temperament play themselves out.
Chekhov's demeanour in his life seems to have been that classically associated with the medical profession,...
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SOURCE: Martin, David. “Figurative Language and Concretism in Čechov's Short Stories.” Russian Literature 8, no. 2 (March 1980): 125–49.
[In the following essay, Martin discusses Chekhov's use of figurative language, including comparison, simile, and metaphor, and how abstract-to-concrete similes give expression to the author's thematic and philosophic ideas.]
There are many ways in which Čechov introduces elements of the physical world into the treatment of abstract ideas or emotions in his short stories. Whilst frequently they relate to questions of environment or setting, of interest here also is his elucidation of abstractions, including the heroes' psychological attitudes and feelings, by means of comparisons drawn from the physical world. It is these comparisons which form the subject of the major part of this essay, which concerns itself exclusively with Čechov's use of figurative language in the general field of abstract and concrete.
Čechov's employment of abstract-to-concrete simile testifies to an overall tendency of style whereby often complex abstract ideas are made the more readily assimilable to the reader by being reduced to physical terms which will easily impress themselves upon his imagination. This is the stylistic corollary to the writer's pragmatic approach to philosophic questions, whereby abstract theorizing is seen from the...
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SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “The Consequences of Sakhalin.” In Understanding Chekhov, pp. 93–113. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rayfield considers Chekhov's short stories in relation to the latter's Sakhalin journey.]
Disillusionment in literature and in critical reception was one factor that impelled Chekhov in 1890 to desert literature for an investigatory journey to Sakhalin. But he had other reasons for his self-imposed ordeal, for which the preparations were inexorably thorough once the initial decision had been taken. Why Sakhalin? Perhaps because it was the most arduous and longest journey he could undertake, without having to speak a foreign language or obtain a passport; certainly because it was Russia's Devil's Island, and as the most terrible of penal settlements it seemed to Chekhov an inferno into which an artist must descend, if he was to get at the roots of the evil and misery which beset him on earth.
To reach Sakhalin meant 81 days' travelling across Siberia, mainly in an unsprung covered wagon, in the cold, wet spring of 1890. The monotonous plains, the flooded rivers, the terrible roads and living conditions were only a foretaste of Sakhalin itself, notorious as climatically the most unpleasant island on earth. Its isolation across treacherous seas from the mainland and its destitute remnants of an aboriginal population...
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SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “Melikhovo.” In Understanding Chekhov, pp. 114–34. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rayfield surveys the stories Chekhov produced while living on his Melikhovo estate during the 1890s.]
The six years that Chekhov lived on his estate of Melikhovo gave him both contentment and frustration, both leisure and physical and mental exhaustion. The stories written at the start of this period, between 1893–5, are among the most intense but not always the most perfect of his mature work. The intensity derives from the re-appearance of women among his active characters and with the theme of the hero's bondage to his heredity, his milieu and his carnality; the imperfections can be traced to the search for a genre and for a narrative approach, a search that does not end until in 1896 the late style of “The House with the Mezzanine” (subtitled “An Artist's Story”) fuses objective narrative with a subjective impressionability.
At first Chekhov's way of life in Melikhovo seems disassociated from his writing. His time, especially in 1893, when he wrote little fiction, was given to farming and horticulture (and at certain periods, to a strenuous and complicated love life). Like Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, he experimented with new ploughs, made a kitchen garden, planted cherry-trees and apple-trees, built hothouses for...
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SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “Peasants.” In Understanding Chekhov, pp. 183–97. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rayfield scrutinizes the peasant tales of Chekhov.]
The narrator's chief preoccupation both in “The House with the Mezzanine” and “My Life” is with the degradation of the peasantry and the gulf between what the peasant should be, and is, as well as between the narrator and the peasant. Both narrators argue, with more or less sincerity, that civilisation in Russia will be worthless until the peasant has been liberated from want and can grow spiritually. Transferring the setting of The Wood Demon to the grimmer Muscovite countryside of Uncle Vania, Chekhov now showed the peasantry in stench, disease and degradation, and for the first time in his drama their sufferings become a background against which the private life of the main characters seems trivial. For the next three years, in Chekhov's prose fiction, this background would be the foreground and the main theme for a number of stories, while the existential problems of the educated hero or heroine would be reserved for a separate genre of fiction.
This is a topic that was more important to many of Chekhov's readers than personal salvation or the hero's love life. In his late prose they were grateful for and moved by stories such as “Peasants” and “In the...
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SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “Love.” In Understanding Chekhov, pp. 198–212. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rayfield ponders Chekhov's late 1890s stories depicting love.]
“The House with the Mezzanine” and the stories of love, requited or not, consummated or not, of 1898–9 reveal a radical change in Chekhov's attitude to woman and sexuality. Even the aggressive activist—Lida Volchaninova or Masha Dolzhikova, even the vicious Aksinia Tsybukina—who condemns the narrator to solitude, or the family to ruin, no longer personifies a Schopenhauerian female force; and she is balanced by the persistent, if passive and vulnerable personification of female dependency—Misius, Aniuta Blagovo, or Lipa. Now, after the crisis of 1897, instinct takes precedence over reflection, desire over morality, and to Chekhov's heroes the unhappiness that arises from indifference, rationalisation or cold, calculating self-interest makes the consequences of sensuality or impulsiveness seem by comparison good, natural and salutary. His women do not alter in themselves: they deceive themselves, they age, they ensnare—but they are no longer mere predators.
As if to counterbalance his former personification of woman, Chekhov created a piece that aroused simultaneously storms of approval and protest. “Ariadna” was a woman that Tolstoy's daughter Tatiana was...
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Bruford, W. H. “The Stories of Chekhov's Maturity.” In Discussions of The Short Story, edited by Hollis Summers, pp. 71–9. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1963.
Originally published in 1957, comments on Chekhov's later, mature stories and examines the narrative shape and artistic economy found therein.
Burnham, David. “Spokesman for the Central Importance of the Human Spirit.” Commonweal 60, no. 12 (25 June 1954): 300.
Describes Chekhov as a great influence on the theatre and short fiction genre.
Farrelly, John. “Worth Reprinting.” New Republic 117, no. 24 (15 December 1947): 28.
Reviews a new collection of Chekhov stories, plays, and letters: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky.
O'Faolain, Sean. “Anton Chekov or The Persistent Moralist.” In The Short Story, pp. 76–105. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1951.
Views Chekhov's writing as a strong affirmation of the freedom of man and examines his stance against the moral and social chaos of nineteenth century Russian culture.
Slonim, Marc. “Lyrics and Satire Out Russia.” Saturday Review 37, no. 24 (12 June 1954): 16.
Reviews The Unknown Chekhov, which highlights some of Chekhov's early...
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