What do the gooseberries in Chekhov's short story "Gooseberries" symbolize?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What the gooseberries symbolize depends on how one interprets the story, or more precisely, how one interprets the story within the story, where the gooseberries appear. In the framing, or outer, story, Ivan and his friend Bourkin are on a hiking trip when they take shelter from the rain at their friend's house. While there, Ivan tells the story of his brother, Nikolai, a city clerk. Nikolai saves money for years and marries an older widow with some money, who Ivan suggests Nikolai starves so that he can finally achieve his dream of owning a farm with gooseberries. When Ivan visits the farm, his brother feeds him gooseberries that he has grown. Nikolai thinks they are delicious while Ivan thinks they are hard and sour. Who is right? Who is deceiving himself? Are they both deceiving themselves? 

To Nikolai, the gooseberries symbolize the dream of the pastoral life he has long sought. To eat his own gooseberries is to have achieved his dream. He thinks they are delicious because he is content with his new life as lord of the manor. But to Ivan, Nikolai's life is appalling. He starved his wife to achieve his dream, the farm is between two factories, the river running past the farm is polluted with industrial waste, and Nikolai lives the life of a petty tyrant, only happy because he ignores the misery of the peasants. To Ivan, the gooseberries symbolize the bitterness of a dream built on delusions and other people's suffering.

But what if Ivan is actually jealous of Nikolai? In that case, the gooseberries symbolize the proverbial sour grapes of Aesop's fable, sour only because they represent what Ivan can't have. We admire Chekhov because he doesn't give us easy answers. Instead, he leaves it to the reader to look at clues in the story to determine how reliable a narrator Ivan is.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Anton Chekhov's short story "Gooseberries," part of a unique trilogy including "The Man in the Shell" and "About Love," the gooseberries are part of complex theme that is both metaphysical and practical and is summed up in Ivan Ivanovich's plea, "Don't be calm and contented! Don't let yourself be put to sleep!"

Nicolay has managed to improve his position in life after his wife's death and buys himself the estate he has always dreamed of owning complete with bushes of luscious gooseberries. Years later when Ivan Ivanovich visited Nicolay, he found that Nicolay was corpulent and happy in his vast enjoyment of his country life and gooseberries.

Chekhov introduces contemplation of the woes and miseries of life as represented in drunkenness, pain, degenerate living, poverty and its attendant hunger and these contemplations stand in stark contrast to the luxurious happiness of gooseberries. Chekhov thus equates gooseberries with luxury, contentedness, self-serving happiness, and obsession with personal dreams.

Gooseberries prevent a person from recognizing and contributing to the solution of pain and evil in the world. Thus gooseberries symbolize a two-part theme. Firstly, they symbolize the metaphysical theme of truth and meaning in life: Is individual contentedness and happiness the truth and meaning in life? Secondly, they symbolize the practical theme of human responsibility to alleviate suffering in life.