Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the final scene of “Gusev” indicates, Chekhov often utilizes symbolic descriptions to convey implicit messages to his reader. Nature descriptions in particular play an important role in shaping the reader’s understanding of the author’s designs. The vastness of the natural world and its indifference to the everyday travails of human life are evoked by Chekhov’s choice of the seas as the setting for his story and his inclusion of the scene in which the shark casually tears open the canvas sack containing Gusev’s body. Similarly, the recurring image of a huge bull’s head without eyes that Gusev sees in his daydreams of home serves to underscore his own primitive and animalistic character.

The recurring image of the bull’s head itself points to another distinctive feature of Chekhov’s narrative technique in “Gusev.” His portrait of the peasant provides an interesting blend of internal psychology and external sensory stimuli. To convey the mental state of a man stricken with fever, Chekhov skillfully interweaves Gusev’s reveries about his village life with the sounds and sights of his shipboard passage. Things happen on the ship around Gusev without his full knowledge or comprehension. As these sights or sounds penetrate into his consciousness, they at times seem curiously relevant, while at other times they seem chaotic or meaningless. Through this flow of apparently random yet meaningful events, Chekhov highlights the unpredictability and mysteriousness of human existence.

In “Gusev,” as in many of his other tales, Chekhov doe not overtly preach to his readers. As he explores possible approaches to life, he creates two characters with contrasting attitudes, and he allows his readers to judge for themselves the merits and drawbacks of each. Avoiding melodrama or bold gestures, he constructs his tale out of small incidents and thereby subtly shapes the readers’ perception of events. A master of understatement, Chekhov manages to create a portrait of human experience as nuanced and moving as life itself.