The Kiss

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The setting is a Russian village on a May evening. The officers of an artillery brigade are invited by a retired general to spend an evening dining and dancing in his residence. During the evening, one of the officers, Ryabovich, an inarticulate conversationalist, graceless dancer, timid drinker, and altogether awkward social mixer, wanders away from the other guests and strays into a semidark room. Shortly afterward, a strange woman enters the room, clasps two fragrant arms around his neck, whispers “At last!” and kisses him. Recognizing her mistake, the woman then shrieks and runs from the room.

Ryabovich also exits quickly and soon shows himself to be a changed man: “He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud.” He begins to exercise a lively romantic fancy, speculating which of the ladies at the dinner table might have been his companion.

The artillery brigade leaves the area for maneuvers. Ryabovich tries to tell himself that the episode of the kiss was accidental and trifling--to no avail. His psychic needs embrace it as a wondrously radiant event.

In late August, Ryabovich’s battery returns to the village. He makes his second trip to the general’s estate but this time pauses to ponder in the garden. He can no longer hear the nightingale that sang loudly in May; the poplar and grass no longer exude a scent; he walks a bridge near the general’s bathing cabin and touches a towel which feels clammy and cold; ripples of the river rip the moon’s reflection into bits. Ryabovich now realizes that his romantic dreams have been absurdly disproportionate to their cause: “And the whole world... seemed to [him] an unintelligible, aimless jest.” When the general’s invitation comes, he refuses it.

The Kiss Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story’s structure is contrapuntal, with Chekhov using unobtrusive symbolism and situational irony to contrast the two worlds of romance and drabness. After his kiss, Ryabovich soars on wings of joy, exhilarated by “a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger.” After dining and dancing, he and the other officers walk through their host’s garden on their way back to camp. Chekhov bathes the scene in an atmosphere of lyric romanticism, as stars are reflected in the river’s water, sandpipers cry on its banks, and a nightingale trills loudly, “taking no notice of the crowd of officers”; they admire its self-absorption. The nightingale serves to symbolize Ryabovich’s state of sensibility. Like the bird, his soul is singing loudly and is indifferent to its surroundings.

The counterpart to the nightingale is the ass, Magar, which paces ploddingly at the end of the dusty procession of the brigade’s cannons, horses, and men, with Chekhov describing the dullness of artillery life precisely and minutely.

When Ryabovich returns to Lieutenant General von Rabbeck’s garden in late summer, “A crushing uneasiness took possession of him.” His exultant mood has disappeared as he confronts the prospect of a nonexisting reunion with a nonexisting beloved. Again, Chekhov symbolizes Ryabovich’s feelings of rejection and disillusionment: “there was no sound of the brave nightingale and no scent of poplar and young grass.” As Ryabovich touches the general’s cold, wet bathing towel and observes the moon’s reflection, this time torn to bits by the river waters, he has a shattering epiphany of heartbreak: “How stupid, how stupid! . . . How unintelligent it all is!” he exclaims, interpreting the endless, aimless running of the water as equivalent to the endless, aimless running of his life—of all lives. “What for? Why?”