The Theme of Perception in "Gooseberries"

(Short Stories for Students)

Anton Chekhov is regarded as a master of the short story for his innovative structural techniques and his treatment of important themes. In ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ Chekhov demonstrates both by using a specific structure to help convey a theme. ‘‘Gooseberries’’ contains a story within a story; the main character relates a tale about his brother to two of his friends. Some authors employ this technique to make the inner story more interesting, to create distance between the reader and the inner story, or to allow the story to be told by a certain kind of narrator. In ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ however, Chekhov takes the reader into the framing story, then into the inner story. When he returns the reader to the framing story, the reader better understands the narrator of the inner story. As a result of this insight, the reader is able to grasp Chekhov’s theme of perception more clearly, because the character of Ivan has been presented in two different ways.

Ivan tells the story of his younger brother, Nicholai. A government employee, Nicholai longed to buy a farm and move to the country. After years of planning, saving, and taking advantage of others, he has realized his dream. Having settled into farm life, he has become fat, lazy, and arrogant, but is happy above all. He is living exactly the life he dreamed of living. Ivan is judgmental of his brother and characterizes him as wasteful, self-centered, and delusional. He disapproves of both the means and the end of his brother’s life in the country. Although Nicholai is certainly flawed and grossly mistreats a wealthy widow, he is not completely bad. Ivan perceives his brother from his own narrow point of view, however, and as a result he sees everything about his brother as disgraceful. Ivan’s harshest criticism of his brother, however, has to do with his willingness to be deluded.

Ivan sees Nicholai’s happiness as warped, because he is happy without regard for the rest of the world. He chooses a life of inactivity, giving no thought to doing any good in the world. While Ivan is visiting Nicholai, they are served a plate of gooseberries, plucked from Nicholai’s own bushes. The gooseberry bushes were a central feature of Nicholai’s dream, and so the moment when he will taste the berries is much anticipated. To Nicholai, the romantic dreamer, the berries are delicious, but to Ivan, the hardened realist, they are tough and sour. This is a clear example of the contrasting perspectives of the two men. Ivan thinks his brother is incredibly foolish to surrender so fully to his dream that he begins to substitute fantasy for reality.

While Nicholai is an obsessive dreamer, Ivan is a harsh cynic, and while Nicholai substitutes fantasy for reality, Ivan substitutes reality for fantasy. Ivan sees things in absolute terms and is unable to see beyond his brother’s flaws to his virtues. He is never happy for his brother, who has...

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Middle Class Delusions

(Short Stories for Students)

In the short story ‘‘Gooseberries’’ by Russian writer Anton Chekhov two men out walking seek refuge from the rain at the house of a friend who lives nearby. After they settle down for the evening, one of the men, Ivan Ivanich, begins a story he was about to tell his walking companion, Bourkin, before the rain began. This story-within-a-story involves Ivan’s brother Nikolai, who, in his quest to buy land, denies himself, as well as his wife, any comfort until he is an old man. After he acquires a piece of land, thereby becoming part of the landed gentry, he claims he has found true happiness. However, his brother’s happiness has come at a price that Ivan finds deplorable. Nikolai’s delight while eating the hard, sour gooseberries that he has spent most of his life dreaming about attests to Ivan’s claim that his brother, though happy, will die a deluded old man.

However, such a compassionate and complex writer as Chekhov does not put any weight in moral pronouncements such as those made by Ivan Ivanich. Instead, in his analysis of ‘‘Gooseberries’’ in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, critic Simon Baker notes, ‘‘The power of the story lies in its ability to convey emotion which surpasses the words used to describe such a feeling.’’ Therefore, rather than look for a moral, one must look for an evocation. Writing this in 1898, Chekhov aptly reveals the malaise of the Russian middle class, including its inefficiency, indulgence, and apathy. He does this by utilizing a clever apparatus, known as a frame story, to suggest that there are connections to be made between the story of Nikolai and that of Ivan, Bourkin, and Aliokhin. In doing so, the reader may realize that the illusion of happiness that Nikolai has succumbed to is not an exceptional case; instead, as Chekhov implies through his use of setting, details, and character, it is a middle-class epidemic.

On first reading ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ one may find, as Russian critic Avrahm Yarmolinsky notes in The Portable Chekhov, that ‘‘Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem.’’ Indeed, if one were to sum up ‘‘Gooseberries,’’ it would take little effort: three men get together during a rainy afternoon and one of them tells the others a story that seems detached from their own lives and experiences. Afterwards, they sit silently and eventually go to bed, although one of them, Bourkin, has trouble sleeping. To understand the complexity of this story, one must understand the psyche of the Russian middle class in the late nineteenth century. The quest for happiness that drives Nikolai to fixate on attaining a social status that is beyond his means and limits attests to the fantasy worlds that many mid- dle-class Russians created for themselves. Rather than confront the instability of a world changing right under their feet, many of them chose to ignore the social ills that would eventually lead to the events of the Russian Revolution in 1917 by focusing on their own desires and pleasures.

Typical of Chekhov’s stories is the need to suggest through setting that, despite the appearance of ordinary activities and landscapes, things are not what they appear. Writer Richard Ford, in The Essential Tales of Chekhov,notes that the subtlety in stories like ‘‘Gooseberries’’ is due to Chekhov’s particular approach to storytelling ‘‘in which the surfaces of life seem routine and continuous while Chekhov goes about illuminating its benighted other terrains as a way of inventing what’s new . . . in human existence.’’ Thus, the description of the vista that opens up the story is compelling to both Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich simply because it appears so familiar; the stillness of the day as well as its monotonous tone all signal business as usual on the Russian plain. However, although a dullness pervades the day, there is also the possibility of bad weather approaching. The air is filled with expectation, yet the men choose to ignore it and go for a long country walk. When the rain does finally come, the men are not at all prepared.

The suddenness of the rain reflects the increasing possibility of social and political upheaval. On the brink of a social and political revolution, the Russian middle class ignored the signs of turmoil such as peasants’ rebellions and workers’ demands for living wages just as Nikolai chooses to ignore his own material needs (and his late wife’s) to obtain a childhood dream. In his analysis of ‘‘Gooseberries’’ in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, critic Simon Baker notes:

The disintegration of feudal Russia in the 1890s resulted in increased poverty for the lower classes; apathy, boredom, and frustration for the middle classes; and a kind of cocooning...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)