"Gooseberries" Anton Chekhov
The following entry presents criticism on Chekhov's short story "Gooseberries," first published in 1898. See also, Anton Chekhov Criticism.
Chekhov is recognized as one of the masters of the modern style of story-writing. His approach to the craft of short story writing has been particularly influential among English and American writers. While Chekhov's early humorous sketches display many traits of popular fiction, such as swift development of action and superficial yet vivid characterization, his next major period of artistic development was influenced by the later fiction and moral thought of Leo Tolstoy, principally the elder writer's ideas on devotion to alleviating the plight of others, antimaterialism, and nonresistance to evil. In the late 1880s Chekhov began to produce what is regarded as his mature and most individual work in the short story form. With stories such as "The Duel," "My Life," and "Gooseberries," Chekhov offered a skeptical view of Tolstoy's ideas and displayed a highly effective and innovative approach to short-story structure and technique. The celebrated Irish writer Sean O'Faolain declared "Gooseberries" "one of the most perfect stories in the whole of the world's literature."
Plot and Major Characters"Gooseberries" opens with a vivid description of a country landscape on a rainy day. Caught in a downpour, Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky, a veterinary surgeon, and his friend Burkin, a high-school teacher, decide to find shelter at the home of a friend, the landowner Pavel Konstantinich Alekhin. After greeting his friends, Alekhin declares that he "needs a wash," and the three go to the bathing-house by the river, where Ivan Ivanich takes a particularly exuberant swim, excaliming "God! God!" as he floats in the middle of the river. Back at the house, sitting in the comfort of Alekhin's elegant drawing-room, Ivan Ivanich tells his two friends the story of his brother Nikolai, whose dream was to purchase an estate in the country, on the bank of a river. Ivan Ivanich expresses contempt for his brother's single-minded obsession with becoming a landowner and describes a visit to his brother's house after Nikolai has finally achieved his dream. Ivan finds his brother self-absorbed and complacent, but he cannot deny the fact that Nikolai seems truly happy. When the cook serves the two brothers a plate of gooseberries fresh from the garden, Nikolai declares that they are "delicious," while Ivan finds them "hard and sour." Ivan concludes that Nikolai has deceived himself and wasted his life in his happiness. He concludes his anecdote with a lament at the loss of his own youth and a plea to Alekhin to avoid wasting his life and to "Do good!" Burkin and Alekhin find the story uninteresting; they would have rather heard about "elegant people" and "lovely women." The three men then retire to bed, and the story concludes with the images of rain tapping on the windows and a strong odor from Ivan's pipe.
The thematic content of "Gooseberries" is closely related to its "story within a story" structure. In the "frame narrative" of the piece, Chekhov establishes the setting, describing the swim in the country river followed by a retreat to the comfort of Alekhin's home. Contained within this frame is Ivan Ivanich's anecdote about his brother's complacency and self-indulgence—a story that temporarily distracts the reader from the narrative's sensuous location in the present. Chekhov's juxtaposition of Ivan's moralistic tale with the luxury and aesthetic appeal of the surroundings described in the story's framework suggests a dialectical opposition between social consciousness and the human desire for comfort, beauty, and personal happiness. "Gooseberries" also implicitly comments on "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" a short story by Tolstoy which contends that a man truly needs only six feet of earth in which to be buried. Ivan Ivanich counters that "it is a corpse, and not man, which needs these six feet. . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country-estate, that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, room to display his qualities and the individual characteristics of his soul." Critical opinion diverges concerning the proper interpretation of this refutation of Tolstoy's anti-materialism, since elsewhere Ivan Ivanich censures his brother's materialism. He appears to attack both positions.
Much criticism of "Gooseberries" is concerned with the question of the relationship between the character Ivan Ivanich and the author Chekhov. Some critics have argued that Ivan Ivanich speaks for Chekhov when he declares that young people should avoid self indulgence and should dedicate their lives to good works. Others, however, have asserted that Chekhov presents a skeptical view of Ivan Ivanich's message by emphasizing the character's hypocritical enjoyment of Alekhin's country estate even as he criticizes the banality of land proprietorship. Thomas Gullason has interpreted "Gooseberries" as a clash between illusion and reality, with Ivan Ivanich representing the demands of the realist and Nikolai symbolizing a happy but vacuous bourgeois existence. Focusing on Chekhov's craftsmanship, Eudora Welty has asserted that any didactic intent in the story is undercut by its "subjective" structure and vivid images: "the memory of the gooseberries, the smell of Ivan's pipe in the bedroom, and the rain that has never stopped." O'Faolain also argued that "Gooseberries" is an ironic tale with a "double edge" rather than a story with a clear message: "What is happiness?—asks Chekov . . . inviting us to answer as we will but never to forget that human nature is like that, an instrument playing tricks on itself."