Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky and Burkin are hunting in the countryside when a heavy rain begins; they decide to seek shelter at the home of a local landowner, Pavel Konstantinovich Alekhin. Alekhin is young, unmarried, and a hard worker; he is also inclined to neglect his appearance in the absence of guests. In preparation for dinner and an evening of conversation, Alekhin and his guests bathe in the river; the guests notice that the water around their host turns brown as the dirt cascades off his body. The narrator, who is presumably the author, looks on Alekhin with favor, however, as he accentuates the young landowner’s love of hard work and energetic interest in everything around him.
After their ablutions, the three gentlemen settle down with tea as Ivan Ivanich tells Burkin and Alekhin the curious story of his brother’s life. Nikolai Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky went to work as a clerk in a large city at the age of nineteen. Both of the brothers grew up in the countryside, but their family estate was sold to settle debts. Nikolai Ivanich has never reconciled himself to life in the city and makes plans to acquire enough money to buy a small estate where he can grow gooseberries, which become a symbol in his mind of gracious living in the countryside. He spends his days dreaming of the future estate: where the main building will be located, ducks swimming in a pond, how he will eat soup made from cabbages that he has grown himself, and where the gooseberry bushes will be planted. Ivan Ivanich does not sympathize with his brother’s dream, viewing it as an escape from reality and an unnecessary limitation on one’s field of action. Instead of retreating to a country estate, a person should see the world and be active in society, he thinks.
After this aside, Ivan Ivanich returns to his story. Nikolai Ivanich becomes very stingy as he pinches pennies in order to buy his estate. In his forties, he marries an ugly, elderly, but rich widow in order to acquire more money for his estate. This poor woman, who was accustomed to good living with her former husband, loses control...
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“Gooseberries” is one of three linked Chekhov stories treating forms of desire, in which friends on holiday in the country relate remembrances as travels take them to different locations. In “Gooseberries,” the two companions, Burkin, a schoolmaster, and Ivan Ivanovitch, a veterinary surgeon, seek shelter at a welcoming friend’s farm. After the men wash up, they enter the comfortable house of their host, Alehin. There, the veterinarian agrees to tell a story about his younger brother, Nikolay, once an unhappy office-bound civil servant, who for years desires and dreams of buying a country estate near water with a garden, orchard, and, most particularly, gooseberries. Nikolay continues to dream and lives frugally, penny-pinching on food and clothes to save money. Then he marries an elderly rich widow, keeping her short of food while he banks her money in his name. The deprived lady conveniently dies, leaving him with sufficient savings to purchase the country estate.
Continuing his narrative, Ivan visits his now porcine brother on his estate and finds Nikolay a gluttonous, idle, self-satisfied landowner, convinced of salvation by such deeds of charity as treating all peasants’ ailments with castor oil and corrupting them with gallons of vodka on special holidays. Such condescension, Nikolay believes, permit the peasants to love him as their gentleman landowner. A sumptuous meal ends with home-grown gooseberries, which Nikolay excitedly eats with relish, claiming them delicious without perceiving that they are sour and unripe. Ivan feels guilt that he, too, has been content with his life without realizing that behind such idle satisfaction exists the poverty and suffering of the weaker. Ending his story, Ivan warns his friends that they rest easy in the happy smugness of country comfort because they do not hear the unhappy people who bear their burdens in silence. Further disquieting his companions, Ivan predicts that life will someday remind the contented that trouble will find them.
The narrative has two parts. The frame story concerns the farm visit, where all enjoy comfort, and, after hearing the inner story about the veterinarian’s brother, are warned by the storyteller about the complacency they all share as gentlemen. Ivan’s epiphany reflects Chekhov’s belief, stated in an 1898 letter, that leaving stressful city life for a comfortable country life can lead to a selfish existence without practicing good works. The story illumines Chekhov’s insightful perception of the human condition.