Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Chekhov is renowned for his economy of words and ability to portray a mood or a person with a single, well-chosen word. In “Gooseberries,” he utilizes this technique as usual until Ivan Ivanich gives his speech on the evils of the world. At this point, Chekhov launches into a very uncharacteristic authorial sermon that catches the immediate attention of the reader but that, at times, seems redundant.
Another Chekhovian technique, however, is carefully adhered to: the use of exaggeration of a human characteristic to prove a point. Chekhov wishes to portray the human ability to delude oneself and to settle for less than what one can achieve. In his portrayal of Nikolai Ivanich, Chekhov presents the reader with an absurd example of such a person but not so absurd that the point is lost. Chekhov’s immense talent permits him to exaggerate but not go so far that the reader views the work as fantasy or comedy.
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Decline of Russia’s Feudal Order
The end of the nineteenth century saw the end of the old feudal order in Russia. Political bodies and organizations were becoming obsolete in the face of new developments, and the economy (traditionally divided neatly along agrarian and aristocratic lines) was giving rise to capitalists and a new urban middle class. Unfortunately, the lower class suffered increased poverty, and although the middle class was growing, it was experiencing apathy and frustration. In fact, uncertainty characterized Russian society as a whole. Russian authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev were writing about weakened social institutions and structures in the 1860s and 1870s, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky was writing about the intellectual consequences of these changes. In the midst of the turmoil and upheaval, Chekhov emerged as a writer who depicted life without traditional heroes and villains.
Realism in Literature
Chekhov is considered the last of the great writers of Russia’s Golden Age of literature. During this period, many Russian writers, including Chekhov, wrote realistic works. Realism in literature, which became especially prominent around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, refers to an author’s accurate rendering of the way people, things, and events exist and act in life. Such writing...
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The story opens with a description of the Russian countryside on a rainy day. Chekhov at first describes the scene as gray and dull, conveying the feelings of monotony that plague the Russian people and the general sense of isolation they experience. The still country setting of the story plays a crucial role in conveying Chekhov's message. Contradictions appear almost immediately. On the first page of the story the country is described as both gray and dull and serene and refreshing. Ivan himself embodies this contradiction. It is he who reverses his opinion of the setting, and it is he who takes great pleasure in bathing in the cool river water and settles quite comfortably in Pavel's country estate.
Shortly after Ivan and Burkin arrive at Pavel's home, Ivan launches into his story of his brother Nikolai, who like Pavel is also the owner of a country estate. Ivan appears to be condemning Nikolai's materialism and the idea that he secured his own comfort while others continue to suffer, yet all the while Ivan himself is enjoying the peaceful serenity of Pavel's estate. The hypocrisy of Ivan's views suggests a conflict between social responsibility and the desire for personal comfort. As Chekhov juxtaposes the peaceful country setting Ivan so enjoys with the moralistic tale he relates to his friends, the incompatibility of social consciousness with personal happiness becomes one of the central ironies of Chekhov's tale.
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Story within a Story
Aliokhin’s house is two-storied, and so is ‘‘Gooseberries.’’ Chekhov introduces the outer story as Ivan and Bourkin seek shelter from the rain in Aliokhin’s house. Ivan tells a story about his brother, which becomes the inner story. At the end, Chekhov returns to the outer story as Ivan finishes his story and addresses his audience, and the men retire for the night. The outer story frames the inner story, yet the two are related by the character of Ivan and the themes presented. While some authors utilize a framing technique merely to add interest to the inner story, Chekhov relates both in a meaningful and interesting way. The themes of obsession and contentment presented in the inner story come to reflect on the characters of the outer story.
Chekhov is known for his innovative storytelling techniques, and the use of a story within a story is a good example. ‘‘Gooseberries’’ is the second in a trilogy of short stories, all of which use this same framing device. This framing technique has been used effectively in other genres by other writers, such as William Shakespeare in the play Hamlet and Margaret Landon in the novel Anna and the King of Siam.
Chekhov sets the tone for ‘‘Gooseberries’’ in the first sentence and carries the mood throughout the story. The first sentence reads,...
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The narrator of "Gooseberries" is presumably Chekhov himself. He makes Ivan his spokesperson, hailing the benefits of moderation and stressing the danger in retreating from life and ignoring the needs of the masses. Chekhov himself was a realist, and Ivan appears to parrot what is known about Chekhov's views. While Chekhov was once an avid supporter of Tolstoy's anti-materialism, he gradually rejected this doctrine. In "Gooseberries," Chekhov's ambivalence seems apparent. Ivan both denounces Nikolai's materialism and wallows in the pleasures of country life.
"Gooseberries" is comprised of two separate parts, which can be labeled the narrative and the anecdote. It is a story within a story, a format that allows Chekhov to interweave the past with the present and create a framework for setting forth his series of contrasts. Chekhov contrasts the two landowners, Pavel and Nikolai, and by doing so he contrasts realism with idealism, activism with passivity, and involvement versus isolation. Using Pavel to represent the kind and caring landowner and Nikolai to represent the isolated and unaffected man, Chekhov clearly sets apart the plight of the masses from what he considers the selfish bourgeois class and their fruitless existence.
Chekhov has been labeled a master ironist, and in "Gooseberries" the first apparent irony is that Pavel's farm is so much like Nikolai's yet Ivan views them differently. The second irony is that Nikolai's dream of...
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Chekhov clearly uses Ivan's speech as a vehicle to defend his stand on social issues of concern in Russia in the late 1800s. Education of the peasants and the mistreatment of the peasants by the bourgeois class were primary issues at this time, and Chekhov appears to be laying these issues out for evaluation.
Chekhov was criticized for his lack of social consciousness and noted for first supporting, then rejecting, the views of Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist and noted religious thinker. The influence of Tolstoy is apparent in "Gooseberries." Tolstoy believed that society was corrupt and that one could retreat from this corruption and enjoy a simple life in the country. Tolstoy proposed that people should not worry about society but strive instead for their own peace and happiness, and through this general sense of contentment society would begin to improve. Chekhov, at the time he wrote "Gooseberries," discounted Tolstoy's ideas as unrealistic, and he obviously used Ivan's story of Nikolai to express his disenchantment with Tolstoyism. But Ivan's speech reveals Chekhov's ambivalence. Ivan was so distressed at witnessing Nikolai's smug happiness in the face of others' suffering that he himself appeared to discount the entire notion of happiness. Many critics have interpreted this story as a direct commentary on Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" In both Tolstoy's story and in Chekhov's, the protagonists desire material wealth, and...
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Compare and Contrast
1898: Social interactions are often unplanned, yet welcome, and people are entertained simply by conversation. At times, one person relates a story while the others sit listening without interrupting. Because of heavy workloads, people do not make a habit of socializing every weekend but go for extended periods of time without enjoying social interaction.
Today: Social interaction has changed in the last century as the result of technology (television, cinema, computers, etc.) and easier access to entertainment. People have more ways to entertain themselves without gathering together and more entertainment to distract them when they do get together. However, people continue to enjoy one another’s company in social situations, and communication has become freer as the result of the looser political climate.
1898: Bathing is done in facilities separate from the main house, even in the homes of wealthier people. Such facilities generally consist of a small bathhouse that contains a pool or tub of some kind that is filled with rainwater, well water, or water from a nearby river or stream.
Today: Indoor plumbing has made it possible (and convenient) to have bathing facilities inside the house. Because pipes bring water into the bathroom, there is no need to fill a pool with either rainwater or well water and leave it. Instead, water for each bath is fresh and is...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is the ending of the book satisfactory? Can you identify a climax to the story?
2. What purpose does Pelageya serve in the story?
3. In the last part of the story, what does the image of Ivan's pipe symbolize to you?
4. The story both begins and ends with the image of rain—at first pounding down on the land and in the end tap- ping on the windows in Pavel's estate. What does this image convey to you?
5. How does Nikolai's first appearance in Ivan's story compare with Pavel's first appearance in Chekhov's narrative?
6. What do you think Chekhov wished to achieve by creating a slow moving, seemingly plotless story lacking in action?
7. What do you consider to be Nikolai's greatest "crime?"
8. Why do you think Ivan is so hostile toward his brother?
9. What purpose does Burkin serve in the story and how much does Chekhov reveal about him?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Discuss the symbolism in the novel; specifically of the gooseberries, the rain, and the pipe.
2. It has been said that one of Tolstoy's central themes is the alienation of modern man from his natural environment. Discuss this theme as it relates to Chekhov's "Gooseberries."
3. It has been said that "Gooseberries" is a direct commentary on Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" This story says that a man only needs six feet of earth in which to be buried. Read this short story, analyze this quote, and explain how Chekhov comments on this view in "Gooseberries."
4. To quote Ivan: "Behind the door of every contented, happy man, there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, and that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws." Explain what Ivan meant by this and comment on what this quote means to you.
5. Assuming that Ivan speaks for Chekhov, write an essay on Chekhov's views on happiness.
6. "Gooseberries" is the second in a trilogy of short stories that have unifying themes. Read the first story, "The Man in a Shell," and the third story, "About Love" and discuss the themes you find in all three stories.
7. Extend the concept of stillness and isolation to encompass the concept of death. Do you recognize any death symbolism in the story? Discuss the theme of death, the...
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Topics for Further Study
Read a sampling of William Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience Write an essay in which you relate some of these poems to the perspectives of Ivan Ivanich, Nicholai Ivanich, and Aliokhin.
Ivan Ivanich and his brother seem to be two very different people. Speculate as to whether you think this is because of their inborn personalities or because of their experiences. Make an argument in the tradition of the ‘‘nature versus nurture’’ debate in which you account for the differences between the two brothers. You may make assumptions about the men beyond what is told in the story as long as your assumptions are reasonable given what Chekhov reveals about them. Imagine Ivan Ivanich, Bourkin, and Aliokhin lounging by the fire as Ivan tells his story. Select a theme song for each character that reflects his state of mind and personality. Write a short essay explaining why you chose each song.
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Gooseberries is the middle story in a trilogy of Chekhov's tales, the first titled "The Man in a Shell" and the last titled "About Love." All are united in theme, particularly on the theme of isolation and escape from life. They also all comment on Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need."
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What Do I Read Next?
Anton Chekhov: Selected Stories (1990), translated by Ann Dunnigan, is a collection of twenty of Chekhov’s short works. Because this collection spans the author’s entire career, not just his mature writings, it enables the reader to see how he developed and changed over the course of his writing years.
Chekhov scholar Donald Rayfield presents Chekhov’s life story in Anton Chekhov: A Life (2000). This biography draws on correspondence and various accounts of the author’s life to provide the reader with an insightful and detailed look at Chekhov’s life and experiences.
Nicholas Rzhevsky edited An Anthology of Russian Literature from Earliest Writings to Modern Fiction: Introduction to a Culture for publication in 1997. This anthology is arranged chronologically, with an introduction prefacing each section. It is a good introduction for the student of Russian literature, as it provides a sweeping overview of literary developments and also comments on adaptations of works.
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For Further Reference
"Chekhov, Anton." In Contemporary Authors, vol. 124. Detroit: Gale, 1988. A biographical essay with information about Chekhov's work.
"Chekhov, Anton." In Short Story Criticism, vol. 28. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Contains extensive excerpts from individual critical reviews of "Gooseberries."
"Chekhov, Anton." In World Literature Criticism. Detroit: Gale, 1992. The essay about Chekhov discusses the critical response to his works and provides some biographical information.
"Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich." In Something about the Author, vol. 90. Detroit: Gale, 1997. An essay that includes biographical information about Chekhov and comments on his work.
Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Hahn's book gives an overview of Chekhov's work. It discusses the development of his writing style and themes through the course of his career as a short story and play writer.
Johnson, Ronald J. Anton Chekhov: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. This introduction to Chekhov's short stories includes a critical analysis of "Gooseberries." It discusses Chekhov's narrative and point of view in the story, as well as his social conscience and his beliefs regarding freedom and happiness.
Pritchett, V. S. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988. Pritchett's work contains...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker, Simon, ‘‘‘Gooseberries,’’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.
Chekhov, Anton, ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ in Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary, 3d ed., edited by Charles Bohner, Prentice Hall, 1994.
Ford, Richard, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford and Constance Garnett, Ecco Press, 1998.
Gullason, Thomas H., ‘‘The Short Story: An Underrated Art,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1964, pp. 13–31.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, ‘‘Realism,’’ in A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., Prentice Hall, 1996.
Kirk, Irina, ‘‘Anton Chekhov,’’ in Twayne’s World Authors Series Online, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/Twayne/ (1999).
Mays, Milton A., ‘‘‘Gooseberries’ and Chekhov’s Concreteness,’’ in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1972, pp. 63–67.
O’Faolain, Sean, ‘‘The Technical Struggle: On Subject,’’ in Short Story, Devin-Adair Company, 1951, pp. 171–92.
Proffer, Carl R., ‘‘Practical Criticism for Students: ‘Gooseberries,’’’ in From Karamzin to Bunin: An Anthology of Russian Short Stories, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 38–39.
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