How does Chekhov develop his theme in his short story "Gooseberries"? What writing techniques are used?
"Gooseberries" is a surprisingly complex short story, but one of its themes, isolation, is underscored by the way the narrative is structured. "Gooseberries" uses a story-within-a-story frame, which makes it impossible for us to know the truth about what is being said.
The frame story involves two friends, Ivan and Bourkin, who are hiking in Russia. It rains. They take shelter with their friend, a prospering landowner named Aloikhin. He too is isolated and is glad for their company. While there, Ivan tells the story of his brother Nikolai, who dreamed of owning his own farm, complete with gooseberries. Nikolai saved every penny of his earnings, lived like a miser, and married a widow with some money, practically starving her, according to Ivan. After she died, Nikolai bought his farm.
Ivan says that he goes to see him. Nikolai is fat and prosperous but isolated from other people. He gives the peasants vodka on his birthday but doesn't want to educate them or do anything substantive for them. Nikolai eats the gooseberries growing on his land and finds them delicious, but Ivan, who eats only one, finds it bitter. Ivan realizes he is disgusted with his brother, who, like most people, can be happy only by ignoring the fact that others around him live in misery. He tells his Aloikhin to do good to others while he can. Ivan also says that he is too old himself to start doing good.
Is Ivan telling the truth about his brother? Is his brother really lying to himself, pretending he is happy, just as he pretended the gooseberries tasted good, or is Ivan jealous of his brother and pretending his gooseberries are bitter so that he won't envy him? We can't know, for Nikolai never gets to tell his version of the story. All the characters in this tale, ultimately, are isolated from each other. Just as they are separate from each other, so the reader is kept separate from Nikolai through hearing his story mediated through the frame of another character.
Chekhov, who was also a playwright, is noted for saying you can't have a gun over the fireplace in Act I without having it shot off in Act III. All details are important. In this story, details repeat. To what extent is Aloikhin, a rural landowner, for example, like Nikolai? What role do the dogs or smoking play? Does Ivan's "too old" excuse for doing good mirror his brother's indifference to the peasants? Do any of these help us unravel the story? This is a story whose structure invites debate, and perhaps that is exactly Chekhov's intent.
Chekov sets the mood by using imagery in the opening. He describes the day:
THE whole sky had been overcast with rain-clouds from early morning; it was a still day, not hot, but heavy, as it is in grey dull weather when the clouds have been hanging over the country for a long while, when one expects rain and it does not come.
and foreshadows the themes of the story. The heavy overcast is symbolic of the obsession that Ivan will describe having taken over his brother Nicholai. The expectation of rain lets the readers expect a sad story.
Chekov then gives voice to the story of Nicholai through Ivan, who is the real protagonist of the story. This personal point of view, like the imagery, helps to highlight and better express the theme.
Chekov leds to Nicholai's downfall slowly. First, he just becomes stingy. Then, he marries an old woman for money, showing his greed. Then, he slowly starves her, showing his obsession and lack of humanity. It doesn't end there, though. Readers at this point are disgusted by Nicholai, but Chekov (through Ivan) leads readers from here to pity by describing his downward spiral. He becomes fat and lazy, and takes on the roll of a "gentlemen", but doesn't understand how ridiculous a figure he is. He doesn't even understand that his own gooseberries taste bitter. But Ivan understands, and changes as a result:
"Lord forgive us sinners!" he said