Anton Chekhov

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Anton Chekhov World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chekhov is the gentlest, subtlest, most modest, and most complex of the nineteenth century’s major authors. In an era when such titans as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski were concerned with the conflict of good against evil, Chekhov primarily saw the conflict of simplicity against pretension and found the consequences depressing. In the Russia of his time, choked with morality tales, nourished on progressive theories of history, lashed with messianic messages, Chekhov was ahead of his age, a lonely, restrained, melancholy man who remains, despite extensive scholarship and criticism, an ambiguous and elusive figure.

Chekhov is the moralist of the venial sin, seeing a soul damned not for murder, robbery, or adultery but for the small, universal faults of ill-temper, untruthfulness, miserliness, and disloyalty. In his short story “Poprygunya” (“The Grasshopper”), Olga Iranovna, who cheats on her dull doctor husband by having an affair with a mediocre, flashy painter, will not be damned for her adultery. Rather, she will be damned for her shallowness, superciliousness, and narcissism. Be truthful to yourselves and to others, Chekhov says in his art.

With his penchant for understatement and irony, Chekhov has had an overwhelming influence on both short-story writers and dramatists. He does not commit himself to any particular stance, does not issue moral imperatives to his public, and bequeaths no mystical enlightenment to a darkling humanity. Neither a prophet nor a system builder, Chekhov is a diagnostician who works unobtrusively and dispassionately but with great care and delicacy through the materials that life presents. He has no religion, accepting a world of comfortless indifference. He is averse to metaphysics and politics, romanticism and sentimentality. Unlike Tolstoy, he refuses to idealize the peasant class; he is disgusted by the crass materialism of the middle class; and he chronicles the drift, inertia, and self-pity of the upper class.

Yet Chekhov’s bleak vision of modern life does not lead him to regard existence as meaningless or people as absurd. Humane to the very marrow of his bones, he never loses sight of the qualities that make his characters affective beings even when analyzing them with tough and apparently impersonal candor, and he refuses to entertain false hopes about them or their world. In what has become a famous letter, Chekhov writes in October, 1889:I am not a liberal, a conservative, an evolutionist, a monk, or indifferent to the world. I should like to be a free artist—and that is all. . . . I regard trademarks or labels as prejudices. My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood in whatever form these may be expressed.

Chekhov is passionately addicted to what he vaguely labels “culture,” by which he means an indefinable union of humanity, decency, intelligence, education, will, and accomplishment. Yet his tough intelligence tells him—and his audience—that people with these characteristics constitute a dwindling minority. Consequently, he afflicts most of his characters with such flaws as laziness, hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and self-destructiveness.

In everything that Chekhov writes, he refuses to claim for himself the brilliant, commanding powers that are often considered the essence of literary genius. His art is indirect, muted, and apparently casual; he loves to pose as an ideal eavesdropper who communicates an overheard conversation to the jury of his readers or spectators. He excludes whatever is maneuvered, subjective, theatrical, or otherwise grand. He is modest in both his matter and his manner, dealing with the pains of isolation and loneliness, frustrated ambitions, agonizing misunderstandings, forlorn hopes, boredom, and listlessness. He consistently questions the heroic mode, with his best fiction and drama representing lives from which the possibility of...

(The entire section is 5,318 words.)