Anton Chekhov: A Life Anton Chekhov

Donald Rayfield

Anton Chekhov

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Donald Rayfield is a professor of Russian literature at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Among his previous books on Chekhov are Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art (1975), The Cherry Orchard: Catastrophe and Comedy (1994), The Chekhov Omnibus: Selected Stories (1994), and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and the Wood Demon (1995).

In the preface to his two-volume short-story collection, W. Somerset Maugham compares Chekhov, as a writer of short fiction, with Guy de Maupassant. According to Maugham, Maupassant wrote stories of action, complete in themselves and of a limited length; Chekhov, on the other hand, wrote stories of atmosphere, of mood, less reliant on plot and story than character, providing anecdotal fiction stripped of its trimmings and often insignificant and inane. Chekhov’s literary legacy is in his handling of the details of his fiction, which he does with a consummate touch, and in his insistence that nothing should be included in the story that does not have an organic relationship to the whole. Moreover, Chekhov’s fiction is usually narrated from an ironic perspective, one devoid of moral judgment. Because his writing had such distinctive characteristics, he not only became one of the masters of the nineteenth century short story but also exerted considerable influence over twentieth century fiction and drama.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog in the Crimea just north of the Black Sea. Chekhov’s paternal great-grandfather, Mikhail, was a serf all of his life on the estate of Count Chertkov in the province of Voronezh, south of Moscow, where the Chekhovs can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Egor, his grandfather, energetic and successful, purchased his freedom in 1841 so that the author’s father, Pavel, grew up in a modestly well-to-do family. Anton’s mother’s family came from a similar background in the Tambov province but went bankrupt, forcing his mother, Evgenia, to move to Taganrog. Pavel and Evgenia were married on November 29, 1854, and they had seven children, of whom Anton was the third son.

The young Chekhov grew up and was educated in Taganrog, where he received a fairly good schooling in the classics. His family life, however, was disrupted by frequent bouts of poverty because of his father’s financial reverses as a businessman. After Pavel left Taganrog for Moscow to avoid his creditors, Anton assumed responsibility for the family’s maintenance, a responsibility he would shoulder for the rest of his life. In the fall of 1879 Anton entered the medical school of Moscow University, where he was reunited with his family. In June, 1884, he was qualified as a general practitioner, and he practiced medicine in various capacities until his advanced tuberculosis and the increasing demands of his literary art forced his retirement during the years immediately preceding his death in 1904. The family’s constant financial pressures kept him tied to both his practice and to his desk, which undoubtedly worsened his health and helped bring on his early death at the age of forty-four.

While still a medical student Anton began to write short sketches and humorous stories in order to support not only himself but also his wayward family. After he fruitlessly tried to break into various Moscow weekly journals with his journalism, his first acceptance came on January 13, 1880, when The Dragonfly published a satiric sketch of his, “A Don Landowner’s Letter to a Learned Neighbor,” based on his father’s and grandfather’s ignorant and menacing pomposity. For the next few years Anton was to write hundreds of short, often parodistic, short pieces—for the most part published under pseudonyms—for various Russian periodicals. As he became more successful, the income from his writing supported his family, and his growing fame as a writer provided the basis upon which he would later build his literary career as both a master of the short story and drama.

Even though Chekhov’s early career as a writer was marred by frequent literary rejections and by the grinding poverty in which he lived with his family, his life was not one of unremitting gloom. He participated in Moscow student life, enjoyed outings with his brother Alexander, also a writer at this time, and his brother Kolia, an artist who frequently contributed to the same magazines as Anton. Anton also had numerous affairs, a habit he retained until late in his life, when he finally married the actress Olga Knipper. Although to a lesser extent than later, Anton’s health also affected his early life, and he had infrequent bouts of inactivity brought on by his lingering fight against tuberculosis, a disease that affected several members of his immediate family and many of...

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