In 1897, Anton Chekhov is dining with a wealthy publisher named Suvorin, at an elegant restaurant in Moscow. The two share an awareness of their peasant origins, although Suvorin’s politics are reactionary and Chekhov’s are quite the opposite. During the dinner, Chekhov experiences his first hemorrhage; the blood gushing from his mouth indicates that he has tuberculosis. Even while he is recuperating in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, however, Chekhov denies that anything serious is wrong with him. (Raymond Carver quotes from the memoirs of Chekhov’s younger sister, Maria. During a visit with Chekhov at the clinic, she saw a doctor’s drawing of Chekhov’s lungs and recognized that the doctor had told him he was seriously ill.)
The author Leo Tolstoy also visits Chekhov during this time; although he does not like Chekhov’s plays, he admires his short stories. During the visit, he tells Chekhov his ideas about immortality, ideas that Chekhov cannot share. Chekhov confines his beliefs to things that he can experience with his senses.
Chekhov spends much of his illness in denial, constantly insisting that he is getting better or that he is about to improve, even in his last weeks of life. He spends those weeks at Badenweiler, a popular German resort frequented by Russians, accompanied by his adored wife, Olga Knipper. The couple had met when Olga acted in Chekhov’s Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1909), and married in 1901. After a lengthy and complicated courtship, Chekhov has found marriage to be a happy experience.
Before going to Badenweiler, Chekhov consulted a specialist in Berlin, but that doctor had summarily dismissed him because his disease was far too advanced for treatment. A Russian journalist who visited Chekhov at about this time confirmed for his editor that the famous writer seemed to have entered the last stages of his illness, and noted his thinness, his constant fever, and his difficulties in breathing.
In Badenweiler, Chekhov is treated by Dr. Schwörer. Chekhov himself is a physician, so he must know how sick he is; nevertheless, his letters to his mother and sister in these last weeks of his life insist that he is improving and getting stronger. Chekhov is not writing during this period, however. His last work was Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), which he finished writing with difficulty in 1903 after expressing the belief that he would never write again.
On July 2, 1904, shortly after midnight, Olga sends for the doctor to come to Chekhov in their hotel. Chekhov has begun hallucinating, evidently about a trip he had once made to Japan. When Dr. Schwörer arrives, he senses that Chekhov has little time left. He gives him an injection to speed his heart, but it does no good. At last, he says he will send for oxygen, but Chekhov, momentarily lucid, says that he will be dead before it arrives. At that point, the doctor goes to the telephone and calls the hotel’s kitchen to order a bottle of champagne and three glasses.
A rumpled young man who works for the hotel delivers the champagne and receives the doctor’s generous tip. Then the doctor pours three glasses and presses the cork back into the bottle. Olga puts the cool glass into the hand of Chekhov, who says it has been a long time since he has drunk champagne. He drinks all of his wine, and Olga removes his empty glass. After rolling onto his side, Chekhov dies a few minutes later. Olga asks the doctor to delay telling the authorities for a few hours; she wishes to be alone with her husband before his body is taken over by others. Just as the doctor agrees, the champagne cork pops out of the bottle.
Olga sits with her husband until morning, when a knock at the door reveals the young hotel employee who has come to deliver a porcelain vase of roses and to collect the champagne bottle and glasses. Seeing the cork on the floor and becoming aware that someone is lying in the bedroom, he senses that something is wrong. Now Olga, who has not...
(The entire section is 2,194 words.)