Anton Chekhov

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Leonid Grossman (essay date 1914)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7347

SOURCE: Grossman, Leonid. “The Naturalism of Chekhov.” In Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 32–48. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

[In the following essay, originally published in Vestnik Evropy in 1914, Grossman describes the influence of several authors, including Maupassant and Flaubert, upon Chekhov and his use of symbolism.]

“In Goethe the naturalist got along wonderfully with the poet,” Chekhov wrote in one of his letters. And did he not in this brief sentence express with his usual compactness his view of the perfect artist while at the same time he neatly characterized his own art?

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In Chekhov, as in Goethe, the poet wonderfully harmonized with the naturalist. His medical training and practice unquestionably played a decisive role in his creative work. They laid guidelines for his artistic method, introduced to him extraordinarily rich, living material for literary processing, structured his world view, deepened and to a great extent clarified his philosophy of life. It is no wonder that he took such pride in his medical profession, repeatedly called medicine his legal wife, and often turned from literature to the practical work of the physician. …

The impact of medical school appears first of all in his working methods. We are not surprised that he speaks with such reverence of those to whom God gave the rare gift of thinking scientifically. In his letters he expresses delight over a literary article because it is written in the matter-of-fact style of a report, because it interprets elementary things coldly and simply and, like a good textbook, tries to be precise. As a diligent intern would, he likes to individualize each separate case in every description, carefully to examine all its little details and bring to light all its particularities and peculiarities. … Scientific precision in poetic creation was for him an indispensable element. Goethe was not the only person in whom he discovered his favorite type of poet-naturalist. He praises Paul Bourget—perhaps excessively—because he was so thoroughly familiar with the methods of the natural sciences; and he castigates Edouard Rod for renouncing naturalism. He repeatedly comments in his own work upon the advantage of medical school training.

“As a doctor I feel that I correctly diagnosed the psychic ailment according to all the rules of the science of psychiatry,” he writes in connection with “An Attack of Nerves” (1888). An exacting artist, positively obsessed by a mania for the concise, he decides to insert like a wedge a special scientific conversation into the story in order to give it greater verisimilitude. “I am a physician,” he writes in answer to reproaches, “and for this reason—if I am not to be shamed—I must provide motivation for incidents related to medicine in my stories.” Chekhov takes it as the highest praise when women confirm the correctness of his description of childbirth in “The Nameday Party” (1888). “You know, it's not so bad to be a physician and to understand what it is you are writing about.” And even in letters to young writers, as he indulgently and gently examines their purely artistic shortcomings, Chekhov mercilessly chides them for the slightest defect in medical matters in their stories. “Leave it to us, the doctors, the physicians, to depict cripples and black monks,” he writes in one letter. “You have not seen corpses,” he notes with reproach in another.

Chekhov makes the same demands upon his great teacher, Tolstoy. He is “full of admiration for ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ from an artistic point of view.” But as for the medical side of the story, he indicts the author as an “ignorant man who has not troubled in the course of his long life to read two or three books written by specialists.” He is carried away by War and Peace, but he does not let pass the opportunity to note here, too, the possibility of the same type of defect. At the first occasion the physician awakes in the delighted reader, and with his skepticism spoils all aesthetic pleasure. “It is strange to read that the wound of the prince, a rich man who spent days and nights with a doctor and enjoyed the care of Natasha and Sonya, gave off a smell of putrefaction. If I had been around Prince Andrei, I would have cured him,” the medical expert calmly concludes in the wake of the aesthetic response of the literary critic.

The school of Darwin and Claude Bernard planted strictly materialistic principles in the methodology of Chekhov's literary work.1 He carries them over even into his mystical searches with amazing consistency. He demands of the enemies of positivism that they point out to him in the heavens an incorporeal God that he can see, and in the middle of the 1890s he predicts with joyous hope that Russian society will once again take up the natural sciences. Like a faithful pupil of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he calls the 1860s a sacred time, and affirms that thinking people can find truth only where microscopes, probes, and scalpels are useful. …

Medical practice brought home to Chekhov with remarkable fullness the horror of life, the cruelty of nature, and the impotence of man. Incidents from his medical practice found in his stories and letters create such a painful picture of life's absurdity that they are enough in themselves to make a pessimist of the observer. … Chekhov saw man first of all as a sick animal, and from then on, he looked at the world with a deep and at times even scornful sadness; from then on, despair shrouded all his dreams of a future golden age. Here and there in his letters you find the Shakespearean image of the wounded deer that suffers so horribly:

The wretched animal heav'd forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting, and the big round tears
Cours'd one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase …

(As You Like It)

This image of a hunted animal merges in Chekhov's consciousness with the spectacle of a half-crushed human being to which he is so accustomed. It is worth rereading in his letters the story of the spring migration in Melikhovo when Isaac Levitan shot down a young woodcock, and Chekhov had to finish him off with a rifle butt; Chekhov's usual identification of man with a wounded animal is strikingly evident here. In this slight tale of a beautiful and enchanting bird, senselessly crushed by indifferent murderers—by a famous painter and a famous writer—the author of The Seagull makes his usual reflection on blind cruelty in the fate of all living creatures. The wounded woodcock with its bloodied wing and madly astonished eyes rose before him as an eternally sad symbol of human fate. The heroes of his stories unambiguously draw these philosophical parallels. “When I lie in the grass,” one of them says, “and spend a long time watching an insect that was born just yesterday and understands nothing, it seems to me that its life consists of nothing but horror, and I see myself in it.”

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One of Chekhov's heroes (in “An Attack of Nerves”), who like the author has a delicate sensitivity to the pain of others, lands in a place where there is the most intense suffering, shame, and humiliation of the free human personality. But he does not pity either the tortured prostitutes or the musicians or the lackeys. “All of them resemble animals more than they do people,” concludes this fanatical lover of humanity. And while a complex protest wells up in him, he continues to distinguish in every woman the insolent, obtuse, or abased animal.

It is not only prostitutes who are seen in this light. Among the sensitive idealists of Chekhov's world who speak glowingly about women, one meets cold philosophers who frankly declare that in our times the urban woman of the intelligentsia is returning to her primitive condition and has already been half transformed into an animal. “Little by little woman is disappearing and her place is being taken by the female,” says Shamokhin (“Ariadne,” 1895). And even Gurov (“The Lady with the Pet Dog,” 1899), capable of generous and deep feeling, recalls with hate those beautiful frigid women with rapacious, venal expressions passing across their faces. “And the lace on their lingerie seemed to him to resemble scales.”

These women-sirens are not only to be found in urban situations. Chekhov notes the very same serpentine attributes in the village beauty, Aksinya (“In the Ravine,” 1900). Like a reptile emerging from fresh rye she looks at those about her and, at the right moment, strikes at them like a snake with her poisonous fangs.

At the very best, woman resembles a wounded bird gazing with silent amazement at the cruel tortures of life. Nina Zarechnaya (The Seagull, 1896) is a wounded seagull; Maria Dolzhikova (“My Life,” 1896) a lonely, homeless wanderer, a green parrot who has flown out of the cage and now flutters about lazily from garden to garden; Anna Sergeevna (“The Lady with the Pet Dog”) a charming bird that has been snared, a female separated from its mate. Even the best human features—suffering, anguish, hopelessness—evoke first of all in this keen poet of spiritual misfortune the usual zoological parallels of the naturalist. Even the meek and enraptured girl reverently following the work of a man she loves, the charming and clever Vera Lyadovskaya, recalls to Chekhov a sick animal warming itself in the sun.

Nothing much can be said of the men here, of course. A nice worldly man produces the unpleasant impression of some kind of crab; an unhappy schoolboy just before committing suicide is represented as a pitiful and disgusting duckling; a lonely, embittered old man, a huge toad.

The heroes see themselves as worn-out beasts. “They caress me in this house the way one would a sick, unhappy dog who has been driven away by his master,” reflects Poloznev (“My Life”). And to Yakov Ivanovich (“The Murder,” 1895) life seems terrible, insane, and as cheerless as it seems to a dog. When he wanders about at night in the snow, lashed by a cruel wind, it seems to him that it is not he, but some kind of beast that is walking, “a huge, fearful beast and that, if he should cry out, his voice would sound with a roar across the fields and forests and frighten everybody.”

“In what way are they better than animals?” the hero of “My Life” asks about his fellow citizens. And all his reflections on people are haunted by recollections of tortured dogs who have been driven mad, of live sparrows plucked bare by little boys and then tossed into the water.

“Man is still the most predatory and most unclean animal,” remarks even his beloved artist in “The House with a Mezzanine” (1896), summing up in this brief remark all of Chekhov's tremendous work:

The cold observations of the mind
The bitter insights of the heart.(2)

Of course, a man needed great strength of creative love not to despair in this huge menagerie of reality and to maintain inviolable in it all the liberating dreams of snowy white cherry orchards.

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The range of Chekhov's reading was unusually extensive: novels and dramas side by side with reference books and medical almanacs, ancient literature with modern, foreign writers with Russian. But in this broad literary school the French moderns play almost the dominating role. It is significant, therefore, that Chekhov's old professor has a special liking for French books whose authors invariably have a strong feeling for personal freedom.

According to Ivan Bunin, Chekhov took particular pleasure in Maupassant, Flaubert, and Tolstoy. These three writers, along with Zola, must be recognized as his principal teachers. Chekhov was a convinced adherent of modern French naturalism. His first teacher, Darwin, had prepared him for the literary theories of Zola.

Darwin without doubt played a major role in the education of Chekhov's talent by helping him work out precise literary methods and a strict materialistic world view; he developed in Chekhov the ability to distinguish the animal element in man. The teacher of Chekhov the doctor must to a certain extent be considered also the educator of Chekhov the writer. Chekhov's early letters give evidence of a strong interest in Darwin. “I'm frightfully fond of his methods,” he writes to his brother. “I am reading Darwin,” he notes three years later, “what a wealth of material! I am terribly fond of him.” And in some of his later letters he defends the English naturalist from attacks in the press. … Darwin … introduced one of the main planks into Chekhov's joyless philosophy with his basic theory of the animal origins of man. Chekhov's constant habit of seeing maimed birds or wounded animals in his heroes may be explained in part by a Darwinian element in his world view. …

It is interesting to note that just at the time of Chekhov's literary debut, the journal Vestnik Evropy was publishing Zola's articles on the experimental novel. These manifestos of naturalism led to the broad dissemination in Russian society—a society always inclined toward a positivistic world view—of ideas about a scientific literature, about writer-physiologists, about the death of metaphysical man and the triumphant dominion of observation and experiment in art. The name of Zola gained a popularity among us that continued to grow until his very death.

Zola, too, occupies a prominent place in the literary schooling of Chekhov. His correspondence indicates that he never ceased to follow Zola's new work. He considers Le Docteur Pascal a very good novel and devotes whole pages to an analysis of it in his letters. He regards Thérèse Raquin as a fairly good play and even recommends to Suvorin that Zola be produced in his theater. Lourdes is mentioned in his letters and Nana several times.

Chekhov's strong attraction to Zola is understandable. A naturalist by education, a poet by temperament, a novelist by profession, Zola is a remarkable unity of those spiritual elements which, in Chekhov's view, go to make up the perfect writer. The demand that scientific method be applied to literature, the systematic introduction of physiology into the novel, the whole complex of precise methods of observation, of detailed reports about life, of abundant gathering of the infinitesimal facts of reality—the experimental method was just as congenial to Chekhov the writer as was the whole humanitarian utopianism of Zola: his dreams of how in the future happiness would replace the cheerless present for mankind.

We may exclude from the field of our comparison those differences of artistic temperament which determine the special character of literary form: Zola's need for grandiose frescoes and Chekhov's eternal craving for the miniature as an art form. Despite these differences, we find in these writers extraordinarily kindred natures. Both of them recognized that the writer must approach his literary material like a scholar; he must deal with human passions and the everyday phenomena of life the way a chemist does with inorganic bodies or a physiologist with living things.

“The writer,” Chekhov writes in a letter, as though continuing to develop Zola's theory, “is not a pastry cook, a beautician, or an entertainer. However unpleasant it may be to him, he must conquer his squeamishness, must soil his imagination with the grime of life. He is the same as an ordinary reporter. For chemists there is nothing unclean on the earth. The writer also must be objective, like the chemist; he must renounce everyday subjectivity and know that dungheaps in a landscape play a very respectable role and evil passions are just as much part of life as good ones.”

These lines seem to echo the epigraph to Thérèse Raquin: “Virtue and vice are just as much products as sugar and sulfuric acid.”

But when the object under observation has been studied in all its tiny facets and the schema of investigation is precisely sketched … the physician and naturalist give way to the poet … and the calm anatomist drops all his precise tools in order to speak of the horror, the beauty, or the eternal enigma of life. … Zola and Chekhov seem to have shared this method of creation and to have been completely conscious of it.

Their differences, at first glance, may be seen in the artistic development of their themes. Zola strikes us usually as consciously crude, as if he cynically depicted the vilenesses of everyday life as a matter of principle. And in this respect, of course, he cannot be juxtaposed with the chastely restrained Chekhov. But this difference appears significant only at first glance. There are far too many poetically tender, sometimes even idyllic scenes in Zola's work to allow him to be regarded as the antipode of Chekhov. Even in the most crude, sodden, and cumbersome novels of Zola, scenes of unbridled passion will alternate with the most lyrically dreamlike pages, and stormy descriptions of modern crowds and machines with twilight pastels. Whole pages in Zola's cycle of experimental novels are imbued with this typically Chekhovian mood. It is no wonder that in the preface to Une page d'amour he defines this novel as an intimate creation written in half tones.

But Zola's influence on Chekhov is felt chiefly in his philosophy of man. It seems as though nobody in world literature can compare with the author of Bête humaine in the unremitting, stubborn way he exposes human animality. At root, the chronicle Rougon-Macquart is a document most humiliating to man. Out of the multivolume history of wild, unbridled passions, savage struggles for booty, mad thirst for pleasures, and endless search for them in women, money, power, alcohol, crimes, and incest—out of this emerges in all its cynical ugliness the beast in man which civilization cannot eradicate. …

To reveal this man-animal most clearly, Zola turned to the milieu in which culture has the least softening and moderating influence. He exposed in the peasant world such unrestrained explosiveness of passion, monstrous greed, savage cruelty, and rapaciousness that all the refined crimes of the worldly Rougon-Macquarts pale before these primitive forces.

Perhaps it was Zola's direct example that made Chekhov turn to the peasant world to develop more fully that theme of the human menagerie which always intrigued him. There is no doubt, however, that the picture of savage avarice, cruelty, and uncontrolled passion in “The Peasants” (1897) and “In the Ravine” were not created independently of Zola's painful peasant epic.

It is interesting here to compare the manners and morals of Kholuevka or Ukleevo with the everyday order of life of the French Beauce. Greed and self-seeking, the struggle for money, land, or women, the readiness to commit any crime in order to get at the booty, cruelty to the sick and infirm, to everyone who has lost the capacity to work, who has ceased to be a “plunderer” (to use a term of Chekhov's peasants), unbridled sensuality, the eternal narcotic of vice, the eternal power of darkness—this is the peasant world as we find it in Zola and in Chekhov. The story “In the Ravine” appears to repeat on a small scale Zola's La Terre. The elements of description here are identical; the representation of day-to-day existence basically the same. …

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But first of all among Chekhov's teachers is the powerful representative of French naturalism, Guy de Maupassant. … The titles of the major works of Maupassant turn up throughout his correspondence. He mentions Bel-Ami and considers Mont-Oriol to be an excellent novel. In conversations with young writers he recognizes Maupassant as the head of a new school in European literature. “Maupassant, as a literary artist, made such tremendous demands, that it became impossible to write in the old fashion any longer,” he says to Bunin and to Kuprin.

To begin with, Maupassant's realistic style had a very great impact on Chekhov. It is this special method of depicting life in all its colorlessness, formlessness, and disorder which was equally typical of two other literary models of Chekhov—Tolstoy and Flaubert. But in these writers the art of putting down on paper authentic, everyday life was usually conditioned by the broad dimensions of their works. … Rapidly and deftly manipulating his small mirror fragments, Maupassant was able in each of them clearly to reflect a new side of life; he was able to reveal behind the torn lines of the tiny design the broad spaces of receding horizons. …

So Maupassant first of all responded to a basic need of Chekhov's temperament as a writer—his love for the miniature. We shall return to Maupassant's role in the creation of the external form of Chekhov's short story. But his role in forming Chekhov's world view was far more significant and important. On this point, the creative works of the two writers are firmly linked. Maupassant suggested to Chekhov, or rather reinforced his convictions about the colorlessness of life, the horror of death, the animal nature of man. Life in its basic nature is much simpler, shallower, and more insignificant than we are accustomed to think it—here is the hard core of Maupassant's work. Our existence is so plain and ordinary that we unquestionably do great honor to that miserable story called life when we expect from it some kind of dazzling joy or quail before its difficult dramas. The first never comes, the second are almost always lived through. Unrealized desires humble themselves before necessity, heavy blows are forgotten with the passing of pain, and the deepest wounds are healed by time. The real horror of life is its colorlessness and insignificance, the dullness of its most festive sensations, the drabness of its most vivid colors, the poverty of its most fanciful forms. “Life is never so frightful, never so beautiful as it seems to us,” one of Maupassant's heroines says—and these words might herald all of Chekhov's work. …

“I should like to describe everyday love and family life,” Chekhov observes in one of his letters, “without villains and angels, without lawyers and female devils; I should take as a subject life as it is in fact—even, smooth, ordinary.” Chekhov unquestionably gives expression here to a method which is that of Maupassant. … It is as if both of them wanted to show that the design of ordinary human existence, no matter how fanciful, elegant, and brilliant it appears from a distance, always on closer inspection turns out to be infinitely simple, flat, without luster or color.

The story “Three Years” (1895) strikingly illustrates this method. According to Chekhov's original idea it was supposed to develop into a major novel. Chekhov clearly wanted to give a comprehensive account of a woman with all her maiden hopes, marital disillusionments, and maternal joys. In other words, Chekhov took up the theme of Maupassant's Une Vie. The basic threads of this novel are to be found also in Chekhov's story. A hasty and unnecessary marriage without understanding, bitter disillusionment in marriage, the consolation of motherhood, acute sufferings over the loss of children, followed by inevitable resignation in the fact of the most terrible misfortunes—here you have three years in the life of Chekhov's Yulia, repeating on a smaller scale the story of the life of Maupassant's Jeanne. … The quiet, toneless moan of Chebutykin: “It's all the same; it's all the same!” (The Three Sisters, 1901) echoes through the Chekhovian world like a heavy, tired, hopeless sigh.

But however colorless and senseless life may be, nonbeing is still more terrible. The sharp terror of death which grips the last works of Maupassant, who is slowly losing his sanity, is felt distinctly also in the later works of the tubercular Chekhov.

The famous old poet Norbert de Varin senses the approaching end. The slow process of physical disintegration of the body deprives him of all the attributes of his former youthful vigor—lithe muscles, firm skin, hair, teeth, eyesight, excellence of memory, and keenness of thought; all he has left for the time that remains is a soul shaken with despair.

The famous old professor Nikolai Stepanovich (“A Boring Story,” 1889) knows his days are numbered. During his last days he assiduously makes notes on the signs of his approaching end. His hands tremble with feebleness, his mouth is twisted, his face is creased with the wrinkles of death; his memory and his talent as a spellbinder begin to fade, and he observes with horror that he is no longer able to finish the most ordinary lecture.

In this condition all the foundations of life crumble and in the place of his former inspiration, of intellectual engagement, of creative excitement, of intense curiosity, there is only one devastating feeling of despair. Maupassant's old poet senses the imminence of death so strongly that sometimes he wants to scream with his hands outstretched so as to repel this enemy who is creeping up on him. … The indifference of the world around to his tragic end strikes him as a monstrous cruelty, and with a scream he is ready to curse even the silence of the walls.

“I want to cry out in a loud voice,” says Chekhov's professor, “that I, a famous man, have been condemned to death by fate. I want to cry out that I am poisoned; new thoughts, that I did not know before, have poisoned my last days and continue to stab at my brain like mosquitoes. Then my position seems so dreadful that I would like my whole audience to be filled with horror, to leap from their seats in terrified panic, and rush to the exits with cries of despair.” …

The half-mad author of Le Horla communicated to his Russian disciple all this cheerless philosophy about life and death, about the world and people. Possibly, of course, he was only reinforcing in Chekhov a world view which had already taken root in him independently. Medical school, a mass of personal experience, the development of a mortal illness—all these circumstances of his own life directly instilled in Chekhov those views of the world and people which he had already found brilliantly developed in the work of his literary mentor. …

Flaubert's name crops up both in Chekhov's letters and in his conversations with young writers. There can be no doubt that Flaubert was his teacher in the creation of the faultless literary form of his short story.

The influence of this first naturalist mingled with those cheerless impressions of humanity which Chekhov drew from the books of Maupassant and Zola. Flaubert's hatred for the eternal philistine and his unconquerable contempt for the female laid the groundwork for nascent naturalism's epic of the man-animal, and was distantly reflected in the world view of Chekhov.

One might imagine that the talent of the author of The Three Sisters had been created by nature itself to give ideal creative embodiment to the eternal-feminine element. The capacity for spirituality and love, the quiet and sad melodiousness of woman's spirit pining with anguish and love, the lofty embraciveness of the Desdemonas of all times; finally, a keen understanding of all the oppressive pains of the troubled and melancholy masculine spirit—all this could scarcely have been conveyed with a softer and more delicate brush than that of Chekhov's art.

And yet, in the gallery of his radiant female figures, of these sad dreamers and pensive mourners, there appear some other un-Chekhovian images of predatory females. These exceptions in the Chekhovian world of maimed seagulls serve us as one further reminder of that school of French naturalism through which Chekhov passed. His Ariadne, his Susanna, his Anna Petrovna (“Anna on the Neck,” 1895) or Natasha Prozorova (The Three Sisters) unquestionably are closely related to Emma Bovary. …

“She imagined herself in the future in no other state than that of a very rich and distinguished person,” Chekhov writes in description of the typical “Bovarysme” of one of his heroines, “she dreamed of balls, races, servants, an elegant drawing room, her own salon, and a whole train of counts, princes, ambassadors, famous writers and artists, all of whom danced attendance on her and were thrilled by her beauty and her finery. She dreamed about a title, about glory.”

Two very opposite qualities develop simultaneously in a woman of this type. On the one hand, a refined sensuality cultivates in her a delicate aesthetic taste and creates an invincible need for elegance and glamour in everything around her—in her surroundings and finery, in sights and conversation. But on the other hand, the thirst for pleasures which dominates everything seriously lowers the level of her spiritual life, endows her inevitably with cynicism, brutality, and heartlessness. With amazing insight Flaubert united in his immortal heroine these diverse elements when he endowed her with all the charms of an aristocratic attraction to the beautiful as well as the typical attributes of the female odalisque. Emma Bovary's refined aestheticism does not save her from crude sensuality, restrained ferocity, cruelty to people around her, and even cutting indifference to her own child.

Chekhov combines in his heroines the same contrasting qualities. His charming Ariadne “was perfectly capable, even in a moment of good spirits, of offending a servant, squashing an insect. She loved bullfights, liked to read about murders, and would get angry when the defendants were acquitted.”

One device in the characterization of these Chekhovian heroines is typical of Flaubert and Maupassant. The central fissure in their psychology, the decisive moment when their fundamental nature is disclosed, often turns out to be a chance visit to some place of unusual elegance and splendor. Some elegant ball or festive occasion once and for all poisons their existence, reveals to them in all its fullness the philistinism of their daily life, the poverty of their circumstances, the humdrum character of the people around them, the unattractiveness of their husbands.

Chekhov used this typical theme of Flaubert and Maupassant for one of his stories (“Anna on the Neck”). A product of poverty and squalor, oppressed by a despotic husband, the humble and almost crushed Anna on landing at a brilliant ball instantly is transformed. The slumbering woman in her awakens through the combined action of all the currents of the electric atmosphere of the ball—the thunderous music, the bright lights, the ecstatic faces of the crowd, and the tantalizing proximity of the dancers. Unexpectedly and in a flash she realizes that she has been created just for this tumultuous, brilliant, gay life with its music, dances, admirers, and flattery. As she first becomes conscious of the great power in her feminine charm, a profound contempt awakens in her for everyday life, for her husband and her domestic surroundings. The once miserable sufferer returns from the ball with the awakened instincts of a spendthrift and adulterer. …

The usual references to the transition period of the 1880s are not enough to explain the sources of Chekhov's pessimism. Among the personal, social, and literary factors which go to make up his cheerless world view, the influence of French naturalism must be taken into account. Its final conclusions never ceased to act upon Chekhov; their inner meaning frightened him, aroused him to unrelenting protest, but compelled him despotically all the same to acknowledge their terrible truth. …

Reading Flaubert and his disciple Maupassant slowly cultivated in Chekhov those rules of strict literary work which the author of Salammbô never ceased to expound in his letters and conversations. Flaubert's famous objectivity is of first importance here. His insistence that the author be completely absent from his creations, the campaign against lyricism in artistic prose, were fixed canons of Flaubert's art. Chekhov, for his part, gives expression to these same principles from the very beginning of his literary career; undoubtedly many of them were wholly his own and only subsequently found support in the high authority of Flaubert. “In everything cast yourself overboard; don't thrust yourself upon the heroes of your novel; renounce yourself for at least a half hour”—such are the literary principles of the young Chekhov. “Subjectivity is a terrible thing,” he writes in one of his early letters.

He formulates in his correspondence a literary code and advances as one of its first points the demand for a complete objectivity which will always remain his guiding principle. “The more objective, the stronger the impression will be,” he writes even in 1892. And a principle he formulates in a letter to Suvorin is purely Flaubertian: “The artist must not be a judge of his characters, but only a dispassionate witness.”

This demand for strict objectivity consciously banishes from literature the whole element of lyrical sensibility. Flaubert considered a certain measure of coldness to be the highest quality of a writer's temperament. In his letters to young authors Chekhov never ceases to repeat these same precepts. He constantly warns them against the sentimental or maudlin. “When you depict some poor luckless wretch and you want to move the reader to pity, try to remain quite cold—this will provide a kind of background, against which the stranger's misery will stand out in bold relief. Otherwise your heroes will be crying and you will be sighing. Yes, be cold.” Such is the purely Flaubertian principle with which Chekhov ends one of his letters on the technique of writing.

Finally, Chekhov fully accepted Flaubert's principle of intense fidelity to life in descriptions. Flaubert's famous precept—when you describe a sunset, the page must seem ensanguined; when you depict a meadow, green—always seems to have remained a guiding principle for Chekhov. When he writes “The Steppe” (1888), he wants the story to smell of hay; when he finishes the story he reports with satisfaction that his pages have an aroma of the summer and the steppe. “I have given such an account of the climate that you will feel cold when you read about it,” he observes of his Island of Sakhalin.

His advice to other writers is similar. “Women must be described in such a way that the reader feels that your jacket is unbuttoned and your tie is off,” he advises one of his literary correspondents. In his letters he praises Sienkiewicz and Zola for being able to give such vivid descriptions that the reader wants to have lunch in Ploshovo, marry Anielka, or embrace Klotylda.

But Maupassant always remained Chekhov's direct and principal teacher of literary form. Maupassant seemed to Chekhov an incomparable artist in his love of brevity and his passion for the short story. He set before Chekhov perfect examples of vivid literary landscapes in three lines and finished human characterizations in several strokes. He convinced Chekhov that brevity is the sister of talent, and taught him to compress his images and thought to the utmost degree of concentration. He revealed to Chekhov the artistic secret of those short stories that are without entanglement or denouement, without introduction or conclusion, that have a trifling title and are almost without plot, stories which strike one as a simple vignette of passing reality but are the final attainment of an extraordinarily complex and refined art.

In the realm of literary form Maupassant disclosed to Chekhov the first devices of transition from the realism of everyday life to symbolic realism. Chekhov's subtle distillation of a symbol from the simple elements of life—a feature that marks the last period of his creative work—is already distinctly visible in Maupassant. …

The symbolism of ordinary life is found in all Maupassant's major creations, where events are mysteriously caught in the strands woven by fate, and external happenings herald future tragedies. Olivier Berton, crushed by a bus, seems to be himself the emblem of his dying love for the countess. Scorched letters stained with floods of melting sealing wax are a mournful symbol of the end of a sad story. Christiane in Mont-Oriol (a novel which Chekhov is enthusiastic about in his letters), even before the onset of her unhappy love, in the first days of her arrival at the health resort, witnesses the frightful death of a small black dog. As she leaves the public ceremony she accidentally comes upon a piece of bloody flesh, covered with black hair, without recognizing in this tiny fact the terrible epigraph which reality itself is writing for her future fate.

These devices of Maupassant represent the first sources of Chekhovian symbolism. Nothing passes without leaving some trace, say the heroes of Chekhov's stories and dramas; everything is pregnant with some universal thought; our every step has significance for present and future life; all of us are part of one miraculous and rational organism, and human suffering of the distant past stirs us mysteriously down through the millennia.

The final scene of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is regarded as the high point of Chekhovian symbolism. The feeble Firs, forgotten in the boarded-up house by the owners who have departed, and quietly dying to the vigorous thud of axes, synthesizes the usual thoughts of Chekhov on the mystery of life and death, on their secret meaning, on the significance of everything transitory. “There is a far-off sound that seems to come from out of the sky—the sound of a snapped string, sad and dying away. A stillness falls, and all you can hear is the thud of an ax on a tree far away in the orchard.” The Cherry Orchard ends with this philosophical observation.

The origin in Maupassant of Chekhovian symbolism is especially evident here. The death of Firs strongly recalls the end of Olivier Berton. When the wounded artist, pressing the hand of his lover, gives a deep sigh and expires, something ominous sweeps through his room. The fire goes out in the fireplace under the black ashes of burned letters; two candles unexpectedly go out; a sinister crack sounds from some piece of furniture; and a moment later the agitated countess senses through cold stiffening fingers that her friend already has found comfort from all woes in a great forgetting.

Chekhovian realism was much refined by the example of modern French literature. Flaubert and Maupassant did much to clarify and strengthen Chekhov's style as a writer and unquestionably play a significant role in the creation of his clean-cut, steady, lucid, and precise form. They introduced him to a whole series of new stylistic devices; they awakened him to the basic rule of all French literature—that one should see to it that every line be vital, engaging, and full of literary import.

The fundamental postulates of naturalism had a most decisive influence on Chekhov. Man's age-old incapacity to structure his life intelligently, his inability to bridle the predatory beast in himself, the complete powerlessness of his spirit before the mighty elements of instinct, the triumph of cruelty, stupidity, vice—this somber content of the human comedy was already revealed by the great precursor of naturalism, Balzac, and reiterated, after a careful review of his conclusions, by such knowledgeable masters of life as Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant.

These authors wrote the crowning works of French literature of the past century. They could not but make a profound impression upon Chekhov—one that was wholly confirmed by his own observations and reflections. Everything that his heroes briefly sum up in the words, “Everything is vile; there is no reason for living,” all his impressions about harrowing poverty, hunger, ignorance, anguish, the feeling of anger and humiliation, animality, and rapacity, all those Arakcheev thoughts3 of Chekhov's heroes completely accord with the basic conclusions of French naturalism.

But Chekhov did not want to—or perhaps could not—reconcile himself with them. … And in the mood of hopelessness evoked by the personal experience of a physician and his study of the experimental novel, he turned to those hopes of salvation to which he was led by his Slavic nature and the enduring traditions of his native literature. In the sick animal, overdriven or embittered, rapacious or meek, he began with anguish and hope to seek out glimmerings of the divine element. The notion of humanity as an attribute of the highest spirituality became the hallmark of his creative work and the symbol of his faith. The question of whether the preachment of human charity in literature was in consonance with art or appropriate to the times did not exist for him. This preachment was his only means of salvation from final despair. …

Chekhov, in one of his last stories, acknowledges as the only meaning of life and the highest law of existence man's great capacity for active good. And as he moved toward this outlook, Chekhov introduced into Russian literature a new crowd of insulted and injured, quite different from the malicious, hysterically excited, or meekly vile outcasts of Dostoevsky. The feeling of profound injury, of undeserved affliction, of unbearable pain only heightens in Chekhovian heroes their primordial need for active love. All these martyrs and victims of life reveal in their quiet humility such a lofty spirituality that man's violent, predatory nature is redeemed in advance by this capacity for heroic renunciation.

In his revelation of these evangelical elements the atheist Chekhov is unquestionably one of the most Christian poets of world literature. The final lines of his story “In the Ravine”—the depiction of Lipa in the field at night, submissively carrying her dead child with great maternal anguish but without the slightest feeling of enmity toward her murderer—is, of course, one of the greatest pages in the ancient legend about human meekness. Only a great force of love in the artist could create this new perfect image of the sorrowing mother.

Chekhov's chief strength lies in a love for man which overcame all revulsion. At root, he did not bring to his creations any new philosophy. An artist of extraordinary gifts, a lyrist of boundless spirituality, Chekhov was not a thinker of genius. He did not leave humanity revelations which strike one by their newness, boldness, or depth, revelations which immediately turn the broad current of human thought into a new channel. Even in the sphere of abstract wisdom, as in his purely artistic pages, he spoke the most simple words devoid of any philosophical profundity. Everything that is said in his works about the fate of the world and of people is in essence so simple that it might enter the head of any ordinary person. … But Chekhov expressed this simple wisdom in words so magically beautiful and, in their beauty, so comforting, that everyone was left with the impression that somehow he had been reassured about something, that he had been reconciled with something, that something had been set right. For all these sufferers of life the creations of Chekhov acted as a sudden revivifying flood of tears which are evoked by deep suffering, but which, after flowing, relieve the soul, lighten sorrow, and reconcile one with the most inconsolable misery.

Not only a poet lived in this naturalist, but also a rare genius of creative gentleness. One might say that nobody had ever probed with such precision the morbid fabric of life in all its tiny cellular structure and responded with such deep compassion for all its agonizing imperfections. This searching Darwinist with the love of Francis of Assisi for every living creature seems to confirm with all his creative work the remarkable words of Beethoven—that the only heroism in the world is to see the world as it is, and still to love it.

Notes

  1. For a discussion of the impact upon Chekhov's artistic method of the work of the French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813–1878)—particularly his Introduction à l'étude de la médicine expérimentale—see A. Roskin's “Notes on Chekhov's Realism” (in Russian) in Literaturnyj kritik (1939), No. 7, pp. 58–77—[Ed.]

  2. The lines are from the dedication of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin: “Uma kholodnykh nabljudenij / I serdtse gorestnykh zamet.” [Ed.]

  3. The allusion here is to Count Aleksey A. Arakcheev (1769–1834), a war minister in the reign of Alexander I. Because of his internal policies, his name became a symbol in Russia of reaction and despotism. [Ed.]

“The Naturalism of Chekhov” by Leonid Grossman. From Vestnik Evropy (1914), No. 7, 218–247, in abridged form. Translated from the Russian by Robert Louis Jackson.

Introduction

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Robert Lynd (essay date 1919)

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SOURCE: Lynd, Robert. “Tchehov: The Perfect Story-Teller.” In Old and New Masters, pp. 171–77. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919.

[In the following essay, Lynd discusses Chekhov's talent for portraying ordinary people as the basis of a tragic realism.]

It is the custom when praising a Russian writer to do so at the expense of all other Russian writers. It is as though most of us were monotheists in our devotion to authors, and could not endure to see any respect paid to the rivals of the god of the moment. And so one year Tolstoy is laid prone as Dagon, and, another year, Turgenev. And, no doubt, the day will come when Dostoevsky will fall from his huge eminence.

Perhaps the luckiest of all the Russian authors in this respect is Tchehov. He is so obviously not a god. He does not deliver messages to us from the mountaintop like Tolstoy, or reveal himself beautifully in sunset and star like Turgenev, or announce himself now in the hurricane and now in the thunderstorm like Dostoevsky. He is a man and a medical doctor. He pays professional visits. We may define his genius more exactly by saying that his is a general practice. There has, I think, never been so wonderful an examination of common people in literature as in the short stories of Tchehov. His world is thronged with the average man and the average woman. Other writers have also put ordinary people into books. They have written plays longer than Hamlet, and novels longer than Don Quixote, about ordinary people. They have piled such a heap of details on the ordinary man's back as almost to squash him out of existence. In the result the reader as well as the ordinary man has a sense of oppression. He begins to long for the restoration of the big subject to literature.

Henry James complained of the littleness of the subject in Madame Bovary. He regarded it as one of the miracles of art that so great a book should have been written about so small a woman. Tom Jones, on the other hand, is a portrait of a common man of the size of which few people complain. But then Tom Jones is a comedy, and we enjoy the continual relief of laughter. It is the tragic realists for whom the common man is a theme so perilous in its temptations to dullness. At the same time he is a theme that they were bound to treat. He is himself, indeed, the sole source and subject of tragic realism in literature. Were it not for the oppression of his futile and philoprogenitive presence, imaginative writers would be poets and romancers.

The problem of the novelist of contemporary life for whom ordinary people are more intensely real than the few magnificent personalities is how to portray ordinary people in such a way that they will become better company than they are in life. Tchehov, I think, solves the problem better than any of the other novelists. He sees, for one thing, that no man is uninteresting when he is seen as a person stumbling towards some goal, just as no man is uninteresting when his hat is blown off and he has to scuttle after it down the street. There is bound to be a break in the meanest life.

Tchehov will seek out the key situation in the life of a cabman or a charwoman, and make them glow for a brief moment in the tender light of his sympathy. He does not run sympathy as a “stunt” like so many popular novelists. He sympathizes merely in the sense that he understands in his heart as well as in his brain. He has the most unbiassed attitude, I think, of any author in the world. Mr. Edward Garnett, in his introduction to Mrs. Garnett's translation of Tchehov's tales, speaks admirably of his “profundity of acceptation.” There is no writer who is less inclined to use italics in his record of human life. Perhaps Mr. Garnett goes too far when he says that Tchehov “stands close to all his characters, watching them quietly and registering their circumstances and feelings with such finality that to pass judgment on them appears supererogatory.” Tchehov's judgment is at times clear enough—as clear as if it followed a summing-up from the bench. He portrays his characters instead of labelling them; but the portrait itself is the judgment. His humour makes him tolerant, but, though he describes moral and material ugliness with tolerance, he never leaves us in any doubt as to their being ugly. His attitude to a large part of life might be described as one of good-natured disgust.

In one of the newly-translated stories, “Ariadne,” he shows us a woman from the point of view of a disgusted lover. It is a sensitive man's picture of a woman who was even more greedy than beautiful. “This thirst for personal success … makes people cold, and Ariadne was cold—to me, to nature, and to music.” Tchehov extends towards her so little charity that he makes her run away to Italy with a bourgeois who had “a neck like goose-skin and a big Adam's apple,” and who, as he talked, “breathed hard, breathing straight in my face and smelling of boiled beef.” As the more sensitive lover who supplanted the bourgeois looks back, her incessant gluttony is more vivid in his thoughts than her charm:

She would sleep every day till two or three o'clock; she had her coffee and lunch in bed. At dinner she would eat soup, lobster, fish, meat, asparagus, game, and after she had gone to bed I used to bring up something, for instance, roast beef, and she would eat it with a melancholy, careworn expression, and if she waked in the night she would eat apples or oranges.

The story, it is only fair to say, is given in the words of a lover dissatisfied with lust, and the judgment may therefore be regarded as the lover's rather than as Tchehov's. Tchehov sets down the judgment, however, in a mood of acute perceptiveness of everything that is jarring and vulgar in sexual vanity. Ariadne's desire to please is never permitted to please us as, say, Beatrix Esmond's is. Her will to fascinate does not fascinate when it is refracted in Tchehov's critical mind:

She waked up every morning with the one thought of “pleasing.” It was the aim and object of her life. If I told her that in such a house, in such a street, there lived a man who was not attracted by her, it would have caused her real suffering. She wanted every day to enchant, to captivate, to drive men crazy. The fact that I was in her power and reduced to a complete nonentity before her charms gave her the same sort of satisfaction that victors used to get in tournaments. … She had an extraordinary opinion of her own charms; she imagined that if somewhere, in some great assembly, men could have seen how beautifully she was made and the colour of her skin, she would have vanquished all Italy, the whole world. Her talk of her figure, of her skin, offended me, and observing this, she would, when she was angry, say all sorts of vulgar things taunting me.

A few strokes of cruelty are added to the portrait:

Even at a good-humoured moment, she could always insult a servant or kill an insect without a pang; she liked bull-fights, liked to read about murders, and was angry when prisoners were acquitted.

As one reads “Ariadne,” one feels that those who say the artist is not a judge are in error. What he must avoid becoming is a prosecuting—perhaps even a defending—counsel.

Egoism seems to be the quality which offends Tchehov most. He is no more in love with it when it masquerades as virtue than when it parades as vice. “An Artist's Story”—a beautiful sad story, which might almost have been written by Turgenev—contains a fine critical portrait of a woman absorbed in the egoism of good works. She is always looking after the poor, serving on committees, full of enthusiasm for nursing and education. She lacks only that charity of the heart which loves human beings, not because they are poor, but because they are human beings. She is by nature a “boss.” She “bosses” her mother and her younger sister, and when the artist falls in love with the latter, the stronger will of the woman of high principles immediately separates lovers so frivolous that they had never sat on a committee in their lives. When, the evening after the artist confesses his love, he waits for the girl to come to him in the garden of her house, he waits in vain. He goes into the house to look for her, but does not find her. Then through one of the doors he overhears the voice of the lady of the good works:

“‘God … sent … a crow,’” she said in a loud, emphatic voice, probably dictating—“‘God sent a crow a piece of cheese. … A crow. … A piece of cheese …’ Who's there?” she called suddenly, hearing my steps.


“It's I.”


“Ah! Excuse me, I cannot come out to open this minute; I'm giving Dasha her lesson.”


“Is Ekaterina Pavlovna in the garden?”


“No, she went away with my sister this morning to our aunt in the province of Penza. And in the winter they will probably go abroad,” she added after a pause. “‘God sent … the crow … a piece … of cheese …’ Have you written it?”


I went into the hall and stared vacantly at the pond and the village, and the sound reached me of “A piece of cheese … God sent the crow a piece of cheese.”


And I went back by the way I had come here for the first time—first from the yard into the garden past the house, then into the avenue of lime-trees. … At this point I was overtaken by a small boy who gave me a note.


“I told my sister everything and she insisted on my parting from you,” I read. “I could not wound her by disobeying. God will give you happiness. Forgive me. If only you knew how bitterly my mother and I are crying!”

The people who cannot wound others—those are the people whose sharp pangs we feel in our breasts as we read the stories of Tchehov. The people who wound—it is they whom he paints (or, rather, as Mr. Garnett suggests, etches) with such felicitous and untiring irony.

But, though he often makes his people beautiful in their sorrow, he more often than not sets their sad figures against a common and ugly background. In “Anyuta,” the medical student and his mistress live in a room disgusting in its squalor:

Crumpled bed-clothes, pillows thrown about, boots, clothes, a big filthy slop-pail filled with soap-suds in which cigarette-ends were swimming, and the litter on the floor—all seemed as though purposely jumbled together in one confusion. …

And, if the surroundings are no more beautiful than those in which a great part of the human race lives, neither are the people more beautiful than ordinary people. In “The Trousseau,” the poor thin girl who spends her life making a trousseau for a marriage that will never take place becomes ridiculous as she flushes at the entrance of a stranger into her mother's house:

Her long nose, which was slightly pitted with small-pox, turned red first, and then the flush passed up to her eyes and her forehead.

I do not know if a blush of this sort is possible, but the thought of it is distressing.

The woman in “The Darling,” who marries more than once and simply cannot live without some one to love and to be an echo to, is “not half bad” to look at. But she is ludicrous even when most unselfish and adoring—especially when she rubs with eau-de-Cologne her little, thin, yellow-faced, coughing husband with “the curls combed forward on his forehead,” and wraps him in her warm shawls to an accompaniment of endearments. “‘You're such a sweet pet!’ she used to say with perfect sincerity, stroking his hair. ‘You're such a pretty dear!’”

Thus sympathy and disgust live in a curious harmony in Tchehov's stories. And, as he seldom allows disgust entirely to drive out sympathy in himself, he seldom allows it to do so in his readers either. His world may be full of unswept rooms and unwashed men and women, but the presiding genius in it is the genius of gentleness and love and laughter. It is a dark world, but Tchehov brings light into it. There is no other author who gives so little offence as he shows us offensive things and people. He is a writer who desires above all things to see what men and women are really like—to extenuate nothing and to set down naught in malice. As a result, he is a pessimist, but a pessimist who is black without being bitter. I know no writer who leaves one with the same vision of men and women as lost sheep.

We are now apparently to have a complete edition of the tales of Tchehov in English from Mrs. Garnett. It will deserve a place, both for the author's and the translator's sake, beside her Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In lifelikeness and graciousness her work as a translator always reaches a high level. Her latest volumes confirm one in the opinion that Tchehov is, for his variety, abundance, tenderness and knowledge of the heart of the “rapacious and unclean animal” called man, the greatest short-story writer who has yet appeared on the planet.

Principal Works

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Skazki Mel'pomene 1884

Pestrye rasskazy 1886

Nevinnye rechi 1887

V sumerkakh 1887

Rasskazy 1889

The Black Monk, and Other Stories 1903

The Kiss, and Other Stories 1908

The Darling, and Other Stories 1916

The Duel, and Other Stories 1916

The Tales of Tchehov 1916–1922

The Lady with the Dog, and Other Stories 1917

The Party, and Other Stories 1917

The Wife, and Other Stories 1918

The Witch, and Other Stories 1918

The Bishop, and Other Stories 1919

The Chorus Girl, and Other Stories 1920

The Horse-Stealers, and Other Stories 1921

The Schoolmaster, and Other Stories 1921

The Schoolmistress, and Other Stories 1921

The Cook's Wedding, and Other Stories 1922

Love, and Other Stories 1922

Ivanov: Drama v chetyryokh deystviyakh [Ivanoff: A Play in Four Acts] (drama) 1887

V sumerkakh (novel) 1887

Leshii [The Wood Demon] (drama) 1889

Ostrov Sakhalin (nonfiction) 1895

Chaika [The Seagull] (drama) 1896

Diadia Vania [Uncle Vanya] (drama) 1899

Tri sestry [The Three Sisters] (drama) 1901

Vishnevyi sad [The Cherry Orchard] (drama) 1904

Plays (drama) 1912

Neizdannaia p'esa [That Worthless Fellow Platonov] (drama) 1923

Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell (essay date 1925)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7208

SOURCE: Brewster, Dorothy and Angus Burrell. “Soundings: Fiction of A. P. Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.” In Dead Reckonings in Fiction, pp. 42–70. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925.

[In the following essay, Brewster and Burrell discuss the various critical opinions of Chekhov, including accusations of immorality, and compare Chekhov's and Katherine Mansfield's use of concrete imagery.]

I

Strether's experience in The Ambassadors took all his categories by surprise. Nothing better could happen to anyone, for categories are perilously convenient. We naturally tend to thrust people and all the relations between them into pigeon-holes; to accept, not as mere conveniences for business and intercourse, but as truths, conventional aspects of life. We are told that there are six (or two, or five), psychological types, and forthwith sort out our acquaintances. Chekhov, who disliked categories, remarks that Tolstoi, in Resurrection, divides all the convicts into five classes; why not ten, he asks? H. G. Wells has for years had his eyes so fixed on “constructive-minded” and “muddle-headed” people that he has gradually lost that fine capacity to realize imaginatively a muddle-headed person, which he had when he conceived Mr. Polly. And so he is capable of lumping together most of humanity as people who just shouldn't have been born. “The world swarms,” he has his Sir Richmond say in The Secret Places of the Heart, “with cramped and undeveloped lives, which amount to nothing.” Someone interjects, “I suppose they have a sort of liking for their lives.” “Does that matter? They do nothing to carry life on. They are just blurred repetitions of one common life. All that they feel has been felt, all that they do has been done better before.” To think after this fashion of undeveloped lives in the mass is convenient for the sociologist, who plans by reorganizing society to increase the opportunities for development. But the novelist—even the novelist preoccupied like Wells with social problems—must, as Wells himself wrote some years ago, recognize that at the root of nearly every one of our social problems lies a psychological problem, “one in which the idea of individuality is an essential factor.” To penetrate to the core of individuality demands the open-minded warm curiosity with which Chekhov or Conrad approaches each human being.

II

Much of the effect of Chekhov of which Middleton Murry has spoken—that added zest for living which he gives us—is due precisely to his refusal to place people in categories of any sort. When a critic called the monk in “Easter Eve” a failure, Chekhov replied: “How is he a failure? God grant us all a life like his. He believed in God, and he had enough to eat, and he had the gift of composing poetry. … To divide men into the successful and the unsuccessful is to look at human nature from a narrow preconceived point of view. Are you a success, or not? Am I? Was Napoleon? Is your servant Vassily? What is the criterion? One must be a God to be able to tell the successes from the failures without making a mistake.”

Perhaps he dreaded generalizations because of the dull insensitiveness that results from dealing with people in that way. This is disclosed in two of his characters that come to mind: the doctor in the play Ivanoff, and the land-owning husband in the story “The Wife.” The doctor is, in Chekhov's words: “the embodiment of a program, a walking tendency. He looks through a narrow frame at every person and event, he judges everything according to preconceived notions. … It is not enough that all men are sinners, he wants saints and villains.” This man is the foil for Ivanoff, whom the doctor cannot understand, and classes as a scoundrel because although he has a sick wife, he goes to see a rich lady neighbor. “Of course he is a scoundrel.” It is this stupidity of the doctor in placing him in a category and treating him as if he belonged there that helps to drive Ivanoff to suicide.

And the land-owning husband is a similar person. His wife, whom he has made thoroughly miserable, admits that he is well-educated and well bred, honest, just and high principled, but that wherever he goes he brings suffocation and depression. All life is summed up for him under principles; and he has so many of them that he finds himself obliged to hate everything on the basis of one or the other. He fails to drive his wife to suicide only because of his enlightening contact with an intelligent doctor. “I listened to the doctor and after my invariable habit tried to take his measure by my usual classification—materialist, idealist, filthy lucre, gregarious instincts, and so on; no classification fitted him approximately; and strange to say, while I simply listened and looked at him, he seemed perfectly clear to me as a person, as soon as I began trying to classify him, he became an exceptionally complex, intricate, and incomprehensible character, in spite of all his candor and simplicity.”

Chekhov has an amusing story of a “man in a case,” who might be taken as a symbol of the spiritual condition of people who shut themselves up in theories, and formulas. This man was remarkable for “always wearing goloshes and a warm wadded coat and carrying an umbrella even in the finest weather. And his umbrella was in a case, and his watch was in a case made of grey chamois leather, and when he took out his penknife to sharpen his pencil, his penknife too was in a little case; and his face seemed to be in a case too, because he always hid it in his upturned collar. He wore dark spectacles and flannel vests, stuffed up his ears with cotton wool, and when he got into a cab always told the driver to put up the hood. In short, the man displayed a constant and insurmountable impulse to wrap himself in a covering, to make himself so to speak a case which would isolate him and protect him from external influences.”

With his distrust of easy simplifications, Chekhov refused to be categorized himself, and feared those who looked for tendencies in his work, who were determined to claim him as a liberal, conservative, progressive, or what not. He had reason to be afraid. Later critics, impressed by the dreariness and disillusion of the Russia of the twenty years before the revolution of 1905, have tended to regard Chekhov as the spokesman of this spirit—and of little else. Gorki, for instance, likens the tone of his work to a melancholy day of late autumn, “where everything is strange, lonely, motionless, helpless. … The author's mind, like the autumn sun, shows up in hard outline the monotonous roads, crooked streets, the little squalid houses in which tiny, miserable people are stifled by boredom and laziness, and fill the houses with an unintelligible, drowsy bustle.” Gorki imagines Chekhov passing in front of this dreary grey crowd of helpless people like a sort of melancholy Christ, murmuring with anguish in his heart, “You live badly, my friends.”

Or again, there is Mr. Kaun, who explains Chekhov's apparent indifference to local, partial, temporary evils, as the result of his regarding all life as fraud and folly. Both views of Chekhov seem absurdly at variance with the spirit of such stories as “The Privy Councillor,” “Home,” “The Incident,” “Grisha,” “The Darling,” where, as in many other tales, he is quietly mirthful, even gay. We have his own words in a letter, “I am more often merry than sad.” He made contacts with ease; he kept friends; he found great satisfaction in the society of other people, and they in his. One is fairly safe in assuming that Chekhov was by no means a depressed or depressing person. In his work he interprets convincingly the mood of pessimism, as well as other moods. It was a part of the spectacle of life around him, but to call him pessimist is to commit the old naïve blunder of identifying the artist with some phase of his work. It illustrates the sort of labelling of which Chekhov wrote: “I regard trademarks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying in whatever form they may take.”

There are no labels on Chekhov's characters. His people cannot be sorted out and card-catalogued. Each human being has for him a uniqueness, affects him with a kind of wonder. The ordinary person in love feels this about his beloved; the artist feels this perpetually about people of whom he writes. Chekhov must have had it about hundreds of people; this accounts for the curious freshness of his perception. Of a village priest who used to pay him long visits at his country-house, he writes: “He is a very good fellow, a widower, and has some illegitimate children.” Is this humor, or naïveté—or merely delighted comprehension? All these things were true about the priest; make what you can of them. Gayef, in The Cherry Orchard, somewhat apologetically admits that his sister hasn't led a virtuous life, but adds: “She's a dear, kind, charming creature, and I love her very much.” There is apparently indifference in this attitude; but is it the indifference of a moralist or of an artist?

Chekhov the man, the doctor, could not be in any true sense indifferent to the morality of the society in which he moved. He was obliged like other men to make concessions, to adapt himself to his environment. All this is clear from his words; when he is speaking as moralist, he assumes at once that one does not lie, or steal, or bear false witness. Minor sins are a personal matter, and bring their own discomforts, such sins as he refers to in a letter: “It is true that I have waxed wanton and slothful, have laughed heedlessly, have eaten too much and drunk too much and been profligate.”

But Chekhov the artist presents life as he finds it; and if he finds life not conventionally moral, he keeps his artistic vision clear by his attitude of indifference. Thus as artist he says: “Only those who are indifferent are able to see things clearly, to be just and to work. Of course I am only speaking of intelligent people of fine natures; the empty and selfish are indifferent enough anyway.”

When the artist puts this philosophy into practice, he is likely to call down upon himself the wrath of the rabble. Chekhov was often enough charged with writing stories that had a bad influence. Because he didn't point out how wicked horse-stealing was, he was accused of condoning the offence. “You want me to say that horse-stealing is an evil,” he replied to one of his critics. “But that has been known for ages. … It would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. … To depict horse-stealers in seven hundred lines, I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit.”

There is a kind of divine irony in accusing the artist of exerting an immoral influence by his work, because he is more interested in understanding his characters than in judging them according to his own personal moral code.

Other critics called him an immoral influence because he drew his material now and then from “muck-heaps”: these, he declared, play a very respectable part in the landscape; “the evil passions are as inherent in life as the good ones.” Realism is demoralizing, you say? That is just another dubious generalization: “Everything in this world is relative and approximate. There are people who can be demoralized by children's books, and who read with particular pleasure the piquant passages in Psalms and Solomon's Proverbs, while there are others who become only the purer from closer knowledge of the filthy side of life. … No literature can outdo real life in its cynicism; a wineglassful won't make a man drunk when he has already emptied a barrel.”

No artist was ever less enclosed “in a case” than Chekhov. Take his attitude towards religion. His early training was strictly orthodox—with singing in the church choir, reading of the Apostles, psalms, regular attendance at matins, assisting at the altar, and ringing the bells. As he grew older, he freed his intellect and saved his artistic soul; he released himself from the formulas of orthodoxy—with its pigeon-holes of elect and damned—without losing his delight in the beauty of church ritual. He loved Moscow because of the many churches and the bells, and on Easter Eves he passed from church to church all night long, coming home in the dawn to sing hymns with his father and brothers. The very spirit of the festival lives in the story, “Easter Eve,” in the beauty of the setting and in the soul of the monk.1

To escape the letter and retain the spirit,—that was all a part of the process by which Chekhov “painfully squeezed the slave out of himself, drop by drop.” Gorki, who knew him in his later years, says that he lived on his own soul and was “always himself, inwardly free”; and that everyone in his presence involuntarily felt a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more genuine. “He knew how to lead his visitors away from making pompous, pretentious, prepared speeches, to talking naturally and unaffectedly in their own manner.”2 These were the visitors with claims to culture. By the simple people with whom he came in contact,—servants, messengers, porters, beggars, tramps, postmen,—he was regarded, writes Kuprin in his Reminiscences of Chekhov, “with a great and heartfelt love, and not only with love, but with subtle sensitiveness, with concern and with understanding.” And he relates an anecdote about a Tartar porter at Yalta, who used to watch for Chekhov's figure as the steamer docked, and scramble on board ahead of the rest to take charge of his luggage. Once an ill-tempered mate struck the man for getting in his way. The Tartar threw down the luggage, beat his breast with his fist, and shouted: “What? Are you striking me? Do you think that you struck me?” And pointing at Chekhov, “It is him—him, you struck!” Chekhov, very pale, came up to the mate, and said quietly and distinctly, but with an unusual expression, “Are you not ashamed?” The mate murmured something and promptly disappeared.3

Chekhov's contacts with people—and they were many and varied—must have been full of such revealing moments. Perhaps that is why in his art he tends to fasten upon certain moments, certain moods, certain apparently trivial incidents, as possessing a special significance—revealing that uniqueness of personality which makes it impossible to put people into a filing cabinet.

III

It has been said of Katherine Mansfield, and is equally true of Chekhov, that she knew “that when people marry, or make money, or die, very little may really be happening to them; and in her stories these and other important events happen seldom and are never at the centre of the stage. … The truth is in minutes rather than in years, in the emotion not of a day, but of a second, in the chill or warmth of a sudden mood, in the tunes played on the mind by anything, by nothing at all.”4

Whether or not the “truth” is in these instants of realization rather than of action, the sense of being truly alive is in them. That sense breaks in upon our course of habit and routine in the brief pauses of sensitive awareness. We have a heightened consciousness of physical well-being, of love or hate or intimate understanding, of esthetic delight, of ironical insight or flashing comprehension; or we glimpse some far horizon, intellectual or spiritual. It is because Arnold Bennett, in his Old Wives' Tale, and May Sinclair, in her Mary Olivier, with their chronicles of humdrum events and slow passing from youth to age, record these moments in the lives of their characters, that these books have the quality of authentic life. Chekhov and Mansfield, isolating such moments for interpretation, have developed a technique perfectly adapted to convey their significance.5

Consider Chekhov's “Lottery Ticket,” which presents an extended moment in the consciousness of two people. A man and his wife have for years bought lottery tickets without ever drawing a lucky number. For a few minutes one night, they think they have won. They begin to wonder what they shall do with the money. Their conversation is intermingled with their unspoken reveries. Both think of going abroad. He visualizes the journey with his wife: her preoccupation with the children, parcels, baskets, bags, lunches, tea, headaches, tips. Why should she want to go? “And for the first time in his life his mind dwelt on the fact that his wife had grown elderly and plain, and that she was saturated through and through with the smell of cooking, while he was still young, fresh, and healthy, and might well have got married again.” All sorts of subconscious resentments crop up until they begin to look at each other with glances full of hatred. … When they discover that theirs is not the winning number after all, these [Illegible Text] emotions of hatred and hope die down, and it seems to both that their rooms are dark and small and low-pitched, and that their supper has disagreed with them, and that the floor is littered with scraps.

The fleeting dream of wealth had intensified their consciousness long enough for them to realize just what they actually feel about each other—and what they feel isn't love.

Or consider another moment. A theological student, one night in early spring, returning from hunting through the cold and gloomy evening mist, is oppressed by the poverty and hunger and desolation of the people and the countryside. It must have been like that, he thinks, for a thousand years. Coming upon a campfire, he falls into talk with two peasant women. At just such a fire, he reflects, the Apostle Peter warmed himself. And he tells the story of Peter's denial so dramatically that the women are moved; one of them to tears. As he goes on his way, he thinks that what had happened to Peter must have some relation to her, since she had wept; what had happened nineteen hundred years ago had a relation to the present; Peter was somehow near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in his soul. “When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at the village and towards the west where the cold purple sunset lay, a narrow streak of light, he thought the truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the High Priest had continued without interruption until this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life … and the feeling of youth, health, vigor … and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.”

The sixteen year old Nadya, in “After The Theatre,” experiences a sense of youth, but with a less reflective emphasis. Returning from the opera—Onyegin—she dramatizes herself as the heroine who loves in vain, and sits down to write a letter to one of her admirers. “I love you, but you do not love me!” She laughed. To be unloved and unhappy, how interesting, beautiful, touching, poetical. And presently she is crying over her imagined sufferings, until “little rainbows are quivering on the table, on the floor, on the ceiling, as though she were looking through a prism.” So she stops writing and thinks: “My God, how interesting, how fascinating men are!” “There was a stir of joy in her bosom for no reason whatever; … Her shoulders quivered with subdued laughter, the table and the lamp chimney shook too, and tears from her eyes splashed on the letter.” Her reverie flows into irrelevant images of her mother, and the street, and the pencil, and the life in the country. Everything is good, but would be better still in the spring. “She had a passionate longing for the garden, the darkness, pure sky, the stars … it seemed to her that there was the scent of wormwood in the room, and that a twig was tapping at the window.” She sits down on her bed, not knowing what to do with the immense joy which filled her with yearning, she looked at the holy image and said, “O Lord God.”

Laura, in Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, is as vividly young as Nadya; but she is awakening to deeper, more realistic perceptions of life. It is a much more complex instant of consciousness; beginning with a mere awareness of joy, it ends with puzzled wonder and questioning of the very nature of existence itself. Through the emotions of this seventeen year old girl we feel the joyous excitement of preparations for a garden party. There is to be a band, and a tent on the lawn, and the house is full of canna lilies. The sensitive Laura feels more intensely than usual the sensations of life as she “crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.”

When cook urges her to have a cream puff in the kitchen, Laura is carried back to her childhood. Being grown up, she at first refuses. “Oh impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. … All the same, a few minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.”

Into the midst of this joyousness someone comes to the kitchen door with the news that a man in one of the cottages just below had been accidentally killed. A mere accident to everyone but Laura: to her the intrusion of death. “How are we going to stop everything?” she cries. And they are all mildly horrified—at the idea of stopping everything. Laura, talked down, tries to put the death out of her mind. “I'll remember it after the party,” she thinks.

“The perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.” And with the end of the party the death of the poor man intrudes itself again; and her mother, at leisure now, feels some compunction, and to assuage her conscience, or to conciliate Laura, decides to send a basket of food to the stricken family. This idea does not appeal to Laura—this taking the scraps from their house to the poor people. But in the end she carries the basket; and in a kind of daze she is led into the cottage, into the room where the dead man is lying. Death is the solemn terror she thought it would be; but the face of the dead man gives her the feeling of a certain peaceful beauty. When, afterwards, outside, her brother asks her, Was it awful? she sobs: “‘It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie—’ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn't life,’ she stammered, ‘isn't life—’ But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood. ‘Isn't it, darling?’ said Laurie.”

IV

What could be more unpromising than to interpret moods that terminate in such acts as the crushing of a cockroach or the torturing of a fly? Both Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield have used such moments to probe below the surface of consciousness, with the idea of stirring the devils that lie waiting there. It is like poking into a hornet's nest, and finding when you pull out the stick, a swarm of angry hornets buzzing at the end.

A discontented clerk, in Chekhov's “Small Fry,” is spending Easter Eve on extra duty in the office. Nobody is around but the porter in the hall—and a cockroach that wanders in and out of the circle of the lamplight on the table. The Easter bells give him no pleasure. “The din of the bells grew louder and louder. … And the better he could hear the bells and the louder the roar of the carriages, the darker seemed the muddy walls and the smutty cornice and the more the lamp smoked.” There is a sort of gnawing at his heart for a better life, with more color and excitement. He idly canvasses ways and means to get on, finds none feasible, even considers stealing, stares at a letter he has just written in cringing terms to a man whom he hates but who has power to get him a post worth eighteen instead of sixteen roubles; grows more and more disgusted. And he ends by viciously slapping at the cockroach, which had the misfortune to scuttle into the lamp-light again and catch his eye. “The cockroach fell on its back and wriggled its legs in despair. (He) took it by one leg and threw it into the lamp. The lamp flared up and spluttered. And he felt better.”

In The Fly, of Katherine Mansfield, the Boss locks himself in his inner office to think of his son who was killed in the war, and of whom he has just been reminded by a long conversation with a former clerk. It has troubled his sentimental soul to realize that he has almost forgotten his sorrow. He has withdrawn because “he wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. … ‘My son!’ groaned the Boss, but no tears came yet.” This is really the first time that he has been unable to weep when he pressed the button. He tries to work up his emotions by recalling details about his son's life and death. … Then his attention becomes idly centred on a fly which has fallen into his broad ink-pot, and as idly he picks it out and puts it on a blotter. He watches it shake itself laboriously free of the ink. “But just then the Boss had an idea. He plunged his pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting-paper, and as the fly tried its wings, down came a great heavy blot.” Again the fly shakes itself clean, and again comes the blot of ink. He likes its pluck so much that he continues the ordeal. … Finally he leans over the fly and says to it with a kind of tenderness, “You artful little b …” and he has the brilliant notion of breathing on it to help the drying process … the Boss decided that this time should be the last, as he dipped the pen deep into the ink-pot. It was the last. He flung the fly into the waste paper basket. “But such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened. … He fell to wondering what he had been thinking about before. … For the life of him he could not remember.”

Both stories reveal the spiritual aridity of these men whom we have seen in moments of casual cruelty directed by their reveries. But they reveal something more deeply profound and universal—the lower depths filled with monstrously devilish impulses and desires, hatreds, frustrated affections that lie just beneath the surface of socialized consciousness. To realize this, as we must in these stories, gives us spiritual goose-flesh. We stand by horrified, or we escape. It is a terrible business, this stirring of these impulses from their quiescent state to a condition of active frenzy.6

Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield have roused these demons—as in Chekhov's story “Enemies,” where the pressure of life experience at a certain moment drives a man almost to despair—and it is indeed this acute realization of cruelty and of our tragic helplessness under it which makes some readers avoid these writers, or, when they give way to fascinated repulsion, to cry out for mercy.

This story of Chekhov's—“Enemies”—shows you something of the monsters which lie just below the surface and which Poe says had best be suffered to slumber. The only child of Dr. Kirilov has just died of diphtheria. The mother is kneeling at the bedside, her arms flung across the body. The doctor feels a kind of numbness. Everything is suddenly still after the storm has passed. In the wondering expression on the dead child's face, the attitude of the mother, in the quiet, there is the “subtle, elusive beauty of human sorrow, which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey.”

A gentleman in great excitement comes to take the doctor to his wife, in a town eight miles away; a matter of life and death, he insists. The doctor, in his numbness, scarcely comprehends, and when he does, he is bewildered to think that anyone would drag him away from the deathbed of his child. But he goes—still in a stupor of grief. When they arrive at the gentleman's home, the gentleman discovers that his wife has played a trick upon him with feigned illness, and has eloped with another man. He breaks out into passionate, theatrical lamentations, pours out his secrets, relieves his heart, until he is interrupted by the furious words of the doctor who comes out of his numbness to a sense of deep insult. Has he been brought by this well-fed, well-dressed gentleman, from a dead child and a grief-stricken wife, only to play a part in a vulgar farce? He resents the wealth around him, the good looks of the gentleman. “You look on doctors and people who work and don't stink of perfume and prostitution as your menials.”

They fling undeserved insults at each other, in the egoism of unhappiness; words unjust, cruel, absurd. All the way home, the doctor thought not of his wife or child, but of this gentleman and all the wealthy like him, and his thoughts were unjust and inhumanly cruel. He hated and despised all who lived in rosy subdued light among sweet perfumes; and a conviction was born that would outlast his sorrow.

V

Now if this can be done so effectively for isolated single moments of existence, one would suppose that theoretically several such moments could be linked together to form a more extended picture, to give the sense of greater scope. And this is precisely what Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield have done. In the light of this possibility, let us examine Chekhov's “Steppe” and Mansfield's At the Bay.

Of “The Steppe” Chekhov wrote in a letter to Korolenko: “I have attempted to describe the steppe. … Each page turns out a compact whole like a short story, and pictures accumulate, are crowded, and, getting in each other's way spoil the impression as a whole. As a result one gets, not a picture in which all the details are merged into one whole like stars in the heavens, but a mere diagram, a dry record of impressions. … The reader will be bored or curse.”

But many readers are neither bored, nor do they curse. We know a man who lived a part of his youth on the western plains; who drove cattle, who sat about round-up camp fires, who felt the beauty of the plain, the mystery of the night; who, like Yegorusha, lay on his back on a load of bales of wool and looked into the star-strewn sky, saw the heavens miraculously become a dome drawing his gaze to the zenith. And he listened to tales of lewdness and horror which the cowboys told—always of their magnificent and lordly pasts.

He had felt vague desires to express all of this; he had felt it should not be lost—that others might love to share his joy. And it was only when he found that Chekhov had done in “The Steppe” what he had long wished to do, that he realized the true measure of Chekhov's art.

A little boy takes a long trip with the wool wagons from his uncle's farm to the town where he is to go to school. The steppe itself and the people who live there—these are the external phenomena which make possible the lad's adventures of the soul: the impregnation of his youthful spirit with the mystery and beauty and terror of the steppe. Nothing very unusual happens. There is a little fishing, swimming, sunshine, rain, and a violent thunder and lightning storm. And the little Yegorusha gets sick. The sensitive lad is thrown for companionship during the greater part of the journey, with the peasants who drive the wagons. We experience with the boy the new sensations, impressions; share his loneliness when night comes over the steppe; feel the chilly dew on his body; know the unhappiness that brushes his soul. With him we see the stars as he lies on his back calling softly to his mother. For nearly everything along the journey comes to us after being passed through the boy's consciousness.

In the heat of the afternoon the caravan stops along the river and the men go in swimming. Then they fish. At night they fry the fish over the open fire.

The heat has been intense, the day sultry, and a storm has been forming near the horizon. Chekhov gets very moving effects as he describes the menacing storm, and the mood created in the peasant drivers and in Yegorusha: “there was a sense of overwhelming oppression over everyone. It was sultry; they all drank a great deal, but could not quench their thirst. The moon was intensely crimson and sullen, as though it were sick. … All were dreary and spoke listlessly and without interest. Panteley did nothing but sigh and complain of his feet, and continually alluded to impenitent death beds.” He makes us feel the psychic conditions in men which a brooding storm gives rise to—tautened nerves, and ruffled tempers.

This mood is dramatized with great beauty in the handsome peasant bully, Dymov. Over the campfire, in the presence of Yegorusha, he picks a quarrel with Emelyan, another peasant. And the poor little lad suffers. We remember that earlier in the day when they had all been swimming, Dymov, in the exuberance of his energy, ducked Yegorusha. The lad had resented it violently, and had sworn at the peasant. Now, when he sees Dymov treating the weak Emelyan with even greater cruelty, he defies and curses him: “You are the worst of the lot; I can't bear you. … In the next world you will burn in hell! Don't you dare insult Emelyan!” Then he bursts into tears and runs back to the wagons. “Lying on the bales and twitching his arms and legs, he whispered: ‘Mother, mother!’” And then comes one of the most moving moments in the tale, when Dymov climbs up on the wagon, and by way of repentance says softly: “Yera! here, hit me!”

Chekhov has let us see deep into the heart of the lad Yegorusha.

Occasionally Chekhov the adult, who has for the time dissociated himself from Yegorusha, interprets the steppe; and this pushing the boy out of the way is the technical flaw Chekhov himself had in mind perhaps when he wrote to Korolenko. He says, apropos of a feeling of loneliness which comes to us when we look intently at the stars: “One is reminded of the solitude awaiting each one of us in the grave, and the reality of life seems awful … full of despair. …” This is life seen through the mature Chekhov's eyes, not through Yegorusha's. For the most part, though, Chekhov is remembering his own childhood; and makes the identification of himself with Yegorusha—as when he says: “Yegorusha thought of his grandmother, who was sleeping now under the cherrytrees in the cemetery. He remembered how she lay in her coffin with pennies on her eyes, how afterwards she was shut in and let down into the grave; he even recalled the hollow sound of the clods of earth on the coffin lid. … He pictures his granny in the dark and narrow coffin, helpless and deserted by everyone. His imagination pictured his granny suddenly awakening, not understanding where she was, knocking upon the lid and calling for help. …”

Take another variation of this method. In Katherine Mansfield's story, At the Bay, the curtain is lifted, not on several moments in one person's consciousness, but on one or two moments in the consciousness of several people, so that the ensemble of a whole family emerges. It is a will-o'-the-wisp sort of fancy that Miss Mansfield plays over these people, lighting up what Stanley Burnell thinks about his friend and neighbor, Jonathan Stout, who has beat him into the surf for his morning swim; what is going on in Stanley's mind when at the breakfast table he confronts Beryl, his wife's sister, who has forgotten to put the sugar in his tea; how he expects the exclusive attention of everyone in the household until he has located his stick and caught the coach which Beryl has held for him. And then, “Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house.” Then we see what goes on in the minds of Beryl, of the wife Linda, of her mother, of the servant-girl Alice, who, “washing up the dishes in the kitchen, caught the infection and used the precious tank water in a perfectly reckless fashion. ‘Oh, these men!’ said she, and she plunged the teapot into the bowl and held it under the water even after it had stopped bubbling, as if it too was a man and drowning was too good for them.”

Or we dream the morning away with Linda Burnell as she sits in a steamer chair, under a manuka tree on the lawn. We know how she feels about this child bearing business; that she doesn't love her children—not even the infant boy who lies on the ground near her and seems to be saying in answer to her grudging mood: “‘Don't like babies?’ … The boy couldn't believe her. ‘Don't like me?’ He waved his arms foolishly at his mother.” “Linda was so astonished at the confidence of this little creature. … Ah, no, be sincere. That was not what she felt; it was something far different, it was something so new, so. … The tears danced in her eyes; she breathed in a small whisper to the boy, ‘Hello, my funny!’”

Or we go to the beach with Beryl and see her under the charm of Mrs. Harry Kember who puts ideas into her mind that at once attract and repel her. “Beryl felt she was being poisoned by this cold woman, but she longed to hear.”

Or we take a rest in the afternoon with the child Kezia, in her grandmother's room. Her grandmother says that she has been thinking about Uncle William who has died in Australia. “Why did Uncle William have to die? … Does everybody have to die? … Me? … But Grandma, what if I just won't? But, Grandma, you're not to die. You couldn't leave me, you couldn't not be there. Promise me you won't ever do it, Grandma. …” Kezia jumps down, clasps her grandmother, and begins kissing her. “‘Say never, say never,’ she gasped between the kisses.” In a moment death is forgotten in the excitement of the game. But the significant thing is that the idea has come to the child.

Notes

  1. Chekhov is buried in the old cemetery within the walls of a famous monastery on the outskirts of Moscow. The visitor there in August, 1923, found workmen from the nearby factory living with their families in many of the houses occupied before the Revolution by the Sisters. Those Sisters who were left—about two hundred of the pre-revolutionary three hundred—were crowded together in the row of little houses along one of the walls, supporting themselves precariously by filling private orders for embroidery, quilts, and the like. Individualistic industry had replaced the old religious communism of the pre-Soviet era. Chekhov would have savored the irony of that. And no one could have interpreted like Chekhov the lives of some of these women, derelicts of the great upheaval: the meek gate-keeper, who came out to greet us from a little cell-like recess under the great archway, over which some workman had scrawled in chalk—“Death to Mussolini, the bandit!” Or the austere old Sister, a black kerchief tied about her head, peasant fashion, who sat in a tiny vaulted room on a high stool before a lectern, with ikon and lamp above it, absorbed in reading a beautifully illuminated religious book. Or the placid, unworldly Sister, working at a quilting-frame in a quiet spot in the cloisters, close to the cell where she was living as a recluse in solitary communion with God. One longed for the revealing touch of Chekhov's art, to explain these people.

  2. A. Kaun, Freeman, 1 March, 1922.

  3. This peculiarly attractive quality of Chekhov's personality must have been due partly to his own sense of inner freedom. This he had won only at a painful cost. “Write a story,” he says in a letter (Jan. 7, 1889) with a clear reference to himself, “of how … the son of a serf, who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests' hands, to reverence other people's ideas, to be thankful for every morsel of bread, who has been many times whipped, who has trudged from one pupil to another without goloshes, who has been used to fighting, and tormenting animals, who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and man from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance—write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave's blood in his veins but a real man's.”

  4. Robert Littell, New Republic, 28 Feb., 1923.

  5. Whether Katherine Mansfield consciously modelled her technique upon that of Chekhov is unimportant. But we have the word of her husband, J. M. Murray (Dial, February, 1924), that she had a deep instinctive understanding and a passionate love of Chekhov.

  6. Poe, with his morbid, insatiable curiosity, knew as much about this part of the human heart as most people; and if we are to believe him: “There are moments when, even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of a hell; but the imagination of man is no Carathes to explore with impunity its every cavern. All the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful; … they must sleep or they will devour us—they must be suffered to slumber or we perish.”

Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell (essay date 1925)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6990

SOURCE: Brewster, Dorothy and Angus Burrell. “Salvaging the Short Story: Chekhov and Mansfield Continued.” In Dead Reckonings in Fiction, pp. 71–100. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925.

[In the following essay, Brewster and Burrell continue their deliberation on Chekhov’s and Mansfield's short fiction.]

I

Although the stories we have been discussing [see previous essay] are not, according to conventional definition, Short Stories, something does happen in them by way of finality or climax. Yegorusha comes to the end of his journey; Harry Kember tries to seduce Beryl Fairfield. But what of the stories where absolutely nothing comes off?

Some things in life happen as they ought to, and some very much as they ought not to, and others just do not happen at all. Situations call for the gesture of understanding, the act of friendship, the offer of sympathy, the avowal of love. These possibilities are latent, but something prevents their realization. We may be aware of what has slipped past only after it is all over, or we may be acutely aware of it at the moment. External things intrude: the telephone rings, the waiter presents the bill; or internal things inhibit; and we say, “I've got an engagement at six o'clock,” instead of, “I'm in love with you.”

These moments are distressing to reflect upon. We can relieve the strain of non-fulfilment and frustration by vain day-dreams of what might have come off and didn't; or seek the solace of art, whose function it is to round out and fulfil the incomplete.

What possible satisfaction, then, can we derive from being confronted in literature with these moments of frustration, with unfinished symphonies? As a matter of fact, some readers don't derive any. “Analyze your feeling of dissatisfaction at the close,” writes an expert in the Short Story field, of Chekhov's “Verotchka,” assuming as unquestioned that there is dissatisfaction; “the story trails off, it is unfinished.”1 But some people enjoy stories like this, because life has so often appeared to them in that way that they cannot believe in neat endings. Their “credulity has been weakened by intelligence or self-awareness,” as Conrad Aiken says. To be sure, they want escape. But they do not want to escape through being duped—in fact, they cannot escape that way at all. They desire art to confront these moments honestly, and either account for them or give beautiful expression to their peculiar quality; either tell us why they come or what they feel like when they do come. And this second achievement, this finding expression for an undramatic, ill-defined emotion, is perhaps the more difficult of the two.

What is Katherine Mansfield's Psychology? A few moments in the lives of a man and a woman who are in love with each other, and who don't or won't or can't or think it unwise to admit it. The even, placid course of a literary friendship is troubled, and then flows on. But nothing happens. Why didn't they give way to the impulse they both felt? And why is the story sultry and oppressive, like a storm that doesn't break?

Why didn't they speak? There is a vague suggestion that they knew their friendship was in danger, and that it was she who would be destroyed, not he. But the hint is left shadowy and undeveloped. So it is not comprehension of causes that the story offers. “He wanted to murmur, ‘Do you feel this too? Do you understand it all?’ Instead to his horror he heard himself say—‘I must be off; I'm meeting Brand at six.’ What devil made him say that instead of the other? And she instead of saying: ‘You've hurt me, you've hurt me—we've failed,’” hands him his hat and stick and smiles.

The secret drama never comes to the surface. They meet in her studio, as they have done many times, have tea, talk of the novels of the future, have pauses in the conversation—somehow different from other pauses. He leaves, the bell rings, an old spinster calls, gives her a faded bunch of violets, she experiences a release of emotion in her warm greeting of the little old lady, goes back, and begins a note to him about the psychological novel.

How does Miss Mansfield make this story so tense that one is breathless with emotion? By her handling of the silences that fall between these two. Perhaps only music can convey the unspoken emotion, but Miss Mansfield uses imagery that weaves the spell of music. … The man has been speaking of the charm of her studio: “Often when I am away from here I revisit it in spirit—wander about among your red chairs, stare at the bowl of fruit on the black table—and just touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy's head. … I love that little boy,” he murmurs. And then they are both silent. “A new silence came between them. Nothing in the least like the satisfactory pause that had followed their greetings—the ‘Well, here we are together again, and there's no reason why we shouldn't go on from just where we left off last time.’ That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn't they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores. But into this unfamiliar pool the head of the little boy sleeping his timeless sleep dropped—and the ripples flowed away, away,—boundlessly far—into deep glittering darkness.

And then both of them broke it. She said: “I must make up the fire,” and he said: “I have been trying a new. …” Both of them escaped.


But presently it happens again.


They faltered, wavered, broke down, were silent. Again they were conscious of the boundless, questioning dark. Again, there they were, two hunters, bending over their fire, but suddenly hearing from the jungle beyond a shake of wind, and a loud, questioning cry. …


She lifted her head. “It's raining,” she murmured. And her voice was like his when he said: “I love that little boy.”

We understand no better than we do in life why such moments come. But there is exquisite pain in the thrill of recognition.

“Verotchka” presents two moods of Ognev, a young statistician,—just before Vera tells him she loves him, and just after. These moods are saturated with the imagery of the warm, moonlit August night, the garden, the country road, the bridge at the edge of the wood where they stop and where Vera speaks, and Ognev, to his own bewilderment fails to respond. The first feeling is agreeably sentimental, arising out of his leave-taking of the family that has entertained him during his stay in the district. “His heart, warmed by the wine, was brimming over with good-humor, friendliness, and sadness.” As he walks away through the garden, he recalls all the pleasant episodes of his stay, and reflects vaguely on life and the niceness of people and the loveliness of this night with its transparent floating mists. Vera, the daughter of the house, is waiting at the gate to walk a little way with him. She is in the grip of an emotion that Ognev, absorbed in his comfortable mood, fails to notice, until to his amazement he finds himself listening to her declaration of love. “The sad warm sentimental mood induced by leave-taking and the home-made wine, suddenly vanished and gave place to an acute and unpleasant feeling of awkwardness.” Vera was enchantingly beautiful; all that she said, half-laughing, half-crying, had music and passion. “Rebellious feeling whispered to him that all he was hearing and seeing now, from the point of view of nature and personal happiness, was more important than any statistics and books and truth. … ‘My God, there's so much life, poetry, and meaning in it that it would move a stone, and I … I am stupid and absurd.’” When Vera suddenly understands, and goes away abruptly, he feels miserably that he has lost something very precious, that he has crossed a shadow-line, leaving certain possibilities irrevocably behind him. But why, he wonders, couldn't he respond as he wanted to? And in a flash of sharp self-realization, he is aware of his impotence of soul, his incapacity to be moved by beauty, his premature old age, brought on by his education in “facts,” his casual existence, his struggle for a livelihood, his homeless life in lodgings.

We are left with the clear impression of these two revealing moods; with a lovely sense—gained wholly through Ognev's perception—of Vera's pure passion and courage; and with the same wonder that Ognev feels about this thing that should have happened and didn't. His self-analysis offers at least a small measure of comprehension. But it may be that, as Chekhov says, “there is no making out anything in this world,” and the mystery of temperaments is left unsolved.

II

Dissatisfaction with a story like “Verotchka” may result from a critical preference for certain established forms. And if one insists on these forms, one can find satisfaction in the stories of Chekhov and Mansfield where things do “come off,”—things like the strangling of the baby in Chekhov's “Sleepy-head.” And of his “Grasshopper,” Dr. Williams says, “As to plot … one of the most carefully wrought pieces of narrative in the collection, “The Kiss.” When these writers set their hands to it, they can do the plot thriller. They employ the technical devices of suspense, complication, just about as often, perhaps, as life employs them.

In Katherine Mansfield's Pictures, we have Ada Moss, ex-contralto, with her struggle looming large in the first paragraph. If she doesn't secure a job in the movies today, she cannot pay her insistent landlady, and she will be on the street. The struggle might be staged as Virtue versus Bread. There is suspense, and rather grim humor, in the narrative of Ada Moss's job-hunting journey from A, through incidents B, C, D, E, to the dénouement at Z. The moment the heroine walks into the restaurant with the conscious purpose of spending her last sixpence for coffee, and the subconscious hope of picking up a man, the struggle is ended. And ordinarily Miss Mansfield would have stopped here, leaving us to divine any conclusion we like.

But a Short Story should have not only struggle, but complication, and a snappy ending. How can we have complication without two lines (or more) crossing? And here we have the lines. One is that of Ada Moss, of course; and the complication occurs when it crosses that of “a very stout gentleman wearing a very small hat that floated on the top of his head like a little yacht …” and we have reached Z when Ada “sailed after the little yacht out of the café.”

Though Pictures fits so neatly into the formula, it is a good story; not so excellent technically as it might have been, had we earlier been made aware of the line that is to complicate.

This excellence is found in Bliss, the story of Bertha Young, who, at the instant of her realization that she is in love with her husband as never before, discovers that he loves another woman. Viewing the story from the angle of the conventionalized formula, we trace the crossing and recrossing of the three lines of action and feeling—those of Bertha, of her husband, and of Pearl Fulton. The apparent indifference of the husband to the woman who has so strangely attracted his wife gives to the revelation at the end the force of a shock.

Most stories would begin where Bliss ends—with Bertha's glimpse of Pearl Fulton in her husband's arms—and then proceed through complication and suspense to a solution of the triangular problem. But in Bliss it isn't this obvious problem that is solved, or that we care to have solved. What excites our curiosity and demands a solution is the unexplained mood of bliss in which we find Bertha when the scene opens. The first sentence sounds the mood of bliss, which deepens, extends and mounts. It moves relentlessly, colored by a quality of joyousness, tinged increasingly with excitement, lifting itself up in Bertha's heart to a mystical ecstasy. Something outside the story, something the reader brings to it—the common experience of distrusting such an unusually happy mood—intervenes, and we carry over as we watch Bertha's emotion, a slight doubt. The psychological interaction of story and reader creates a suspense which rushes us onward to the end. When this mood of bliss is dissipated, and Bertha's emotion is frozen into an unearthly silence, we experience a shock that leaves us stunned and breathless. This climax is a solution. Who cares what they do afterwards, whether they were all happy or unhappy?

Bliss is a very great story in the way it deals with the elusive relations among these people. There is such subtlety that a mid-Victorian can read quite unaware of the deeps of sexuality across which he has sailed. Certainly Katherine Mansfield has here divined one of the most nicely sophisticated moods of the human heart. Bertha dimly attributes her happiness to her newly formed friendship with the wonderful Pearl Fulton who is coming that night with others to dine. The author meant us to believe that it is this friendship which makes a light of spiritual ecstasy to shine in Bertha. In its radiance her home takes on new colors, her love for her baby is more acutely felt, her dinner guests are more delightfully odd, she is more drawn to her husband. Everything about her is incredibly lovely—the blue bowl of fruit, the jade color of the evening sky, and the flowering pear tree in the garden.

After dinner that night she is quiet, but quivering with joyousness. She waits for Pearl Fulton to give a sign. A sign of what? That they understand, without naming it, this friendship which has so suddenly, so miraculously sprung into life. “At that moment Miss Fulton ‘gave the sign.’ ‘Have you a garden?’ said the cool, sleepy voice.” Bertha is so excited she can only obey. She pulls the curtains aside and points to the tree in the garden.

And the women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed—almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.


How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

Because Bertha is thrilled with the strange emotion, she does the most natural thing in the world—she gropes for an outlet. To whom should she turn except to her husband? “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.” And she remembers their intimate life. She had been cold; that had troubled her at first. But he too had been different. They had talked it over with great frankness; they had been such good pals. “But now—ardently! Ardently! The word ached in her ardent body! Was this what that feeling of bliss had been leading up to? But then then. …”

We feel like exclaiming “Then, what?” But we immediately know what the flashing thought was; and feel how it must rock Bertha's heart. … Pearl Fulton was not cold. … What outlet was Pearl seeking? She too knew this feeling of bliss. Bertha's questions are answered when a few minutes later she sees Pearl Fulton in her husband's arms.

In the end, about all there is to say of this story is that a dissonant, climactic chord is struck, with overtones making analysis as baffling as life itself. But with this difference: in life such a situation might pass under the nose of nearly anybody without any realization of its intricacy. Katherine Mansfield develops one's capacity for bewilderment.

III

Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield offer a new literary form. They outrage the sanctities of the Short Story by rarely having either plot or climax. Kuprin records an interesting remark of Chekhov's on technique: “When one has written a story I believe that one ought to strike out both the beginning and the end. That is where we novelists are most inclined to lie.” The very incompleteness of the form is to many readers a certificate that psychological justice is being done. For it has been the experience of not a few intelligent people devoted to Kipling, Maupassant, Stevenson, that, after reading them and subsequently thousands of stories patterned less skilfully upon them, the manner became more obvious than the matter. “For years I haven't read short stories. I know just what to expect in them. They're all the same.” These discontented readers feel duped; for they see how often formulated fiction distorts psychology to fit a mould. As soon as the story is concluded, the characters cease to exist. They go out like moving pictures.

Now this kind of thing is all right for those who like it; there is a demand and a place for it in modern life. To many people—casual subway readers—it furnishes amusement, escape, solution perhaps. We quarrel with it only when it is held up to us as the image the mirror reflects when flashed on the human spectacle.

Mr. Canby, writing in the New York Evening Post, comments: “A few years ago it was boasted that here more than in any other country in the world the technique of the short story had approached nearest to perfection.” And he observes with approval that “if that was at all true at the time, this ‘mastery of technique’ seems to us lately to have slipped a number of cogs.” “That is why,” he adds, “we bless the memory of the late Katherine Mansfield. At the lowest possible estimate she lifted the contemporary short story again to a certain dignity—to a dignity the modern magazine editor tacitly disallows—to a dignity to which the short story as an artistic medium is certainly entitled.”

Mastery of formula has been too often interpreted as “mastery of technique.” The formula is useful in helping a poor workman to a market; it supports him with an external scaffolding of rules; it hides his ignorance of life, his blurred observations; it encourages him to provide for much action concentrated in a short space of time—action concluding with an inevitable optimistic ending,—like life.2 In the work of Chekhov and Mansfield, there is no structure for its own sake. By their pioneering a taste has been stimulated; and writers who have long felt dissatisfaction with the kind of tale they were forced to write (if they wanted to sell) have a better chance to secure a hearing. We can gather quite a formidable body of this new literary material, where, of much deeper import than plot, are true observation, skilful selection, and accurate recording of human behavior; where a few moments are given us, and “from these brilliantly spot-lit points the whole life of the characters before and after spreads in the reader's imagination like ink on blotting-paper.”3

IV

The writer who goes in for this kind of story, who desires to stand without the prop of Short Story formula, needs to possess exquisite intuition. For it is not any moment that reveals the subtlety of a human being; it is only this moment or that of deep significance. Such moments are chosen in these excellent stories in a way which almost defies analysis. To choose the moments which are trivial is only too simple.

If the choice of the moment were all, there wouldn't be the art we find in Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov. There is something quite as necessary as psychological insight, namely, a sound esthetic equipment. And these writers have it. They move through a story gathering mood unto mood, until they end with a cluster that is exactly right. One of the means to this quietly spectacular result is the amazing use of imagery. There is a richness, an economy in their phrases which is not only a reconstitution of the external world, but a spiritual interpretation of the mood induced in man. These images meet not merely the eye of the sense but the eye of the soul as well; they are magical touches suggesting relation with another world.

An artist seeking to fix a likeness on canvas or in clay, or to catch the spirit of a landscape, watches for the moment when something in the human being and something in the surroundings leap forth to meet each other and in a flash reveal the peculiar inner quality of person or external world. The artist may have looked at the landscape again and again, yet its spirit has eluded him. Then one day a bent figure crosses the field, and the flash comes. Or he may have studied a woman in all sorts of conditions and against many backgrounds, without penetrating the secret of personality; until some stormy day on the beach a greenish light in her eyes and the greenish-black of the waves flash a message to each other, and the human being springs to life—to a new one for the artist. Thomas Hardy was aware of the brooding, sinister spirit of Egdon Heath, its watchful intentness, when at dusk the reddleman and his van, splashed with crimson, crossed its expanse.

The distinguishing mark of such moments of insight is the reciprocal relation of the inner and outer—a kind of chemico-mystical synthesis. Chekhov and Mansfield must have caught these flashes. Always in their most illuminating revelations of people is this association of subject and object. What would Psychology be without that room? Bliss without the sky of jade and the pear tree? Yona without the snowy streets, cab and little mare? Ma Parker without the sink and the sardine tails? “Easter Eve” without the ferry, the bonfires, the bells?

These are not just effective settings, nor are they merely the pattern which results from weaving sense impressions into the texture of thought. They are the integration of subject and object.

V

It may be that certain temperaments find a special satisfaction in all of this. We have made fun of classification into fixed psychological types. But very broadly speaking, there are two kinds of people: those who, in action and in feeling, respond easily and promptly to whatever the reality may be in their environments, who in a sense dominate that reality; and those who shrink from the world outside them, who flee into themselves, and adjust with difficulty and delay to the outer reality. A cross-section of any individual. of course, would show characteristics of both types, with one predominating.

Now those people who tend to withdraw into themselves derive more pleasure from the stories of Chekhov and Mansfield than people of more objective temperament, who frankly see very little in them. To the subjective reader they mean much. They plunge him into the familiar stream of his reveries; but through their concrete imagery they keep him in touch with the world of sense. They may lead him for the time being more deeply, by identification, into the morass of isolation; but because the characters are like himself, he is drawn out of his own loneliness by sympathy. And if these characters—as sometimes happens—make a satisfactory adjustment to their reality, he is encouraged in his own efforts to reconcile the inner world of fantasy which he prefers, with the outer world of obstacles.

By contrast, the fiction of outer action and movement—even if it is as expert as O. Henry's or Kipling's—is plausible to him only while he reads. He does not find his own world there, save in the standardized patterns of feeling which he scorns. It gives him nothing but a temporary escape; the other kind of fiction points him towards a solution.

One of the most frequent and painful experiences of all subjective natures is that of loneliness; they feel alien to the world and the people about them.4 It is amazing, when one thinks over the characters in Chekhov's and Mansfield's stories, to note how many of them realize for us this sense of isolation. Ma Parker, the charwoman; Yona, the “cabby”; Laura, the sheltered, indulged young girl; the “man without a temperament”; the dying bishop; the busy lawyer; the little shoemaker's apprentice; the old professor: the list suggests the range of people. They are not all deeply introspective by nature; perhaps life has forced them to turn in upon themselves for the first time, or for only a brief space. Their emotion appeals to us in subtly varied forms. Like Ma Parker, we have wanted to weep over cumulative miseries and could find no place to go; to tell someone of our peculiar grief, and no one would listen. We have been set apart in our eminence, like the Bishop; or in our perception of some social iniquity, like the student in Chekhov's “Fit.” We have sought for some link of understanding with a person dear to us, and have felt only a dull sense of impotence, or achieved a momentary or accidental success that leaves us more bewildered than before.

Chekhov's old professor (“A Dreary Story”), daily drawing away from his family, his friends and his work into a spiritual remoteness, feels this strange alienation most when the young woman who has been nearest to him appeals desperately for his help and understanding in some obscure crisis of her life; and he can say nothing but, “I don't know, what am I to do? Let us have lunch.” And he is utterly at a loss and confused, touched by her sobs, quite unable to reach across to her, dully conscious all the time that he is near his death, that he will never see her again.

The professor is hopelessly shut in. But little Vanka, the shoemaker's boy, is just going through the agonizing loneliness of homesickness, which will wear off in time. One Christmas Eve, while master and mistress and workman are at the service, he writes a letter to his grandfather. His composition is broken throughout by his reveries. He sees his grandfather—nimble and lively, with an everlastingly laughing face and drunken eyes, and the two dogs that follow him on his rounds as night watchman. He awakes from his memories of the village to the reality of his hard life, beatings, teasing, overwork, rocking the shoemaker's wretched brat, and he writes: “Take me away. I will powder your snuff for you, I will pray for you, and if I do anything you can thrash me like Sidor's goat.” Then, childlike, he tells his grandfather all about Moscow, the things in the shops, breaking off to ask him to get a gilt walnut for him from the Christmas tree at the big house. Staring out of the window, he remembers how he always went with his grandfather into the forest for the tree, and before chopping it down the old man would smoke a pipe, slowly take a pinch of snuff, and laugh at frozen Vanka. He sees the fir tree, the hoar frost, and the hare flying like an arrow over the snow drift. It is as if Chekhov had thrown a pebble into Vanka's consciousness and the ripples were spreading. The letter grows more incoherent: “Do come, dear grandfather. … For Christ's sake, I beg you, take me away. … My life is wretched, worse than a dog's. I send greetings to Alyona, one-eyed Yegorka, and the coachman, and don't give my concertina to anyone.” He addresses the letter to “Grandfather in the Village,” drops it in the postbox, and falls asleep dreaming of grandfather on the stove, swinging his bare legs, reading the letter to the cooks.

The cruel isolation that results from the feeling of being shut out from the group is portrayed in Katherine Mansfield's The Doll's House. The two little Kelveys grotesquely dressed, daughters of a washerwoman and a jailbird, shunned and snubbed by all the respectable children in the school, have no share in all the excitement over the Burnell children's doll's house—that wonderful house, with its plush furniture, its stove and tiny plates, and the irresistible little lamp on the dining-room table. Everybody has been taken to see it but them. One of the little Burnells, following a sudden impulse, and disobeying the strictest commands, invites them into the back yard to see the wonder: “like two little stray cats they followed across the courtyard.” Scarcely time for a look before Aunt Beryl, furious, rushes out to scold her niece and shoo the little Kelveys away like chickens. “Burning with shame, shrinking together, Lil huddling along like her mother, our Else dazed, somehow they crossed the big courtyard and squeezed through the white gate.” But the strange little Else, the tiny wishbone of a child, with cropped hair and enormous solemn eyes, who never smiled, who went through life holding on to Lil—Else nudged up close to her sister, and smiled her rare smile—“I seen the little lamp,” she said softly.

And there is the monk Ieronim in Chekhov's “Easter Eve,” the ferryman plying back and forth over the dark river all night long, grieving for the dead friend who composed the beautiful hymns of praise, which no one in the monastery appreciated but Ieronim. The great bell rings, there are bonfires at the river's edge, a rocket zigzags in a golden ribbon up the sky, people are restless and happy. “They'll begin singing the Easter hymn directly,” said Ieronim, “and Nikolay is gone; there is no one to appreciate it. … There was nothing written dearer to him than that hymn. … You know, in our monastery, they are all good people, kind and pious, but … there is no one with softness and refinement. … They all speak loudly and tramp heavily when they walk; they are noisy, they clear their throats, but Nikolay always talked softly, caressingly, and if he noticed that anyone was asleep or praying he would slip by like a fly or a gnat. His face was tender, compassionate. …”

Ieronim found someone to listen to him, at least, as he ferried his passenger over to the monastery. Yona in Chekhov's “Grief” was less fortunate. This peasant cabby, picking up fares on a snowy night in the city streets, grieving over the death of his son back in the village, tries to tell his customers, one after another, of the terrible thing that has happened to him. They break in on his halting words with impatient commands to drive faster, to look where he is going. No one even in the tavern will listen. So he goes out to the stable, and while his little mare munches her hay, he pours out his story: “Now suppose you had a little colt. … And all at once that same little colt went and died. … You'd be sorry, wouldn't you?”5

The reader of fiction, wondering how the writer chooses his material, understands readily enough that a romantic sailor, elaborately tattooed, whom one sees in a foreign port, is not unworthy of a Conrad tale. Or in front of a theatre, a grotesque old lady in antiquated clothes, lace and tattered red roses on her hat, cheeks and lips painted, who asks us through toothless gums, with a ghost of a solicitous smile, to buy a package of chewing-gum—O. Henry, he thinks, could do her perfectly. But he feels more surprise when a writer chooses a drab, colorless charwoman. He has seen a Ma Parker a hundred times, but never as a subject for a story.6

We have all known a Ma Parker. Some of us indeed had believed that she had a history. If we had seen her on the street, in the wind, we might have been touched momentarily to think that she must have had a hard life. This hard life Katherine Mansfield presents. Ma Parker goes on with her work at the literary gentleman's flat, and the story of her life at home goes on within her mind, as she washes dishes, scrubs, and makes the bed. Ma's little grandson has just been buried. The literary gentleman thinks that “she does look dashed, poor old bird,” and so in the effort to be consoling, he hopes the funeral went off well—“these people set so much store by funerals.” But Ma Parker scarcely heeds him. This last blow has made very present to her the sordid and pitiful facts of her long hard life:—her first place in London, where the cook was cruel to her; her marriage to a baker—that, thought the literary gentleman, must be a pleasant sort of job, handling the fresh loaves and all. But she had been too busy with the ghastly misfortunes of child-bearing and child-burying to enjoy the fresh loaves. She lives again through the long illness of her husband, who had “flour on the lungs”; her son's going off to India. “Then young Maudie went wrong and took her sister Alice with her.” Ethel married a good-for-nothing little waiter who died of ulcers the year Lennie was born. And now little Lennie! … Intimate memories of Lennie keep coming up into Ma Parker's mind—so vivid that she feels his arms around her neck, hears him begging his “gran” for pennies, watches him suffer in his last fever. She can no longer bear it. She had never broken down—no one had ever seen Ma Parker cry. But now with overwhelming force the consciousness of her long hard life bears in upon her. In a daze she puts on her battered hat and in a daze walks out of the flat. She must give way to it somehow. She couldn't go home—it would frighten Ethel to see Ma break down. She couldn't cry on a bench—she might be arrested. “Wasn't there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out—at last? Ma Parker stood looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere.”

This consciousness of isolation is not always deeply melancholy. In Chekhov's “Home,” a lawyer, a widower, tries to make his delicate seven-year-old son realize the iniquities he has been guilty of. The governess tells him that the little boy has been smoking and must be reprimanded. After dinner, in his study, the father takes the child on his knee to talk to him, make him aware how bad it is for him to smoke, how wrong to take other people's tobacco. In words of one syllable he talks about the laws of property. Seryozha should not take what belongs to his father; his father doesn't take Seryozha's things. “Perhaps I'd really like to take your toy dogs and pictures, but I don't—for they are not mine, but yours.” “Take them if you like,” exclaims Seryozha, “please don't hesitate, papa, take them! That yellow dog on your table is mine, but I don't mind.” The child's attention keeps straying to some object on the table, or some little happening of the day, or he catches just enough of his father's talk to awaken his own reveries, into which his father cannot follow him. And the father strays off into reveries, too—fragments of ethics or philosophy. To reach the child, he reflects, one must be able to think as he does, to feel with him. Seryozha plays with his father's beard, talking half to himself. “He felt the child's breathing on his face, he was continually touching his hair with his cheek, and there was a soft warm feeling in his soul, as soft as though not only his hands but his whole soul were lying on the velvet of Seryozha's jacket.”

Absurd that an experienced advocate should be at a loss with his own son! At last, after exacting from the child his word of honor not to smoke—and he gives it readily, with clearly no sense of its meaning—the lawyer abandons his efforts. Seryozha demands a story, and the father improvises what seems to him an incredibly naïve fairy tale about an old tsar whose only son died from too much smoking. Seryozha is touched at the desolation of the old tsar; “his eyes were clouded by mournfulness and something like fear; for a minute he looked pensively at the dark window, shuddered, and said, in a sinking voice: ‘I am not going to smoke any more.’” And he goes to bed leaving his father completely bewildered at the process by which this happy result was wrought.

VI

For the reader in his lonely moods, these realizations of the moments of isolation have the effect, paradoxically, of breaking down the spiritual barriers separating him from his fellows. Since some of the pain of such moments lies in inarticulateness, there is profound satisfaction in having them made beautifully articulate.

But what of the artist? What of Chekhov? Did he feel isolated? One gathers that like all artists he often did, in spite of the richness of his contacts with people. His letters frequently reveal it. But he found his solution by accepting such moments, giving them adequate and varied expression, thus releasing himself from the burden and the pain. And he was happy in that he was permitted to express himself freely. The Russian public did not say to him: Go on writing merry stories with a Maupassant “kick.” (He began that way.) They did not do what the American public did to Mark Twain, continue to demand humor from him.

It may seem strange to link the names of Mark Twain and Anton Chekhov. Yet they were alike in their spiritual outlook on the essential tragedy of man's loneliness. One saw life through the lens of exaggerated humor, the other through the lens of a tranquil realism. Under more propitious conditions Mark Twain might have been as great an artist as Chekhov. One wonders sometimes if Mark Twain's thwarted literary ambitions did not drive deep into his soul, dissociating his personality—towards a flaring up into wild humor, or towards a smouldering, with an occasional hysterical leap into the realm of really tragic pessimism. If he had been encouraged—or even permitted—to deal with his tragic moods in literature, it might have been his salvation. Something in the American scene, something in the personal influences at work upon him—as traced suggestively by Van Wyck Brooks—prevented his natural artistic development.

There is a significant story of Mark Twain—an incident offered on the passing breath of literary gossip. A young woman dining with the Clemens', when they lived in lower Fifth Avenue, remembers: “He was unusually exhilarated at dinner, extraordinarily humorous. He would take a little food, get up and walk back and forth in the dining-room, joking with the guests. Everyone caught the mood. On the surface it was an ideally happy party. … Shortly after dinner Mr. Clemens went upstairs to billiards, and after that he began to sing negro spirituals. He sang them with poignancy. When I went in later to bid him good-night, he said: ‘Did you hear me singing?’ ‘Yes. I thought you sounded lonely.’ He turned to me with a strange eagerness: ‘I'm as lonely as God.’”

Notes

  1. Blanche Colton Williams: Handbook of the Short Story, p. 118.

  2. “Films often show life as it is, but never with vice triumphant.” Will H. Hays, quoted in The New Republic, 20 Feb., 1924.

  3. “Adventure,” says the printed slip sent to contributors, “wants stories of action, told simply and clearly. Humor, tragedy, and pathos are acceptable, but not stories that are morbid, or that leave the reader uncomfortable.”—Raymond Mortimer, in The Dial, May, 1922.

  4. Dr. Hinkle (Re-Creating of the Individual, p. 262) characterizes the emotional introvert by “his feeling of separation, of being alien, and the internal ego-consciousness, together with his deep sense of loneliness and isolation.”

  5. Gorki (My University Days) refers to this story when he tells of his grandmother's death, and how he longed to tell someone about her, and how kind and clever she was: “I carried about that desperate longing with me for a long time—but there was no one to confide in and so it burned out, unsaid. I recalled those days many years after, when I read the wonderfully true story of A. P. Chekhov, about the coachman who spoke to his horse of his son's death. And I bitterly regretted that in those days of sharp misery I had neither a dog nor a horse at my side and that I did not think of sharing my grief with the rats.”

  6. We wish to call attention to this Sonnet, Susie, by Ann Hamilton, from The Nation of 7 Dec., 21.

    Down by the river-front, beside the docks,
    Susie scrubs in a quick lunch bummer's hole,
    She steals the money from the cashier's box,
    Being too ugly now to steal his soul.
    Susie's a used-up whisky-dyed old shoddy—
    Once she drew encores in the cabarets
    And sculptors sought her for her lovely body,
    So she did posing on her vacant days.
    Now when she shuffles past the wharves to work
    The sailors when they see her turn away
    And some make jokes at her Saint Vitus jerk
    And others give her nickels from their pay.
    Yet there's a bronze nymph in a museum room
    That Susie posed for when she was in bloom.
    

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

Bruford, W. H. “The Stories of Chekhov's Maturity.” In Discussions of The Short Story, edited by Hollis Summers, pp. 71–9. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1963.

Originally published in 1957, comments on Chekhov's later, mature stories and examines the narrative shape and artistic economy found therein.

Burnham, David. “Spokesman for the Central Importance of the Human Spirit.” Commonweal 60, no. 12 (25 June 1954): 300.

Describes Chekhov as a great influence on the theatre and short fiction genre.

Farrelly, John. “Worth Reprinting.” New Republic 117, no. 24 (15 December 1947): 28.

Reviews a new collection of Chekhov stories, plays, and letters: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky.

O'Faolain, Sean. “Anton Chekov or The Persistent Moralist.” In The Short Story, pp. 76–105. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1951.

Views Chekhov's writing as a strong affirmation of the freedom of man and examines his stance against the moral and social chaos of nineteenth century Russian culture.

Slonim, Marc. “Lyrics and Satire Out Russia.” Saturday Review 37, no. 24 (12 June 1954): 16.

Reviews The Unknown Chekhov, which highlights some of Chekhov's early and ignored tales.

Stern, James. “Compassion Everywhere.” New York Times LIX, no. 16 (18 April 1954): 5.

Reviews The Unknown Chekhov, which contains writings that had not before been translated into English.

Struve, Gleb. “On Chekhov's Craftsmanship: The Anatomy of a Story.” In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Background, Criticism, edited by Ralph E. Matalaw, pp. 328–35. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Originally published in 1961, comments on Chekhov's story “Sleepy” in connection with the author's interest in the physiology of dreams.

Additional coverage of Chekhov's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 124; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 9; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 10, 12; European Writers; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Reference Guide to World Literature; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 13; Something About the Author, Vol. 90; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 10, 31, 55, 96; and World Literature Criticism.

Renato Poggioli (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: Poggioli, Renato. “Storytelling in a Double Key.” In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Background, Criticism, edited by Ralph E. Matalaw, pp. 307–28. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Poggioli comments upon Chekhov's early stories and their relative importance in anticipating the author's later, more accomplished short fiction.]

I. A CRITIQUE OF SIX CHEKHOV TALES

Chekhov's early stories are of some interest to the critic only inasmuch as they anticipate the accomplished master, destined to mature a few years later. Otherwise, their importance is slight, although it would be wrong to despise pieces that are still able to amuse and intrigue the reader. They were written in the early eighties, or about seventy years ago; and it is rare for any kind of writing, especially at the popular level, to survive with any effectiveness for such a long interval. This is even truer when one considers that the writing in question was never taken too seriously by the author himself. Both the critic and the reader should never forget that the young Chekhov wrote to entertain, and to add a little to his own income in the bargain.

The periodicals for which Chekhov wrote his early tales wanted to give their public cheap and easy laughter, rather than rare and thoughtful humor, and Chekhov the budding writer readily complied with his editors' demands. He did so without indulging in vulgarity or coarseness; yet at that stage of his career he dealt only with stock situations, to which he gave, half spontaneously and half mechanically, stock responses. In brief, what distinguishes Chekhov's literary beginnings from his mature work is their relative lack of quality—the banality of the stuff, the uncouthness of the style, and the conventionality of the outlook. The ideal of the early Chekhov is the commonplace; the muse of his youth is the muse of commonness. Yet shortly afterwards he was able to grow into a genuine and original writer, and to raise his own inspiration, even within an odd and comical framework, to a level of “high seriousness.” Many critics and readers have seen in Chekhov the dramatist a more accomplished artist than in Chekhov the storyteller, and, even without sharing such an opinion, one can easily acknowledge the great merits of the dramas he wrote at the end of his life. Yet one must also remember that the artist who ended his career with plays such as Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard had started his apprenticeship as a man of the theater by composing the one act play The Boor, which is mere vaudeville. His early stories and sketches may be likewise considered as miniature farces in narrative form, and they differ in value from the tales of his mature period as much as The Boor differs from the controlled and profound dramas of his late years.

Strangely enough, the vaudeville element was fated to disappear completely from the work of Chekhov the playwright, while remaining a lasting, or at least a recurring, ingredient in his narrative work. It is true that even there the vaudeville element reappears only as an initial presupposition, to be finally discarded or forgotten. This suggests an analogy between his growth as a man and his progress as an artist, as well as between the unconscious workings of his own imagination and his conscious artistic method or creative process. Some of his best tales seem to reproduce in parvo the pattern of his career: each one of them ends by changing what at first looks like an unpromising seed into a bitter, and yet ripe, fruit.

Thus, according to the norm of the art and the life of this master, Chekhov's short stories often open in a low key only to close on a higher one. These pages will put this general feature to a detailed test, consisting of a close analysis of some characteristic products of Chekhov's storytelling craft. The examples will be chosen from stories written between the middle and the late eighties, in the transitional period between the writer's youthful apprenticeship and his mature mastery. The closing section will deal, however, with a piece written at the end of the following decade, when Chekhov reached the zenith of his powers and the sunset of his life.

During this transitional period, the new Chekhov slowly unfolds, like a larva, from the old one. This can be seen early in the case of “Vanka” (1886), a story which develops the all too obvious comic theme of the peasant's letter: a theme which will appear again, with varied effects, in the fiction of this master (see, for instance, “The Letter,” 1887, and “At Christmas Time,” 1900). The story at first gives the impression of having been written only to exploit all the fun implied in that situation, as shown by Chekhov's use of the rather worn-out motif of the letter mailed with an address understandable to the sender and perhaps to the addressee, but meaningless to the postmaster. As is to be expected, the greater part of the story is taken by the letter itself, which is supposed to amuse the reader by revealing the ignorance and the naïveté of the writer, and to reach its funny climax at the end, when its full and yet incomplete address, “To Grandfather in the Village,” is finally reported.

The usual pattern, however, is completely transformed by the presence of a few very simple, and yet new, elements. First of all, the ignorant letter writer is not an adult, but the child Vanka, who has been apprenticed to a shoemaker in Moscow. In the second place, the letter is not merely a commonplace communication, with the customary inquiries about the health of the correspondent, or with the conventional season's greetings (the message is penned at Christmas time). The letter is far more than this, since it conveys all the anguish and agony of a lonely orphan in the big city, who wants to be rescued from an alien and cruel world, and begs his grandfather to take him back to the country. Furthermore, by punctuating the letter with the intermittent flashbacks of the boy's recollections, full of vain longings for a better and irrevocable past, Chekhov reveals in even starker outline the present plight of the letter writer, and all the misery filling his childish heart.

This undercurrent of pathos gives the story a moral dimension incommensurate with the central anecdote, and destroys it as such. The story operates against those comic traits which are its very roots. The effect is achieved by what could be paradoxically defined as a kind of pathetic relief. Thus, when ultimately submitted, the absurd address no longer amuses us. In a sense, the punch line falls flat; in another, it becomes far too sharp. Instead of provoking a smile on our lips, it stirs a pang in our hearts. The words on the envelope, “To Grandfather in the Village,” fail to sound funny as soon as we realize that they will prevent the letter from reaching its destination, thus making all Vanka's efforts futile, and his sorrow fruitless. This example may suffice to prove that Chekhov achieves his creative intent through the technique of a sentimental counterpoint: more precisely, by attuning to each other a few discordant, and even dissonant, strings.

The same contrapuntal technique operates in a story like “Polinka” (1887), where it achieves an effect of suggestive charm, of poetic irony. Polinka, a girl still in her teens, is shopping in a bazaar, and is being served by her favorite salesman, who is also one of her boy friends. During their long and complex business transaction, which is highly comical, since it deals with ladies' things, incongruous for seller and buyer alike, she confesses to the salesman-suitor that she is in love with a student, and asks for his help and advice. This part of their conversation is softspoken, while their more practical exchanges about clothing materials and notions are made aloud. As for the orders passed by the salesman to other sections of the shop, they are shouted at the top of his voice.

The salesman tries to talk Polinka out of her infatuation, but his lower social position, his feeling of awe before the rich young customer, the sense of his own inferiority before an unknown and more glamorous rival, force him to become resigned to the inevitable. All the complexities and perplexities of the young man's mind are made evident by the exaggerated respect he shows to such a young thing as Polinka, whom he addresses very formally as Pelagheya Sergeevna, as well as by his lack of experience, which makes him take her calf love far more seriously than she does herself. His pain is too real for him to realize that Polinka is playing with joyful fun the role of an accomplished lady, in the grand manner of her shopping, as well as in the small talk about the troubles of her heart.

Here the sentimental counterpoint becomes musical as well, by alternating the running sotto voce of the private talk, and the resounding staccato of the public one. The whole effect of the story derives from the amusing contrast between the sentimental nonsense of the intimate conversation, and the objective, official character of the questions and answers concerning laces and trimmings, buttons and beads. Yet all these solid things become vain trifles when compared to the unsubstantial feelings now agitating their souls, which, however, never meet. The counter is at the same time a bridge and a fence, making for both separation and contact; and as such it symbolizes Chekhov's great theme, which is the failure of communication between human beings, even when they are as close and as friendly as these two. In this case the failure of communication is not due to an external accident, as in “Vanka,” where the letter will never reach its destination merely because of a wrong address; but it proceeds from human nature, and is rooted in the inner substance of life itself. Human relations are often based on a misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding is the more tragic when it is neither reciprocal, nor caused by either party's ill will. The young salesman sees the woman in his customer, but Polinka does not see the man in the youth serving her. In itself the contrast is rather comic; its kernel, as usual, is a mere qui pro quo. Yet the final effect is one of pathetic irony, precisely because what is happening is far more, and far less, than a business transaction, than an exchange of money and goods. This is what Chekhov has been able to do with a story which perhaps was initially written only to exploit the ridiculous situation of the man serving women in a notion shop.

Among the tales of this period, there are two that stand out: “The Chorus Girl” and “A Gentleman Friend,” both written in 1886. Each one describes a petty and yet painful incident, a “vile tale,” to use the term which Dostoevski's fiction offers us ready-made. The protagonists are two prostitutes, both playing a victim's role, and seeing in the incident affecting them an outrageous symbol of their wretched lot. The author, as well as the reader, is aware of the pathetic significance of the grotesque events on which these pieces are centered. Each one of these two “vile tales” becomes what James Joyce would have called an “epiphany,” although a negative one, since it reveals not the noble meaning, but the cruel nonsense of life.

In the first of these two tales, the “chorus girl” Pasha is entertaining her current friend, who is a married gentleman, when someone suddenly rings the bell. The gentleman withdraws into the room nearby. The visitor is a lady, the gentleman's wife. She starts by calling Pasha all possible names, and ends her tirade by demanding that the chorus girl return all the presents she has been receiving from her lover, who must pay back the money he has been embezzling from his office. Pasha complies and returns two cheap trinkets. The lady refuses to believe that those trifles are the entire lot. By insulting and threatening Pasha, by moving her to compassion and by humiliating herself, she succeeds in obtaining from the chorus girl all the far more precious jewels and presents she had been given by other, more generous, friends. After the lady has left with her booty, the unfaithful husband, who has overheard everything, runs after her, blaming Pasha, and pitying his wife for having humbled herself before such a “low creature” as the chorus girl.

This marvellous story is, in a certain sense, Chekhov's Boule de Suif. But in Maupassant's tale the righteous indignation, on the part of her train companions, toward the prostitute who has saved them from annoyance by complying with the wishes of a Prussian officer, derives from the author's satirical view of the hypocrisy of society in matters of sex. In his story, however, as is usual with him, Chekhov displays little interest in the sex angle as such. His main concern is with the human soul, especially when it is misunderstood, misjudged, mistreated by another soul. The conflict at the base of “The Chorus Girl” revolves not around jealousy and love, but around the bourgeois values of respectability and interest. It is highly significant that the betrayed wife never reproaches Pasha for the alienation of her husband's affection; she blames the chorus girl only for having made him squander his money, thus depriving society and his family of their due.

By the tragic irony of the story, it is not shame or pity, but a sense of awe before the elegant and respectable lady, that forces the chorus girl to surrender all she owns, although she owes nothing to her. And to add insult to injury, the enraged wife calls her a “mercenary hussy” for all that. The tale reaches its climax, both pathetic and absurd, when the lady unknowingly chooses to refuse, among all the things “returned” to her, the pair of baubles her husband had given the chorus girl: “What are you giving me? … I am not asking for charity, but for what does not belong to you. …”1

Unlike the indignant and furious lady, Pasha accepts with dumb resignation her shame, as well as her loss. The tragicomedy of life forces Pasha and her like to behave passively, to undergo what life, or other human beings, do to them. But bourgeois wives, even when they are wronged, know how to act, and how to set right their wrongs. The contrast between the parts played by protagonist and antagonist is concretely symbolized by the physique du rôle of each one of the two principals. The wife is gaunt and tall, while Pasha, like the heroine of “Boule de Suif,” is small and soft. The contrast is further emphasized by their difference in grooming and dress.

The moral superiority of Pasha over the lady is made evident by the very fact that she is the only one of the two women fully aware of the impression she makes on the other. She knows all too well that if she could look differently, she would be treated better, as a human being worthy of love and respect:

Pasha felt that on this lady in black with angry eyes and white slender fingers she produced the impression of something horrid and unseemly, and she felt ashamed of her chubby red cheeks, the pockmark on her nose, and the fringe on her forehead, which never could be combed back. And it seemed to her that if she had been thin, and had no powder on her face, then she could have disguised the fact that she was not “respectable,” and she would not have felt so frightened and ashamed to stand facing the unknown, mysterious lady.

The sad moral of this fable is of course that the Pashas will never change, and will be ever dressed, and treated by men and women alike, as “chorus girls.” Yet the tale carries another lesson, perhaps a wiser one, teaching that it is not dress that makes the man, or even the woman, at that. This truth, which applies equally to her rival, to that “mysterious lady” who is hardly mysterious to us, is unconsciously uttered by Pasha herself, in her single complaint or protest. While giving away things rightfully belonging to her, because she had got them, as she says, “from other gentlemen,” Pasha bursts out: “Take them and grow rich.” We doubt that the lady will grow rich, while knowing all too well that Pasha will grow even poorer than she now is. Yet she is right in what she says, and it is from these words that we realize that the wronged wife is now a wrongdoer, that, even more than the “mercenary hussy” she despises and despoils, she becomes a “gold digger” herself.

The heroine of “A Gentleman Friend,” being a streetwalker, is, at least for bourgeois society, a creature even lower than the chorus girl. We meet her when she is leaving the hospital, and we may easily guess why she has been there. We must not overstress this detail: Chekhov, although more affected by the naturalistic strain than other Russian realists, certainly did not write such a story to point out the dangers of sexual promiscuity, or the horrors of social diseases. Notwithstanding his medical training and the keenness of his social conscience, Chekhov the artist could not but understress a point like this. The writer has no special cause to plead: what interests him is not the sordid side of his case, but its human poignancy and truth.

Thus, at the beginning of the story, he reduces the prostitute's plight to the particular strait she is in: to the immediate practical problems she must face now that she is again on her feet (and only on her feet). The poor girl is without shelter, and, even more important, she has no money with which to buy a new dress. She pawns a ring, but she gets only a ruble for it. She is as much aware as Pasha that the role she plays in life depends on how she is groomed and dressed, but while the sad tale of the chorus girl ends with Pasha's realization that her physical and sartorial appearance will never allow her to play any other role but the one fate assigned to her, this sorry story begins with the heroine's frantic attempts to procure the only proper attire for acting and living as she is supposed to. “What can you get for a ruble?” she thinks. “You can't buy for that sum a fashionable short jacket, nor a big hat, nor a pair of bronze-colored shoes, and without those things she had a feeling of being, as it were, undressed. …”

All the unconscious irony of the last sentence will be made evident if we consider that this woman, so preoccupied with the clothing she wants to have, is a professional stripteaser, who is paid to undress. The shabbiness of her apparel makes her more ashamed than nudity itself; it makes her feel as if she were nude in the street. In order to buy the trade costume she needs, she decides to visit one of her gentlemen friends, and to borrow from him. She picks a dentist: but while climbing his stairs, and lingering in his waiting room, she loses all her pluck. She thinks that the unfashionable dress she is now wearing makes her look like the beggar she now is, or even worse, like the working girl she is no more. While the chorus girl feels degraded by the sudden appearance of a lady looking respectable, if not in her actions and manners, at least in her aspect and dress, the streetwalker realizes her loss of status merely by drawing an invidious comparison between her present appearance and her former, more glamorous self.

Chekhov dramatizes the conflict between the two opposite self-images within the prostitute's mind, by contrasting her professional name, the fictitious and exotic Vanda, with the prosaic Nastasya, the real and legal one, as testified by her “yellow passport.” And Vanda's feeling of humiliation reaches its climax when she suddenly sees her own present image as reflected in the immense mirror by which the writer's provident imagination, with realistic as well as with visionary insight, has furnished the splendid staircase leading to the dentist's office. Here, unknowingly, Chekhov uses the Dantean symbol of “other people's stairs”: the climbing and descending of which is such a “bitter path” for the poor and the needy, when they beg for charity and help. To this the author adds the symbol of the looking glass, as if to suggest that the postulant knows all too well that at a given stage of her quest she will sooner or later discover her own wretched likeness on the inward mirror of shame, or on the outward mirror of truth.

Here is the central scene of the story, as the author reports it: “The staircase impressed her as luxurious and magnificent, but of all its splendors what caught her eye most was an immense looking glass, in which she saw a ragged figure without a fashionable jacket, without a big hat, and without bronze-colored shoes.” With marvellous intuition, the writer imagines that, at first sight, Vanda fails to recognize herself, because the figure she is looking at is deprived of the objects she longed to see. But when she takes a second look, she identifies in that shabby reflection her own true self. And for a while self-recognition gives place to self-knowledge. With a painful shock, the streetwalker realizes that she has become another person, or rather that she has changed back into the kind of person she once was: “And it seemed strange to Vanda that, now that she was humbly dressed and looked like a laundress or sewing girl, she felt ashamed, and no trace of her usual sauciness remained, and in her own mind she no longer thought of herself as Vanda, but as the Nastasya Kanavkin she used to be in the old days. …”

Only a writer endowed with keen psychological and ethical insight could have thought of this: a prostitute ashamed of being ashamed, feeling dishonored for thinking, behaving, and looking again like the better human being she had been before. Nothing is more tragic than such an inverted perspective, such a reversal of values, which the writer, however, sets right without gnashing of teeth, without even lifting a finger to point out the moral of his unadorned tale. Those who lower themselves will be exalted, and the reader glimpses a sign of redemption in the very fact that the prostitute perceives her own indignity when she recovers, if only for a fleeting instant, the sense of her identity.

If such is the climax of the story, its ending cannot be but an anticlimax. When she is admitted into the dentist's office, the girl is taken for a stranger, and treated as if she were not a visitor, but a patient. The dentist obviously fails to recognize in Nastasya the Vanda who, for a full evening, had been his lady friend. Open-mouthed and speechless, the poor streetwalker lets one of her teeth be pulled, and pays the dentist with the only ruble she has left. Like Pasha, she is one of those creatures to whom things are done, and who are done for. But while Pasha is the victim of a foulness masquerading as retributive justice, Nastasya is the victim of something even colder and cruder: of our mechanical indifference to, or perfunctory interest in, not only the suffering but the very being of our fellow men. Thus the incidents reported in these two stories end on the same note of despair. Poor Pasha wails aloud, with her feelings deeply hurt: “She remembered how three years ago a merchant had beaten her for no sort of reason, and she wailed more loudly than ever.” As for Nastasya, “she walked along the street, spitting blood, and brooding on her life, and the insults she had endured, and would have to endure tomorrow, and next week, and all her life, up to the very day of her death.”

The chorus girl cries because she has no more illusions. She knows that her appearance, as well as the substance of her life, will never change, and that she will be forever wronged by unknown, respectable ladies, and by less respectable gentlemen friends. Nastasya, although equally aware of her fate, fails to weep only because she still hopes to become Vanda again. And at the close of the story she changes again into Vanda, as soon as she is able to buy and wear “an enormous red hat, a fashionable jacket, and bronze-colored shoes.” The list of these three pieces of apparel reappears here for the third time in the story (at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end), and this repetition gives those three concrete objects the obsessive quality of an idée fixe, which, despite its absurdity, has finally succeeded in materializing.

Chekhov is but one of the many writers who attempt to interpret the comedy of life in pathetic rather than in comic terms. One could say that he tends to reverse Gogol's formula, trying to give us “tears through laughter” instead of “laughter through tears.” Yet even so, unlike Gogol, he never changes his laughter into a sneer, or his smile into a grimace. He constantly avoids the temptation of the grotesque, as if he knew that its nemesis is to degrade the comedy of life into a farce. While tragedy is self-sufficient, and can get along quite well even without comic relief, comedy is always a mixed genre, and needs a certain amount of tragic sense to achieve the catharsis of its own pathos and form. Thus, as both “The Chorus Girl” and “A Gentleman Friend” amply prove, Chekhov is quite right in looking for inspiration in what, twisting Maeterlinck's phrase, one may call le tragicomique quotidien. And perhaps nothing is as tragicomic in our daily experience as that highly serious comedy of errors, moral and spiritual in character, constantly falsifying social relations and human intercourse.

Chekhov pays great attention to all those mistakes or equivocations that prevent the establishment of a communion of feeling between different human beings. Our own reciprocal misunderstandings are due not to material appearances or optical illusions, but to internal blindness. What Chekhov is primarily interested in is what one might call, perhaps too technically, a failure of communication. Such failure, which takes place mainly on the moral plane, may operate on both sides, although the author attributes it preferably to the party at the receiving end. Thus the comedy of errors becomes pathetic and tragic, deriving from a defective condition which the message sender can hardly improve or correct: in brief, from a fault in the reception. No situation lends itself so well as this one to the contrapuntal technique characteristic of Chekhov's method of presentation and development, and no story brings this point more movingly home than the one entitled, simply and eloquently, “Misery” (1886).

The story opens with a static scene: something like an impressionistic landscape, built around two motionless figures, an animal and a man. The vision gives the eerie feeling of a tableau vivant, obviously recapturing a real life experience, which must have vividly caught the imagination of Chekhov, since he reproduced it almost verbatim in the later “Kashtanka,” a tale about a child and a dog. Here is the scene, in Chekhov's words:

Evening twilight, large flakes of snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin layer on roofs, horses' backs, people's shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. … His nag, too, is white and motionless. …2

The inertia of both the man and the horse is suddenly broken by the arrival of Iona's first fare, and Chekhov describes with great artistry the sledge's slow and difficult start. The driving man, the pulling nag, and the dragging sledge seem to be a caricatural replica of such noble visions or figures as the Centaur, or Lohengrin's swan. The human and the animal component of the team act with a rigid and mechanical parallelism, showing their pain and effort, and become almost as heavy and wooden as the sledge trailing after them: “The driver clucks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan. … The nag, too stretches her neck. …”

The aged cabby is a grieving father who has just lost his son. He feels the poignant urge to pour out his sorrow, and wishes to tell somebody of his misery and loss. Only the compassion of a fellow man may console his heart. So “he turns his whole body around to his fare to talk.” But the indifference of the customer, as well as the snares of the traffic, prevents him from getting his words and feelings across. The vain attempt repeats itself again and again, and the entire story is punctuated by a series of failures, succeeding each other through the same motions and gestures by driver or horse, or by both: the craning of their necks at the start, Iona's turning around during the ride, the team's return to a deathlike immobility at the ride's end. Then, while waiting for another fare, Iona “sits motionless and hunched on his box.”

The last fare is a party of revelers, whom Iona will drive up to “a dark entrance,” only to be underpaid by them. One of the riders is a hunchback, bent by nature as cruelly and permanently as Iona by his exposure to the biting cold. The revelers derisively force their crippled friend to stand up in the sledge. To show his indignation at their slow progress, or rather, to vent his resentment on another human being, even more wretched than himself, the hunchback gives Iona a blow on his shoulders. The blow falls on the neck of Iona just when he turns his head forward, after a vain attempt to talk.

The entire story is based, simply and powerfully, on this sort of graphic and dynamic symbolism: on the recurrence of the same tortured gestures by these two creatures, the man and the horse, as well as on the sledge's intermittent jerks. Finally, Iona decides to go back to his yard, where he tries his luck with a young fellow driver, who refuses to listen, and falls asleep. So, in the animal heat of the stable, while feeding his nag, the bereaved father tells his grief to the only living being who seems to lend a willing ear to his tale of woe. The story thus ends almost good-humoredly, relieving the almost unbearable tension, and relaxing the strings of pathos, which were about to snap.

Communication theory takes into account also those failures of understanding which are due to semantic confusions, to wrong assumptions about the agreed or conventional meaning of a given sign, especially a verbal one. Such a confusion is the more frequent and intense when the sign is loaded with an excessive emotional charge, or is one of those “shocking words” which may all too easily become “scandal's stones,” or stumbling blocks. Literature generally deals with situations of this sort in a light comic vein, as if impropriety were a matter of misuse rather than of abuse. The usual intention is thus to contrast the outrageous implications of the utterance with the innocence and ignorance of the speaker. The young Chekhov was not above exploiting farcically verbal equivocations of this sort, but in his middle period he wrote at least one noble tale on what in the hands of another writer would have remained a vulgar double entendre: the flimsiest of all comical pretexts. Such a story is “The Requiem” (1886), in which the shocking word, like a rock thrown into a pond, suddenly stirs the still waters of our soul.

On a Sunday morning, the shopkeeper Andrey Andreyich leans on a railing in the church. He has just sent a note to the altar, asking that a mass be sung for the repose of the soul of his daughter Maria (or Matsuhka, as he still calls her). Chekhov characterizes him in a Gogolian manner, that is, by deducing his typical psychological traits from the concrete details of his behavior and aspect. Thus we get to know what kind of man he is as soon as we learn that he wears “the huge clumsy galoshes only seen on the feet of practical and prudent persons of firm religious convictions.” While waiting for the requiem mass, the shopkeeper notices that Father Grigori is acting strangely near the altar, and then he realizes that the priest's “twitching eyebrows and beckoning finger might refer to him.”

This slight, initial misapprehension prepares the reader for the profound misunderstanding which is the story's central theme. Andrey Andreyich walks toward the altar, tramping with his heavy galoshes, which, although representative of his solid beliefs, still seem incongruous and indecorous in the church. When he reaches the altar, he is harshly reproached by the priest for what he had “dared” to write. At first, he fails to comprehend, but he finally understands that the priest objects to one word he had used in his written request for the mass: “For the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Maria.” The word suddenly resounds in the mind of the reader with a more incongruous and indecorous thud than the heavy galoshes on the church's floor. The shopkeeper justifies himself by quoting the lives of the saints, and by citing Mary of Egypt, who had been forgiven by the Lord, and explains that he had added the epithet to the name of his daughter to follow the use of the martyrology, where the martyrs' names are always accompanied by terms designating their station or calling in life. The priest insists that the word is unseemly, reminding the shopkeeper that his daughter had been a “well-known actress,” and that her death has been mentioned in the press.

From what Father Grigori tells the old man, the reader understands all too well the ambivalence of the priest's attitude toward the glories and the vanities of the world. He thinks of the dead sinner with an outraged sense of righteousness, but also with a feeling of involuntary respect. After all, through her fall, and even her ruin, she rose high in the eyes of men. It is for this, as well as for the dignity of the church, that he objects to the use of that term. Her guilt must be not only forgiven, but forgotten too. If the veil of the priest's well-meaning hypocrisy is easily lifted, the intention which led the shopkeeper to call his daughter a harlot will forever remain under a cloud of obscurity. The writer fails to solve this ambiguity, leaving in doubt whether Andrey Andreyich really knows what “harlot” means: thus we remain unsure whether by mentioning that word he intends to refer to his daughter's exceptional career, or merely to her sin. We cannot even be sure of his naïveté, and the priest accuses him, not without reason, of being too subtle, and of presuming to read the Holy Writ better than a clergyman. True enough, the old man sticks to his own opinion, and during the mass, he lets drop again the forbidden word from his praying lips.

With his usual method, Chekhov accompanies the audible chant of the rite by the silent antiphony of Andrey Andreyich's reflections, reminiscences, and thoughts. Suddenly the reader relives with him a forgotten episode of his life. The shopkeeper rehearses again in his memory his last walk with his daughter, and suddenly recalls how, at her enraptured enthusiasm for the loveliness of the local landscape, he had replied rather ineptly that farming did not pay on a soil like that. This flashback reveals immediately how and why those two hearts and two minds, with their opposite concerns for beauty and utility, were destined never to meet. Now the problem whether the father did or did not know the real meaning of “harlot” does not matter any longer: the point is that he misunderstood his daughter, to be misunderstood in return. The semantic confusion thus becomes merely a sign of man's inability to know himself, as well as others, including his next of kin. And we see that such inability persists even when we bury our dead. Yet in his last and greatest period, Chekhov was able to find within life, almost unconsciously, that sense of redemption that this somber story fails to find even in death. This is particularly true of the more important of the two stories discussed below.

II. “PSYCHE; IT'S A FINE SUBJECT”

In Chekhov's canon there are two tales, written at different times, which, starting from the opposite poles of pathos and irony, and following divergent paths, end by giving us parallel transfigurations, in realistic terms, of the same myth. This myth is the ancient story of Psyche, which remained lively and meaningful for the artists and writers of so many centuries, but which our commercial culture has mummified into the everlasting indignity of a soft-drink ad. Chekhov used the Psyche legend not openly, but obliquely, as a furtive hint that even in the profane prose of life there may lie hidden poetry's sacred spark. The grimness or the grayness of our daily lot seems to dominate both of these tales, but the sudden appearance of Psyche redeems their somber or dull view of life with a vivid, and not too unreal, flash. The first tale discloses the vision within the span of a simple image; and the second, of a mere name. That image and that name reduce in their turn the whole legend to a single symbol, hiding, rather than revealing, the myth it transcribes in quasi-hieroglyphic form. The symbol itself, eclipsed by the cloud of the letter, buried under the matter-of-factness of a naturalistic report, has escaped all scrutiny, thus making even less visible the presence of the myth it suggests and for which it stands. Yet in the end the beauty and poetry of the ancient legend triumph over all obtuseness and absurdity, over the obscurity of life and the disguise of art; and Psyche's face shines forth again, in one case through tragedy's, and in the other, through comedy's, mask. It is mainly such a passing and fleeting allusion to Psyche and her story that, beyond all appearance, makes these two tales what they really are; yet a detailed examination of their plainest and lowest level of meaning is required to reinterpret them within the higher, and deeper, frame of reference of both symbol and myth.

The first of these two tales is “Anyuta,” which was written in 1886. The story seems to have been conceived in a mixed mood, half pathetic, half morbid; and it lies halfway, so to speak, between Mürger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohême3 and the most sordid tales of the early Dostoevski. At least at first sight, its protagonists impress us as the conventional seamstress and the conventional student, sharing their poverty and love in the same barely furnished room. Yet, from the very beginning, we surprise them in a highly unconventional situation. The student is preparing himself for one of the examinations he is about to take at the Medical School. In order to get his anatomy straight, he asks Anyuta to take her blouse off, and starts counting her ribs. A while later, a friend drops in. A student at the Academy of Fine Arts, he has come to take Anyuta away, since he needs a model, and wants her to pose for a painting he is working on. Anyuta retires to dress, and in the meanwhile the visitor reproaches his host for his slovenly life. When left alone, the medical student decides that he and the seamstress must part; he tells Anyuta of his decision as soon as she comes back from her sitting, bringing in the sugar she has just bought for the tea of her penniless friend.

Here Chekhov's contrapuntal technique acts, so to speak, negatively: the words and thoughts of the student fail to break the inarticulate silence of the girl. She is the only mute and passive figure of the story, acting with the resigned dumbness of a sacrificial lamb. The author adds his own silence to the silence of the heroine, pretending to look on her from the outside, which is exactly what the other two characters do. Thus all the references to Anyuta, while remaining external and objective, become highly symbolic. This kind of implied, and, so to speak, inert, symbolism grows more and more important in the creations of the late Chekhov. Here it finds expression not only in Anyuta's silence, but also in the parallel indifference of the two students, both of whom treat the seamstress, even if for different ends, as if she were merely an anatomical specimen.

In this story, the obvious love angle is completely overlooked. With unobtrusive but penetrating irony, Chekhov makes Anyuta's body serve the higher purposes of art and science. In reality, she serves, with both her body and soul, the blind selfishness of two human beings who consider her an inferior creature, while she is morally far superior to them. As for the ribs, says the medical student, “they are like the keys of a piano: one must study them in the skeleton and in the living body.” Yet in reality he treats her as if she were a corpse on a slab. The art student is even more matter-of-fact: he handles Anyuta as if she were something neither living nor dead, but only a thing, a piece of property of so little value that it is better to borrow than to own it. “Do me a favor,” he asks his friend, “lend me your young lady for just a couple of hours! I am painting a picture, you see, and I can't get on without a model.” He asks for her as he would ask for a plate of fruit, to be discarded or returned, because he needs it to paint, not to eat. Yet the supreme irony of the story is that the young artist wants to produce something far nobler than a mere study. He is not one of those naïve painters who are satisfied with representing either a nude or a still life. He aims far higher, as we learn from the answer he gives to his friend's question about the theme of the painting he is working on: “Psyche; it's a fine subject.”

Neither the students nor, for that matter, Anyuta, will ever realize that the only Psyche of the story is she herself. Yet this is the feeling conveyed to the reader by the tale's closing vision, when the abandoned seamstress returns noiselessly to the corner window of her lonely room, like a Cinderella without beauty, without a prince, and without a magic wand. While treating the scène de vie de bohême as if it were a “slice of life,” Chekhov succeeds in changing the story into a tragic fable without words. And he does so by projecting on the shabby walls of a bohemian garret, beyond the falsity of a painted image which remains unseen, the true likeness of poor Psyche of old, as she was when she lost her lover, and was left like an orphan alone in the darkness of this world.

The second tale is “The Darling,” which Chekhov wrote more than ten years later, in 1899, at the decline of his years, when his art was gradually changing the tragicomedy of life into something far too noble for pity, and far too pure for contempt. The change is particularly evident in this story, of which one could say, to paraphrase Milton's words, “nothing is here for tears.” Nothing is here for laughter either, because “The Darling” ends by “saying yea” to life, by judging it “well and fair.” Yet if the critic will go back to the text, so as to recapture the impression of his first reading, he will undoubtedly conclude that the final esthetic outcome transcends the tale's original intent. And he will do so even more confidently if he learns that his conclusion is supported by the authority of Leo Tolstoy, who was a great admirer of this story, as well as of Chekhov in general.

The protagonist, Olenka, is “a gentle, soft-hearted, compassionate girl, with mild, tender eyes, and very good health.” Everyone feels captivated by her good nature, and exclaims: “You darling!” at the sight of her pleasant looks. She lives in her father's house, and watches from her back porch the tenant living in a lodge they rent. The tenant, whose name is Ivan Kukin, is thin and no longer young; he manages an open-air theater, and complains constantly about the rain which ruins his business, and about the public which fails to appreciate his shows. By listening to his misfortunes, the “darling” falls in love with him. She marries Kukin, works in his office, and accepts all his views as her own, repeating all he has to say about the theatrical arts. Despite her total identification with her husband, Olenka grows stouter and pinker, while Kukin grows thinner and paler. After a year has passed, he goes to Moscow on business, and within a few days Olenka receives a misspelled telegram informing her of Kukin's sudden death.

The poor widow loses all interest in life, but after a three-month interval she meets at mass Vasili Pustovalov, a dignified gentleman working at a timber merchant's. In a day or two Pustovalov proposes, and Olenka marries again. The “darling” helps her new husband in the shop, and absorbs herself in the timber trade as fully as she had previously done in the theater world. For six years, her husband's ideas become her ideas, but her mind returns to emptiness as soon as her second husband follows the first into the grave. Yet within half a year she finds happiness anew, this time with an army veterinary surgeon, by the name of Vladimir Smirnin, now renting her lodge. Smirnin is married and has a son, but lives separated from his wife and child. Everyone realizes what has happened as soon as Olenka goes around discussing sanitary questions and the dangers of animal epidemics. “It was evident,” as Chekhov says, “that she could not live a year without an attachment,” and yet nobody thinks ill of the “darling” for this.

But Smirnin is suddenly transferred to a distant place, and Olenka is left alone again. Time passes, and she becomes indifferent, sad, and old: “what is worst of all … she had no opinion of any sort.” Like all old lonely women, she has a cat, but does not care for her pet. Suddenly her solitude is broken again: Smirnin, looking older and wearing a civilian suit, knocks again at her door. He has left the service and has come back with his family, to start life anew. Olenka yields her house to the newcomers, and retires to the lodge. With this change of perspective, her life seems to take a new turn. And this time she falls in love with the little Sasha, who is ten years old. Soon enough, the father starts working outside, and the mother departs to live elsewhere. Thus Olenka mothers the boy, who calls her auntie, and tells her about his studies, and his school experiences. Now the “darling” goes around discussing teachers and lessons, home assignments and class work. And everybody understands that there is another man in her house and in her life, even if this time he is another woman's child, whom she loves like the mother she was born to be.

This résumé fails to do justice to the story, and to point out the internal contradiction already alluded to. Tolstoy's commentary fulfills, however, both tasks almost perfectly. In the opening of the critique of this piece, which he collected in Readings for Every Day of the Year, Tolstoy recalls the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers, 22–24). The King of the Moabites ordered him to curse the people of Israel, and Balaam wanted to comply with this command. But while climbing the mountain, he was warned by an angel, who at first was invisible to him, while being visible to his ass. So, when he reached the altar at the top, Balaam, instead of cursing the Jews, blessed them. “This,” Tolstoy concludes, “is just what happened with the true poet and artist Chekhov when he wrote his charming story, “The Darling.” Tolstoy then proceeds to develop his point:

The author evidently wanted to laugh at this pitiful creature—as he judged her with his intellect, not with his heart—this “Darling,” who, after sharing Kukin's troubles about his theater, and then immersing herself in the interests of the timber business, under the influence of the veterinary surgeon considers the struggle against bovine tuberculosis to be the most important matter in the world, and is finally absorbed in questions of grammar and the interests of the little schoolboy in the big cap. Kukin's name is ridiculous, and so even is his illness and the telegram announcing his death. The timber dealer with his sedateness is ridiculous; but the soul of “Darling,” with her capacity for devoting herself with her whole being to the one she loves, is not ridiculous but wonderful and holy.4

Nothing could be more exact, or better said:yet one may wonder whether Tolstoy is equally right in identifying the motive that had led the author of “The Darling” to take the pen. “When Chekhov began to write that story,” says Tolstoy, “he wanted to show what woman ought not to be.” In short, what Chekhov meant to do was to reassert his belief in the ideal of woman's emancipation, in her right and duty to have a mind and a soul of her own. While acknowledging the artistic miracle which had turned a satirical vignette into a noble human image, Tolstoy seems to enjoy as a good joke the implication that the author had to throw his beliefs overboard in the process. Being strongly adverse to the cause of woman's emancipation, Tolstoy speaks here pro domo sua,5 but the reader has no compelling reason to prefer his anti-feminism to Chekhov's feminism. Tolstoy has an axe to grind, and his guess is too shrewd. One could venture to say that Chekhov sat down to write “The Darling” with neither polemical intentions nor ideological pretensions: what he wanted to do was perhaps to exploit again at the lowest level a commonplace type and a stock comic situation, which, however unexpectedly, develops into a vision of beauty and truth. If D. S. Mirsky is right in claiming that each Chekhov story follows a curve, then there is no tale where the curve of his art better overshoots its mark.

What must have attracted Chekhov was the idea of rewriting a half pathetic, half mocking version of the “merry widow” motif: of portraying in his own inimitable way the conventional character of the woman ready and willing to marry a new husband as soon as she has buried the preceding one. That such was the case may still be proved through many eloquent clues. No reader of “The Darling” will fail to notice that Olenka calls her successive mates with almost identical nicknames: Vanichka the first, Vassichka the second, and Volodichka the third. These familiar diminutives, although respectively deriving from such different names as Ivan, Vasili, and Vladimir, sound as if they were practically interchangeable, as if to suggest that the three men are interchangeable too.

This runs true to type, since in the life scheme of the eternal, and eternally remarrying, widow, nothing really changes, while everything recurs: the bridal veil alternates regularly with the veil of mourning, and both may be worn in the same church. It is from this scheme that Chekhov derives the idea of the successive adoption, on Olenka's part, of the opinions and views of each one of her three men, and this detail is another proof that the story was originally conceived on the merry widow motif. Yet, if we look deeper, we realize that a merry widow does not look for happiness beyond wedded bliss: that she asks for no less than a ring, while offering nothing more than her hand. But Olenka gives and takes other, very different things. She receives her husbands' opinions, and makes them her own, while returning something far more solid and valuable in exchange. And when she loses the person she loves, she has no more use for his views, or for any views at all.

This cracks the merry widow pattern, which begins to break when she joins her third mate, who is a married man, without a wedding ceremony or the blessing of the Church. And the pattern visibly crumbles at the end, when Olenka finds her fourth and last love not in a man, but in a child, who is the son of her last friend. “Of her former attachments,” says Chekhov, “not one had been so deep.” Now we finally know Olenka for what she really is, and we better appraise in retrospect some of the story's earliest, unconscious hints. Now, for instance, we understand better her girlish infatuations for such unlikely objects as her father, her aunt, or her teacher of French. For her, almost any kind of person or any kind of love can do equally well, and it is because of this, not because of any oldmaidish strain, that she fails to reduce love to sex alone.

Chekhov explains this better than we could, at that very point of the tale when the lonely Olenka is about to find her more lasting attachment. “She wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, and whole soul and reason—that could give her ideas and an object in life, and would warm her old blood.” For all this one could never say of Olenka, as of Madame Bovary, that she is in love with love: she cares only for living beings like herself, as shown by the ease with which she forgets all her husbands after their deaths. Her brain is never haunted by dreams or ghosts, and this is why it is either empty, or full of other people's thoughts. This does not mean that the “Darling” is a parrot or a monkey in woman's dress, although it is almost certain that Chekhov conceived her initially in such a form. She is more like the ass of Balaam, who sees the angel his master is unable to see. Olenka is poor in spirit and pure in heart, and this is why life curses her three times, only to bless her forever, at the end.

Tolstoy is right when he reminds us that, unlike Olenka, her three men and even her foster-child are slightly ridiculous characters, and one must add that they remain unchangingly so from whatever standpoint we may look. The reminder is necessary: after all, the point of the story is that love is a grace proceeding from the lover's fullness of heart, not from the beloved's attractive qualities or high deserts. In the light of this, the parallel with Balaam's ass must be qualified by saying that Olenka sees angels where others see only men. Thus the double message of the story is that love is a matter of both blindness and insight.

While the whole story seems to emphasize Olenka's “insight,” her “blindness” is intimated by a single hint, hidden, of all places, in the title itself. Since the latter is practically untranslatable, the foreign reader cannot help missing the hint. The “Darling” of the English translators is the Russian idiom Dushechka, meaning literally “little soul,” and used colloquially as a term of endearment, a tribute of personal sympathy, a familiar and good-natured compliment. Chekhov never pays the compliment himself, except by indirection or implication: he merely repeats it again and again, in constant quotations from other people's direct speech. Thus the artist acts as an echo, reiterating that word as if it were a choral refrain, a suggestive leitmotiv. Yet, as we already know, everybody addresses Olenka in that way only when she is contented and happy, having someone to love and care for. As soon as she is left without a person on whom to pour the tenderness flowing from her heart, everybody ceases calling her Dushechka, as if she had lost her soul, as if she were no longer a soul.

Thus, even though intermittently used, that term becomes, so to say, Olenka's second name: and the reader finally finds it more right and true than the first. What one witnesses is a sort of transfiguration, both symbolic and literal: by changing into Dushechka, Olenka ends by personifying the very idea of the soul. We are suddenly faced by an allegory and a metamorphosis, turning the story into a fable, which, like all fables, partakes of the nature of myth. With startling awareness, we now realize that Dushechka, after all, is one of the Russian equivalents of the Greek Psyche, and that what Chekhov has written could be but a reinterpretation of the ancient legend about the girl who was named after the word meaning “soul.”

The legend, which Apuleius first recorded for us,6 tells how the youthful Psyche became the loving wife of a great god, who was Eros himself. Eros never showed her his face or person in the daylight; yet Psyche was happy as long as she could take care of her little house in the daytime, and share in night's darkness the bed and love of a husband she could neither know nor see. What the legend means to say is that love is blind, and must remain so, whether the loved one is mortal or an immortal creature. This is the truth which the Greek Psyche had to learn, while the Russian Dushechka seems to have known it, though unconsciously, all the time.

That Chekhov must have thought of this legend while writing “The Darling” may be proved by the fact that the name or word Dushechka is but a more popular variant of the literary Dushenka, after which Bogdanovich, a minor Russian poet of the eighteenth century, entitled his own imitation of La Fontaine's Psyché, which, in its turn, is a rather frivolous version of the same old myth. This slight difference in the endings of what is practically the same noun may have greater significance than we think. Both endings are diminutive suffixes; but while in Bogdanovich's “-enka” there is a connotation of benevolent sympathy, in Chekhov's “-echka” there is an insinuation of pettiness, and a nuance of indulgent scorn. This obviously means that Chekhov's serious tale is as distant from Bogdanovich's light poem as from the original legend itself: the distance may be considered so great as to preclude any relationship. We realize this, and we realize as well that our proof that such a relationship exists may be considered a verbal coincidence and nothing more. In reply to this objection, we could observe that Chekhov testified elsewhere about his knowledge of the legend itself. As we already know, he did so in “Anyuta,” by simply stating through the mouth of his student-painter that Psyche is “a fine subject.”

The student-painter is right, even if he is fully unconscious of the irony in what he says. Aware as he was of the irony he himself had put in those words, Chekhov must have been equally aware of their truth. Yes, Psyche is a fine subject, even when the artist deals with it so freely as to completely change its background and situation, lowering its fabulous vision to the level of a bourgeois and provincial experience, and transcribing its poetic magic into the plain images and the flat language of modern realism. This does not imply that the tale is deprived of wonder: there is no greater wonder than to make luminous and holy the inner and outer darkness in which we live, even against our will. And there is no greater miracle than to have changed into a new Psyche, with no other sorcery but that of a single word, this heroine of the commonplace, this thrice-married little woman, neither clever nor beautiful, and no longer young.

D. H. Lawrence recommends that we never trust the writer, but only the tale. This is what one should do even with Chekhov, although he is one of the most trustworthy of modern writers, precisely because he builds on a broad moral structure, which compensates for the restrictions of his chosen literary forms. If this is true, then one must reject Leo Shestov's statement that Chekhov's is a creation ex nihilo,7 always returning to the nothingness from which it sprang forth. It would be more proper to define it a creation ex parvo, producing from humble beginnings a somber and yet beautiful world.

Notes

  1. This, and all quotations from Chekhov's stories, unless indicated otherwise, are taken from Constance Garnett's translation of Chekhov's works, published in several volumes by the Macmillan Company.

  2. Quoted as translated by Avram Yarmolinsky, in his Portable Chekhov.

  3. Henri Murger's Scenes of Bohemian Life (1948), sketches of life among students and artists, is the basis for Puccini's opera La Boheme. [Editor.]

  4. Quoted as translated by Aylmer Maude in his edition of Tolstoy's works (Oxford University Press).

  5. “For himself (Latin).” Literally, “about his own house.” [Editor.]

  6. In his Metamorphoses, better known under the title of The Golden Ass.

  7. In the essay “Tvorchestvo iz nichego” (Creation from nothing), which can be read in English under the title “Creation from the Void,” in Anton Tchekhov, and Other Essays, by Leo Shestov, translated by S. S. Koteliansky and J. M. Murry (London, 1916).

From The Phoenix and the Spider (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 109–30.

V. V. Golubkov (essay date 1958)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15029

SOURCE: Golubkov, V. V. “Čexov's Lyrico-Dramatic Stories.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 135–67. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1958, Golubkov inspects Chekhov's social consciousness, which continued to maturate throughout his life, and the lyricism so prevalent in his short fiction.]

Remember that those writers whom we call immortal or simply good and who intoxicate us have one highly important feature in common: they go somewhere and beckon you, and you sense, not with your intellect, but with all your being, that they have some goal, like the ghost of Hamlet's father which had a reason for coming and disturbing his imagination … The best of these writers are true to life and they present life as it is, but since their every line is saturated with the awareness of a goal, you feel life not only as it is, but also as it ought to be, and that is what captivates you. And we? We! We describe life as it is, period. Beat us further with whips, if you wish. We have neither immediate nor remote goals, and there is complete emptiness in our souls …

These hot, sad words of Čexov, written to Suvorin on November 25, 1891, mark a turning point in Čexov's activity. At that time he recognized quite clearly what he called the sickness of contemporary literature—the absence of moving towards a goal, of guiding ideas which give justification and social purpose to a writer's activity.

The indication in Čexov's letter that the sickness which afflicted the literature of the 1880s was neither hopeless nor fatal is significant.

“I do not know”, wrote Čexov, “what will have happened to us in ten or twelve years; then, perhaps, the situation will have changed … I am not to blame for my sickness, nor is it for me to cure myself, for my sickness, I daresay, has hidden but good purposes, and it has been sent to me for a good reason …”

From the beginning of the 1890s until the end of his life, Čexov's troubled search gradually increases, the problems of social life disturb him more and more deeply, and in his creative activity he is no longer satisfied with the role about which he had written to Suvorin earlier, on May 30, 1888: “An artist ought not to be the judge of his characters nor of what these characters say, but rather he should be an impartial observer.” Now Čexov wants to be a judge of his heroes and to influence the reader as much as possible.

To be sure, Čexov did not live long enough to be able to work out a clear social-political philosophy. But his search, his dissatisfaction with limited, uninspired banality, his belief in man, in the Russian people and its future, gave irresistible ideological force to his works.

The best of Čexov's stories which can be called lyrico-dramatic belong to that period.

Čexov wrote this sort of story still in the 1880s; for example, “The Hunter” (1885) which, as is well known, was noted by Grigorovič, “Anguish” (1886), “Happiness” (1887), “The Fit” (1888), and others, but in the 80s stories like these were exclusively episodical and were submerged in the mass of his humorous and satirical stories.

In the 90s, such stories determined the basic line of his writings, and if they alternated with other works, the latter were for the most part tales and dramatic works which resembled them in content.

Among the most brilliant of Čexov's lyrico-dramatic stories are “The Flutterer” (1892), “The Student” (1894), “The Teacher of Literature” (1894), “Anna Around the Neck” (1895), “The House with the Mezzanine” (1896), “The Peasants” (1897), “On the Cart” (1897), “A Case from a Doctor's Practice” (1898), “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899), “The New Dacha” (1899), “The Betrothed” (1903), and others.

What were the ideological and artistic peculiarities of these stories, and what gives us the right to call them lyrico-dramatic stories?

First of all, they are marked by Čexov's strong preoccupation with man in his yearning for happiness, freedom, truth, and man's inevitable collision with his social environment and its traditional beliefs and prejudices. Dramatic conflict always lies at the base of these stories; sometimes it is a conflict of the social order (for example, in “The New Dacha”), at other times it is a conflict of a family sort (as in the story “The Lady with the Little Dog”), but more often it is both of them.

There is yet another peculiarity connected with the dramatic nature of these stories: that is the penetrating lyricism coloring the characters of the main heroes. This lyricism gives the story a mood of light melancholy and a dream of what is beautiful, of what ought to be.

Sometimes a character in the story communicates this lyrical mood, as for example, Ivan Velikopolskij in “The Student” or Ol'ga in “The Peasants”; sometimes (and this is quite natural) it is the hero-narrator, as in “The House with the Mezzanine” or “About Love”; and sometimes the author speaks directly from himself, cleverly weaving his own personal feelings and philosophical reflections into the story's fabric.

The description of the sea in “The Lady with the Little Dog” has the nature of a lyrical digression.

Not a leaf stirred on the trees, cicadas shrieked and the monotonous hollow rumble of the sea carried up from below spoke of the rest, of the eternal sleep which awaits us. It rumbled below even when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda, it rumbles now and shall rumble just as dispassionately and hollowly when we are no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us is hidden, perhaps, the pledge of our eternal salvation, of the continuous movement of life on earth, of perpetual progress towards fulfilment.

This lyrical digression is an organic part of the story; it does not contradict the traits of Gurov or of Anna Sergeevna; it is in a certain degree consonant with their mood, but in a still greater degree it communicates the melancholy reflective mood of Čexov himself, who was living out the final years of his life in Yalta.

The third peculiarity of lyrico-dramatic stories is the complexity of their structure and of their intonation.

Whereas the humorous and satirical stories are constructed on a single basic tone which always penetrates the whole story, the lyrico-dramatic stories, besides two basic intonations (dreams of a better life and dramatic intensity), usually include elements of humor and satire. Moreover, to the extent that Čexov, uncovering the conflict of hero and environment, shows his ironic or even inimical attitude towards this environment, humor and satire necessarily occupy a significant place in the lyrico-dramatic stories. This is quite understandable: the more full and more vivid the satiric illumination of the environment which subordinates the hero to itself or provokes him to battle—the more deeply it is possible to reveal the conflict at the base of the story.

The new content of lyrico-dramatic stories also demanded new supplementary artistic devices of the author.

Earlier, in his humorous and satiric stories, Čexov selected very simple, often primitive characters with clearly expressed dominant traits (despotism, cowardice, servility, ambition, etc.); now complex characters, combining different psychological properties, become the main object of his depiction.

To disclose comic characters it was sufficient to have a single episode or scene, a vivid portrait and a skillfully constructed dialogue. But for lyrico-dramatic stories an additional element was indispensable: a complex sujet was required, one which would permit varied interconnections of the dramatis personae.

Earlier, Čexov advised writers to refrain from author's characterizations in their stories and suggested that they write in such a way that the heroes show themselves through their actions, through their relations to other persons, and through their particular mode of speech. “It is best to avoid describing the emotional state of heroes”, he wrote to Al. P. Čexov [his brother, Aleksandr] on May 10, 1886. “One must try to make that known through the action of the heroes.” Now Čexov uses direct reference, the hero's internal monologue, extensive psychological landscape, and lyrical digressions—in a word, the most varied means which further the revelation of human psychology.

One of the devices most characteristic of Čexov's lyrico-dramatic stories is duality of structure.

Exposing life's contradictions and the conflicts brought about by them, Čexov naturally had to turn to an analysis of intimate emotional experiences which were usually unnoticed at a fleeting glance. Like Gurov (the hero of “The Lady with the Little Dog”) he understood that people often have two lives: “One open, seen and known by everyone who needs to, full of conventional truth and conventional fraud … and another one passing in secret”, so that “everything which was important, interesting, indispensable, of value to him (i.e., Gurov), everything in which he was honest and did not deceive himself, everything which was the core of his life went on in secret from others; but everything which was a lie, in him his cover … all this was in the open”.

Čexov made a conscious artistic device out of this juxtaposition of two lives—one, which everyone sees, external, the other, internal, unnoticed, and often of little interest to others.

Take, for example, the story “Anguish”. First and foremost is that which is in plain sight of everyone: Iona's occasional fares, one replacing the other, the yard-keeper, and the cabmen in the inn. They see the external side of Iona and his horse: some see it as humorous, amusing, others see it as commonplace and familiar—but they all pass over his sorrow, for each has his own troubles, and none of them cares about the other. But in Iona Čexov shows what takes place behind the scenes and creates the undercurrent of the story: by means of psychological analysis and internal monologue he shows Iona's inescapable woe and his terrible solitude …

How is the device of psychological analysis used in the story? It is as if Čexov is reincarnated in his hero:

Iona's anxious, tormented eyes search the crowds scurrying on either side of the street: out of all these thousands of people is there not one person who would hear him out? But the crowds hurry by without noticing him or his grief … His grief is immense, boundless … It has managed to conceal itself in such an insignificant shell that no one could see it, even in the daylight with a lantern.

The story ends with Iona going to the stable where his horse is, and “he tells her everything”.

Iona's conversation with the horse is a conversation with an imaginary interlocutor and in essence is an internal monologue. But this original form of internal monologue is completely justified and prepared by the whole previous course of the story. Iona must have an interlocutor, a living person with whom he can share his woe and who, in turn, will pity him.

The first interlocutor is a military officer, a person from a completely different world, and naturally Iona finds no compassion in him. The next fares are somewhat more simple, and from them one might expect greater attention, but they too treat Iona with the same complete indifference. The yard-keeper with whom Iona then speaks is closer to him socially, and the cabmen in the inn are certainly his own sort of people, and it would seem that Iona's grief would be particularly understandable to them. In spite of that, Iona does not find what he needs, either in the yard-keeper or in the cabmen.

When all means accessible to Iona for talking to people are exhausted, there remains one thing: to find a release from his insufferable emotional state in a conversation with an imaginary being. But to whom can Iona speak, if not to his horse?

Such is the logic of the story, giving a psychological basis for the unexpected and—at first glance—strange ending.

The device of structure on a dual level is applied by Čexov in an especially vivid way in the story “Polen'ka”. The external level is an ordinary conversation between a salesman in a haberdashery and a lady customer:

“For goodness sake, a ruble for it isn't too high at all!”—the salesman assures her … “It is a French trimming, octahedral …”


“I still need a beaded corselet with gimp buttons”, says Polen'ka, sighing for some reason or another. “And do you have bugles in the same color?”

This is spoken in a loud voice, and everyone can hear it.

Simultaneously another conversation is taking place, quietly, in a whisper, and it exposes the deep drama in the relations between Polen'ka and the salesman.

Polen'ka bends still lower toward the counter and asks softly: “And just why did you leave us so early Thursday, Nikolaj Timofeevič?”


“Hm. Strange that you noticed it”, the salesman says with a smirk.


“You were so carried away by that college student that … strange, that you noticed it.”


Polen'ka blushes and remains silent …


“I also need bead lace”, says Polen'ka, raising her guilty eyes to the salesman.


“What kind do you need? Bead lace on tulle is black or colored … And I will never come to see you again”, Nikolaj Timofeevič adds in a low voice …

To communicate subtle, intimate experiences, Čexov, in his stories of the 1890s, uses a device about which he once wrote to I. L. Leont'ev [Penname: I. Ščeglov—a minor writer of the end of the 19th century, author of Memoirs in which he wrote about Čexov]: “In very short stories it is better to understate than to say too much.” It is a device of reticence, allusion, and details which create in the reader a strong impression and stimulate his creative fantasy.

In “The Peasants”, Čexov had to present and evaluate the interrelation of the grandmother (“a toothless, raw-boned, hunch-backed old woman”) and her granddaughters, Saša and Motka. Čexov uses this detail: the grandmother began to whip the girls with a switch, because although they had been told to look after the geese, they had let them go into the vegetable garden:

Saša cried with pain and fear and meanwhile a gander, stretching out his neck, waddled up to the old woman and hissed something or other, and when he returned to his flock all the other geese greeted him approvingly: honk-honk-honk!

The lyrical mood of Čexovian stories is usually concentrated in its final segment.

The moods and feelings communicated by this device can be of various sorts.

At the finale of “The Student” it is a feeling of youth and the dreams of happiness proper to youth:

The feeling of youth, health, strength—he was only 22 years old—and the inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness, a mysterious, unknown happiness, gradually overpowered him and life seemed to him to be delightful, miraculous, and full of high significance.

In “The Teacher of Literature” we find disappointment in vulgar prosperity and dreams of some sort of “new, exciting, conscious life which is not in harmony with peace and personal happiness”. The story ends with the words: “There is nothing more terrible, more insulting, more dreary, than banality. Flee from here, flee this very day, or else I shall go out of my mind!”

A feeling of tender, pure love is found in “The House with the Mezzanine”.

When Ženja's first timid love was unexpectedly crushed by the crass interference of her sister, there remained in the artist's soul a beautiful memory and a hope that happiness would return. The story ends with the words,

And even more rarely, in those moments when solitude torments me and I feel sad, I recollect vaguely, and for reasons of which I am not certain I begin to feel that I, too, am remembered and awaited, and that we shall meet again.


“Misjus', where are you?”

In what does the ideological-artistic meaning of such lyrical endings lie?

Will the student's dreams of unknown happiness come true, shall the teacher of literature be able to flee, and what shall he find in his new life? Will the artist and his Misjus' meet?—all of this is unknown and is left to the reader to decide.

But a clear answer in this case is not essential. The significance of the lyrical endings of Čexov's stories is that they arouse in the reader dissatisfaction with the present and a thirst for a bright future.

This feeling on the part of the reader was expressed very well by Gor'kij in a letter written to Čexov in the beginning of the year 1900 apropos of the story “The Lady with the Little Dog”:

You do a great deal with your little short stories, arousing in people an aversion to this sleepy, half dead life—the devil take it! … Your stories are gracefully faceted little bottles containing all the scents of life, and—believe me—a sensitive nose shall always discover among them that subtle, pungent, and healthy smell of ‘that which is real’, truly valuable and necessary, which is always there in each of your little bottles.

The complexity of the content of lyrico-dramatic stories is also reflected in the individuality of their language.

In stories such as “Anguish” and “Polen'ka” sharp changes of intonation are met not infrequently: comic speech passes into lyrical, dramatic speech is followed by lyrical. Various devices of lyrical speech—such as emotional expressivity, musicality, etc.—demand special attention when studying Čexov's literary craft.

For a more detailed study of lyrico-dramatic stories one should turn to such examples as “The Flutterer”, “Anna Around the Neck”, and “On the Cart”.

“THE FLUTTERER” (1892)

A new story called “The Flutterer” was published in 1892. Čexov did not immediately decide on that title. He first called the story “The Philistines”, and then “A Great Man”. Although he rejected these initial titles, they are still of indisputable interest for us, for they aid in understanding the author's intention, as one must especially say about “A Great Man”. Having rejected the phrase as a title, Čexov repeats it several times in the text, and finally applies it to the hero, Doctor Dymov.

The whole content of the story leads to the conclusion that the basic question raised in it is the problem of what constitutes a ‘great man’, of false and of authentic greatness, or, in other words, of the social value of man.

Taken in the broad sense of the word, the whole structure of the story shows that the above is true. To this bear witness the inter-relation of characters, the structural devices employed in the creation of characters, the sujet of the story, and the language as taken in its ideological-artistic significance.

In the basis of the system of characters in the story lies a simple scheme: he-she-he, that is, the artist Rjabovskij—Ol'ga Ivanovna (the ‘flutterer’)—Doctor Dymov. Close to each of them are secondary characters: Rjabovskij's fellow artists, the friends and acquaintances of Ol'ga Ivanovna, and Doctor Korostelev—Dymov's friend.

Such a scheme may at first glance seem ordinary, a pattern common in novels and stories, but with Čexov it acquires its own peculiar flavor and is filled with the greatly significant content typical of lyrico-psychological stories.

We have before us not only various people but, as it were, two worlds: Rjabovskij, Ol'ga Ivanovna and their friends, on the one hand, and Dymov and Korostelev, on the other. The former consider themselves select people, exclusive, unlike the crowd; these are artists, musicians, poets, actors—all singled out by the mark of talent. Čexov does not deny their giftedness. “Each already had a reputation and was considered a celebrity, or if this were not yet true, he had brilliant hopes for it.”

Their fault was that each suffered from conceit. They viewed themselves as some sort of aristocrats of the spirit, and looked down their noses at others—including Doctor Dymov, the husband of Ol'ga Ivanovna—as dull.

In the midst of this aristocratic and free company spoiled by fate … Dymov seemed foreign, superfluous, and even small—although he was tall and broad shouldered. He looked as if he were wearing someone else's coat and his little beard was like a salesman's. However, had he been a writer or an artist, they would have said that with his beard he reminded one of Zola.

But Dymov belonged to a different world, a world of socially useful toilers, of talented scientists through whose unceasing energy science moves forward; humble people, yet strong in mind and moral purity.

This juxtaposition speaks for itself. Only people like Dymov are really valuable, ‘great people’, and even Ol'ga Ivanovna saw this. When Dymov died, she “suddenly realized that he indeed was an unusual, rare, and—in comparison with those whom she knew—a great man …”

Even a general outline of the story leads to an understanding of the writer's intention.

However, its ideological sense will be revealed more fully and deeply if one turns to its sujet and to those artistic means which organically are part of the sujet—that is, to portrait, landscape, and the mode of speech peculiar to each of the characters.

The sujetal construction of “The Flutterer” is one of the best of Čexov's artistic achievements. This sujet transmits a very complicated content, but it is nonetheless simple, clear, and harmonious. It unfolds according to a dramatic plan; it has an ‘exposition’ (Ol'ga Ivanovna's wedding and happy life with Dymov), a ‘complication’ (Ol'ga Ivanovna and Rjabovskij's trip on the steamer), a ‘development of action’ (the interrelations of Ol'ga Ivanovna, Rjabovskij, and Dymov), a ‘culmination’ (Ol'ga Ivanovna's break with Rjabovskij and Dymov's sickness), and a ‘denouement’ (Dymov's death).

The sujet is enclosed in a chronological frame: the action begins in winter, continues through spring, summer, and autumn, and ends with winter again; the landscapes (e.g., the summer and autumn landscapes on the Volga) and even reference to the time of the year are, in some degree or other, connected with the experiences of the main heroes, with the basic stages in the development of the action.

The sujet, in all its unity and integrity, clearly breaks down into three sujetal lines: the story of Rjabovskij, of Ol'ga Ivanovna, and of Dymov. In these three lines, which develop parallelly and stand in contrast to each other, a psychological analysis of the dramatis personae is present and the dramatic meaning of the work is revealed.

Rjabovskij's story is presented in a satiric light. The hero's external appearance and manners, his speech, and, most important, his attitude toward people—everything in him which was artificial, theatrical, and designed for effect—is described satirically.

Rjabovskij was handsome, but he flaunted his handsome features and loved to posture before his female admirers. In the scene on the Volga steamer, after his declaration of love, he “looked at Ol'ga Ivanovna with adoring, grateful eyes, then, closing his eyes, he said, smiling languidly, ‘I am tired’”. He continued to show off to Ol'ga Ivanovna and then, when love was already gone: “He came up to her in some sort of gray short frock-coat with flecks and a new tie and asked languidly, ‘Am I handsome?’”

Rjabovskij's posturing and clowning appear clearly in his speech. The scene in which he appears before Ol'ga Ivanovna as a profound judge of her sketches creates a comic impression; here he speaks with an unnatural language:

“So … that cloud of yours shrieks; it is not lighted as in the evening. The foreground is somehow chewed up and something, you understand, is not quite right … And your hut is choked with something and squeaks pitifully … This corner ought to be made darker. But in general—not badsome.2 I praise it.”

Rjabovskij also displays this sort of verbiage in moments of emotional enthusiasm when, on that quiet moonlit July night he stands with Ol'ga Ivanovna on the deck of the Volga steamer and speaks about how

in the sight of the fathomless skies and of sad, dreamy banks which speak of the vanity of our life and of the existence of something higher, eternal, and blessed—it would be good to sink into oblivion, to die, to become a memory. The past is banal and uninteresting, the future is insignificant, but this wonderful night, unique in our lives, shall soon end, it shall flow into the eternal—why, then, live?

These romantic reflections about life and death, reminiscent of Čexov's reflections in “The Lady with the Little Dog” which have psychological justification therein, are obviously used here as a parody.

For Rjabovskij it is only a beautiful approach to the declaration of love which is to follow.

But when, after two months, love has gone, and Rjabovskij becomes openly coarse while talking with Ol'ga Ivanovna, here too he is playing a role—that of a martyr:

“Ol'ga, I ask only one thing”, the artist said imploringly with his hand on his heart, “just one thing: don't torture me! I want nothing more from you! …”


She began to sob again and went behind the partition … Rjabovskij clasped his head and paced once from corner to corner, and then with a determined face, as if wishing to prove something to someone, he put on his cap, threw his rifle over his shoulder, and walked out of the hut.

The story of Ol'ga Ivanovna takes place parallel to that of Rjabovskij. It shows how much in common Ol'ga Ivanovna had with the psychology of ‘great’ people like Rjabovskij. She has petty ambitions. The quiet, moonlit night on the Volga and the presence of Rjabovskij caused her to dream that she would become

a great artist and that somewhere there far away beyond the moonlit night, in eternal space—success, glory, and the people's love awaited her. When she gazed into the distance a long time without blinking, she imagined crowds of people, lights, solemn strains of music, shouts of rapture and herself in a white dress and flowers raining down on her from all sides. She also thought that, next to her … stands a really great man, a genius, one chosen by God.

None in her circle of friends and acquaintances ever told her that she was and always would be a dabbler and that she would never be a celebrity. Just the opposite:

Those whom she called famous and great received her as one of their own, as an equal, and prophesied to her in one voice that with her talents, taste, and intelligence, if she would not squander her energies, she could become something great. And Ol'ga Ivanovna believed that glory and a brilliant future awaited her.

Like other quasi-great people, she looked down on common people with pity:

She looked at Korostelev and thought: “Wouldn't it be boring to be so simple, undistinguished, known to nobody, and with such a crumpled face and poor manners?”

Like Rjabovskij she enjoyed playing a beautiful role, and she was carried away by a beautiful phrase. When she wanted to explain to her friends why she had agreed to be Dymov's wife, she spoke of him: “Isn't it true that there is something strong, powerful, bear-like in him?” Ol'ga Ivanovna liked this expression so much that when they started to talk about her latest whim—her participation in the wedding of a certain telegraphist, she said of him to her husband: “A handsome young man … and he has in his face, you know, something strong, bear-like.”

She once spoke of her husband to Rjabovskij: “This man oppresses me with his magnanimity.”

“This sentence”, says Čexov, “pleased her so much that, upon meeting artists who knew of her affair with Rjabovskij, she always spoke of her husband, making an energetic gesture with her hand, ‘This man oppresses me with his magnanimity.’”

One of Ol'ga Ivanovna's peculiarities was that she was very emotional, and was easily carried away, but these emotions were shallow and short-lived. Her love for Rjabovskij was also a transitory passion and not a deep feeling. If she did not let Rjabovskij out of her grasp, if she was jealous and followed him, it was not love but offended pride and a feeling of resentment that he preferred others to her. However, in all her feelings—among which were fear for herself and egoism—Ol'ga Ivanovna was sincere, spontaneous, and she was liked by many because of that. This childlike spontaneity probably attracted Dymov too, causing him to forgive his wife for that which, most likely, he would not forgive in another woman who was cunning and false.

D. Makovickij [Lev Tolstoj's family doctor] stated that when Tolstoj read “The Flutterer”, he said of Ol'ga Ivanovna: “One gets the impression that after his death she will remain exactly the same person.”

In fact, Čexov showed very clearly that innocent selfishness was Ol'ga Ivanovna's basic quality, and to speak of sudden change in her life after undergoing the tragedy is impossible: she was and would remain a ‘flutterer’, shifting easily from one fancy to another, loved by others for her buoyancy and spontaneity but loving only herself.

Dymov's story is told in a parallel way to that of Rjabovskij and Ol'ga Ivanovna and in contrast to it. However, Čexov tells it in a special way—through the medium of small details and of the testimonials of other people.

In the development of the sujet, Ol'ga Ivanovna and Rjabovskij are in the foreground, on the brightly illuminated proscenium, but Dymov is in the shadows. Little is said of him, and he himself says little.

How did Dymov relate to Ol'ga Ivanovna's friends in the first month of his married life? What did he think, what did he feel when Ol'ga Ivanovna left for the Volga with the artists? What did he suffer when he learned of his wife's betrayal? What was the basic cause of his death? What was he as a man of science, as a scholar?

Čexov answered all these questions, but in a completely different way than he did in regard to his other heroes.

Speaking of Rjabovskij and Ol'ga Ivanovna, Čexov, to elucidate their experiences, shows them in action and uses the device of the author's analytic remarks and the hero's internal dialogue.

In relation to Dymov, these devices are employed to a significantly lesser degree: Čexov allows the reader to conjecture independently about everything, using very scant remarks and allusions in the story.

Dymov loved Ol'ga Ivanovna with a boundless, selfless love; he deeply believed in that which was best and truest in her, and he forgave her everything: her idleness, her flippancy, her empty life, her indifference to his work and interests, and the conceit of the ‘great’ people surrounding her. But how is all this shown in the story?

Dymov goes to the dacha to see his wife. “He had not seen her for two weeks and he missed her terribly. Sitting in the train … he felt hungry and tired all the while, and dreamed that he would dine at ease with his wife and then tumble into bed. And it was pleasing for him to look at his bundle in which was wrapped caviar, cheese, and white salmon.” But in the dacha he found two unfamiliar dark haired men with short beards and a fat, beardless actor; Ol'ga Ivanovna, although she was sincerely happy to see him, sent him back immediately to Moscow for her rose colored dress, flowers, and gloves which she needed for the telegraphist's wedding. “Dymov quickly drank up the cup of tea, took a roll, and, smiling meekly, went to the station. The two dark haired men and the fat actor ate the caviar, cheese, and white salmon.”

This cup of tea and roll instead of caviar and white salmon and Dymov's meek smile express much: the childish selfishness of Ol'ga Ivanovna, and in particular Dymov's submissive love.

Or how does Čexov describe the scene of the meeting of Dymov and Ol'ga Ivanovna when she had just returned from the Volga? Here too the reader guesses about Dymov's experiences not on the basis of his words (which are so common, so insignificant in content) but through the description of his manner, in juxtaposition to that of Ol'ga Ivanovna.

When Ol'ga Ivanovna caught sight of his “broad, meek, happy smile and gleaming joyful eyes, she felt that to deceive this person was so base, abominable, and so impossible and as beneath her as it would be for her to slander, steal, or murder …”

“What is it? What is it, darling? Missed me?” he asked tenderly … “Missed me? … Let's sit down! … Like that … Eat some grouse. You have starved yourself, poor thing! …” He glanced at her tenderly and laughed happily …

And how is Dymov's mental state conveyed in that part of the story where he is convinced of his wife's unfaithfulness? The reader expects scenes of jealousy, of a decisive talk between husband and wife, and, perhaps, a separation.

There is nothing of the sort. Externally, life does not change. There are the same evening gatherings on Wednesdays. “The actor read, the artists sketched, the cellist played, the singer sang, and always, at half past eleven, the door to the dining room opened and Dymov, smiling, said: ‘Please, gentlemen, have a bite to eat!’”

Dymov suffers more than many others would in his situation, but he suffers silently, and Čexov does not speak about him directly, but rather indirectly, most of all through the new expression on his face: “As if he had a guilty conscience; he could not look his wife in the eyes, and he did not smile happily upon meeting her.”

The exceptional culture and delicacy on the part of Dymov appear now in those rare moments when he is with Ol'ga Ivanovna; it was at mealtime, and he would invite his friend Korostelev and carry on conversations about medicine “only to give Ol'ga Ivanovna the opportunity to be silent, that is, not to lie”.

When, because of her jealousy towards Rjabovskij, Ol'ga Ivanovna could not control herself and began to sob loudly, “Dymov … went to the bedroom and, embarrassed and confused, said softly: ‘Don't cry loudly, Mama! What for? Better be quiet about it … Better not let people see, hear? … What is done is done …’”

To weaken and soften his grief somehow, Dymov gives himself entirely to medicine and research and achieves very great success.

In this regard, the following brief scene is very telling:

One evening, when she (Ol'ga Ivanovna) was standing in front of her pier-glass dressing for the theater, Dymov entered the bedroom dressed in tails and a white tie. He smiled meekly and, as in the past, joyfully looked his wife in the eyes. His face glowed.


“I was defending my dissertation just now”, he said …


“Successfully?” Ol'ga Ivanovna asked.


“Yes!”—He lauged, and craned his neck to see his wife's face in the mirror; she continued to stand with her back to him and arranged her coiffure. “Yes!” he repeated. “You know, it is quite possible they will offer me the position of assistant professor in general pathology. It's in the air.”


It was evident from his blissful, radiant face, that had Ol'ga Ivanovna shared his joy and triumph with him, he would forgive her everything, both present and future, and would forget everything, but she did not understand the meaning of ‘assistant professor’ or ‘general pathology’, and besides, she was afraid of being late for the theater, so she said nothing.


He sat for two minutes, smiled guiltily and left.

Here Dymov stands before the reader in full stature both as an emerging great scientist and, more important, as a great person with a pure, loving heart, not understood and alone.

Dymov remains so up to the final hours of his life when, fearing for his wife and protecting her, he suffers inwardly and dies alone.

At the end of his story, Čexov gives a general evaluation of his hero through the words of Korostelev:

“He is dying because he sacrificed himself … What a loss for science! … This man, compared with all of us, was a great, extraordinary person. What gifts! What hopes we all had for him! … My God, he was the kind of scholar that can no longer be found. Os'ka Dymov [diminutive of Osip, Dymov's first name], what have you done? Ah, my God!


“And what moral strength! … A pure, good, loving soul—not a man, but a crystal … And he worked like an ox, day and night, and no one spared him …”

In spite of the fact that little was said about Dymov, the reader accepts this testimonial and completely agrees with Čexov's views on the value and beauty of the human soul.

“ANNA AROUND THE NECK” (1895)

In contrast to the story “The Flutterer” which is a family drama in content, “Anna Around the Neck” can be called a social-dramatic story.

The concept of social contradiction, which was so characteristic of Čexov's era and for all of prerevolutionary Russia, is at the base of the story. It is the contradiction between the higher and lower strata of society, between the strong and the weak in their historically established interrelationships: for the strong it was despotism and certainty in their right to coerce and oppress; for the weak it was consciousness of their lack of civil rights, fear, and the submissiveness instilled in them from childhood.

In “Anna Around the Neck” there are allegorical images which illustrate that feeling of panicked fear before the strong who have power; this feeling abides in Anna, the main character, and to a significant degree it determines all her behavior.

At one time in her childhood the high school principal always appeared to her to be a most impressive and fearsome power, approaching like a stormcloud or a locomotive about to run over her; another such power about which they always talked in the family and which they feared for some reason was His Excellency; and there were a dozen other lesser powers … And in Anna's imagination all of these powers fused into one, and in the shape of one huge, frightening white bear they moved on those who were weak and guilty, like her father

For Čexov the terrible power which morally mutilated and crushed Anna and her father was the system of social relationships which existed in his time.

Such is the meaning of “Anna Around the Neck”.

Judging from Čexov's “Notebooks” this story was conceived to show how a difference in social position influences the characters and relations of people and to show the unnatural forms of life and dramatic conflicts which are created by the poverty and lack of rights of some and by the richness and power of others.

The first outline of the sujet of “Anna Around the Neck” which we read in the “Notebooks” says that the story's dramatic conflict was to encompass three characters of opposing social position: a poor girl and two predators who took advantage of her poverty:

The poor girl, a high school student, has five younger brothers; she marries a rich civil servant who begrudges her every piece of bread, demands obedience, gratitude (he made her happy), mocks her relatives: “Each person must have his obligations.” She suffers everything, is afraid to contradict lest she fall into her previous poverty. An invitation to a ball from a superior. She creates a sensation at the ball. An important person falls in love with her, makes her his mistress (she is secure now). When she notices that the superiors are fawning on her, that her husband needs her, then at home she tells him with scorn: “Go away, blockhead.”

In later notes Čexov again returns to the story's sujet and, in part, to the last episode (“Go away, blockhead!”). The psychology of Anna's husband—a rich civil servant—interests him and he outlines his first portrait as emphatically satiric, level:

And he too stood before her now, with the same fawning, sugary expression with which she was accustomed to seeing him in the presence of the powerful and the noble; and with delight, with indignation, and with contempt, knowing that nothing would happen to her for it, she said, pronouncing each word distinctly: “Go away, blockhead!”

In preparing the story for publication, Čexov brought in other characters: a third ‘predator’ (the rich Artynov) and poor people—Anna's father and brothers.

Thus the first variant of the story came into being, and it was printed in the newspaper Russkie Vedomosti in 1895.

The social conflict placed in the foundation of the story was expressed both in the relationships of the characters and in the development of dramatic action.

The characters are sharply divided into opposing sides: the predators and their victims. The dramatic sujet develops along two closely connected lines: one descending (the fate of her father), and the other ascending (Anna's fate).

It is completely clear to the reader that the sujet line of Anna's father proceeds downward. The man is poor, materially insecure, only a teacher of penmanship. Even among high school teachers he stands on the lowest rung of the official ladder; he is weak by nature, crushed by the death of his wife and now again by the loss of his daughter, whom he himself has handed over to the predators. It scarcely can be doubted that his position is hopeless and that poverty, solitude, and life catastrophe await him.

The problem of the sujet line of Anna is more complicated. Subjectively, in her own consciousness, her life follows an ascending line: she is not a victim, she believes in the power of her beauty and youth and goes voluntarily to meet her shameful fate. But objectively, in the reader's moral assessment, Anna is nonetheless a victim of social conditions: having succumbed to the temptation of a brilliant and probably precarious, temporary success, she loses herself, her moral personality, and all that which was good in her before her marriage.

The complexity of Anna's character and situation and that of her father prompted Čexov to pay close attention to the psychological motivation of their actions. Insofar as their life was interwoven with the life of Anna's husband and her possessors. Čexov also had to reveal the psychology of the latter in some detail. Psychological portrait, description of the surroundings, and also interior monologue served Čexov as the basic means of elucidating the experiences of Anna and the other protagonists of the story.

Reworking the story, Čexov deepens Anna's character and elaborates more precisely the motives of her relationship to her husband. To do this, he brings in some supplements to the portrait of this man—Modest Alekseič.

In the first variant which was printed in Russkie Vedomosti, the following was said of Modest Alekseič: “He was a civil servant of medium height, rather portly, with long sideburns but no moustache …”

In the final text, printed in Čexov's collected works,3 we read: “He was a civil servant of medium height, rather portly, flabby, very well-fed, with long sideburns but lacking a moustache.”

And further—in the first variant: “The chief characteristic in his face was the absence of moustache, the cleanly shaven, naked spot which gradually merged into his cheeks.”

In the reworking he added something to the word cheeks: “into his fat cheeks which quivered like jelly.

These additions help one better understand Anna's feeling of aversion towards her husband: “The soft movement of his flabby body frightened her; she felt terrified and disgusted.

Anna's aversion was aggravated by Modest Alekseič's character—by his callousness and stinginess. Čexov emphasized these features too in the reworking of the story.

Instead of helping Anna's father and brothers, Modest Alekseič read them admonitions.

“But he gave them no money. To make up for it he gave Anna rings, bracelets, and brooches, saying it is good to have these things for a rainy day.”

So it reads in the first version.

In the rewriting there was an addition: “And often he opened her chest of drawers and inspected to see if all these things were still there.

Modest Alekseič's stinginess and distrust, his suspiciousness about his wife, are communicated not with dialogue and not with a new sermon, but by one single description of his movements: the reader sees Modest Alekseič unlocking the chest of drawers and inspecting the objects therein—and the reader then makes conclusions about him as a person.

One other reason for Anna's aversion and hatred for her husband was his open groveling before all who had power over him.

After His Excellency honored Anna with his attention, Modest Alekseič began to fawn upon his wife too. In the first version of the story literally the same thing is said of him as had been written in a notebook previously: “And he also stood before her now, with the same fawning, sugary expression with which she was used to seeing him in the presence of the powerful and the noble.”

On reworking, Čexov strengthened the elements of servility in the portrait of Modest Alekseič: “He stood with the same fawning, sugary slavishly deferential expression, which …” etc.

It was bad enough that Modest Alekseič himself was a groveller, but he demanded the same sort of slavish deference from his wife too.

“Bow to this old lady!”


“But I don't know her.”


“That doesn't matter. It is the wife of the Director of the Treasury Office! Bow, I tell you”, he grumbled urgently. “Your head won't fall off.”

Čexov reproduced this dialogue in its entirety in the new edition. But he made an addition: “Anja [Anja, Anjuta—diminutive of Anna] bowed and, to be sure, her head did not fall of, but it was painful.

It is clear how much all these supplements—for the most part, of a descriptive portrait nature—gave to the reader: they deepened one's understanding of Anna and especially of the hatred towards her husband which slowly accumulated in her soul.

To explain Anna's situation even further, Čexov makes insertions when rewriting the story (this time along the path of direct characterization).

Instead of the words “Anna had as little money as before her marriage” (as it was in the first edition), Čexov speaks extensively:

She did everything her husband desired and was angry at herself because he had cheated her as he would a complete little fool. She had married him only for his money, but now she had less money than before her marriage. Before at least, her father would give her a twenty kopeck piece, but now she didn't get a penny.

All of this leads the reader to understand the scene showing Anna and her husband together for the last time (later we see her either in ‘society’ or with Artynov); this is the scene where she calls her husband a blockhead.

One must read the story very carefully, especially all the additions to it which we have pointed out, in order to understand how much bitterness, indignation, contempt, and thirst for revenge accumulated in Anna; so much accumulated that at her very first opportunity she could immediately free herself from her usual fear of her husband and say:

“Go away, blockhead!”

This was the rebellion of a slave who could rise up against her master only because she was now under the protection of another, more powerful master.

Such was one order of Anna's thoughts and feelings which was connected with her relationship with her husband.

Čexov presents another series of her experiences which is also germane to understanding her character and fate. He also makes these experiences more accurate and deep in his creative reworking of the story: to a significant degree, he does this by using interior monologue and psychological portrait.

This series is about Anna's thirst for life and her confidence in a happy future.

Anna's views on happiness were, it is true, very limited, impoverished, Philistine—riches, finery, amusements, success with men—but these were firm views, most likely learned in childhood when Anna's mother, a former governess, was alive. “Her late mother … always dressed in the latest fashion and always fussed over Anja. She dressed her elegantly, like a doll, and taught her to speak French and to dance the mazurka perfectly.”

Faith in her happiness does not desert Anja in the most difficult moments of her life. Thus after her wedding she rides in a train with her husband, depressed by the realization of her terrible mistake, but when the train stops at a small station surrounded by summer houses she steps onto the platform, shakes hands with some acquaintances, and smiled happily.

She noticed (Čexov wrote in the first variant of the story) that Artynov was watching her, and she spoke with a lady friend in French, and because music was heard and the moon was reflected in the pond and because Artynov, that well known Don Juan and rogue, was looking at her greedily and with curiosity—she was already humming a waltz … and she returned to the compartment with the feeling that at the station they had assured her that she would certainly be happy, come what may.

In the reworked text some words are changed and some insertions made: “When she noticed that Artynov was watching her, she narrowed her eyes coquettishly and began to speak loudly in French, and because her own voice sounded so beautiful and music was heard. … (further as in the first version) And when the train began to move … she was already humming a polka …” (further as in the first version).

The changes which we have noted in the text were obviously calculated to emphasize more strongly Anna's certitude that her power was in her beauty and that it would certainly bring happiness to her.

It is interesting that in the new version Anja hummed a polka, not a waltz. Čexov probably found that the brisk and happy rhythm of the polka better expressed the mood of light-hearted Anja than did the rhythm of the waltz.

Čexov worked particularly on the ball scene—the scene which depicts the moment of the break in Anna's life.

“They went to the ball …” Further on in the first variant Čexov tells briefly of how Anna went up the stairs of the Nobility Club, entered the hall, recognized her friends in the crowd, etc.

Looking over the text, Čexov considered that it was essential to give a more detailed, step by step description of Anna's impressions of the Nobility Club which was so unlike the depression she experienced from the maddeningly boring government apartment of her husband.

After the words “They went to the ball” comes an insertion:

Here is the Nobility Club and the doorway with the porter. The anteroom with hangers; fur coats, scurrying servants and ladies in decollete shielding themselves with fans from the piercing draught; it smells of illuminating gas and of soldiers.

And Čexov adds further “An orchestra was already thundering in the great hall … Anja glanced over the hall and thought ‘Ah, how lovely!’”

“A huge officer came up and ‘invited her to waltz,’” Čexov wrote in the first variant. He later changed the words “came up” to “sprang up as if from the ground”—which were more picturesque and more expressively corresponded to Anna's elated mood.

Speaking of Anna's success during the dances, Čexov, in the reworked text, again emphasizes her confidence in herself and in her awaited happiness. Instead of the words of the first version: “She was a success with the men and realized it”, Čexov writes: “She was a success with the men, that was clear—it could not have been otherwise …”

In this way the central decisive episode—the mazurka—was approached.

The description of the mazurka in its vividness and plasticity of presentation is one of Čexov's greatest artistic achievements; this scene deserves to be considered equal to similar masterpieces of Tolstoj such as his description of Nataša Rostova's first ball.

We will allow ourselves to reproduce Čexov's description in its entirety as it appeared in the first edition:

She danced the mazurka with the same huge officer. He walked with an air of importance and moved his shoulders and chest and stamped his feet with an expression as if he were quite unwilling to dance, but she flew about, exciting him with her beauty and her uncovered neck; her eyes burned with fervor, her movements were passionate, but he became all the more indifferent and he held his hands to her condescendingly, like a king.


“Bravo, bravo!” was heard from the crowd.


But little by little even the huge officer broke through; he grew animated, excited, and now, yielding to her charm, was carried away and his movements became light and youthful, but she only twisted her shoulders and glanced coquettishly, and at that moment it seemed to her that the whole ballroom was watching them, and that all these people were thrilled and envied her …

Yet as good as this picture was, Čexov felt it necessary in the working to add still a few touches which made the picture even more expressive.

With a few brief insertions and word changes he sharpened his contrast between Anna and the tall officer.

Instead of “He walked with an air of importance” Čexov wrote: “He walked with an air of importance, heavily, like a hulk in a uniform.” Instead of “stamped his feet with an expression as if he were quite unwilling to dance”, Čexov wrote in the new version: “He barely stamped his feet—he was loath to dance.

These changes made the external appearance of the officer even more vivid and besides, they explained his mood in a different way: he did not pretend that he did not want to dance, but he actually started to dance without any enthusiasm; being an experienced dancer, he reluctantly made familiar movements, hence: he “barely stamped his feet”. Such a change in presenting the officer was necessary since otherwise the following paragraph beginning with the words “But little by little even the huge officer broke through” would not have been understood.

Čexov also made additions to the description of Anna. Instead of the words “but she only twisted her shoulders and glanced coquettishly”, Čexov wrote: “But she only twisted her shoulders and glanced coquettishly, as if she were already a queen, and he a slave”. The insertion was made with the same high level of contrast; it depicts Anna more clearly and at the same time it is a sort of transition to the following scene: the crowd parted and His Excellency comes to Anna. So begins a new period of her life.

Anna enters a world which is new to her—a world of the provincial aristocracy, of Artynovs and of ‘ladies of high society’. She “knew that she was created solely for this noisy, brilliant, happy life of music, dances, admirers …”

Her attitude towards her family and father changes immediately. When Anna, as requested by the governor's wife, was in charge of a booth at a charity bazaar, her father, among other people, came up to her. In the first, newspaper text this scene was presented as follows:

Petr Leont'ič, already pale but still steady on his feet, came up to the booth and asked for a glass of cognac. Anja blushed, expecting him to say something out of place, but he drank it up, threw down a ten ruble note from his roll, and walked away with an air of dignity, not saying a word.

From this scene the reader could draw the conclusion that only her father's condition shocked Anna—that she feared that, being somewhat unsober, he would do or say something out of place at the ball and thereby place her in an awkward, ridiculous position.

But reworking the text, Čexov makes a substantial addition showing that this was not quite the point. After the words “Anja blushed, expecting him to say something out of place” Čexov adds parenthetically “She was already ashamed that she had such a poor, common father.” This new feeling of Anna's explains why, after the ball, she gradually becomes distant from her family, “she visits them less and less often”, does not help them, and casts them to the whims of fate.

Čexov, passing over to the new period in Anna's life, makes the governor (His Excellency) and Artynov basic characters. In the reworking of the story Čexov does not leave these characters unattended—he makes them more specific through the devices of portraiture.

In the first edition the scene where His Excellency makes his acquaintance with Anna begins:

It was His Excellency with two decorations who was walking towards her, looking directly at her and smiling. “Delighted, delighted”, he began.

In the reworked story there is a large interpolation which depicts the main features of this predator:

It was His Excellency wearing a dresscoat with two decorations who was walking towards her, … Yes, His Excellency was walking towards her, because he was looking directly at her and giving her a sugery smile and working his lips as he always did when he saw pretty women.

A similar addition was made to the portrait of His Excellency in the scene of his visit to Anna on the day following the ball: “Looking at her with a sugary smile and working his lips, he kissed her hand and asked permission to visit again …”

This portrait of the old libertine makes it clear that Anna endured his attentions only in the face of extreme necessity, and also that shortly afterwards Artynov assumed the first role among her admirers.

To an extent greater than that of the others, the image of this third predator is shown through his appearance, dress, and manners.

Artynov is the only hero in the story who does not say a single word, yet the reader pictures him clearly and does not confuse him with anyone else.

We first see him in the beginning—in the scene on the platform of the small station near the summer houses.

Even in the first (newspaper) version Čexov presents an extensive portrait of Artynov in this scene:

Here too was Artynov, the owner of the whole town of dachas, rich, tall, stout, dark-haired, very well-fed, with bulging eyes and in a strange costume. He wore a peasant shirt open on the chest, riding boots with spurs, and a black cloak fell from his shoulders and dragged on the ground like a train. Behind him walked two Russian borzois with their sharp muzzles to the ground.

In this portrait everything which ought to have made an impression on Anja was noted! Artynov's interesting appearance, his pretentiously original clothes, and, most important, his wealth.

In rewriting the text, Čexov strengthened even further the features of Artynov's ‘irresistibility’. To show what sort of impression Anja made on him, Čexov introduced a new detail into the portrait: “Artynov, that notorious Don Juan and playboy, was looking at her greedily and with curiosity.

This detail is very significant: it shows Artynov's most characteristic trait in his attitude towards women and it prepares the reader for the role which he will later play in Anja's life, and in addition, this detail specifies one more feature of Anja: Artynov's ‘greedy’ attention did not offend Anja at all—on the contrary, it flattered her ego quite a bit that a man with the reputation of a local Don Juan was interested in her.

We see Artynov a second time at the ball—to be exact, at the charity bazaar, near Anna:

Wheezing asthmatically, Artynov, the rich man with the bulging eyes, came up, but he no longer had on that strange outfit in which Anja had seen him in the summer; he wore tails like everyone else. Without taking his eyes off of Anja, he drank a glass of champagne and paid a hundred rubles for it, then he drank some tea and paid another hundred—in complete silence, suffering from asthma.

Once more in the portrait of Artynov his eyes call attention to themselves: he stood silently, not taking his eyes off of Anja.

This silent, persistent gaze of Artynov—the conqueror of women's hearts—somehow brings to mind a boa constrictor gazing at a rabbit which it has chosen to devour.

The last time that we see Artynov is during a drive with Anja along Old Kiev Street; he is sitting on the box of the coach in place of the coachman.

In general, it is truly a ‘romance without words’, told exclusively through verbal portraiture.

In conclusion, it is fitting to pause on the second, descending sujet line of the story, which reveals the fate of Petr Leont'ič, Anna's father.

As in certain other of Čexov's dramatic stories such as “The Flutterer”, “Anna Around the Neck” is built on the principle of a dual level of sujet—a characteristic feature of Čexov's works.

In the foreground are Anna, her husband, and her admirers. The story is mainly about them, and the reader gets the impression that these are the main heroes, through whom the ideological scheme of the author is revealed.

Anna's father and brothers stand in the background; they might be taken for secondary figures, introduced into the story only so that the character and fate of the main hero can be revealed more clearly.

One might interpret “Anna Around the Neck” in that way at the first reading.

But, if one penetrates more attentively to the content of the story, and if one contrasts Anna's story with that of her father, then it becomes clear that the second sujet line has an independent role and that, as far as the understanding of the deep social thought of the story is concerned, the image of her father contributes no less than that of Anna.

Likewise, just as in “The Flutterer” the dramatic thought of the story is revealed not through the image of the frivolous, empty Ol'ga Ivanovna, but through the image of her husband, Doctor Dymov, whose spiritual story takes place almost exclusively behind the scenes, so in “Anna Around the Neck” the truly tragic hero in the final account turns out to be not Anna, but her father—in spite of the fact that Čexov does not seem to devote sufficient attention to him.

Petr Leont'ič is presented in the story in six rather short scenes and primarily through a psychological portrait.

The most significant of these portrait sketches are the first and the last scenes, since the whole fate of the hero is shown in them.

When they saw the newlyweds off at the train station,

Petr Leont'ič, in a top hat and a schoolmaster's coat, already drunk and very pale, kept reaching toward the train window with his glass and said beggingly:


“Anjuta! Anja! Anja—just one word!”


Anja leaned towards him from the window and he whispered something to her; enveloping her in the sour smell of wine, he breathed in her ear—she could not understand a word—and made the sign of the cross on her face, bosom, and hands, and his breathing became unsteady and his eyes glistened with tears. Anja's brothers, Petja and Andrjuša, school boys, pulled him back by his coat and whispered with embarrassment:


“Papa dear, enough—Papa dear, don't …”


When the train moved, Anja saw her father running a bit behind it, staggering and spilling his wine, and how pitiful, kind, and guilty a face he had.


“Hurra-a-ah!” he shouted.

This first scene tells how much Petr Leont'ič loved his daughter, how he was sorry for her and felt guilty towards her, but nonetheless hoped that the marriage, perhaps, would be successful, how his children loved him, and how weak and pitiful a person he was.

And now the final scene. An inveterate drunkard, Petr Leont'ič met Anja several times on the road when she was driving with Artynov—he “took off his top hat and was about to shout something, when Petja and Andrjuša held his arms and pleaded: ‘Don't Papa dear, … Please, enough Papa dear,. …’”

There is a great external connection between these two scenes: the same drunken Petr Leont'ič in the same top hat, and Anja again drives away from him, and he again tries to say something to her, and his children still hold him back, but what a difference there is in the meaning of these scenes!

Earlier there was the closeness between father and daughter and a certain hope for her happiness, but now there is alienation and despair.

Čexov's mastery is evident here not only in that by contrapositioning two analogous short scenes he could show the essence of Petr Leont'ič's life, but that by these scenes he still provided unity and completeness to the whole story.

The perfection of its structure is one of the reasons why “Anna Around the Neck” is rightly counted among Čexov's best stories.

“ON THE CART” (1897)

Among Čexov's lyrico-dramatic stories it is necessary to single out a group of stories in which one of the aspects of this genre—lyricism—appears with exceptional clarity.

One must pay particular attention to these stories since they are significant in the study of the artistic mastery of Čexov the lyricist.

Of the stories in this group, Čexov by the second half of the 1880s had written “Dreams” (1886), a story valued very highly by D. Grigorovič for its plasticity of artistic depiction, “On Easter Eve” (1886), and “Happiness” (1887); the last of these Čexov himself called a quasi-symphony and considered “the best of all my stories”.4 However, most of these stories were written in the 1890s. These were “In Exile” (1892), “The Student” (1894), “The Head Gardener's Story” (1894), “The House with the Mezzanine” (1896), “On the Cart” (1897), “A Case from a Doctor's Practice” (1897), and “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899).

One must also include in this group Čexov's final story, written shortly before his death—“The Betrothed”.

What is the basic feature of these stories which may tentatively be called ‘lyrical’?

It consists in that Čexov, truthfully depicting reality in ‘lyrical’ stories, directs his main attention toward revealing his attitude towards this reality, or, as Gor'kij said of him in 1900, toward showing “his concept of the world and his role in it”. While depicting life, Čexov—in Gor'kij's words—“illuminates its boredom, its absurdity, its yearnings, and all its chaos from a higher point of view. And although this point of view is elusive, not lending itself to definition … it was always felt in his stories, and becomes all the stronger.”5

This “higher point of view” did not, in Čexov, take the form of a specific system of philosophical and socio-political opinions, as for example, in the case of Tolstoj and Dostoevskij, and it was for him a source of a lyrical elucidation of human life.

It was a faith in man, a deep dissatisfaction with the present and dream of a bright future, not the dream of an Oblomov or of a Manilov,6 but an active one which incites to action, to battle.

Čexov's dream is always directed towards a goal: it takes its shape by the situation of a given hero, but in addition it always has a broader, general meaning and becomes a symbol of man's yearning for a fulfilling life.

Old Semën (“In Exile”) has worked out his own original system for reconciliation with his hard life: he believes that all yearnings for freedom, for a life which is truly alive, are stupid and a temptation from the devil. “It is the devil tempting you”, he says to his co-worker, a young exiled Tatar, who dreams of his homeland and his young wife.

“Do not listen to the accursed one. Do not give way to him. When he tempts you with a woman, defy him and say, ‘I do not want this.’ When he tempts you with freedom, rebuke him, saying, ‘I do not want that either.’ One needs nothing. No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no yard, no stick! Nothing, damn it!”

Semën scoffs at the exiled ‘gentleman’ who dreams of living in Siberia by his own work, and who wants with all his heart to bring his wife and daughter there. “Catch the winds in the field! Take the devil by his tail—damn it! What strange people, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Through the lips of the young Tatar, Čexov flatly condemns such a mode of reconciliation.

“He good … good, and you—bad! You—bad! Gentleman is good soul, but you—beast, you—bad! Gentleman—alive, but you—dead … God made man to be alive so there would be joy, and grief and woe, but you don't want nothing. So you are not alive, but stone, clay! …”

The Swedish legend forming the basic content of “The Head Gardener's Story” has an even more symbolic meaning.

A doctor, a most remarkable person, in whose breast “beat a wonderful, angelic heart”, had settled in a small town. He loved and helped everyone, and everyone loved him. “Adults and children, good and bad, honest men and swindlers—all respected him and knew his worth.”

And this man … was found murdered. The murderer was arrested. At his trial he stubbornly denied his guilt, but all the evidence pointed to him and did not give rise to any doubt.

“Defendant!” the Chief judge addressed the murderer. “The Court finds you guilty of the murder of the doctor and sentences you to …”


The Chief judge had wanted to say ‘to death’ but he dropped from his hands the paper on which the sentence was written, wiped away the cold sweat and shouted:


“No. If I am rendering an incorrect judgment, then let God punish me, but I swear that this man is not guilty! I regard it inconceivable that a man can exist who would dare to kill our dear doctor. Man is incapable of falling so low …”


They set the murderer free and no one reproached the judges for making an unjust decision …


“Let the verdict of not guilty bring harm to the townspeople (so the head gardener (and with him, Čexov) ends the story) but in turn consider what a beneficial effect this faith in man had on them, a faith which does not remain inactive; it breeds feelings of generosity in us and always induces us to love and respect each person. Each one! And that is important.”

The lyrical content of his stories demanded new devices of artistic mastery from Čexov.

The chain of events in these stories occupies a secondary place. Sometimes there are either no events or else they are kept to a minimum. In the story “Happiness” there are three characters: two shepherds, one old, one young, watching over a flock of sheep in the steppe, and a horse patrol. All three speak about buried treasure and happiness, but during the whole conversation they do not ‘act’, but remain almost motionlessly in place; the shepherds lie down, and the horseman stands near his horse, leaning on the saddle. There are no events—the entire interest of the story is in the dialogue, which is very vivid and expressive, in the discourses and daydreams of the old man, and in the lyrical tone of the narrator and author.

Sometimes an extensive sujet is presented, as for example in “The House with the Mezzanine” and particularly in “The Lady with the Little Dog”, but such a sujet is permeated with lyricism: almost every event is accompanied by lyrical statements on the part of the hero, on the part of the author directly, and Čexov's point of view appears quite clearly in each.

The basic conflict of these essentially lyrical stories is not the collision of persons, as takes place in stories with a predominance of dramatic conflict, but a collision of feelings, of the hero's yearnings; the conflict in these stories is not so much external as internal.

The artistic devices primarily used in these stories are aimed towards emotional expressivity—toward the strengthening of the intonational aspect of the work. Structurally, it is the contrast of images and the repetition of impressions, and linguistically it is the use of emotional words, expressions, turns of syntax, musicality, and closeness to metric speech.

One of the stories most characteristic in this respect is “On the Cart”, written by Čexov in 1897.

Judging by the original scheme of this story—as Čexov entered in a notebook—the story was to have had a plot based on a chain of events. Here is the plan:

A woman teacher in a village. From a good family. Brother is an officer somewhere. Orphaned, became a teacher by necessity. Day after day, endless evenings, without sympathy, without endearment; personal life dies, no satisfaction since there is no time to think of high goals, and you don't see the results … In the coach of a train slowly passing by she caught sight of a lady who looked like her dead mother, suddenly she imagined that she was a girl, felt as she did fifteen years ago, and kneeling on the grass, she said tenderly, kindly, imploringly: O Mama! And coming to herself, she quietly wandered home. Earlier she had written to her brother but did not get an answer, he probably forgot. She became coarsened, hardened … Now she would stand when the inspector or trustee entered and said of them: “they”7

In this scheme the general idea and basic tone of the story were specified, and the central episode (the recollection of her mother) was outlined, but when the story was actually written, significant changes were brought into the original plan and into the content.

“On the Cart” is the description of the trip of Marja Vasil'evna, a teacher, from the city where she had gone for her pay to the village Vyazovie, where her school is located. This trip took several hours, from morning till evening.

The story is contained in the frame: “At half past eight in the morning they left the town. … And this is Vyazovie. Here we are.”

The trip itself was of no interest to Marja Vasil'evna. “She had been a teacher for thirteen years. One could not count how many times in all these years she had gone to the city for her pay.”

This was an ordinary trip in a wagon, ‘on a cart’, and the things which happened on the road were ordinary. Xanov, a landowner, passed them on the road, driving in a coach and four; in the afternoon they stopped by a tavern in Lower Gorodishche to rest and drink some tea; while passing through a stream swollen by spring floods, Marja Vasil'evna got soaked and ruined the sugar and flour which she had purchased in the city.

The episode of her imaginary meeting with her mother was the only exceptional thing, but this still was not a real but an illusionary ‘event’ characteristic of the teacher's inner condition.

The basic content of the story is not in this chain of events, but in the heroine's experiences, her impressions of the world about her, and her feelings, recollections, and dreams.

The lyrical content also determined the story's devices, its structure, and language.

The basic structural devices are contraposition, which gives nuances and emphasis to lyrical experiences, and recurrence of these experiences.

At the very beginning of the story a sharp contrast is given between the spring landscape and the way it is perceived by the teacher.

“The road was dry and a wonderful April sun shone warmly.” One must recall that Čexov loved spring and understood quite well the spiritual uplift, the feeling of joy which overwhelms people in spring. “The snow has not yet left the ground”, he wrote in the story “In the Spring” (1881), “but spring already seeks to enter the soul. If you have ever recuperated from a serious illness, then you know that blissful condition when your breath weakens from vague presentiments and you smile for no reason at all. Evidently, nature, too, now experiences such a feeling.”

It would seem that Marja Vasil'evna ought to have experienced a spiritual uplift of this sort in April, but for her “neither warmth, nor the languid, limpid forests warmed with the breath of spring, nor the black flocks flying in the field above the huge puddles that looked like lakes, nor that sky, wonderful and bottomless, where, it seemed, one would very happily go—none of this presented anything new or interesting.”

Marja Vasil'evna's experiences are in sharp contrast. On one hand there is the monotonous, boring, oppressive present, but then there are the wonderful, moving recollections of the distant past when she lived with her family and was “young, beautiful, and smartly dressed”, and her even more beautiful dreams of the future—that she would marry Xanov and devote the remainder of her life to saving him from his colorless life and downfall.

The contrast between the reality in which the teacher has been living and her dreams—whether directed towards the past or to the future—is the basis of the story and permeates it from beginning to end.

This contrast is found in conjunction with repetition. Marja's experiences, her thoughts about what is, was, and shall be, are repeated constantly, replacing each other systematically. This change of moods and their orderly transition give the story a certain emotional rhythm.

Marja Vasil'evna rides on and thinks about her school, and “about the impending examination for which she will present four boys and one girl”.

At that moment she is overtaken by Xanov, who, in spite of his forty years, “is still handsome and liked by women”. Marja Vasil'evna thinks about Xanov, about how he was with her at an examination and she liked him, and how she felt shy sitting next to him.

Thoughts about school arise anew: how difficult it was to work because no one helped her—neither the president of the Zemstvo,8 nor the inspector, nor the trustee of the school who was a semi-literate peasant and the owner of a tannery.

“He is really handsome”, she thought, glancing at Xanov. Marja's thoughts now take a new direction: she thinks of Xanov and is surprised that with his wealth, interesting looks, and good education, he cannot lead a normal life or help others, even to the extent of repairing the road on which they are now travelling. He is kind, gentle, and naive—he knows that rough life no better than he knows the prayers at the examination …

But reality rudely disturbs these dreams.

“Hold on, Vasil'evna!” said Semën. The cart lurched severely and almost overturned …”

And again thoughts about Xanov—how good it would be for both of them if she were his wife.

“She thought again about her students, about the examination, about the janitor, and about the school board …”

But “she wanted to think of his beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness which would never be”.

And so, dreams and reality alternate with each other until the end of the story.

A certain digression from this structural device is found in the scene in the tavern, an extensively detailed scene of ordinary life, presenting Marja Vasil'evna in the environment of peasants, among whom she lives and to whom she has been called to teach and educate.

Here Čexov depicts the peasants of his time with the same mastery of a writer-realist as he does in his “The Peasants” and other stories about the old countryside.

The peasants consider the teacher one of their own, and her appearance at the tavern is not of special notice, but she is an educated person, a ‘lady’, and one must treat her with respect. Some drunken peasant swears, and Semën stops him:

“Why are you swearing, you there! … Don't you see there's a lady present?”

He is first met with a reply which is not favorable to Marja Vasil'evna:

“A lady …” somebody in the corner mimicked.


“Lousy pig …”

But in general the peasants' attitude was positive.

“Wait, brother! … It's the teacher from Vyazovie … We know her. A fine lady.”


“A respectable lady.”

When the peasants were leaving the tavern, “the same drunk who had first offended her went up to Marja Vasil'evna and shook her hand; others, following his example, also offered their hands in parting …”

This brief but very lively scene shows the crudeness of the environment in which the teacher lived. It also shows that the possibility of her having some cultural influence on the peasants is far from hopeless.

But there was still much coarseness as is shown in the following scene where Semën fords the stream, not wanting to go to the bridge as Xanov did, and thereby causing Marja Vasil'evna great annoyance. However, she “only threw up her hands in despair and said: ‘Ah, Semën, Semën! What are you, really!’”

If the interchange of reality and dream, the contrasting repetition of feelings, is the basic principle in the structure of the story, then one must add to this that in Marja Vasil'evna's repeated impressions there is movement and intensification. In the beginning, she is indifferent: “It was all the same to her”, and she thinks only about the present. But with every new impression, all her recollections of her past life and all her dreams of happiness are strengthened, and all her thoughts of the present become more obsessive and sharpened. In the conclusion of the story—after the episode of fording the stream, where the teacher's helplessness and her bitter lot are displayed in all their force—we find in sharp contrast an illusory picture of a happy life, and this picture unites the dreams of the past and those of the future.

When, shivering from the cold, Marja Vasil'evna catches sight of a lady in the passing train who resembles her long departed mother,

vividly, with striking clarity … she imagined her mother, father, brother, their apartment in Moscow, the aquarium with the little fish, everything, up to the smallest detail; suddenly she heard a piano playing and her father's voice … ; a feeling of joy and happiness suddenly seized her and with delight she pressed her temples with her palms and called out tenderly, imploringly,


“Mama!”


And she began to cry, not knowing why. At the very same moment Xanov drove up in his carriage, and seeing him she imagined happiness such as never existed and she smiled, nodding to him as an equal and close friend, and it seemed to her that her happiness and exultation shone everywhere, in the sky, in the windows, and in the trees …

The climax of Marja Vasil'evna's experience is in this lyrical finale.9 This is a generalizing, synthetic picture, in which the best recollections of the past and the brightest dreams of the future are fused.

The lyrical content of this story demanded of Čexov not only a particular sort of structure, but also the use of appropriate language.

The most essential element in the story's lexicon and syntax is the reflection of the contradiction between dream and reality. Where the road, Semën, the school, and daily life are described, the language is clear, and, if it is the language of the characters, it is characteristic of the individual who is speaking. On the other hand where Marja Vasil'evna's recollections and dreams are presented, or where the author himself gives an evaluation of the life portrayed, the language becomes emotional, musical, and rhythmic.

Here are examples of both types of language:

They turned off of the highway onto a country road: Xanov in front, Semën following.

(A short sentence, but the words are selected so successfully and exactly that the reader visualizes this picture.)

The team of four horses went along the road at a slow pace, straining to pull the heavy carriage through the mud. Semën manoeuvered about, sometimes leaving the road to go by way of a hillock or a meadow, often jumping down from the cart and helping the horse.

(Again a very clear picture, built on a selection of simple words, often encountered in conversation, but of the perfectly exact sort which were indispensable in the given situation.)

Such was also the language used to describe the tavern.

Here Čexov considers it necessary to describe first with complete exactness what Marja Vasil'evna saw when she entered the tavern. He says that “carts stood” near the tavern, that they “carried large containers of oil of vitriol” and that these carts stood “on dung-strewn ground where snow still lingered”—everything is so clear that one could draw a picture from this description.

The atmosphere of a country tavern of that time is sketched just as clearly and distinctly:

There were many people in the tavern, all of them drivers, and it smelled of vodka, tobacco, and sheepskin. A loud conversation was in progress and the door, connected to a pulley weight, kept slamming. In the store behind the wall, someone was playing an according without stopping.

Here we find the same thing as before: short sentences, careful word selection, everything very realistic, objective, with no evaluation on the part of the author, graphic and typical to the highest degree.

This simple language is interspersed every now and then with another language full of emotional epithets, and, sometimes, similes. Marja Vasil'evna sees Xanov:

Next to old Semën he seemed well proportioned and vigorous but there was something hardly noticeable in his gait, which betrayed him as one who was already poisoned, weak, and doomed … “And it is inexplicable”, she thought, “why God gives good looks, affability, and sad sweet eyes to weak, unhappy, helpless people, why are they so attractive.”

And when, after this, Marja Vasil'evna returns to her sad thoughts about the conditions of her life in school, Čexov finds other, equally emotional epithets to express these thoughts:

She had to collect money from her students for firewood and for the janitor's pay, turn it over to the trustee, and then implore him, this well-fed, insolent peasant, as an act of charity, to send them firewood … And because of such a life she aged, became coarsened, homely, angular, clumsy, as if she were filled with lead

The language is particularly emotional in the concluding scene of the story, which has been quoted above: this scene culminates not only the presentation of Marja Vasil'evna's mood, but, in harmony with this, the emotionality of the story's language.

Lyricism finds its expression, apart from the lexicon, in the peculiarities of syntactic construction.

If, in the description of objects, everyday life, etc., Čexov uses simple sentences, he prefers more complex structures of speech when he depicts the more or less complex and contradictory experiences of the heroine.

These structures consist of compound sentences with repeated conjunctions: and-and-and, or-or-or.

Here was her past, her present, and she could not imagine a different future—only the school, the road to the city and back, and again school, and again the road. … And whether it was spring, as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter—it was all the same to her.

Yet another example:

And because of such a life she aged … and is afraid of everything, and she rises at the arrival of a member of the Zemstvo or of the trustee of the school, not daring to sit down, and when she speaks about any of them, she uses a respectful ‘they’. And nobody likes her, and her life goes on in boredom.

Marja Vasil'evna's thoughts and dreams are sometimes presented by interrogative or exclamatory sentences:

“He only donates globes to the school”, she thinks of Xanov, “but who needs his globes here?”


“To be a wife! … To be a wife! …”


On the platform of one of the coaches of the train stood a woman, and Marja Vasil'evna glanced at her briefly: Mother! What a resemblance! …

Finally, the musicality and rhythm of speech also constitute one of the peculiarities of Čexov's lyrical stories. The emphatic use of rhythm to whatever degree possible without destroying the naturalness and vivacity of speech is given in the very beginning of the story.

Šossé býlo súxo” (‘the highway was dry’)—thus from the very first words a rhythmic perception of the text is presented; “prekrásnoe aprél'skoe sólnce síl'no grélo, no v kanávax i v lesú ležál eščé sneg” (‘a wonderful April sun shone warmly, but snow still lay in the ditches and in the forest’) also rings out like a musical phrase.

I vsegdá, neizménno, xotélos' odnogó: poskorée by doéxat” (‘and she invariably wanted only to get there as quickly as possible’)—there is no doubt that the rhythm here is felt very clearly.

This musical element in the presentation of the story's lyricism is so overpowering that the reader carries it into those parts of the story where there is no regular pattern of accented syllables and where rhythm cannot be shown graphically.

This is especially true in the final part. If the reader were to read the final scene aloud, he would unwittingly make pauses and modify the tempo of the speech as in reading verse, permitting variety in the construction of rhythmic units, and would unconsciously strive to reproduce the musical sounds of that scene in which the story's lyricism appears with the greatest strength.

Čexov called his story “Happiness” a symphony. The story “On the Cart” has equal right to such a name.

Notes

  1. [From: V. V. Golubkov, Masterstvo A. P. Čexova (Moskva, Gosudarstvennoe Učebno-Pedagogičeskoe Izdatel'stvo, 1958), pp. 119–125; 126–159.]

  2. [This incorrect expression shows Rjabovskij's clowning.]

  3. [Edited by Čexov himself and published in 1901.]

  4. Letter to Ja. P. Polonskij dated March 25, 1888. A. P. Čexov, Sobranie sočinenij v 12ti tomax (Moskva, Goslitizdat, 1956).

  5. M. Gor'kij and A. Čexov, Perepiska (Moskva, Goslitizdat, 1951), p. 124.

  6. [Oblomov, a character of Gončarov's novel of the same name and Manilov, a character of Gogol''s Dead Souls are futile, purposeless dreamers.]

  7. [When speaking of a single person, ‘they’ in Russian is a sign of exaggerated servility or respect.]

  8. [Zemstvo—a colloquial name for institutions of local government which had authority in education, public health, etc.]

  9. [The actual ending of the story—which follows the excerpt—is more sober.]

A. Derman (essay date 1959)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5508

SOURCE: Derman, A. “Structural Features in Čexov's Poetics1.” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 107–18. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1959, Derman dilates upon Chekhov's technique for a story's beginning and ending.]

1

Čexov occupies one of the highest places among those literary artists who in their work not only use the resources allowed by scholarship—they all use them, even those who deny that they resort to them and state that they rely exclusively on their own intuition—but also among those who repeatedly express the principle of creative cooperation between the artist and the scholar …

There is something scholarly in his approach to the structure of a work; he divided it into distinct stages, and for each of them he had carefully reasoned methods for the creative embodiment of his ideas.

Regarding the first stage, one must say that if Čexov's poetics is, as a whole, polemical, that is, if he presents new devices in contrast to old ones, then it is especially polemical with even a paradoxical emphasis as far as it pertains to the first stage of structure, which is the so-called ‘beginning of the plot’,2 ‘preface’, ‘introduction’, ‘prologue’, etc.

His poetics of the ‘story's beginning’ amounted in effect to the demand that there be no overt ‘complication’ or, in an extreme case, that it consist of no more than two or three lines. This, of course, was quite a revolutionary step in relation to the poetics of the time, which was dominated by Turgenev (who was its greatest representative). In Turgenev's main and longest works, that is, in his novels, he went through dozens of pages with retrospective biographies of his heroes before they appeared. Čexov wrote no novels; the short story and short novel were the dominant genres in his works, and that, perhaps, is partly the reason why the nature of his formal requirements was adapted to the short story or the short novel.

There is no doubt, however, that the main reason for Čexov's sharp hostility towards more or less extended ‘introductions’ was based on something else: they seemed superfluous and in contradiction to his idea about the active reader. He believed that even without the help of specific introductions this sort of reader would reconstruct what was most important in the hero's past life; he would do this through a skillfully depicted present, and if something in the past remained unknown to such a reader, then to balance it, a more substantial danger would be avoided: that of the diffusion of an impression which a superabundance of particulars creates. Čexov's most merciless demands concerned the brevity of the ‘beginning of the plot’, ‘preface’, ‘introduction’, etc.

This is stated with great expressiveness in the valuable memoirs of S. Ščukin, a priest, who appeared before Čexov as an author with a manuscript. Taking the notebook, Čexov remarked:

“A novice writer should do the following: bend it in two and tear out the first half.”


“I looked at him with disbelief”, Ščukin writes.


“I say this in all seriousness”, Čexov said. “Novice writers usually attempt, so to speak, to ‘introduce a reader to the story’ and half of what they write is superfluous. One should write in such a way that the reader understands what was going on not through any explanation on the part of the author, but rather through the movement of the story and through the conversations and actions of the characters. Try tearing out the first half of your story; you will only have to change the beginning of the second half a bit, and the story will be completely understandable. And in general, you shouldn't have anything that is superfluous. You have to discard mercilessly everything that is not directly related to the story. If, in the first chapter, you say that a rifle is hanging on the wall, then it absolutely must be fired in the second or third chapter. If it is not going to be fired, then it ought not to be hanging there.”3

Instructions of this sort are rarely absent in letters to authors who had sent him their works. He was no less merciless in his own personal creative practice, and his severity steadily increased as time went by. If in Čexov's earlier works one could still find ‘beginnings’ in the spirit of traditional poetics, with some specific traces of an ‘introduction’—they later disappear without a trace, and Čexov begins the story either with one (literally!) sentence introducing the very essence of the narration, or else he manages even without this. As an example of the first sort, we shall refer to “Ariadna”.

On the deck of a steamer travelling from Odessa to Sevastopol a rather handsome gentleman with a little round beard came up to me to ask for a light, and he said …

This is a bit more than the whole introduction: the note about the gentleman's appearance, strictly speaking, already belongs to the corpus of the narrative because this gentleman, being the narrator, is, at the same time, an important protagonist. Everything further is already the corpus of the work, the narrative itself. Too, it is impossible to remain silent about yet another fact. Evidently sensing some sort of unnaturalness in such a ‘beginning’ where a man goes up to someone he does not know to ask for a light and without any apparent reason relates to him a long, complicated and intimate story, Čexov took care to render this device harmless. Having allowed the narrator to speak a bit at first not on the main theme but on a closely related subject, the author observes: “It … was clear that he was somewhat upset and that he would rather talk about himself than about women, and that I would not escape without hearing some long story in the nature of a confession” (IX, 63).

Such a story, of course, follows later. There is, however, a second shock-absorber against artificiality: once he has begun the story, the narrator, that is, the gentleman with the little round beard, soon turns to the listener-author: “I'm sorry, but I must ask you again: is this boring you?”

“I told him that it was not at all boring, and he continued”, this time, we might add, uninterrupted by the author to the very end of the story.

As has already been mentioned, Čexov did not remain at this level in his battle with ‘introductions’, but began to get along entirely without them. Take, for example, the beginning of his long story, “My Life”.

The manager said to me: “I am keeping you on only out of respect for your esteemed father; otherwise you would have been fired long ago”.

(IX, 104)

Here there is absolutely nothing of the traditional ‘beginning’, ‘introduction’, etc. It is a characteristic segment of the life of the main hero, the first of a great many similar elements from which the life of the hero as a whole is formed and whose story is therefore called “My Life”.

In all probability, the dominant characteristic of his early work—always short stories—was the cause of the author's persistent concentration for many years on the improvement of literary devices directed towards condensing the ‘beginning of the plot’ as much as possible, because there was simply no room for it in the outlets in which he was published—newspapers and humor magazines. Having mastered the art of a short introduction, Čexov valued this achievement, became its principal supporter, and remained faithful to it even after every limitation on his work had been lifted.

2

Apropos of the second structural element, that is, the development of the theme, it must be said that here Čexov's persistent demand for compactness stands out very sharply, as is quite understandable: at this stage the author must most often be on guard against the dangers of extending the description and making it too detailed, and of allowing repetitions and superfluous comments. It is quite natural that it was to this stage that Čexov's inventiveness in the art of condensing the narration was directed. It would not be out of place to illustrate the laconism of his compositional devices here. The peculiarities of these devices are most spectacular in those instances where the author confronted the problem of chronologically depicting a process extending over a period of years. For the sake of illustration let us take an example:

It is necessary that the life of Starcev, the hero of the story “Ionyč”, pass before the reader. At first he is presented as a young country doctor—a fresh, naive, trusting person with a romantic personality. Then he slowly begins to lose his color; he turns grey and sinks into the mire of a dull Philistine life. The spirit of greedy and senseless money-grubbing seizes him; he finally loses the image and likeness of a human being and even is given a specifically Philistine nickname: “Ionyč”. This entire slow lifelong dying of a man's humanity had to be shown on the background of a colorless, dull, pitiful, Philistine environment which drags everyone imperiously into its own morass.

This entire extended multiphased process which by its own nature would seem to demand a great accumulation of large and small characteristics is realized in a few short pages with a truly commanding persuasiveness!

One can say that the main literary device which Čexov uses here is the arrangement of signposts along the path of Doctor Starcev's life, between which the writer leaves a broad space which the reader may fill in as part of his creative cooperation in the work.

These signposts follow various lines which often intersect: signposts along the path of the doctor's career; signposts along the path of the evolution of his tastes; signposts along the development and fate of his romance; signposts along the path of the lives of those individuals who form his milieu, etc.

Here are the signposts which signify the success of Starcev's career:

(1) Starcev went to town to enjoy himself a bit and to make some purchases. He walked at a leisurely pace (he did not yet own any horses) and all the while he sang:


“When I had yet to drink


Tears from the cup of life”.

(IX, 287)4

A little more than a year passes. How the hero spent this time is not mentioned, but it is stated almost in passing that:

(2) He already owned a pair of horses and had a coachman named Pantelejmon in a velvet waistcoat.

(293)

Another four years pass, and there is a new, third signpost along the path of Starcev's career.

(3) Starcev already had a large practice in the city. Every morning he hurriedly received his patients at Dyalizh, and then he left to make house calls in the city. Now he drove not with a pair of horses, but with a troika with bells

(297)

A few years later we see the final phase of Starcev's transformation marked by the last signpost:

(4) Starcev has grown even stouter, he breathes heavily and now walks with his head thrown back. When he rides in the troika with bells, fat and red in the face, and Pantelejmon, also fat and red in the face with his thick beefy neck, sits on the box, extending his arms stiffly in front of himself as if they were made of wood, and shouts to those he meets “Keep to the r-r-right!” It is an impressive picture, and it seems that it is not a mortal being driven, but a pagan god.

(IX, 302)

In this way the detailed depiction of the growth of Dr. Starcev's material success and the simultaneous destruction of his moral and spiritual being was replaced by Čexov with a step by step view of his ‘mode of transportation’. One could not, however, complain of an insufficient expressivity in the sum total of the portrait of Dr. Starcev as received by the reader.

But in other instances Čexov found it possible to manage even without such signposts! Take for example the description in “Ariadna” of Šamoxin's love for the heroine after he gained her affections and when, as he put it, his love “entered into its final phase, its waning phase”.

I became her lover (says Šamoxin). At least for about a month I was crazy, feeling only delight. To embrace her young, beautiful body, to take one's pleasure of it, to feel each time upon waking her warmth and to remember that she is here, she, my Ariadna—oh, one cannot get used to this very easily!

(IX, 79)

It would seem that all of this was intentionally thought up to prepare the reader for a vivid story of the flowering of this passionate, intoxicated love, with the various shades of its further development.

No, the reader does not get a single line of this story! The words “one cannot get used to this very easily!” are followed immediately by “but nevertheless I did get used to it and gradually began to relate sensibly to my new situation” (IX, 79).

3

Of the three classical elements of structure—the beginning of the plot, the development of the plot, and the finale—it seems that Čexov was most concerned with the finale. Evidently the popular saying “The end crowns the matter”5 was for him a living experience in the process of his work. It is not without good reason that in his statements on matters of structure, considerations about the finale occupy the foremost place. The sharp changes in Čexov's poetics over the course of years are observable best of all in his finales: both the theory and practice of the writer's early years not only differ from those of his later period, but they are often in direct contrast.

Čexov's statements regarding his work on finales are characterized by their complete decisiveness. One of them which became quite popular, thanks to its unique aphoretical expressiveness, is particularly valuable in that it refers to the structure of both his short stories and his plays. When he finished working on Ivanov, Čexov wrote the following in a letter to his brother Aleksandr:

I was writing a play for the first time, ergo, mistakes are unavoidable. The sujet is complicated and not at all foolish. I end every act as I do short stories: I carry each act calmly and quietly, but in the end I give the playgoer a slap in the face.

(XIII, 372)

Čexov did not attempt to explain further what he had in mind with such an energetic formula, so it follows that he was certain that the addressee would not err on that account. And so it was: in 1887, when Čexov wrote that letter, the characteristic feature of the finales of his short stories was tangibly clear: it was the surprise effect.

Here there is a situation deserving attention, but one which, however, is not immediately evident. We will recall that a surprise effect in a finale is strongly associated in our mind with the humorous stories of Čexov's early period as, for example, “The Orator”, who makes the mistake of extolling in his panegyric not the deceased, but rather a living person who happens to be present at the funeral; “A Horse Name” which turns out to be only indirectly related to horses; “Failure” where the groom, taken by surprise, is blessed with a portrait of Lažečnikov [I. I. Lažečnikov (1792–1869)—a writer known for his historical novels] instead of an icon; “The Drama” where the writer uses a heavy paper weight to kill the lady driving him insane with a reading of her drama, and so on ad infinitum.

What emerges from Čexov's letter is that he deliberately applies this same literary device of an ending in his sombre drama! Moreover, in the letter, where he gives his brother only the most schematic idea of a literary genre which was new to him, he attempts to emphasize that fact: it turns out that he uses the same device for a dramatic work as for a humorous work.

It is certainly wrong to be surprised by this. In fact our erroneous impression can be explained by the fact that in Čexov's early work there is a predominance of humor which is strengthened further in our mind in that we remember this sort of thing better. The effective surprise endings of the non-humorous genres do not play a lesser role in Čexov's early works than they do in his humorous works. We recall such stories as “In Court” with its sudden assault on the reader's nerves in the finale where it comes to light that the defendant accused of murdering his wife is escorted by his son. Or the short story “The Beggar” in which he depicts the self-satisfied Pharisee of a lawyer, who believes that his own cliche admonitions have brought about the reeducation of Luškov, a drunkard and beggar, but who discovers that it was not his own doing but that of Ol'ga, the cook, who railed at him but in her heart wept over him and in his stead did the work which Skvorcev had given him to do as a repayment. We might also recall two other early short stories by Čexov: “Without Title” and “The Bet” which stand apart in his literary legacy by their philosophical character, which is reflected both in style and theme. In the former story we hear of the abbot of a monastery which was isolated from the sinful world. One day, having visited the city, he related to the brethren how the life of the city dweller passes in the depths of sin and temptation, and how great the power of the devil is there. And then comes the ending: “When he left his cell next morning, not a single monk remained in the monastery. They had all rushed to the city” (VII, 11).

In the second story, a young lawyer bets a banker two million rubles that he will voluntarily remain in prison fifteen years; but then, having won the bet for all intents and purposes, he loses it deliberately by escaping from prison, and leaves a note which ends with the following remarks: “To show you my contempt for what you live by, I am abandoning the two million which I once dreamt of as paradise, but which I now scorn. To deprive myself of any claim to this money, I am leaving this place five hours before the agreed-upon time and thereby shall lose the bet …” (VII, 209).

It is clear that in both of these two philosophical stories the entire structure is bound up in its ‘surprise’ ending. In particular, regarding “Without Title” (which in its first version was called “An Eastern Tale”), Polonskij [Y. P. Polonskij (1819–1898), Russian poet and editor] wrote to Čexov immediately after reading the story: “The ending is not merely unexpected, but it is also significant”. He was correct in this. In the more dramatic and perfect stories of the early Čexov, we do not notice, however, that the denouement contains an element of surprise. The reason for this is that we usually associate surprise with amusing, funny, humorous stories; and when there is no laughter, we get the impression that there is no surprise. But, isn't the denouement of “Van'ka”—the naive address on his letter to his grandfather—a typical final surprise? And isn't the denouement of “To Sleep, Sleep … !” also a surprise? And don't we feel something of sudden tragic enlightenment when, in “Anguish”, the cabman Iona turns with his tale of deep sorrow to his horse, the only, patient listener? And isn't the same thing true both in the author's intention and in our understanding: “I give the reader a slap in the face”?

It is necessary to take all of this into very careful consideration in order to evaluate correctly the abruptness of the change which later took place both in Čexov's opinions about finales and in his creative practice. Only two years pass after he utters the aphorism regarding the ending of Ivanov, and he writes the following to Pleščeev in a letter about “A Dreary Story”:

A narrative story, like the stage, has its own characteristics. Thus, my feeling tells me that in the ending of a short novel of a story I ought to deliberately concentrate in the reader the feeling of the entire story, and to do this I must mention briefly in passing those people about whom I spoke earlier.

(XIV, 407)

Three years later, Čexov writes the following in a letter to Suvorin:

I have an interesting sujet for a comedy, but still lack an ending. Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era. These damn endings do not come easy to me! Either the hero gets married or shoots himself—there is no other way out of it.

(XV, 388)

An exceptionally interesting situation! Čexov already recognizes the necessity for a departure from the traditional ‘denouement’, from the surprise effect (“he shoots himself”), that is, from the notorious “in the face”, but in practice he still uses that very sort of denouement. However, he finally comes out the victor in this battle with tradition: even for a work of drama, where “he gets married or shoots himself” seemed somehow unavoidable to him, he creates a finale without either one: we are thinking about The Cherry Orchard. In his short novels as well as his stories, Čexov succeeds not only in creating and elaborating, but also in strengthening the poetics of an ending without a ‘denouement’. Was it conceivable before Čexov that a story in which the ‘heroine’ had gone through several love affairs would end as in “The Darling”?

She lies down and thinks about Saša, who is sleeping soundly in the next room. From time to time he mutters in his sleep: “I'll show you. Get out of here! Don't fight!”

(IX, 327)

In the very nature of the finale there is a threatening danger for a writer, a danger which in spite of its relative variety—elevated and rhetorical, a bit sugary, spectacular, etc.—finally amounts to one thing: the danger of unoriginal ‘rounding’. Čexov used his own characteristic devices to do battle with this danger. One such device comes forward with special clarity in “A Case from a Doctor's Practice”. A doctor comes to a sick woman who owns a factory, and is seized by an oppressive mood replete with strong social feeling. He leaves early in the morning.

The singing of skylarks and the ringing of church bells was in the air. The windows in the factory buildings gleamed happily and on his way out of the yard and then down the road to the station, Korolev no longer thought about the workers, the pile dwellings, or the devil; rather he thought about the time, perhaps even in the near future, when life would be as bright and joyful as this quiet Sunday morning.

(IX, 314)

It would seem that as far as logic, psychology, and even rhythm are concerned, one might put a period here: everything is said and a typical ‘ending’ is made. But here the whole point is that the ending is ‘typical’, is reminiscent of a curtain falling, is rounded in an elevated style, and using a semicolon instead of a period, Čexov adds, clearly adds two unpretentious ‘lowering’ lines: “and he thought of how pleasant this was to ride on a spring morning in a fine troika and how pleasant it was to warm oneself in the sunshine”.

4

We have a classic example of a Čexovian finale characteristic of the highest level of his creativity in “The Lady with the Little Dog”—one of Čexov's masterpieces.

We have before our eyes a description of the story's two protagonists in one of the stolen moments of bitter ‘happiness’ which seldom fell to their lot.

He went up to her and took her by the shoulders to caress her and say something cheerful, and at that moment he caught sight of himself in the mirror.


His hair was already beginning to turn grey … The shoulders on which his hands lay were warm and trembling. He felt compassion for this life which was still warm and beautiful, but probably already near the time when it would begin to fade and wither, like his own life had … And only now, when his head became grey, did he come to love well, in a genuine way—for the first time in his life.


Anna Sergeevna and he loved each other like people very close, and akin, like man and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had destined them for each other, and they could not understand why each was married to someone else. They were like two birds of passage, male and female, snared and forced to live in separate cages. They had forgiven each other for everything that they were ashamed of in the past, they forgave everything in the present and felt that their love had changed them both.


Formerly in moments of depression he comforted himself with any argument that came to his mind, but now he did not care any more for arguments, but rather felt profound compassion, he wanted to be sincere and tender …


“Don't cry any more, my darling”, he was saying. “You have cried enough, it is over now … Let's have a talk, we will come up with something.”


Then they talked for a long time consulting each other and spoke of how they might free themselves of the necessity for hiding, deceiving, and living in different cities while not seeing each other for long periods. How to free themselves from such unbearable fetters?


“How? How?” he asked, clutching his head. “How?”


And it seemed that in just a short while the solution would be found, and then a new, wonderful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

(IX, 370–71)

This ending deserves very close attention. Here, with direct, exact words, the very thing which is the real essence of Čexov's finales in almost all the works of his mature stage of creativity, is distinctly pronounced ‘aloud’ the thing which he expressed elsewhere not so openly, sometimes only in an allusion.

Even if it is accidental, with no deliberate intention on the part of the author, that the quoted ‘end’ of “The Lady with the Little Dog” ends with the word ‘beginning’, it does not keep us from seeing that the same word could have been used in the finales of “The Duel”, “The House with the Mezzanine”, “The Betrothed”, “My Life”, “An Unknown Man's Story”, and many other stories, which are still read with deep interest in spite of the fact that ‘the particular situations’ from which they were created have almost completely disappeared into the past. These endings of Čexov's stories announce that in the life process depicted by the author a certain stage was completed—and only that. The process continues, a new phase begins which is more important than the one depicted, but it is the reader himself who must create it: Čexov places his courageous hopes on the creative cooperation of the reader, for whom he nonetheless has created all the necessary prerequisites for successful understanding.

In his excellent article “Čexovian Finales”, the late A. G. Gornfel'd,6 the well known scholar-critic whom Gor'kij held in high esteem, turned his attention to a peculiar feature of the finale in many Čexov stories: the author breaks with his hero at the moment when the hero falls to thinking, becomes absorbed in thought after experiencing the events described. This, of course, is not a chance repetition of a device. The thoughts and reflections of the hero are a projection of the presumed thoughts of the reader. They are the sort of thing which comprise the goal of the author's efforts. It is natural that the most intensive work in the reader's mind be directed towards the crowning of the work, toward the completion of the work when all the images and events before the reader's eyes which constitute the segment of life portrayed have passed. Hence the attention Čexov gave specifically to the finale. But if in his early years he concentrated in the latter all his resources to get an effect, in the most part for the emotional saturation of the reader's reaction, then in later years, while not ignoring this aspect of the matter, he nevertheless shifted the center of gravity towards arousing in the reader the deepest possible mental activity.

And so, turning attention to Čexov's prose beginning with 1894, that is, in the last decade of his life, we find the following in the finales:

In “Woman's World”:

She (Anna Akimovna, the heroine) now was thinking that were it possible to draw a picture of the long day which she had just lived through, then everything that was bad and vulgar … would have been true, while her dreams … would have stood out from the whole … like something false or exaggerated.

(VIII, 333)

In “Rothschild's Violin” Bronza, the principal hero, reflects bitterly and resentfully just before his death:

Why is it that in this world there is such a strange order of things that life, which is given to man only once, passes without profit?

(VIII, 343)

A student (in the story of the same name)

was thinking that truth and beauty … evidently always constituted the most important things in human life.

(VIII, 348)

In “A Case from a Doctor's Practice” Doctor Korolev, returning to the city early in the morning from a call to a patient

thought about the time, perhaps even in the near future, when life would be as bright and joyful as this quiet Sunday morning.

(IX, 314)

In “The New Dacha” the peasants think about their absurd relationship with the owners of the dacha:

What kind of fog is it which shrouded their eyes from what mattered most?

(IX, 341)

This enumeration of Čexov's works where the principal hero falls to thinking in the finale, trying to comprehend all that he has undergone, could be continued up to the very end of Čexov's writings, including his swan song, “The Betrothed”, at the end of which we read:

She went into Saša's room and stood there for a moment. “Farewell, dear Saša!” she thought, and her new life, broad and spacious, was pictured before her, and this life, still obscure, full of mystery, attracted her and beckoned to her.

(IX, 450)

Out of all of these leitmotifs of finales, we will distinguish only one which is particularly remarkable. In the short story “On Official Duty”, Inspector Lyžin, under the influence of what he has undergone, surrenders to his customary thoughts about the connection of his personal life with the general order of things. Significant is the ‘addition’ to these customary thoughts, engendered by the picture of harsh social contradictions raised before the eyes of Lyžin, who started to feel his responsibility—keenly—to the victims of this general process.

He felt that this suicide and the peasant's misery lay on his conscience too; to tolerate the idea that these people, resigned to their lot, take upon themselves the heaviest and darkest burden in life—how terrible this was! To tolerate this, and to wish for oneself a bright, active life among happy, satisfied people and to dream constantly of such a life—would mean to dream of new suicides of people crushed by work and weariness. …

(IX, 355)

Regarding the sharpness and revelatory character of the given train of thought, the author interrupts at that moment:

Such were Lyžin's thoughts, and such thoughts had long existed hidden within him, and only now were they displayed so broadly and clearly in his consciousness.

(IX, 354)

It is in these words that we find the key to Čexov's finales as extremely important structural elements! He does not attempt to startle his reader or uncover before him some exotic, unusual area of life. Just the opposite: he attempts to take out of the shadows and put into light ‘old’ but ‘hidden’ thought, to direct it towards what is most familiar and constantly before the reader's eyes, to open his eyes even wider, to compel him to look more deeply into the depths of life, to help him to perceive this life which is taken for granted “broadly and clearly”, to begin to think.

Notes

  1. [From: A. Derman, O Masterstve Čexova (Moskva, Sovetskij pisatel', 1959). Chapter IV, pp. 74–88.]

  2. [Zavjazka—that point in the sujet where the plot actually begins to unfold; sometimes called the ‘complication’.]

  3. S. Ščukin, “Iz vospominanij ob A. P. Čexove”, Russkaja mysl' (1911), 10, p. 44.

  4. [Numerals in parentheses in this essay refer to the volume and page number in Čexov's Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem (Moskva, Goslitizdat, 1944–1951).]

  5. [Equivalent to the Latin finis coronat opus, not ‘the end justifies the means’.]

  6. Krasnaja nov' (1939), 8–9.

Dmitri Chizhevsky (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5337

SOURCE: Chizhevsky, Dmitri. “Chekhov in the Development of Russian Literature.” In Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 49–61 Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Chizhevsky expatiates Chekhov's place in the history of Russian literature.]

Chekhov still has no firm place in the history of Russian literature. Of course, one often ranks him among the “realists”; thus one is compelled for chronological reasons to place him alongside such epigones of realism as V. Korolenko and D. Mamin-Sibiryak. Or should one identify him with such representatives of the new realistic trends as Maxim Gorky? Or find a place for him in the ranks of the modernists and early symbolists? This kind of classifying of a literary artist in a definite literary group, naturally, is not the most important problem of literary history, and it is also not absolutely necessary. It is, however, by no means unimportant to determine whether Chekhov was in close relationship to one or another literary trend of his time, or whether he ran his poetic course as an independent.

As is well known, Chekhov frequently helped young and minor writers and delivered gracious and friendly judgments about them; many of these judgments now evoke our surprise and lead us to doubt either the soundness of Chekhov's literary judgments or his sincerity. In many cases, however, Chekhov, in the form of critical letters of reply, gave the nascent writers some rather sharply worded suggestions for improvement. And frequently we encounter in his correspondence a sharp and pessimistic judgment of the whole body of contemporary literature. Thus Chekhov wrote to A. Suvorin in a letter of November 25, 1892:

In our works there is no alcohol which could make us drunk and carry us away. … Who among my contemporaries, i.e., men between thirty and forty-five years old, has given the world even one single drop of alcohol? Aren't Korolenko, Nadson, and all of today's playwrights simply lemonade? … For people like us this time is feeble, sour, and boring, and we ourselves are sour and boring. … Remember that all writers whom we characterize as great or simply as good and who make us drunk have one common and very essential trait: they go in a definite direction and summon us to go that way too. … We have, however, neither immediate nor distant goals, and our souls are weak and empty. We have no politics, we do not believe in revolution, there is [for us] no God, we don't fear ghosts. … He who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, has no fears, can be no artist.

This letter contains still more; we find a more or less transparent allusion to the fact that even V. Garshin, as well as those writers who “want to conceal their emptiness with old rags such as the ideas of the 1860s” or D. Grigorovich and other representatives of the older generation who are still living, cannot make the readers “drunk.”

This scathing criticism of Russian literature of the time is much sharper than that of D. S. Merezhkovsky, whose programmatic articles appeared in the following year (1893) as a pamphlet, The Reasons for the Decline of Russian Literature and Its New Trends. Merezhkovsky has words of praise for all the writers mentioned in the pamphlet, and therefore, one can scarcely understand today just what—except the bold title—could have upset the literary circle of the time about so essentially moderate a document. Chekhov, to be sure, makes no prognosis and offers no programs. He understood only too well that the wish to become, or to make others, drunk cannot bring forth drops of “alcohol.”

Merezhkovsky's pamphlet was followed in the next year, 1894, by the small collections of poetry, Russian Symbolists. These collections explained why readers and critics were so indignant (even such a one as Vladimir Soloviev, who himself had contributed to the rise of symbolist poetry). But Chekhov, as an innovator, and, consequently, as a dangerous destroyer of the then accepted canon of poetics, had been for a decade the object of attacks by nearly all recognized and established critics. Up until almost 1900 they saw in his works a complete break with sacred realism. This was the opinion not only of Chekhov's opponents but also of his friends, for example, Gorky, who did not consider himself at that time to be a “realist” at all. He wrote to Chekhov in 1900:

Do you know what you are doing? You are killing realism, and you will soon finish it off—finally and for a long time. This form has outlived its time—that is a fact! … You will wipe out realism. I am especially glad about that. Enough! It should go to the devil! We have arrived at a time when the heroic is necessary; everyone wants something exciting, dazzling, something which is not like life but better and more beautiful than life could be. Now it is absolutely necessary that the literature of today somewhat embellish life, and when it begins to do that, life too will be more beautiful, that is, men will live more buoyantly, more brightly.

The last words, to be sure, contain Gorky's own artistic program at that time. This program, however, has nothing to do with the creative work of Chekhov. One could hardly expect the author who wrote “A Boring Story” (1889) and who had entitled two collections of stories In the Twilight (1887) and Gloomy People (1890) to paint life “more beautifully,” to present life in brighter colors. At that time a successful literary daredevil, Gorky could hardly imagine that the future might belong to literary ideals other than his own. He had, however, at least correctly sensed that Chekhov fundamentally differed from the realistic portrayers of “reality.” In what way? Gorky, with his characteristic undeviating primitive way of thinking, could hardly formulate this question correctly—perhaps not even understand it.

It was clear to Chekhov that he was not able and was not permitted to go the old ways; it was clear to Gorky that Chekhov had begun something new and “killed” something old in Russian literature. The same was also clear to those critics who represented the poetic ideals of realism. As we have already said, these critics attacked Chekhov as a dangerous innovator who did not share their world view, and as an author who through his works was indicating to literature new paths which, for the adherents of realism, were wrong ways. The critics uttered these opinions with the same coarse frankness with which for decades they had habitually and futilely fought Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Leskov, and Fet.

.....

It is of significance for us, however, that the critics and even the authors of negative judgments nonetheless noted and, albeit clumsily, brought into the foreground many features of Chekhov's style.

As early as the 1880s Chekhov came to the realization that he was creating “new paths” in literature. He wrote to Lazarev-Gruzinsky on October 20, 1888:

Everything that I have written will be forgotten in five to ten years; but the paths which I am creating will remain safe and sound—therein lies my sole merit.

No one among Chekhov's early patrons and admirers, it seems, noticed the individuality of his creative work; in any case, no one spoke of it either in letters or in printed remarks. Most characteristic of all are the remarks of Leo Tolstoy who in his diary entry of March 15, 1889, called Chekhov's stories “pretty trifles” and who two days later, upon further reading, believed he could only characterize them as “poor, insignificant.” Yet in 1890 Tolstoy already speaks of Chekhov as a “great talent” and, in fact, puts him on a par with Maupassant. As one can see from later known comments of Tolstoy, he was able to judge Chekhov, as he did most writers, primarily by the ideological content of his works. Thus, Tolstoy says, “Chekhov does not always know what he wants.” “Chekhov often has no idea, no sense of the whole; one does not know why a particular story was written.” Above all, Tolstoy rejects Chekhov's plays. The Seagull is, in his opinion, but “worthless nonsense.” Tolstoy is “indignant” over Uncle Vanya, it seems, mainly because the heroes of the play are “idlers” and immoral people. While Tolstoy prized many stories of Chekhov, he could characterize “The Peasants” as “a sin against the people.”

Only the old and at that time no longer active literary gourmet Dmitri Grigorovich (1822–1899) took an early interest in Chekhov. He did not limit himself to vague expressions of praise, but also frequently stressed what he found noteworthy in Chekhov's works: the excellent handling of details and the depiction of characters and landscapes precisely through these details and trivia. In the summer of 1885 Grigorovich noticed one of Chekhov's stories, “The Gamekeeper,” in an otherwise completely uninteresting daily, Peterburgskaya Gazeta; he immediately called the young writer to the attention of the editor of Novoe Vremya (New Times), A. Suvorin. And in a letter of March 1886 Grigorovich warns Chekhov against further freelancing for the daily press. In that same letter Grigorovich emphasizes Chekhov's “mastery in description” with these words: “In a few lines a complete picture appears: little clouds against the background of fading twilight ‘like ashes on dying coals.’” Grigorovich also repeats his warning in a letter from Nice in 1888. It was not without Grigorovich's influence that in 1888 the Petersburg Academy awarded Chekhov a part of the Pushkin Prize. Grigorovich expresses his astonishment in a letter of December 27, 1888, that at a reading of Chekhov's “An Attack of Nerves” to a group which included several writers, no one was struck by the sentence: “And how is it that the snow does not feel ashamed when it falls in this street?” (the street where the houses of pleasure were located; this is, however, an inexact quotation). A few days later the old writer sends Chekhov a letter with remarks about the stories “Dreams” and “Agafya.” The figures in these stories, he writes, are

barely touched [i.e., with the brush], and in spite of this nothing can be added which would make them more alive; and the same is true for the description of natural images and the impressions of them—barely touched, yet [the image] stands directly before the eyes; such mastery in the rendering of impressions we encounter only in Turgenev and Tolstoy (descriptions such as we find in Anna Karenina).

Tolstoy, too, could observe the meaning of “details” in Chekhov, that is, in those stories whose content was congenial to him. Unfortunately, we know of such comments by Tolstoy (1900–1901) only from the notes of his friend A. B. Goldenweizer: Chekhov is

a singular writer: he throws in words seemingly haphazardly, and nevertheless everything in him lives. And how clever! He never has superfluous details; on the contrary, each is either necessary or beautiful.

And again: Chekhov has the

mastery of a higher order. … Nevertheless, it is all only mosaic without a genuinely governing idea. … He casts in words apparently without order, but he achieves nonetheless an astounding effect, like an impressionist painter with his brush strokes.

Here we come upon the right word: impressionist. Unfortunately, one cannot be sure as to whether Tolstoy used this word himself or whether it was only an elucidation by Goldenweizer on Tolstoy's remarks.

Chekhov's impressionist painting is not simply the exterior form. As we shall see, it is also connected with the deeper motifs of his world view. But it should be emphasized that in this respect, Chekhov does not stand entirely outside Russian literary tradition. We may mention Chekhov's contemporaries who were impressionist poets, such as A. A. Fet (1820–1892) and K. Fofanov (1862–1911)—I. F. Annensky (1820–1892), however, was at that time hardly known as a poet. But, setting aside these writers, Leo Tolstoy is without doubt the Russian writer who first brought the impressionistic style into currency. Turgenev early took note of this, and his critical comments on Tolstoy's novels are in this respect very significant. Turgenev's comments on the great novels may be found in his letters (in which, indeed, Turgenev in no way denies the artistic achievements of these novels). “All these little fragments, skillfully observed and primly expressed, the little psychological remarks … how trivial that all is against the background of the historical novel,” he writes P. Borisov on March 16, 1865. In his letter to Annenkov on March 26, 1868, Turgenev says that Tolstoy strives to “reproduce the oscillations, the vibrations of the same feelings and the same attitudes.” In his letter to Polonsky on March 6, 1868, Turgenev offers the opinion that Tolstoy's historical portrayals “strike the eye with their fine detail,” but his psychological art is only “moody, monotonous preoccupation with ever the same sensations.” … These comments represent nothing other than an attack on Tolstoy's impressionistic style. …

If, however, we want to analyze the style of Chekhov's novelle, we should not be struck simply by the sporadic use of the impressionistic device—such as was emphasized in the above cited remarks by the pitiless critics or by those critics who appreciated Chekhov's style, such as Grigorovich and Tolstoy. No! Chekhov's short stories, like his longer novelle and his plays, bear throughout the traits of literary impressionism.

The main characteristics of literary impressionism can be briefly formulated as follows. In respect to outer form: 1) vagueness of the total picture, and 2) in opposition to this, the prominence of details and trivia. These two characteristics correspond somewhat to the technique of painting with separate brush strokes. The content of impressionistic literary works reveals these further traits: 3) the renunciation of the formulation of thoughts, above all, the renunciation of such elements of “didactic” art as the use of aphorisms and maxims which are supposed to communicate to the reader the intent, the “tendency” of the work; 4) in opposition to that, the creation of a “general mood” through which, if need be, certain “results” of the artistic presentation may be suggested to the feelings of the reader, to the capacity to feel, if not to the intellect. However, 5) certain small features, lines, particularities, details, speak to the feeling of the reader—these are the bearers of the soft and gentle shadings, the “differentials of mood.” Chekhov uses all these devices of literary impressionism systematically, intentionally, and masterfully. …

We wish to direct our attention especially to such works of Chekhov as “The Steppe,” “A Boring Story,” “My Life,” “Three Years,” and the plays. Even now Chekhov passes as a “humorist” for the European reader; and this notion is deeply rooted among Russian readers as well, since new editions of Chekhov's works have become available. These new editions include a multitude of early stories which the author himself excluded from the original complete edition of his works; the little humorous stories fill up a good half of the volumes dedicated to Chekhov's prose fiction. No judgment will be given here on the artistic merit of these “bagatelles.” However, it should be said that reading these “humoresques” is more apt to evoke a deep melancholy than a humorous mood. One sees in them, on the one hand, the extremely low intellectual and moral standards of the so-called “upper” classes; especially evident are the obtuseness, the coarseness, and the inhumanity of these rich and sated ones toward the poor and hungry. But even the “little” and “insulted” men are also often depicted in such a way that one can hardly find a human trait in them.

.....

In short, the world of Chekhov the “humorist” is a sad, dark, uncanny world. And one can hardly conclude from it that a “cheery young writer” later turned into a melancholy pessimist. Rather, the pessimism of Chekhov's last years is much brighter and more life-affirming than the “humor” of his youthful years. In the later Chekhov we never encounter an irreconcilable condemnation of the “bad” or of the “nonconformist,” a condemnation which otherwise is found so often in Russian literature. It is sufficient only to recall the harshness with which Leo Tolstoy in his “folk tales” and in Resurrection depicts quite harmless or even good men who, however, do not live up to his ideal of man. A comparison of Chekhov with Tolstoy in this sense would certainly be a rewarding task.

The forgiving, tolerant attitude of the later Chekhov toward human beings may be explained in part, at least, by those thoughts which came to him in connection with the development of his impressionistic style. Let us now, in conclusion, examine this style somewhat more closely. Much of importance was said about Chekhov's style in a little-known essay by N. Shapir, “Chekhov as a Realist-Innovator,”1 and Balukhaty has said much about Chekhov's dramas. The whole scope of the problem, however, should first be examined thoroughly.

Chekhov to a great extent forgoes the exhaustive motivation—so characteristic for realism—of the speeches and actions of the characters of his works. So much happens in his longer stories “without any reason” that we may see in him an anticipation of the basic tendency of symbolist poetry—the tendency to explain phenomena through blind chance. Perhaps this very feature drew Chekhov to Maeterlinck's dramas which, in any case, he first read with enthusiasm in 1897 (cf. Chekhov's letter to Suvorin of July 12, 1897). He read precisely those plays, Les aveugles and L'intruse, which depict the intrusion of blind, ruthless forces into human lives; and, according to the testimony of Stanislavsky, Chekhov later took an active interest in the performances of both plays which were prepared in the spring of 1904 by the Moscow Art Theater.

While the realistic tradition searches for and presents a tight connection between the experiences and actions of a man and the events of his life, in Chekhov an abyss almost always gapes between the events and the experiences of the heroes, as well as between their experiences and their actions. Chekhov, like the realists, tends to stay close to reality in the dates, indications of setting, and other realistic details of his works. But this reality appears and operates in the experiences of the heroes only in a form that is unmotivated, one that is distorted, insufficient [to explain the reality]; between the “outer cause” and the inner experience there exists a strange incongruity.

The decisive changes of human life and fate are either unmotivated or dependent upon minor causes. Even more, the changes in life often do not correspond to the events which actually should lead to entirely different consequences. Thus, the weak, characterless idler Laevsky in “The Duel” experiences a kind of moral “rebirth” precisely at the moment of his deepest decline; and the infidelity of his girlfriend—under the most ugly of circumstances—does not lead him to a break with her but, quite the contrary, unexpectedly strengthens their relationship. This “rebirth,” the change in Laevsky, is his victory over the Darwinist von Koren, a strong character who is firmly convinced of his ideological and moral principles. The process of Laevsky's transformation is not shown—probably intentionally. The entire life of the hero of “My Life” passes as a series of such strangely unmotivated changes. And also completely without motivation are the meaningful actions “by chance” not carried through to completion. Chekhov readily depicts lovers who without any reason, or almost without reason, decide to make no declaration: the series of such scenes extends from “Verochka” (1887) up to The Cherry Orchard (1904). A story such as “A Doctor's Visit” (1898) shows that even simple human relationships like friendship, good acquaintance, or just peaceful neighborliness often cannot come into being—and for no apparent reason, as though here, too, blind chance darkens the relations of men. Often quite minor causes determine the whole life of a man as, for example, in “The Cossack” (1887): A peasant refuses to give Easter bread to an ailing person during the Easter holidays. “With that began the destruction,” Chekhov firmly states, of the spiritual balance of the peasant and the ruin of his home and of his whole life. Often Chekhov shows the reason for an action to be a certain mood, although the immediate motive seems to be trivial. Thus, in the story “The Murder” (1895), a fratricide occurs because the victim wanted to eat vegetable oil on a fast day. Love, marriage, and friendship also can “by chance” originate, as in “An Anonymous Story,” “Three Years,” “At Home,” “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” and other stories.

Without analyzing a long series of Chekhov's stories it will be enough to point up a few further stylistic traits which we meet in almost all of Chekhov's stories from about 1890.

Reality, the “events,” cannot be measured or judged in any way “objectively” for the very reason that they do not appear immediately to the person but rather in the form of a reflection in the mind of the individual in question. It would appear that Chekhov's first longer stories, where this fact is stressed, are “psychopathological portrayals” of one or another kind. Thus, the pregnancy of the heroine of “The Nameday Party” (1888), the too keen moral consciousness of the student in “An Attack of Nerves” (1888), the process of aging in the old professor in “A Boring Story” (1889) all permit the persons and events to be judged as unmotivated, often apparently falsely (as the author emphasizes) and ambiguously. From that time on Chekhov introduces the thoughts, experiences, and decisions (for the most part never executed) of the completely “normal” heroes as well as of the “sick” by means of constantly recurring formulas, such as: “it seemed to her”; “she saw in each and every person only the false”; “whereas they were all average and not bad people”; “everyone appeared to her to be untalented, pale, plain, narrow, false, heartless”; “it seemed to him that”; or, in the words of the hero, “something strange is happening to me,” small causes such as sounds are “enough to fill me with a feeling of happiness,” and so forth. The use of this formula reaches its high point in the years 1893 and following. In “A Woman's Kingdom” (1894) we read at every step: “she became happy” (for no obvious reason); “it seemed to her that”; “it seemed to her as though”; “she wanted to”; “she imagined”; “she dreamed”; “she was already convinced” (without reason); “this recollection—just why is not known—agitated her.” The heroine experiences the “anguish of expectation”; “she passionately wanted the change in her life to occur immediately, at that very moment” (and after a short time this wish vanishes without a trace). We encounter the same phenomenon in the story “Teacher of Literature” (1894): “it seemed”; “he sensed in his soul an unpleasant impression”; “and in no way at all could he understand why”; “nevertheless, it was unpleasant”; “he began to get angry at the little white cat.” And in the same way the hero of “Three Years” (1895) “was annoyed at himself and at the black dog”; “his mood changed suddenly. … It seemed to him that everything he said was nauseatingly stupid.” The experiences of the heroine of this same story occur similarly. The hero of “Three Years” had the feeling that it was not he himself but “his double” who was thinking and acting; and to the murderer in “The Murder” (1895) it seemed that not he himself but some kind of beast, a monstrous and terrible beast, was walking around”—and all this before he even thought about the murder which occurs later.

The heroes of Chekhov's impressionistic stories vacillate between various moods, thoughts, and resolutions, and frequently experience opposite feelings simultaneously, without feeling their contradiction. Chekhov places special stress on the fact that sensations, experiences, are in a continual flux, in a process of change. Above all, he tried to record the fading of experiences and events. Examples of this can be found in “The Story of Mrs. N. N.” (1887): “Everything for me, as for everybody, has vanished, quickly, without a trace, was not appreciated, and faded like mist. … Where is it all?”; in “The Wife” (1891): “How beautiful life could have been”; in “She Yawned” (1892): “I let it slip by, let it slip by”; in “A Woman's Kingdom” (1894): “It is already too late to dream.” This motif operates perhaps most strongly at the end of Chekhov's last story, “The Bishop” (1902). Not only have all the experiences of the bishop passed away, vanished, with his death, but his existence now no longer appears to have been real: whenever his mother told about him “not everyone believed her.” In this way “reality” recedes into the background, and the events which apparently constitute the causes or motivations of experiences have an effect only in the form which they assume, as they are broken up and reshaped in people's psyches.

When “reality” transformed in this way (which for Chekhov was not at all an “objective” reality) is brought into the flux of the individual spiritual life, the presentation of the spiritual life becomes the central, most important task of literary art. And, since the spiritual life of a man knows only isolated peaks and high points, and for the most part runs its course in the “lowlands” of the commonplace, this presentation must reckon with numerous “empty places.” These “empty places,” these insignificant moments—even periods—of human life, need to be touched upon only fleetingly in artistic prose; they must not, however, remain unnoticed in dramatic works—these certainly should present in full certain segments of time. The composition of the Chekovian play is determined to a large extent in this way: between the peaks of spiritual experiences and the turning points of the plot are inserted elements of “filling.” This “filling” consists of witty episodes, such as those with Epikhodov and Semeonov-Pishchik in The Cherry Orchard, of “everyday” conversations which say nothing, such as are found in long sections of the second act of the same comedy, and even of silences. In the stories the author can dispose more freely of the “empty times” of the action, and so even the descriptions of nature and the theoretical observations of the author appear here with the function of filling these intervals. Such is the origin of the impressionistic composition which builds up characterizations of heroes and the portrayal of events (as we have said—seen through the eyes of the heroes) by means of isolated strokes and patches of color.

It is not without significance that in Chekhov's stories the characters are usually transients in the place of action, often staying on only by chance. The persons through whose eyes the reader is supposed to view the events are doctors who are visiting their patients, surveyors, examining magistrates, guests, and chance passersby. Or, should the heroes of the stories find themselves at home, then the other persons of the action are only guests who often appear in the heroes' lives for the first time. One sees the world to a certain degree from the window of a railroad train. In general, the railroad plays an unusually large role in Chekhov's works! How many of his heroes live at railroad stations or in the neighborhood of the railroad! Before them people flit by “like shooting stars.” This kind of situation is just that of an impressionist observing life. In this respect “In the Cart” (1897) is a most characteristic story. A woman school teacher is traveling back to her native village in a miserable peasant's cart along a wretched highway.

The tollgate on the railway overpass was let down: an express train departed from the station. … There was the train—the windows glittered with a dazzling light … so that it was painful to look at. In a front compartment of a first-class car stood a lady.

It seems to the school teacher that this lady bears great resemblance to her own mother, and she imagines with astounding clarity her life in Moscow thirteen years ago, when her mother was still alive.

And she cried, not knowing why. … And it seemed to her that everywhere, in the windows, in the trees, her happiness, her triumph, was shining. Yes, her father and her mother had never died, she had never been a school teacher: that had been a long, difficult, strange dream, and now she had awakened. … And suddenly everything disappeared.

Here we find in a few lines the typical traits of the Chekhovian style: the “flitting past” of reality, the unexpected, unmotivated, and mutually contradictory experiences (“she cried,” “it seemed to her that everywhere … her happiness was shining”) which in rapid flux replace one another; the “sudden disappearance” of reality which induces sensations—and, just as suddenly, the dying away of the sensations.

These main characteristics of Chekhov's style are not the only elements of his impressionism. The attention to details, which to the critics of the time seemed so unnecessary, even nonsensical, belongs to the author's method of presentation as well as to the manner in which the heroes perceive reality and react to it. Reality and people are apprehended and characterized by apparently random and inessential traits. Thus, people are characterized by their odor—“smelled of coffee grounds,” “smelled of raw meat,” and so forth—or by their manner of speech more than by the content of what they say—“The Man in the Case” (1898), Chebutykin in The Three Sisters, and others. Nature is presented through separate patches of color, as in “The Steppe”—a device which critics correctly identified as an innovation—or through completely indefinite pictures, as “in the imperceptible distance … hazy, odd figures arose and climbed upon one another” (“The Steppe”). Finally, indeterminate sounds which above all fulfill a vital symbolic function as a feature of the author's presentation of reality: for example, the following section from “The Steppe.” “There resounded, disturbing the motionless air, some kind of wondrous ‘Ah-ah,’ and one heard the cry of a wakeful or dreaming bird.” An almost identical passage occurs a few pages later on in this same story. One finds another example of this kind of sound in Act II of The Cheery Orchard: “suddenly a distant sound, right from the sky, the sound of a breaking string which dies away sadly.” Almost an identical sentence is repeated in the concluding stage directions of Act IV of the same play.

Chekhov's work comes immediately before the appearance of symbolism; this is not merely a chronological fact. His impressionism, exactly like that of V. Garshin and Fet and some other writers, in a certain sense prepared the way for symbolism. One must not forget that fact when one poses the question of Chekhov's place in the development of Russian literature. There is poor documentation of Chekhov's views on symbolism, and what there is is frequently contradictory. But one can expect no unequivocal opinion about the new literary trends from a writer who always stressed his antipathy toward every “bias.” Chekhov's “impartiality,” moreover, was one of the reasons for the intense attacks against this allegedly “faceless” and “viewless” writer, the author of “meaningless trifles.” However, it must be emphasized in conclusion that Chekhov was, as we have seen, a serious and keen satirist even in his “humoresques.” And his later impressionistic style rests on a definite conception of the world and of man, a conception which deserves special attention. … But it is still more significant that Chekhov attempts to give his own answers to old questions posed by the great Russian writers. Thus, his story “The Duel” is an answer to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; alongside that there is an argument with the Russian Darwinists and with Nietzsche—that is, with Nietzsche as he was interpreted (and wrongly) by the Russians. The investigation of such references and direct discussion of ideological problems in Chekhov is a further task for research to which I can here only allude.

Note

  1. Cf. N. Shapir, “Chekhov kak realist-novator,” Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii (1904–1905), Vol. 79–80.

“Chekhov in the Development of Russian Literature” by Dmitri Chizhevsky. From Anton Čechov: 1860–1960. Some Essays, ed. T. Eekman (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), pp. 293–310. Copyright © 1961 by E. J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands. Translated from the German by Andrew Comings. Reprinted in abridged form by permission of the author and E. J. Brill.

Vadim Nazarenko (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1897

SOURCE: Nazarenko, Vadim. “Imagery in Čexov.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 131–34. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Nazarenko discusses verbal imagery in Chekhov's writing.]

The key to the understanding of verbal imagery is not found in a narrow linguistic sphere. A word becomes image-bearing only when it proves itself able to evoke the images of the real world which are alive in us. The most sophisticated means of linguistic imagery of A. Efimov's sort can turn out to be fruitless.2 But even the most simple word can be a powerful image. The power of a word to create an image does not per se reside in the word, but rather in the way the word acts upon us. That is why a narrowly linguistic approach to the problem cannot reveal the basis of the artistry of the language of literature.

Thinking in images is not the property and privilege of the writer alone. All of us think in images—more or less. The worth of the writer consists then not simply in that he thinks in images, but in the strength and scope with which the ideas are born through his image-bearing thought processes.

It is clear that the mere ability to narrate something coherently and vividly does not yet constitute authentic art. Art begins with typification. I shall explain this through one of many possible examples.

It had been a long time since I had read Čexov's “The Man in a Case”. As could be expected, I remembered quite well the essence of the story—the figure of the ‘anthropos’ Belikov, which contained such-and-such a common and satirical meaning. I did not recall how the story was constructed or along which specific lines the movement of the narration progressed. I did not recall specifically that the story of Belikov is told by the teacher Burkin.

And then, when I reread the story a short time ago, I noticed what an extremely important role its beginning has (which precedes the actual story about Belikov) and so does its ending—which takes place after the story about Belikov has been concluded. For the sake of the present discussion it would be rather instructive to turn our attention at least to these two specifics of the structure of the story.

It begins as follows:

The belated hunters settled down for a night's rest in the barn of Prokofij, the village elder. There were only the two of them. (And then we read) They did not sleep. Ivan Ivanyč, a tall, lean, old man with a long moustache, was sitting outside the door, smoking his pipe; the light of the moon made him visible. Burkin was lying on the hay inside, hidden in the darkness.

What role does this description of the locale of the interlocutors play in the narration? It is most likely that A. Efimov would find no “linguistic means of imagery” here. After all, there aren't any tropes. It is quite possible that not only A. Efimov but many others would consider this description to be a particular necessary for ‘verisimilitude’.

Actually, verisimilitude is present. It is quite natural that Ivan Ivanyč before going to sleep does not smoke in the hay-filled barn, but rather outside. It is also normal that Burkin, a non-smoker, would go into the barn and carry on the conversation from there. However, we would understand nothing of Čexov's artistry were we to limit it here solely to verisimilitude.

Now we draw near the end of the story. Everything about Belikov has already been said. Then:

The high school teacher went out of the barn …


“What a moon, what a moon!” he said, glancing up …

Burkin's exit is essential for artistic unity. First, he gives emotional emphasis to the heaviness of the story about Belikov when, having told it, he wants to breathe some fresh air. However, the meaning of Burkin's exit is much broader. He stares at the moon, and this is immediately followed by the author's words about what Burkin is feeling:

On a moonlit night, when you see a broad country road with its huts, haystacks, and sleeping willows, your soul becomes quiet; in its rest, concealed in the shadows of the night from work, anxiety, and sadness—the street is gentle, sad, beautiful, and it seems that stars also look down with kind, tender emotion, and that evil no longer exists in the world and that all is well …

A bitter remark by Ivan Ivanyč immediately shatters this moon-inspired illusion. In him, as we understand it here, the generalizing work of thought and feeling, provoked by the story about Belikov, continues. “And indeed the life we lead in the city, in stuffiness, in the crush, the useless papers we write, the vint we play—isn't this a case? …” Ivan Ivanyč asks suddenly. And the story about Belikov suddenly begins to broaden in its internal meaning. “The man in a case” begins to signify not simply a specific breed of callous bureaucrat. In the capacity of a “case”, the conditions of life of those times begin to come forth on a broad front. Ivan Ivanyč suddenly feels that both he and Burkin are “people in a case”.

The development of the story and the broadening of the idea depend upon the simplest of circumstances—that Burkin went out of the barn; this alone makes the consequent structure of the artistic thought possible. Here you understand that the narrator Burkin was not put in the barn just for the sake of verisimilitude. That which unfolds at the very end of the story was foreseen and prepared earlier by the placement of the interlocutors.

Here in all its glory appears the theatrical mastery of the author who had the talent to find the most expressive ‘stagings’ in the development of a depicted reality. It turns out that the simple, business-like reference to where the people sat before the beginning of the conversation becomes a link of imagery which is all the more important for the deep meaning of the story.

Yet another example. Before the story about Belikov begins there is the following paragraph:

They told various stories. Among other things they talked about how Mavra, the wife of the village elder, a healthy and not a stupid woman, had never left the village in which she was born, had never seen a city or a railroad, and had spent the past ten years behind the oven, venturing onto the street only at night.


“There is nothing remarkable in that!” said Burkin …

And then, as if by association, the story about Belikov begins.

What is the artistic purpose of this paragraph, this mention of Mavra, who walks by night?

The logic of verisimilitude is certainly present here once more. One is informed that the conversation about Belikov arose, say, by accident (as happens in life). The story about Mavra, who also lives in her own sort of “case”, serves as a natural transition to the story about Belikov. But we would err if we were to reduce the matter simply to this.

The story comes to its end. Burkin has already gone out of the barn and admired the moon; Ivan Ivanyč has already made his comment; Burkin has already answered him with the terse: “No, it's time to sleep now. See you tomorrow.” But the narration stretches on. It would seem that everything is already clear; what purpose do these following particulars serve?

Both of them went into the barn and lay down on the hay. And when both covered themselves and began to doze off, they suddenly heard light footsteps: tup, tup … Someone was walking not too far from the barn; whoever it is walked a bit, stopped, and a minute later began to walk again: tup, tup …


“That's Mavra walking”, Burkin said.


The steps died away.

What is the purpose of this? Is it simply to confirm pictorially what was mentioned at the beginning—the fact that Mavra walks at night? Of course not.

Mavra's footsteps have a special meaning for the story: Burkin and Ivanyč listen closely to them for a reason. This attentiveness is depicted, very subtly by the writer. With just four words,3 “The steps died away”, we feel how Burkin and Ivan Ivanyč held their breath listening to these footsteps. But when they became quiet … Ivan Ivanyč ‘exploded’ and began to talk:

“To see and hear them lie and then call you a fool because you endure those lies; to suffer wrongs, insults, not to dare to say openly that we are on the side of honorable, free people, and to lie, to smile—and all of this for a crust of bread, for a warm corner, for a petty civil rank which isn't worth a damn—no, a man cannot live like this any longer!”

Here the theme of the man in a case acquires its clearest and broadest disclosure; a revolutionary protest against a grasping, dehumanized life rings forth. The thought of a life in a case has so inflamed Ivan Ivanyč that he cannot now sleep at all, “He stood up, went outside again, sat down at the door, and smoked his pipe”,—at which point the story is broken off.

It is Mavra's footsteps, suddenly audible, which served as the stimulus for this seething thought. Before that moment they both had already “covered themselves and were beginning to doze off”.

As is evident, the point is that it is Mavra's footsteps which definitely turn the theme of the story away from an exposure of the teacher-bureaucrat Belikov towards exposing the conditions of life which have deadly effects on man. End the tale with the story about Belikov—and the “case” would only come to the personal characteristics of the ‘anthropos’ and to the peculiarities and abnormalities of his bureaucratic existence. But Mavra … She is “a healthy and not a stupid woman”. But she too is in a case, although in a different kind of case than Belikov. That is why Mavra's footsteps in the night evoke such an oppressive feeling; they sound a warning alarm about the cruelty of life, about the necessity of changing it.

Therefore the brief mention in the beginning of the story of the village elder's wife who walks by night is not simply a realistic detail, but the most important link of the figurative thought of the narration.

The reference to Mavra in the beginning of the story and the sound of her footsteps at the end are artistically juxtaposed very exactly. This juxtaposition tells us a great deal, it tells that which was not said by the writer in words. We should notice that these two particulars of the opposed ends of the story can in no way be syntactically and linguistically interconnected. They are connected only structurally. But what a strong connection it is! In this instance—as always in real art—you see that it is the structure which speaks.

Notes

  1. From: Vadim Nazarenko, Jazyk iskusstva (Leningrad, Sovetskij pisatel', 1961). Chapter 1, pp. 71–76.

  2. A. Efimov, a well known specialist in stylistics. In an article “Image-bearing speech of an Artistic Work”, Voprosy literatury, 8 (1959), he maintains that only tropes and similes can be considered as the lexical media of imagery.

  3. In the original Russian—two words.

Frank O'Connor (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5951

SOURCE: O'Connor, Frank. “The Slave's Son.” In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, pp. 78–98. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962.

[In the following essay, O'Connor descants the changing face of the short story, particularly with Chekhov.]

There is still no satisfactory book on Anton Chekhov, and this is scarcely to be wondered at. He has been the victim of more enthusiastic misunderstanding than any short-story writer, praised for all the wrong reasons and imitated in ways that would have astonished him. In literature as in life he was a difficult man; diffident and evasive, hard to pin down to any positive statement except perhaps that Dreyfus was innocent or that Russian teachers were underpaid.

He must have been always difficult. Already in his youth there is a contradiction between the lighthearted young medical student who wrote stories that were sometimes less than edifying to support a family that seems to have been less than deserving. Of his brutal father no one seems to have a good word to say, and two clever brothers do not seem to have been much better. Chekhov's most positive statement about himself was made in 1889 when he was twenty-nine and had already achieved a considerable degree of self-mastery. In a characteristically impersonal way he suggested bitterly to his friend Souvorin that Souvorin should write a story about him, “a story about a young man, the son of a serf, a one time shop assistant, choir boy, schoolboy and university student, brought up to fawn on rank, kiss the hands of priests, accept without questioning other people's ideas, express his gratitude for every morsel of bread he eats, a young man who has been frequently whipped, who goes to give lessons without goloshes, engages in street fights, tortures animals, loves to go to his rich relations for dinner, behaves hypocritically towards God and man without the slightest excuse but only because he is conscious of his own worthlessness—could you write a story of how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how, on waking up one morning, he feels that the blood coursing through his veins is real blood and not the blood of a slave?”

That famous terrible letter is the work of a man of more than ordinary self-knowledge—absurdly modest, his biographers think, madly vain, Souvorin thought, and that contradiction, too, is part of the problem, for both are probably correct—and one of the most fascinating things about his work is that in it, step by step, we can see the process by which Chekhov squeezed out the slave in himself.

But, as Chekhov states them, the problem and the solution are both too obvious, and it is not remarkable that no one has really tried to work them out in terms of Chekhov's stories. Servility corrected by a proper application of manliness doesn't really throw any light on Chekhov's work. The real problem that Chekhov is working out is much more subtle than that—it is the nature of both servility and manliness. We all think we recognize these in ourselves and others, but do we really recognize them or merely conventionalized images of them, oversimplified in the manner of a schoolboy's code of honor into “dirty sneak” and “splendid chap”?

I have been criticized by Mr. Steegmuller for falling into what he thinks the critical cliché of contrasting Chekhov and Maupassant, but what can a critic do? Aristophanes fell into the same error, one presumes, when he contrasted Aeschylus and Euripides, and Aristophanes was scarcely a fool. Up to the eighteenth century every educated Englishman contrasted Shakespeare and Jonson, every educated Frenchman Racine and Corneille. Du Côté de Chez Swann and Du Côté de Guermantes is a very old story but always new.

With Chekhov and Maupassant it is almost inescapable because for several years Chekhov was deeply influenced by Maupassant. He had discovered no submerged population of his own, so he took over Maupassant's and tried to treat it in his own way. We can see him at it in “The Chorus Girl,” written when he was twenty-four. The chorus girl, lounging round half naked with her lover, Kolpakov, opens the door to Kolpakov's wife. Kolpakov hides while his wife informs the chorus girl that he has been detected in the theft of five hundred dollars from the office, presumably to buy the chorus girl's favors, and, to keep him out of jail, Mrs. Kolpakov has come to demand them back. The little chorus girl has never had anything but chocolates from him, but, embarrassed by the grief and indignation of someone she regards as a real lady, hands over the few trinkets she owns. When Kolpakov emerges from hiding, it is not to kiss the chorus girl's feet but to beat his brow in anguish at the thought that a real “lady” like his wife had actually degraded herself to the point of begging favors from a “fallen woman,” and, with a change of heart that turns him from a nonentity into a lout, he stalks off while the poor little chorus girl bursts into tears of fury and frustration.

One of the curious things about this story is that it is almost a straight crib of Maupassant's “Boule de Suif,” though, a year before, Chekhov had been warning Maria Kisselev that Russian editors would immediately detect any pilfering of Maupassant's subjects. “The Chemist's Wife” of 1886—two years later—could still almost be a story of Maupassant's. Two military officers decide to wake up the local chemist who has a pretty wife. The husband is asleep and the wife serves them with four pennyworth of peppermint lozenges. Prolonging their conversation with her, they order pharmacist's wine. Then, when the drugstore is closed again, one of the officers decides to return and complete his conquest. Unfortunately for him, this time it is the chemist who wakes, and the officer has to content himself with another four pennyworth of peppermint lozenges. “Life is like that,” Chekhov seems to say. “Sometimes it's passion and sometimes peppermint lozenges.”

But even by 1886 Chekhov was writing stories in Maupassant's manner where the contrast is more marked than the comparison. “The Witch” has the same theme as “The Chemist's Wife,” only this time, instead of a chemist, we get a sexton who, like his wife, is a member of one of the ecclesiastical families, and the sexton superstitiously believes that the strays who come to his house are brought there by his wife's machinations with the devil. Here, the connection with the Church gives the theme a new gravity, and in an extraordinary way the husband's wild superstitions emphasize the fury of frustrated sex in the wife.

In yet a third story of the same year, “Requiem,” we have a theme that can be roughly paralleled in Maupassant. Maupassant's “Accursed Bread” tells how a prostitute called Anna insists on the marriage of her virtuous sister, Rose, taking place from her own flashy apartment. The half-witted bridegroom, on being asked to sing, sings a most inappropriate song about the “accursed bread” of prostitution and the story ends with the drunken father's taking it up and singing it as well. Chekhov's beautiful story describes an embittered puritanical father attempting to have Mass said for his dead daughter, “the prostitute, Masha,” as he describes her in the particulars he offers the priest. The priest rounds on him savagely for his unchristian attitude to his dead child, but even while Mass is actually being said the stupid, pious old man continues to pray that God will remember “his departed servant, the prostitute, Masha.”

Now, in Maupassant's story all our sympathy goes to the prostitute and we can only despise her brother-in-law and father, but in Chekhov's our pity is almost entirely diverted from the prostitute to her old father who is so blind in his arrogance that it never once occurs to him that it may be he and not his daughter who needs our prayers. It is the point in Chekhov at which the passion for justice goes so deep that it affects the unjust as well as the just and at which we begin to perceive that what is at fault is partly the basic human incapacity to communicate. Somewhere the tragedy ceases to be entirely one of justice and injustice, of society and its submerged population, and becomes a tragedy of human loneliness. At once the whole conception of the submerged population becomes enlarged and enriched.

The biographer of Chekhov could easily put his finger on that year, his twenty-sixth, and argue that it was then that he plumbed in himself the depths of human misery, and that after it he was a different man and a different sort of writer. Two terrible masterpieces suggest this—“Misery” and “The Dependents.” “Misery,” one of his most famous stories, deals with an old cab driver whose son has died and who tries to tell his rich, busy customers about his loss. None of them can spare him the time, so late at night he goes down to the stable and tells it to his old horse. In “The Dependents” an old man who can no longer support his old horse and dog brings them to the knacker's yard, and when he sees their corpses goes meekly up to the stand and presents his own forehead for the blow. Never in the history of literature has human loneliness been described with such passion as in these two stories.

But it is not only in his perception of human loneliness as an element in the submerged population that his work shows development. There is also a profound moral probing into the nature of guilt itself. One can see this by a comparison between “Misery” and Katherine Mansfield's “The Life of Ma Parker,” which is an imitation of it. Ma Parker has lost her little grandson and is full of her grief, but when she tries to talk of it to her employer he merely says, “I hope the funeral was a—success,” and then criticizes her for throwing out a teaspoonful of cocoa in a tin. There is no moral probing in Katherine Mansfield; Ma Parker's employer is a heartless brute whom every reader of the story can heartily join in detesting, but the old cabby's customers in “Misery” are people very like ourselves, busy, wrapped up in their own concerns, and if they break the old man's heart with loneliness it is as we ourselves might do it.

One of the most characteristic stories of Chekhov that I remember I read years ago and cannot trace, but it must be an early story, and, I should guess, from somewhere about this period. It is a typical Maupassant theme. One rainy night a young man goes to visit his mistress, a married woman whose husband is often away. To his horror after he has dismissed his taxi he finds the door answered by the husband. He makes some excuse and stands miserably outside in the rain, clutching the bunch of flowers he has brought. Finally, just to get in out of the rain, he presents himself at the door again, pretending to be a messenger from the florist. At this point the wife emerges from the bedroom and cries that she has been expecting him, and after he pays his visit, he walks out again past the husband, more embarrassed than ever.

For three-fourths of the story we could be reading Boccaccio or Maupassant and waiting delightedly for the device by which mistress or lover will outwit the jealous cuckold, but suddenly it is as if Chekhov threw in his hand and refused to play any longer. No, the husband is not jealous, the wife is not embarrassed; it is the lover who goes away with a flea in his ear because he is a normal decent man and he had never really looked on adultery in this particular way. Chekhov never attacks adultery—there was too much of the romantic in him for that, and he knew that adultery may demand great virtues in the way of courage and devotion—but he does not like falsehood and he does not like inconsiderateness. In this story he seems to imply that the wife is a bad woman but for a reason no moralist before him would have offered—because she is inconsiderate. The technique as I remember the story is fumbling and uncertain, but the theme itself was to be one of Chekhov's basic themes up to the end.

Gradually, under the impact of two obsessions—his obsession with the venial sin as opposed to the mortal one and his obsession with human loneliness—his whole work began to change. A new standard of goodness emerges, and with it a new submerged population of doctors, teachers, and sometimes priests. Teachers and doctors represent the two poles of Chekhov's vision of the future. Doctors can help to rid us of the nightmare of pain and suffering that nature imposes on man, and teachers can help us to rise out of the night of superstition and ignorance. In the half-barbarous society of Czarist Russia both were cruelly underpaid and shamefully exploited.

Though Chekhov's most savage indictment of Russia's treatment of its intellectuals is about a priest, it could be equally true of a doctor or teacher of the time. The year—one must note the fact—again is 1886. The story is called “A Nightmare,” and it describes a public-spirited young man called Kunin who gets in touch with the local priest, intending to take the church school under his protection. The priest, a dullwitted man, almost persecutes Kunin with his visits and his passion for drinking tea, yet when Kunin visits him he is not offered even a cup of tea. Kunin very properly complains of him to the bishop, though by this time the perceptive reader has already realized that the priest is literally dying of starvation. Even the public-spirited Kunin realizes it at last though one knows quite well he will do nothing about it. “Father Avranny lives on three roubles a month. For a rouble the priest's wife could get herself a chemise and the doctor's wife could hire a washerwoman.”

For the greater part of the time Chekhov's own sense of justice enabled him to control the anger he felt at the exploitation of doctors and teachers. In 1887 he wrote “The Antagonists,” the story of a local doctor snatched from the deathbed of his only son by a husband who believes his wife is dying while, in fact, she is merely plotting to get him out of the house to elope with her lover. Clearly Chekhov sympathizes entirely with the doctor, but he cannot resist protesting against the doctor's savage hatred of the husband. “Time will pass,” he says, “and Kirilov's [the doctor's] grief will pass, but the unjust attitude, unworthy of a human heart, will not pass, but will remain with the doctor till the day of his death.” But in “The Grasshopper” (1892), Chekhov himself seems to me to have given way to “an unjust attitude unworthy of the human heart,” and he seems to have realized it, because it is the only story of his about which he lied and bluffed like any more human author who has been justly accused of exploiting a situation about which common decency required him to be silent. In the story the wife of a rather dull doctor has a love affair with a society painter (in real life, Chekhov's friend, Levitan); she patronizes her decent husband before her shady artistic friends, and only when her husband dies heroically, sucking the poison from a child's throat, does she realize that all the time he was a famous scientist, revered by his colleagues, and a million times better in ordinary human terms than the flashy fools she had spent her life trying to impress.

Obviously, the incident had triggered off in Chekhov an explosion beyond his own control and with it a recrudescence of what he regarded as the slave mind in himself—the apologies, braggadocio, and falsehood—though we of baser stuff may be more charitable to this than he would be. What he was trying to say—and said so much more lucidly in “The Duel” which he had written in the previous year—is that it does not really matter that the doctor's wife was an adulteress, but that it does matter, and matter eternally, that she was stupid and inconsiderate; and patronized, and allowed others to patronize, a man so incomparably superior to them all. The actual message is blurred by Chekhov's rage, because in real life great scholars and scientists are not necessarily as dull as he paints them, and even artists have been known to behave themselves when a great doctor entered the room.

But the message is clear in “The Duel” and becomes clearer as his work matures. We are not damned for our mortal sins, which so often require courage and dignity, but by our venial sins, which we can more easily conceal from ourselves and commit a hundred times a day till we become as enslaved to them as we could be to alcohol and drugs. Because of them and our facile toleration of them we create a false personality for ourselves—a personality predicated on mortal sins we have refrained from committing, ignoring altogether our real personality which is created about the small, unrecognized sins of selfishness, bad temper, untruthfulness, and disloyalty. This is not morality as anyone from Jane Austen to Trollope would have recognized it.

Chekhov's later work is dominated by the theme of the false personality. Chekhov himself would seem to have been obsessed by it. In the beautiful essay he wrote on his dead friend, Gorky describes Chekhov's trick of allowing people to speak in their assumed personality for a while and then interrupting them by a question aimed at eliciting the true one. Three ladies once visited him and talked earnestly about the war between the Greeks and the Turks—a subject of which they knew nothing—until Chekhov asked a question about making fruit drops, on which they turned out to be experts. On another occasion a teacher who was visiting him began some learned rigmarole, and Chekhov, after listening a while to his ramblings, dropped a single barbed question about another teacher in the neighborhood who beat the school children. Once more, the teacher, in defense of his worried, overworked colleague, became what he really was in life—an intelligent, humane, superior man. In Chekhov's criticisms of people it was never the obvious, serious things he stressed. “A very gifted person,” he said of a certain journalist. “His writing is always so lofty, so humane … saccharine. He calls his wife a fool in front of people.” And of another, “He knows everything. He reads a lot. He took three books of mine and never returned them.” Always, one notices, the venial sins, the raw material of the false personality.

The theme of the false personality is never far away in his work. Sometimes, as in “The Letter” (1887), he handles it with extraordinary tenderness and good humor. The deacon, Liubimov, complains to an unfrocked drunken priest called Father Anastasey of the behavior of his son, Pyotr, who not only does not observe the fast but lives in sin with a married woman. Since the boy is beyond Liubimov's control, the Clerical Superior, Father Fyodr Orlov, dictates an excellent letter to be sent to the wayward son. “In name you are a Christian,” it says, “but in your real nature a heathen, as pitiful and wretched as all other heathens—more wretched indeed, seeing that those heathens who know not Christ are lost from ignorance, while you are lost in that, possessing a treasure, you neglect it.”

A very impressive letter, which delights Liubimov, but the drunken old priest who has listened to its dictation takes him aside and begs him not to send it. “It will hurt his feelings, you know, deacon,” he says, but Liubimov is not to be deterred from showing off before his son with the Clerical Superior's fine style. However, before he puts it in an envelope, he adds a postscript of his own: “They have sent us a new inspector. He's much friskier than the old one. He's a great one for dancing and talking, and there's nothing he can't do, so that all the Govorovsky girls are crazy about him.” Then, entirely unaware that he has ruined the whole majestic effect of the Superior's letter, the deacon sends it off. And a very good thing he has ruined it, too, is what Chekhov implies, for what has happened is that for a moment the false personality of the deacon has dropped away and let us see the true one. Nobody has recognized the false personality but the drunken old priest whose life has become so hopeless and disorderly that he has no personality left, false or true.

In “The Duel,” which so far as length goes could be regarded as a novel, Chekhov attacks this theme with superb gravity. Laevsky is a hanger-on of culture who is living with a woman he despises, and she—Nadyezhda Fyodorovna—has degraded herself by filthy love affairs with locals. Laevsky knows what she does not know: that her husband is dead and that they are at last in a position to marry. Instead, he plans to get away from her and tries to borrow the money from his friend, the doctor Samoylenko, but Samoylenko is short of money himself and he has to turn to another friend, the scientist Von Koren. Von Koren has been exasperated by the silly sneers of Laevsky and Nadyezhda about science and scientists; he knows why Samoylenko wants the money, and realizes with the clarity of hatred exactly what Laevsky proposes to do with it, so he refuses to lend the money to Samoylenko unless Samoylenko gets a guarantee from Laevsky that he will take Nadyezhda along with him. What makes Von Koren such a remarkable character is that we soon become aware that he is only another aspect of Laevsky, just as the examining magistrate in Crime and Punishment is only another aspect of the murderer, Raskolnikov, and that both he and Laevsky are really aspects of Chekhov himself, the artist who is also a scientist. The battle that is fought out between the two men is really a battle in the author's own soul, like that between the society painter and the doctor in “The Grasshopper.”

The description of how Laevsky is finally forced to recognize his own false personality is the most remarkable bit of writing that I know of in Chekhov's work. The false personality is based entirely on petty lies, petty frauds, all venial sins, because Laevsky is a man incapable of the dignity of a single mortal sin that might solve all his difficulties since it would bring him face to face with his true personality. First he sees his salvation in one small necessary lie that will set him free for a new life, but as difficulties crowd in on him and he begins to despair he realizes that one lie will not be enough because he has been reduced to such a condition of moral slavery that each lie makes another lie inevitable.

In fact, in order to get away he would have to lie to Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, to his creditors, and to his superiors in the service; then, in order to get money in Petersburg, he would have to lie to his mother, to tell her that he had already broken with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna; and his mother would not give him more than five hundred roubles, so he had already deceived the doctor, as he would not be in a position to pay him back the money within a short time. Afterwards, when Nadyezhda Fyodorovna came to Petersburg, he would have to resort to a regular series of deceptions, little and big, in order to get free of her; and again there would be tears, boredom, a disgusting existence, remorse, and so there would be no new life. Deception and nothing more. … To leap over it at one bound and not to do his lying piecemeal, he would have to bring himself to stern, uncompromising action; for instance, to getting up without saying a word, putting on his hat, and at once setting off without money and without explanation. But Laevsky felt that this was impossible for him.

The whole point of the story is in the last cruel line that I have italicized. It is the very definition of moral slavery. In terms of Christian ethics Laevsky is incapable of committing a mortal sin, but the venial sins he commits all the time are infinitely more destructive than any mortal sin could be because he can suppress them from his conscious mind and go on believing himself to be a man of honor, a cultured man, a liberal, and a humanitarian, while in reality he is not even a decent human being. Only those who feel that they are not subject to venial sins can afford to hold him up to ridicule. Chekhov, who is examining his own conscience, does not. Through the doctor, Samoylenko, who is the key to the whole story, he recognizes that whatever baseness they may commit, Laevsky and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna are fundamentally decent people and incomparably superior to the thousands of nonentities by whom they are surrounded.

Only when Laevsky is actually threatened with death in the duel with Von Koren can he transcend himself and become something even more than a decent human being. And here, I think, Chekhov is faking the psychology, because heroic virtue is not something one expects of a man incapable of mortal sin, but Chekhov, of course, is not only discussing a conflict that existed in the outside world between a man named Laevsky and a man named Von Koren but a conflict in himself between the slave and the free man, between the storyteller and the doctor—the conflict he had described two years earlier to Souvorin. Chekhov was both an artist and a scientist, but neither satisfied him completely, because Von Koren, though—like Chekhov—honest, truthful and industrious, was more of a menace than Laevsky. He was the Communist come before his time, a man more interested in ends than in means. He could do good works, but as the deacon—the bumbling, good-natured representative of orthodox religion—perceived, he could do nothing but good works, and everything he did would be perverted from its proper goal by his own inhumanity.

It is the oldest problem in the history of the human race, that between the First and Second Commandments, and it is one that Christ deliberately refused to deal with. The deacon recognizes it when he says, “Faith without works is dead, but works without faith are worse still—mere waste of time and nothing more.” This is where Chekhov who, as Russian critics have recognized, is the great writer spiritually closest to communism, gives it up; for in his moment of illumination the deacon is saying what Christ implied when he refused to discuss whether our duty to God or our duty to our neighbor is the more important—that they are interdependent, and that the worship of a God who does not require us to do good works, and the doing of good works regardless of the God who alone gives our good works value are equally aspects of error.

No analysis of Chekhov's ideas, of which there are so few and the few so carefully concealed by a man who was supremely an artist, can give any idea of his total range. This was enormous, and enormous because he felt that no matter how sad life might be it was still beautiful. But to appreciate it one had to be free—free not only of the external tyrannies of brutal fathers and heartless officials but of the internal tyrannies of anger, selfishness, and cupidity. His occasional fits of savagery were reserved for characters who are so completely enslaved without and within that they never see life at all, Laevskys with no hope of salvation. The earliest and best tempered of these stories is “The Death of a Civil Servant,” in which a junior official attending the theater sneezes on the bald pate of an important functionary in front of him and until he dies of despair a short time afterward tries to explain to the functionary that he meant no disrespect. Much more savage is “Rothschild's Fiddle,” in which the villain is Yakov Ivanov, a coffinmaker who hates Jews, who has had a wife but never loved her, and a river by his house he had never fished in. Yakov Ivanov's coffins are categories, neat little boxes into which he tries sourly to fit races, sexes, and occupations. Categories too are all that is left to “The Man in the Box,” one of three magnificent stories that Chekhov wrote in 1898, using an entirely new technique in which he merely describes a group of friends sitting around and spinning yarns from which general ideas begin to emerge. The box that Byelikov is in is one of Yakov Ivanov's coffins. He is a man who never likes to do anything unless he has found a government regulation that permits it, and so he gives up the girl he might have married and who might have saved him, all because he sees her riding a bicycle—a contingency no government regulation has envisaged. The difference between the two later stories and “The Death of a Civil Servant” is that, as he grows older, Chekhov realizes that not only do these mediocrities with their miserable venial sins impose their categories on themselves; they impose them on others as well.

He had the whole town under his thumb. Our ladies did not get up private theatricals on Saturdays for fear he should get to hear of it, and the clergy dared not eat meat or play cards in his presence. Under the influence of people like Byelikov we have got into the way of being afraid of everything in our town for the last ten or fifteen years. They are afraid to speak aloud, afraid to send letters, afraid to make acquaintances, afraid to read books, afraid to help the poor, to teach people to read and write.

As Chekhov's own end approached with a growing sense of the brevity and beauty of human life there was also a growing sense of the necessity for grasping it. It is the period of the loveliest of his comedies, The Cherry Orchard, and of a half-dozen stories that seem to tremble on the verge of music, so full are they of pure poetry. Here and there there is even an extraordinary sort of romanticism in reverse, romanticism as it might perhaps appear to a theologian in an inspired moment. Chekhov does not cease to emphasize the importance of the venial sin, but it is almost as though he were putting in a good word for the mortal sin, the sin that requires character and steadfastness of purpose. It is as though this saintly man, who all his life has been preaching to us to be industrious, respectful to doctors and teachers, considerate to our relatives and friends, were adding despairingly, “But if all this doesn't make you love life better, then for God's sake be bad!” In “About Love,” one of the three marvelous stories of 1898, he seems to be defending the mortal sin if in fact it proves to be the only way out of an intolerable existence. One of the group of friends who are discussing general ideas—the character Chekhov's biographer, David Magarshack, identifies with Chekhov himself—describes a silent love affair with a married woman in which both, for the best reasons, are entirely circumspect in their behavior up to the very moment of parting and then realize that they have wasted their lives. The lover sums it up in his own way:

I understand that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.

Browning might have uttered that sentiment, or Yeats, who once said to me, “The ethical impulse always breaks the ethical law.” What reveals the moralist, the prose writer as opposed to the poet, is the qualification of “what is highest”—that “which is more important than happiness or unhappiness.” You may order the dinner but you must foot the bill; you may in the last resort do whatever seems right to you, but you must accept responsibility for it in this world and the next.

In precisely the same year as “About Love” Chekhov took up the theme again in what may well be the most beautiful short story in the world, “The Lady With the Dog.” It is a footnote to the theme of “The Grasshopper.” This story is about a young woman, married to a dull official, who meets a married man at the seaside and becomes his mistress. Like the heroine of “The Grasshopper” she is punished, but this time it seems to be because she does not leave her husband altogether. She and her lover, like Laevsky, seem to lack the capacity for committing the one mortal sin that would justify them in the eyes of God.

Then they discussed their situation for a long time, trying to think how they could get rid of the necessity for hiding, deception, living in different towns, being so long without meeting. How were they to shake off these intolerable fetters?

Easily enough, Chekhov implies, by living together and taking the consequences, though, in justice to a man who always tried to be just, one must notice that both these stories were written before he met the woman he married. How he would have felt if he had lived longer is something we can never know.

I feel sure that “The Bishop,” written the year before he died, is, like Mozart's final “Requiem,” a celebration of his own death. The bishop, a poor boy who has been raised to eminence in the Church, struggles through his duties, though each night he collapses in pain as Chekhov himself was collapsing. He thinks back upon his youth, and everything that recurs to him is transfigured, and yet he remains a lonely man, as lonely as the old cab driver whose son has died or the man who has had to get rid of his horse and dog. His mother has come to visit him, along with his niece, but his mother still calls him “Your Grace,” putting the immense barriers of society between him and the only human contact he can hope for. I can't help wondering whether Chekhov's mother did not once upset him by addressing him as “Doctor.” It is only just before he dies that the false personality she has built up for herself because of her distinguished son collapses, and she calls him again by the intimate names she had called him when he was still only a little boy who could not button his own trousers. It is the final affirmation of Chekhov's faith in life—lonely and sad, immeasurably sad, but beautiful beyond the power of the greatest artist to tell.

V. V. Vinogradov (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7019

SOURCE: Vinogradov, V. V. “On Čexov's Style.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 169–84. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1963, Vinogradov remarks upon speech characterization in Chekhov's short stories.]

In Čexov, the devices of socio-professional speech characterization reached great depth and stylistic subtlety.2 Commenting on the style of A. M. Fedorov's play An Ordinary Woman, he wrote the following in a letter to the author: “Volodja is good … but, he should be a mechanic or have been one. Then such expressions as ‘The steam is released’, and ‘The wheels will start to move now’, will not be empty, but will flow, as it were, from a depth.”3

It is obvious that even in a work of artistic realism there is no complete and direct correlation between the literary reproduction of a social style of speech and its socio-dialectal basis. However, the principles and tendencies which determine the degree of verisimilitude in daily speech and in the character depicted are very important. For example, take Čexov's story, “A Happy Ending”: the characteristics of social-speech style of ‘a person of experience’, a bourgeois with pretensions to education (“I am of the educated class. I can say that I am with Prince Kanitelin the same as I am with you right now …”) combine with the typical attitudes of banal rhetorics to form the style of head conductor Styčkin's speech. The basic principle here is the structural deformation of ordinary expressions and of literary bookish locution: “Semën Ivanovič recommended you from the point of view, that …” (226);4 “I am a man of the educated class, with money, but were one to look at me from a point of view, then what am I? An old bachelor, like a Catholic priest” (227); “Whence shall I go and to whom shall I turn, if all people are unknown for me?” (227); “To think various ideals” (227); “You are to my liking, and suit me in your qualities” (230); “I understand everything gentlemanly” (230); etc.

Another characteristic of his speech is his nonsensical use of expressively colored cliches in a lofty style: “but I am in a position to feed at my side a beloved being and children too” (226); “But I lack just one thing—my own home and hearth and life's companion, and I lead a life like a wandering Hungarian who moves from place to place without any satisfaction” (226); “And therefore I most earnestly implore you, Ljubov Grigor' evna, to settle my fate with your assistance” (227); “I believe that the main thing in a woman is not that which is on the outside, but what is found within, that is, that she have a soul and all the properties” (227).5

Semantic deviations from the norms of literary usage are also significant, as are distortions based on folk etymological, quibbling distortions. For example: “I lead a well-grounded and appropriate life” (226); “And therefore I wish very much to be united in the bonds of Hymen,6 that is, to enter into lawful marriage” (227); “and in the arrangement of people's happiness has her profession” (227); “For me beauty and appearance in general play a secondary role” (227); “Strictly speaking, intelligence is not needed in a woman because then she will get a high opinion of herself and will think various ideals” (227); “Well, but now as far as what is substantive is concerned” (228); etc.

The syntactic structure of the head conductor's speech also contributes to such peculiar phrase constructions as: “Just between ourselves, let me tell you that besides my salary, I also have money in the bank …” (226); “I have no one to confide in, and, when I am sick, there is no one to give me a drink of water and so forth” (226–227).

These and other qualities of head conductor Styčkin's speech style still do not completely define either his character, his ‘artistic image’, or his function in the structure of the story. Moreover, the artistic and esthetic functions of these as well as characteristics of the social speech style of a pretentious Philistine of the ‘educated class’ become clear only in the dynamic structural development of Čexov's novella, which he gave an ironic title, “A Happy Ending”.

The first characterisation of Styčkin comes from the author himself: “Styčkin, a bit embarrassed, but, as always, serious, practical, and strict, was walking about the room, smoking a cigar and saying …” (226). Styčkin's self evaluation, full of utter complacency and great self esteem, is repeated more than once in his speech. It is natural that the expressive quality of those emotionally elevated attributes which Styčkin applies to himself, especially since they come from himself, acquire for the reader a deeply ironic and sharply lowered evaluation. “My position is quite solid … I am a practical and sober man, and I lead a well-grounded and appropriate life, so that I can be an example to many others” (226); “I am a man of the educated class, with money …” (227); “I am a practical person and a man of character” (227); “I am of the educated class. I can say that I am with Prince Kanitelin the same as I am with you right now, but I am a simple man” (228); “If you get a husband who is practical, sedate and thrifty, then, considering his salary and your earnings, he could come to like you very much and you both will live in harmony” (229); “I am a practical and sober man and, if you like me, then … what could be better?” (230); “I am a strict, solid, practical man, I understand everything gentlemanly, and wish that my wife would also be strict and would understand that I am her benefactor and the most outstanding person” (230).

Thus in Styčkin's self-evaluation almost the same attributes and evaluations of his character which appeared first in the author's narrative style vary, develop, and extend. However, the expressive semantic functions of these phrases as well as their characteristic or characterological value in the structure of the entire narrative change completely. The image of automatic, standard, rigid speech builds up the self-characterization of this smug dullard.

The revelation of Styčkin's image in his speech occurs along several lines: (1) in his statements about his “life companion”, and about how to “settle my fate” and be united with some worthy person in the “bonds of Hymen”; (2) in his exposition of his philosophy of life, of his relationship to women and his future wife, etc.; (3) in his practical calculations, in the combination of his bourgeois verbal romanticism with a sober and petty miserliness; and (4) in the constant revelation of the peculiarities of Styčkin's eroticism.

The basic disclosure of Styčkin's image is in his dialogue with Ljubov Grigor'evna, a sedate, “buxom lady of about forty who was engaged in matchmaking and quite a few other things of which one ordinarily speaks only in a whisper”.

This euphemistic characterization is expanded and revealed further in the second part of Styčkin's dialogue with the matchmaker.7 “They remained silent for about five minutes. The matchmaker sighed, looked askance at the head conductor and asked, ‘Well, my good fellow, do you want anything in the bachelor line? I have some nice goods. One is a French woman, and the other is of Greek decent. They are very worthy’” (228).

Here Čexov reveals the basis or summit of Ljubov Grigor'evna's activity. Her style changes (cf. addressing him in the familiar thou, my good fellow). The phraseology is significant: “in the bachelor line”, “I have some nice goods”, “very worthy” (cf. “and so, my good fellow, we do not make money out of weddings”). In general, this entire scene, which is acted out after a five minute pause in the conversation, signals a sharp break in the development of the sujet of the story and is connected with the intensification in the development of the dialogue. It is interesting that the third act or third scene also begins with a reference to a pause: “A silence follows.”

Thus, Čexov's novella “A Happy Ending” falls into three dramatic segments. The first is the philosophizing, self evaluating monologues of head conductor Styčkin which are interrupted by the laconic replies of the matchmaker.

“A fine thing”, the matchmaker sighed.


“This is feasible …”


“This is feasible”, she repeated. “What sort of bride would you like, Nikolaj Nikolaevič? …”


“Of course, fate itself decides such matters, but you know, each has his own tastes. One person likes brunettes, another likes blondes …”


“To be sure …”


“I might also find someone with a dowry.”

In Styčkin's monologues, aside from his repeated self evaluations and expressions of desire “to accommodate himself” to his bride, statements regarding the qualities of women and wives are emphasized. These statements are dialectical in their own peculiar way. In them appear the conflict between the demands of Philistine esthetics, the principles of ‘pleasantness’, and practical expediency. They are presented in the form of adversative judgments and complex sentences which correspond to them:

“For me beauty and appearance in general play a secondary role because, as you yourself know, you can't eat beauty for supper and a beautiful wife is always a lot of trouble … Of course it is very nice if a wife were a bit plump, but that is not important as far as mutual happiness is concerned; the main thing is intelligence.”

The critical statement about woman's intelligence also leads to a negative conclusion in the solution of the problem concerning the necessity and importance of the female mind. “Strictly speaking, intelligence is not needed in a woman because then she will get a high opinion of herself and will think various ideals.” Styčkin's ideas about education enter in here:

“One cannot get along without education nowadays, but there are various kinds of education. It would be nice if my wife spoke French and German with different intonations, very nice; but what good would that do me, say, if she did not know how to sew on a button?”

(227–228)

The question of dowry and of rich and poor brides is solved with the same sort of contradiction and dialectic and with an obvious humorous bent. A particularly biting and significant place is given to the relationship of love and “personal benefit”, of passion and money, in the selection of a bride.

“I don't need a rich woman. I would not allow myself to sink so low as to marry for money. I would not want to eat my wife's bread, but she should eat mine, and appreciate it. But I don't want a poor woman either. Although I am a man of means and although I am not marrying for personal profit, but for love, still I cannot take a poor woman because, as you know, prices have gone up and there will be children.”

The most interesting thing here is his peculiar understanding of the word love. Styčkin's concept of love combines elements of cold blooded calculation with the idea of a husband as benefactor.

Phraseological repetitions are characteristic: “The most important thing is that she respect me and feel that I have made her happy” (228); “I … wish my wife would also be strict and would understand that I am her benefactor and the most outstanding person” (230).

In the second act of this dramatic novella—in conjunction with the fact that the price of Ljubov Grigor'evna's services “regarding a bride” seems expensive to Styčkin—a change of ideas and plans takes place in the head conductor. He begins to urge her more frequently: “Have a glass, I beg you.” An idea begins to develop—to take the matchmaker as a bride.

Styčkin silently looked her over from head to toe and said:


“Fifty rubles … that makes six hundred rubles a year … Have a glass, I beg you … You know, Ljubov Grigor'evna, with such dividends you would have no trouble making a match for yourself …”


“For myself?” laughed the matchmaker. “I am an old woman …”


“Not at all … You have a nice figure, your face is full and white, and all the rest.”


The matchmaker was embarrassed. Styčkin was also embarrassed and sat down next to her.


“You are still very attractive”, he said. “If you get a husband who is practical, sedate and thrifty, then, considering his salary and your earnings, he could come to like you very much and you will both live in harmony.”

(229)

The third part of the dramatic dialogue also begins with a pause:

A silence followed. Styčkin began to blow his nose loudly … Another minute passed in silence. Styčkin stood up and began to walk about the room in excitement.


“I don't need a young wife”, he said. “I am an older man, and I need the type of person … somewhat like you … staid and solid … with your sort of figure …”8

The ending repeats the beginning: Styčkin “sighed deeply and began to expound to his fiancee his views on domestic life and on the duties of a wife …”

This brief examination of the structural development of Čexov's “A Happy Ending” does not merely illustrate the complex devices of artistic literary reworking and sujetal organization involving a character's unique style of social speech; it also illustrates a particular set of categories and principles of stylistically artistic literature and poetics, through which both the structure and the essence of the content of socially tinted common speech undergo a change. Into this area enter the complex problems of the relationship between an author's speech and that of his characters, as do problems of internal expressive and sujetal-semantic changes both in their forms and in their structural properties.

.....

… The matter of the expressive qualities of words, phrases, and constructions—still so little investigated in the stylistics of language and speech so far as various structural types and systems of social speech are concerned—consists of a large, complex sphere of problems concerned with the combination, shift of contrasts, and strengthening of expressive colorations of speech and their influence on other means of stylistic expression and the interaction with it.

Čexov's story “An Evil Affair” was first published in Peterburgskaja Gazeta (1887, No. 54, p. 3, in the section “Flying Notes”) and then later—with changes in punctuation and in one word, hoarsely in place of boldly in the phrase: “… says the pilgrim, chuckling boldly”—in the collection of Čexov's stories In the Twilight (St. Peterburg, 1887) and likewise in all subsequent editions of this collection (2nd to 13th, St. Peterburg, 1888–1899) and, finally, with changes in punctuation only, in editions of Čexov's collected works. In this story the forms of the narrative style and the dialogue of the protagonists are arranged broadly and freely upon the dramatic coordination of the general expressive tone.

This unity of expressive tone in the general style of “An Evil Affair” was noted and mentioned by D. V. Grigorovič. In a letter to Čexov dated December 30, 1888, he gave the following evaluation of the story:

In its preservation of harmony and in the endurance of its general gloomy tone, your story “An Evil Affair” is simply a model; from the very first pages, although one does not yet know what will happen, one begins unwittingly to get a feeling of horror, and a premonition of something sinister seizes control of one's mind.9

The story begins with an anxious question: “Who goes there?” There is no answer. A gloomy situation is described with suitable words, constructions, and expressive colorations.

The watchman sees nothing, but above the sound of the wind and the trees he can clearly hear someone walking ahead of him in the alley. The March night, cloudy and foggy, has blanketed the land, and it seems to the watchman that the earth, the sky, and he himself with all his thoughts have merged together into something huge and impenetrably black. He can only grope his way about.

Then comes the tragicomic scene between the burglar, who is playing the role of a lost old pilgrim, and the watchman, who, though thoroughly frightened, pretends not to be afraid.

“Who goes there?” the watchman repeats, and it begins to seem to him that he hears whispering and smothered laughter.Who is there?”

The author emphasizes the aged voice and senile pilgrimish manner of the burglar's speech. A dialogue follows:

“It's me, master …” answers an aged voice.


“And who are you?”


“I … am just a passer-by.”


What do you mean, just a passer-by?” the watchman shouted angrily, hoping to disguise his fear with the shout. “The devil brings you here! Wandering about in a cemetery at night, you forest spirit!”


“Is this really a cemetery here?”


“Why? What else? Of course it's a cemetery. Can't you see?”


“O-ho-ho … Queen of Heaven!” There is a sound of the old man sighing.

Then we hear the old man's manner of speech, with its salutations and interjections and with its emotional repetitions of words and expressions.

“I don't see a thing, master, not a thing … How dark it is, dark. It's pitch black, dark, master! O-ho-ho …”


“And just who are you?”


“I am a pilgrim, master, a wanderer.”

The nightwatchman's replies become more garrulous, extensive.

“What devils, night people … Pilgrims to boot! Drunkards.”


The watchman mutters, calmed by the tone and sighs of the passer-by. “One will sin with you!” They drink all day and the devil drives them at night.

Then there is a recollection of the watchman's first impressions and feelings:

“Say, it seemed to me I heard not just you, but two or three of you.”


“Only one, master, just me. There was just one … Oh-ho-ho, our sins …”

This whole dialogue takes place in complete darkness. But then the watchman and the pilgrim make physical contact, and a new associative series of questions and corresponding answers arises. The watchman now treats the pilgrim as a lost drunk. This corresponds to the watchman's becalmed imagination.

The watchman stumbles onto the man and stops still.


“How did you get here”, he asks.


“I lost my way, good man. I was going to the Mitrievskaya mill and I lost my way.”

Thus the clear delineation of the passer-by's personality emerges. Nearby locales are mentioned by name. All of this somehow confirms the watchman's surmise that the passer-by was wandering about drunk and wound up in the cemetery.

“Whew! Is the road to the Mitrievskaia mill through here? You dunderhead! To get to the Mitryevskaya mill you have to go quite a bit over to the left—straight from the city on the state highway. You've walked an extra two miles, you sot. I suppose you guzzled a few too many when you were in the city?”


“It was a sin to be sure, master, it surely was … Verily, it was, and I shall not hide my sin. But how should I go now?”

Now, as the alleged passer-by attempts to lure the watchman further away from the church, his speech is brighter, sharper and more varied ways assumes the idiom and properties of a devout old man's style.

“God grant you health, father. Save you, Queen of Heaven, and be merciful. But if you only could guide me, good man! Be merciful, guide me to the gate!”

Along with this, in the watchman's replies—he has become completely calm and devoid of fear—a growing familiar, condescendingly-protective brusqueness and even some contempt are seen.

“The gate will be there. Open it and go with God. Watch yourself, don't fall into the ditch. And when you are out of the graveyard go all the way along the field until you get to the state highway.”

In answer to the wanderer's request to lead him there:

“Well, as if I have time. Go there by yourself.”

And the wanderer exaggerates even more the way an old man would make a request:

“Be merciful—make me pray to God for you. I don't see a thing, it's pitch black, so dark, master … Dark, so dark! Guide me, gracious master!”

The expression gracious master is the highest in the prayerfully friendly relationship of the wanderer towards the watchman, who answers independently and sternly:

“Oh sure, as if I have plenty of time to lead people. If I played nursemaid to everyone I'd never finish leading people about.” “For the sake of Christ, take me there. I can't see and I'm afraid to walk alone in a cemetery. It's sinister, master, sinister, I am afraid, it is sinister, good man …”

The watchman agrees to take the wanderer as far as the gate.

The landscape which the author has drawn is full of darkness and anguish.

The watchman and the wanderer begin to move away. They walk together, shoulder to shoulder, silently. The damp penetrating wind hits them directly in the face and the unseen trees moaning and creaking sprinkle large drops on them. The avenue is almost completely covered with puddles.

The watchman continues to get better acquainted with the wanderer, who “visits holy places and prays for good people”.

Then the descent into the denouement begins. Images of dead men and pilgrims are evoked. Now the pilgrim plays the main role and his responses become more extensive and colorful.

“The little dead are sleeping, our dear ones are asleep!” the wanderer mumbles, sighing deeply. “The rich are sleeping, and so are the poor and the wise and the foolish and the good and the evil. They are all worth the same. And they will continue to sleep until the sound of the trumpet. The kingdom of heaven be theirs, rest in peace.”


“Now we are walking here, but the time will come when we too shall lie here”, says the watchman.

The watchman barely sustains the dialogue. His replies are brief and monotonous.

“Yes, yes. We shall all lie here. There is no man who will not die. O-ho-ho. Our deeds are evil, our thoughts are devilish. Sins, sins! My soul is cursed, unsatiable, my belly is greedy! I have angered the Lord, and there shall be no salvation for me either in this world or in the next. Bound up in sin like a worm in the earth.”


“Yes, everyone must die.”


“That's certainly the way it is.”


“It is easier for pilgrims to die than for people like me …” says the watchman.

At this point, in his description of various kinds of pilgrims, the wanderer begins to drop the mask of a pilgrim and the expressiveness of his speech begins to change radically.

“There are all sorts of pilgrims. There are the real ones who fear the Lord and watch over their souls, and then there are those who wind up in graveyards at night and please the devil … yes! Why if he wanted to, that sort of pilgrim could crack your head open with an axe handle and free your soul from your body.”

The dumfounded watchman says:

“Why do you use such words?”

The pilgrim answers:

“No reason …”

The pilgrim sees the gate.

“Well, here's the gate, it seems. It certainly is. Be so kind as to open it, buddy.”

The salutation “buddy” is used in place of the former “master” and “gracious master”.

However, the former style of the pilgrim's language is preserved in one more fragment of conversation:

“O-no-no …”, the pilgrim sighs quietly. “Now that I think of it, I have no reason to go to the Mitrievskaya mill … Why the devil should I go there? I would much rather stay here with you for a while, gracious master …”

An element of mockery enters into the wanderer's manner of speaking and churchly expressions disappear. He assumes another role which at first merely discourages the watchman but then creates in him a “heavy, cold dread”.

“Why do you want to stay with me?”


“Well … it's more cheerful with you …”


“It looks like you've found a joker. I see you like to make jokes, pilgrim.”


“Sure I do!” says the pilgrim, chuckling hoarsely.

This expression (formerly “chuckling boldly”) is evidence that the wanderer has completely torn off the mask of a pilgrim.

“Am I really a pilgrim? I'm no pilgrim at all.”


“Then who are you?”


“A dead man … I have just risen from the grave … Remember Gubarev the locksmith who hanged himself at carnival time? That's me, Gubarev …”


“Tell me another!”

Terror again seizes the watchman and then the wanderer exposes himself as a burglar and a potential murderer. The style of his speech changes once more. His expressions become coarse, brusque, imperative.

“Sto-op! I say stop and you'd better stop … Don't struggle, you filthy dog! If you want to stay alive, then hold still and shut up until I tell you … It's only that I don't want to spill any blood or else you would have been dead long ago, you mangy … Stop!”

The watchman's stance, his external appearance of terror, his thoughts and emotions are all given in detail.

The watchman becomes weak in the knees. He closes his eyes from fear and trembling all over he presses close to the fence. He would like to yell, but he knows that his shouts would not reach any dwelling … The wanderer stands next to him and holds him by the arm …

The length of this terrible dramatic scene which passes in silence is fixed exactly.

About three minutes pass in silence.


“One is in fever, the second is asleep, and the third is seeing pilgrims about”, numbles the wanderer. “Great watchmen—they earn their money! Yes, brother, robbers have always been smarter than watchmen! Stand still, quit shaking …”

Again the time is specified: “Five, ten minutes pass in silence. Suddenly the wind carries a whistle.”

The pilgrim's specialty is thus revealed once and for all—theft.

In the ending the premonition of “something very evil” which seized the watchman as he ran to the church is shown subtly and dynamically.

Having a foreboding of something very evil and still shaking with fear, the watchman hesitantly opens the gate, and closing his eyes, rushes back …


When he has run down the big avenue, he notices a small dim light in the dark. The closer he gets to the light, the more horrified he feels, and his foreboding of something evil becomes all the stronger.

The story ends with these dismal words:

A short time passes and the howling wind carries through the graveyard the frantic, uneven sounds of the tocsin

Thus the problem of expressive speech in artistic literature becomes a problem of expressive tone (and sometimes expressive background) as well as expressive dynamic variations in the form of the entire, unified literary structure.

.....

The problem of an individual writer's style is bound up with isolating the stylistic core, the system of expressive means which is always present in the works of that writer, at least in the limits of a given period of his creativity. Observations regarding a later change in his stylistic system may provide a basis for conclusions regarding the further evolution of his style. Thus the reproduction of the general system of a writer's style is based on a careful preliminary thorough analysis of his works. Such an analysis should have a historical dynamic character. It is impossible to isolate the totality of basic stylistic elements in an author's work without reconstructing the rules or uniformities of the movement of style in his individual works as they appear in their structural enfolding.

In illustration, we turn to several stylistic features of Čexov's story “The Coroner”.10

The district doctor and the coroner were riding to an autopsy on a fine spring afternoon.

The coroner relates a strange story “while gazing at the horses thoughtfully”. He is talking about what is puzzling and obscure in nature—about how one often runs across events even in daily life which definitely do not lend themselves to explanation.

“I know of several strange deaths which only spiritualists and mystics would attempt to explain, but would cause a clear-headed person to raise his arms in bewilderment. For example, I know of a certain educated lady who foretold her own death and died for no apparent reason on the very day she had predicted. She said she would die on such-and-such a day, and she did”.

(142)

This is a peculiar sort of story-discourse. On the whole, the subjective expression is connected with motifs of mysteriousness and strangeness. At first it appears that the story concerns a casual acquaintance—“an educated lady”. The doctor's comment emphasizes the sharp difference between the coroner's attitude to the mysterious and his own: he is a sober materialist. “‘There is no effect without a cause’, said the doctor. ‘There is a death and therefore there is a cause of it.’” The doctor does not use such words as ‘mysterious’ or ‘strange’. He speaks ironically about ‘wonders’: “As far as the prediction is concerned, I see very little out of the ordinary there. All of our females, educated or not, have the gift of prophecy and presentiment.” In this way two different styles—individual as well as social-typological—come into conflict.11

The coroner continues his story. The objective tone is, in general, preserved. True, in the description of the lady the expressiveness is deepened. Compassion, perhaps admiration, but at least a delight towards her is shown.

“Maybe so, but this lady of mine, doctor, is quite unusual. There was nothing womanish in her prediction and her death … She had, if you like, only one female trait—beauty.”

A portrait is drawn—delicate, attractive, with an abundance of details; it is positive, clear, and emotional. Words are repeated and given special emphasis: intelligent woman, intelligent (eyes), full of … intelligent, pleasant frivolity, and synonyms: thoughtful (an open and thoughtful face) and thinking, as well as cheerful, full of very infectious gaiety (cf. “with a mocking, typically Russian smile in her eyes and on her lips”, etc.). The coroner's monologue ends with the following words:

“Could there possibly be any mysticism, spiritism, gift of presentiment or the like here? She used to laugh at all that.”

In the second part of the novella the coroner's narrative becomes concrete and descriptive of day-to-day life. A strange tale unfolds—the death of the woman who was described at the beginning of the story. The story proceeds casually. In spite of this, the vivid particulars full of subjective expression in depicting the lives of the husband and wife betray the coroner's closeness to the events. The wife's insistence that she will die immediately after childbirth is constantly emphasized:

“Do whatever you wish—it is all the same to me. By summer I will already be in the cemetery.”


Her husband, of course, shrugs his shoulders and smiles.


“I am not joking at all”, she says. “I declare in all seriousness that I am going to die soon.”


“And just how soon?”


“Right after childbirth. I will have the baby and die”.

(143)

The use of verb tenses and the temporal perspective of the narration tend to bring together the husband who is the subject of the conversation and the coroner himself, who is the narrator.

Her husband did not place any weight on these words. He does not believe in premonitions and in addition he knows full well that women in an interesting condition tend to be capricious and are generally given to gloomy thoughts.

(143)

There is yet another significant detail: the wife's expressiveness of speech when she speaks of her approaching death (“just as soon as I give birth, I will die immediately”):

She spoke in earnest, with an unpleasant smile, even with such a hostile expression on her face as would not allow contradiction.

(144)

The closeness of the narrator to the husband is revealed also in the sudden utterance of the wife's name, Nataša, and in describing the following episode:

Finally the husband got tired of this sort of thing. Once at dinner he lost his temper and asked his wife:


“Listen, Nataša, when is this nonsense going to end?”


“It is not nonsense. I am speaking seriously.”


“Rot! I would advise you to stop making such a fool of yourself, so you won't feel ashamed of it later”.

(144)

In conclusion we find:

The coroner paused, sighed and then said:


“Can you tell me what she died of? I assure you on my word of honor that this is not fiction but fact.”

“The Coroner” was first published in Peterburgskaja Gazeta (1887, No. 127, in the section “Flying Notes”, p. 3); when he reworked the text for a collection of his works (1901, Vol. III), Čexov eliminated everything which, on one hand, could prematurely suggest or give a clue to the personal drama of the coroner as the sujet of his story. For example:

… she avoided the company of old women, she was not afraid of the dark—in other words, I repeat, she was intelligent. I say this because I knew her almost as well as I know myself.

On the other hand, the description of the last will and testament is deleted, since the very style of the will—business-like, detailed, carefully considered, and sorrowful—could have been evidence for premeditated suicide.

In her last will and testament she asked her husband not to remain a widower for long, but to remarry as soon as possible; she forgave him everything, willed all her belongings to her future child, and left all her dresses to various people by name. She did not even forget about her tortoise shell match box, which she asked be given in her memory to her brother-in-law, a high-school student.

Finally, Čexov makes the naturalistic expression more gentle in depicting the wife's state before her suicide and in the depiction of her husband's attitude towards it:

The nanny and the cook, of course, were in tears because there is no woman in the world who is not glad to have an opportunity to break into tears. But the wife drove no one to grief with her whining as much as she did her guests … A guest at first would stare in wonder, and then burst into tears. It seemed to the husband that all this was a minor, temporary insanity, but he soon began to notice a definite change in his wife's actions and way of life. … To be sure, she loved him very much and was deeply insulted by that incident, but …

Later the doctor appears in the function of a detective uncovering the factual internal basis of the events, and the coroner himself takes the place of an actor in the drama—a role which first approaches and then merges into that of her husband.

Doctor:

“But she died, for sure, not because she predicted it. Most likely she took poison.


The inspector turned his face quickly to the doctor and narrowing his eyes asked:


“What makes you conclude that she poisoned herself?”

(145)

In this way the subtle description of the coroner's reactions to the doctor's questions strengthens the conjecture that the poisoned woman's husband is the coroner himself, the narrator of the puzzling story. “The coroner gazed intently at the doctor as if wishing to find out why he had asked such a question.” The anxious voice of the suicide's husband rings out distinctly in the style of his answer, in his recollections, and his expression of agreement which he reaches after hesitation:

“Just a second”, he answered after a short pause, “just a second, let me recall.” The coroner took off his hat and rubbed his forehead. “Yes, yes … she began to talk about her death right after that incident. Yes, yes.”


“Well, there you are … very likely it was at that time that she had decided to poison herself, but since she probably did not want to kill her child too, she postponed her suicide until after she gave birth.”


“Not likely, not likely … It is impossible. She forgave him at that time.”


“That she was so quick to forgive indicates that she was thinking about something evil. Young wives do not forgive quickly.”


The coroner gave a forced smile and, to hide his all too obvious agitation, he started to light a cigarette.

Then in the response of the coroner—although this time only as a slip of the tongue—a change from the third person to the first person takes place—from some other man to the “I” of the narrator himself.

“Not likely, not likely …” he went on. “The notion of such a possibility never entered my mind … And then … He was not as guilty as might seem … He was unfaithful to her in a curious fashion, without really wanting to …”

(145)

It is evident that the expressive verbal means by which the coroner's inner struggle, agitation, and hesitation, and his attitude to his wife's suicide are expressed are now sharply and dynamically revealed in the unexpected, contrasting, and individually-characteristic forms of dialogue. The very style of the inspector's statements changes sharply, and tends to be broken and hesitating. The dialogue's movement reflects complex expressive speech colourings—an inner struggle, embarrassment and confusion (“And then … he was not as guilty as might seem” … “He comes across a woman, devil take her …”).

That is so, of course, but still … I cannot admit that she poisoned herself. But it is strange that the possibility of such a death never occurred to me … And really it is impossible that she took poison! No!”

(146)

Thus the dramatic quality of the dialogue is strengthened and intensified. The coroner's style of speaking acquires a distinctly subjective-expressive colouring. In it the deep internal contradictions of his feelings and thoughts, his struggle with himself and his previous feelings and conclusions are vividly revealed. The narrator presents the external expression of the protagonist's emotions objectively, but now with more subtle detail.

The coroner fell to thinking. Thoughts of the woman who died so strangely did not leave him even during the autopsy. While he was taking dictation from the doctor, he frowned gloomily and rubbed his forehead.


On the way back the coroner looked exhausted; he bit his moustache nervously and spoke reluctantly.

During their walk which he himself had suggested, the coroner quickly lost his strength,

as if he was climbing up a high mountain. He stopped and looking at the doctor with strange, as if drunken eyes, he said:


“Oh my God! If your hypothesis is correct, then it … it is cruel, inhuman! She poisoned herself to punish someone else!? …”

Then follows the inspector's final acknowledgement that the story which he had told was about his wife and himself.

Thus, in analyzing the individual style of a story, novella, or short novel, a critic's attention is concentrated not only on the unique features of the narrative style (of an author or narrator) but also on the various forms of narration in their movements, interactions and shifts, on the devices of construction and development of dialogue used by the characters and on the structure of characters' speech. It is also concentrated on the methods and rules of shifting the style of the narrative or skaz12 into a dialogue of persons, into dramatic speech, as well as on the relationship of an author's narrative to the colloquial speech of the characters, on the ‘author's image’, his relationship to events and to the utterances of his characters being depicted.

Notes

  1. [From: V. V. Vinogradov, Stilistika. Teorija poètičeskoj reči. Poètika (Moskva, Akademija Nauk, 1963), pp. 46–51; 56–61; 80–85.]

  2. [In this article speech is used in the sense of parole and language in the sense of langue.]

  3. Literaturnyj arxiv, vol. I: A. P. Čexov (Moskva, 1947), p. 243.

  4. [Numerals in parentheses refer to the page number in Volume VI of A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem (Moskva, 1944).]

  5. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem, vol. VI (Moskva, 1946), pp. 226–230. Compare with the text of the first edition (Oskolki (1887), no. 30, June 25, p. 4): “So as not to insult you, and in order for you to act in accordance with your conscience, it is best to come to an agreement as soon as possible. Any matter hinges on internecine agreement …”).

  6. [The speaker here confuses the Russian word for Hymen and the word for abbot. The word he uses is somewhere in between the two.]

  7. However, in the first version of the story there was the following scene at its very beginning:

    “How much do you charge for your services?”

    “I do not have an established rate for such a matter”, said the matchmaker in embarrassment. “Whatever you will give.”

    “Please understand, Ljubov Grigor'evna”, Styčkin said solemnly, “I am a practical man with character, and I like to have order in everything.” (Oskolki (1887), no. 30, June 25, p. 4).

  8. In the first version of the story (Oskolki (1887), no. 30, p. 4), in place of “The matchmaker shed a few tears, smiled, and clinked glasses with Styčkin to show that she agreed”, we find the following:

    “In that case, allow me to go home to think it over.”

    This was the answer to the views of the conductor (omitted in the final version): “Instead of going far away, you could settle the problem right now, and if I. …” (Compare with what is found in the text of the Sobranie sočineij: “and, if you like me”.)

  9. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem, vol. VI, p. 494. “Variantv i kommentarii”.

  10. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie …, vol. VI, pp. 142–147. [The original title is “The Investigating Magistrate” which means a person who combines some functions of detective, coroner, and district attorney. However, in this story, the main character is shown fulfilling only the role of coroner.]

  11. It is significant to the structure of the doctor's image that the doctor's esthetic comments on the inspector's descriptions were removed from the original text of the story (cf. the text in Peterburgskaja Gazeta (1887), no. 127, May 11, p. 3):

    “Her facial features were not classic, but were somewhat large and maybe a little heavy but they showed such youth and motion that one could not help being captivated by them.

    “‘You certainly know how to describe things’, said the doctor, smiling.

    “‘Wait!’ the inspector interrupted heatedly.”

  12. [Skaz—a story told with elements of the speech of the narrator and reflecting his individuality as distinguished from the author's.]

Thomas Winner (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8920

SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “The First Serious Stories: From Antosha Chekhonte to Anton Chekhov.” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 17–44. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.

[In the following essay, Winner discusses Chekhov's transition from light, humorous fiction to the more serious stories of the late 1880s.]

The early Chekhov has been thought of only as a humorist. But some of the early works are serious in tone and begin to suggest the transition to be effected by the end of the 1880's, when Chekhov abandoned forever the role of Antosha Chekhonte for that of Anton Chekhov, the creator of the significant stories and plays on which his fame rests today. Although most of these early serious stories are still primitive and conventional, some of them begin to express elements of the new forms and styles of which Chekhov was to become master. In 1882, after only two years of writing, when Chekhov still signed his works Antosha Chekhonte, two serious stories appeared: “The Lady of the Manor” (Barynja) and “Late Blooming Flowers” (Cvety zapozdalye). Although neither of these stories are included in the collected works, they provide considerable insight into Chekhov's emerging style.

As early as 1883, the first year of his association with Leykin's Fragments, Chekhov complained of the constrictive narrowness of the humor reviews. Replying to Leykin, who had criticized two of Chekhov's stories as too serious, Chekhov wrote:

It seems to me that a serious piece, a brief one of approximately one hundred lines, will not be too disturbing, especially since the masthead of Fragments does not carry the words “humorous satirical journal.” … To tell you the truth, this everlasting chasing after the funny is very often difficult. Sometimes one hunts for humor and then blunders into a work that nauseates one. And willy-nilly one seeks out something serious.

(Letter to Leykin dated “after April 17, 1883.”)

During the ensuing three years only a few serious stories appeared, notably “In Fall” (Osen'ju, 1883), a story about an alcoholic; “Oysters” (Ustricy, 1884); “The Huntsman” (Eger, 1885); and “Sorrow” (Gore, 1885). By 1886 and 1887, Chekhov's dissatisfaction with his role as a humorist was fast becoming irrevocable and there is a sudden increase of serious stories in this period, 35 in all.

The first serious work, “The Lady of the Manor,” which appeared in installments in the July and August issues of the review Moskva in 1882, initiated a series of stories about peasant life which was to culminate in the famous story “The Peasants” (Mužiki, 1897). “The Lady of the Manor” is primarily a traditional treatment of the problem of the conflict between peasant values and those of the decadent aristocracy, and the resulting disintegration of the way of life of a peasant family. The naïve young peasant Stepan Zhurkin is compelled by his family to betray his wife and become the lover of the lady of the manor in order to improve the family's material position. Night after night the unhappy Stepan, now dressed in an elegant coachman's uniform, drives his mistress into the steppe for a night of love. His inner conflicts drive him to despair and in the end he beats his wife to death.

Demoralization of the peasants was a common theme in the Russian literature of the late nineteenth century, when the question of the peasants' position in the country was becoming acute. The Emancipation Decree of 1861, which was preceded by intense discussions and menacing disorders, freed the peasants from serfdom. But since only limited land was left to the peasant which had to be redeemed by payments to the state, the peasants began to lease from the gentry and were left, therefore, at the mercy of this class. The situation of the peasants was worsened by a number of crop failures in 1867, 1870, and 1873 and many peasant households had to work their land without a horse.1

Aleksey Pisemski had treated the subject of the peasant brutalized by his sufferings in the tragedy A Bitter Fate (Gor'kaja sud'bina, 1859), which may have been Chekhov's model for “The Lady of the Manor.” In Pisemski's work a married peasant woman is seduced by a landowner. Her husband seeks revenge by killing the illegitimate child his wife bears and then surrenders himself to the justice of society. There are also parallels to Tolstoy's later morality play, The Power of Darkness (Vlast' t'my, 1887), in which greed and sensuality among peasants lead to murder. In all three treatments a consequence of the collapse of peasant values is violence, murder, and final surrender to the law. The didactic tone of Pisemski and the moralistic one of Tolstoy's tragedy, are absent from Chekhov's story, however, which does not end in a moral awakening; instead Chekhov's unhappy murderer sits by the body of his wife, stupefied by his deed, while the peasants surround him in silent horror and the aristocratic seductress decries hypocritically the lack of morality of the lower classes.

This work foreshadows many of the story-telling devices of the later Chekhov. “The Lady of the Manor” is tersely written, and lacks a traditional prologue, exposition, or epilogue. The concentrated action and the essentially dramatic form rely upon dialogue far more than on narrative elements. Characters are delineated by a few details, primarily by speech traits. Thus the lady of the manor is revealed by her affected use of French and her condescension when addressing the peasants. Peasant speech is marked by folk idiom orthographically indicated, such as rup' instead of rubl' (ruble), etc. Popular maxims also characterize the peasants' speech, such as Blago slez ne pokupat', darom dadeny (Tears are free, you can't buy them). Stepan's wife laments her abandonment in a formula of the folk lament for the dead, Na kogo že ty menja, sirotu, ostavil (For whom have you forsaken me, orphan that I am).

In “The Lady of the Manor” there are some early examples of Chekhov's impressionistic nature paintings as well as his personification and symbolic treatment of nature. In the later stories and plays such nature depictions often reveal the inner life of the protagonists as well as provide many-leveled commentaries on the action and mood of the story. In one important scene from “The Lady of the Manor,” a personified nature—although too obviously and schematically—acts as a contrast to the world of greed. The action is initiated when Stepan escapes from the pressures of his family. He departs from his hut at night in order to sleep outside, while his wife cries and his brother speaks crudely. There follows an overly romantic nature painting which contrasts to and comments on the scene which follows when Stepan is taunted by his brother and beaten by his father:

It was quiet outside and gently a Russian summer night was falling. The moon rose from behind the distant hills. Tousled little silver-edged clouds floated to meet it. The horizon grew paler and its entire width was bathed in a pale pleasant green color. The stars twinkled more weakly and, as though they were afraid of the moon, pulled in their little rays. The damp night air rose from the river and, covering everything, caressed one's cheeks.2

The next few discordant lines suggest the ensuing dispute:

The clock in Father Grigori's hut jangled out nine o'clock and could be heard all over the village. The Jewish tavern keeper shut his windows noisily and hung a greasy lantern over the door. The streets and yards were deserted and silent.

Stepan lies down in the grass to rest but is immediately joined by his brother, who taunts him, urging him to overcome his scruples and join the lady of the manor. After the brother leaves, Stepan's pregnant wife comes out of the hut and begs Stepan not to abandon her. But she is soon called back and Stepan's father, using his patriarchal prerogative, beats Stepan and forces him to promise acquiescence to the lady's demands. As the father returns to the hut, it appears to Stepan that he hears him saying “I gave him a good thrashing.” Now the three encounters are terminated by discordant sounds, in a scene which makes its own comment.

… The pitiful notes of an untuned piano could be heard in Father Grigori's hut. At nine the priest's wife usually began her music. Muted, strange sounds floated over all the village. Stepan rose, climbed over the fence and set off down the street. He went down to the river. The river gleamed like quick-silver and the sky with the moon and stars was reflected in it. All was silent as the grave. Nothing moved. Only rarely a cricket chirped. … Stepan sat down by the river's edge, directly by the water, and supported his head with his fist. One dark thought after the other filled his head.

While “The Lady of the Manor” embodies many incipient innovations, in other respects it testifies to its author's still developing artistic maturity. Many aspects of the construction of the story remains conventional. External action is still the key to the structure, and the tragic conflict is traditionally solved by a violent act, the murder of Stepan's wife.

In contrast to “The Lady of the Manor,” which suggests Chekhov's later naturalistic peasant stories, the second serious work, “Late Blooming Flowers,” anticipates the lyrical stories which frequently express the theme of the vie manquée. The many later Chekhovian characters who fail to act in time to attain their goals are foretold by the two main protagonists in this story of a love affair of a lonely aristocratic provincial girl, Marusya, and Dr. Toporkov, a calculating physician, who had saved both her brother's life and her own when they were dangerously ill. When the matchmaker, sent by the doctor, indicates the doctor's interest in Marusya, Marusya is happy even though she suspects the doctor's materialistic motive. But while she waits for the doctor to come she learns that his choice has shifted to the daughter of a rich merchant. As the story draws to a close Marusya, ill with tuberculosis, visits the doctor, who behaves without feeling. The doctor relents, however, when Marusya confesses her love for him, and takes her to France, hoping that through a miracle she will recover. She, however, dies in France and the doctor returns home. Marusya's early hesitation and the doctor's crassness, repented too late, destroyed their chance for happiness in this early treatment of Chekhov's theme of the missed opportunity.

The construction of the story is thoroughly traditional. In the first of the three chapters the situation of the heroine is indicated and the other protagonists are characterized: the weak mother, the decadent brother, who drinks, and the businesslike doctor, who is capable of more feeling than first appearance would indicate, are also types succeeded by more subtle versions in Chekhov's later works. The second chapter contains the development of the action: the fruitless proposal. The final chapter, in which Marusya declares her love, is followed by the tragic climax and a traditional epilogue. In spite of its obvious construction, it indicates some of the direction of Chekhov's talent. Lyrical personifications of nature, though still constructed and employed somewhat artificially, are worthy of notice.

Yellow leaves which had fallen to the ground a long time ago patiently awaiting the first snow. … Nature is falling asleep quietly and peacefully. … As though tired by spring and summer, it lies quietly and silently, basking in the warming, caressing rays of the sun.

Reflecting a sadder mood, nature sets the melancholy tone in a passage somewhat marked by clichés:

Fall came, as raw and muddy as last year's.


Outside the morning was grey and tearful. Dark grey clouds, which looked as though they were smeared with mud, completely covered the sky and invited gloom by their stillness. The sun seemed not to exist. Not once, in the course of an entire week, had it looked upon the earth, as though afraid to dirty its rays in the liquid mud.


Rain drops drummed against the windows with special force; the wind wept in the chimneys and howled like a dog which had lost its master. …

The poetic mood is underscored by euphonic techniques, especially systematic sound repetition which becomes so important a device in the later works:

davno opavšie želtye list'ja, terpelivo ožidajuščie pervogo snega. … (… yellow leaves which had long fallen to the ground a long time ago patiently awaiting the first snow. …)


Ona … nežitsja pod grejuščimi, laskajuščimi lučami solnca. … (It [nature] … is basking in the warming caressing rays of the sun. …)


… na dvore stojalo seroe slezlivoe utro.


(… outside the morning was grey and tearful.)

The compositional relationship of these nature scenes to the rest of the story material is still mechanical. Each chapter is introduced by a nature picture which almost allegorically predicts the mood of the action of the chapter. Thus the themes of illness and isolation in the first chapter are introduced by the observation that the weather is “dark and autumnal.” Momentary hope in the second chapter is suggested by the description of a clear frosty day in late autumn; and the last chapter, which ends tragically, begins again with the description of a gray, cold day.

The delineation of the protagonists foretells little of Chekhov's later method of subtle characterization. Thus we are not able to understand the motivation for the change in the doctor after Marusya declares her love. Such oversimplifications are rare in Chekhov's later psychological portraits. Participants in this story are often portrayed by obvious self-revelatory actions, external characteristics, and description. Yet some hints of Chekhov's technique of depiction of characters by significant details can be noted even in this early work, as the following passage illustrates:

Toporkov announced his arrival by a cough and, without greeting anyone, went directly to the patient's room. He passed through the hall, the living room and the dining room without looking at anyone, with a serious air of a general, as the squeak of his gleaming boots resounded throughout the house. His enormous figure commanded respect. He was stately, serious, impressive and had devilishly correct features, as though carved from ivory. Gold-rimmed glasses and his extremely serious and immobile face completed his haughty bearing. He was a plebeian by origin, but, except for his strong muscles, there was almost nothing plebeian in his appearance. Everything was aristocratic, even gentlemanly. His face was pink and handsome, even very handsome if one were to believe his female patients. His neck was as white as a woman's. His hair was soft as silk and beautiful, but unfortunately close cut. If Toporkov had been interested in his appearance he would not have cut his hair, but would have allowed it to fall in waves to his collar. His face was handsome, but too dry and serious to be agreeable. Dry, serious and immobile, it expressed nothing but the great fatigue of a hard full day's work.

In the later stories only a few strokes would be needed to convey the picture of Toporkov and the frequent shifts to the author's voice would not be required. (“If Toporkov were interested in his appearance he would …”) Apostrophes to the reader, which never appear in the later works, also encumber the narrative. [“And Marusya (forgive her, dear reader) remembered Turgenev's Rudin. …”] Even a number of direct comments on the action by the author are still included in this story:

At the same time he was tortured by a small (probably a very small) nagging of his conscience.


This news affected my heroine too cruelly.

A cycle of children's stories, which begins in 1883 with “A Naughty Boy” (Zloj mal'čik), represents a group of serious works which are written from a child's point of view; a technique used earlier by Tolstoy in his Childhood. In the first story of this group, “A Naughty Boy,” a little boy tries to blackmail his sister, whom he has surprised with her lover; and in “Oysters” a story about which Chekhov later wrote jokingly that he had “tried himself out as a medicus,”3 the phantasies of a child are realistically depicted as he begs before a restaurant advertising oysters, and dreams of oysters which he has never tasted. When he learns that oysters are eaten alive, he imagines them as frogs which try to bite his tongue as he is about to swallow them.

Many of the children's stories are satires of the adult world, implied by childish misunderstandings. In “The Cook's Marriage” (Kuxarka ženitsja, 1885), little Grisha watches through a peephole as Pelageya the cook is being married to a coachman. The child wonders why Pelageya must suddenly hand over her pay to her new husband and why she is no longer free. The title itself Kuxarka ženitsja, which uses the Russian word for “to marry” that is reserved for men, instead of the woman's vyxodit zamuž, marks the naïve child's view. This is also expressed by details, such as the drop of sweat which hangs from the bridegroom's nose and the noisy manner in which he chews sugar, “which made a shudder run down Grisha's spine.” Russian folk tradition suggests children's phantasy as Grisha's dreams of Pelageya's abduction by a sorcerer (Černomor) and a witch.

In “Grisha” (1886) a two-year-old child observes the clandestine rendezvous of his nursemaid and her lover, and consequently is given castor oil by his mother to cure him of his excitement and apparent illness. The child's impression is imaginatively developed in this story by skillful use of a device called by the Russian formalist critics “making it strange” (ostranenie), a peculiar semantic shift which transfers a depicted object to a different plane of reality. The habitual is “made strange” by a distortion causing the perceiver to see the object in a fresh light, as though for the first time. In this formalist view, such a counteracting of automatic responses and restoration of a fresh vision of the world is the fundamental function of art.4

Up to now Grisha has known only a four-cornered world: his bed stands in one corner, the nurse's trunk in the second, a chair in the third, and the icon lamp burns in the fourth. If one looks under the bed one can see a doll, its arm torn off, and a drum. Behind the nurse's trunk there are many different things: empty spools of thread, papers, a lidless box and a broken clown. This world includes not only Grisha and the nurse, but often also mamma and the cat. Mamma resembles the doll and the cat papa's fur coat, only the fur coat has no tails and eyes. From the world which is called the nursery a door leads into a space in which one eats and drinks tea. Here stands Grisha's chair on its high legs and here hangs the clock which exists only to swing its pendulum back and forth and to strike.

When Grisha enters the apartment of the nurse's lover he “sees a dark ceiling, an oven fork with two horns and a stove which looks like a big dark bird.”

Thus the familiar world of the nursery is replaced by the new, strange, and frightening world of the apartment.

The most significant of the children's stories are “Vanka” (1886) and “Sleepy” (Spat' xočetsja, 1888).5 Vanka, an eight-year-old village orphan who is apprenticed to a cobbler in Moscow, writes a letter to his grandfather in his village complaining of mistreatment and asking that he be taken home. The boy adresses the letter to “grandfather Konstantin Makarych in the village,” drops it in the mailbox and dreams happily of the arrival of his rescuer. There are two components of the narration. The direct discourse of the boy alternates with the narrative sections which comment upon the boy's behavior. The opening paragraph introduces Vanka and the setting, and describes the boy's preparations for writing the letter (he often looks fearfully at the door and window lest he be surprised). Then follow a few lines of the letter, after which the narration returns to a description of Vanka's gestures and the setting. The grandfather is then presented in a narrative passage which gradually shifts to the boy's view, and which is supported by nature descriptions. Tersely impressionistic, the view of nature reveals both the boy's reminiscences and his longing.

The air is calm, transparent and fresh. The night is dark, but one can see the entire village, with its white rooftops and the spirals of smoke emerging from its chimneys, as well as the trees white with hoarfrost, and the snowdrifts.

Nature is personified in childish images:

The entire sky was strewn with gaily winking stars and the Milky Way was so clear that it seemed to have been washed and rubbed down with snow before the holidays.

Next there follows a quotation of most of the letter in which Vanka describes Moscow and begs to be fetched home to the village. In Vanka's thoughts, which continue the story, he remembers Christmas time at home in the village. We return to the conclusion of the letter and a final narrative passage: Vanka mails the letter with the incomplete address and goes home to dream of his rescue.

“Vanka” anticipates “Sleepy” (Spat' xočetsja), the most serious of the children's stories. In “Sleepy” a child is again exploited by an employer, but the consequences are tragic. The tired child watches nightly over her employer's baby, becoming ever more exhausted, and in a moment of despair she strangles the infant. Relieved by her action, even as Vanka was relieved by his call for help, she falls asleep, her torment gone. This story contains a masterful treatment of the child's dreams, subtle use of recurrent images, and impressionistic description. Its musical construction anticipates many of Chekhov's mature works.

A group of Chekhov's early serious stories, set in a peasant and village milieu, bears resemblance to Turgenev's cycle, The Sportsman's Sketches (Zapiski oxotnika). In these sketches an aristocratic narrator tells of the peasant types he meets on his hunting trips.6 The debt to Turgenev is evident in the poetic depiction of the simple Russian peasant, who is contrasted to the prose of everyday life, as well as in the lyrical and poetic nature settings frequently with symbolic overtones. But in Chekhov's stories themes of isolation and of the vie manquée replace the Turgenevian ones which lead to the more traditional dramatic conflict.

The first story of this group, “The Huntsman,” is one of the few early stories Chekhov included in his collected works. It appeared in the Petersburg Gazette on July 18, 1885 and quickly attracted attention. In a brief dramatic scene the story presents two contrasting characters: a freedom-loving huntsman and his stolid peasant wife, whom the hunter had married while drunk. The tragedy of these two who cannot understand each other and their consequent isolation is the focus of this work. The story is limited to a brief description of their meeting and conversation in an open field, and their parting which follows—their differences still unresolved. This lack of resolution, or “studied unfinishedness,” becomes ever more frequently the note which concludes Chekhov's stories.

“The Huntsman” is tersely presented by a direct and objective view. A few brief lines describing the natural setting compose the opening, after which there follows the drama between the huntsman and his wife.

It is a hot, sultry noon. There is no cloud in the sky. The grass, burned by the sun, looks cheerless and hopeless: even rain will not revive its green color. … The forest stands silent and motionless, as though looking somewhere over its treetops or waiting for something.

These few impressionistic details set the mood for the scenes which follow. The role of nature is not limited, however, as it is in “Late Blooming Flowers,” to a schematic accompaniment of the action. Rather, it is part of the total instrumentation of the story, in which nature scenes, much like musical motifs, are woven throughout the action and characterizations. The following paragraph is the first description of Egor Vlasych, the huntsman:

At the edge of the clearing a tall narrow-shouldered man of about forty joggs along lazily with a waddling gait. He is dressed in a red shirt, patched pants not of peasant cut, and high boots. He trudges along the road. On the right is the green meadow, on the left a sea of golden ripe rye stretches all the way to the horizon. He is red and hot. A white cap with a straight peak like a jockey's, obviously a present from a generous master, sits boldly on his fine blond head. A hunting bag with a crumpled black-cock hangs over his shoulder. The man holds a two-barrelled rifle in his hands … and squints at his old, thin dog who is running ahead and sniffing at the bushes. It is quiet all around, not a sound. … All living beings have hidden from the heat.

Towards the end of the fruitless conversation between husband and wife, nature again appears in a musical, and this time symbolic, role:

They are silent. Three wild ducks fly over the clearing. Egor's eyes follow until the ducks become three barely visible dots which disappear over the forest.


“How are you earning your living?” he asks, glancing from the ducks to Pelageya.


“Now I go out to work and in winter I take a baby from the children's home and feed it with a bottle. That brings a ruble and a half a month.”


“Hm. …”


Again silence. From the harvested field a quiet song rises only to be broken off at the very beginning. It is too hot to sing. …


“I hear that you have built a new hut for Akulina,” said Pelageya.

Here the musical quality of the nature picture is even more pronounced than in the earlier passage. Nature is a part of the conversation in which it participates. The suggestion of the symbolism of the disappearing ducks and the delicate use of sounds foreshadows Chekhov's later sophisticated use of audial and visual elements and of nature symbolism. The interrupted song heard in the distance, portending something mysterious, foreshadows the use of sound symbolism in Chekhov's later works.

The conversation between husband and wife has led nowhere. The story concludes as the huntsman walks away from his wife, in a coda painted in impressionistic colors:

He walks down the long road, straight as a stretched belt. She, pale and motionless as a statue, stands and watches his every step. But now the red color of his shirt begins to fade into the dark color of his trousers; his steps are no longer visible, his dog can no longer be distinguished from his boots. Only his cap remains visible, but … suddenly Egor turns sharply to the right … and the cap disappears in the green.


“Good-bye Egor Vlasych,” whispers Pelageya, standing on tip toes in order to see the white cap just once more.

In March 1886, eight months after he wrote “The Huntsman,” Chekhov's “Agafya,” a second peasant story reminiscent of Turgenev, was published in Suvorin's New Times. A narrator-observer describes a nocturnal rendezvous between the village Don Juan, Savka, and the wife of the railroad switchman, Agafya. Savka, a variant of the Egor type in “The Huntsman,” is again an antithesis to the submissive type, Agafya, who offers him her love. Savka is not a villain, nor is he brutal; nevertheless he treats Agafya unkindly. Like the huntsman, he is a rebel and a nonconformist who is sometimes gentle and sensitive to nature. The emptiness of Agafya's life has led her hopelessly to Savka, but at the close of the story we see her walking slowly, though steadfastly, towards the threatening figure of her husband, in a denouement which suggests again the theme of a vie manquée.

The aristocratic narrator in “Agafya,” a counterpart to Turgenev's aristocratic observers of peasant types, is a rare figure in Chekhov's stories. In this work the view of nature is limited to the perspective of the narrator and consequently the role of nature is unusually constricted.

“Agafya” concludes, as did “The Huntsman,” without resolution. Savka and the narrator watch Agafya from the distance; the latter comments on Savka, while Savka comments on Agafya:

I looked at Savka's face. It was pale and tensely drawn in an expression of squeamish pity like that seen on the faces of people watching animals being tortured.


“When the cat laughs the mice cry,” he sighed.


Suddenly Agafya jumped up, shook her head and walked towards her husband with bold steps. She had apparently found her strength and made her decision.

Chekhov's friend and fellow writer, the poet Palmin, wrote to the author about “Sorrow”: “This is the best thing you have written so far. It conveys a feeling of a mixture of laughter and sadness” (Letter of 27 November 1885). In this story, the Turgenevian theme of the talented man from the lower rungs of life has been broadened to the more general one of isolation and of the frustration of the misspent life.7

The turner, Grigori Petrov, is driving through a snowstorm to deliver his wife to the district hospital, but she dies on the way. He in turn loses consciousness from the cold and awakens in the hospital as he is dying. As Grigori walks through the snowstorm alongside the sleigh, he tries to communicate with his wife, whom he has always mistreated. He addresses her, but the remarks are a monologue, for she is dead. Grigori is a gifted craftsman, yet his life has been disorderly. A crucial event now forces Grigori to reevaluate his life, a pattern which is repeated in many of Chekhov's stories. Pictures from the past come to Grigori's mind as he walks beside his dying wife and he unhappily realizes his misspent life. The internal monologue is punctuated by the phrase which becomes the Leitmotif of the story—“to live anew” (žit' by syznova)—ironic because of Grigori's impending death. The story is presented by means of Grigori's internal speech, a few authorial comments and several nature pictures. A brief statement describes Grigori struggling through the snowstorm.

Wherever you look whole clouds of snowflakes are circling about, so that you can not tell whether the snow comes from the sky or from earth.

As he rehearses his speech to the doctor he imagines the doctor's contemptuous remarks concerning the shiftless Grigori. He will promise the doctor a cigar case and a croquet gate for curing his wife. The storm accompanying his thoughts hints at the irony of Grigori's fate. He will only briefly awaken from his frozen slumber, just as he only briefly awakens to a realization of his life before his death. Interrupting Grigori's thoughts, the author's voice reveals the events which preceded the story's action.

The turner remembers that the sorrow began last night. When he returned home last night, drunk as usual, and began—as was his custom—to swear and shake his fists, the old woman looked at her ruffian as she had never looked at him before. Usually the expression in the old woman's eyes was martyred and meek, like that of an underfed, beaten dog. But now her gaze was stern and immobile, like the look on ikons or on dying people. It was with this strange look, which boded evil, that all the sorrow had begun.

This passage is followed by Grigori's guilty reflections, and his promise of greater kindness to his wife when she recovers. Her death is conveyed by two details, which are underscored by anaphora:

It seems strange to him that the snow does not melt on the old woman's face; it seems strange that her face itself has somehow become elongated and taken on a pale-gray, dirty-waxy color and has become severe and serious. [Italics supplied]


(Stranno emu kažetsja, čto na lice u staruxi ne taet sneg, stranno, čto samo lico kak-to osobenno vytjanulos', prinjalo bledno-seryj, grjazno—voskovoj cvet i stalo strogim, ser'eznym.) [Italics supplied]

Grigori's internal speech is disjointed and filled with meaningless phrases, as “be so kind as to see” (sami izvolite videt'), as well as with stumbling fillers (As soon as my Matrena, sort of, gets well. … And you, Matrena, kind of … ; and you kind of …). In situations of great agitation he uses a “big word,” komissija (commission), the meaning of which he does not understand. [There is the hint of a double meaning in the use of this word, which the literate reader of Chekhov's day would not have failed to note; komissija in the early nineteenth century could also mean “troubles” as the word is used in Griboedov's comedy Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma, 1822–1823).]

She must have died. Komissija! (Pomerla, stalo-byt'. Komissija!) … and I myself sent her to beg for her bread, komissija! (Sam ja posylal ee xleba u ljudej prosit', komissija!)

In many respects the year 1886, which saw the publication of several children's stories discussed earlier, as well as of Agafya, was significant for Chekhov. It was in this year that Chekhov made his first contribution to A. S. Suvorin's influential daily newspaper New Times. “A Requiem” (Panixida) appeared on February 15, 1886. Not only did Chekhov receive a larger sum from Suvorin than he had from Leykin, but he was free from the restrictions on length and subject imposed by the humor journals.

From this time on Chekhov contributed growing numbers of serious stories to New Times, which he signed with his own name rather than the former nom de plume Antosha Chekhonte. Of the 109 stories by Chekhov published in 1886, 16 were printed in New Times. Other serious stories were published in another daily, The Petersburg Gazette (Peterburskaja gazeta), to which Chekhov was a steady contributor from May, 1885 to the end of 1888. Of the 64 stories published in 1887, 20 were of a decidedly serious vein and half of these were published in New Times. In 1888, only nine stories were published and all of them were serious works, signed, with one exception (“Sleepy”) with Chekhov's own name.

In the serious stories which appeared between the years 1886 and 1888 we find some earlier themes as well as the introduction of some new ones.

A more subtle treatment of the theme of the lost life occurs in the story “Daydreams” (Mečty), which appeared in New Times on November 15, 1886. A tramp, arrested for refusing to reveal his name, tells his story to the convoy guards who are conducting him to the district center. He had escaped from forced labor to which he was sentenced as a child accomplice to a murder, and therefore he had been forced to conceal his identity. His servant mother had been mistress to her master, whom she had poisoned when he took another mistress. The theme of the master-servant liaison, which parallels that of “The Lady of the Manor,” is limited in this story to that of a background. The tramp tells the guards that he would prefer a sentence to Siberia as a vagrant than forced labor, and he paints an idyllic picture of the free life in Siberia. The guards are momentarily swayed by the depiction. However, one of the two guards catches himself and rudely tells the prisoner he will never make it to Siberia but will die from weakness on the road. For a moment the gray existence of the two convoy soldiers and their prisoner was lightened by the romantic dream of Siberia, but the remark of the soldier returns the mood to reality, and the prisoner is left even more pathetic and timid.

Certain new themes, those of social injustice, of the little man helpless before the law, and the illusion of man's dreams are expressed in this work. The conflict of the routine, and constricted with the dream of freedom is supported by symbolic nature pictures. Fog suggests their prisonlike world:

The travellers have been walking long, but they are unable to break out from the small piece of earth which surrounds them. In front there are some ten yards of the dirty, dark-brown earth of the road, and behind them the same. And beyond, as far as the eye can see, there is an impenetrable wall of white fog. They walk and walk, but the ground is always the same, the wall is no closer and the patch of earth remains unchanged.

In this setting the tramp recounts his tale of injustice and depicts the broad spaces of Siberia.

In the autumn stillness, when cold, raw fog covering the earth penetrates the soul and seems to be a prison wall before your eyes, demonstrating the limitedness of man's will, it is sweet to dream about broad, quick rivers with wide, craggy banks, impenetrable forests, limitless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination pictures early morning, when the flush of dawn has not yet disappeared from the sky; a man, looking like a small dot, walks along the deserted banks; age-old fir trees, high as masts …, look sternly at the free man; roots, huge rocks and prickly brush block his way; but he is strong in body and bold in spirit, he does not fear the firs, the rocks, his solitude, nor the rolling echo which resounds at each step he takes.

The optimistic dream of a free man is followed by the soldier's remarks:

“… You won't get to those free places. How could you? You'll walk some three hundred versts and give up your soul.”

These deflating words, addressed to the prisoner, clearly can be applied more generally to the state of man.

Stylistic accomplishments in this work demonstrate Chekhov's increasing skill. Highly concentrated poetic images support the personifications of nature.

Dark hostile tears are on the grass. These are not the tears of quiet joy which the earth sheds when it meets and accompanies the summer sun. …


… a pitiful birch tree, wet, naked as a street beggar.

The three protagonists are impressionistically drawn. The tramp's insignificance is underscored by a few details: he is

… a small, infirm man, weak and sickly, with small, colorless and very indistinct features. His eyebrows are thin [židen'kie] … his moustache is barely visible.

His nose (nosik), his forehead (lobik), his mouth (malen'kij rotik), and his voice, a saccharine tenor (slaščavyj tenorok), are all described in diminutives.

The theme of individual isolation is suggested in many of Chekhov's early stories, including the children's stories and “The Lady of the Manor,” but it is first fully developed in the brief sketch “Misery” (Toska, 1886), the tale of the cab driver, Iona Potapov, whose son has just died and who has no one to tell of his sorrow.

Details in the opening scene depicting the isolated figure of Iona Potapov summon a complex of moods and attitudes.8 Wet snow falls on the shoulders of the cab driver and on his horse as Iona sits still, hunched over. As in “Sorrow” and “Daydreams,” snow and fog seem to enclose the cab driver in a shell. Such symbols of isolation in Chekhov's works frequently take the form of a protective substance, separating the individual from his surroundings.

The static picture of the cab driver passes to one of motion as the first passenger forces the cab driver into action. Iona sits up and the snow falls off his shoulders and off the back of his horse. He tries to drive through the heavy snow, and through the invisible traffic around him, evidenced only by abrupt curses and shouts at the cab driver which echo through the snow and fog. Iona tells his passengers of his grief, but their only response is rude answers or fragments of conversation. The use of such metonymic devices as visual and audial details (snow, fog, noises) and seemingly disconnected discourse convey the lonely isolation of the individual and anticipates Chekhov's mature style.9

Many of the serious themes we have considered express some aspects of the pathos of the individual lost in a cold society. All these characters, those who try too late to find happiness, children misunderstood by the adult world, a rebellious youth, a peasant woman who cannot find love, a prisoner and his guards who secretly yearn for freedom, or the lonely cabman, suggest the attempts of people to break out of their isolation.

Another more intuitive and philosophical theme which only fleetingly appears in the early stories, but which becomes very significant in the later works, is concerned with the problem of the hidden personality which reveals itself.10 A chance remark or gesture may betray the inner ego and destroy in a moment the façade which the individual has carefully constructed. “The Father” (Otec, 1887) presents this theme in primitive and grotesque form. A man addicted to drinking comes to his son to borrow money. Clowning all the time, he talks briskly and casually about the loan, but at moments his casual talk is interrupted by characterizing remarks which compose a kind of confession:

I planned to visit you five times, but never seem to find the time. It's always one thing or another … just terrible! Actually, that's a lie. … I always lie. You mustn't believe me.

The story portrays compulsive confessions, but other stories present subtler self-revelations. In one of the most successful early stories, “The Letter” (Pis'mo, 1887), a deacon reports the facts of his son's sinful life to the archdeacon. His son keeps a mistress and eats forbidden food on fast days. The archdeacon dictates a pompous and harsh letter to the wayward son which delights the deacon. But an acquaintance, Father Anastazi, an unfrocked priest, asks the deacon to forgive his son rather than to send the letter. The deacon refuses to comply, explaining that it is his paternal duty to instruct his son in the right ways of living. Just before he posts the letter, however, the deacon hurriedly adds a postscript of local gossip, the style and content of which alters the censorious tone of the original letter dictated by the archdeacon and reveals the simple personality of the naïve deacon.

Perhaps the most important protagonist of the story is Father Anastazi, the defrocked priest whose comments on the action act as a chorus to the story. This is one of Chekhov's earliest works about the clergy11 and is to be followed by many others in which the Russian priest is shown with affection. Father Anastazi is himself a drunkard; he has been punished by the church for selling illegal marriages. But he is sympathetically contrasted to the unforgiving archdeacon.

In techniques which look toward Chekhov's later stories, oblique devices provide characterization: a brief, almost incidental gesture, a distinctive manner of speaking, a certain timbre of the voice or a recurrent detail which becomes a leitmotif. Father Anastazi is associated with a light cough. The story also exemplifies a stylistic idiosyncracy, noted in “The Long Tongue,” which increasingly permeates Chekhov's stories. Chekhov delighted in employing ternary rhythmic repetitions based on reiterations of a word, or phrase, or composed of syntactical parallels. Sometimes three epithets or nouns are used in succession:

Èto byl starik 65-ti let, drjaxlyj ne po letam, kostljavyj i sutulovatyj … (This was an old man of 65, prematurely decrepit, rawboned and round-shouldered …)


Starik kazalsja uže o. Fedorovu ne vinovnym i ne poročnym, a unižennym, oskorblennym, nesčastnym. … (The old man appeared to Fr. Fedor no longer guilty and sinful, but insulted, injured and unhappy.)


Na lice ego zaigraly styd, robost' i žal'kij prinuždennyj smex. (Shame, timidity and a pitiful forced smile played on his face.)

A pervasive Chekhovian theme, already implied in many of the stories discussed, is that of the conflict between beauty and the elusive quality expressed by the Russian term pošlost'. This untranslatable term connotes vulgarity, banality, poor taste, superficial values, conceit, and dilettantism. (Akin to this term is the German word Kitsch with its further connotations of the shoddy and second-rate.)12 The underlying theme of many of Chekhov's later stories and plays is the antagonism between two worlds: that of beauty, spontaneity, and innocence on the one hand and the merciless environment of hypocrisy, vulgarity, and banality which make up the world of pošlost' on the other. Many of Chekhov's sensitive souls suffocate in the surrounding of pošlost'.

This is first well developed in “A Requiem” (Panixida, 1886). (See p. 34). The chief protagonist, the shopkeeper Andrey, has come to church to hear a Requiem Mass for his daughter. Because she was an actress. Andrey insists on calling her “the harlot Maria” (bludnica Marija), in spite of the remonstrations of the priest. The term is appropriate to her, he insists, just because she was an actress. Andrey's crudity is implied by the antiphonal technique of the story. As the choir sings the Requiem Mass, the stolid shopkeeper with his heavy galoshes begins to reminisce about his daughter's childhood. He remembers a walk she took with him. She was enthralled by the beauty of the landscape. But Andrey, embarrassed that his daughter was an actress, could not share her enthusiasm and complained that all this nature was only taking up space and gave “as much profit as a billy-goat's milk.”

Andrey's feelings about his daughter are momentarily softened as he listens to the Requiem choir. But the forbidden word bludnica, slipping unconsciously into his silent prayer, reminds us that his feeling of kindness is only a superficial sentimentality. The conclusion is a typically Chekhovian lyrical coda leaving the story unresolved.

… Little streams of bluish smoke which came from the censer were bathed in a broad, slanting ray of light cutting across the gloomy, lifeless emptiness of the church. And it seemed that with the smoke the soul of the departed was floating in the light. Streams of smoke, like a child's curls, were swirling and floating up to the window, as though shunning the gloom and sadness which fills this poor soul.

The theme of the vie manquée, in which an individual seeking happiness is paralyzed in the decisive moment by weakness and indecision, becomes more important in the serious stories of 1886 and 1887. Stories centered around this theme are among Chekhov's most intensely lyrical narrations.

Perhaps the most significant work of this period expressing this subject is “Verochka” (1887), in which a failure of communication leads to the missed opportunity. As the story opens Ivan Alekseevich Ognev leaves the house of a local family in a provincial town, where he has been carrying out a statistical survey. Vera, the young daughter of the house, follows him and suddenly declares her love. He does not know how to reply and his clumsy answers cause Vera to return home unhappily. Ognev, regretting his coldness, goes back once more to Vera's house, but he succeeds only in standing helplessly and impotently under her window. He walks away, deeply disturbed, and when he returns to his rooms he gazes for a long time in frustration at the light.

External details and nature pictures convey Vera's defeat. Earlier a carefree Vera wore a blouse which was so loose-fitting that it did not touch her figure. She was casually dressed and her hair emerged from under her headscarf. Later nature appears to prophesy the outcome of the conversation between Ognev and Vera. As they walk nature seems to be “covered by a veil; all nature hid behind the opaque lusterless puffs of mist.” After the fruitless conversation Vera seems smaller, hunched over, wrapped closely in her cloak in an image echoing that of veiled nature. Impressionistic nature pictures provide mood and a rythmic pattern. They interrupt dialogue and internal speech throughout the story and form a transition between direct speech and internal monologue.

The story is presented in understatement. Even the most intense scene, the point of the highest tension before Vera's declaration, is conveyed simply by the observation that Vera trembled and “not one curl, as usual, but two were falling on her forehead.” The anticipated climax does not appear. Ognev notices nothing and tactlessly asks Vera if she is feeling unwell as she struggles in vain to express her feelings. Vera's simple statement “I love you,” only disagreeably surprises and shocks Ognev. Only later he regrets his missed opportunity.

The last of the early serious stories to be discussed is “The Kiss” (Poceluj, 1887), which is a somewhat lighter treatment of Chekhov's themes of isolation, lack of communication, and missed opportunities. The renaissance plot device of mistaken identity13 is wittily and ironically employed in this funny and yet sad story of fate's tricks on the timid Second Captain Ryabovich, who is invited with his fellow officers to a party at a local landowner's. In the brilliance of the party he thinks, “I am the most shy, the most modest and the most colorless officer in the whole brigade.” But an adventure changes this view. In a dark room, through which he inadvertently passes, he is suddenly embraced by a young girl whom he cannot see. The officer is thereby introduced to a new world of dreams. He cannot imagine who the girl is and forms an image of her, “the image he desired but which was nowhere to be seen at the table.” He forgets that he is colorless and shy. He is now an ordinary man with an ordinary life. He smiles on everyone. As he leaves the house a nightingale sings in spite of the jostling her bush was given by the officers.

No one pays credence to Ryabovich's story, but he waits, nevertheless, for his regiment's maneuvers to carry him back to the manor. He does return. But this time loud voices of peasants picking cabbage ominously disturb the scene and the nightingale no longer sings. The general's sheets are hanging near the bridge and feel cold and rough to his touch. The reflection of the bathhouse is broken up by the ripples of the river—and just as suddenly Ryabovich's dream breaks into pieces. Life, like the river, wanders aimlessly, he reflects, like an incomprehensible jest. The nightingale, the voices of the peasants, the feel of the general's sheets, and the river all form comments on the changing moods of the story and provide a subtext. Subtexts become very important in the structure of Chekhov's mature stories and plays and this technique is suggested in “The Kiss.” A subtext may be defined as an undercurrent of themes and motives, usually expressed by seemingly trivial and irrelevant details and remarks, which comment, in various subtle and indirect ways, frequently ironically, on the action and inner meaning of the story. Ryabovich goes back to his quarters only to find that his comrades have received the long-awaited invitation from the landowner. His momentary joy is quickly stilled and he goes to bed in anger. The individual who cannot communicate with his fellow man is here lightly treated in the conception of the absurd and ineffective, but pathetic, soldier whose only friend is the invisible woman of the chance encounter in the dark.

Certain stylistic advances as well as general themes mark the early serious stories. They form a significant evolutionary chapter in the development of Chekhov's art. After this period we find far fewer traces of conventional devices and plot structures which we have noted were often parodied in the humor stories and sometimes employed in the early serious stories. By the late 1880's there has clearly been initiated, though often still in primitive form, the compact impressionistic story which focuses on the themes which will so intensely occupy Chekhov in his later works.

Notes

  1. Cf. Bernard Pares, A History of Russia. London, University Paperbacks, 1962, pp. 405, 423 and passim.

  2. Anton Chekhov, St. Peter's Day and Other Tales. New York, Capricorn Books, 1959, pp. 111–112. The translation is Frances Jones's, but I have taken the liberty of changing the translation where it seemed indicated.

  3. Letter to V. V. Bilibin, January 18, 1886.

  4. For the most distinguished discussion of this problem in English, see Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism, History and Doctrine. 's-Gravenhage, 1955, pp. 56–57, 150–151 and passim. The bibliography of Russian Formalist writings on this topic is too voluminous to be cited here. The reader is referred to the bibliography in Mr. Erlich's study.

  5. For a discussion of this story see Gleb Struve, “On Chekhov's Craftsmanship; The Anatomy of a Story,” Slavic Review, XX, 3 (1961), 465–476.

  6. For a discussion of this relationship cf. P. Bicilli, Tvorčestvo Čexova. Opyt stilističeskogo analiza. Godišnik na universiteta sv. Kliment Oxridski; istorikofilologičeski fakultet, tom. XXXVIII, 6, Sofia, 1942, pp. 15, 27. M. L. Semanova, Turgenev i Čexov. Učenye zapiski leningradskogo gosudarstvennogo pedagogičeskogo instituta, t. 134, kafedra russkoj literatury, 1957, pp. 208–209. G. A. Bjalyj, Čexov i “Zapiski oxotnika,” Učenye zapiski leningradskogo pedagogičeskogo instituta, t. 76, kafedra russkoj literatury, 1948, p. 186. G. Berdnikov, A. P. Čexov. Idejnye i tvorčeskie iskanija. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961, pp. 60–71.

  7. For a discussion of the relationship of this work to Turgenev's cycle, see Berdnikov, op. cit., pp. 77–78.

  8. Cf. also the comments on this story in Renato Poggioli, The Phoenix and the Spider. Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 118–119.

  9. “Misery” clearly served as a model for Katherine Mansfield's story “Ma Parker,” in which the grandmother's sorrow at her grandchild's death also cannot be communicated to anyone. The relationship of these stories is perceptively discussed by Frank O'Connor (The Lonely Voice, Cleveland, New York, 1963, pp. 83–84).

  10. Here I am indebted to Mr. O'Connor, op. cit. passim.

  11. For a discussion of Chekhov's treatment of the clergy, see George Ivask, “Čechov and the Russian Clergy,” in T. Eekman, ed., op. cit. Also Boris Zajcev, Čexov, literaturnaja biografija. New York, Chekhov Publishing House, 1954, passim.

  12. A full, and witty, definition of this term is given by V. Nabokov in his Nikolai Gogol. London, 1947, pp. 67–74.

  13. For a discussion of the renaissance archetype of the plot, see Bicilli, op. cit., p. 126.

Thomas Winner (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2561

SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “Early Social Stories.” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 81–8. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.

[In the following essay, Winner dilates upon Chekhov's serious stories of the 1890s.]

In 1890, after Chekhov's visit to the Russian penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, he became increasingly concerned with a search for a more clearly defined world view and for an answer to the question of the moral responsibility of the writer. He also began to think more seriously of social problems, and his writings voiced a degree of social criticism previously unknown in his work. His observation of the sharp cleavages in Russian society brought about his final disenchantment with the Tolstoyan idealization of peasant life which had briefly attracted him. The only stories of 1890, “The Thieves” (Vory) and “Gusev,” both completed after the return from his voyage to Sakhalin in 1890, as well as “Peasant Wives” (Baby, 1891), “The Wife” (Žena, 1892), and “In Exile” (V ssylke, 1892), all reveal this strengthened interest in social problems.

“The Thieves” tells the story of a group of horse thieves who are observed by a medical assistant marooned in their hide-out by a snowstorm; finally, after being robbed by them, the medical assistant becomes a thief himself. Suvorin, for whose journal, New Times, the story was written, criticized “The Thieves” for its failure to clarify sufficiently the distinction between good and evil. Chekhov's reply is another manifestation of his attitude of objectivity.1

You criticize me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, and absence of ideals and ideas and so on. You wish that I, in depicting horse thieves, should say: the theft of horses is an evil. But this has been known for a long time even without me. Let the jurors judge about this, but my task is to show only what they are like. I write: You are dealing with horse thieves, so you should know that they are not beggars but well fed people, that they are people of conviction and that horse thievery is not only thievery, but a passion. Certainly it would be nice to combine art with preaching, but for myself personally this is extremely difficult and almost impossible because of problems of technique. In order to show horse thieves in seven hundred lines, I always have to speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise—if I add subjectivity—my images will become diluted and the tale will not be as compact as a short tale must be. When I write, I put all my faith in the reader, presuming that the subjective elements which are lacking in my tale will be supplied by him.

Chekhov's depiction in “The Thieves” of the relationship between the medical assistant and the pretty and sensuous girl, who assists in the theft of his horse, comes as close as Chekhov ever does to a Zolaesque naturalistic treatment of sex. The elements of satire and irony, usual in Chekhov's works, are lacking, however, in the treatment of the thieves who are even romanticized in their portrayal as rebels.

Another work, this time of peasant women, which does not lack satire and irony, is “Peasant Wives,” published in Suvorin's New Times in June of 1891. With his habitual facetiousness Chekhov wrote Suvorin about “Peasant Wives”:2

I have been torn away from my work on Sakhalin not by the muse of revenge and sadness and not by a thirst for sweet sounds but by my desire to turn a quick penny, for I am literally without a penny. … It is dull to write about peasant life.

In July of the same year Tolstoy's friend and collaborator, I. I. Gorbunov-Posadov, requested Chekhov's permission to reprint “Peasant Wives” in the Tolstoyan publication, The Intermediary (Posrednik). He told Chekhov that he found the story a strong attack on “the type of the Russian Tartuffe, the immoral hypocrite.”3 The story is indeed a study of hypocrisy, as was “The Princess,” but it is a more serious treatment. Its chief character, the cruel and cold Matvey Savvich with his pharisaic cant, seems more reminiscent of Judushka Golovlev from Saltykov-Shchedrin's The Golovlev Family, than he is of Tartuffe. A peasant milieu is the setting for this study of the hypocrisy of a trader, one of whose victims is a Russian peasant woman. A sub-theme is the subservient position of women in peasant society. “Peasant Wives” is in many respects a thematic prototype for many of Chekhov's later stories which depict the cruel treatment of women among the peasants and the lower middle classes, such as “The Peasants” (Mužiki, 1897) and “In the Ravine” (Vovrage, 1900).

The explication of the theme by shifting points of view from which the main character is seen, which we have noted in “The Princess” and “The Grasshopper,” is also important in “Peasant Wives.” Like these stories “Peasant Wives” is a story of one character—Matvey. Other protagonists serve primarily to delineate Matvey more fully.

We first see Matvey Savvich from the authorial view as he enters the courtyard, prays, and sits down to eat. The point of view then shifts to the innkeeper, Dyudya, who acts as a commenting chorus. Matvey's “sedate” and deliberate way of eating suggests to the innkeeper a “businesslike man, serious and aware of his own value.” We are reminded of the protagonists of earlier works, and notably of Kuzmichov of “The Steppe” who is characterized by “businesslike dryness.”

A third view is Matvey's own, revealed when Matvey boastingly tells the innkeeper and his family the story of his seduction of Masha whose soldier husband was away on army duty. With hypocritical propriety Matvey rejects his mistress after her husband's return. But Masha refuses her husband whom she married without love. When her husband dies of arsenic poisoning, Masha is tried and Matvey condemns her in her trial. Nevertheless he visits her with gifts of food and is indignant when she rejects him. He visited her, he says, out of humaneness. When Masha dies, Matvey Savvich takes her son into his house to save his own soul, he explains. But he treats the son badly, and the adoption becomes thus only another insincere act.

The position of the innkeeper, Dyudya, is of special interest. His brief statements, acting as a commenting chorus, punctuate Matvey's story. “Ah the evil one,” he says about Masha, and “a dog's death to a dog” is his remark about her death.

Matvey is also characterized by speech traits. He is initially described ironically by the narrator as “eloquent” (krasnorečivyj), a reference to the baroque embroidery of his expressions. Clichés, unnecessary sayings, Old Church Slavic expressions, half-understood Westernisms, and stilted metaphors pervade his speech. When referring to the death of his mistress' mother-in-law, he says that she “had taken herself into upper Jerusalem where there are neither illness nor sighs.” But the ecclesiastic language switches abruptly to folk sayings and colloquialisms as he says: “They lived for half a year. Then misfortune came, you must take it. … God's will, you can't do anything about. Sure thing.” When recalling his attraction to Masha, he returns to his hyperbolic style: “the unclean one, the enemy of mankind, confused me,” and “my brains spun in my head from imaginings.”

The character of Matvey Savvich is further elucidated by the outlook of Masha, indicated through Matvey's words, as he describes Masha's love and then hate of him. There is also the little boy's impression and, finally, that of the womenfolk in the inn. The women sympathize with Masha and one of them, Varvara, is fired to heated protest by the story about Masha.

Again, the simple plot structure of “Peasant Wives” reminds us of “The Princess”: the central protagonist arrives in a carriage, reveals himself by his action and speech, is seen through varying points of view, and leaves again—unchanged—as he had come. As in “The Princess,” a significant gesture introduces and concludes the story on a note of irony. The princess enters “like a bird” and leaves “like a bird” and “like a cloud.” The initial appearance of Matvey Savvich is marked as he crosses himself properly; it ends as Matvey leaves with the same gesture the next morning, but only after we have heard his cruel tale, which unmasks him.

In 1891, Chekhov took an active part in famine relief, an experience which provided inspiration for the story “The Wife” (Žena, 1892). This work depicts the indifference of Russian landowners to the lot of the peasants. The ineffectiveness of aristocratic philanthropy is satirized and contrasted to the realities of peasant life which is naturalistically shown in tones which are to characterize some of Chekhov's later peasant stories:

… They live, three or four families in one hut, so the population of each hut is never less than fifteen people of both sexes, not counting the small children and of course there is nothing to eat, there is hunger and a general epidemic of typhoid and typhus; literally everyone is ill. The medical assistant says, “you enter the hut and what do you see? All are sick, all delirious, someone laughs, someone crawls to the wall; the huts stink, there is nobody to give them water or to carry the water from the well, and for food they have only frozen potatoes.”

In contrast to this picture there is the ironic characterization of the aristocratic narrator, Assorin, who sends gendarmes after the hungry peasants because they have stolen some of his grain while at the same time he is preparing to give a sizable sum to famine relief. The thought of the famine only annoys him, for it threatens to disturb his life work, a study of the history of Russian railways. Assorin's tearful and hysterical wife is also ridiculed. She organizes famine relief not out of sympathy with the peasants, but in order to spite her husband and to assure herself social recognition. The third aristocrat, Bragin, a flabby old man who boasts of his erstwhile radicalism, is a picture of degeneration and demoralization. His self-effacing remarks, his asthma, his constant alternation between giggling and tearfulness, and his oft-repeated jokes and clichés all contribute to the view of a landowner not unlike so many of Gogol's, but also cursed with an inability to act. And satire is strong, if not subtle, in the description of the gluttonous meal served by Bragin to guests who stuff themselves with many courses while they piously discuss the famine.

A didactic quality detracts from the depiction of the simple country doctor, Sobol, who expresses his ideas of philanthropy:

“As long as our relations to the people are characterized by ordinary philanthropy, as in children's homes or in institutions for war veterans, so long will we only dodge issues, prevaricate, and deceive ourselves and nothing more. Our relations must be business-like, they must be based on accounting, on knowledge and on justice. My Vaska has been a workman on my estate all his life; he had a bad harvest, he is ill and hungry. If now I give him fifteen kopeks a day, I do this because I would like him to be able to return to his previous position of a worker, that is, I preserve primarily my own interests, but at the same time for some reason or other I call these fifteen kopeks a help, assistance, and a good deed. Now let us say the following. By the most modest accounting, figuring on a sum of seven kopeks per person and on five souls per family, in order to feed one thousand families, we would need three hundred fifty rubles a day. This figure determines our business obligations to one thousand families. However, we give not three hundred fifty a day, but only ten and we say that this is assistance, help, and thanks to this assistance your wife and all of us are extremely wonderful people, and long live humanitarianism! That's the way it is my dear! Oh, if only we would talk less about humanitarianism, and would count and judge a little more and carry on according to our conscience in our relationship to our obligations! How many of those humane, sentimental people are there among us, who sincerely run from house to house with collection sheets but fail to pay their tailors and cooks? There is no logic in our life. No, that's all, no logic!”

We must admit to a groping quality in this story, a heavy didacticism as well as a too-obvious character delineation. While the Chekhovian method and technique can be recognized in the disclosure of the hypocrisy of the aristocracy through the means of shifting points of view, speech traits, and distinctive features, we feel that the contrasting pictures of the peasants and aristocrats are oversimplified.

Another work, also concerned with broad social problems, but more subtly drawn, is “In Exile” (V ssylke, 1892), which was inspired by Chekhov's observations in Sakhalin of the notorious Russian penal colonies. Here Chekhov describes the suffering of Siberian exiles to whom human dignity is denied. Two exiles of different social background are the protagonists: a young, sick Tatar who yearns for his warm land and his wife, and an old aristocrat, deserted by his wife, who desperately searches for a doctor to cure his hopelessly ill daughter. The nobleman's fate composes a critique of Tolstoy's idealization of simple labor. The aristocratic exile comes to Siberia with the intention of tilling the soil and of living “by his labors, by the sweat of his brow”; but his hopefully repeated phrase, “Yes, even in Siberia one can live,” rings as an ironic commentary to his life of servitude. The sadly false optimism of the aristocrat is, however, only a weak echo of the oft-repeated phrases of Semen Tolkovy, another exile, “May God give everyone such a life,” and “You will get used to it.” Semen's acceptance of the evil of the Siberian life has deprived him of all humanity. He becomes so hardened that he laughs at other people's suffering and shrugs off their sobs with his phrase: “You will get used to it.”

Chekhov must have seen many such brutalized men on Sakhalin. The reality of the acceptance of suffering, romantically treated by Tolstoy, is implied in a description by Chekhov, which is not unlike those in the first Soviet novel about Siberian labor camps, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

They all lay down. The door was thrust open by the wind and snow blew into the little hut. Nobody wanted to get up and close the door: they were cold and lazy.


“But I feel well!” said Semen falling asleep. “May God give everyone such a life.”


… From outside one could hear noises, similar to the howling of dogs.


“What is that? Who is that?”


“That is the Tatar who is crying.” …


“He will get used to it!” said Semen and immediately fell asleep.


Soon they were all asleep. But the door remained open.

Notes

  1. Letter to Suvorin, April 1, 1890.

  2. Letter to Suvorin, June 16, 1891.

  3. Letter by I. I. Gorbunov-Posadov to A. P. Chekhov, July 18, 1891. (The date of this letter is not established with exactitude. PSS, (VII, 566) dates it July 18, whereas Gitovič (op. cit., p. 294), who cites it directly from the original, which is in the manuscript division of the Lenin Library, dates it only as “first half of July.”

Thomas Winner (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2851

SOURCE: Winner, Thomas. “The Searching Stories II: ‘The Black Monk.’” In Chekhov and His Prose, pp. 113–22. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.

[In the following essay, Winner attempts to connect Chekhov's later works, such as “The Black Monk,” with the earlier “searching stories” in terms of their philosophical leanings.]

In 1894 Chekhov completed “The Black Monk” on which he had worked during the summer of 1893, the fourth, and last, of the series of philosophical stories begun in 1889 with “A Dreary Story.” While in Chekhov's later works philosophical questions are no longer posed so directly as they are in the searching stories, we do not find a complete break between these and later works. Philosophical themes after this period are increasingly integrated into the psychological and dramatic action of the story, but the beginning of this trend can be observed within the philosophical stories themselves. Philosophical problems maintain more independence in “A Dreary Story” and in “Gusev,” in which there is little action, than in “The Duel” and “Ward No. 6,” in which dramatic conflicts are more important. The trend continues in “The Black Monk” in which philosophical questions, while still of greatest importance, are even more dependent on the artistic form and psychological action of the work.

Chekhov's philosophical searching is expressed in greatest complexity in “The Black Monk,” about which there exists many varied interpretations.1

“The Black Monk” is the story of a mediocre and ineffective scientist, Kovrin, who comes to the estate of his friends, the Pesockis, to rest his wearied nerves, and there begins to see visions of a black monk who tells him that he, Kovrin, is an intellectual superman. The belief in the scientific and intellectual superman is now posed within the context of the hallucinations of an ordinary man who cannot live without his beguiling delusions. The monk talks persuasively of Kovrin's mission to lead mankind to immortality and to eternal truth, but the charm which the monk casts by his eloquence and conviction is broken when he does not answer Kovrin's question concerning the essence of these problems. “If only you knew how agreeable it is to hear you say these things,” Kovrin tells the monk. How strange, he tells the phantom, who might be his alter ego, that “you repeat what so often comes also to my own mind … it is as if you had looked into, and listened to, my innermost thoughts. But let us not talk about me. What do you mean by eternal truth?” Just at this point the monk fails Kovrin and the hallucination disappears.

The monk did not answer. Kovrin looked at him and could not see his face; his features began to cloud over and to disintegrate. Then the monk's head and arms began to disappear and his body merged into the bench and the dusk—and he disappeared entirely.

While the monk cannot satisfy Kovrin's search for final answers, he can seduce him with flattery and thus still his doubts.

“Yes, you are one of those few who are justly called God's chosen. You serve eternal truth. Your thoughts, your intentions, your amazing science and all your life bear a divine heavenly stamp, since they are dedicated to the reasonable and to the beautiful, that means to that which is eternal.”

According to one view “The Black Monk” is a continuation of Chekhov's critique of idealism begun in “Ward No. 6.”2 Such an interpretation assumes a critical attitude by Chekhov toward the imaginary life of Kovrin, the chief protagonist of the story. This interpretation represents an oversimplification, although it cannot be denied that the story does concern itself with this philosophical problem.

The story has also been interpreted as expressing Chekhov's familiar conflict of beauty with banality; beauty being equated with honest and productive labor, which is here said to be represented in the gardening establishment of the Pesockis and the Pesockis themselves, in contrast to the emptiness and isolation of Kovrin.3 Again, this view bears some truth; yet it leaves out more than it explains.

“The Black Monk” is probably the least successfully analyzed of all of Chekhov's stories, too often oversimplified, and indeed neglected. Some critics have attempted to find a single key to the story, or even to find Chekhov's answer to the problems posed in the work. Yet, in “The Black Monk,” Chekhov has not attempted to solve any problem. Rather he has followed the formula which he had outlined to Suvorin, to “pose the question correctly, as the judge should,” and has left it to the readers, as the jury, “to make up their minds each according to their own taste.” It is in this spirit that we must approach “The Black Monk.”

The first question concerns the philosophical problems raised in the story. Just as Dostoyevsky's psychological heroes were symbols of philosophical problems, so in “Ward No. 6” and “The Black Monk” the philosophical and psychological levels are fused. It is only by a process of abstraction, more difficult to carry out here than in “A Dreary Story,” that the philosophical content can be considered independently.

In Nietzschean fashion, the monk contrasts Kovrin with the “herd” of ordinary people. Kovrin, he says, is all intellect, all nerves. That is why he sees phantoms. But this, he says, is as it should be, for people who are especially gifted, like Kovrin, have no need for mens sana in corpore sano. They are disembodied intellectualism and aestheticism, high above ordinary men with their despicable bodily needs. “My friend,” the monk tells Kovrin,

… only the ordinary people, the herd, are healthy and normal. … Heightened mood, ecstasy—those qualities which distinguish prophets, poets, martyrs for an idea from the ordinary people, are alien to the animal side of humanity, that is to physical health. I repeat—if you want to be healthy and normal, go into the herd.

While the monk speaks of the extraordinary man, addressing his remarks to the scientist Kovrin, he includes all gifted men—artists, poets, as well as scientists. Hence, the aesthetic and the scientific themes are brought to a unity which had already been suggested in the sub-theme of Katya in “A Dreary Story,” and which is expressed here by the recurrent leitmotif of music, which always precedes the appearance of the hallucination of the monk.

Kovrin believes in his extraordinary character and talent as do Tanya Pesocki and her father, who feel honored by his presence on their country estate. He compares himself with the great men of history and thinks of himself as striving for all-knowledge, like Faust, an identification which provides its own ironic commentary. For, unlike Faust, Kovrin is a mediocre man who only masquerades as an intellectual giant. He repeats that he cannot live without his work, but he is never able to proceed beyond the outlines of his writings; and we realize that Kovrin is, in his way, as insignificant as the herd which his monk has taught him to despise.

The depiction of Kovrin is contrasted with that of his friends, the family of the horticulturist Pesocki. While there is something ridiculous about the old horticulturist, his useful labor comments on the fruitless intellectual efforts of Kovrin. Pesocki, a simple man, is part of the herd, but in limited respects he is also part of the depiction of the extraordinary man. His excited and vituperative polemic articles on horticulture, and his worry that his garden will perish with his death together compose a simple form of horticultural “scientism.” Ironically, Pesocki pictures himself of greater worth than the peasants, whom he regrets he can no longer flog, and as above his learned horticulturalist colleagues, whom he accuses of lack of practical experience. Pesocki finds in his natural science of horticulture the perfection of his “Garden of Eden,” a value higher than humanity—more important, for example, than the happiness of his daughter, whose marriage he sees only as a means of securing an heir to continue the work of the garden. Do we have, in the old man, an inverted picture of Kovrin?

While Kovrin's vaunted intellectual prowess leads him to feel superior, it is Pesocki's practical abilities which cause him to value himself above others. Yet, we are reminded that both men will perish without leaving a trace of their “extraordinary” talents. Kovrin will not give any lectures, and Pesocki's orchard will be ruined.

Tanya is the only character who lacks pretensions to a special role. But she idealizes both Kovrin and her father because she cannot resist the attraction of their less conventional outlook, which she herself does not quite understand.

In considering the opinions of the monk, it is difficult to agree with critics like Gushchin4 who claim that the monk's views are treated completely negatively in the story. While the story destroys the main premise of the monk—the belief in the intellectual superman and the deification of science—one could not say that all the monk's beliefs are shown as delusions. When the monk speaks of “the great and brilliant future” which lies ahead for mankind in the wake of a humanely conceived science, does he not express the hope of Chekhov's most positive heroes? While the monk's intellectual snobbery is shown to be empty, the mission of a humane and inspired intellectualism, which is beyond Kovrin's capacities, is a positive part of the monk's vision. The themes of the inspiration of genius and the illusions of the mediocre unite the philosophical dimension of the story with the psychological.

In Chekhov's stories and plays, the conflict of the exceptional person with his Philistine and banal milieu is a recurrent one. The student in “A Nervous Breakdown,” Pavel Ivanych in “Gusev,” Gromov in “Ward No. 6,” the professor in “A Dreary Story,” cannot accept the pošlost' which surrounds them, and consequently are destroyed. In “The Black Monk” this theme is given a new and bitter twist. Kovrin's wish to recapture his hallucinations is both pathetic and ironic.

“How lucky were Buddha and Mohammed or Shakespeare that well-meaning relatives and doctors did not cure them of their ecstasies and inspiration! … If Mohammed had taken bromides for his nerves, worked only two hours a day and drank milk, then this amazing man would have left behind just as little as his dog. Doctors and well-meaning relatives in the final analysis will succeed in dulling mankind; mediocrity will be considered as genius and civilization will perish. If you only knew … how grateful I am to you.

The pathos of life without illusions, be they even delusions, leads almost to tragedy. But Chekhov's hero is not a tragic hero; he is only a little man, the victim of a sensitivity which does not allow him to accept his mediocrity. There is a last ironic note when, at death, Kovrin rediscovers his faith in his greatness, as his hallucination of the black monk reappears. Just as Treplev of the The Sea Gull thinks of himself as Hamlet and many situations in the play support this identification,5 there are in “The Black Monk” indications that Kovrin, who is striving for all-knowledge, is being compared to Faust, an analogy which is supported by the obvious resemblance of the black monk to Mephistopheles. One might also suggest a similarity between Tanya, who is ruined by Kovrin's delusion, and Goethe's Margaret. But the analogy is ironic, since Kovrin has none of Faust's greatness and the black monk is incapable of providing fundamental answers and has none of Mephistopheles' impudent strength.

The social import of “The Black Monk” is more immediately obvious than its psychological and philosophical themes, but it is not less significant in the meaning of the story. The picture of the boredom and frustration of country life, which had been expressed in Russian literature since the appearance of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, is a frequent subject of Chekhov's. Kovrin, a version of the “superfluous man” in Russian literature and society, is an aimless rebel without a role in society, as were his “superfluous” predecessors in Russian letters, such as Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's Pechorin, and Turgenev's Rudin.

“The Black Monk” is not only of special interest as a psycho-philosophical and social study, but also as an example of the use of symbolism. In no previous Chekhov work has the symbolic played so basic a role as it does in “The Black Monk,” in which the figure of the gently smiling black monk is all that the frustrated Kovrin desires to be. Similarly, in Dostoyevsky's early story “The Double,” there is also a phantom which is a projection of the frustrated ego of the hero of the story.

Nature, as in earlier works of Chekhov's, sustains the mood of the story. When Kovrin sees the monk for the first time, the setting sun evokes thoughts of a beautiful future.

[Kovrin] walked down the path which ran along the steep shore by uncovered roots, frightening the snipe and flushing two ducks. The last rays of the setting sun were reflected on the gloomy pine trees. … Kovrin crossed the stream by the rocks. Now a wide field lay in front of him, covered with young rye. Not a human habitation, not a living soul in the distance, and it seemed as though, were he to continue on the path, it would take him to the very unknown and mysterious place of the setting sun, where the evening red was majestically flaming in the sky.

When Kovrin loses the comfort of the monk, nature becomes threatening.

… Gloomy pines with shaggy roots, which only last year had seen him here so young, happy and bold, now no longer whispered, but stood motionless and silent as if they did not recognize him. …


He crossed the river along the rocks. Where last year there had been rye, now lay rows of reaped oats. The sun had already set and a broad red glow on the horizon foretold a stormy tomorrow. It was quiet. Looking in the direction where the black monk had appeared for the first time last year, Kovrin stood for some twenty minutes, until the evening glow had disappeared.

Music also indicates indirectly the mood of the characters. A serenade is mentioned repeatedly. Its text, the implications of which are clear for Kovrin's dream, is the story of a young girl with a disordered imagination, who hears mysterious sounds. When he first hears it, the song reminds Kovrin of a strange legend of a black monk and hereafter the serenade is heard before every hallucination, and it also precedes the final appearance of the monk, which leads to Kovrin's death.

Suddenly … beneath the balcony a violin began to play and two soft women's voices sang. All this was familiar to him. The song they sang told of a girl, diseased in imagination, who heard by night mysterious sounds in the garden, and found in them a harmony and holiness incomprehensible to us mortals. … Kovrin held his breath, his heart contracted from grief, and the magical, sweet joy, which he had long forgotten, trembled in his breast again.

The monk appears, and Kovrin is dying,

… but an inexpressible limitless joy filled his whole being. Beneath the balcony the serenade was being played, and the black monk whispered to him that he was a genius and was dying only because his feeble mortal body had lost its balance and could no longer serve as the covering of genius.

Interesting parallels to the theme of “The Black Monk” can be found in some of the works of Henry James, another writer in whose stories characters search for a meaning in life. In an early story of James, “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), a mediocre artist believes himself to be an especially sensitive and intelligent interpreter of art and philosophy and the creator of a great masterpiece. He dies when he is made aware of his illusions. In “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), Marcher, a mediocre man who lives in total isolation and fear, is entertained only by his obsession that he is being kept for something strange, momentous, and perhaps terrible. After the death of Mary Bartram, who personifies his vision, he at last realizes that his fate was to have no passion at all; he was to be the man to whom nothing was ever to happen. His hallucination reappears of “the beast” as he flings himself on the tomb of the woman who “watched with him” for the event that never happened.

Though the intellectualism, heaviness, and extent of exposition which characterizes the style and method of James is different from that of the poetic talent and terse style of Chekhov, both writers tried to express, with an economy of action, and often by shifting views, a complex perspective of the inner life of the individual.

Notes

  1. Cf. Guščin, op. cit., pp. 119–131; Z. S. Papernyj, A. P. Čexov, očerk tvorčestva. Moscow 1954, pp. 67–77.

  2. Guščin, op. cit., p. 131.

  3. Cf. Papernyj, op cit., p. 78.

  4. Guščin, op. cit., pp. 119–131.

  5. See T. G. Winner, “Chekhov's Sea Gull and Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device,” American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XV, February 1956, pp. 103–111.

Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr. (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8630

SOURCE: Mathewson, Rufus W., Jr. “Intimations of Mortality in Four Čexov Stories.” In American Contributions to the Sixth International Congress of Slavists, edited by William E. Harkins, pp. 261–79. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1968.

[In the following essay, Mathewson examines the concept of immortality in Chekhov's stories “The Kiss,” “Gusev,” “Ionyc,” and “The Lady with the Dog.”]

From time to time characters in Čexov's stories look out at the natural world that encompasses their social existence. Their glances at the horizon, at the stars, the sunset, the sea, alter their understanding of the world, and thus reorder their experience in a profound way. In this sense these episodes bear comparison with the great “learning” scenes in Tolstoj, Prince Andrej on the battlefield at Austerlitz or Levin making hay in the meadow; or with Joyce's epiphanies, those random events which precipitate a new apprehension of the world. I have chosen episodes from four stories: “The Kiss”, “Gusev”, “Ionyč”, and “The Lady with the Dog”, in which the central character finds himself confronting a large natural scene. Each passage is set apart from the run of the narrative by its greater intensity of language and feeling. Each enlarges the story's perspective by setting the ordinary against the larger than ordinary—in each case the unexceptional individual against the mysterious processes of the natural world. With the greater emotional intensity, physical details take on the density of symbols which crystallize the story's meaning. The character sees dimensions of his world he has not noticed before.

I have put several questions to these texts in search of constancy and variation among the four, particularly with respect to the properties ascribed to nature, to the particular “exchange” that takes place between the individual and the setting, and to the function of the scene in the resolution of dramatic tension in the story. If I can demonstrate, as I hope to do, a single pattern, beneath surface variations, establishing what might be called the metaphysical limits of Čexov's fictional universe, I would like to pose a larger question: can this pattern be extended beyond the limits of these four stories? I should emphasize that I am not interested in reading Čexov's mind through his stories, in establishing biographical “facts” about his personal world-view. His extraordinary reticence on this score, his distaste for abstract thought and general statements make this a fruitless endeavor. But we can map the contours of his fictional world from the ample evidence provided by the stories and plays. It may be that his fictional values coincide with his personal beliefs—shreds of evidence suggest they do—but to decide that Anton Čexov, the man, is an “optimist” or a “pessimist” or some combination of these two things, seems to me a singularly sterile exercise. The understanding of his art has priority here.1

In the whole of Čexov's work, natural beauty intervenes in too many ways as a force in the lives of his characters to permit a single definition. Men's response to it—in the form of a beautiful woman, or a natural landscape—varies from elation to bewilderment to depression. Often the response is determined by the idiosyncratic perceptions or needs of a character, or by the aesthetic order of the story. In one work, “Beauties” (1888), however, more a sketch or reminiscence than a work of fiction, we have something like a general statement with Čexov's personal authority behind it, about the nature of beauty and its action upon men.

A philosophizing narrator recalls two chance encounters with beautiful woman. One is the classically beautiful daughter of an Armenian farmer he meets on a journey across the steppe; the other is a less perfect type of Russian beauty, the daughter of a stationmaster, whom he sees for a few moments on a railway platform. Both encounters are fleeting—no relationship is formed—but they have a power of enchantment which transcends the routine of ordinary experience and brings on a mood of uncertainty and sadness.

The beauty of a sunset has the same disquieting effect in men engaged in their ordinary work:

It sometimes happens that clouds pile up in disorder on the horizon, and the sun, hiding behind them, paints them and the sky in every possible color: in shades of crimson, orange, gold, lilac, dirty pink; one cloud resembles a monk, another a fish, a third a Turk in a turban. The glow occupies a third of the sky, gleams on the church's cross, and in the windows of the manor house, gleams in the river and in puddles, quivers on the trees; far away against the background of the sunset a flock of wild ducks flies off for the night. … And the herdsman, driving his cows, and the surveyor riding across the dike in his carriage, and the gentry out for a walk—all look at the sunset and all find that the sunset is awesomely beautiful, but no one knows, or will say, what this beauty is.2

They have all felt this mysterious communication, but the source and meaning of its enchantment is beyond them. It compels attention but cannot be described. And it quickly passes.

The narrator speaks with the authority of personal experience when he describes in more detail his remembered response to the beautiful women. When he sees the Armenian, the heat, dust and boredom of the journey across the steppe are forgotten, ordinary sensations—the taste of tea, for example—are suspended, and an enveloping sense of sadness dominates his feelings. There is elevation in this feeling—he wants to say to her something as beautiful as she is—but there is no desire, delight or enjoyment.

The observer's reaction is heightened by his compassionate sense of the way the glimpse of beauty affects those around him:

For some reason I pitied myself and my grandfather, and the Armenian [farmer] and the Armenian girl herself, and I felt as if all four of us had lost something important and necessary for living, which we would never find.3

The sense of loss prompts the narrator to locate its source. He asks himself if it comes from envy of her beauty, or from the knowledge that she is a stranger, and that he can never possess her; or from the knowledge that rare beauty is accidental, is not needed, or is like everything else on earth—short-lived—or is it, finally, the sensation one always has when one contemplates pure beauty.

The question is not answered, but in the second episode the sense of loss is defined more explicitly, as rooted in lost opportunities and defeated aspirations. The train conductor who, like everyone else, has been observing the girl's coy, fragile beauty, carries the final comment:

… his sallow, flabby, unpleasantly sated face, tired from sleepless nights and the train's rocking motion, expressed tenderness and deep sorrow, as if he saw in this girl his youth, his happiness, his sobriety, his purity, his wife and children, as if he repented and felt with all his being that this girl was not his, and that for him, with his premature aging, his clumsiness and his fat face, ordinary human “passenger” happiness was as far away as the sky.4

Time's irreversible passage is strongly felt here and with it the implications of a downward progress toward death. Hope invoked when its realization is no longer possible, self-reproach at the lost chances, are part of the bitter fruit.

This sketch of the effect of natural beauty on ordinary men is in no sense a formal philosophical statement, nor can it be used as a key to all the uses Čexov makes of beauty in the full range of his work. But the troubling, ambivalent effect it has on men in “The Beauties” is repeated in many important stories. Beauty softens, excites and inspires the beholder, but it also teases, reproaches, and, more ominously, threatens him. In this complex, mysterious effect, as it may be experienced in the four stories examined here, there is something to be learned, I would suggest, about the further reaches of Čexov's artistic vision of human experience.

THE KISS

The pattern of the action in this story may be described as the rise and fall of a fantasy, or the birth, life and death of an illusion. Dramatic tension rises from the collision between the world as imagined in the character's fantasy and the world as the narrator has told us it is. At the climax the illusion is punctured and the character is left to face the real world as he can. The confrontation with nature occurs at the moment of disillusionment, that is to say, at the highest point of the action, and it is the message Rjabovič, the forlorn artillery officer, reads in the moon-lit landscape around him, that compels him to face unbearable truths about his situation.

At the end of summer Rjabovič's battery has returned to the village where in May an unknown woman had kissed him by mistake in a darkened room. During the summer that accidental encounter has turned into an exciting fantasy which has transformed and enriched his life. The kiss has become an act of love, and on that slight incident he has constructed a new existence for himself as a married, fulfilled man, the equal of his worldly battery-mates, as experienced as they are in the ways of women. The mere misreading of this trivial incident is the stuff of farce; one can imagine any number of denouements which would “correct” his misconception and leave him unchanged and the reader unmoved—an embarassed encounter with the girl herself, for example. But Čexov's devastating resolution of the story destroys not only the illusion but Rjabovič's engagement with life as well. The proper analogy here is with Akakij Akakievič, who loses his life when his overcoat is stolen. Rjabovič's encounter with nature extends his vision to the horizon of his empty life.

When Rjabovič returns to the village, to the source of his illusion, “she” has taken on a solid existence in his mind. He expects to be invited again to the house, to visit the dark room where his fantasy began, to see “her”. Rjabovič waits for the rider on the prancing horse, who had brought the invitation last time. But he does not come. Disturbed by this first blow to his fantasy, he walks down the path to the river, “familiar” to him as part of his imagined world. Evening has come; the moon has risen over the far shore of the river. On the near shore everything is the same as it had been in May—the path, the bushes, the willow hanging over the water. And yet it is not the same: the “bold nightingale” which sang in May is silent now; the smell of the poplars and of young grass is gone. The tension here between fixity and change corresponds to the tension between the static fantasy in Rjabovič's mind and the flux of the real world. These physical details also introduce the controlling notion of the passage of time, in the slow march of the seasons.

Strange effects of light and darkness, the contrasting half-lights of twilight and moonrise, bring on a mood of enchantment. Rjabovič stands at the gate leading into the garden of the manor house where he met “her”. It is dark and still but he can make out the gleaming trunks of the birch trees. In this ghostly light the power of his senses is uncertain, but his perceptions are heightened; he is prepared to take in larger truths about himself and the world.

The same gleam shines from the surface of the river. By the far shore there is a patch of light from the moon reflected on the water. Towels hanging from the railing of the bathhouse are visible in the half-light.

With the sense of natural process and of time's passage present to his mind but not yet acknowledged, Rjabovič steps on to the bathhouse platform, which rests on pilings sunk in the river bed. For no reason at all he touches the towels on the railing. They feel rough and cold and it is this sensation that precipitates the new understanding of his condition. In the design of the story, the cold rough touch of the drying towel exactly matches the touch of the unknown woman's lips in the dark room months before. The birth and death of the illusion are symbolized by these sensations: the second touch, marking the harsh, intrusive action of reality, contradicts the warm, perfumed, illusion-producing contact of the woman's kiss. A third metaphorical “touch” occurs nearer the center of the story when Rjabovič “exposes” his tiny adventure to the scrutiny of his battery-mates. Their insensitive response—one says she must be a psychopath; another tops it with a similar but improbable and vulgar adventure on a train—destroys the illusion for the reader, but not for Rjabovič, even though he wonders that it took only a minute to tell. The “trigger” is not yet ready to function; the fantasy holds.

A quick and disastrous rush of new knowledge follows the third “touch”. Rjabovič looked at the swift-running river, though its enigmatically purposeful force is conveyed as much by sound as by sight. The water's rapid movement is suggested by the insistent gurgle of the water around the pilings. On the surface the moon is reflected, “but small waves run through the reflection, stretch it, tear it to pieces and, as it seems, wish to carry it away”. The patch of reflection, clearly standing for Rjabovič's illusion, is destroyed here by the action of the water. The words, “as it seems”, places this observation in Rjabovič's mind, not in the narrator's, and make it clear that just as the current has physically destroyed the patch of reflection, in some unspecified way the mysterious force of the river has destroyed the illusion in his own mind. As he looks at the running water he thinks: “How stupid … how unintelligent it all is”. With the collapse of his expectations he now sees his summer-long self-deception in a clear light. The illusion has crumbled entirely; he no longer wonders why the horseman failed to come or whether or not he would see her who “had kissed him accidentally instead of another; on the contrary it would be strange if he did see her …”

The water runs; Rjabovič's illusion evaporates. We know this. Yet we do not know why the outer event has caused the inner changes. “Why, why?” Rjabovič asks. But the running water has not yet delivered its full message. The river's action is recurrent, determined, purposeful but ultimately mysterious. It runs now as it had run in May; indeed it might be the same water, through the action of the rain cycle—from stream to river, to sea, thence into vapor and again to rain. The return of the water duplicates his own return, yet nature's purposes are inscrutable, and disconnected from his own. His final perception is devastating: “The whole world, all of life, seemed to Rjabovič an incomprehensible, aimless joke …”

We may say that Rjabovič's situation has been projected onto the natural event, or that nature has reflected his concerns back to him with “no comment”, but rearranged so that they bring both clarity and terror, understanding and further mystery. Rjabovič does not “place himself” before a natural scene, in the manner of the romantic sensibility, and scan its surface for guidance and solace. And yet, accidental as it has been, nature has told him something that comes from itself, that he could not have known before.

In order to speculate on what this message is we must go beyond the text and try to supply what is missing in the way of logical connective between the poetic elements in the story. Nature's independence of man, its purposeful, orderly fulfillment of its own enigmatic design would seem to be the source of its cleansing, truth-bearing quality. I nlater stories Čexov would write of nature's indifference to individual human lives, suggesting that in its detached pursuit of its own timeless concerns it provides man—social man, caught in his web of rationalizations, self-deception and acquiescence in false codes of behavior—with a measure of his worth. (Nor is it always a bitter truth, as we shall see in “The Lady With the Dog”.) In his confrontation with nature he rediscovers his membership in the biological universe and, by implication, apprehends the chilling fact of his own mortality. If that discovery is present in this story, it is there only by implication. But we may postulate it, at least, as a way of accounting for the destructive force with which the story concludes: the horseman does arrive with the invitation, Rjabovič rises impulsively from his bed in response to it, then sinks back bitterly, as if to spite his fate.

The signs of aging in the conductor in “Beauties” suggest that his lost opportunities are irrecoverable. Time's action points toward decay and death. It is the atheist's bitter obligation to disconnect the individual's fate from any promise of resurrection or cyclical renewal. One is tempted to represent the contrast graphically between the circular processes of the natural world and the rising and falling curve of the individual life span, describing a movement which is only part of the eternal cycles of nature.

Rjabovič's return to the village where his fantasy was born differs in exactly this sense from the recurrent “return” of the rain. The parabola of Rjabovič's life may be seen merely as part of the nitrogen cycle. He has lost his illusion, to be sure, and the capacity for further illusion (suggested by the refusal of the second invitation). But is it not a legitimate, if unarticulated extension of the story, to suggest that in his final bitterness he may have lost the power to love at all, and with that his last attachment to life? It is as though his glimpse of the horizon of his own life had caused him to die prematurely. If this is the final fruit of his epiphany, we may say that a certain kind of self-knowledge, stimulated by nature, may be fatal.

GUSEV

We need not speculate about the presence of death in “Gusev”: three lives are extinguished in the course of the story. The process of dying is the action of the story; the experience and meaning of death are the subject-matter. The three-part vision at the end of the story, of the sea's surface, of the water beneath the surface, and the sky above it, is far more complex than the running river of “The Kiss”, and permits a wider and, at the same time, more precise interpretation. The visions of nature in the two stories are different, obviously because they function as elements of very different stories, far apart in character, action and setting, but they have the same essential connections with the lives of individual men in both.

Gusev is a peasant soldier, invalided out of the Far Eastern Army, and sent home to die. On the long voyage home to European Russia, the third-person narrator “hovers” close to his mind, reports his version of experience, his thoughts and dreams, until the final section of the story. After Gusev dies en route, the narrator describes the burial at sea, and the terms of his description—the details he chooses and his subdued commentary on them—rise to a level of general poetic statement.

The first part of the vision, which is observed and recorded by Gusev, is brought on by a radical alteration of the physical perspective, from the crowded sick-bay to an unlimited view of sea and sky. In the hot, cramped quarters below, two other men have died, and Gusev himself has been sinking close to death, though he does not fully realize it. When a great restlessness seizes him, he asks a fellow-soldier to help him topside for air and a view of the world outside. It is night. Gusev and his mate pick their way over the bodies of sleeping soldiers on deck, to the prow of the ship. The full stretch of the night sky and the sea open up before them—“silently they look above and below” Gusev's perceptions extend to the horizon, and he translates what he sees into the idiom of his own concerns.

While he has been confined below, he has had persistent dreams about life in the village at home. They are full of exact detail, the faces of relatives and the movement of a gay and familiar life. The ecstatic dream of a runaway horse and sleigh, wild and free, full of laughter and flying clods of snow and barking dogs, is the fullest statement of his longing to be home and of his attachment to life. But these dreams are persistently blotted out by the head of an eyeless ox, surrounded by smoke and clouds, an unexplained but unmistakable reference to death. When Gusev looks up, “above is the deep sky, clear stars, peace and quiet—exactly as it is home in the village”. The sky connects him with home and with life. But when he looks down at the surface of the sea, he sees a dark, menacing turmoil, the equivalent in his symbolic language of the ox's head. The senseless, brutally competitive movement of the waves, each pursuing the one before it in order to smash it, is both threatening and mysterious—“No one knows why the tall waves roar”. Until now Gusev has been able to account for the physical world with his primitive folk notions. (The winds, he is sure, are chained and unchained like wild animals.) But confusion overwhelms him now. “The sea has neither sense nor pity”.

The sense of aimless and brutal struggle is extended to the conflict between the ship and the ocean. The pitiless and senseless sea would smash the ship if were not so strongly built, without distinguishing “between saints and sinners”. The ship, “a beaked monster”, “unafraid of darkness, wind, space or solitude”, mercilessly smashes the waves; if they were people, it would destroy them, also, like the sea, not distinguishing saints from sinners. Gusev, who has lived in the world with a sense of order, composed of peasant wisdom, religious belief, acceptance of the social order (he never understands Pavel's Ivanovič's raging diatribes, delivered in the language of an educated radical, against the cruelty of the system), now stands on the edge of terror. His world has broken apart before the aimless brutality of the sea, and left him facing the unknown. He is afraid.

When his companion had earlier mentioned the procedure of burial at sea, “in a sack and then into the water”, Gusev's answer is characteristic: “Yes, that's the way they do it”. Human order still has a way of handling these things. But after his vision of the sea, Gusev and his companions talk and we learn what the full yield of this terrifying experience has been. He has lost the protection of any kind of order.

The movement has been from the peace and beauty of the sky to the uproar on the sea's surface at some unknown spot in the ocean. At the end of the scene, Gusev and his companions speculate about where they are, in peasant bewilderment, “They say in seven days we'll see [land]”. Gusev has lost his bearings in a more profound sense. He is afraid of nothing, he says. There are awesome experiences, like sitting alone in a forest, or, say, being ordered by an officer to lower a boat in the sea and go 100 versts to catch a fish. But he would obey an order and if a Christian fell over board (not a German or a “Chink”) he would go after him. But when his companion asks him if he is afraid of dying, he admits that he is. Without the sanction of military orders or the code of his kind, alone and unprotected, he acknowledges the power of his fear. As the swift river had shrivelled Rjabovič's illusions and all that had given rise to them, the sea disintegrates Gusev's vision of home, and with that, all hope. Now he sees what will happen after he has gone. His brother is a drunkard who beats his wife, who does not respect his parents, and will turn them out in the world. “Without me”, he says, “everything will go to pieces”. He goes below to bed, tormented by restlessness, nightmares, coughing, and the tropical heat—sleeps for two days, and dies.

The narrator completes the description of Gusev's burial, and of the natural world to which his body is returned. The precise details of the encounter between Gusev's body and the shark below the surface of the water, and of the splendid display of color in the sunset raise the question of Gusev's death to the question of death in general, and complete Čexov's survey of the ultimate realm in which man has his being and loses it.

Gusev, sewn up in the sailcloth bag which is weighted down with pieces of iron, has already lost his human shape—he “resembles a carrot or a radish”. During the burial service the crew and the discharged soldiers look into the sea and the narrator uses their thoughts to generalize Gusev's fate: “It is strange that a man is sewed up in sailcloth, and that he will now fly into the waves. Could thatnot happen to anybody?”

When Gusev's body strikes the water the foam covers him like lace, but only for a moment. His body starts its long descent to the bottom. It drops more and more gently, moves sideways, rocks in a measured way as though it were meditating. A school of pilot fish sees the “dark body”, stops dead still and then darts off. In a moment the fish streak back “like arrows” and swim around the body in rapid zigzags. The second “dark body”, the shark, appears (the same phrase used to describe the corpse, symbolically joins them). The description of his movements around the body renders physically the lordly, cruelly playful indifference with which man is taken back by nature. The shark, “importantly and reluctantly, as though not noticing” Gusev, swims under the body, which seems to turn its back on him. Then he turns belly-up, basking in the warm, transparent water, and “lazily” opens his mouth with its two sets of teeth. With the pilotfish in a state of delight at what is about to happen, the shark “plays with” the body, carefully touches the sailcloth with his teeth and rips it open from head to foot.

At the same moment in the sky above clouds pile up while the sun sets. In the short description of the evening sky, which concludes the story, the presence of nature's beauty is felt at its full magnitude. The details of the scene bear the closest resemblance to the sunset in “Beauties”. In “Gusev”, too, the clouds form fantastic shapes—a triumphal arch, a lion, and a pair of scissors (a monk, a fish, a Turk in a turban, in the earlier sketch). Again the sky is flooded with brilliant colors which are reflected in the earth below, and transform its aspect in a startling and mysterious way. In “Beauties”, men look up from their ordinary duties, note the beauty but none “knows or can say” what the beauty is. In Gusev the narrator records the beauty and the mystery of the luminous rays of the colors from “the marvelous, enchanting sky which gild the surface of the “frowning” sea. The sea takes on “caressing, joyful, passionate colors, hard to name in human language”.

The transformed surface of the sea is the same which produced the brutal waves and conceals the shark's teeth. The image of the sunset counteracts the ugly aspects of nature. The human emotions attributed to the colors on the sea's surface counterbalance the restless despair which accompanies the experience of dying, forming a chordal balance of opposites. In the design of the story the lateness of beauty's appearance gives it the aspect of an epitaph.

Two moments in the story prepare for the outburst of benign emotion, both expressing the character's most intense commitment to life. The first is Gusev's exciting dream of the runaway horse full of heedless, passionate joy. The second is Pavel Ivanyč's angriest speech of protest against the social evils of the world, a remarkable flicht of rhetoric. Like Gusev's dream, it is focussed on the future; he will deliver it on his arrival home after the long journey. Pavel Ivanyč is a self-centered, unsympathetic man (“All my friends say to me, ‘You are a most unbearable person …’”) who is disfigured by his attitude of fierce protest (“If you cut my tongue out, I will protest by mimicry, if you shut me up in a grave, I will shout so loud from there I will be heard for a verst …”). His speech is full of radical cant about socially useful literature, hardly sympathetic to Čexov's views, or indeed, to the literary values in this sory. (“Leave off … rotten plots about female amours and the beauties of nature, and expose the nasty two legged-wretch”.) But it is his nature at full flight, “Passionate” if not “caressing” or “joyful”, and has in it the same intensity of feeling sensed by the narrator in the indescribable beauty of the sky. The two men who could not understand each other, who share only their common humanity, are memorialized equally in the flaming sunset. It must not be thought that the beauty of the final scene transcends or contains the horror and misery of dying. The conclusion of the story is rather a harmonious but temporary balance of opposites, the two supreme and contradictory facts of human existence. We must suppose that the state of balance is impermanent. The sea, whose true nature has been vividly established for us, is only gilded by the miraculous play of color. It will quickly fade, the sea will remain unchanged and night will fall, the night which is announced in the story's first sentence: “It had grown dark and soon would be night”. The cycle of natural process, reflected in the story's “circular” shape, will continue undisturbed by the lives that have been extinguished by its action. Beauty, for all its miraculous force, expressive of the gift of life at its highest power, is never “long-lived”, as the narrator of “Beauties” has told us.

IONYč

The confrontation of man and nature takes place early in the story, presenting the central character with a view of alternative destinies, illuminating “choices” he may consciously or unconsciously make in the course of the action. It does not resolve the tension nor bring a blighting kind of self-knowledge as in “The Kiss”, nor serve as an epitaph as in “Gusev”. It serves as both a stimulus and a threat, an announcement of themes rather than a resolving coda.

The young doctor Startcev, “an intelligent, solid man”, has acted against his common sense when he accepts the invitation to a tryst in the cemetery. It is an absurdly romantic thing to do, and she may be playing a joke on him. As he leaves his carriage on the outskirts of town, the moon is shining. It is a warm night, but the warmth is peculiarly autumnal. Dogs howl near the slaughter house. These details take on the weight of motifs, announcing the presence in the scene to follow of death, life, beauty and time. An inscription on the cemetery wall marks the boundary between ordinary life and the most solemn human concerns.

As Ionyč approaches the cemetery, Čexov arranges the contrasting black and white lighting effects which will contribute to the experience of enchantment Ionyč will undergo. The cemetery looms across the fields as a “black strip”, contrasting with the gleaming white fence and gates. Inside, the moonlit crosses and tombstones stand out against the black shadows cast by the poplars. His vision is sharpened (and in more than a physical sense): “It seemed to him that it was brighter here than in the field; the maple leaves stood out sharply like claws in the yellow sand of the allées and on the gravestones, and the inscriptions on the tombs were clear”. Startcev understands that with his heightened power of vision he is witness to a scene he has never seen before and will probably never see again. It is “a world unlike any other”. He senses in every dark poplar, in every grave, “the presence of a secret promising a quiet, beautiful eternal life”. The withered flowers, the autumnal small of the leaves, promise forgiveness, sadness and peace.

Suddenly Startcev's footsteps resound sharply and inappropriately, and by breaking the silence, end his brief communion with death. The sound of his footsteps, marking the presence of the living, and the sound of a church bell striking the real hour, precipitate an abrupt overturn in his own feelings. He imagines himself dead and buried forever: the “muffled misery of non-being, an appressive despair”, replace his sense of peace and quiet.

Fear of death has ended the lure of the grave, has acted like a threatening stimulus, drawing him back to life. His eyes turn toward the tomb of an Italian opera singer, Demetti, who died years before on a visit to the town. It is in the shape of a chapel with an angel on top. The extravagance of its design, suggestive of exotic places and of operatic exuberance, redirects Startcev's reflections. The town has forgotten her but her presence is felt in the lamp at the entrance which appears to be lit by the reflected moonlight. In accordance with the pattern of correspondence between physical objects and inner states, the moonlight also ignites his longing for love. He thinks of all the beautiful women buried around him and the entire cemetery becomes peopled with his sensual imaginings, expressing his unqualified attachment to life. (“… he wanted to cry out that he wants love at any cost”.) At the climax of his fantasy the marble tombstones are transformed into the flesh of beautiful women. This most compelling image of life and death interpenetrating is accompanied by a bitter discovery: “Mother Nature” plays a joke on men—“how galling it is to realize it”. This joke, the same one presumably that Rjabovič discovers in “The Kiss”, lies perhaps at the heart of the mysteriously depressing effect we are told accompanies these visions into man's essential connections with nature.

The moon goes beyond a cloud, the “autumn darkness” descends “like a curtain”, the clock strikes again, and Startcev, exhausted, makes his way back to his carriage. Sitting “with pleasure” in this vehicle, which later is used to symbolize his decline into arrogant cynicism, he utters a strikingly prosaic remark, the odd fruit, in a sense, of his transcendent experience: “Oh, I mustn't get fat!” In the remainder of the story Čexov explicitly uses the grossening of Startcev's physical features as an emblem of his moral decline, but the remark has poignant overtones at this point which are not noted in conventional readings of the story. He is a solid, intelligent man, we recall, and his desire to remain slender is the practical, physical translation of the commitment he has just made to life and to love. And it must be noted that the physical deterioration that follows is not entirely in his power to control. It is the mark of his imprisonment in time (foretold by the striking clock), the sign of his mortality.

It would be wrong, however, to see his fate as determined. In a complex sense he “chooses” between the alternatives he has seen in the cemetery, though the full dimensions of his choice are never clear to him. In a full-length analysis of the story it could be shown that his choice of death—by denying the life-force within him, rather than by seeking the peace of the graveyard—is the result of a process of dillusionment which is presented very persuasively to the reader—we are certainly meant to share his disgust with the grotesque affectations of the provicial intelligentsia, and the social backwardness of his colleagues at the club. But it is so all-encompassing that he is unable to glimpse his one escape, the love of the matured Turkin girl when she has come back from Moscow. When he turns away from her for the last time, fingering the paper money in his pocket, Čexov tells us that a light—presumably the counterpart of the lamp on Demetti's tomb—has gone out. The hunger for love becomes a simple greed for money and property. He grows fat, shortwinded, coarse-voiced. Resembling a “pagan god”, he careens through the town, stamps through houses he wants to buy, bellows at servants. If human attachment is the one stay against death, he has already died.

Startcev's vision in the cemetery, through his heightened emotion and deepened insight, has allowed him to glimpse the limits within which his life will be played out. The stimulus toward life and love has been extinguished in the provincial gloom, though he has certainly collaborated in his own fate, and like so many of Čexov's characters, will live out the rest of his biological life as a moral corpse, eventually to merge with the “non-being” of the grave.

THE LADY WITH THE DOG

The scene in the dawn at Oreanda occurs early in this story too, but presents a promise rather than contradictory possibilities to its central character. Gurov is shown to us as a man whose existence is defined by fixed patterns of public and private behavior. We learn of his Moscow routine—work, family, parties. When we first meet him in Yalta we learn of the unvarying rhythm of his illicit affairs, which progress from excited interest to infatuation, to involvement, thence to disillusionment and disgust, the final stage always punctuated by his description of women as “an inferior race”. In the story we watch Gurov break out of both molds and redefine his moral nature, a course of events which is foretold and shaped by what he experiences on the height overlooking the sea at Oreanda.

When this scene occurs he is in the middle of his affair with a new misstress, the naive, tremulous, guilt-ridden young wife of a provincial official. She is a new kind of woman for him and affects him differently than the others, though in ways unknown to him at the time. When the time comes to go north, back to their legitimate ménages, Gurov is still able to fit the relationship into the mold of his earlier affairs. He says good-bye regretfully in the railroad station, but looks forward to the brisk wintry air of Moscow and the routine of his other existence. This episode concludes with an apparent finality that indicates he is not aware of the metamorphosis he has begun to undergo.

Yet the new knowledge and the new moral attitudes are first defined long before the departure, as he sits on the bench before sunrise with his new mistress. The strange pre-dawn light, the sense of great space, the overwhelming beauty of the scene produce a feeling of enchantment. “White motionless” clouds are piled up over the mountains; Yalta is visible in the distance through the morning mists. It is still, except for the cry of the cicadas and the muffled murmur of the sea, which at first speaks to him of death, “of the peace, the eternal sleep that awaits us”. The permanence of that murmur which sounded before Yalta existed, which sounds now, and will continue to sound “as indifferently” when we are no longer here, makes the contrast, now familiar to us, between the eternal processes of nature and the brief span of the individual's life. But this time the tension is resolved benignly. “In this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us is hidden a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the uninterrupted movement of life on earth, of uninterrupted perfectionä. Nature conceals a different truth than the one we have seen before, for we are compelled to assume that nature's continuum is somehow paralleled by the historical continuum of mankind, transcending the extinction of individual lives. If the two are parallel and connected, they are, nevertheless, not the same: nature's constancy would seem to be matched, and, at the same time, opposed by mankind's capacity to progress: nature's indifference would seem to contrast with the benevolence implicit in mankind's evolution toward “eternal salvation”. Something like this appears to underlie Gurov's thoughts.

In his extended response to the beauty before him, he translates his feeling about the woman beside him and the panoramic scene into a principle of behavior: “… if you consider it, everything is beautiful on this earth except what we think and do when we forget about the higher aims of existence, about our human dignity”.5 He has transformed an aesthetic experience into an ethical insight. The slow chemistry of this discovery works a radical change through the remainder of the story as cynical habits give way to a code of responsibility and commitment.

After his return north the routine of his public life resumes, but the memory of the mountains, clouds and sea at Oreanda returns to him; he comes finally to realize that he has not forgotten Anna Sergeevna, that he must see her. He continues to move through the meaningless forms of his public life, but builds a genuine existence out of his new and unexpected love, entirely hidden from public view. He is liberated from the mold of his social position into a troubled, clandestine life which he discovers is authentic and irrevocable.

At one moment when he is leaving his club he is tempted to bridge the two worlds by telling a companion about the charming woman he had met in Yalta. His companion's answer is grossly inappropriate—“Yes, the sturgeon was bad”—suggesting to Gurov that his two worlds cannot meet or merge. In “The Kiss”, Rjabovič exposes his private emotion to his battery-mates and barely survives their rough handling; Gurov's feeling, which is not illusory, is simply driven deeper into that secret world where everything real exists. This contrast suggests that the two stories move in opposite directions—one toward the exposure of false feeling, the other toward the realization of genuine feeling, whatever the consequences.

In the final scene when the lovers meet in the Slavjanskij Bazaar, she is weeping at the bitter prospects of their relationship. For a moment Gurov falls unconsciously into the pattern of his earlier behavior. When he had seduced her, she had wept and denounced herself as a sinful woman. Irritated by her naiveté, Gurov had deliberately sliced and eaten a melon and then had set about, equally deliberately, to quiet her down. Confronted again at the story's end with a weeping woman, he orders tea, and again tries to calm her. This lapse into habit evokes the earlier pattern for a moment, but he is shocked by a sudden glimpse of himself in the mirror and by signs he sees there of aging. He reviews his relations with women, and the differences between this one and all the others becomes clear to him: “Only now when his hair had turned gray he had fallen in love … genuinely, for the first time in his life”. He begins to talk seriously to her and the story ends as they confront their complex and painful future together.

The return to past habits, followed by his break with the earlier pattern, briefly restates the story's whole structure. At the same time it measures the distance Gurov has come. And it adds the vital connective which had been absent in his reflections at Oreanda, the bitter knowledge that he is a prisoner of time.

It could be argued that his discovery balances his lofty reflections on “eternal salvation” and “the higher aims of existence”, and creates that chordal fusion of opposites we have seen in the earlier stories. But it is more accurate to say that the hard, material fact of mortality has replaced the pledge of salvation through social progress and human perfectability. He certainly finds nothing in the empty, aimless society he inhabits to support these elevated notions. On the contrary, he speculates that every man must have a secret life like his own, an idea that suggests that each works out his individual salvation within the limits of his private existence.

The “higher aims” are not replaced but translated into the hard discrete circumstances of his real life, most notably in his resolve to face the future with Anna. His “conversion” is not undermined by this discovery; it simply takes on its full ironic, and by now clearly understood, dimension.

CONCLUSION

I have suggested that these four episodes bear comparison with scenes of revelation in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Čexov's are smaller in scale; they claim less spiritual yield for those who experience them; they provide no sense of the divine harmony in the universe sometimes apprehended by Tolstoj's characters. Yet they do venture to touch the knowable limits of the universe and suggest the existence of a troubling mystery beyond—not supernatural, but a vast, puzzling joke that can never be comprehended. Death is the unbearable fact both seek ultimately to confront. Ivan Il'ič at the end of his agony is able to welcome death as an unspecified kind of deliverance; the professor in Čexov's “A Dreary Story” would accept death as a merciful act of extinction, but is doomed to live a little longer, without hope. There is no ultimate solace in Čexov's universe.

The joke is present in some form in all four stories. Rjabovič feels himself the victim of an “incomprehensible joke”, and is enlightened and crushed by his new knowledge. Gusev, on the point of death, can find no comfort or sense in the contrast between the quiet, unattainable sky and the brawling sea, and the narrator gives us the final drama of his return to inanimacy, together with the sky's cryptic, post-mortem comment; Ionych reads the signs correctly, grasps Mother Nature's bitter riddle, but somehow forgets what he has learned; Gurov detects all but one of the elements in the panoramic view at dawn, combines them in accordance with his upsurging emotion, in a benevolent, inspiring way, and only at the end adds the missing part to the puzzle, the ingredient that has soured the mixture for all the others. “Why, why?” is their final cry.

Perceptions vary, but do the objects perceived? Nature is seen in all four stories as a great eternal force, pursuing purposes of its own which have nothing to do with individual lives. It reaches men with its enigmatic beauty, promising the peace of death or a quickening to life, disturbing them with its mystery. threatening them with annihilation. Beauty is the compelling, teasing reminder of man's connection with his biological matrix. It is not the face of nature Wordsworth sees in the Prelude, source of instruction, wisdom, comfort and inspiration, if its surfaces can be read correctly. Though Čexov's is an atheist's view—nature's indifference promises only annihilation—it is not, properly speaking, a scientist's view in which nature can be reduced by reason to a system of categories and laws. Man apprehends it through feeling; enchanted by its beauty, troubled by its mystery, he senses the dirty joke of mortality, the shark's teeth under the inscrutable surface.

Can we illuminate a larger area of Čexov's writing with this formulation? It is clearly more than a device for the disclosure of character, but Čexov's reticence, his automatic distaste for generalization, make it hazardous to attribute this view of nature as a metaphysical absolute to Čexov, the thinker. It is an artist's vision of experience, and its applicability can be determined only by reference to many other works, both stories and plays. The prospect is overwhelmingly large. Looking about at random—one recalls the rhythmic alternation of delight, wonder and terror in “The Steppe”, the moral rot behind Ariadna's beautiful face, the comforting sky Lipa (“In the Ravine”) gains strength from when she casts her eyes upward after her child is murdered; the doctor's grief in “Enemies”, an emotion of such beauty that only music can convey it. These instances do not supply a single definition of the way beauty is experienced, but do suggest that beauty and death are often felt simultaneously. I would like to propose this as a final hypothesis.

A number of critics have suggested that the relatively sanguine view of men's possibilities, particularly as shown in “The Lady with the Dog”, indicates a brighter view of mankind's prospects as a whole in Čexov's later stories. This may be so, but a look at “The Archbishop” (1902) suggests that the limits of human life remain unchanged. Against the background of spring and the seasonal ritual which celebrates Christ's Resurrection, the archbishop slips away to extinction, and is erased from the minds of men. Bright or grim, used or misused, life flares up for a moment as a phase of the nitrogen cycle.

Notes

  1. I have been stimulated, though more often to disagree than to agree, by several recent studies of Čexov. They set out to prove that he was an “optimist”, and not, therefore, a “pessimist”. These categories are far too gross to contains or illuminate the work of a writer as subtle and varied as Čexov. Although my concern is not with this question, I would hope to contribute to a less confining way of posing the important questions about Čexov's art, a way that is focussed on the stories themselves, not on Čexov's view of the future.

    N. Berkovskij's “Čexov. Ot rasskazov i povestej k dramaturgii”, Russkaja literatura, 1965, No. 4; 1966, No. 1, has interesting things to say about “Beauties”, “The Steppe”, and “The Lady with the Dog”, but the authority of his views is dissipated in his single-minded pursuit of “the secret music of the future”. The same obsession with Čexov-as-optimist has tricked M. E. Elizarova, in her Tvorčestvo Čexova i voprosy realizm konca XIX veka (M., 1958), into replacing the sunset in “Gusev” with a sunrise (p. 83), a small error, but an indicative one. Her definition of the character-type in the late stories, who undergoes a moral metamorphosis, is useful, nonetheless. G. Berdnikov in A. P. Čexov (M.-L., 1961) has allowed his social concerns to overshadow the larger human issues, at least in the stories I am concerned with. In Masterstvo A. P. Čexova V. V. Golubkov has said all that need be said about “Ionych” as a social satire, but he has not discovered the full implications of the cemetery scene. Z. Papernyj's A. P. Čexov: Očerk tvorčestva (M., 1960) echoes the foregoing studies in ignoring the presence of death in the landscape scenes. Thomas Winner's Chekhov and His Prose (N.Y., 1966), free of the obsession with social optimism, has sensitive but not entirely persuasive readings of “The Kiss”, “The Lady with the Dog”, and “Ionych”.

  2. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij (M., 1944–51), VII, 132–133. All references are to this edition.

  3. VII, 134.

  4. VII, 138.

  5. Here we seem to be close to Čexov's own thoughts for a moment. He wrote in a letter to Suvorin on December 9, 1890: “God's earth is beautiful. Only one thing is bad and that's us. How little justice and humility there is in us …” (XV, 131).

A. V. Cicerin (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

SOURCE: Cicerin, A. V. “The Role of Adversative Intonation in Čexov's Prose.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 187–91. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Cicerin refutes the common claim that Chekhov's stories are clear and simple, using as examples the indecisive and conjectural speech found in the stories themselves.]

“The style of Čexov's stories is clear, transparent, and simple; it is characterized by accuracy in every expression he uses.” There is no need to give the source of this quotation. It can be found in special articles, in courses in the history of literature, and in textbooks.

It is a commonplace.

But is it true? Is it completely true?

Čexov defended the idea that originality in a writer is a necessary characteristic of art. He said: “A writer's originality resides not just in style, but even in his mode of thought, in his convictions …”2 It is probable that the secret of Čexov's style lies not in such general features as accuracy and transparency but in something which sets him further apart, in something inherent in his style. There is a well known statement by Čexov: “If you want to describe a poor girl, the thing not to say is ‘a poor girl was walking down the street’ etc., but rather you should hint that her raincoat was threadbare or faded.”3 This and many similar comments make it clear that Čexov refrains from direct depiction. What could be simpler, clearer, more exact than the sentence which he rejected? Čexov defends the necessity not of direct, but rather of oblique expression of thought. Each sentence ought to allow the reader some internal freedom. From the details of dress or facial expression the reader himself ought to understand whether the girl is poor or rich, happy or sad. These details ought to express something greater, something more individual than these general words which spell everything out.

Čexov, like his great predecessors, came out from under Gogol''s “Overcoat” and absorbed much of Turgenev's delicate lyricism. The way in which he mixed it with the satiric causticness of Ščedrin was remarkable. Dostoevskij and Tolstoj passed through his soul like two raging storms. This was the fare which nourished Čexov.

But a new reality which determined his style, surrounded him. This style, so related in its spirit to its closest predecessors, was nevertheless essentially opposed to them.

In Čexov's prose there is neither the striking force in the application of a particular word when that word is hammered like a nail, nor is there the sharp specificity of expression which was all important in Dostoevskij's and Tolstoj's language.

It is just the opposite.

“I probably also loved him, although I cannot say it for certain …” Such is a Čexovian sentence in which an affirmation, presented indecisively and conjecturally, immediately and abruptly comes to an end and is refuted, although only in part. Consider the story “Terror”, published in 1892. It is constructed entirely along the above-mentioned principle: “This was an intelligent, good, lively, and sincere person, but …”; “… I liked his wife extremely. I had not fallen in love with her, but …”; “By birth he belonged to the privileged class, but … he himself spoke with a slight uncertainty about his privileged position, as if it were some sort of myth”; “The fact, of course, is that I am a confused and incompetent sort of person, but …”; “Her words and her pale face were angry, but …”; “For a long time I had not experienced such delights. But nevertheless far off, somewhere in the depths of my soul, I felt a certain uneasiness and did not feel comfortable … This was a great serious love, complete with tears and promises to be faithful, but I had not wanted it to be serious …”

I hope that no one thinks I am criticizing Čexov for monotony. Everything is ‘but’ upon ‘but’. No, this stylistic leitmotif is carried throughout the whole story in such a delicate thread that there is no feeling of monotony.

However, ‘adversative’ intonation is found even more often than adversative conjunctions. This is obvious even in some of the above mentioned words: “… liked extremelynot fallen in love … but”—here are two adversative intonations with a clear goal: to depict an undecided feeling which, even for the hero himself, was quite confused.

This adversative displacement exists in a multitude of indefinite words, both in those which have already been mentioned, and those which have not yet been. “As if it were some sort of myth”, “a certain uneasiness”, “there was something uncomfortable”, “for some reason or other it was pleasant to think”, “I was happy for some uncertain reason …” All these words and phrases, such as “a certain”, “something”, “for some reason or another”, “it seemed”, oppose the common idea about the definiteness of a person's feelings and emotional states. This is an elimination of elementarily clear-cut ideas such as “he loves her, but she does not love him”. At the same time, it is a search for nuances, which at the final tally are exactly specified; it is a search for intersections of feelings which are greatly confused but are more common and real than those which are purely crystalized and clarified: “A hopeless love for a woman who has already presented you with two children. Could this really be understood and yet not be frightening? Is it not more terrible than ghosts?” Adversative intonation is connected with the nature of Čexov's prose, which is similar to that of a tragedy. Very deep and very painful contradictions are amassed in this intonation—especially the contradictions of an undecided, shallow feeling.

“… She liked him, the wedding was already set for the seventh of July, but she did not feel any happiness …” In this adversative rift is presented the complication of the story “The Betrothed”. And further: “He had barely managed to graduate in the Department of Agriculture, but …”; “She owned a row of commercial stalls at the fair and an old house with columns and a garden, but. … ; “He graduated from the Department of Philology at the University, but …”; “… Gradually she began to value this good, intelligent man. But …”; “He joked all the time while they ate, but …”; “Remarkable people … but …”; “She understands, but …”; “She had never loved him, but …” All of these “buts” interrupt thought. Life does not proceed in a straight line, but it meanders, full of jolts and frustrations.

This rift enters into the speech of the personages and dualizes their statements: “My mother certainly does have weaknesses, but …”; “Your mother, in her own way, is a very good and sweet woman, but …” The adversative conjunction gets in the center of that unspecified colorless phraseology which sounds like satire:

“Perhaps then you believe in hypnotism?”


“I cannot, of course, affirm that I do believe in it”, Nina Ivanovna answered with a very serious, almost severe facial expression, “but one must keep in mind that there is much in nature which is mysterious and not understood.”


“I am in complete agreement with you, although …”

And immediately afterwards the concrete yet vulgar image of the “very fat turkey” eaten up by the fanciers of that which is “mysterious and not understood” serves as adversative intonation to this indefinite yet lofty conversation.

In the structure of “The Betrothed” the pictures of nature also contain their own form of “buts”:

… gentle May! She breathed deeply and wanted to think that somewhere, not here, but under the sky, above the trees, far beyond the city, in the fields and forests its own springtime life has developed, flourished, secret, wonderful, rich, holy, and innocent, inaccessible to the understanding of a weak, sinful person. And for some reason she wanted to cry.

And then—“Summer turned out to be damp and cold. …” Thus the first picture contains a rift, and summer speaks its “but” to spring.

These “buts” split the imaginary well-being of everyday existence and lead Nadja to a crisis and moral purification.

But what does it mean when we read “for some reason she wanted to cry”? To understand it better we will go to another story, “The Beauties”.

This is as realistic a work as any that Čexov wrote. In it there are geographical designations such as “He went with Grandpa from the village of Bolshaya Krepkaya in the Don Region”, and mention is made of the state of the weather: “It was a sultry August day”, as well as examples of the Čexovian modifiers as “languidly dreary”. So too is the caricatured appearance of the rich Armenian: “Imagine a small shaven head with bushy eyebrows that hang down and a bird-like nose …,” and further: “Flies, flies, flies everywhere”; the words “unpleasant, stuffy and dreary” become a leitmotif—no, it is a background, and on this background rises a leitmotif of a completely different sort. The daughter of the bird-nosed Armenian appears—it is Maša, or, as her father calls her, Mašja.4

“I caught sight of the fascinating features of the most beautiful of all the faces which I had met in my waking hours and had imagined in my dreams. A beauty stood before me, and I recognized this at the first glance—in the same way that I recognize lightning.”

Two “buts” follow this:

I am prepared to take an oath that Maša, or, as her father called her, Mašja, was a real beauty, but I don't know how to prove it.

And here, immediately following, is a fairy-tale picture in which the glow of sunset spreads over a third of the sky:

“Everyone looks at the sunset and all without exception find it extremely beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its beauty lies.”

The purpose of these “buts” is to show something mysterious and hidden in beauty, in its incomprehensible and powerful force. Nevertheless, the portrait of Maša is given subtly and in great detail. It is a real portrait, a portrait which is full of meaning: something yet undiscovered and not yet completely expressed by the author shines through it. It begins to be uncovered through the impact of her beauty: “You look (at Maša) and little by little the desire comes to tell her something unusually pleasant, sincere, beautiful—as beautiful as she herself is”; “… little by little I forgot myself and gave myself up to the sensation of beauty. I was no longer aware of the monotony of the steppe, the dust; I did not hear the buzzing of the flies.”

Is there still an unspoken thought contained in the portrait of Maša? Čexov expresses it in his own way, at first glance somewhat confusedly, but actually quite clearly, and the entire set of negations, of adversative conjunctions, and “somehows” and “for-some-reason-or-others” and epithets which speak of nothing definite come into play.

“I felt strange about her beauty. Maša aroused in me neither desire nor delight nor pleasure, but a sadness which was heavy even though it was pleasant. This sadness was indefinite and vague as a night dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather, for the Armenian and even for the girl, and I had the feeling that all four of us had lost something important and necessary for life which we would never find again”; “I felt sorry for myself, and for her and for the Ukrainian …”

From this indefinite and vague feeling his own personal sadness is singled out first: “I was a stranger to her”, and then something less personal: “Rare beauty is accidental … and short-lived.” But it is evident that this is not the crux of the matter, for why would one then pity the Armenian, the grandfather, and the Ukrainian?

For Čexov, beauty is always a living reminder of how beautiful all human life can and should be; one becomes sad for every person, including as well someone marked by unusual beauty, because life is terribly removed from that perfection which sometimes appears and then hides without a trace. Nadja, the heroine of “The Betrothed”, “for some reason wanted to cry” on that wonderful spring day. Why? Now the parentheses are opened. That indefinite word5 is explained: because she, enmeshed in her narrow-mindedness, could not live as nature did in the spring.

So the epithets “confused”, “indefinite”, all these “somethings”, “for-some-reasons”, “somehows”, “nots”, “buts”, “althoughs”, are connected with the revelation of a very delicate thought. But this thought, contained in a living image, in a living feeling, is revealed clearly and completely at the final tally.

The style of Čexov's prose is by no means simple and is not at all rectilinear. His logic is tenacious and flexible, penetrating into the very labyrinths of being, and his clear thought explains that which is confused and dim.

Čexov mainly depicted grey life and gloomy people, but with the whole force of his immense talent he strove toward the beautiful, to the authentically human, to that which he saw ahead. His work is penetrated by a search for joy and beauty.

A deep dissatisfaction rings forth in each line he wrote—an angry consciousness that the life surrounding him was far from beautiful.

Notes

  1. [From: A. V. Čičerin, Idei i stil' (Moskva, 1968) (2nd ed.), pp. 314–320.]

  2. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem (Moskva, Goslitizdat, 1948), vol. XIII, pp. 285–286.

  3. Russkie pisateli o jazyke (Leningrad, Sovetskij pisatel', 1954), p. 666.

  4. [This peculiar pronunciation renders Armenian accent in Russian.]

  5. [In Russian the phrase “for some reason” is rendered by a single word.]

G. N. Pospelov (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5827

SOURCE: Pospelov, G. N. “The Style of Čexov's Tales.1” In Anton Čexov as a Master of Story-Writing, edited by Leo Hulanicki and David Savignac, pp. 119–30. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Pospelov demonstrates how Chekhov used neoteric and original literary devices and principles to transcend traditional literary constructions.]

The stories which he wrote at the end of the 1880s show that Čexov was already surmounting the canons of sujet construction which had become traditional in literature and that he was advancing new principles. This primarily affected the construction of sujets of novel-like stories prevailing in Čexov—works wherein the basic goal consisted in disclosing the development of the principal hero's (or heroes') character in relation to his disaffection with the social milieu.

In the course of Russian literature, even from the time of the first novels and novel—like stories which possessed a concentric (and not adventurous) construction of the sujet, a certain principle of sujetal correlation and development of the principal heroes' characters received wide acceptance. This principle can be stated as follows: in the course of the events constituting the sujet of a work, the heroes and heroines with different characters and ideological positions which, for the author, had a positive or negative meaning, were opposed to one another. Between these arose conflicts, which were usually connected with love (romantic relationships or rivalry). Such conflicts were resolved by having one of the heroes prevail over the other, which thus expressed the author's ‘verdict’ on the characters of the heroes and their ideological positions, and at the same time expressed the underlying purpose of the work.

There was a sort of variant in the sujet construction which was externally more simple but in essence more complex: in the love conflict there was a basic conflict only between the hero and heroine who had different characters and took differing ideological positions, but the development and solution of the conflict was created so that the hero in one way or another displayed the weak traits of his character and ideological stances and arrived at a moral self-negation.

Čexov does have novel—like stories embodying both of these variants of ‘sujetal’ structure, which had been worked out long before his time: of this type are “The Wife”, “The Flutterer”, and “Ariadna”. To a certain extent the short novel “The Duel” also belongs here.

In the first of these, Asorin, the principal hero and narrator, with his reactionary views and his narrow, egotistical self esteem, appears as an ideological antipode to his wife Natalja Gavrilovna, with her inclinations towards charity and her sympathy towards the local provincial intelligentsia. Asorin is a lonely, suffering man, and his encounter with the representatives of this milieu (Doctor Sobol', the landowner Bragin) brings him to a moral revolution and a rapprochement with his wife and her ‘party’. For the writer, this defeat of the reactionary Asorin has a fundamental and independent meaning. The writer does not show any inclination toward connecting Asorin's defeat with the general condition of Russian society. Rural liberals attempt to do battle with famine in the nearby villages and with the aid of the material assistance of Asorin, who had become reconciled with them, their campaign is rather successful.

Likewise, in the story “The Flutterer” the narrative is devoted entirely to contrasting the modest, honest, and talented Doctor Dymov with the pretentious, corrupt popular artist Rjabovskij, who seduces Dymov's empty, vain wife, Ol'ga Ivanovna, but soon casts her off. Dymov does not take vengeance on his wife and his rival, but he does suffer deeply, and overcomes his suffering by intense self-sacrificing work; it could be that this is why he undertakes the risky medical experiment which brings him to his tragic death. The affirmation of Dymov's moral superiority over Rjabovskij is the basic idea of the story. It is not complicated by any broader generalizations.

The other stories of this group are constructed in a similar manner. In this sort of sujetal construction the conflicts have, naturally, a basic decisive importance. They are therefore noteworthy to a certain extent for the drama of their content which is put sujetally in the foreground. Thus we have such conflicts as Asorin's quarrel with his wife and his attempt to leave home, Ol'ga Ivanovna's unfaithfulness and Dymov's sickness and death, Ariadna's secret relationship with Lubkov, and von Koren's hidden animosity towards Laevskij which comes to a head in their duel, which all but costs Laesvkij his life.

All of these belong to the relatively early stories of the period under review, which were written in the first half of the 1890s. In some of his later stories Čexov substantially complicated this traditional principle of sujet construction and filled it with new content. As before, the story was built on a conflict between the heroes who oppose each other in their personalities and beliefs, and, as before, this conflict is solved by a rather sudden and abrupt denouement. But at the same time the writer introduced into the narrative some very significant emotional reflections of the narrator about broad, general subjects which even exceed the boundaries of the reality depicted. These reflections took on the basic ideological load in the story, and the conflict being depicted lost its self-contained significance and tended to be subordinated to the general ideological-emotional tone developed by the narrator's reflections.

“The House with the Mezzanine” was written in that way. The ideological disagreements and arguments between the artist-narrator and Lida traverse the whole story and create its conflict. The conflict is resolved by Lida's victory in which she despotically separates the artist from her sister Ženja as soon as they have declared their love for each other, and in doing this Lida deprives him of his personal happiness. It would seem that the whole sense of the story is contained in this victory of the self-confident but narrow-minded Lida over the disappointed, romantically inclined artist. However, in his statements made in the presence of Lida and Ženja, the artist not only denies the value of Lida's cultural-social work in the village, but he also draws a very gloomy picture of the state of peasantry in general and expresses a romantic confidence in the possibility of a free and happy life for all society. In the light of these prospects his disagreements with Lida and his lack of success in love seem unimportant. On the other hand, his romantic rapprochement with Ženja and the emotional ending of the story which expresses his vague hopes (“Misjus', where are you?”) receive, on the contrary, a sort of basic symbolic significance and express the expectation of some unusual changes in the future.

The story “The Man in a Case” has a similar construction. In it the collision between Belikov, aggressive in his political cowardice, and the liberal Kovalenko leads to the disgrace of Belikov and to his death. This collision, however, does not exhaust the ideological tendency of the story, but actually contradicts it. It is the reflections of the narrator Burkin and Ivan Ivanovič which provide the theme, revealing that ‘caseness’ completely dominates the whole life of the Russian intelligentsia, that it makes this life unbearable, and that not to protest against it is impossible, but to protest against it is dangerous.

In all of Čexov there are comparatively few stories which are based on a sharp sujetal antithesis of the characters of the main heroes and the conflicts flowing therefrom. At the very beginning of his mature work, he began to write stories whose sujets were constructed in a different way. These are those stories in which the internal, ideological-moral development of the hero's character is the basis for the development of events; external sujetal conflicts are relegated to the background and only motivate and sharpen the content of this internal development. The evolution of the hero's character represents his reevaluation of the foundations of his personal life, and—indirectly—it also represents to a certain extent a reevaluation of the moral condition of all of Russian society and in particular of that of its privileged classes. Step by step, although with chronological zig-zags, Čexov recognized more clearly this connection between the ideological evolution of his heroes and the conditions of society, and expressed it with increasing clarity and breadth. In this way he constructed the sujets of his most significant short novels, such as “The Black Monk”, “An Unknown Man's Story”, “Three Years”, “Ionyč”, and “The Betrothed”. Even in some of his earlier stories this principle of sujet construction begins to show itself rather distinctly.

In the story “The Name Day” there is no noticeable antithesis of characters and there is no conflict which would result from it. But a peculiar conflict does slowly unfold in the consciousness of the main characters. Petr Dmitr'evič and his wife are at first completely subordinated to the ordinary moral standards of their milieu (which consisted of nobility and civil servants), and, deceiving themselves and others, they play the role of happy hosts in the presence of their guests. But later, when Ol'ga Mixajlovna reaches the point of extreme exhaustion and serious illness, they begin to recognize the falseness and vanity of their lives. The author himself clearly supports his heroes in their severe condemnation of their society, but this condemnation still does not acquire a broadened significance and refers only to the people depicted in the story.

The sujet of “The Black Monk” is likewise built on the evolution of the protagonist's character. Master2 Kovrin strives to overcome his mediocrity with a sick conceit, with dreams about his lofty natural gifts, and with his deliberate estrangement from the world of conventionality and triviality, represented by Pesockij's managerial obsession. But step by step the true meaning of his groundless conceit is revealed, and Kovrin dies having contributed nothing to the sum of scholarly knowledge. His unsuccessful marriage to Tanja Pesockaja3, her father's death, Kovrin's loneliness—all of these only intensify his personal catastrophe. Still, there is no broader negation of convention and social triviality in the story.

More encompassing and significant in content are those short novels of a similar sujetal quality, such as “An Unknown Man's Story” and “Three Years”.

In the former there is a contrast of characters as the well as love intrigue arising from it. Here a terrorist-revolutionary, the story's narrator, is opposed in his internal nobility to Orlov, a high ranking metropolitan civil servant, an empty, depraved individual. Having deep contempt for Orlov and sympathizing with Zinaida Fedorovna, whom Orlov had seduced and abandoned, he takes her out of the country in futile hope of the personal happiness which he has never known. However, the point of the story is not to be found in this antithesis nor in the clash between the characters, but in the ideological evolution of the narrator. Living with the Orlovs as a lackey, he observes the useless lives of the ruling bureaucracy and realizes the futility of terrorist battle with this inert, slow-witted milieu. He resolves to search for other ideals which are not political, but moral, and attempts to embody them in his concern for the child of the woman he loves.

But in this story, as opposed to “The Name Day” and “The Black Monk”, Čexov realizes the development of his principal hero's character in a considerably deeper and wider way. He not only contraposes it to the inert life of the ruling classes, but sees in it a reflection of the negative moral condition of Russian society. This is the meaning of the narrator's letter to Orlov. “Why are we tired out?” the narrator asks in the letter. “Why are we at first so passionate, courageous, and noble, but at 30 or 35 become completely bankrupt? Why is it that one man dies from tuberculosis, another puts a bullet into his head, a third seeks oblivion in wine or cards, and a fourth, to deaden his fear and grief, tramples beneath his feet the picture of his pure, wonderful youth?” And later the narrator says that he dreams about a life which is “holy, lofty, and solemn like the vault of heaven”. In the light of such thoughts and moods, the relationships and events which constitute the sujet of the story acquire a significantly deeper and broader meaning, about which the readers of that period were bound to think and reflect.

The short novel “Three Years” was constructed along the same lines. In it too the basic meaning consists not in the opposition of Laptev, the educated merchant, spoiled by the ‘warehouse’, to the representatives of a working and enlightened intelligentsia, Jarcev and Kočevoj, nor is it the family love conflict of Laptev and Julija, whose unhappy marriage exposes the mutilating power of the ‘warehouse’ riches even more strongly. The ideological meaning of the story is in Laptev's moral development; bit by bit he begins to become aware that he has been ruined not only by his father's ‘warehouse’ but by the ‘warehouse’ of the whole of Russian life. “Look at me”, Laptev says to his brother, “… I am afraid every time I take a step, it is as if they flog me; I lose courage in the presence of the nonentities, idiots, and creatures who are worth immeasurably less than myself; I am afraid of yard-keepers, door-keepers, policemen, gendarmes, I am afraid of everybody, because I was born of an oppressed mother and from childhood I was oppressed and intimidated.” This summation of Laptev's moral development sheds a new light on the characters and events in the story, giving them a much deeper and wider meaning than they would have otherwise. The readers understood that people could be oppressed from childhood not only in ‘warehouses’, and that not only those who are intimidated from birth are afraid of yard-keepers and policemen.

The stories “Ionyč”, “The Teacher of Literature”, and “The Betrothed” have similar construction. Throughout this entire group of stories the sujetal role of the conflicts differs from the stories of the first group. The conflicts present in them either lack great dramatic intensity or, if such intensity does exist, it is realized weakly in the course of events which lie at the base of the sujet. Thus in “The Black Monk” there is a detailed narration about Kovrin's happy wedding, but only a mention of how his scholarly career collapsed and how Pesockij died, and furthermore absolutely nothing is said about how Kovrin abandoned Tanja for another woman. So also in “The Teacher of Literature” Nikitin's whole life takes shape externally as one which is completely happy, lacking any external conflicts, and only slowly does the growing internal dissatisfaction, the awareness of the banality of his life, overshadow the hero's spirit towards the end. So also in “An Unknown Man's Story” all the dramatic events take place in the heroine's life, and the narrator enter only as a witness. In the story “Three Years” Laptev and Julija's unhappy family life changes slowly and gradually without tense or dramatic events. In “Ionyč” the relationship between Ionyč and Katerina Ivanovna does not lead to actual clash between them, but changes into one of estrangement in the four years during which the did not meet. In “The Betrothed” the basic conflict—Nadja's break with Andrej Andreič—proceeds gently, with no dramatic complication It is not drama of external conflicts which interests the writer in these stories, but the tension in the situation of the main characters and in their lives in general.

But in Čexov's work there is still another group of novel-like stories in which he applies his new principles of sujet construction with even greater boldness. These are the stories in which the inner development of the protagonist's character is slow, imperceptible, and has no significance in itself; instead, the basic significance is acquired by the deep antagonism into which he enters as a result of his changed beliefs, an antagonism with the entire social milieu, the moral tenor of its life, and, through it, the conditions of society. In these stories the gloomy atmosphere of Russian life unfolds not only in the general statements of the main hero or narrator, but also directly or indirectly in all of the daily relationships of the heroes, in the minutiae of day to day life, and in the hero's impressions of them. The stories “A Dreary Story”, “Ward No. 6”, “My Life”, “At Home”, and “The Gooseberries” are written in this manner. Here Čexov's sujetal innovation is revealed with particular clarity. Insofar as their sujetal quality is concerned, these stories are very close to the writer's later, mature plays, in particular to Uncle Vanja and The Three Sisters.

Thus in “A Dreary Story” unexpected and unpleasant changes take place in old Professor Nikolaj Semenovič's4 family life. His ward Katja undergoes serious failures both on the stage and in her personal life, and his daughter Liza is enamoured of an unworthy man and marries him secretly. But all this affects the professor very slightly. He lives immersed in his personal internal drama which is the bitter end of his long career as a scholar-teacher. He is “envenomed by new thoughts, the sort which he had never known earlier”; finally he understands that in his thoughts, feelings, and aspirations “there lacked something general to unify them”, and that there had never been a ‘general plan’ to his activity. And now it seems to him that his “popular name … has betrayed him”. In conjunction with this, his attitude towards his environment changes. Everything seems ugly, banal, and dull to him. Now he is startled by the stupidity of his colleagues, the mediocrity of his students, the lack of intelligence and dignity in scholarly literature, the lack of decency and staunchness on the part of the intelligentsia, the routine in the theaters, the pettiness and egotism of the members of his family, etc. He even begins to hate “people who use violence”.

The sujet of this story is thus constructed as a series of episodes unconnected by a ‘unity of action’ but bound together by the unity of the hero-narrator's thoughts and moods as well as by his impressions, characteristics, and recollections. This unity of the hero's experiences, sustained by the author, dominating the particulars of day to day life and permeating these particulars, is often called the ‘undercurrent’ of Čexov's works. Such a ‘current’ appears especially strongly in the group of stories under discussion.

In this regard, the short novel “Ward No. 6” is written with particular brightness and significance. It can seem that the sujet of the story is constructed on Gromov and Ragin's common interests and on the antithesis of Ragin and Xobotov's characters, which gives rise to the conflict between them. But in fact here too, in the center of the narration is the constant active antagonism of the hero with surrounding life.

Very soon Ragin becomes the victim of the atmosphere of the deceit and cowardice which at that time reigned in Russian intellectual circles. After brief attempts to improve the city hospital, he becomes reconciled to the impossibility of radical change, and to justify his weakness he adopts those arguments often used by the Russian Philistines of the time. It was a peculiar ‘philosophy’, with an attitude of compromise and irresponsibility, moral weakness, and laziness. “Why”, thinks Ragin, “should one keep people from dying if death is the normal and regular end of a human being?” Why should one alleviate suffering? It obviously does “lead a person to perfection”, etc. But Ragin's irresponsibility and laziness are concealed not only by this sort of ‘philosophy’, but also by his aspiration to improve himself with his lofty ideas about progress. Not a single person in the local society could, in that sense, match him as an interlocutor, and he began to visit Gromov, who was suffering from a persecution complex and who also eased his soul with similar conversations. On these grounds there arose a constant conflict between the irresponsible dreamers and the irresponsible careerists. Externally, it ended with Ragin's defeat and Xobotov's victory.

But in essence it remains unresolved. Therefore the entire life of this little city, with its banality and emptiness, and Ward No. 6 itself, with its stench and dirt, its stupid and cruel guard Nikita, its iron bars on the windows from which one could see the prison—these emerge as symbolic: they signify the condition of the entire Russian intellectual-Philistine society, the political oppression it experiences, its cowardice and empty its dreaminess.

The short novel “My Life” is constructed in a similar way. The deep moral discord which the protagonist-narrator Misail Poloznev experiences with his family and with the whole local bourgeois-noble society—Misail's aspirations to take to plain living and to place himself in conflict with the daily norms of society, the contempt his relatives and friends feel towards him—is the basic ‘stimulus’ of the narration and penetrates all of the episodes in the sujet and the details of the depiction. However, the love conflicts—Misail's brief marriage with Maša and Cleopatra's affair with Doctor Blagovo—only set off and deepen this basic conflict, which remains unchanged from the beginning to the end of the narrative.

Such also is the sujetal construction of the story “The Gooseberries”, in which the external groundwork of the sujet consists of the story of Cimša-Gimalajskij the younger, but the basic ideological load is carried on through the reflections of his elder brother, the narrator, who is in deep conflict not only with the main hero but with the whole tenor of the life embodied in his brother's personal fate.

The final group of Čexov's novel-like stories is particularly close to stories of a different genre—the ‘ethological’5 type.

Čexov's originality here also consists in bringing into his narration generalizing emotional statements from the narrator or from the heroes themselves, which carry a considerable ideological load and subordinate the depiction of characters and events to their meaning.

The short novel “The Peasants” is quite characteristic of this. Separate episodes from the life of the Čikildeev family and that of the story surround the lyric culminations found at the beginning and end of the story: the episode where Marja and Ol'ga go to church and the concluding episode where Ol'ga and Saša leave Zhukovo to go back to Moscow. Proceeding from the impressions of the dramatis personae themselves, the writer speaks here of the beautiful and happy life which could exist but does not. In the light of these romantic reflections village life appears particularly oppressive and dreary.

Even more characteristic of this is “A Case from a Doctor's Practice”. In it Čexov describes the boring, repressed Philistine life in the home of Ljalikov, a factory owner. This life, which embodies the inertness and vulgarity of the Russian bourgeoisie in general, is presented from the point of view of the narrator, Doctor Korolev, in the light of his reflections about the vicious, senseless existence of Ljalikov's workers and about the bright, happy life which, perhaps, would come in the not too distant future.

The structure of “On Official Duty” is also interesting. The oppression and submissiveness of the peasants, their heavy exhausting labor, and the darkness and hopelessness of the life of the lower social strata as opposed to the happy, carefree life of the landowners are exposed in the depiction of two or three secondary characters—the policeman Lošadin, the landowner von-Tauniz, and the suicide Lesnickij, an agent from the Zemstvo. Onto the foreground of the story come the representatives of the civil service and especially Inspector Lyžin, who recognizes these scandalous contrasts of Russian life and responds to them with his disturbed thoughts.

Thus even in this group of stories all the narrations are subordinated to the pathos of generalizing emotional reflections which belong either to the author or to the heroes and impart peculiar and significant expressiveness to the particulars of the life being depicted.

Such are the general principles from which Čexov built the sujets of his stories.

In stories sujets always are realized, as they say, in the narration about them. In the dynamics of depiction always inherent to stories and in some way to dramatic works, a twofold distinction must be made. It is necessary to distinguish between (a) what takes place in the heroes and their lives created by the author's mind, and (b) to what extent and by what means everything which takes place in the lives of the heroes is encompassed in the author's or narrator's narrative.

Such a differentiation is particularly important in studying the style of Čexov's stories. The new general principles of sujet construction which Čexov used could produce their artistic effect only under the condition that they be accompanied by the specific devices of narration which suit them.

Having understood this, Čexov began to use special devices to overcome old traditions. He repudiated the thoroughness, leisurely pace, and verbosity which distinguished the works of the most eminent Russian writers of the mid-nineteenth century. He attempted to overcome the bulkiness of the structure of the narrative. Having mastered the technique of short stories even in his early period of activity—stories which were short not only in the size of their sujets but also in their lack of verbosity—he applied quite similar principles of narration to the stories of his mature period. This was not a mechanical transfer of the system of devices of a humorous short story into the confines of a ‘serious’ story. In Čexov's mature stories the old system was given a new content and thereby acquired an entirely new function.

As has already been shown, the emotional reflections of the heroes, narrators, or the author-narrator upon the oppressive conditions of Russian social life and their dreams of a different, free, and happy existence acquired in Čexov's stories a basic ideological load, a fundamental importance. They had to subordinate to their pathos the whole narrative of the events in the life of the heroes and their relationships to the conflicts which constitute the sujets.

Due to this, the narrative itself about the sujet had also to disclose and to realize that kind of meaningful subordination both in a qualitative and in a ‘quantitative’ sense. It had to correspond internally to the emotionally reflective culminations of the story and be coordinated with them in its own meaning. It had to bear an echo and imprint of their emotional reflectiveness. It had also to be concentrated around these culminations. For this reason it could not be long, bulky, verbose, and could not possess a self-contained complex structural organization.

It follows that the events themselves, the sujet of the work, had to be distinctive in their internal focus, conciseness, and brevity. It was necessary to emphasize not the episodes which had in themselves a decisive significance for the relationships and personal fates of individual heroes, but rather those episodes which revealed the general condition of their life, its permanent conflicts, which by that very fact were coordinated in their meaning with the emotional-meditative culminations of the story.

For this reason Čexov's stories usually begin directly from basic sujetal episodes. The prehistory of the heroes, their preliminary characteristics, and the motivations of sujetal conflicts are all kept to a minimum and presented in the course of the narrative. The narration of events is rather brief and develops rapidly. It does not linger over intermediate phenomena nor secondary explicatory episodes and it almost never contains digressions from the basic sequence of events. It does contain gaps of entire periods in the heroes' lives, gaps which extend for days, weeks, and even months or entire years. Much which is essential to the personal lives of the heroes remains behind the scenes of the narrative. Reflecting on this kind of narrative, the reader gradually realizes all the more that drama in the lives of Čexov's heroes is formed not by their personal fates but by the general conditions of their milieu and the general atmosphere of civic life in Russia which these reflect. The heroes of the novels and the author-narrator brood over this. The thoughts of the heroes gently and unnoticeably merge into the thoughts of the author himself and with this they strengthen the emotional mood of the story.

The story “At Home” was constructed exactly in this way. It belongs, basically, to that group of Čexov's stories in which the sujets are built on the constantly manifested antagonisms of the main heroes with their social milieu. However, in this story, the conflict, which does not contain any specific ideological purpose, ends with a compromise.

Vera Kardina arrives at her relatives' estate on the steppe with a thirst for “space and freedom”. On the very first evening she asks her Aunt Daša whether they beat people there, and expresses her fear that she will find it boring to live there. Her fears soon turn out to be well grounded. No one is beaten at the estate, but Vera's grandfather has retained the most blatant attitudes of the age of serfdom, Aunt Daša treats her servants cruelly and is constantly changing them, and Vera herself, in a fit of dissatisfaction with life, gives in to these ways and shouts at the defenseless, oppressed Alena. Vera's family lives in constant contact with other families of the nobility and with the educated employees from a nearby factory. This happy and active local ‘society’ shows a lack of serious interests and the emptiness of its spiritual life. Although Vera is constantly visiting people, she is very bored, thirsts for something, does not know what to do with herself, and the following summer she marries Doctor Neščapov who is externally quite impressive but in essense empty and boring. She marries him simply to bring some change into her life.

The sujet of this story encompasses the whole year of Vera's life ‘at home’. Under the pen of many other writers of Čexov's time, a similar sujet might have been given a broad and detailed treatment. The protagonist could enter into moral as well as material conflicts with his relatives, the owners of the estate. The intellectual-landowner milieu could be shown through a whole series of carefully described persons, and the tenor of its life could be shown in the relations of these people to one another and to the main hero. The basic day-to-day family intrigue could be unfolded in a complex web of loves, rivalries, etc.

None of this happens in this particular story. Although Vera becomes more and more dissatisfied with life in her family's home, her relations with her grandfather and aunt never become aggravated. Likewise, she does not experience any rapprochement with her new friends and none of them, Neščapov excluded, receives any individual characterization. The relationship between Vera and Neščapov remains completely passive and uncomplicated by any rivalry.

In other words, this story has no external conflicts. Its sujet is formed out of a handful of short episodes interconnected like a chronicle. Out of the whole of Vera's life with her family in the course of a year we find depicted in the total narrative only the two summer days of her arrival at the estate (the road, the welcoming, the evening conversation with her aunt, the morning walk, and Neščapov's visit) and two days of the following summer, when she came to the decision to marry (the jam making, the evening conversation with a worker, the morning scene with Alena, and Neščapov's new visit). The whole long winter life is depicted descriptively—in the general characteristics of the milieu and Vera's condition. Only one narrative episode—the conversation with her aunt about boredom and the possibility of marriage—concludes the middle, descriptive part of the story.

But with all their conciseness, the sujetal episodes quite clearly reveal the conditions of the milieu in which Vera lives. This is greatly aided in that the episodes of the sujet alternate with episodes of a lyric character. These are Vera's reflections, which are either preceded by those of the author or else easily enter into them. Such is the lyric beginning of the story which presents the dreamy mood of a person upon arriving at the steppe from a city and the impressions from ‘charming’ pictures, “the likes of which are not to be found near Moscow”. It is the description of the steppe, in which the motifs of ‘space’ and ‘freedom’ stand out in contrast to the sujetal depiction of a thoughtless and despotic life. The lyric image of the steppe passes through the entire story, repeated four times in the impressions and thoughts of Vera, and symmetrically completes the whole work.

In addition, this description of the monotonous and boring life at the estate in the middle of the sujet passes over into Vera's nocturnal thoughts about “what to do?” and “where to go?” and these constitute the lyrical culmination of the story. These thoughts express the girl's feelings about the sacredness of work for the people and her bitter recognition that she is spoiled and unsuited to the heavy working conditions of a rural teacher or doctor, as well as her condemnation of the hypocritical conversations of the intelligentsia about the necessity of educating the people. These thoughts are so significant, so concrete in their particulars, that they cannot belong to Vera herself—one clearly hears the voice of the author in them.

The lyrical culmination of the story, vaguely reminiscent of the description of the steppe, fixes the whole tone of the narrative and of the description in the sujetal episodes. It predetermines the hidden emotional mood of the narrative and the brevity which stems from it.

Such are the devices of narration stemming from the construction of sujets in Čexov's stories. With the help of these devices Čexov prompted in his readers a specific emotional understanding of Russian social life. He thus sought to show that the state of dissatisfaction and dreaminess which his heroes underwent arises not so much from the situations in their personal lives as from more hidden reasons stipulated by the oppressive political atmosphere dominant in the nation. Čexov created new principles of narration which corresponded to his new content. He created relatively brief narrative works which possess lyricism barely seen through the prose narration.

Čexov did not discover these principles at the beginning. They developed slowly in his stories and only in the very latest ones did they achieve tangibility and perfection. The stories of the late 1890s and 1900s represent the most perfect expression of his style.

Notes

  1. From: G.N. Pospelov, Problemy literaturnogo stilja (Moskva, 1970), pp. 308–323.

  2. As in M.A. or M.S. At that time in Russia it meant more than a current Ph.D.

  3. In Russian, if a husband's name is Pesockij, his wife will be Pesockaja.

  4. Actually, Nikolaj Stepanovič. Pospelov errs.

  5. Descriptive of morals and customs.

Karl D. Kramer (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7541

SOURCE: Kramer, Karl D. “Short Story: The Art of Moral Revelation.” In The Chameleon and the Dream, pp. 11–27. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1970.

[In the following essay, Kramer scrutinizes the development of the short story by Chekhov and other authors, including the connection between the nineteenth century tale and the twentieth century short story.]

One of the most representative practitioners of the short story, Anton Čexov appeared at a point in the history of the genre when its fundamental qualities were undergoing refinement. Before looking at the process of Čexov's individual literary development, one needs to isolate these qualities of the genre and to indicate some of the ways in which Čexov's own refinements mark him as one of the first of modern short story writers. Like the elegiac poem, the short story is a form which shows us what a thing or person is or has been; but typically it is not concerned with showing us the process of becoming or going from. It is a literary type which has the extraordinary advantage of dispensing with time. It depicts things and beings in a state of stasis, and up to the present moment this is what it has best been able to do.

Often writers on the short story have sought its origins in Roman tales such as those of Apuleius, or at the very latest in Boccaccio's Decameron. While it is true that short works of narrative fiction have been written since Roman times, these relatively early pieces bear only the most superficial resemblances to the work done by nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. Those who go back to Boccaccio, for instance, to seek the first great short story writer leave a great deal unexplained: where is the line of development from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth? Between Boccaccio and the modern period there had been isolated instances of short narrative fictions, such as those of Cervantes, but a tradition of such works never really became established during this four-hundred-year period.

When German, French, Russian, and American writers at the beginning of the last century began developing a tradition of such short works, they rarely turned to their purported forebear for inspiration. In a very practical sense they were making a new beginning in the short story, which was much more indebted to its bulkier companion, the eighteenth-century novel, than to Boccaccio. Viktor Šklovskij1 has indicated a basic discontinuity between Boccaccio and the early nineteenth-century writers: the stories in The Decameron were based on previously formulated and distinctly formal plots which have circulated through the Western world for centuries, and therefore one can trace analogues for them. The interest these stories arouse and the measure of their success lie in the manipulation of the donnée—the basic framework of incidents which had been handed down; the writer's achievement depends on what he sees in the basic framework and is able to express.

One does not ordinarily seek or find analogues for the stories of Maupassant, Čexov, or Joyce. The short story writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have not as a rule taken their basic plot structures, or series of related events, from previously existing models. Ordinarily, as Šklovskij points out, the modern short story writer takes his basic material, including situation, from observed experience. This marks an extremely important break between Boccaccio and Cervantes and the modern period. The break is so basic that in effect the later writers are beginning all over again. The short story as we know it today goes back no further than the early nineteenth century. When one attempts to relate earlier work in short narrative prose to the short story of the past century and a half, he finds that the essential nature of the mode eludes him.

If one seeks the derivation of the genre, he may find considerably more fruitful connections between the lyric poem and the short story. Both the short story and the novel are products of extremely recent times. It has often been suggested that elements of the epic poem and of tragedy have found their way into the modern novel; by the same token, it might well be suggested that elements of the lyric poem have found their way into the short story. Irene Hendry, discussing specifically James Joyce's Dubliners, has noted that “… in poetry the isolated moment of revelation dates at least from Wordsworth's experiences in the presence of mountains, leech-gatherers, and the lights about Westminster Bridge”.2 Although the mode of operation in the two forms is vastly different, they arrive at much the same goal. The lyric poem proceeds by way of manipulation of words, largely through images, but its shortness dictates that what it is centrally concerned with is delineating the revelations of an isolated moment in time. The short story proceeds primarily through situation and incident towards the same goal—a state of temporal stasis, in which a thing or person is defined and revealed. This similarity can be seen also through contrast: the epic poem, the tragic drama, and the novel deal with continuity, change, development, movement; the lyric poem and the short story deal with a separate moment, the revelation of a state of being; death often figures importantly in these two modes because it represents a standstill, a final halt to all movement. The longer forms can deal with past, present, and future; the shorter forms are limited to past and present, usually one or the other, and almost never deal with the future. In this connection it is interesting how often Čexov's short stories are written entirely in the present tense, as if he wished to freeze all action, to separate it from time, movement, and change; “A Dreary Story” (Skučnaja istorija) is the most obvious example.

Searching for the first appearance of something which can be identified as short story, one finds recognizable shapes at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Some remarks by Northrup Frye, addressed primarily to the novel and the romance, are helpful in defining connections between this early work and the modern short story:

The essential difference between novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization. The romance does not attempt to create “real people” so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes. It is in the romance that we find Jung's libido, anima, and shadow reflected in the hero, heroine, and villain respectively. That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks, and why a suggestion of allegory is constantly creeping in around its fringes. Certain elements of character are released in the romance which make it naturally a more revolutionary form than the novel. The novelist deals with personality, with character wearing the personae or social masks. He needs the framework of a stable society, and many of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussiness. The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in vacuo idealized by revery, and, however conservative he may be, something nihilistic and untamable is likely to keep breaking out of his pages.3

Frye's distinctions between novel and romance are well founded; but rather curiously they resemble Frank O'Connor's attempt to distinguish between novel and short story. He claims that “the novel is bound to be a process of identification between the reader and the character. … One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of himself … and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole.” But in the short story, he continues, “there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo—Christ, Socrates, Moses. … As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”4 O'Connor's idea of ‘loneliness’ and Frye's of ‘individuality’ and ‘characters in vacuo idealized by revery’ very nearly coincide. In short, Frye's distinction between novel and romance seems much to the point in discussing novel versus short story. However, when he goes on to apply his own generic distinctions to the latter, he confuses essential characteristics with historical accident:

The prose romance, then, is an independent form of fiction to be distinguished from the novel and extracted from the miscellaneous heap of prose works now covered by that term. Even in the other heap known as short stories one can isolate the tale form used by Poe, which bears the same relation to the full romance that the stories of Chekhov or Katherine Mansfield do to the novel. “Pure” examples of either form are never found; there is hardly any modern romance that could not be made out to be a novel, and vice versa. The forms of prose fiction are mixed, like racial strains in human beings, not separable like the sexes.5

His choice of illustration for tale and short story is revealing: there is not only an obvious difference in theme, treatment, and approach in the ‘tales’ of Poe and the ‘short stories’ of Čexov and Katherine Mansfield; there is also an important time lag. It is my contention that more lines of connection between Poe and Katherine Mansfield can be established than differences. When we speak of short prose narratives, the forms are not only ‘mixed’; they indicate a steady pattern of evolution within the form.

Even the development of the terms ‘tale’ and ‘short story’ can be traced to historical usage. Throughout the nineteenth century the short story in England and America was referred to as tale. Poe's collection was called Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque; Hawthorne entitled one of his books Twice-Told Tales; there is Irving's Tales of a Traveller, Melville's The Piazza Tales, and Ambrose Bierce's Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. These writers intended no distinction between ‘tale’ and ‘short story’: the first use of the expression ‘short story’ is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary as dating from 1898. Modern editors usually refer to the short stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, rather than to their tales. Apparently the basic distinction between the two labels is simply a matter of historical usage. To associate the tale with romance and the short story with realism is an historical rather than generic division.

Much the same situation has existed in the Russian language. In Russian there are two terms which refer to short narrative prose fictions: povest' and rasskaz (roughly, ‘tale’ and ‘short story’). Today the word povest' is reserved for works somewhat longer than the rasskaz. Thus, in modern usage “The Death of Ivan Il'ič” or “Notes from Underground” would be referred to as povesti, while the term rasskaz would be reserved for such shorter works as Čexov's “Lady with the Dog” (Dama s sobačkoj) and “The Darling” (Dušečka). During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, only the term povest' was in current usage to refer to a short prose narrative. Thus, Puškin and Gogol' called their stories povesti regardless of length: Gogol's “Tale (Povest') of How Ivan Ivanovič Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovič” is considerably shorter than many pieces which Čexov wrote and called rasskazy. Puškin entitled his collection Tales (Povesti) of Ivan Belkin, though by modern standards—that is, the test of length—the Belkin series consists of rasskazy. According to Dal's Dictionary of the Russian Language, as late as 1882 the term rasskaz was not in general use to refer to a short narrative fiction.

Čexov's own attitude toward these two terms is revealing; he appears in Russian literary history during the transitional period when rasskaz was first being used to refer to a legitimate literary genre. He associates povest' not only with greater length, but also with greater formal complexity; the two qualities no doubt should go hand in hand, but unfortunately they do not always. Here is an interesting example of an historical distinction: the editor of the Soviet edition of Čexov's Complete Collected Works and Letters invariably refers to “The Duel” (Duèl') as a povest', apparently because of its length. However, Čexov calls it both povest' and rasskaz on different occasions. How does he decide which to use? It may be simply that he considered the terms interchangeable, but at least one reference to “The Duel” as rasskaz seems to indicate a real distinction: “At last I have finished my long, wearisome rasskaz …”.6 If it were a povest' it would be long but ‘wearisome’ would not be an adjunct to length. The length, then, does not by itself make “The Duel” a povest'; it is too long for a rasskaz, but because its length does not result in greater formal or thematic complexity it remains a rasskaz by default.

Excluding some very early pieces, the first relatively long work produced by Čexov was “The Steppe” (Step'). This was to be his debut in the thick journals of the day, an important literary event for him. Describing “The Steppe” to Korolenko, he wrote: “On your friendly advice I have begun a little povestuška …” (XIV, 11). This diminutive, derived from povest', could signify either affection or contempt. It is safe to say that the word indicates at least great modesty in regard to his undertaking, and perhaps that he expects at best barely to achieve the large form, for he goes on in the same letter to complain that he is writing so compactly that every page turns out like a little ‘rasskaz’. One suspects that Čexov tended to associate rasskaz with the kind of work he produced for the newspaper press and povest' with work of the quality demanded by the thick journals.

Ralph Matlaw maintains that Čexov “distinguished the rasskaz from the povest' according to the point of view taken in the work, subtitling first person narrations rasskazy regardless of their length (‘My Life’, ‘House with Mezzanine’)”.7 This is not entirely accurate, for he also referred to third person narratives as rasskazy, particularly “Three Years” (Tri goda), one of his very longest pieces from the same general period as “My Life” and “a House with The Mezzanine”. Of the stories written after 1890, he consistently called only two povesti—“Ward No. 6” (Palata No. 6) and “In the Ravine” (V ovrage). Concerning the former, he wrote: “It has plot, complication, and resolution (fabula, zavjazka i razvjazka)” (XV, 358). This would once again seem to indicate that length alone is not sufficient, that the narrative complexity associated with length is his basis for the distinction.8

At any rate, historically the term povest' bears the same relation to the term rasskaz as the English word ‘tale’ bears to ‘short story’. Both rasskaz and ‘short story’ acquired specifically literary meanings very late in the nineteenth century. That which had been written earlier was called tale or povest' by default, as it were, simply because no other terms were available. We shall assume that the word ‘tale’ refers to short prose narratives written during the nineteenth century—that it is to be distinguished from the short story only in this one respect.

What is more important here is to indicate the lines of connection between the nineteenth-century tale and the twentieth-century short story. The first notable practitioners of the genre belonged to the Romantic Movement or were highly indebted to its literary emphases. It is important in the history of the short story that it was achieving its first major successes during a period when the Romantic Movement held sway throughout Europe. E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany, Poe and Hawthorne in America and Puškin and Gogol' in Russia were to varying degrees under the influence of Romanticism. Many of the characteristic features of their stories were derived from it. Perhaps the most essential of these is the dominant role of mood, atmosphere, and tone. Though part of this influence was certainly the Gothic revival, another more important aspect was the example offered by the Romantic poets. On the one hand, the mysterious, otherworldly atmospheric effects of a poet like Coleridge, and on the other, the close identification of setting with theme, as in Wordsworth's poetry, may well have led the way for the early short-story writers. It is almost always tone that holds their work together and the discovery of this ordering principle appears to have been made by the Romantics. The first analysis of the short story as a literary mode is usually attributed to Poe, whose often quoted phrase, ‘the single effect’, certainly seems relevant to the problem of tone. The principle thus discovered has endured long after the Romantic Movement ceased to dominate the literary scene. Tone is just as basic to the short story of Čexov and Katherine Mansfield as it was in the early nineteenth century, although the range of effects which can be achieved has been considerably increased.

One element of the early short story which has not persisted is the emphasis on elaborate plot construction. If one thinks of Poe and James Joyce together the differences seem far greater than the similarities. But it may well be that the plots of Poe and Hoffmann are simply part of the historical trappings which have lost their effectiveness; Poe employed suspense, the unexpected, and the violent turn of events as a means of achieving tone—a single effect in his terms. The romantic predilection for the exotic, the fantastic, and the mysterious found an outlet in these relatively elaborate plots. A mystery ordinarily involves a complex series of related events and a concept of change and development which are alien to the short story. However, the chain of events in such stories as Poe's “Fall of the House of Usher” or Puškin's “Queen of Spades” subordinates movement and change to the one dominant note, strangeness or fantasy. If one takes a sufficiently unusual chain of events, what is apt to lay hold of the reader is not so much the impression of movement and change as the note of unity emerging from the very singularity of the events. Plot in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Queen of Spades” becomes as important a device for achieving tone as setting or character.

With the steady growth of realism as a trend in European literature writers became less interested in the mysterious and exotic. Because the elaborate suspense plot was no help at all in depicting the day-to-day existence of ordinary people, it had outworn its usefulness in the short story. The particular tone or atmosphere which the Romantics sought was no longer in vogue. As a consequence, elaborate plots were rejected in favor of the ever more bare narrative constructions of Maupassant, Čexov, Joyce, and Katherine Mansfield. Today the only types of short story in which elaborate plot still prevails are the ghost story, the tale of terror, the detective story, and science fiction, where the unusual and the mysterious are the chief attractions.

If the Romantic Movement had an impact on the evolution of the short story, it also can account for some of the differences between story and novel. Historically, the great difference between the two is the fact that the novel largely escaped the influences of the Romantic Movement. It had already established itself prior to the Romantic age, as the short story had not. Thus Lionel Trilling could say, “The novel, then, is a perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always the social world, the material of its analysis being always manners as the indication of the direction of man's soul.”9 Mr. Trilling was able to qualify his statement by adding: “… the novel as I have described it has never really established itself in America.”10 Perhaps it is possible to generalize about the function of the novel, and at the same time to ignore its development in America. However, the development of the short story in America has been so central in the mainstream of the whole genre that it is impossible to ignore it here. Trilling's generalization might well apply to the short stories of Maupassant and Čexov, but it will hold true neither for the short story in America, nor for the developments in the genre throughout Europe under the influence of Romanticism.

Thus, the short story was necessarily influenced by the historical situation at the time of its emergence on the literary scene. There remain, still, basic characteristics of the genre which lie outside the historical context. Commentators and anthologists often discuss the short story when they really wish to talk about the novel. Space limitations in anthologies make it easier to print short stories, and the commentator directs his attention to the common characteristics of both modes. To be sure, the two share many characteristics. Character, situation, plot, point of view, the discovery-complication-resolution-peripety formula, and symbolism are all exploited in the short story as well as in the novel. However, the relative importance of some of these devices varies enormously from one mode to the other: character is a much more central concern of the novelist, while tonal unity can be considerably more crucial in the short story. Nevertheless, there is no denying that this body of fictional techniques is common to both literary modes. The great insurmountable gap between them is length, and though there are many similarities between the long and short forms, the question here is how does one distinguish the short story from the novel? What are the implications of the former's shortness as to theme, structure, technique?

One implication is that technique itself assumes a more crucial role in the short story. By the sheer bulk of the novel the writer can afford passages which bear only a tenuous connection with his central themes, while each part of the short story seems magnified by the very littleness of its totality. At least two contemporary short story writers have attested to the relatively greater technical demands of their genre.11 Though it does not always hold true, there have been cases of novelists who were unable to write short stories and short story writers who tried but failed to produce novels. Undeniably a great novelist, Dickens, like his English contemporaries, apparently had very little inclination towards the short story. The fact that Dickens is noted for studies of character and that Thackeray seems to have been at his best when dealing with panoramic scenes may well be signs of an anti-short-story bias in these writers: detailed characterization and panoramic description, while often major virtues in the novel, are largely superfluous in the short story. Čexov was the opposite type of writer; he often confessed to an inclination—a compulsion even—to cut off his stories at the point where development enters. Ray West, Jr. has noted that the short story “… does demand a certain conscious awareness. In any case, we can point to the fact that those authors who have excelled in the short story have all indicated a deliberate awareness of the problems of their craft: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner; those who have not had this awareness—Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Thomas Wolfe—are best known for their longer fiction.”12 One might easily draw up a similar list for any other national literature. This relative lack of awareness may account for the small number of good short stories in nineteenth-century English literature. In Russia, on the other hand, nearly every major novelist can lay claim to a solid group of works in the genre, and many Russian poets, who never tried their hand at a novel, have written first-rate short stories.

Another result derived from the difference in length is that the short-story writer simply has no room for any kind of development.13 How, then, can he elude or exploit the restrictions imposed on him? One method has been the devices of allegory and parable, whereby the writer can telescope a great deal of human experience into an ideal situation in which the reader is more than usually willing to sacrifice his credulity for the sake of the device's charm. The short story writer has always sought means of telescoping; it is therefore not surprising that one often finds parable and allegory scattered through the works of many short-story writers; they feel a kind of kindred spirit in these devices. Čexov occasionally resorted to them, notably in “The Bet” (Pari). In his shortest pieces Tolstoj too often resorted to parable. In the main, however, allegory and parable have not proven entirely successful techniques in the short story. Particularly as realism came to dominate the literary scene in the second half of the nineteenth century, the demand for verisimilitude seemed to deny their validity.

A more fruitful solution has been the writer's ready admission and acceptance of the limitations imposed by the short story. He has tried to turn them into virtues by ignoring time or freezing it into a sudden moment of revelation in which the mode of existence of a thing or being is illuminated. Mark Schorer calls attention to a difference in kind between the short story and the novel when he observes: “If we can pin down the difference between the short story and the novellette and novel at all, it would seem to be in this distinction, that the short story is an art of moral revelation, the novel an art of moral evolution.”14 Boris Èjxenbaum calls attention to much the same distinction when he writes that the short story saves its punch until the final moment, while the end of a novel is a point of relaxation where the accumulated tensions are dispersed: “The short story is like a riddle; the novel something like a charade or rebus, in which the delight is in the doing rather than the solution of the puzzle.”15 The short story writer has very frequently seized upon the suddenness and shock effect inherent in a momentary realization of a thing's ‘whatness’, to use Joyce's term, and has made a dramatic virtue of the swiftness of the discovery. A classic instance of this is Henry James' somewhat belabored treatment of John Marcher's discovery of his fate in “The Beast in the Jungle”. Unfortunately, it loses much of its dramatic punch because James insists on extracting the last ounce of irony from the discovery. Later writers have further refined the device by underplaying their hand, as it were.

The conception of moral revelation affects the relative importance of plot, character, and setting in novel and story. For one thing, suspense plays a far more crucial role in the shorter form. One reads on to find out what will finally happen, what the actual state of affairs is, or what kind of person the central character really is. “What is going to happen?” is ordinarily a fundamental question in the novel, though not necessarily a crucial one; our interest focuses primarily on: “how or why does it happen?” Wellek and Warren have in mind this distinctive interest of the novel when they write: “To tell a story, one has to be concerned about the happening, not merely the outcome. There is or was a kind of reader who must look ahead to see how a story ‘comes out’; but one who reads only the ‘concluding chapter’ of a nineteenth-century novel would be somebody incapable of interest in story, which is process—even though process toward an end.”16 Thus, to read The Brothers Karamazov as a detective novel—simply to find out who was physically responsible for the murder—would be a bore; nine-tenths of the book would then become superfluous.

If the short story, lacking this fundamental interest in process, lays greater stress on suspense, on the ultimate revelation, then its balance of interest between plot and character also shifts. Henry James in “The Art of Fiction” addresses himself to the art of the novel when he stresses the primacy of character over plot or incident: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”17 The rhetorical form of the questions seems to indicate their mutual dependence, though actually both formulations imply a subservience of plot to character. If we are speaking of the novel, this dominant interest in character is accurate, but the short story is never so consistently interested in it. At least one gifted writer in the genre, Sean O'Faolain, has pointed to the back-seat role which character must assume in the short story:

… in short story writing there can be no development of character. The most that can be done is to peel off an outer skin or mask, by means of an incident or two, in order to reveal that which is—as each writer sees this “is.” The character will not change his spots; there is no time; if he seems likely to do so in the future, the story can but glance at that future; if he seems likely to change at once, like Kolpakov in “The Chorus Girl,” we will have small reason to believe the change permanent.18

With its greater emphasis on development and change the novel is ideally suited to focus on character. The short story must reduce character to type for the most part; first, simply because there is no time for development; secondly, because its central concern with suspense dictates an interest in incident rather than character. Marvin Mudrick has produced a formulation directly opposed to James' in regard to character and incident, and he states the case for the short story better than James can when he writes: “… the shorter the work of fiction, the more likely are its characters to be simply functions and typical manifestations of a precise and inevitable sequence of events.”19 This is easy enough to see in a work like Robert Louis Stevenson's “Sire de Malétroit's Door” where our interest focuses on a series of mysteries: will Denis escape his pursuers? What is the secret of the house into which he stumbles? And finally, how will he escape from Sire de Malétroit's clutches? The answer to the final mystery hinges on the conception of character in the story. The hero, Denis, is a proud, handsome, gallant, young officer. The heroine is well-mannered, beautiful, and modest. Character is reduced completely to type, and therefore incident is not dependent on it in any meaningful sense. Our expectation is that the hero will somehow escape through his wit and valor; but the actual outcome simply substitutes another possible solution based on the types: the handsome young man marries the beautiful young lady. Stevenson employs a standard technique in the manipulation of suspense: the creation of an illusory pattern which the reader follows, thus overlooking the possibility of another equally valid resolution.

In this kind of story everything depends on the final event. In a rather more sophisticated type the interest focuses on the implications of an event—its meaning—rather than on the event itself. In Hemingway's “The Killers” we are intrigued first by the mystery: who are the killers and what do they want? However, these questions have been resolved prior to the end of the story. It is only after the mystery has been cleared up that we see the real point: a world has been revealed in which men must lie on their beds awaiting an unavoidable but arbitrary death. Once again, however, the story never focuses on the characters, Oley Anderson or Nick Adams, but rather on the nature of the world in which they play a part. The story in which loss of innocence is the main theme usually follows this pattern. Even in stories where the revelation concerns the nature of the hero the writer is restricted to the discovery of a single deviation from the pattern-type, or the discovery that there can be no deviation, as in Čexov's “The Man in a Case” (Čelovek v futljare), where the suspense hangs on the question, will Belikov marry? The resolution simply denies the question: such a type can never marry. Thus, the short story frequently places a burden on incident to the neglect of character just because it is an art of revelation and depends on the manipulation of suspense.

If we refer back to “Sire de Malétroit's Door” the importance of suspense is obvious enough, but what then are we to say of “The Killers”, which seemingly dissipates all its mysteries before the end? “The Killers” is a typical modern short story in this regard. The story which depends on revelation of event for its suspense is a limited form, but given the reader's expectation of this form, the writer is free to manipulate expectation. Upon finishing a typical modern short story one senses that he has missed the point somewhere. The end was not only unexpected, but somehow irrelevant to the questions apparently raised by the story. When this happens the writer has usually forced the reader to focus his interest on the wrong questions. This is the way Hemingway works in “The Killers”. It is only after one realizes that a shift of focus has occurred that the story can release its full impact, and the reader's own sense of discovery magnifies that impact. Another common variation on this pattern occurs in James Joyce's “Araby”. Together with the narrator the reader expects to comprehend the mystery and romance of Araby. The revelation is simply a denial of the mystery—a revelation which insinuates itself through a snatch of trivial, flirtatious conversation overheard by the narrator. Here the expectation is so nearly dissipated that the revelation may be missed completely. It is this kind of manipulation of suspense which characterizes the modern short story, and easily identifies Čexov as one of the moderns, though one suspects his manipulations are born primarily of an effort to restore a more direct connection between literature and life: the traditional story—“Sire de Malétroit's Door”, for instance—spells literary artificiality for Čexov.

An adjunct to these implications regarding the relative importance of plot and character in the short story concerns the role which time plays. Because change and growth are essentially foreign to this genre, the conception of time passing is itself largely irrelevant. As I have said previously, the short story writer can ignore the concept of time; he does this in exchange for a revelation which makes a virtue of temporal stasis. In view of these distinctions, I would like to look in some detail at one of Čexov's longer pieces “Ionyč”. This is something of a test case since although the story covers a time span of at least eight years in a man's life, it is essentially a short story because its method is revelation rather than evolution. Although externally a period of eight years is covered, it might be said that time is irrelevant to the internal life of the character depicted. “Ionyč” is divided into five sections, each presenting a variation on a single revelation: that the hero has stepped into a living death when he sets up medical practice in a provincial town. The hero, Starcev, does not actually change during the course of these eight years; rather, he becomes more completely that which he was from the very first page. Thus, the story presents the revelation of a single state.

The first section introduces the reader to a provincial town in which the chief characteristic is the absolute monotony of life. Čexov refers frequently to this one characteristic; I would suggest that there is only one state which is perfectly monotonous—death. The most interesting family in this town and the most complete personification of its flavor is the Turkins. There are suggestions everywhere in this first section that they are in fact spiritually dead. Either their actions are utterly divorced from life, or else these actions are symbolic of death; both characteristics obviously point in the same direction. Mrs. Turkin, Vera Iosifovna, writes novels which she reads to her guests at parties. On the occasion of Starcev's first visit to the Turkins she reads her latest effort: “She read of that which never happens in life …” (IX, 288). The implication is that her own experience never impinges on actuality; she is in fact outside of life. Mr. Turkin has taught one of the servants, Pava, to perform a scene which is symptomatic of the state of mind not only of the Turkins, but the entire town. “Pava took a pose, raised his hands upward and uttered in a tragic tone: ‘Die, unhappy woman!’” (IX, 290). This action is repeated again at another of Turkin's parties later in the story, and one realizes that its performance is one of Mr. Turkin's favorite amusements.

The business of the first section of the story is to show Starcev falling under the spell of the Turkins and their way of life. The revelation of Starcev's living death is summed up in fragments from two songs: as he goes to their house for the first time, he sings: “‘When I had not yet drunk the tears from the cup of life …’” (IX, 287); on his way home later that evening he hums: “‘Your voice for me so tender, so languorous …’” (IX, 290). He is innocent before he meets the Turkins, but by the end of the evening he has fallen under their deadly spell. It might be said that the rest of the story simply completes this revelation of Starcev's new identity. But the essence of the revelation is contained in the first section.

Section two is mainly concerned with Starcev's partial awareness of what has happened to him in this town. A year has passed and he has called upon the Turkins for a second time. He is attracted by their daughter, Ekaterina Ivanovna, and arranges a midnight meeting with her in the cemetery. She does not come to the meeting, and the scene in the cemetery shows the reader that Starcev realizes what he is becoming. The setting, the cemetery, is of course an obvious symbol. As he enters it, he reads a sign: “‘The hour cometh …’” (IX, 293). Alone in the cemetery, “… he imagined himself dead, buried there forever, he felt as though someone were looking at him, and for a moment he thought it was not peace and tranquility, but stifled despair, the dumb dreariness of non-existence …” (IX, 293). In desperation at the thought of all those around him who were once alive, “… he felt like shouting that he wanted, that he was waiting for, love at whatever price” (IX, 294). But he does not shout, and this is as close as he will come to resisting the kind of death which has overtaken him.

In the third section Ekaterina Ivanovna becomes aware of the revelation—she senses that Starcev has become like everyone else in the town, while she still hopes to escape. He proposes to her, but she refuses: “‘Dmitrij Ionyč, I am very grateful for the honor, I respect you, but … but I am sorry, I cannot be your wife. Let's speak seriously. Dmitrij Ionyč, you know I love art more than anything in life, I love, I worship music terribly, I have dedicated my life to it. I want to be an artist, I want honor, success, freedom, but you want me to go on living in this town, to go on with this empty, useless life that has become unendurable for me’” (IX, 296). Thus she realizes that she would condemn herself to the same life if she married him.

In the fourth section four years have passed, and Starcev sees Ekaterina again at a party given by the Turkins, at which Vera Iosifovna reads aloud from her latest novel and Pava gives the same performance described in section one. Ekaterina tells Starcev: “‘How much stouter you are! You look sunburnt and more manly, but on the whole you have changed very little’” (IX, 299). He has changed very little because, of course, the passage of time has only contributed to the process of perfecting what was almost evident from the very beginning. Starcev himself can no longer understand why he thought he loved this girl four years earlier. This is because his resistance to the revelation has completely disappeared.

Several more years have passed before the final section, which is really anticlimactic. Avram Derman has noted that Čexov indicates the passage of time and the rise in Starcev's fortunes through the laconic device of describing his changing means of transportation: in section one he has no horse; in section two he owns a pair; in the fourth he drives around in a troika with bells on it; and in the final section he has added a liveried servant.20 But not only is this a cryptic means of expressing the passage of time, it also serves as a symbol of the entire theme with variations: the apparent changes are actually stages in the realization of a single state. Until the final section the reader sees the action from Starcev's point of view. But now the point of view has shifted to the outside; the reader sees the hero from the sidewalk as he passes down the street: “… one might think it was not a mortal, but some heathen deity in his chariot” (IX, 302). The explanation is obvious: the process has been completed, there is no longer a living being here; there is no longer a point of view from which to see the action. ‘Heathen deity’, with its suggestion of a being that never actually existed is an extremely apt image for Starcev at this point.

Thus, in each section of “Ionyč” the central revelation is acted out in an ever more fully realized form, and in spite of the story's lengthy time span, the notion of change and development is illusory. The story plays with suspense in two ways: the reader is first led to expect a romance between Starcev and Ekaterina, and then, as this line of development collapses, he resists the notion that Starcev cannot in any way escape his living death. The actual pattern is like that which a hammer makes while striking metal; it never changes pitch, but it may become louder and more overbearing. The ending seems irrelevant because the revelation has occurred previously, without the reader's full awareness of it. Čexov may not have been the first writer to use this device, but he is probably the first who is noted for it.

The short story writer, then, has evolved a variety of techniques for overcoming the limitations of his genre. But it is chiefly the attempt to reveal the inner essence of a thing or being, frozen, as it were, and divorced from time, change, and development, which has become the function of the short story at its most characteristic. The dramatic shock of sudden recognition has become the writer's central device for overcoming the lack of drama inherent in the genre, and the muffled ending has become a device for reinforcing its dramatic impact.

Notes

  1. Viktor Šklovskij, Xudožestvennaja proza: Razmyšlenija i razbory (Moskva, 1959), p. 484.

  2. Irene Hendry, “Joyce's Epiphanies”, in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, ed. Seon Givens (New York, 1948), p. 33.

  3. Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, New Jersey, 1957), pp. 304–305.

  4. Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (New York, 1962), pp. 17–19.

  5. Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 305.

  6. A. P. Čexov, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij i pisem (Moskva, 1944–51), XV, 233. All subsequent references to Čexov's work, unless otherwise indicated, will be cited by volume and page number within the text.

  7. Ralph Matlaw, “Čechov and the Novel” in Anton Čechov, 1860–1960: Some Essays, ed. Thomas Eekman (Leiden, 1960), p. 149.

  8. It is, of course, also entirely possible that when he uses the term povest' he has in mind simply the kind of traditional story which Puškin wrote.

  9. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York, 1950), p. 205.

  10. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 206.

  11. See Sean O'Faolain, The Short Story (New York, 1951) and Ray B. West, Jr., The Short Story in America (New York, 1952).

  12. Ray B. West, Jr., The Short Story in America, p. 22.

  13. It should be pointed out, of course, that length alone does not make a short story into a novel. In this sense Čexov was right in refusing to call many of his longer works anything but rasskazy. We see in the detective ‘novel’ how greater length does not in itself form a generic distinction. In spite of its greater length, it is a type which focuses on revelation rather than on an evolutionary process; the solution was there from the beginning had we only seen it.

  14. The Story: A Critical Anthology, ed. Mark Schorer (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1950), p. 433.

  15. B. M. Èjxenbaum, “O. Genri i teorija novelly”, Literatura: Teorija, kritika, polemika (Leningrad, 1927), p. 172.

  16. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York, 1956), p. 205.

  17. Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”, The Future of the Novel, ed. Leon Edel (New York, 1956), pp. 15–16.

  18. Sean O'Faolain, The Short Story, p. 191.

  19. Marvin Mudrick, “Character and Event in Fiction”, The Yale Review, L (Winter 1961), 205.

  20. Avram Derman, Tvorčeskij portret Čexova (Moskva, 1929), pp. 262–264.

Karl D. Kramer (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9394

SOURCE: Kramer, Karl D. “Stories of Ambiguity.” In The Chameleon and the Dream, pp. 153–73. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton & Co. B. V., 1970.

[In the following essay, Kramer discusses ambiguities in meaning as seen in Chekhov's stories.]

One could, with respect to terminology, talk about either ambiguity or paradox in describing that particular aspect of Čexov's work which in volves the concept of meaning in the later stories. If the term ‘ambiguity’ ordinarily denotes situations in which two or more interpretations can coexist, then it refers to a “both-and” type of relationship. The term ‘paradox’ normally indicates contradictory meanings, and thus refers to an “either-or” situation. The difficulty in regard to Čexov is that the two or more meanings of a given story are ordinarily opposed to each other. However, there is some precedent for calling this relationship ambiguous: William Empson's last two categories of ambiguity involve contradictory meanings,1 and Edmund Wilson's initial example of ambiguity in Henry James' work is The Turn of the Screw, where a choice of interpretations hinges on two opposed suppositions: the governess does see the ghosts; she does not see the ghosts.2 On the other hand, as Cleanth Brooks defines paradox in “The Language of Paradox”3 the contradictory situations which he cites are invariably reconciled. Thus, one could define the type of ambiguity we usually find in Čexov's later stories as unresolved paradox. In the following collection of alternative readings one interpretation may appear considerably more plausible than another for a given story; however, my primary intention is to indicate that no single reading will adequately account for the whole fabric in any of these stories. This in itself is sufficient to establish their ambiguity.

Inasmuch as Empson and Brooks confine their discussions to poetry, they are using ambiguity and paradox in reference to particular words and phrases. Assuming that the semantic unit is correspondingly larger in artistic prose, we shall ordinarily be talking about ambiguity engendered by what Tolstoj called ‘the labyrinth of linkages’ of prose fiction.4 In short, Čexov's ambiguity frequently emerges from the reader's perception of contradictions in parallel passages throughout a given story.

One of the clearest examples of Čexov's ambiguity is his last short story, “Betrothed” (Nevesta, 1903). It is useful for two reasons to begin here—because the ambiguity is closely related to the problem of time discussed in the last chapter and because “Betrothed” offers the reader his only opportunity to watch Čexov in the process of constructing a story which can be equally well interpreted in several different ways. This is made possible through the existence of a different, earlier version of the manuscript.5 The ambiguity is related to the question of human progress versus the monotonous appearance of constant change which moves mankind neither forward nor backward—the ladder versus the treadmill. Framed after the manner of the announcer in a radio soap opera, the question in “Betrothed” is this: does the heroine, Nadja, escape the confines of her parents' narrow provincialism and will she eventually find a better life, or is she condemned to a constant flitting from one passion to another, each of which is essentially meaningless in its relation to all the others? The commonly accepted interpretation of the story is the first one, both in the West and in the Soviet Union.6 In this reading Nadja gradually becomes aware of the pošlost' in life at home, aware too of the fact that nothing in her family's way of life has changed during the past twenty years. Under the influence of a friend studying at the university, Saša, she realizes that her forthcoming marriage would condemn her to just such a life forever. Therefore, she takes Saša's advice, breaks off her engagement, and leaves her family to study. After a year at the university she returns home on a visit and finds that she has definitely outgrown her earlier life and confidently looks forward to a much better and more interesting one in the future. This interpretation starts running into difficulties when one notices that of all the Čexov characters who discuss the future only Nadja and possibly Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard are so unreservedly committed to their faith in a better future.

The second possible interpretation would see Nadja going through a series of awakenings and a process in which each new stage implies a rejection of the previous one. We see such a process in her disillusionment with the people who guide her. At the beginning of the story she believes that her mother is an extraordinary person, but as Saša comes to have more influence over Nadja, the mother becomes increasingly ordinary until finally Nadja can no longer understand why her mother ever struck her as remarkable.

Even before she leaves home, the process of disillusionment with Saša gets under way: “‘He is a strange, naïve man’, thought Nadja, ‘and in his dreams, in all these wonderful gardens, unusual fountains, one feels something absurd’, but for some reason in his naïveté, even in this absurdity there was so much beauty that scarcely had she thought about going away to study when a cold feeling would pour through her heart and her bosom and she was filled with a feeling of joy and delight” (IX, 439).

When she tells Saša that she has made up her mind to leave, he is delighted: “But she looked at him, not blinking, with large, adoring eyes, as though spellbound, expecting him to say to her immediately something significant, limitless in its importance; he hadn't yet told her anything, but already it seemed to her that something new and broad was opening before her, something she hadn't known about earlier, and already she was looking at him full of expectation, ready for everything, even death” (IX, 444). But instead of saying something significant Saša immediately plunges into talking about the details of their departure.

These hints at disillusionment with Saša are not fully realized until she sees him again after a year of study, when he appears to her “grey, provincial” (IX, 446). As she sits in his room looking at him, “… for some reason Andrej Andreič rose up in her imagination and the naked lady with the vase [an earlier image of the pošlost' she associated with her prospective marriage to Andrej] and all her past which seemed to her now so far away, like childhood. And she started crying because Saša already seemed to her not so new, intellectual, interesting as he had been last year” (IX, 446–447). She comes to the conclusion that “from Saša, from his words, from his smile, and from his whole figure came something out of date, old fashioned, done with long ago, and, perhaps, already departed for the grave” (IX, 447). Saša is dying of tuberculosis, but in context obviously this speech points to something more than a premonition of his death.

In the final scene she is at home again on a visit. She reaffirms her faith in a better future and receives a telegram announcing Saša's death. The last paragraph reads: “She went up to her room to pack, and the next morning said goodbye to her own, and vibrant, joyful left the town—as she supposed, forever” (IX, 450). These words convey several facts about the present but say nothing really about the future. We know for certain only that Nadja thought she would never return. It is equally possible that she is right and that she is wrong. If we keep in mind the fact that we have twice observed her going through this process of excited expectation followed by disillusionment, the last phrase suggests the possibility that the whole process is beginning all over again. Therefore, the question remains: has Nadja escaped a narrowly provincial life and will she find some kind of more exalted existence, or is she condemned to an endless repetition of these awakenings and disillusionments? It seems to me both interpretations are equally tenable and this, of course, is at the heart of the story's ambiguity.

The original version was considerably less susceptible to the latter reading. In the rough draft there is no doubt that Nadja is moving forward to a better life; the concept of an endless series of illusions is simply not there. Probably the most important changes from this point of view concern the presentation of Saša's character, particularly as it appears in several of the scenes just discussed. When Nadja announces to Saša that she is going away to study, she does not await something significant from his lips. She has no expectation for him to disappoint; instead, he makes just the kind of speech that Nadja in the finished version hopes to hear:

“Listen to me. We will speak seriously,” he began, frowning. “I am convinced, believe deeply that Russia needs only two sorts of people: the holy and the enlightened. I deeply believe in this and consider it my duty to convince others, such as you. We live in rude, ignorant times, we must go for a minority. I swear to you, you will not regret it, will not swerve, and you'll marry, and your bridegroom will be a remarkable man,” again he started laughing. “Go away to study and there let fate carry you where it will. And so shall we go tomorrow?”

(IX, 521)

In short, by dropping this speech Čexov reversed the conception of Saša's character in this scene. Indeed, Saša deteriorates at several points in the revision; thus, originally, when Nadja visits him after her year of study, she does not classify him with those elements of her old life which she had rejected.

When she returns home for a visit, she makes this observation on her life—an observation subsequently dropped: “‘I am satisfied, mama. Naturally, when I began my courses, I thought I would attain everything and that I'd want nothing more, but as I went to school and studied, new plans opened out, and then again new plans, and always broader and broader, and it seems there isn't and never will be an end to either work or anxiety’” (IX, 525). This speech causes the reader to set more store by Nadja's understanding of herself than he can in the finished story. The final paragraph was also rewritten. Here is first the original and then the revised version:

She went up to her room to pack and the next morning she left; before her she pictured a broad, pure life of labor.

(IX, 527)

“Goodbye, dear Saša!” she thought, and before her she pictured a new life, broad and vast, and this life, still not clear, full of mysteries, attracted her and beckoned her to it.


She went up to her room to pack, and the next morning she said goodbye to her own, and vibrant, joyful, left the town—as she supposed, forever.

(IX, 450)

This rearrangement of the elements obviously indicates, it seems to me, an effort to make Nadja's future considerably less certain, to cast a final doubt on her outcome.

If there is a deliberate effort to plant ambiguity at the very core of the story, then what is the significance of this effort? As in the great majority of the last stories, the point of the ambiguity is to highlight the precarious relationship between actuality and one's consciousness of it. Čexov's ambiguity is always a reflection of the ambiguity inherent in the character's relationship to his existence: he can never be certain just what that relationship is, and finally in one of the very last stories, “The Bishop”, there is some doubt whether a relationship exists at all.7

“The Black Monk” (Čërnyj monax, 1894) is possibly the earliest story in this cycle. If there is ambiguity here it would seem to be of an accidental nature. Apparently, it is the story of a young scholar who deludes himself into believing that he is a man of genius rather than an ordinary person. His delusion destroys not only himself but his sweetheart and her father as well. There is no doubt that Čexov himself—if the author's intention makes any difference—did intend to convey this sort of pattern. In a letter to Suvorin, who had presumably accused Čexov of describing his own mental condition in the person of Kovrin, Čexov denies any suggestion that this might be a self-portrait, but goes on: “I wrote “The Black Monk” without any despondent thoughts, in cold meditation. The desire to represent a megalomaniac simply came to me. This monk, wandering in a field, came in a dream, and when I woke up in the morning I told Miša [his brother] about him” (XVI, 118). Thus, Čexov apparently viewed Kovrin as the source of all the misfortunes in the story. But even if this is the case, the very fact that such delusions attracted Čexov at this time may be indicative of his interest in probing the question, what is real? If nothing else, we certainly have here a story in which the writer is studying the hero's distorted relationship to actuality.

There are, however, some indications that Kovrin's story may be simply an analogue to the story of his horticulturist friend Pesockij, or even that the force which destroys Kovrin and his friend may originate in Pesockij himself. It would be impossible to make out a fully developed case for this reading, but there are just enough hints to cast some doubt on the view that Kovrin's hallucinations are the first cause of the misfortunes. The view that he is the guilty one is expressed by Thomas Winner in his discussion of “The Black Monk”: “The depiction of Kovrin is silhouetted against that of his friends, the family of the horticulturalist Pesockij. While there is something of the ridiculous about the old horticulturalist, his useful labor forms a contrast to the fruitless intellectual endeavors of Kovrin.”8

There is a suggestion in the opening description of Pesockij's estate that the organization of the land itself may reflect the dual nature of its proprietor. One is lulled into a ballad-writing mood by what is called the English garden and by a snipe with its mournful chirp, while the other part of the garden exhibits nothing but health and the genius of Pesockij for growing things.

The relationship between the horticulturalist and Kovrin verges on the abnormal; to a certain extent the older man looks upon the younger as his own reincarnation. Kovrin was orphaned as a child and brought up by Pesockij. At one point his daughter Tanja tells Kovrin: “‘Surely you know that my father worships you. Sometimes I think he loves you more than me. He is proud of you. You are a scholar, an unusual person, you have made a brilliant career for yourself, and he is sure that you will turn out so because he brought you up’” (VIII, 266). (Is it coincidence that the black monk will praise Kovrin in the same way, assuring him that he is an unusual person?) One evening Pesockij confides his fondest hope, that Tanja and Kovrin will marry; in this way Pesockij could be assured that his marvellous achievements in horticulture would be preserved and that his efforts would be perpetuated. In short, he would like to sacrifice his spiritual son and only daughter to his work. Later in the story when Kovrin is in the clutches of his hallucinations, he thinks about the ideal with which the black monk presents him: “To give away everything for an idea—youth, strength, health, to be ready to die for the general welfare …” (VIII, 280). This is the essence of the vision which Kovrin finds in his hallucinations; it is considered by his friends madness, but is it any less healthy than the sacrifice which Pesockij would ask of his children?

Pesockij's split personality and his likeness to the young scholar are made explicit at one point. Kovrin is reading over some of the articles Pesockij has written on horticulture and he notes the strange contrast between the health of the man's creative activity in the garden and the deadly venom contained in his scholarly articles: “‘His work is beautiful, dear, healthy, but here [in the articles] there are passions and war,’ thought Kovrin. ‘It must be that in all phases of life people of ideas are nervous and are distinguished by exalted sensitivity. Probably, it has to be so’” (VIII, 274). Thus, the disease characterized by nervousness and sensitivity is as typical of Pesockij as it is of Kovrin.

There is one other peculiarity in the relationship between the young scholar and his friend: not only is it on the latter's estate that the black monk first appears to him, but at least three of these appearances follow immediately after Tanja sings a song which Kovrin comes to associate with the estate. Just prior to the monk's first appearance Kovrin claims that he had been thinking all day about the legend of the black monk, but it is only in the evening after hearing the song that his first hallucination occurs. Furthermore, the manifestation bears a closer resemblance to the ghostly appearance described in the song than it does to the legend: the song depicts a girl with a disordered imagination who hears beautiful sounds, but according to the legend, the black monk appears to perfectly normal people. In addition, the girl in the song hears celestial music, a parallel to the unearthly ideas that Kovrin hears from the black monk, while in the legend no sound is associated with the vision.

Shortly before the monk's first appearance Kovrin had been walking through the garden with Tanja. They had discussed the ‘black, thick, sour smoke’ which hung just above the ground and which had been produced to prevent frost from killing the plants. They had observed the workmen who “wandered through the smoke like shadows” (VIII, 265). When the black monk appears, “his bare feet did not touch the ground”, and he “disappeared like smoke” (VIII, 271). Thus, the monk's first appearance is associated with Tanja's singing, and the black smoke which had hovered just above the ground in Pesockij's garden. Certainly Čexov was aware of these associations as he worked through the story.

The black monk's second appearance also bears a strong emotional connection with the Pesockijs, for it is the joy this second hallucination evokes in Kovrin which induces him to propose to Tanja.

Ultimately, Kovrin accuses the Pesockijs of ruining his life by curing him, while Tanja accuses him of destroying her own happiness and driving her father to despair. Both accusations are justifiable; Kovrin had been considerably more productive as a scholar before the doctors cured him of his hallucinations, and Pesockij was driven to the grave by what he considered his son-in-law's madness.

At the black monk's last appearance, two years after Pesockij's death, the hallucination is preceded for the third time by Kovrin's overhearing the song. Dying, he cries out to Tanja and to Pesockij's garden. His cry could be equally a plea for help or a cry of accusation, or both.

In “Betrothed” and “The Black Monk” the ambiguity hinges on the question, what has happened to the characters? In “The Darling” (Dušečka, 1898) it hinges rather on the question, what does the central character herself represent? The traditional interpretation sees Olen'ka as completely passive. This is the view taken by Renato Poggioli,9 for instance, when he quotes with approval and accepts as a proper summation of Olen'ka's character this line from the story: “She wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, her soul, her mind, that would give her ideas, a purpose in life, that would warm her aging blood” (IX, 323). But there is another side to Olen'ka's life; there are hints that it so dominates the loved one that it eventually destroys him. At any rate, she completely takes over the opinions of her first two husbands, Kukin and Pustovalov, both of whom die. Describing her absorption of Kukin's opinions, Čexov writes: “Olen'ka was filling out and beamed with satisfaction, but Kukin was getting thinner and more sallow …” (IX, 317). The syntactical arrangement of the sentence hints at a direct relationship between Olen'ka's vigor and Kukin's languor. Though it does not necessarily mean this, it could be taken to imply that as Olen'ka emotionally feeds on her husband, she saps him of his vitality. Her third attachment is with the veterinarian, Vladimir Platonič. Her relationship with him differs in two respects from that with Kukin and Pustovalov. In the first place, the veterinarian is the only man to resent her parroting his opinions: “‘I've asked you before not to talk about things you don't understand! When veterinarians are speaking among themselves, please don't butt in! It's really annoying’” (IX, 322). In the second place, the veterinarian does not die; he finally deserts Olen'ka to return to his wife. Now it could be more than coincidence that these two sets of conditions occur in just these combinations.

Olen'ka's final encounter is with Saša, a young boy. It is a mother's love she shows here, but like the veterinarian, Saša deeply resents her fondling attentions. The final lines read: “… she goes back to bed and thinks of Saša who is fast asleep in the next room and sometimes shouts in his sleep: ‘I'll give it to you! Scram! No fighting!’” (IX, 327). Obviously, Saša is having a dream in which he is talking with his schoolmates, but in view of the pattern established in Olen'ka's relation to those she loves, and in view of Saša's open resistance to her attentions, the final line may apply to Olen'ka as well. If not, then the ending appears considerably less relevant to the story than Čexov's endings normally are.

Frequently Čexov's ambiguity hinges on his characters' social position. In several stories the plight of the socially displaced person creates the ambiguity—a man like Lopaxin in The Cherry Orchard who is both peasant and landowner, or neither, occupying a no man's land in between. In this case the ambiguity is apt to be considerably more all-pervading, inasmuch as the character is no more certain of his situation than the reader is. In “A Woman's Kingdom” (Bab'e carstvo, 1894) Anna Akimovna, the young lady who owns a factory, finds her position in society utterly confusing. She does not know who she is or how she is expected to act. Her dilemma is fairly well summed up in this passage: “Fate itself had flung her out of the simple working-class surroundings, in which, if she could trust her memory, she had felt so snug and at home, into these immense rooms, where she could never think what to do with herself and could not understand why so many people kept passing before her eyes. What was happening now seemed to her trivial and useless since it did not and could not give her happiness for one minute” (VIII, 315). She is in the absurd position of managing a factory whose workings are totally inexplicable to her.

One symptom of Anna's social displacement is the impossibility of deciding what sort of mate would be proper for her. She is constantly being advised by the other characters on what she ought to do about marriage, and each piece of advice conflicts with all the other suggestions. This too is, of course, a reflection of her ambiguous position. She is advised to marry a gentleman, to marry a merchant, to marry one of the factory hands, not to marry at all, but simply to have love affairs. Each of her counselors assures her that his course of action is best for a person in her position, but no two people can ever agree on what her position is. This aspect of Anna's dilemma is neatly evoked by the juxtaposition of two scenes involving her status in regard to marriage. At one point she wishes that her father were still alive so that he might select her prospective husband for her, thus relieving her of the decision. Her reflections are interrupted by the appearance of a servant who begs her to decide for him what he should do about his own marriage. She simultaneously occupies the positions of child and mistress. It is true that she needs guidance, and it is equally true that she must give guidance.

The setting suggests another dimension of her ambiguous position. The story covers a twenty-four-hour period from Christmas eve to Christmas night. The parallel between the humble origins of Christ, the lord of men, and Anna Akimovna, the daughter of an ordinary workman, who has become herself the mistress of two thousand workers is inescapable. Further, the title, in Russian if not in English, suggests the major ambiguities of the story: bab'e (an adjective derived from a noun signifying a peasant wife) points to the incongruity of a person of humble origins who is the ruler of a kingdom, as well as to the problem of marriage.

The ambiguity of the simple working man turned factory owner crops up in another story, “A Doctor's Visit” (Slučaj iz praktiki, 1898), which is distinguished by its revelation of an absurd situation; both the content of the story and the treatment of that content defy any rational approach to the factory owner's problem. The story is filled with all kinds of incongruities. To begin with, a doctor, Korolëv, is called in to treat a physical ailment which is actually spiritual in nature. As Korolëv later rephrases his duty, he is being asked to cure an incurable disease. Finally, the man of medical science is forced to account for his patient's malady by conjuring up a devil, a red-eyed monster, who is held responsible for it.

Incongruity informs every detail in the lives of the Ljalikovs, the factory owners whose daughter, Liza, is the patient. Liza's mother wears a “black silk dress with fashionably styled sleeves, but, judging by her face, she was simple, poorly educated …” (IX, 305). When Korolëv looks at a portrait of the father, he finds that it accurately reflects the spiritual imbalance of the whole family. Ljalikov's “frock coat fits like a sack. … His culture is meager, luxury accidental, stupid, uncomfortable, like this frock coat; the floors are irritating with their polish, the chandelier is irritating, and for some reason one is reminded of a story about a merchant who would go to the baths with his medal around his neck” (IX, 308).

Owing to her own sense of social inadequacy, the mother is forced to hand over the duties of mistress of the house to the governess, Xristina Dmitrievna. Thus, it is the latter who receives Korolëv and acts as hostess at dinner. This is an appropriate gesture, for as the story develops, Korolëv realizes that the governess is the only person in the entire household who enjoys any benefit whatsoever from the factory. After viewing the miserable conditions of the workers in its five plants and the unhappiness of the owners, Korolëv arrives at the conclusion that “… these five plants operate and poorly made cotton prints are sold at eastern markets only in order that Xristina Dmitrievna can eat sterlet and drink madeira” (IX, 310). In short, the entire system is absurd; the nominal master has become his servant's servant. Korolëv feels he can understand a system in which the strong exploit the weak, but it is “a logical absurdity when both strong and weak fall as a sacrifice to their mutual relations, involuntarily submitting to some controlling force, unknown, standing outside life, foreign to man” (IX, 311).

Mood is an extremely important factor in this story, and Korolëv's responses now become directed more by emotional stimuli than by reason. In the courtyard in front of the house he hears metallic sounds tolling the hour in the various plants: “And it was as though in the midst of the night silence a monster with crimson eyes had made these noises, the devil himself, who lorded it over both the masters and the workers here, and who deceived both them and others” (IX, 310). Thus, Korolëv is forced to conjure up a devil, or a monster with crimson eyes—another logical absurdity—to account for the absurdity of this life.

The story ends with a scene in which the doctor tries to ‘treat’ his patient by assuring her that the present is a very difficult time and that within a generation or two the problems and doubts which face those living now will have solved themselves. In one sense, his treatment is a purely emotional one, just as the disease is. But there is a difficulty here: logically, how can his reassurances that the problems of the present, which cannot even be understood—how can these reassurances carry any weight of conviction? The answer would seem to be that in a hopeless situation and one that is absurd, the only source of hope left is in the absurd itself. In other words, his hope for the future is at least no more irrational than the hopelessness of the present. And this might be Čexov's answer to Lev Šestov: to ignore logical processes does not necessarily mean to kill all hope. Although the ambiguity does not envelop the narrative so completely in “A Doctor's Visit” as in the other stories discussed, nevertheless the question of the Ljalikovs' status is central to the treatment of their absurd situation. This is one of the rare stories in which Čexov explicitly handles the absurd.

A consciousness of social displacement also pervades “The New Villa” (Novaja dača, 1899). The engineer Kučerov, who comes of wealthy and distinguished parentage, and his wife, the granddaughter of a peasant, wish to establish democratic relations with the peasants who inhabit the neighborhood. But they are attempting to establish a relationship which cannot exist. While the peasants may defiantly shout, “‘We're not serfs now’” (IX, 331), they will deride what seem to them Kučerov's false pretenses: “‘Landowners too-oo! … They've built a house, brought in horses, but maybe they aren't much themselves. Landowners too-oo!’” (IX, 330). Given these conflicting social conceptions, a barrage of mutual misunderstanding is inevitable: when Kučerov's wife promises the peasants that her husband will build a school for the village children, she is certain she has displayed her goodwill. The peasants, recalling previous attempts by well-meaning people to help them—attempts which ultimately produced new burdens for them—consider her promise much closer to a threat than a sign of goodwill. The result of such conflicting interpretations is to produce a long series of acts the significance of which is certainly ambiguous when the engineer's point of view is juxtaposed with that of the peasants. The technique in “The New Villa” is reminiscent of the multiple points of view on a single incident in the Japanese film, Rashomon. Both works point toward the relativity of truth, the impossibility of accurately defining one's relationship to his surroundings.

In several of the major stories written during this period the ambiguity crystallizes in the narrator's uncertain attitude toward the people and events he describes. In “The House with a Mezzanine” (Dom s mezoninom, 1896) the ambiguity in Lida's character becomes a reflection of the narrator's personality. Soviet interpretation, for which there is solid evidence, sees the story as a melodrama in which Lida, the older sister, is the villainess, destroying the romance between her younger sister, Misjus', and the painter-narrator, as well as exerting her will in local government affairs at every turn.10 Certainly she displays a despotic nature: she tyrannizes over Misjus' and her mother; she seeks power in the local zemstvo organization; there are hints that her instruction of peasants appeals to her mainly as an outlet for her tyrannical tendencies; and she crushes the beginnings of love in Misjus' and the narrator.

However, to view the narrator and Misjus' as innocent victims of Lida's cruelty leaves a number of incidents and remarks unexplained. We must keep in mind the fact that we see Lida only through the narrator's eyes and that he himself vacillates in his attitude toward her. He begins by describing his life in the country: “Condemned by destiny to perpetual idleness, I did absolutely nothing” (IX, 86). Describing his impression of the two sisters, he observes: “And everything seemed to me young and pure, thanks to the presence of Lida and Misjus', and there was an atmosphere of refinement over everything” (IX, 89). He makes this remark at a time when he had already seen enough of Lida to know her character and interests. He continues: “As a rule I sat on the lower step of the terrace; I was tormented by dissatisfaction with myself, grieved by the thought that my life was passing so rapidly and uninterestingly …” (IX, 90). This observation could refer equally well to either the romance beginning to develop between him and Misjus', or, in view of the artist's indolent life, it could also refer to his frustration at the contrast between his own inactivity and Lida's absorption in her work. As a matter of fact, in a later scene when Lida and the artist attack one another's social ideas, she accuses him of criticizing her to cover his own indifference. And he himself confesses to a friend that: “From my earliest days I've been wrung by envy, self-dissatisfaction, and distrust in my work” (IX, 94). Viewed in this light, the relationship between Lida and the narrator is ambiguous through its vagueness.

Unlike her sister, Misjus' is an extremely passive personality. She does everything her sister tells her, and certainly one reason Lida resents the artist's presence is that she fears he will disrupt her influence over her sister. The artist accepts a peculiar role in his relationship with Misjus' also: he becomes her spiritual guide for a short time, only because she expects this of him. The possessor is also the possessed: “Ženja [Misjus'] thought that as an artist I must know a great deal and that I can accurately guess at what I don't know. She wished I would lead her into the region of the eternal and the beautiful, to that higher world in which, according to her, I was my own master, and she talked with me of God, eternal life, miracles. And I, who had not admitted that myself and my imagination would perish forever after death, answered, ‘yes, man is immortal,’ ‘yes, eternal life awaits us,’ while she listened, believed and did not demand proof” (IX, 92). He indicates his passive nature again when he bows before Lida's decision that the romance must come to an end. At the real center of the story, then, stands the narrator, who vacillates between the extreme character types of Misjus' and Lida, who leads and is led by Misjus', who admires and abhors the strength of Lida's personality.

Nikitin, the central character in “The Teacher of Literature” (Učitel' slovesnosti, 1894), if not ambivalent, is certainly shifty in his attitude toward his environment. D. S. Mirsky is the spokesman for the standard interpretation of the story:

Chekhov excels in the art of tracing the first stages of an emotional process; in indicating those first symptoms of a deviation when to the general eye, and to the conscious eye of the subject in question, the nascent curve still seems to coincide with a straight line. An infinitesimal touch, which at first hardly arrests the reader's attention, gives a hint at the direction the story is going to take. It is then repeated as a leit-motiv, and at each repetition the true equation of the curve becomes more apparent, and it ends by shooting away in a direction very different from that of the original straight line. … In “The Teacher of Literature” the straight line is again the hero's love; the curve, his dormant dissatisfaction with selfish happiness and his intellectual ambition.11

Mirsky assumes that Nikitin comes to a real awareness of the false values in his life, but there remains a nagging doubt about whether such an awareness ever actually occurs. Nikitin's peculiarity is that mood alone governs his reactions to the world. His inner attitude determines the nature of the external world, as if the latter were dependent on the former. We are introduced to a man whose emotional response bears no direct relationship to the stimulus. Therefore, we have no means of knowing whether his feelings are in any way permanent or simply the result of a combination of factors which make up his mood: “Since Nikitin had been in love with Maša, everything at the Šelestovs pleased him: the house, the garden, and the evening tea, and the wickerwork chairs and the old nurse, and even the word ‘loutishness’ which the old man was fond of using” (VIII, 352). Here he is clearly reacting not to the Šelestov family, but to his love for Maša.

After their marriage he tells Maša: “‘But I don't look upon my happiness as on something that has come to me by accident, as if from heaven. This happiness is a perfectly natural, consistent, logically probable occurrence. I believe that man is the creator of his own happiness and I am now taking precisely that which I have created’” (VIII, 367). Nikitin is probably right in what he says, but ironically for the wrong reason. He believes his happiness is something real which he has created, but it exists only in his own imagination. It cannot operate independently of his mood; thus it has no real foundation.

Here is Nikitin's ‘awakening’: in bed one night he thinks that there is “another world. … And he had a passionate poignant longing to be in that other world, to work himself at some factory or big workshop, to speak with authority, to write, to publish, to raise a stir, to exhaust himself, to suffer …” (VIII, 369–370). But this other world is another product of Nikitin's imagination; it bears no direct relation to his experience.

The weather, a detail from actual experience, is a revealing reference point in the story. Just after his marriage Nikitin writes in his diary: “I recalled our first meetings, our rides into the country, my declaration of love, and the weather, which as though on purpose had been exquisitely fine all summer” (VIII, 364). But the weather which Nikitin thought so delightful when it fitted his own concept of the world, has no influence over him when his mood changes. One year later, “Spring was beginning as exquisitely as last year, and it promised the same joys …” (VIII, 371). But now Nikitin notes in his diary: “There is nothing more terrible than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind!” (VIII, 372). Frequently during the course of the story Čexov permits us to read passages from Nikitin's diary. Certainly this device increases our sense of direct contact with Nikitin, but as a way of representing the world to which he responds it is far from direct. It blurs our perception of external reality to a point where we have no basis for judging the appropriateness of Nikitin's responses. Thus, we are left not quite certain whether this is an awakening to the actual world around him, or whether it is another of his moods, no more accurate a reflection of actuality than his previous one. Čexov offers us no way of knowing for sure, and herein lies the ambiguity.

By way of contrast, James Joyce's “Araby” is another story of disillusionment, but it contains no ambiguity whatsoever. The hero's romantic concept of a village fair is violently shattered by the conventionality and crudeness of the real thing, but in Joyce the hero's realization is of secondary importance. His preconception and the stark reality are the two focuses for the story. The reader knows what the hero thought the fair would be like and he knows what it is actually like, while Čexov limits our perception of the real to Nikitin's impressions of it.

In the trilogy of stories from 1898, “The Man in a Case” (Čelovek v futljare), “Gooseberries” (Kryžovnik), and “About Love” (O ljubvi), there is a problem in the way the narrator understands his own story and in the extent of his commitment to the principles he espouses. In this series the ‘labyrinth of linkages’ extends from one story into the next. In the first there are two central characters, Burkin and Ivan Ivanyč, who are joined by a third figure in the next two, Alexin. All three stories focus on the theme of futljarnost',12 as the title of the first pointedly reminds us. In “The Man in a Case” Burkin, the narrator, apparently comprehends that futljarnost', retreat and escape from life, is not a peculiarity of Belikov alone. He observes at the end of his narrative that within a week of Belikov's death life in the town had slipped back into its familiar pattern and he asks how many “such men in shells were left, how many more of them there will be” (IX, 264). Then Burkin and Ivan Ivanyč step outside to look at the night:

It was already midnight. On the right could be seen the whole village, a long street stretching far away for some three miles. Everything was sunk in deep, silent slumber; not a movement, not a sound; one could hardly believe that nature could be so still. When on a moonlit night you see a wide village street, with its cottages, its haystacks, and its willows that have dropped off to sleep, a feeling of serenity comes over the soul; as it rests thus, hidden from toil, care, and sorrow by the nocturnal shadows, the street is gentle, sad, beautiful, and it seems as though the stars look down upon it kindly and tenderly, and as if there were no more evil on earth, and all were well. On the left, where the village ended, the open country began; the fields could be seen stretching far away to the horizon, and there was no movement, no sound in that whole expanse drenched with moonlight (IX, 264).

The earth itself is enveloped in a shell which lulls one; the spirit of futljarnost' spreads over the entire world. Burkin apparently succumbs to its spell as he falls asleep. Ivan Ivanyč, on the other hand, becomes extremely agitated and extends the implications of his friend's story: “‘And isn't the fact that we live in the stifling, crowded city, write useless documents, play whist—isn't this a shell? And that we spend our whole life among loafers, petty quarrelers, stupid, lazy women, speak and hear various inanities—isn't this a shell? Now if you like, I'll tell you a very instructive story’” (IX, 265).

When Ivan Ivanyč does tell his story in “Gooseberries” the confusions multiply because his behavior and even his words contradict his narrative. The two friends visit Alexin's estate in the country, where their first action is to bathe. Ivan Ivanyč is especially taken with his bath in the open air and continues to splash about rapturously long after his companions have finished. The image that emerges is of a man who deeply loves the country from which he has long been cut off by life in the city. But his story concerns his brother, who retreats from city to country, to retire in the shell of a small estate. When Ivan Ivanyč observes, “‘… I never sympathized with his desire to lock himself up for his whole life on his own country estate’” (IX, 269), his words fail to jibe with his obvious delight in the country life.

After explaining that his brother's cramped style of living made him realize that his own life was no less shell-like, Ivan Ivanyč says: “‘I then left my brother's place early in the morning, and since then living in the city has become unendurable for me. Peace and quiet oppress me …’” (IX, 274). It is unclear whether Ivan Ivanyč realizes that at this point he is talking about both city and country. There is also the possibility that his behavior in the bath contradicts these words.

There is a further contradiction in his statement that his brother's way of life showed him the inadequacy of his own behavior: he subsequently rejects the implications of this awareness for his own life when he pleads that he is now old, and instead implores Alexin, who is younger, to live in a way which he himself refuses to do. Alexin, incidentally, is unmoved, seeing no connection between Ivan Ivanyč's story and his own life.

When the three men retire for the night, Ivan Ivanyč falls asleep instantly, as if he is no longer troubled by his own agitation. This time it is Burkin who cannot fall asleep, irritated by the smell of tobacco still burning in Ivan Ivanyč's last pipe. It may be that Burkin is aware of the implications in the tale and that the smell of the pipe is a vague reminder of Ivan Ivanyč's plea, or it may be that Burkin is aroused, ironically, by the irritating smell to a far greater degree than he was by Ivan Ivanyč's stirring message, or it may be, as Mark Schorer has suggested, that the smell of the pipe is “the smell of some lingering falsehood, of Ivan's story, in fact, which tried at once to prove and disprove its point”.13

“About Love” is Alexin's story of how he and a young woman sacrificed their love for the happiness of others; the young woman already had a husband and children. His point is that he and the woman made a mistake, that now he feels everything should have been sacrificed for the only real love he would ever know. Alexin's story is a protest against the concealment of real feeling under the protective cloak of social convention. It is also an answer to Ivan Ivanyč's appeal at the end of “Gooseberries”: “‘There is no happiness and there shouldn't be, but if there is a meaning and purpose in life, then this meaning and purpose lie not in our happiness but in something more rational and greater. Do good!’” (IX, 274). In effect this is what Alexin has done, and the result is his own brand of futljarnost'.

The story ends on an irrelevance as Burkin and Ivan Ivanyč recall having met the woman whom Alexin loved: “Burkin was even acquainted with her and found her beautiful” (IX, 285). The irrelevance points up the failure of both men to comprehend the correlation between Alexin's experience and theirs. The series of stories possesses its own inner intensity as it moves from Burkin's account of an acquaintance to Ivan Ivanyč's account of his brother to Alexin's account of himself, while at the same time the sense of the characters' commitment to their principles becomes increasingly hazy. There is a final parallel between Burkin in the first tale and Alexin in the last. Each man's futljarnost' has taken the form of a rejection of love, and there may be a further hint at Alexin's resemblance to Belikov in the image of a squirrel in its cage which is used twice to describe Alexin in “About Love”. Thus, for all the intensity of conviction which these characters exhibit there is a strong sense that they fail to comprehend the nature of their own commitment—a sense which is reinforced by the disparity between their convictions and their acts.

In “The Lady with the Dog” (Dama s sobačkoj, 1899) the hero's inability to understand his own feelings infects the entire story to a point where the reader is unsure what has happened. Perhaps in Anna, Gurov has found the only real love of his entire life. As they wonder what they should do about their love, the story ends: “And it seemed that it would be a little while longer—and the solution would be found, and then would begin a new beautiful life” (IX, 372). It seemed that way, but on the other hand we know that Gurov has had a long history of self-deception:

Oft-repeated experience, actually bitter experience, had taught him long ago that every intimacy which at the beginning so pleasantly diversifies life and seems to be a sweet and easy adventure, among decent people, especially among Muscovites, who are sluggish and indecisive, inevitably grows into a real problem, extraordinarily complicated, and the situation finally becomes painful. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman this experience somehow slipped from his memory, and he felt a desire to live, and everything seemed simple and amusing (IX, 358).

The fundamental question which lies before Gurov at the end of the story is not what he and Anna will do in the future, but rather precisely what kind of relationship exists between them. Is this a new experience for Gurov, or is it merely a repetition of the emotional tangle he has been in so often before? Gurov himself is unable to answer and thus the narrative which describes their relationship is itself ambiguous.

The final story to be considered here, “The Bishop” (Arxierej, 1902), casts some doubt on the central character's mode of existence. The bishop is himself so uncertain that what he sees and feels in the present really exists, or that his past ever really existed, that his own actuality becomes tenuous at best. It is in this story, incidentally, that the word ‘seems’ comes close to replacing the verb ‘to be’. It ‘seems’ to the bishop “as though in a dream or delirium” that he sees his mother for the first time in nine years standing among the crowd in church (IX, 416). Thinking on his younger days, he is confused, “… and all the past had left for somewhere far away into the mist, as if it had been dreamed” (IX, 423) “… and now that past rose up before him—living, fair, and joyful, as in all likelihood it had never been” (IX, 425). Curiously, he thinks of his life in the past in a foreign country as more real than his present life in his native country. The bishop does exist and he accurately perceives reality (his mother was standing there in church), but there is a serious disparity between reality and the bishop's perception of it, and this disparity becomes most acute when he is faced with those to whom he should be closest. We stand in a peculiar relationship to reality when we refuse to accept our principal means of confirming that reality—the evidence of our own senses.

At one point there is a kind of double doubting as to the bishop's existence. Katja, his niece, “gazed without blinking at her uncle, his holiness, as though trying to discover what sort of a person he was” (IX, 421). We are not told that Katja tried to discover what sort of person he was; rather, it is as though she tried to discover this. One possible implication is that if he does not really exist, then there is nothing to discover.

The bishop dies and his existence is quickly forgotten by everyone except his mother, who would sometimes tell acquaintances “about her children, her grandchildren, and about how she had had a bishop son (syn arxierej), and here she would speak timidly, fearing that they wouldn't believe her. … And as a matter of fact not everyone did believe her” (IX, 431). For sheer vague suggestiveness this is one of Čexov's finest passages. It may mean that some did not believe that one of her sons became a bishop, though the existence of a hypothetical son is not doubted; but the odd coupling of syn arxierej could carry a lingering doubt about the existence of the son himself, even of a hypothetical one. Her timid speech when referring to the bishop may imply her own doubt about his existence (either as son or bishop); even if she is sure she had a son and that son was a bishop, she has no faith in her ability to attest to such a reality before others. In short, an aura of doubt about existence itself hangs over the ending of “The Bishop”.

Ambiguity is a concomitant of Čexov's impressionism; whenever our focus shifts from what is to what it seems to us to be, we have opened the floodgates to a deluge of possibilities, none of which can ever be certainties. In addition, Čexov's ambiguity forms one of the literary paths which move distinctly away from realism toward symbolism. His splintering of meaning within a character's perception of the external world forms a bridge between the realist's single-plane view of actuality and the symbolist's conception of heterogenous levels of actuality encompassed by a single image.14 “The Bishop” is an appropriate story with which to end an account of Čexov's studies in the tenuous and uncertain nature of man's existence in a world whose exact proportions he is incapable of ascertaining, and where all truths are relative. Although this vision of life was not a consciously thought out and formulated philosophic conception, nevertheless it is a fundamental theme, which both in its presence and in the attempt at its denial, runs from the very earliest through the final stories that Čexov wrote. The last ten years represent the ultimate, though subdued, triumph of the chameleon over the dream.

Notes

  1. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York, 1955), pp. 199–264.

  2. Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers (New York, 1948), pp. 88–95.

  3. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York, 1947), pp. 3–22.

  4. See Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism (The Hague, 1955), p. 209.

  5. There are actually three complete versions of the manuscript in existence: the rough draft (IX, 505–528), the fair copy submitted to Miroljubov, the editor of the Journal for Everybody (Žurnal dlja vsex), where it was first published, and the final version, which appeared in the 1906 edition of Čexov's collected works and also in the 1944–51 Soviet edition (IX, 432–453). The magazine version is available in Literaturnoe nasledstvo: Čexov, ed. V. V. Vinogradov et al. (Moskva, 1960), LXVIII, 87–109. Although most of the crucial changes had already been incorporated in the magazine version, for the sake of simplicity my references are limited to the rough draft and the story in its final form, as it appeared in the 1906 edition.

  6. See in particular, Ronald Hingley, Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study (London, 1950), pp. 170–171; V. Ermilov, Čexov (Moskva, 1949), p. 414; and Zinovij Papernyj, A. P. Čexov: Očerk tvorčestva (Moskva, 1960), pp. 280–291. From my own experience I should like to add that during the 1960 centennial celebrations of Čexov's birth, educational institutions in Moscow were deluged with posters describing what was purported to be Čexov's formula for a better life in the future, such as this quotation from “Betrothed”: “Oh, if only that new, bright life would come more quickly—that life in which one will be able to face one's fate boldly and directly, to know that one is right, to be lighthearted and free! And sooner or later such a life will come” (IX, 449).

  7. Dmitrij Merežkovskij wrote: “Čexov heroes have no life, there is only the daily routine without any event, or with only one event: death, the end of the daily routine, the end of being. Daily routine and death: these are the two fixed poles of Čexov's world.” See “Čexov i Gor'kij” in Grjaduščij xam (St. Petersburg, 1906), p. 50. I would say rather that the first pole—daily routine—has ultimately a dubious kind of being, or at least one is never exactly certain just what the nature of it is.

  8. Thomas Winner, “Čechov and Scientism: Observations on the Searching Stories” in Anton Čechov, 1860–1960: Some Essays, ed. Thomas Eekman (Leiden, 1960), p. 332.

  9. See Renato Poggioli, “Storytelling in a Double Key” in The Phoenix and the Spider (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1957), pp. 109–131.

  10. Once again, the ‘model’ Soviet interpretation is to be found in Ermilov, Čexov, pp. 266–277.

  11. D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (New York, 1949), p. 362.

  12. See Chapter IV, footnote 2 and Chapter VII above for some further remarks on the concept of futljarnost' in Čexov's work.

  13. The Story: A Critical Anthology, ed. Mark Schorer (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1950), p. 64.

  14. For an excellent discussion of the homogeneous nature of the realist's conception of reality versus the symbolist's renovation of heterogeneous, intertwining layers see Dmitrij Čiževskij, Outline of Comparative Slavic Literatures, Survey of Slavic Civilization, I (Boston, 1952), pp. 104–130, esp. pp. 105 and 123–124.

Donald Rayfield (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490

SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “The Student.” In Anton Chekhov's Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Background, Criticism, edited by Ralph E. Matalaw, pp. 335–38. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Rayfield examines the placement of Chekhov's story “The Student,” between the author's “Steppe” stories of the later 1880s and his more lyrical prose of the 1890s and early 1900s.]

The mystic side of Chekhov—his irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos, which aligns him more to Leskov than to Tolstoy in the Russian literary tradition—is very nearly suppressed in the Melikhovo phase, preoccupied as it is with the objective and concrete. But there is one work of 1894, “The Student,” which Chekhov insisted to Bunin was his favorite and most optimistic piece. It is the only story of the Melikhovo period which links the lyricism of “Steppe” with the late prose of “The Bishop,” and almost the only story of Chekhov's which can be read as a parable about art. Lyrical praise of nature brings about fusion of love and reflection. For the first time Chekhov shows that he has found out what makes art of crucial importance to humanity, and, as always when dealing with poetry or music, he sees it as its purest in an ecclesiastical setting. A seminary student is walking home on a wintry day just before Easter; the wind and the desolate landscape arouse the romantic thought that this cold and wind are something perpetual that Ivan the Terrible and Christ too experienced. Misery and oppression are the essence of human life and will always be so. Debilitated by this insight, the student stops to talk to two peasant widows and finds himself clumsily retelling the story of Peter's betrayal of Christ, mixing half-intelligible Church-Slavonisms with the utmost simplification of the story. To his amazement, the women burst into tears, and the student discovers the inexplicable magic of narrative that has nothing to do with the person of the narrator, and the affinity that the suffering and oppressed have with all the suffering and oppression in history. Time and space are bridged in an instant. The story ends with the student filled with a joy at this sudden collapse of time and space as powerful as the depression which the oneness of the world evoked in the beginning. He has touched ‘both ends of a chain’. This is Chekhov's only image for describing what art does. The student understands that the misery and horror of life engender truth and beauty in those who suffer from it. His joy may be conditional, for Chekhov breaks in as a narrator when he says ‘he was only twenty-two’, but faith in human response to a hostile universe is to be the strongest strand in the late prose.

“The Student” is an oddity among the Melikhovo works, but technically it is among the most representative in Chekhov's oeuvre. At the outset Chekhov very precisely establishes time and place, the visual and auditory impressions on the hero, and leaves vague all the traditional details of his face and gait. Nature is given predominance. Even in such a brief work, changes of mood are initiated by nature: the weather suddenly becomes wintry, thrushes and snipe call, something croaks in the marshes, slivers of ice appear in the river. These images lead to a series of apparently unrelated phenomena: a shot, a sound like someone blowing over an empty bottle, all bring a sense of desolation and hollowness to the hero, whose name, like all those in late Chekhov, is perfectly convincing and yet also links him with the open countryside through which he is passing: he is Velikopol'sky, ‘great fields’. The fragmentary background given—the coughing father, the bare-footed mother, the student's hunger—integrates him all the more closely into the scene. As he approaches the two widows to whom he is to tell the story of Peter's betrayal, the verbs of the narrative already prefigure tension, conflict: the verb dulo, dul (blew) shows the disturbance in nature and in the hero; the paradox of the hero's fingers frozen stiff (zakocheneli) while his face is burnt (razgorelos') by the wind anticipates the strange mixture of misery and joy in his story and the reaction to it.

The most striking element of the structure is its cyclic shape: all the details of the scene are mirrored in the story of Peter's betrayal, which in turn is mirrored in the final page of narrative. The workmen on the other side of the river correspond to the workmen warming themselves by the fire in the story of Peter: the calling of the birds in the opening phrases corresponds to the triple crowing of the cock; the description of the younger widow as zabitaya (beaten down) corresponds to the description of Christ, beaten and tormented (bili, zamuchennyy); the weeping of Peter (zaplakal and the Church Slavonic plakasya) leads to the weeping of Vasilisa. The campfire in the story of Peter is echoed by a campfire in the background of the last scene; the dawn of Peter's betrayal corresponds to the sunset into which the student walks. On one level, this structure merely shows how a natural scene—desolate spring, a camp-fire, two windows—provokes a narrative which embodies its mood and its details. But two paragraphs, at the beginning and the end of the story, show us how Velikopol'sky's thoughts make more of the connection. The word dul (blew) inspires the student with the thought that ‘now’ is part of eternity, that this scene of poverty is, like the wind, timeless. From that idea of dejection spring the narrative and the final joy of the whole story: if want and wind are timeless, so are the great moments of human suffering. And if these moments are meaningful to later generations, then art, the narration of suffering, like religion, is meaningful. Rarely was Chekhov's integrated imagery so economically effective. The final paragraph of the story is typical in its symbolism of his ecclesiastical works. The overjoyed student crosses the river by the ferry: as in “On Easter Eve” of 1886 and elsewhere, the river symbolises the division of two worlds. He climbs a hill and looks down on his village—a moment of transfiguration, of escape from the prison of environment, again to be seen in “In the Ravine” when Lipa walks on the hillside above her village. The images of sunset and daybreak, with their blood-red coloring, remain ominous, but in “The Student” the association of Peter and the present day makes the ‘coldness’ insignificant: the final impressions are of truth, beauty and happiness.

The rhythm of the language brings out the joy of the student's narration. The first part of the story is harsh and laconic; when the student begins to speak, the style becomes rich and gentle. Some of his language is childlike: his double adjectives, tikhiy-tikhiy, tyomnyy-tyomnyy, gor'ko-gor'ko (quiet, dark, bitter). Some is exotic, his Church Slavonic petel (cock), vecherya (last supper), plakasya (he wept), mingling the past with the present in the very texture of the prose. The last part of the story has a verbal rhythm that follows the movement of the characters. ‘Vasilisa suddenly sobbed [vskhlipnula], tears, big, copious' is punctuated to show the convulsions of tears. The third paragraph from the end of the story is cast as a Tolstovan series of syllogisms, slow, firm and dry: ‘If Vasilisa cried … then clearly, what he had just been relating … was relevant to the present … and probably to this empty village, to himself, to everyone. If … then not because … but because … and because … in what had been happening.’ Almost without concrete imagery, with a stringent syntax unlike that of the rest of the story, this paragraph mimics the tortuous, even clumsy cerebral reaction in Velikopol'sky. If we compare this ‘cerebral’ passage, with its conjunctions and its parallel constructions, with the last paragraph, we can see the difference between thought and intuition. The last paragraph is one long sentence of a hundred words, one flow of images concrete and abstract, moving from ‘the ferry … river … hill … village … sunset’ to ‘truth … beauty … youth … health … strength … joy … sense’. There is no ‘because’: the construction is parenthetic, not logical, and is made when ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘he thought about how’; with dashes, with ‘and's, leading not to an elucidation, but to a climax. The third paragraph from the close explains what has happened; the last paragraph is a subjective ending. For Chekhov the illusion of an imminent break-through of happiness was in his last words more important than the verifiable observations on the present. “The Student” is a perfect example in miniature of Chekhov's art, and it bridges the gap between the ecstatic mood of the ecclesiastical and steppe stories of 1886 and 1887 and the lyricism of the prose of the 1900s.

Note

From Donald Rayfield, Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art (London: Paul Elek, 1975), pp. 152–55.

Beverly Hahn (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7742

SOURCE: Hahn, Beverly. “The Short Story—I.” In Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, pp. 52–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Hahn examines Chekhov's correspondence with the older author Grigorovich, who urged him to pursue a more careful and refined writing style, and the profound effects this advice had upon the young Chekhov.]

The year 1886 was one of the turning-points in Chekhov's life and work. As “The Huntsman” and “Sorrow” show, his development from his often coarse and banal beginnings in such things as the Dragonfly ‘advertisements’ was quite rapid. But in March 1886 that development was given a sudden new impetus by the arrival of a letter from the noted older author Grigorovich.1 The importance of this letter and of Chekhov's reply to it warrants my quoting both in full:

Dear Sir, Anton Pavlovich:


About a year ago I read by chance a story of yours in Petersburg Gazette; I do not recall its title. I remember only that I was struck by its qualities of outstanding originality and chiefly its remarkable accuracy and truthfulness in its descriptions of people and nature.


Since then I have read everything that bore the signature of Chekhonte, although I was inwardly vexed at a man who held so poor an opinion of himself as to consider the use of a pseudonym necessary. While reading you, I continually advised Suvorin and Burenin to follow my example. They listened to me and now, like me, they do not doubt that you have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.


I am not a journalist nor a publisher. I can be useful to you only as one of your readers. If I speak of your talent, I speak out of conviction. I am almost sixty-five, but I still feel so much love for literature and follow its success with so much ardour and rejoice when I find in it something living and gifted, that I cannot refrain—as you see—from holding out both hands to you.


But this is by no means all. Here is what I wish to add. By virtue of the varied attributes of your undoubted talent—the precise truth of your internal analysis, your mastery of description (the snowstorm, the night, the background in Agafya etc.), the plasticity of your feelings which in a few lines projects a complete picture (the clouds above the setting sun ‘like ashes over dying coals’, etc.)—I am convinced that you are destined to create some admirable and truly artistic works. And you will be guilty of a great moral sin if you do not live up to these hopes. All that is needed is esteem for the talent which so rarely falls to one's lot. Cease to write hurriedly. I do not know what your financial situation is. If it is poor, it would be better for you to go hungry, as we did in our day, and save your impressions for a mature, finished work, written not in one sitting, but during the happy hours of inspiration. One such work will be valued a hundred times higher than a hundred fine stories scattered among the newspapers at various times. In one leap you will reach the goal and will gain the notice of cultivated people and then all the reading public.


Why is it that you often have motifs with pornographical nuances at the basis of your tales? Truthfulness and realism not only do not exclude refinement but even gain from it. You have such a powerful sense of form and a feeling for the plastic, that you have no special need, for example, to speak about dirty feet with turned-in toenails or a clerk's navel. These details add exactly nothing to the artistic beauty of a description and only spoil the impression among readers of taste. Have the generosity to forgive such observations, for I resolved to make them only because I sincerely believe in your talent and with all my soul desire its fullest development.


Several days ago I was told that you are publishing a book of tales. If it is to appear under the pseudonym of Che-Khon-Te, I beg you earnestly to telegraph the publishers to print it under your real name. After your recent stories in New Times and the success of “The Hunter,” the book will also have great success. It would be agreeable to have some assurance that you are not angry over my remarks, but that you accept them in the spirit that I write—not as an authority but out of the simplicity of an old heart.

Three days later, Chekhov replied:

Your letter, my kind, warmly beloved herald of glad tidings, struck me like a thunderbolt. I nearly wept, I was profoundly moved, and even now I feel that it has left a deep imprint on my soul. As you have smiled on my youth, so may God give you peace in your old age. I, indeed, can find neither words nor actions to show my gratitude. You know with what eyes ordinary people look upon such outstanding people like yourself, hence you may realize what your letter means for my self-esteem. It is worth more than any diploma, and for a beginning author it is an honorarium now and for the future. I am as in a daze. I lack the ability to judge whether or not I merit this great reward. I only repeat that it has overwhelmed me.


If I have a gift which must be respected, then before the purity of your heart I confess that I have not respected it up to now. I felt that I had such a gift, but I had grown accustomed to regarding it as insignificant. Reasons of a purely external nature suffice to render one excessively mistrustful and suspicious toward oneself. Such reasons, as I now recall, I had in abundance. My whole family have always referred condescendingly to my work as a writer and have never ceased offering me friendly advice not to give up a real profession for scribbling. I have hundreds of friends in Moscow and among them a score of writers, yet I cannot recall a single one who would read me or recognize me as an artist. In Moscow there is a so-called ‘Literary Circle’. Talented and mediocre people of all kinds and ages meet there once a week to gossip in the private room of a restaurant. If I were to go there and read even a bit of your letter, they would laugh in my face. During the five years of my roaming from newspaper to newspaper, I became infected with their own common views on the triviality of literature and soon grew accustomed to regarding my own work slightingly—so I simply sat down and wrote! That is the first reason. The second is that I am a physician and up to my neck in medicine. No one has lost more sleep than I have over the fable of hunting two hares at one time.


I write all this to justify to you, in some small degree, my grievous sin. Hitherto I have treated my own literary work frivolously, carelessly, without thinking. I do not recall a single tale of mine over which I have worked more than a day, and “The Hunter,” which pleased you, I wrote in the bathhouse! I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself. I wrote and tried in every way not to waste on my tales images and pictures which were clear to me and which, God knows why, I kept to myself and carefully concealed.


What first drove me to take a critical view of my writing was a very charming and, as far as I can judge, a sincere letter from Suvorin. I began to think of writing some purposeful piece, but nevertheless I did not have faith in my own literary direction.


And now, all of a sudden, your letter arrived. You must forgive the comparison, but it had the same effect on me as a government order ‘to get out of the city in twenty-four hours’! That is, I suddenly felt the absolute necessity for haste, to get out of this rut, where I am stuck, as quickly as possible.


I agree with you in everything. The cynical effects which you attribute to me I myself felt when I saw “The Witch” in print. They would not have been there if this tale had been written in three or four days instead of one.


I will free myself from hurried work, but not just yet. It is not possible to get out of the rut into which I have fallen. I do not refuse to suffer hunger, for I have already gone hungry, but it is not a question of myself alone. I devote my leisure to writing, two to three hours a day and a little at night—that is, only time enough for small undertakings. In the summer, when I shall have more leisure and fewer expenses, I'll settle to work in earnest.


I cannot place my own name on my book because it is too late; the cover design is ready and the book is printed. Many Petersburgers apart from yourself advised me not to spoil the volume by using a pseudonym, but I did not listen to them, probably out of vanity. I do not like the book at all. It is a hotch-potch, an untidy accumulation of student pieces marred by the censorship and the editors of humorous magazines. I believe that many, in reading it, will be disappointed. If I had known that I was being read and that you were watching me, I would not have let the book be published.


All my hopes lie entirely in the future. I am only twenty-six. Perhaps I shall manage to do something, although time passes quickly.


Please excuse this long letter and do not blame a man who, for the first time in his life, has dared to pamper himself with the great pleasure of a letter to Grigorovich.


Send me, if possible, your photograph. I have been so encouraged and stirred up by you that I ought to write you not a mere sixteen pages but a whole ream. May God give you happiness and health, and please believe in the sincerity of a profoundly respectful and grateful.

A. Chekhov2

Though Chekhov's letter itself betrays signs of immaturity in its extravagant analogies and its exaggeration of Grigorovich's authority, his artistic career did take a more serious direction from this point on. Of course, his family's financial situation prevented him from changing his working habits all at once and for years to come small stories (the well-known “Sleepy” was one) would be dashed off for a few roubles while some larger work was in hand. But, on the whole, there is a discernible change in the stories of 1886, which are both more serious and better finished than those which preceded them.

As a serious writer of short stories Chekhov was in a slightly difficult position. Before him in the Russian tradition were Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Leskov and Turgenev—a formidable line of authors, all of whom had achieved very real triumphs in the short-story form. Chekhov's “The Huntsman” was inspired by Turgenev's ‘The Tryst’, from The Hunting Sketches. His early farcical works continue the Gogol influence; and his sometimes mythically intense environments, particularly at the climaxes of the later novellas, probably originate from his admiration of Lermontov's ‘Taman’ from A Hero of Our Time. But Chekhov was really a different kind of writer from his predecessors, and if they were influences upon him, they nevertheless never became models. Like them, he is not a metaphysical writer in any real sense: his basic interest is in the terms on which ordinary people live out their finite and often frustrated lives. But he differs from his predecessors in that the scope of his vision nevertheless takes in more than the purely social or psychological. This extra dimension in Chekhov's work, which is extremely subtle and therefore difficult to define, has, perhaps, something to do with the kinds of interest natural to him as a dramatist: interest, for example, in the way figures are disposed within a larger scene and thus in the imaginative and psychological effects of different spatial perspectives, or his sense of the dramatic potency that pauses or extended silences may assume at particular intervals in an action or speech. Whatever its origins, its presence in the early stories is as a wider ambience surrounding the human action, an ambience which seems to be expressing the impersonality of time and space. A brief comparison of a passage from “The Tryst” (1852) with the one discussed in the last chapter from “The Huntsman” (1885) may help to illustrate what I mean. Here, first, is Turgenev:

Victor languidly put out his hand, accepted the offering, sniffed negligently at the flowers, and fell to twiddling them in his fingers, now and then turning his eyes upward in thoughtful dignity. Akulina was contemplating him … There was in her melancholy gaze so much of tender devotion, of adoring submission and love. She loved him, and she dared not weep, and was saying farewell to him and admiring him for the last time; but he lay there, lolling like a sultan, and with magnanimous patience and condescension was tolerating her adoration. It was with indignation, I confess, that I studied his red face, through the affectedly disdainful indifference of which a satisfied, sated self-conceit was peering. Akulina was so splendid at that instant: all her soul was trustingly, passionately unfolding before him, was drawn to him, was yearning to caress and be caressed, but he … he let the cornflowers drop on the grass, pulled out of a side pocket of his overcoat a round bit of glass rimmed with bronze, and began trying to squeeze it in over his eye; however, no matter how he strove to retain it with the help of a frowning eyebrow, a pursed-up cheek, and even his nose, the monocle kept right on popping out and falling back into his hand.3

And now Chekhov:

A silence followed. Three wild ducks flew over the clearing. Yegor followed them with his eyes till, transformed into three scarcely visible dots, they sank down far beyond the forest.


‘How do you live?’ he asked, moving his eyes from the ducks to Pelagea.


‘Now I am going out to work, and in the winter I take a child from the Foundling Hospital and bring it up on the bottle. They give me a rouble and a half a month.’


‘Oh …’


Again a silence. From the strip that had been reaped floated a soft song which broke off at the very beginning. It was too hot to sing.

(vi. 248)

Though the Turgenev is obviously good, the Chekhov has a much more dramatic basis and is more deft, managing without the rather clumsily dramatized author-presence that obtrudes through The Hunting Sketches. Furthermore, Chekhov conveys a strange silence around the through the scene, so that we feel the difficulty with which the characters reach out to one another and the tenuous conditions on which their lives meet. There is nothing to match this in Turgenev's more conventionally social and psychological narrative. All of Turgenev's attention is occupied by the social and sexual demeanour of a particular man to the peasant girl who loves him. The narrative voice in “The Tryst” conveys a continuous moral reaction to what it records: ‘… through the affectedly disdainful indifference of which a satisfied, sated self-conceit was peering.’ Chekhov, on the other hand, though interested in the relationship between the man and woman and sympathizing with the woman's plight, makes his reader so conscious of the contingency of their meeting that one is disinclined to judge either of them. The poignancy of the encounter comes not from the woman's violated trust but from the fact that these people inhabit a world in which it is the natural fate of things to be dispersed, like the bird-song, and lost, like the ducks, in time and space. The very expanse of that world, which should open into freedom, seems to disperse the elements of a possible and more positive human intimacy. So that if Chekhov is not a metaphysical writer in Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's sense, neither is he, like Gogol or Turgenev, basically confined in range to social and psychological insight. His interest in setting his characters in a poetically created context of time and space, with the landscapes projecting a sense of the world as unyielding to human pressures and needs, infuses his early stories with a spirit which is not simply ‘neutral’ in some indefinable sense but consciously and perceptibly agnostic.

Being a more serious artist therefore meant for Chekhov, after Grigorovich's letter of 1886, registering more fully in his work his intense consciousness, as an agnostic and developing humanist, of suffering, grief and death. It was not open to him—nor, I should think, to any Russian author—to write stories of manners in the English sense. Russian society was, of course, divided into recognizable classes which could be identified by differences of manners and dress, but it appears to have lacked a broad middle class, and this presumably had important consequences both for literary subjects and for literature's expectations of its audience. The ‘literature of landowners' was preoccupied with the great social, moral and theological issues of the day. Its upper-class audience was apparently assured enough of its own polite codes simply to take them for granted and to look beyond them to more important concerns. Upper classes in general probably have less cause for self-scrutiny about manners than the more mobile middle and upper-middle classes, precisely because upper classes are less constantly invaded by ‘newcomers’. These ‘newcomers’ are the people whom, by their inferior manners, the more established members of a middle class will usually be jealously on the alert to detect. Perhaps more importantly, it is the middle class, as the most energetic class in society and the one most challenging to old class dominances, which provides the most sustained context for observing the interaction between different classes and hence for clarifying differences of manners. In classic Russian literature, social classes are represented as being unusually discrete. There are the peasants (rural and urban), the non-aristocratic landed gentry and the aristocrats: between them, a middle ground of students, clerks, merchants and officials who do not cohere as a definite class at all. The social energy seems to come from the merchant group, but that group, on the whole, seems fairly small and much more limited in its mobility than the equivalent class in England. So it is probably significant that Russian literature generally is more preoccupied with its national codes and ‘types’ than with those of a class or classes, even allowing that an interest in ‘class’, as it is defined in the English tradition, is never merely that. The fact that Chekhov himself attempted so early to portray facets of the Russian national character (as he did seriously in “The Steppe”, 1888) and only belatedly—at the height of his career—engaged with the subtleties of class situations and conflicts, also suggests that the Russian literary environment was, in this respect, virtually the antithesis of the English.

With that sense of literary integrity and of literature's seriousness which Chekhov came to share with other great Russians, he saw it as literature's task to depict ‘truth, unconditional and honest’4—the truth of life itself; but as he conceived that truth, there were no literary models for him to follow. He most admired Maupassant, but unlike Maupassant he had no particular, prejudicial view of the human personality to put forward. Among Russia's own writers there were none who shared quite his sense of the world. Pushkin in ‘The Station-Master’ and Gogol in ‘The Overcoat’ had conveyed suffering as it arises in particular social contexts; and, of course, stoicism in the face of the harshest circumstances is one of the hallmarks of Russian literature's images of its own national types. But there seems to have been no precedent in Russian literature for Chekhov's compassionate presentation of human suffering which recognizes and captures also the surrounding impersonality of time and space. This is particularly so when one thinks of the way Chekhov's compassion is combined with a highly developed sense of irony: for irony, in Chekhov, is not simply a ‘method’ but is intrinsic to his vision. It is something he perceives in life itself, in the way lives are turned and twisted from their hoped-for direction—as, for example, when a long-standing with is fulfilled at the very moment when it is no longer wished for. This kind of perception gives his art both its distinctive ironic shape and its compassionate tone. So it is perhaps no wonder that, even after Chekhov began to be more serious about his work, it took some time and further practice for his vision to find its most appropriate forms. He had to learn to by-pass the obvious opportunities for capturing the reader's sympathy, to get away from that sort of conventionality, and to convey instead, through the peculiar directions taken by his tales, a more complex understanding of the precise conditions and restrictions of his characters' lives. Many of the early stories, at their more serious moments, tend to offer simple, affecting images of suffering through strongly realized (but incipiently sentimental and inherently limited) visual scenes. Only very gradually, as we shall see, was Chekhov able to realize the seriousness of his vision actually through his distinctive sense of irony.

We have already seen the beginning of this serious and sad sense of the world, and a non-ironic, imagistic definition of it, in “Sorrow”. In 1886 a number of the same elements were reproduced in another story, “Misery”. From the comparison one can see an initially instinctive image—that of falling snow—taking on a steady, conscious metaphoric force; and in the later story the character's grief, rather than being gradually unfolded, is made immediately apparent in a suggestive visual scene:

The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street-lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snow-drift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off … His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs, make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar grey landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.


It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged.

(ix. 57)

Though there is a touch of sentimentality about the nag ‘lost in thought’, the total effect is quite powerful. The feeling of the passage comes from the suggestiveness of the immobilized postures—the sledge-driver ‘bent as double as the living body can be bent’, and the angular outline of the little mare—as these are progressively defined at the centre of a whitening world of steadily falling snow. For, given the lightness of texture associated with the lazy whirling of the snow around the street-lamps, the still, hunched figure of the sledge-driver covered with fallen snow becomes the centre of gravity, its weight and immobility seeming to abstract it from the snow-measured passing of time. The quietude suggested by the snowflakes and the newly lit lamps deepens into a burdened intuition of the muteness of suffering (gently connecting the man with the horse), which the bustle of the city noise further defines by contrast. As the story proceeds, Iona is roused three times from his desolation to take a fare, and each time he begins to tell of the death of his son. But no one wants the discomfort of another man's personal tragedy; and after each fare Chekhov returns Iona, with a sense of its ever deepening poignancy, to the same hunched immobility as at the opening:

Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box … Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another …

(ix. 59)

Iona on the box epitomizes the loneliness of sorrow implied in the epigraph—‘To whom shall I tell my grief?’ The snow falling around him intensifies that sense of Iona's aloneness by giving a constant visual sense of the world apart from Iona going on as before. This composite image is the one to which the story constantly returns. For it is in the nature of things that no one can really share Iona's sense of what has happened to him; and the recurrence of that one image is Chekhov's way of making us feel the pathos of such a fact. As we come to realize, even when Iona is finding a kind of relief in the companionship of the officer or the ‘merry gentlemen’, he is, in his deepest self, still huddled up on his box.

Unfortunately, there is a damaging weakness in the way the story presents Iona's second fare. The vulgarity and violence of the young men and the pathos of Iona's trying to laugh at their aggression against him are both too extreme to be properly convincing. There is, I think, some power in the way Iona and the hunchback are brought into a desperate accord by the threat which his own isolation presents to each:

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough.

(ix. 61)

The hunchback's abuse is virtually impersonal: in a strange way it satisfies a deep need in Iona as well as in himself. But Iona's repeated laugh, even after he has been struck, is overdone:

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.


‘He-he! …’ he laughs. ‘Merry gentlemen … God give you health!’

(ix. 61)

In one of his letters Chekhov says about writing stories: ‘One must not humiliate people—that is the chief thing.’5 In this part of “Misery” he unconsciously falls into that trap. Iona is the most vulnerable kind of character, a victim, inarticulate about his actual suffering though desperate to talk. In trying to enter into his feelings, Chekhov is undertaking, more successfully, something like what Dickens tried to do with Jo in Bleak House. Whole paragraphs, though bordering on sentimentality in some of the phrasing, are intensely moving:

Again he is alone and again there is silence for him … The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street; can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery … His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight …

(ix. 62)

But, elsewhere in the story, in the process of evoking the pathos of this ‘insignificant shell’, Chekhov robs Iona of some of his early dignity. And the ‘solution’ the story finds to Iona's loneliness is perhaps a rather obvious one, which partly lets down the powerful beginning. In order to carry the effect through at all, Chekhov has to rely on small emotive details, like the mare's ‘shining eyes’ and her munching and listening, to suggest more sympathetic attention from the animal than can realistically be there:

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather … He cannot think about his son when he is alone … To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish …


‘Are you munching?’ Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. ‘There, munch away, munch away … Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay … Yes … I have grown too old to drive … My son ought to be driving, not I … He was a real cabman … He ought to have lived …


Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:


‘That's how it is, old girl … Kuzma Ionitch is gone … He said good-bye to me … He went and died for no reason … Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt … And all at once that same little colt went and died … You'd be sorry, wouldn't you? …’


The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.

(ix. 64–5)

An essentially sentimental writer would probably have gone on; but after that suggestive silence in which Iona seems to wonder whether he will continue and then abandons himself to the emotional situation, Chekhov quickly closes off the narrative. Having indicated what is to be the general quality of Iona's speech and taking warning from what might happen if he were to over-elaborate that touching but incipiently sentimental analogy of the boy and the ‘little colt’, he ends the story deftly and tactfully in a summarizing statement: ‘Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.’

“Misery”, then, is a quite important early story. It reveals already a strong human and moral concern in Chekhov's work, and it projects a quite forceful sense of his basic view of the world through its imagery. The falling snow around Iona seems neither a response to his misery nor something that can change it. It is just part of an unconscious process which would be the same if men did not exist. And as it slowly obliterates colours and shapes, falling evenly across the sky, it feels imaginatively analogous to the passing of time. Significantly, one of the best short stories of our own century by an agnostic writer—Joyce's ‘The Dead’, from Dubliners—depends upon a very similar effect: there too the falling snow, all over Ireland, at Gabriel Conroy's window and over the churchyard where Michael Furey is buried, is made to convey a similar sense of time passing and of a universe indifferent to men.

Yet, as I have suggested, the extent of Chekhov's reliance on suggestive imagery in these early stories can be a limitation. In the late plays there is a great range of pictorial effects, enriching and ramifying action which is dramatically alive with emotional currents and cross-currents as complex as any the theatre has seen. But in some of this earlier work the imagery over-dominates the whole, and by doing so it seems to deny the reader the intellectual participation he expects and requires of such an art. I think we miss the sense of challenge: the challenge to see the ramifying implications of the way situations are dramatized and the way they are structured to interact. The imagery is over-insistent, over-obvious; and it insists on just one thing. What is more, this static, pictorial definition of human predicaments involuntarily gives the impression of unusual human passivity—whence, no doubt, derives the criticism that Chekhov's characters are somehow will-less and negative. Both charges would undoubtedly be difficult to deny in the case of “Dreams” (1886). The situation there (of two peasant constables escorting a prison escapee through a landscape of sticky mud and ragged autumn trees) is much too obviously contrived, designed deliberately to crush all hopes of a better life, while simultaneously investing those hopes with pathos. The immediate landscape is, in fact, heavy-handedly symbolic:

The travellers had been a long while on their way, but they seemed to be always on the same small patch of ground. In front of them there stretched thirty feet of muddy black-brown mud, behind them the same, and wherever one looked further, an impenetrable wall of white fog. They went on and on, but the ground remained the same, the wall was no nearer, and the patch on which they walked seemed still the same patch.

(vi. 88)

It is not difficult to see that this potentially imprisoning landscape, in which progress feels illusory and in which the clinging mud makes every step an effort, is being offered as a composite metaphor of the restrictive reality within which dreams are both powerful and completely unreal. The recaptured escapee-tramp has a dream, predictable in the circumstances, of escaping from custody to the tall forests and plentiful life of Siberia; but no sooner is the dream conveyed than the barriers to its realization are erected with even greater vividness:

All three were pondering. The peasants were racking their brains in the effort to grasp in their imagination what can be grasped by none but God—that is, the vast expanse dividing them from the land of freedom. Into the tramp's mind thronged clear and distinct pictures more terrible than that expanse. Before him rose vividly the picture of the long legal delays and procrastinations, the temporary and permanent prisons, the convict boats, the wearisome stoppages on the way, the frozen winters, illnesses, deaths of companions …

(vi. 98)

This catalogue of obstacles in the tramp's mind has immediate power, touching deftly as it does on the known brutalities of the Russian penal system. But to use those physical obstacles indirectly to reinforce a more abstract and basic sense of men's lack of freedom seems rather wilfully pessimistic. Chekhov's supposed interest in the wider nature of the conditions inhibiting all men's lives is narrowed and prejudiced by the extreme physical adversity in this one case. Pondering the vast distance separating them from freedom, all three men are robbed of any air of effective initiative, while the deliberately archetypal ingredients of the scene (the clinging mud, the primitive mound on which the three men sit) attempt, spuriously, to enlarge one extreme of physical bondage into a pessimistic general image of human fate.

Apart from the problem of the over-pictorial nature of the art, there is, then, the further problem of what is generally referred to as Chekhov's ‘negativity’ in the defeat he constructs for the tramp's dreams. But one such case, or even more, is hardly sufficient foundation for a whole characterization of Chekhov, such as Lev Shestov's in an almost wholly impressionistic essay (favourably reviewed some years ago, on the occasion of its republication, in the New York Review of Books), ‘Anton Tchekhov (Creation from the Void)’. Since Shestov's views seem to have gained some general currency, it is worth quoting him at this point:

To define his tendency in a word, I would say that Tchekhov was the poet of hopelessness. Stubbornly, sadly, monotonously, during all the years of his literary activity, nearly a quarter of a century long, Tchekhov was doing one thing alone: by one means or another he was killing human hopes.6

If this were true, Chekhov could never have written “The Duel”, and “The Party”, “The Lady with the Dog” and The Cherry Orchard (to mention just a few) would have to be much simpler than they in fact are. Certainly, he could not be the humanist my account makes him out to be. But since this view may superficially seem appropriate to some of the early work, I want to take issue with it in relation to “Vanka”, one of the most perfect little stories of 1886. Apart from its intrinsic interest and its suitability for raising this issue of Chekhov's supposed ‘negativity’, “Vanka” is also one of the few works of this period which rely more for their meaning on capturing a voice and on the irony inherent in their organization than on the visual suggestion of the imagery.

“Vanka” is a simple tale, relaxed and emotionally straightforward. Yet the kind of reverberation set up by the simple situation of a child writing a letter of love to his grandfather far away is one of those small accidents of genius. Vanka's plea, written amid the shelves of lasts in the shoemaker's shop on Christmas Eve, is a desperate plea to be allowed to return to his child's life; and the letter he writes, with its intense child-like conviction that he simply cannot survive the Moscow life, captures a note that is unbearably genuine:

‘Dear grandfather, show the divine mercy, take me away from here, home to the village. It's more than I can bear. I bow down to your feet, and will pray to God for you for ever, take me away from here or I shall die.’

(xii. 91)

His whole letter movingly combines his childishly respectful mode of address to someone much older with his intense love of and respect for his grandfather, and associates his feeling for his grandfather with a whole former sense of the world to which Moscow just does not measure up. Chekhov captures superbly the emphatic emotional imperatives of the child's voice, and in Vanka's testing of Moscow against the village life we find a touching echo of a child's habits of thought:

‘And in the butcher's shops there are grouse and woodcocks and fish and hares, but the shopmen don't say where they shoot them.’

(xii. 92)

But most impressive, given the obvious dangers of the story's situation, is the complete absence of sentimentality in the images given of Vanka's past. Vanka's memory is vivid: his longing is a quite different thing from adult nostalgia. He is close enough to the reality of his past for it to remain in his mind vibrantly crisp and impregnated with primitive vigour:

He remembered how his grandfather always went into the forest to get the Christmas tree for his master's family, and took his grandson with him. It was a merry time! Grandfather made a noise in his throat, the forest crackled with the frost, and looking at them Vanka chortled too. Before chopping down the Christmas tree, grandfather would smoke a pipe, slowly take a pinch of snuff, and laugh at frozen Vanka … The young fir trees, covered with hoar frost, stood motionless, waiting to see which of them was to die. Wherever one looked, a hare flew like an arrow over the snowdrifts … Grandfather could not refrain from shouting: ‘Hold him, hold him … hold him! Ah, the bob-tailed devil!’

(xii. 93)

Vanka ‘chortling’ epitomizes the unself-conscious vitality of the whole scene. Similarly, the images of grandfather in the imagined present, joking with the servants and pinching the maids, wearing felt boots and carrying his little mallet, are extremely vivid and yet in no way sentimental. In fact, grandfather himself—as distinct from Vanka's feeling for him—emerges through the story as somewhat banal, so that a part of the effect Chekhov eventually achieves here comes from the poignant disproportion which we are made progressively to sense between Vanka's love and the merits of the person to whom it is given.

Vanka's love gets its special intensity from its being strongly associated with a sense of belonging. It is typical of Chekhov's instinctive psychological understanding that he brings in as he does, through the child's touching egoistic trust in the power of his own name, the way that loving is bound up with self-identity:

‘Dear grandfather, when they have the Christmas tree at the big house, get me a gilt walnut, and put it away in the green trunk. Ask the young lady Olga Ignatyevna, say it's for Vanka.’

(xii. 92)

Later in the story, too, Vanka's desperate insecurity is conveyed as he tries to reassert his connection with grandfather's world by citing his association with its people and objects: