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

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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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.

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