Anton Chekhov 1860–-1904
(Born Anton Pavlovich Chekhov; transliterated as Čexov, Chekov, Tchehov, Tchekhov, Cechov, Cexov, Cekov, Cecov, Cechov, Chekhoff, and Chehov; also wrote under the pseudonym of Antosha Chekhonte) Russian dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.
See also, "Gooseberries" Criticism.
Chekhov is commonly recognized as the most significant writer of the literary generation that ended the Golden Age of Russian authorship—the era of seminal novelists like Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky—and began the Silver Age—when the Russian symbolist movement flourished. He is parlously distinguished for his formal and thematic innovations in the short fiction and drama genres, and Chekhov's writing is marked by a profound depth of insight into the universal human condition. Although his early work demonstrated subjective sentiments and observations, the ultimate configuration of Chekhov's short fiction was one of supreme emotional balance and tonal control. This detached, rational artfulness distinguishes Chekhov's work from the confessional abandons of Dostoevsky or the psychological fantasies of Nikoali Gogol. Due to this literary composure, Chekhov is often considered to be a master of the modern short story and is perhaps the most important short story writer of all time. His writings have widely influenced world authors, especially short fiction luminaries such as Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway.
Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom and Chekhov's father was a grocer in Taganrog, the village where Chekhov was born. When the family went bankrupt in 1876, the Chekhovs, without Anton, moved to Moscow to escape creditors; Anton remained in Taganrog until 1879, where he completed his education and earned a scholarship to Moscow University to study medicine. After graduation in 1884, Chekhov went into medical practice, gaining from this experience a wealth of knowledge that would later become evident in his fiction; in fact, Chekhov had already begun publishing sketches in popular magazines to help support his family. He wrote hundreds of light anecdotes and potboilers, mostly humorous, but failed to take them seriously. These early works, generally looked upon as the first major period of Chekhov's writing (1880–1887), did, however, display many Chekhovian narrative permutations in the short story genre: laconic introductions, impressionistic characterization through importance of detail, interior action, and surprise endings. Although the surprise ending did not originate with Chekhov's short fiction, he did coin the “zero ending,” as described by Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. This innovation being the penchant for dislocating the narrative of a story from its expected denouement and diverting, sometimes deflating, the story line itself, allowing a stress among the factual and the supposed. Skazki Mel'pomene (Tales of Melpomene), Chekhov's first collection of short stories, appeared in 1884 and soon after he befriended Aleksey S. Suvorin, editor of the conservative Moscow daily journal Novoe vremja (New Times), in which Chekhov contributed his first truly literary pieces. From 1888 to 1893 Chekhov was profoundly influenced by Tolstoy's ethics concerning morality, nonresistance to evil, and altruism; and this began the second epoch of Chekhov's fiction in which he experimented with lyricism and thematic contrasts: beauty, sensitivity, and life as opposed to hideousness, banality, and death. After Chekhov made his investigatory journey to the eastern Siberian penal colony at Sakhalin in 1890—a trip he would later use as the subject of his sociological monograph Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin, first published in the leftist monthly Russian Thought between 1893 and 1894; 1895 in book form)—he came to reject Tolstoyanism as an insufficient response to human suffering. This spiritual upheaval brought about Chekhov's third creative era during which he produced his most complex and unique short stories and dramas. In 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theater. Having earlier contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in 1884, Chekhov died at a German spa in 1904.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Chekhov's transition from the prodigiously written, early humor stories to tales marked by themes of isolation and concern with social and psychological problems was marked by experimentation, a philosophical searching, and a creative evolution from realism to a melancholic lyricism. Chekhov combined a keen use of brevity—gleaned from the stories of Guy de Maupassant—with a poetic and symbolic sensibility, culminating in new casts of short fiction, specifically the plotless story. “Step” (“The Steppe”), the long prose narrative published in 1888, is without external action and depicts an inner symbology expressed through the interaction of themes and counterthemes, motifs and countermotifs. Some early, serious stories produced by Chekhov were told from a child's point of view, a technique used earlier by Tolstoy. The tales are satires of the adult world as viewed through the lens of a child’s perception. An important story, “Spat khochetsya” (1888; “Sleepy”), depicts an exploited, young nursemaid who while watching the infant of her employers', strangles the baby in weariness and drops to sleep—relieved. Chekhov also included in this story an adept portraiture of a child's dreams. At the end of the 1880s Chekhov abandoned his pen name Antosha Chekhonte and adopted the doctrine of nonresistance to all evil, an influence of Tolstoy. This led Chekhov to write stories such as “Pripadok” (1888; “The Nervous Breakdown”), about the immorality of prostitution and “Khoroshie lyudi” (1886; “Good People”), a moralizing story that celebrates labor and passivity to iniquity. In further stories, such as “Nepriyatnost” (1888; “An Unpleasantness”) and “Vragi” (1887; “Enemies”), Chekhov advocated Tolstoy's belief in the immorality and futility of violence and anger. However, beginning in the 1890s, Chekhov no longer wrote stories overshadowed by Tolstoy's moral dogma. In “Palata No. 6” (1892; “Ward No. 6”), Chekhov rejected the religious and ethical tenets of Tolstoy's philosophy, specifically in that the character Gromov explicitly besets the tenet of nonresistance to wickedness. Chekhov's trip to Sakhalin was largely responsible for this narrative mutation and philosophical rejection of Tolstoy; for it produced in Chekhov a concern for social issues such as the injustice, corruption, and violence of Russian society, and it was after this experience that his writing was dramatically refashioned. The stories “Vory” (“Thieves”) and “Gusev,” both completed in 1890 after his return from the penal colony, along with “Baby” (1891; “Peasant Wives”) and “V ssylke” (1892; “In Exile”) all serve to demonstrate Chekhov's new social commitment. “Peasant Wives,” which depicts the oppression of women in a patriarchal peasant society, prefigures later Chekhov stories like “V ovrage” (1900; “In the Ravine”) which also demonstrates concern for the mistreatment of women. In “Zhena” (1892; “The Wife”), Chekhov renders the effects of famine on the Russian peasantry, coloring the landlords and philanthropic aristocracy as pococurante and ineffectual, and displaying a self-conscious didacticism. “In Exile” is also consumed with social evils and was inspired by the Sakhalin sojourn, but is more subtle in its portrayal of Siberian exiles—contrasting a young Tatar who longs for his wife and homeland with a patrician, abandoned by his wife, who yens for a doctor to save his dying daughter. During this time, Chekhov was not only absorbed with worldly issues, but also sought to establish his own individual philosophy toward the world. The stories “Skuchnaya istoriya” (1889; “A Dreary Story”), “The Duel” (1891), “Gusev,” “Ward No. 6,” and “Chorny Monakh” (1894; “The Black Monk”) consider specific philosophical questions and ideas, suchlike the human proclivity for the intellect and science. In “A Dreary Story,” a scientist is isolated and miserable due to his unhealthy obsession with the rules of science; “Gusev” satirizes the superciliousness of the intellect; “The Duel,” Chekhov's lengthiest story, describes a scientist consumed with the Nietzschean concept of a superman; in “Ward No. 6,” capitulation to evil is conjugated with an over-importance of the intellect; and “The Black Monk” renders a scientist visited by the specter of a monk who informs the former of his omnipotence—stemming from the scientific intellect. Of Chekhov's most mature stories, spanning the years 1894 to 1904, a common, uniting theme is one of concern toward the newly emerging strata of Russian society. Chekhov was interested in the keen sense of isolation felt by Russians in both the social orders of the new bourgeoisie and the village peasantry. Chekhov charged the stories “Babe tsarstvo” (1894; “A Woman's Kingdom”), “Sluchay iz praktiki” (1898; “A Doctor's Visit”), and “Novaya dacha” (1899; “The New Villa”) with motifs of solitariness and the failure of communication amongst humankind. In 1898 Chekhov published his short story trilogy “Chelovek v futlyare” (“The Man in a Shell”), “Kryzhovnik” (“Gooseberries”), and “O lyubvi” (“About Love”), which consider characters who insulate themselves from others and warns of man's inclination for social withdrawal and the spiritual stricture individuals place on themselves. Toward the end of his life, Chekhov underwent a transformation in his world-view through his short fiction. “Dushechka” (1898; “The Darling”), “Dama s sobachkoy” (1899; “The Lady with a Dog”; 1899), and his last story “Nevesta” (1903; “The Betrothed”) retain a tenuous and somewhat rueful optimism, allowing the characters sympathy and hope for spiritual fulfillment. “The Betrothed” exemplifies the pinnacle of Chekhov's innovation in the short fiction form. Herein one can grasp the radical character of Chekhov's prose: its manipulation of time and space, preference for an interior lyricism, and poetic and symbolic implementation of syncretism, all elements common to the contemporary short story.
Reception to Chekhov's short stories varied widely during his lifetime. Chekhov was often vilified in the press for his alleged indifference to the dolor of mankind, as well as to other social and political questions. A month before his trip to Sakhalin, Vukol Lavrov accused Chekhov so sharply of “unprincipledness” in Russian Thought that for the first and last time Chekhov wrote a riposte. Social concerns aside, however, Chekhov is acknowledged as one of the most illustrious writers of short fiction. In 1888 Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize for his volume of short stories, V sumerkakh (In the Twilight), published in 1887, and lauded by J. Middleton Murry as early as 1920 as “a standard by which modern literary effort must be measured.” Even though Chekhov has been viewed as an utter pessimist, largely due to his realistic portrayal of Russian society during an era of imminent revolution, his personally expressed view was one of uneasy optimism with regard to social progress and scientific advancement. Chekhov's literary artistry, combined with his medical knowledge and insight into human textures, resulted in short stories that have altered the narrative standards for an entire literary form.