Essays and Criticism
The Theme of Perception in "Gooseberries"
Anton Chekhov is regarded as a master of the short story for his innovative structural techniques and his treatment of important themes. In ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ Chekhov demonstrates both by using a specific structure to help convey a theme. ‘‘Gooseberries’’ contains a story within a story; the main character relates a tale about his brother to two of his friends. Some authors employ this technique to make the inner story more interesting, to create distance between the reader and the inner story, or to allow the story to be told by a certain kind of narrator. In ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ however, Chekhov takes the reader into the framing story, then into the inner story. When he returns the reader to the framing story, the reader better understands the narrator of the inner story. As a result of this insight, the reader is able to grasp Chekhov’s theme of perception more clearly, because the character of Ivan has been presented in two different ways.
Ivan tells the story of his younger brother, Nicholai. A government employee, Nicholai longed to buy a farm and move to the country. After years of planning, saving, and taking advantage of others, he has realized his dream. Having settled into farm life, he has become fat, lazy, and arrogant, but is happy above all. He is living exactly the life he dreamed of living. Ivan is judgmental of his brother and characterizes him as wasteful, self-centered, and delusional. He disapproves of both the...
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Middle Class Delusions
In the short story ‘‘Gooseberries’’ by Russian writer Anton Chekhov two men out walking seek refuge from the rain at the house of a friend who lives nearby. After they settle down for the evening, one of the men, Ivan Ivanich, begins a story he was about to tell his walking companion, Bourkin, before the rain began. This story-within-a-story involves Ivan’s brother Nikolai, who, in his quest to buy land, denies himself, as well as his wife, any comfort until he is an old man. After he acquires a piece of land, thereby becoming part of the landed gentry, he claims he has found true happiness. However, his brother’s happiness has come at a price that Ivan finds deplorable. Nikolai’s delight while eating the hard, sour gooseberries that he has spent most of his life dreaming about attests to Ivan’s claim that his brother, though happy, will die a deluded old man.
However, such a compassionate and complex writer as Chekhov does not put any weight in moral pronouncements such as those made by Ivan Ivanich. Instead, in his analysis of ‘‘Gooseberries’’ in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, critic Simon Baker notes, ‘‘The power of the story lies in its ability to convey emotion which surpasses the words used to describe such a feeling.’’ Therefore, rather than look for a moral, one must look for an evocation. Writing this in 1898, Chekhov aptly reveals the...
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Understanding Gooseberries and Chekhov
The readings of Chekhov’s ‘‘Gooseberries’’ all seem to run one way: Ivan Ivanych, who tells the ‘‘story within a story,’’ and who points its moral, speaks for the author. ‘‘‘Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit,’’’ says Ivan, passing judgment on the sordid life of his brother Nikolay, who has sacrificed everything for the country estate with the symbolic gooseberry bush. Professor Ernest J. Simmons, in his study of Chekhov, says of this pronouncement ‘‘Here is expressed Chekhov’s own unquenchable thirst for all of life, for everything accessible to man.’’ It seems to me that this reading much oversimplifies ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ one of Chekhov’s finest stories, and one which is central to an important thematic pattern in the author’s work as a whole.
If the meaning of ‘‘Gooseberries’’ is reducible to the moral Ivan Ivanych draws from his brother’s story, we may ask why Chekhov has elaborated the circumstances with such care. Why Burkin and Ivan Ivanych’s walk over the plain, the rainstorm, the refuge at Alyohin’s, the bathing, and the tea upstairs with the ‘‘pretty Pelageya, stepping noiselessly across the carpet and smiling softly’’? Why does Ivan Ivanych’s story satisfy neither Burkin nor Alyohin? And why, finally, does Burkin, unable to sleep, notice...
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