Anton Chekhov published his earliest stories and sketches in various popular magazines under pseudonyms, the most often used being “Antosha Chekhonte.” As that pen name hints, he was at first an unassuming and relatively compliant “hack,” willing to dash off careless pieces fashioned for the popular reader. Most are light, topical studies of social types, often running less than a thousand words. Many are mere sketches or extended jokes, often banal or cynical. Some are farces, built on caricatures. Others are brief parodies of popular genres, including the romantic novel. Few display much originality in subject. Still, in their technique, economy of expression, and themes, the early pieces prefigure some of Chekhov’s most mature work. In them, Chekhov experimented with point of view and most particularly the use of irony as a fictional device. He also established his preference for an almost scientific objectivity in his depiction of character and events, an insistence that, in the course of his career, he would have to defend against his detractors.
Chekhov’s penchant for irony is exemplified in his very first published story, “Pis’mo k uchenomu sosedu” (“A Letter to a Learned Neighbor”), which appeared in 1880. The letter writer, Vladimirovich, is a pompous, officious oaf who makes pretentious statements about science and knowledge with inane blunders in syntax, spelling, and diction, inadvertently revealing his boorish stupidity while trying to ingratiate himself with his erudite neighbor.
As does this sketch, many of Chekhov’s first pieces lampoon types found in Russian society, favorite satirical targets being functionaries in the czarist bureaucracy and their obsequious regard for their superiors. One sketch, “Smert’ chinovnika” (“The Death of a Government Clerk”), deals with a civil servant named Chervyakov who accidentally sneezes on a general and is mortified because he is unable to obtain the man’s pardon. After repeated rebukes, he resigns himself to defeat, lies down, and dies. His sense of self-worth is so intricately bound up in his subservient role that, unpardoned, he has no reason to continue living.
In another story, “Khameleon” (“The Chameleon”), Ochumelov, a police officer, vacillates between placing blame on a dog or the man whom the dog has bitten until it can be confirmed that the dog does or does not belong to a certain General Zhigalov. When it turns out that the dog belongs to the general’s brother, the officer swears that he will get even with the dog’s victim. Like so many other characters in Chekhov’s fiction, Ochumelov is a bully to his subordinates but an officious toady to his betters.
Other stories, not built on irony or a momentous event in the central character’s life, are virtually plotless fragments. Some chronicle the numbing effects of living by social codes and mores rather than from authentic inner convictions, while others record human expectations frustrated by a sobering and often grim reality. In several stories, Chekhov deals with childhood innocence encountering or narrowly evading an adult world that is sordid, deceitful, or perverse. For example, in “V more” (“At Sea”), a man decides to provide a sex education for his son by having him observe a newly married couple and a third man through a bulkhead peep hole. Presumably to satisfy his own puerile interest, the father peeps first and is so mortified by what he sees that he does not allow his son to look at all.
Sometimes severely restricted by magazine requirements, Chekhov learned to be direct and sparse in statement. Many of his early stories have little or no exposition at all. The main character’s lineage, elaborate details of setting, authorial incursions—all disappear for economy’s sake. In...
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his precipitous openings, Chekhov often identifies a character by name, identifies his class or profession, and states his emotional condition, all in a single sentence. Others open with a snippet of conversation that has presumably been in progress for some time. When he does set a scene with description, Chekhov does so with quick, deft, impressionistic strokes, with only the barest of details.
Chekhov also learned the value of symbols as guides to inner character. In “Melyuzga,” a pathetic clerk named Nevyrazimov is trying to write a flattering Easter letter to his superior, whom, in reality, he despises. Hoping for a raise, this miserable underling must grovel, which contributes to his self-loathing and self-pity. As he tries to form the ingratiating words, he spies a cockroach and takes pity on the insect because he deems its miserable existence worse than his own. After considering his own options, however, and growing more despondent, when he again spies the roach he squashes it with his palm, then burns it, an act which, as the last line divulges, makes him feel better. The destruction of the roach is a symbolic act. It seems gratuitous and pointless, but it reveals the dehumanizing effect that chinopochitanie, or “rank reverence,” has on the clerk. In destroying the roach, Nevyrazimov is able to displace some of the self-loathing that accompanies his self-pity. His misery abates because he is able, for a moment, to play the bully.
Despite the limitations that popular writing imposed, between 1880 and 1885 there is an advance in Chekhov’s work, born, perhaps, from a growing tolerance and sympathy for his fellow human beings. He gradually turned away from short, acrid farces toward more relaxed, psychologically probing studies of his characters and their ubiquitous misery and infrequent joy. In “Unter Prishibeev” (“Sergeant Prishibeev”), Chekhov again develops a character who is unable to adjust to change because his role in life has been too rigid and narrow. A subservient army bully, he is unable to mend his ways when returned to civilian life and torments his fellow townspeople through spying, intimidation, and physical abuse. His harsh discipline, sanctioned in the military, only lands him in jail, to his total astonishment.
By 1886, Chekhov had begun to receive encouragement from the Russian literati, notably Dmitrí Grigorovich, who, in an important unsolicited letter, warned Chekhov not to waste his talents on potboilers. The impact on Chekhov was momentous, for he had received the recognition that he desired. Thereafter, he worked to perfect his craft, to master the literature nastroenija, or “literature of mood,” works in which a single, dominant mood is evoked and action is relatively insignificant.
This does not mean that all Chekhov’s stories are plotless or lack conflict. “Khoristka” (“The Chorus Girl”), for example, is a dramatic piece in method akin to the author’s curtain-raising farces based on confrontation and ironic turns. The singer, confronted by the wife of one of her admirers, an embezzler, gives the wife all of her valuables to redeem the philanderer’s reputation. His wife’s willingness to humble herself before a chorus girl regenerates the man’s love and admiration for his spouse. He cruelly snubs the chorus girl and, in rank ingratitude, leaves her alone in abject misery.
Other stories using an ironic twist leave the principal character’s fate to the reader’s imagination. “Noch’ pered sudom” (“The Night Before the Trial”) is an example. The protagonist, who narrates the story, makes a ludicrous blunder. On the eve of his trial for bigamy, he poses as a doctor and writes a bogus prescription for a woman. He also accepts payment from her husband, only to discover at the start of his trial that the husband is his prosecutor. The story goes no further than the man’s brief speculation on his approaching fate.
In yet another, more involved story, “Nishchii” (“The Beggar”), a lawyer, Skvortsov, is approached by a drunken and deceitful but resourceful beggar, Lushkov, whom he unmercifully scolds as a liar and a wastrel. He then sets Lushkov to work chopping wood, challenging him to earn his way through honest, hard work. Before long, Skvortsov persuades himself that he has the role of Lushkov’s redeemer and manages to find him enough work doing odd jobs to earn a meager livelihood. Eventually, growing respectable and independent, Lushkov obtains decent work in a notary’s office. Two years later, encountering Skvortsov outside a theater, Lushkov confides that it was indeed at Skvortsov’s house that he was saved—not, however, by Skvortsov’s scolding but by Skvortsov’s cook, Olga, who took pity on Lushkov and always chopped the wood for him. It was Olga’s nobility that prompted the beggar’s reformation, not the pompous moral rectitude of the lawyer.
In 1887, when Chekhov took the time to visit the Don Steppe, he was established as one of Russia’s premier writers of fiction. With the accolades, there inevitably came some negative criticism. A few of his contemporaries argued that Chekhov seemed to lack a social conscience, that he remained too detached and indifferent to humanity in a time of great unrest and need for reform. Chekhov never believed that his art should serve a bald polemical purpose, but he was sensitive to the unjust critical opinion that he lacked strong personal convictions. In much of his mature writing, Chekhov worked to dispel that misguided accusation.
For a time Chekhov came under the spell of Leo Tolstoy, his great contemporary, not so much for that moralist’s religious fervor but for his doctrine of nonresistance to evil. That idea is fundamental to “The Meeting.” In this tale, which in tone is similar to the didactic Russian folktales, a thief steals money from a peasant, who had collected it for refurbishing a church. The thief, baffled by the peasant’s failure to resist, gradually repents and returns the money.
In 1888, Chekhov wrote and published “Step’” (“The Steppe”), inspired by his journey across the Don Steppe. The story, consisting of eight chapters, approaches the novella in scope and reflects the author’s interest in trying a longer work, which Grigorovich had advised him to do. In method, the piece is similar to picaresque tales, in which episodes are like beads, linked only by a common string—the voyage or quest.
The main characters are a merchant, Kuznichov, his nine-year-old nephew, Egorushka, and a priest, Father Christopher, who set out to cross the steppe in a cart. The adults travel on business, to market wool, while Egorushka is off to school. The monotony of their journey is relieved by tidbits of conversation and brief encounters with secondary characters in unrelated episodes. Diversion for young Egorushka is provided by various denizens of the steppe. These minor characters, though delineated but briefly, are both picturesque and lifelike.
Some of the characters spin a particular tale of woe. For example, there is Solomon, brother to Moses, the Jewish owner of a posting house. Solomon, disgusted with human greed, has burned his patrimony and now wallows in self-destructive misery. Another miserable figure is Pantelei, an old peasant whose life has offered nothing but arduous work. He has nearly frozen to death several times on the beautiful but desolate steppe. Dymov, the cunning, mean-spirited peasant, is another wretch devoid of either grace or hope.
The story involves a realistic counterpart to the romantic quest, for the merchant and the priest, joined by the charming Countess Dranitskaya, seek the almost legendary figure, Varlamov. Thus, in a quiet, subdued way, the work has an epic cast to it. Its unity depends on imagery and thematic centrality of the impressions of Egorushka, whose youthful illusions play off against the sordid reality of the adult world. The journey to the school becomes for Egorushka a rite of passage, a familiar Chekhovian motif. At the end of the story, about to enter a strange house, the boy finally breaks into tears, feeling cut off from his past and apprehensive about his future.
“The Steppe” marks a tremendous advance over Chekhov’s earliest works. Its impressionistic description of the landscape is often poetic, and though, like most of Chekhov’s fiction, the work is open plotted, it is structurally tight and very compelling. The work’s hypnotic attraction comes from its sparse, lyrical simplicity and timeless theme. It is the first of the author’s flawless pieces.
“A Boring Story”
Another long work, “Skuchnaia istoriia” (“A Boring Story”), shifts Chekhov’s character focus away from a youth first encountering misery in the world to an old man, Nikolai Stepanovich, who, near the end of life, finally begins to realize its stupefying emptiness. The professor is the narrator, although, when the story starts, it is presented in the third rather than the first person. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the voice is the professor’s own. The story is actually a diary, unfolding in the present tense.
The reader learns that although Stepanovich enjoys an illustrious reputation in public, of which he is extremely proud, in private he is dull and emotionally handicapped. Having devoted his life to teaching medicine, the value of which he never questions, the professor has sacrificed love, compassion, and friendship. He has gradually alienated himself from family, colleagues, and students, as is shown by his repeated failures to relate to them in other than superficial, mechanical ways. He admits his inability to communicate to his wife or daughter, and although he claims to love his ward, Katya, whom his wife and daughter hate, even she finally realizes that he is an emotional cripple and deserts him to run off with another professor who has aroused some jealousy in Nikolai.
The professor, his life dedicated to academe, has become insensitive to such things as his daughter Liza’s chagrin over her shabby coat or her feelings for Gnekker, her suitor, who, the professor suspects, is a fraud. Unable to understand his family’s blindness to Gnekker, whom he perceives as a scavenging crab, Nikolai sets out to prove his assumption. He goes to Kharkov to investigate Gnekker’s background and confirms his suspicions, only to discover that he is too late. In his absence, Liza and Gnekker have married.
Bordering on the tragic, “A Boring Story” presents a character who is unable to express what he feels. He confesses his dull nature, but, though honest with himself, he can confide in no one. Detached, he is able to penetrate the illusions of others, but his approach to life is so abstract and general as to hinder meaningful interpersonal relationships. Near the end of life, he is wiser but spiritually paralyzed by his conviction that he knows very little of human worth. One notes in “A Boring Story” Chekhov’s fascination with the fact that conversation may not ensure communication, and his treatment of that reality becomes a signatory motif in Chekhov’s later works, including his plays. Characters talk but do not listen, remaining in their own illusory worlds, which mere words will not let them share with others.
“Duel” (“The Duel”), a long story, is representative of Chekhov’s most mature work. Its focal concern is with self-deception and rationalization for one’s failures. It pits two men against each other. The one, Laevsky, is a spineless, listless, and disillusioned intellectual who has miserably failed in life. The other, Von Koren, is an active, self-righteous zoologist who comes to despise the other man as a parasite.
In his early conversations with his friend Dr. Samoilenko, Laevsky reveals his tendency to place blame on civilization for human failings, a notion espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a host of other romantic thinkers. The doctor, whose mundane, pragmatic values simply deflect Laevsky’s lament, cannot understand his friend’s ennui and disenchantment with his mistress, Nadezhda Feydorovna. Laevsky perceives himself as a Hamlet figure, one who has been betrayed by Nadezhda, for whom he feels an increasing revulsion, which he masks with hypocritical sweetness. He envisions himself as being caught without purpose, vaguely believing that an escape to St. Petersburg without Nadezhda would provide a panacea for all of his ills.
Laevsky’s antagonist, Von Koren, is next introduced. Von Koren is a brash, outspoken, vain man who believes that Laevsky is worthy only of drowning. He finds Laevsky depraved and genetically dangerous because he has remarkable success with women and might father more of his parasitical type. During their encounters, Von Koren is aggressive and takes every chance to bait Laevsky, who is afraid of him.
Laevsky’s situation deteriorates when Nadezhda’s husband dies, and she, guilt ridden, looks to him to save her. Laevsky wants only to escape, however, and he runs off to Samoilenko, begging the doctor for a loan so he might flee to St. Petersburg. After confessing his depravity, he swears that he will send for Nadezhda after he arrives in St. Petersburg, but in reality he has no intention of doing so.
Caught up in his own web of lies and half truths, Laevsky must deal with those of Nadezhda, who is carrying on affairs with two other men and who has her own deceitful plans of escape. Convinced that Samoilenko has betrayed him through gossiping about him, Laevsky starts an argument with him in the presence of Von Koren, who supports the doctor. The heated exchange ends with a challenge to a duel, gleefully accepted by Von Koren. The night before the duel, Laevsky is extremely frightened. He is petrified by the prospect of imminent death, and his lies and deceit weigh upon him heavily. He passes through a spiritual crisis paralleled by a storm that finally subsides at dawn, just as Laevsky sets out for the dueling grounds.
The duel turns into a comic incident. The duelists are not sure of protocol, and before they even start they seem inept. As it turns out, Laevsky nobly discharges his pistol into the air, and Von Koren, intent on killing his opponent, only manages to graze his neck. The duel has a propitious effect on both men. Laevsky and Nadezhda are reconciled, and he gives up his foolish romantic illusions and begins to live a responsible life. He is also reconciled to Von Koren, who, in a departing confession, admits that a scientific view of things cannot account for all life’s uncertainties. There is, at the end, a momentary meeting of the two men’s minds.
“The Duel” is representative of a group of quasi-polemical pieces that Chekhov wrote between 1889 and 1896, including “Gusev” (“Gusev”), “Palata No. 6” (“Ward Number Six”), and “Moia zhizn” (“My Life”). All have parallel conflicts in which antagonists are spokespersons for opposing ideologies, neither of which is capable of providing humankind with a definitive epistemology or sufficient guide to living.
Other mature stories from the same period deal with the eroding effect of materialism on the human spirit. “Skripka Rotshil’da” (“Rothschild’s Fiddle”) is a prime example. In this work, Yakov Ivanov, nicknamed Bronze, a poor undertaker, is the protagonist. Yakov, who takes pride in his work, also plays the fiddle and thereby supplements his income from coffin-making.
For a time, Yakov plays at weddings with a Jewish orchestra, whose members, inexplicably, he comes to hate, especially Rothschild, a flutist who seems determined to play even the lightest of pieces plaintively. Because of his belligerent behavior, after a time the Jews hire Yakov only in emergencies. Never in a good temper, Yakov is obsessed with his financial losses and his bad luck. Tormented by these matters at night, he can find some respite only by striking a solitary string on his fiddle.
When his wife, Marfa, becomes ill, Yakov’s main concern is what her death will cost him. She, in contrast, dies untroubled, finding in death a welcome release from the wretchedness that has been her lot married to Yakov. In her delirium, she does recall their child, who had died fifty years earlier, and a brief period of joy under a willow tree by the river, but Yakov can remember none of these things. Only when she is buried does Yakov experience depression, realizing that their marriage had been loveless.
Sometime later Yakov accidentally comes upon and recognizes the willow tree of which Marfa had spoken. He rests there, beset by visions and a sense of a wasted past, regretting his indifference to his wife and his cruelty to the Jew, Rothschild. Shortly after this epiphany, he grows sick and prepares to die. Waiting, he plays his fiddle mournfully, growing troubled by not being able to take his fiddle with him to the grave. At his final confession, he tells the priest to give the fiddle to Rothschild, in his first and only generous act. Ironically, the fiddle for Rothschild becomes a means of improving his material well-being.
As “Rothschild’s Fiddle” illustrates, Chekhov continued his efforts to fathom the impoverished spirit of his fellow man, often with a sympathetic, kindly regard. Most of his last stories are written in that vein. Near the end of the 1890’s, Chekhov gave increasing attention to his plays, which, combined with his ill health, reduced his fictional output. Still, between 1895 and his last fictional piece, “Nevesta” (“The Bride”), published in 1902, he wrote some pieces that rank among his masterpieces.
As in “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” Chekhov’s concern with conflicting ideologies gives way to more fundamental questions about human beings’ ability to transcend their own nature. He examines characters who suffer desperate unhappiness, anxiety, isolation, and despair, experienced mainly through the characters’ inability either to give or to accept love. He also, however, concerns himself with its antithesis, the suffocating potential of too much love, which is the thematic focus of “Dushechka” (“The Darling”).
In this story, Olenka, the protagonist, is a woman who seems to have no character apart from her marital and maternal roles. She is otherwise a cipher who, between husbands, can only mourn, expressing her grief in folk laments. She has no important opinions of her own, only banal concerns with petty annoyances such as insects and hot weather. She comes to life only when she fulfills her role as wife and companion to her husband, whose opinions and business jargon she adopts as her own, which, to her third husband, is a source of great annoyance.
Ironically, alive and radiant in love, Olenka seems to suck the life out of those whom she adores. For example, her love seems to cause the demise of her first husband, Kukin, a wretched, self-pitying theater manager. Only in the case of her last love, that for her foster son, Sasha, in her maternal role, does Olenka develop opinions of her own. Her love, however, ever suffocating, instills rebellion in the boy and will clearly lead to Olenka’s downfall.
By implication, the comic, almost sardonic depiction of Olenka argues a case for the emancipation of women, a concern to which Chekhov returns in “Nevesta” (“The Bride”). This story deals with a young woman, Nadya, who attempts to find an identity independent of roles prescribed by traditional mores and the oppressive influence of her mother, Nina, and her grandmother.
Nadya, at twenty-three, is something of a dreamer. As the story begins, she is vaguely discontent with her impending marriage to Andrew, son to a local canon of the same name. Her rebellion against her growing unhappiness is encouraged by Sasha, a distant relative who becomes her sympathetic confidant. He constantly advises Nadya to flee, to get an education and free herself from the dull, idle, and stultifying existence that the provincial town promises.
When Andrew takes Nadya on a tour of their future house, she is repulsed by his vision of their life together, finding him stupid and unimaginative. She confides in her mother, who offers no help at all, claiming that it is ordinary for young ladies to get cold feet as weddings draw near. Nadya then asks Sasha for help, which, with a ruse, he provides. He takes Nadya with him to Moscow and sends her on to St. Petersburg, where she begins her studies.
After some months, Nadya, very homesick, visits Sasha in Moscow. It is clear to her that Sasha, ill with tuberculosis, is now dying. She returns to her home to deal with her past but finds the atmosphere no less oppressive than before, except that her mother and grandmother now seem more pathetic than domineering. After a telegram comes announcing Sasha’s death, she leaves again for St. Petersburg, resolved to find a new life severed completely from her old.
As well as any story, “The Bride” illustrates why Chekhov is seen as the chronicler of twilight Russia, a period of stagnation when the intelligentsia seemed powerless to effect reform and the leviathan bureaucracy and outmoded traditions benumbed the people and robbed the more sensitive of spirit and hope. While the contemporary reader of Chekhov’s fiction might find that pervasive, heavy atmosphere difficult to fathom, particularly in a comic perspective, no one can doubt Chekhov’s mastery of mood.
With Guy de Maupassant in France, Chekhov is rightly credited with mastering the form, mood, and style of the type of short fiction that would be favored by serious English language writers from Virginia Woolf and James Joyce onward. His impact on modern fiction is pervasive.