Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a masterful tale, as Chekhov demonstrates his vision of life as a pathetic comedy of errors, with misunderstanding and miscommunication rooted in the psychic substance of human nature. Lieutenant Ryabovich, the least dashing and romantic of men, is transformed by the kiss meant for another into a person with a penchant for an intense inner life that runs its dreamy course virtually separate from the dreariness of external reality. He inflates an insignificant incident into an absurd cluster of fantasies centering on ideal love and beauty. All the more embittering, then, is his plunge from ecstasy to despair as he recognizes, in the story’s anticlimactic resolution, the falseness of his hopes, the frustration of his yearnings.

Chekhov dramatizes two of his pervasive themes in “The Kiss.” One is the enormous difficulty, often the impossibility, of establishing a communion of feelings between human beings. Ryabovich discovers that he cannot communicate to his fellow officers his happiness “that something extraordinary, foolish, but joyful and delightful, had come into his life.” Lieutenant Lobytko regards Ryabovich’s experience as an opportunity to parade and exaggerate his own sexual adventures. Lieutenant Merzlyakov dismisses the lady in the dark as “some sort of lunatic.” The brigade general assumes that all of his officers have his own preference for stout, tall, middle-aged women.

The other great Chekhovian theme (which he shares with Nikolai Gogol) is the contrast between beauty and sensitivity, and the elusive characteristic best expressed by the Russian word poslost’. The term is untranslatable, but it suggests vulgarity, banality, boredom, seediness, shallowness, and suffocation of the spirit. Ryabovich, surrounded by the coarseness of his comrades, depressed by the plodding routine of artillery maneuvers, poignantly tries to rise above this atmosphere of poslost’ by caressing an impossible dream.