Anton Chekhov’s short story ‘‘The Darling,’’ considered one of his finest, was first published in 1899. Leo Tolstoy his contemporary and one of the greatest Russian writers of the nineteenth century, was quick to celebrate Chekhov’s achievement in ‘‘The Darling,’’ comparing it to ‘‘a piece of lace,’’ like those woven by ‘‘old maids,’’ who ‘‘put their whole life, all their dreams of happiness, into their lace.’’ ‘‘The Darling’’ is a character sketch of Olga Semyonovna, the ‘‘darling,’’ a young woman whose life takes on meaning only in relation to the men to whom she attaches herself.
Olga first marries a theater owner. When married to him, she thinks and speaks only of the theater. After he dies suddenly, she soon marries a timber merchant. During this marriage she thinks, speaks, and even dreams only of timber. After he, too, dies, Olga takes up with a veterinary surgeon, who is estranged from his wife and son, and she speaks only of veterinary concerns. When he, too, leaves her, Olga’s life becomes empty, as do her thoughts. Without a man around to form her identity, Olga grows old and loses the charm that had earned her the nickname ‘‘darling,’’ until the veterinary surgeon reenters her life, only to abandon his young son, Sasha, to her care. Olga’s life once again takes on meaning, as she absorbs herself with the care of Sasha, who ultimately feels smothered by her demonstrations of maternal love.
Chekhov’s story has been discussed in terms of its narrative perspective about the character of Olga. Critics have long debated whether Chekhov meant to ridicule Olga’s character, as representative of a woman whose life has no meaning outside of her relationship to men; to celebrate her character as an ideal of selfless maternal love; or to evoke pity for the plight of women, whose lack of education and social standing leads to a life of emotional and intellectual dependence on men.dependence on men.