Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Chekhov’s play Tri Sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), the title characters dream of going to Moscow. At the end of the play, no one has gone to Moscow, and it is clear that no one ever will. Typically, in Chekhov’s works, human beings dream, but the dreams are negated by life. In depicting life as a situation in which very little happens, Chekhov considered himself a realistic writer, in contrast to the melodramatic style of much nineteenth century literature. However, if, as in “The Chemist’s Wife,” very little external action occurs, in Chekhov’s stories and plays there is much internal action. In revealing the emotional reactions of his characters to the slight external events, Chekhov deliberately avoided seeming to be involved, believing that his own detachment would actually produce more sympathy for characters such as the unhappy chemist’s wife than would the typical nineteenth century authorial commentary.

Chekhov also differed from other realists, choosing merely to suggest setting rather than describing it in full detail. Thus, at the beginning of “The Chemist’s Wife,” four short sentences establish the stillness of the night, and the detail that makes it sharpest for readers is probably the brief mention of a dog’s bark in the distance. The unlovely chemist is described snoring, with a flea on his nose; the officers are introduced with the sound of spurs. All the details are realistic, but they are sparse.

Finally, Chekhov typically used a small detail or a minor action at the end of a story to suggest a revelation that had come to a character or to forecast future action. At the end of “The Chemist’s Wife,” Mme Tchernomordik realizes not only that she is truly unhappy but also that no one is aware of the fact. As if to prove her point, the chemist asks her to see to his money and promptly falls asleep. There Chekhov stops the story. The chemist’s wife has come to understand her own misery; the chemist is indifferent. It is suggested that Mme Tchernomordik’s future will be no different from the moments that Chekhov has just described. Typically, she will not get to a metaphoric Moscow.