Anton Chekhov Short Fiction Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 4,177 words.)