Gooseberries, Anton Chekhov
"Gooseberries" Anton Chekhov
The following entry presents criticism on Chekhov's short story "Gooseberries," first published in 1898. See also, Anton Chekhov Criticism.
Chekhov is recognized as one of the masters of the modern style of story-writing. His approach to the craft of short story writing has been particularly influential among English and American writers. While Chekhov's early humorous sketches display many traits of popular fiction, such as swift development of action and superficial yet vivid characterization, his next major period of artistic development was influenced by the later fiction and moral thought of Leo Tolstoy, principally the elder writer's ideas on devotion to alleviating the plight of others, antimaterialism, and nonresistance to evil. In the late 1880s Chekhov began to produce what is regarded as his mature and most individual work in the short story form. With stories such as "The Duel," "My Life," and "Gooseberries," Chekhov offered a skeptical view of Tolstoy's ideas and displayed a highly effective and innovative approach to short-story structure and technique. The celebrated Irish writer Sean O'Faolain declared "Gooseberries" "one of the most perfect stories in the whole of the world's literature."
Plot and Major Characters"Gooseberries" opens with a vivid description of a country landscape on a rainy day. Caught in a downpour, Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky, a veterinary surgeon, and his friend Burkin, a high-school teacher, decide to find shelter at the home of a friend, the landowner Pavel Konstantinich Alekhin. After greeting his friends, Alekhin declares that he "needs a wash," and the three go to the bathing-house by the river, where Ivan Ivanich takes a particularly exuberant swim, excaliming "God! God!" as he floats in the middle of the river. Back at the house, sitting in the comfort of Alekhin's elegant drawing-room, Ivan Ivanich tells his two friends the story of his brother Nikolai, whose dream was to purchase an estate in the country, on the bank of a river. Ivan Ivanich expresses contempt for his brother's single-minded obsession with becoming a landowner and describes a visit to his brother's house after Nikolai has finally achieved his dream. Ivan finds his brother self-absorbed and complacent, but he cannot deny the fact that Nikolai seems truly happy. When the cook serves the two brothers a plate of gooseberries fresh from the garden, Nikolai declares that they are "delicious," while Ivan finds them "hard and sour." Ivan concludes that Nikolai has deceived himself and wasted his life in his happiness. He concludes his anecdote with a lament at the loss of his own youth and a plea to Alekhin to avoid wasting his life and to "Do good!" Burkin and Alekhin find the story uninteresting; they would have rather heard about "elegant people" and "lovely women." The three men then retire to bed, and the story concludes with the images of rain tapping on the windows and a strong odor from Ivan's pipe.
The thematic content of "Gooseberries" is closely related to its "story within a story" structure. In the "frame narrative" of the piece, Chekhov establishes the setting, describing the swim in the country river followed by a retreat to the comfort of Alekhin's home. Contained within this frame is Ivan Ivanich's anecdote about his brother's complacency and self-indulgence—a story that temporarily distracts the reader from the narrative's sensuous location in the present. Chekhov's juxtaposition of Ivan's moralistic tale with the luxury and aesthetic appeal of the surroundings described in the story's framework suggests a dialectical opposition between social consciousness and the human desire for comfort, beauty, and personal happiness. "Gooseberries" also implicitly comments on "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" a short story by Tolstoy which contends that a man truly needs only six feet of earth in which to be buried. Ivan Ivanich counters that "it is a corpse, and not man, which needs these six feet. . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country-estate, that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, room to display his qualities and the individual characteristics of his soul." Critical opinion diverges concerning the proper interpretation of this refutation of Tolstoy's anti-materialism, since elsewhere Ivan Ivanich censures his brother's materialism. He appears to attack both positions.
Much criticism of "Gooseberries" is concerned with the question of the relationship between the character Ivan Ivanich and the author Chekhov. Some critics have argued that Ivan Ivanich speaks for Chekhov when he declares that young people should avoid self indulgence and should dedicate their lives to good works. Others, however, have asserted that Chekhov presents a skeptical view of Ivan Ivanich's message by emphasizing the character's hypocritical enjoyment of Alekhin's country estate even as he criticizes the banality of land proprietorship. Thomas Gullason has interpreted "Gooseberries" as a clash between illusion and reality, with Ivan Ivanich representing the demands of the realist and Nikolai symbolizing a happy but vacuous bourgeois existence. Focusing on Chekhov's craftsmanship, Eudora Welty has asserted that any didactic intent in the story is undercut by its "subjective" structure and vivid images: "the memory of the gooseberries, the smell of Ivan's pipe in the bedroom, and the rain that has never stopped." O'Faolain also argued that "Gooseberries" is an ironic tale with a "double edge" rather than a story with a clear message: "What is happiness?—asks Chekov . . . inviting us to answer as we will but never to forget that human nature is like that, an instrument playing tricks on itself."
SOURCE: "Comment on 'Gooseberries'," in The Story: A Critical Anthology, edited by Mark Schorer, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950, pp. 61-5.
[In the following excerpt, Schorer examines "the interplay between the framing action and the framed anecdote, the way that each illuminates the other" in "Gooseberries."]
In Chekhov's "Gooseberries," we begin . . . with the direct anecdotal convention: "'. . . you were going to tell me a story'" . . .". . . only then did Ivan Ivanych begin his story . . . 'We are two brothers,' he began." But how remarkably everything here has opened up to give us a wide and richly detailed view of human life and then gently closed down and framed that view for us! And when we finish the story (perhaps not after the first reading, but after the third or fourth) we are left not with a sharp jab at our nervous system but with vastly more. How does Chekhov accomplish that more? How does he get from a sketch to a short story, from the convention of the anecdote to the full, evocative beauty of form?
His anecdote is itself "framed." The anecdote is placed within a surrounding action and a surrounding atmosphere, and the first observation to be made is the interplay between the framing action and the framed anecdote, the way that each illuminates the other, gives the other its significance. It is a story that moves by counter-point, and its formal and therefore its thematic...
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SOURCE: "The Technical Struggle: On Subject," in The Short Story, The Devin-Adair Company, 1951, pp. 171-92.
[In the excerpt below, O'Faolain praises the irony, humor, and double-edged meaning of "Gooseberries."]
[In Chekov's "Gooseberries"] a civil servant dreams of the day when he will retire—as so many civil servants do. He will have a farm, a very little farm, just three or four acres, and a little cottage, and a gooseberry bush. The gooseberries become to him the symbol of the Simple Life. Time goes on, as time does, and he begins to amass rouble after rouble, as men do. But, then—and this is one of those unexpected touches with which human nature always surprises us—as the roubles accumulate the idealistic civil servant begins to get avaricious and ambitious. There is the first sly comment. Do not the dreams of youth always harden a little as we grow old? Lose their urgency, become in fact mere dreams—day dreams—deceiving us into constant procrastination? When we think of it do we not all know a dozen dreams of our own that we have silently discarded—so many little unrecorded defeats of the spirit?
So our civil servant gets older and older, and we find him marrying—not for love so much as for her money. And does this not suggest another comment on humanity—that it can fool itself into believing that the end justifies every means: so different from that noble ethic...
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SOURCE: "The Short Story: An Underrated Art," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 13-31.
[In this excerpt, Gullason uses "Gooseberries" to illuminate the highly flexible qualities of the short story form, and to "counteract the usual [aesthetic] charges leveled against the short story."]
What must we do so that the short story can receive the kind of consideration it deserves? We can try to rid the genre of the prejudices that have conspired against it. We can come to it as though it were a fresh discovery. We can settle on one term for the medium, like "short fiction" or "short story." References to names like "anecdote," "tale," "narrative," "sketch," though convenient, merely add to the confusion and suggest indecision and a possible inferiority complex. Too many names attached to the short story have made it seem almost nameless. Even the provincial attitude of teachers and anthologists has not helped. Most often students are fed on a strict diet of British and American short-story writers. But the short story is not solely a British and American product; it is an international art form, and Continental as well as Oriental, and other authors should be more fully represented in any educational program. As Maurice Beebe reminds us [in Approaches to the Study of Twentieth-Century Literature, 1961], "Once translated, Zola, Mann, Proust, Kafka become authors...
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SOURCE: "Life in a Shell," in Chekhov and His Prose, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 191-208.
[In the following excerpt, Winner examines "Gooseberries" as a response to Leo Tolstoy's story, "How Much Land Does Man Need?"]
The second part of [Chekhov's] allegoric trilogy, "Gooseberries," is told by Ivan Ivanych, who bears the grotesque surname Chimsha-Gimalayski. It is the story of his brother, Nikolay Ivanych, who, obsessed with the desire for a little estate upon which to retire, scrimps and saves, and, like Akaki in Gogol's "The Overcoat," denies himself all the pleasures of life and even food. He had entered into a mariage de convenance with a rich old widow and had contributed to her death by forcing her also to stint on food. The idyllic life of retirement was symbolized for him by a gooseberry bush from which he could eat his own gooseberries. When Nikolay finally realizes his dream, Ivan Ivanych visits him and he finds Nikolay, the landowner, old and fat. The first homegrown gooseberries are served; but they taste sour. Nikolay has achieved what he had dreamed of, but Ivan realizes its futility and is appalled at the price at which it had to be bought.
This story can be explained, as many critics have done, as a comment on Tolstoy's late moral philosophy, and specifically on his didactic exemplary tale, "How Much Land Does Man Need?" (Mnogo li eloveku zemli nu...
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SOURCE: "Practical Criticism for Students: 'Gooseberries'," in From Karamzin to Bunin: An Anthology of Russian Short Stories, edited and translated by Carl R. Proffer, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 38-9.
[In the excerpt below, Proffer articulates the significance of "Gooseberries" in the context of Chekhov's "little trilogy" of short stories, which also includes "The Man in a Shell," and "About Love."]
"Gooseberries" is the middle story in Chekhov's "little trilogy" which was published in 1898 with consecutive pagination from the beginning of "The Man in a Case" to the end of "About Love." The two epigraphs Chekhov considered using suggest the trilogy's thematic unity: "But how many of those in cases remain" and "Man needs more than six feet—he needs the whole universe." The latter is aimed at Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does a Man Need," which concludes that the six feet of the grave are all man could or should expect. Death was a philosophical idée fixe for Tolstoy, but the gloomy, ascetic penchant for measuring life against death was alien to the unromantic Dr. Chekhov. Regarding the afterlife as dubious as unicorns or elves, he thought we should make the most of the life we have—life should be measured by life. It seems reasonable to consider Ivan Ivanych as Chekhov's puppet; most of what he says corresponds to the Chekhov we know from his letters. Note that Ivan Ivanych is a...
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SOURCE: "Stories of Ambiguity," in The Chameleon and the Dream: The Image of Reality in Chexov's Stories, Mouton, 1970, pp. 153-73.
[In this excerpt, Kramer discusses how Chekhov's trilogy of stories, "The Man in a Shell," "Gooseberries," and "About Love," are all connected by the theme of "retreat and escape from life."]
In the trilogy of stories from 1898, "The Man in a Case" (Celovek v futljare) "Gooseberries" (Kryzovnik), and "About Love" (O ljubvi), there is a problem in the way the narrator understands his own story and in the extent of his commitment to the principles he espouses. In this series the 'labyrinth of linkages' extends from one story into the next. In the first there are two central characters, Burkin and Ivan Ivanyc, who are joined by a third figure in the next two, Alexin. All three stories focus on the theme of futljamost', as the title of the first pointedly reminds us. In "The Man in a Case" Burkin, the narrator, apparently comprehends that futljarnost', retreat and escape from life, is not a peculiarity of Belikov alone. He observes at the end of his narrative that within a week of Belikov's death life in the town had slipped back into its familiar pattern and he asks how many "such men in shells were left, how many more of them there will be." Then Burkin and Ivan Ivany step outside to look at the night:...
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SOURCE: "'Gooseberries' and Chekhov's Concreteness," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 63-7.
[In the essay below, Mays argues that Ivan Ivanych's diatribe against human contentment in "Gooseberries" is undermined by his "obsessive" tone as well as the contrasting motif of the story's luxurious setting.]
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 excellent life of Chekhov [Chekhov, 1962], 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...
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SOURCE: "Nature in Chekhov's Fiction," in The Russian Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 153-66.
[In the essay below, the critic contends that Chekhov believed in "the unity of all living things and of a disturbed harmony in nature to the end of his life." Bill then shows how this perspective influenced Chekhov's short fiction, including "Gooseberries."]
He (Chekhov) was the first one in literature to include man's relation to nature into the sphere of ethics.
A. P. Chudakov, Poetika Chekhova, 1971.
At a relatively early stage in his artistic development Chekhov formulated his basic view of life on this planet. In the story "The Reed Pipe" (Svirel') (1887), we hear the lament of an old shepherd: "The sun and the skies and the forests and the rivers and the creatures—all this is created, adapted, adjusted to each other. Each is at work and knows its place. And all this is doomed to perish." [Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Polnoe sobrante sochinenii i pisem, 20 vols. (Moscow, 1944-1951), 6:253. All quotations from Chekhov's writings are based on this edition of Chekhov's works. The translation of all quotations is my own.] He bewails the declining abundance of game, of animals, of bees, of fish . . . Rivers are drying up, forests are cut down or burn, plant life is diminishing . . . At least people are...
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SOURCE: "Search for Escapes," in Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 126-56.
[In this excerpt, Kirk examines Chekhov's treatment of romantic values in "Gooseberries."]
"Gooseberries" continues the narrative thread begun in "The Man in a Shell." The story opens with a description of Burkin and Ivan Ivanych walking on the open plain, where the vast landscape appears endless and beautiful to them. There is a mild pensive mood in nature that is somewhat reminiscent of the serene moonlit night the two men spent together in the barn, and perhaps this association leads Burkin to mention the story Ivan had desired to relate that night.
Ivan had intended to talk about his brother, but before he can begin the story it starts to rain. The two men seek refuge at a friend's, Alekhin's, house, where the theme of the beauty of nature is again introduced with Ivan's idyllic swim in the river.
The opening mood created by the wide unfenced expanse of the steppe is deliberately developed as a contrast to Ivan Ivanych's subsequent narration. Ivan speaks of his brother Nikolai Ivanych's obsession with acquiring a country estate, and remarks that he never sympathized with his brother's desire "to shut himself up for the rest of his life on a little property of his own. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man."...
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SOURCE: "Some Varieties of Armor and Innocence," in The Look of Distance: Reflections on Suffering & Sympathy in Modern Literature—Auden to Agee, Whitman to Woolf, Ohio State University Press, 1985, pp. 15-40.
[In the excerpt below, Slatoff considers possible reader responses, including his own, to the character Ivan Ivanych in "Gooseberries."]
[Ivan Ivanych in "Gooseberries"] is an elderly veterinarian who over the years has become so horrified by his brother's piggish and blind complacency that he becomes incapable of watching anyone's happiness without an "oppressive feeling bordering on despair." After spending an evening with his brother, he says to himself:
How many contented, happy people there really are! What an overwhelming force they are! Look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying—Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud. We see the people who go to market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good-naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Technique and the Art of Story-telling in Anton Chekhov's 'Little Trilogy'," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Freedman attributes the lack of critical consensus concerning Chekhov's political and social views to the author's maintenance of "a distinction between his own opinions and those of his characters." Freedman demonstrates how this distinction functions in "The Man in a Shell," "Gooseberries," and "About Love."]
The elusiveness of Anton Chekhov's art has caused no end of confusion among critics and readers ever since he began to publish serious literature in the latter half of the 1880s. The socially oriented critical industry of Russia of the late nineteenth century was alternately baffled and outraged by what it perceived to be an unprincipled, immoral writer. In time, Chekhov came to be known as the bard of twilight Russia. Soviet critics throughout much of the twentieth century have been wont to see in him an unabashed optimist and even a budding revolutionary. Recent times have generally seen a more sober attitude in his work, although there still exists no general consensus. Two examples demonstrate well the extremes to which Chekhov criticism has sometimes gone in the past. In 1926 Janko Lavrin wrote about Chekhov's "meek, evasive smile" and "sad voice" ["Chekhov and Maupassant," Slavonic Review, Vol. 13,...
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Egri, Péter. "The Short Story in the Drama: Chekhov and O'Neill." Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Tomus 20, Nos. 1-2 (1978): 3-28.
Examines structural affinities between the short story and dramatic forms, using examples from the one-act plays of Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill.
Hagan, John. "The Tragic Sense in Chekhov's Earliest Stories." Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts VII, No. 1 (Winter 1965): 52-80.
Offers a critical defense of Chekhov's early short fiction, arguing: "Many of Chekhov's early stories which appear at first glance to be no more than light-hearted jeux d'esprits turn out on closer inspection to be connected with themes of considerable significance."
Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 350 p.
Provides an overview of Chekhov's work in several genres. Hahn comments: "Chekhov is an author who must be seen whole if he is to be properly understood at all; and seeing him whole involves not merely tracing his development through the short stories, the novellas and finally the plays, but feeling what it is that he achieves, positively, with each new turn."
Katsell, Jerome H. "Character Change in...
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