Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
"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...
(The entire section contains 24660 words.)
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"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."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
SOURCE: "Comment on 'Gooseberries'," in The Story: A Critical Anthology, edited by Mark Schorer, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950, pp. 61-5.
[In the following excerpt, Schorer examines "the interplay between the framing action and the framed anecdote, the way that each illuminates the other" in "Gooseberries."]
In Chekhov's "Gooseberries," we begin . . . with the direct anecdotal convention: "'. . . you were going to tell me a story'" . . .". . . only then did Ivan Ivanych begin his story . . . 'We are two brothers,' he began." But how remarkably everything here has opened up to give us a wide and richly detailed view of human life and then gently closed down and framed that view for us! And when we finish the story (perhaps not after the first reading, but after the third or fourth) we are left not with a sharp jab at our nervous system but with vastly more. How does Chekhov accomplish that more? How does he get from a sketch to a short story, from the convention of the anecdote to the full, evocative beauty of form?
His anecdote is itself "framed." The anecdote is placed within a surrounding action and a surrounding atmosphere, and the first observation to be made is the interplay between the framing action and the framed anecdote, the way that each illuminates the other, gives the other its significance. It is a story that moves by counter-point, and its formal and therefore its thematic beauty exists in the interwoven harmonies, the two strains of present events (the action) and remembered events (the anecdote).
Two men are walking in the country, we are told, and the essential contrast of the story is announced at once, there, in the opening paragraph. First we are presented with a landscape that is tedious gray, and dull, and with two men who are weary, and weary of it; then, at the end of the paragraph, by some magical elision, the same landscape has become attractive, "mild and pensive," and the men are aware of their deep affection for it. The contradiction is not in the landscape, for that has not changed (the rain has not even begun), but in the varieties and waverings of human response to facts, which emotions apparently create.
The men seek shelter from the rain at the farm of a friend, and the farm is like most farms—dirty. The mill is working, the horses are wet, the hired hands are drenched, their heads in sacks, every thing is "damp, muddy, dreary." The owner is a model of filth and the rooms he lives in are sordid. The visitors are miserably uncomfortable. Then comes that remarkable scene of the bath. Alyohin begins to wash off his several seasons of dirt, and suddenly the chief character, Ivan, leaps into that river whose waters only a few moments before had "looked cold and unkind," and, with the most marvelous emotional release and physical pleasure, swims and shouts in the rain. Then, when the three of them are clean, dry, and comfortable, they go into the house and to the drawing room upstairs. Upstairs is different from downstairs, as pleasure is different from pain, or dreams different from reality, or emotions different from the facts to which they are responses. Still, upstairs and downstairs are parts of the same house. Upstairs, the anecdote at last begins.
The anecdote has to do with another farmer, Ivan's brother, a drudging clerk who all his life aspired to be a landed gentleman and ended as a perfectly happy, perfect parody of a landed gentleman, ecstatic in his failure. To an outside eye, Ivan's, for example, there is no relation whatever between the drab actuality of Nikolay's farm and Nikolay's dream of it, but to that dream, meanwhile, Nikolay has sacrificed years of effort, all comfort, a moral sense, and a woman's life. That is the first large irony of the anecdote: that all these human actualities should have been thrown so willingly into the trough of this dream. The second is that this dream, in which Nikolay is so happy, is a miserable actuality, in which even the gooseberries are inedible, except, of course, to Nikolay. But there are intermediate ironies—the two boys had been raised as peasant children, and therefore, we are told, they love the country, a large unlikelihood; Ivan does not believe that one can "retire" from the world, for man, a free being, needs the challenge of the world to prove his freedom, yet there are the examples of Nikolay, supremely happy out of it, and Ivan himself, in it, and hardly so. There are other such ironies, but the great one is of course in the fact that the reality of Alyohin's farm, apart from that upstairs room where Ivan is talking, is much like that of Nikolay's, and the two descriptions, of Alyohin's first appearance on his farm in the frame story, and of Nikolay's in the anecdote, should be observed for their similarity. This similarity Ivan does not see, as he spins out his tale in the upstairs drawing room, as he announces the contrast he felt (and told his brother of) between youth, with its potentialities of fulfillment, and death, with its frustrating finality. So he concludes with the observation that happiness is a form of blindness, of illusion, a perception that came to him on his brother's farm and that changed him ("I want to tell you about the change that took place in me"), and then, after adjuring his host to make something noble of his life, to do good, so that he will not have to live in the regret of lost dreams, Ivan himself reverses his position (as he did at the river) and tells us how now he must always wish to live in the country—that is, in an illusion of the country.
Then the anecdote lapses back into its frame, the actuality. Who has cared so far? Not Alyohin, not Burkin; they have been disappointed in the tale. But the pictures seem to have been listening; the ghosts, the noble shades, the unrealities. For Alyohin, the tale has been a fantasy, it has "had no direct bearing on his life, and he was glad of it"; it has been a "story." Burkin suggests bed, and Alyohin goes back downstairs to the sordid actuality. Ivan falls asleep, but Burkin is disturbed for a long time by the smell of Ivan's pipe, which he cannot identify. It is the smell of some lingering falsehood, of Ivan's story, in fact, which tired at once to prove and disprove its point. The frame of the story—the landscape, the arrival, the farm, the bath and the swim, the downstairs and the upstairs rooms, the sleep at last—all these have proved the proving-disproving attempt. The frame has judged the anecdote; its actuality reveals the confusion of fact and dream in the anecdote it contains. The story is like Ivan's wished-for hammer: it knocks at the door of our consciousness, telling us of the lovely vanity of human wishes, or of the way that wishes transform the world into vain loveliness.
Why, at the end of the story, is it still raining?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
SOURCE: "The Technical Struggle: On Subject," in The Short Story, The Devin-Adair Company, 1951, pp. 171-92.
[In the excerpt below, O'Faolain praises the irony, humor, and double-edged meaning of "Gooseberries."]
[In Chekov's "Gooseberries"] a civil servant dreams of the day when he will retire—as so many civil servants do. He will have a farm, a very little farm, just three or four acres, and a little cottage, and a gooseberry bush. The gooseberries become to him the symbol of the Simple Life. Time goes on, as time does, and he begins to amass rouble after rouble, as men do. But, then—and this is one of those unexpected touches with which human nature always surprises us—as the roubles accumulate the idealistic civil servant begins to get avaricious and ambitious. There is the first sly comment. Do not the dreams of youth always harden a little as we grow old? Lose their urgency, become in fact mere dreams—day dreams—deceiving us into constant procrastination? When we think of it do we not all know a dozen dreams of our own that we have silently discarded—so many little unrecorded defeats of the spirit?
So our civil servant gets older and older, and we find him marrying—not for love so much as for her money. And does this not suggest another comment on humanity—that it can fool itself into believing that the end justifies every means: so different from that noble ethic of the great Epicureans who held that the means justify the end? Presently the lady dies, and now the civil servant has a good deal of money, and at last he does retire, and he does buy a farm. But where has the Simple Life gone to? For it is an enormous farm; hundreds and hundreds of acres; and there is no gooseberry bush at all. (How the dream deceives us! Or rather how we deceive the dream!) However, he buys a score of gooseberry bushes and plants them, and one day his brother—who recounts the tale—comes to visit him, and finds him living in a very real sort of slatternly discomfort, the whole place shabby and untended—oh! very far from the simple dream in its pristine purity!—and they eat, and after the meal, in comes a plate of those symbolical gooseberries. They are the sourest, hardest, hairiest, toughest old gooseberries that Nature ever produced out of a cross between a rubber-tree and a cactus bush. But the face of the civil servant glows. He beams. He takes the sour fruit and as he savours it, it is plain that, at that moment, he is the happiest man on earth!
It is one of the loveliest of stories. So much irony; so much humour; so kind and understanding; and wrapped up in the most delicate poetic mood. It is probably one of the most perfect stories in the whole of the world's literature. At the end of it the brother moralises—wondering how on earth people can so deceive themselves into being happy. Which gives the tale a double edge—for the brother is himself not happy; he has been cast into a most melancholy mood. By what? By the happiness of the man with the gooseberries. What is happiness?—asks Chekov, with a kindly ironical smile on his face, inviting us to answer as we will but never to forget that human nature is like that, an instrument playing tricks on itself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659
SOURCE: "The Short Story: An Underrated Art," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 13-31.
[In this excerpt, Gullason uses "Gooseberries" to illuminate the highly flexible qualities of the short story form, and to "counteract the usual [aesthetic] charges leveled against the short story."]
What must we do so that the short story can receive the kind of consideration it deserves? We can try to rid the genre of the prejudices that have conspired against it. We can come to it as though it were a fresh discovery. We can settle on one term for the medium, like "short fiction" or "short story." References to names like "anecdote," "tale," "narrative," "sketch," though convenient, merely add to the confusion and suggest indecision and a possible inferiority complex. Too many names attached to the short story have made it seem almost nameless. Even the provincial attitude of teachers and anthologists has not helped. Most often students are fed on a strict diet of British and American short-story writers. But the short story is not solely a British and American product; it is an international art form, and Continental as well as Oriental, and other authors should be more fully represented in any educational program. As Maurice Beebe reminds us [in Approaches to the Study of Twentieth-Century Literature, 1961], "Once translated, Zola, Mann, Proust, Kafka become authors in English and American literature. . . ." Once this philosophy is accepted, the short story will automatically increase in vitality and stature.
One way the reader can contribute to a fuller appreciation of an old art is by simply applying the negative criticisms already mentioned—oneness of effect, formulas, and so on—to examples of the modern short story. For an illustration of the older modern story of average length (5000 words), one can go to Chekhov's popular "Gooseberries," written in 1898. Too many readers would probably be so frustrated and so bored by all the talk and the lack of action in this story that they would stop before they really started. A more patient reader would go on trying to understand and appreciate Chekhov's tone before attempting any kind of critical evaluation. For Chekhov tells a story so casually, almost so indifferently, that he himself seems bored. Now on the surface level a Hemingway story, like "The Killers," moves very rapidly; and we in America are used to quickness. Chekhov insists on putting us into a rocking chair.
On a first study, "Gooseberries" seems to be about Nikolay and the realization of his dreams: of a man once lost as a clerk, who has now found his meaning and validity as a human being, and consequently his freedom. But as Ivan tells the story about his brother Nikolay to Burkin and Alyokhin, the story becomes a study in Nicolay's self-deception and hypocrisy. For as Nikolay achieves what Tolstoy said was all that man needed—six feet of earth—Ivan sees the blindness of both Nikolay and Tolstoy. He says:
. . . six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man. . . . To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one's own farm—that's not life, it is selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.
But then the story is also a study of Nikolay as a dead soul, the superfluous man. This is corroborated in many ways. The imagery of fatness clearly reveals Nikolay's dead life; Ivan says:
I made my way to the house and was met by a fat dog with reddish hair that looked like a pig. It wanted to bark, but was too lazy. The cook, a fat, barelegged woman, who also looked like a pig, came out of the kitchen and said that the master was resting after dinner. I went in to see my brother, and found him sitting up in bed, with a quilt over his knees. He had grown older, stouter, flabby; his cheeks, his nose, his lips jutted out: it looked as though he might grunt into the quilt at any moment.
And yet, though Nikolay is living a life of self-deception and hypocrisy, and though he is a dead soul, he is enjoying every moment of it: to him, his gooseberries are delicious; to his brother Ivan, the realist, they are hard and sour. To Nikolay his illusions are not illusions—they are happy realities. This is only one layer of the several paradoxes relating to illusions and realities in the story.
The story, then, is far too elaborate to be limited merely to Nikolay and his gooseberries. The gooseberries become a focal and radiating symbol, for they also touch the lives of Burkin, Ivan, and Alyokhin specifically, and Russia generally. This story ever expands in meaning and meanings.
For before Ivan tells his story in Alyokhin's house we are told: "It was a large structure of two stories. . . ." Structurally this is a frame story, a story within a story, and gradually the life of Nikolay becomes a first stage in studying a general condition in Russian life. As Ivan tells his brother's story he also tells his own, and reveals, through his constant rationalization, that he too is a dead soul, the superfluous man. He shows the pathos of his whole life, for now an old man, he cries out: "If I were young!" And he has his own deceptions and his own illusions. As he sees Nikolay's failures and his own, he looks to Alyokhin—as a "young" man of forty—to carry the banner of freedom and his idealizations of life. But he can't see—neither can Alyokhin—that Alyokhin is paralleled to Nikolay: both are landowners, one is lost in the work of his farm, the other in his gooseberries. Alyokhin can never realize the ideals mouthed by Ivan; the omniscient author, Chekhov, reflects ironically: "The guests were not talking about groats, or hay, or tar, but about something that had no direct bearing on his [Alyokhin's] life, and he was glad of it and wanted them to go on."
Earlier, Ivan has generalized on Russian life, and, without knowing it, the life of the story. He says:
Look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying—Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud. . . . It is a general hypnosis.
The paralysis of the individual lives and this general hypnosis are sounded in the opening of the story. The atmosphere—the "still" day, "tedious," "gray" and "dull," and later "it was tedious to listen to the story of the poor devil of a clerk who ate gooseberries"—infects everything. By the skillful use of contrast—the "refreshing" rain, the brief entrances and exits of the beautiful and pleasant maid Pelageya, and the ladies and generals in the golden picture frames—Chekhov further ironically studies what becomes the "general hypnosis theme" in Russia. From the choric Burkin at the story's end, we hear that he "could not sleep for a long time, [and he] kept wondering where the unpleasant odor came from." The unpleasant odor refers to the burnt tobacco from Ivan's pipe; this unpleasantness becomes, in a sense, the man with the hammer, mentioned earlier in the story, who is knocking at the reader's mind about happy and unhappy man. The monotony of the day—the rain at the beginning and at the end—and the tediousness of the tale transfers to the reader the paralysis of lives and the hypnosis theme.
The story does not end. Nothing is solved. But the story is like a delayed fuse; it depends on after effects on the reader via the poetic technique of suggestion and implication. We have enough of the parts to complete a significant pattern. This particular, isolated action moves to a more general plane of significance.
We can use "Gooseberries" to counteract the usual charges leveled against the short story. First, let us counteract Poe's legacy of oneness of effect. This story has layer and layer of meanings and plenty of contradictions in these meanings. If there were Poe's oneness here, the reader would not be forced to reread the story. Then we counteract the issue of mechanical formulas. This story seems as artless, as unplanned, as unmechanical as any story can be; it seems to be going nowhere but it is going everywhere. There is no beginning, middle, and end; it is just an episode that dangles. Here Chekhov demonstrates how flexible the form of the short story can be. Further, Mark Schorer's claim that a story means "revelation" and the novel "evolution" does not fit. This story does study change (even on the reader's part), and it also suggests a sense of continuing life, of whole lives; the past, the present, and the future have coalesced to evolve the idea of general hypnosis. Here is the remarkable art of telescoping. The complaint that the story is only a fragment does not fit either; the part comes to represent the whole in "Gooseberries." Even the much criticized episodic structure fits Chekhov's intended rhythm, his manner of viewing life. Chekhov saw that life did not happen in neat beginnings, middles, and ends. Human problems are not solved so neatly; they go on and on. Chekhov conceived his plotless, episodic stories to capture this rhythm of life. And the characters—characters in short stories are usually criticized as "flat" and uncomplicated—work together to create a combination of moods and anxieties that humanize the ambivalences and ambiguities in the Russian soul.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1388
SOURCE: "Life in a Shell," in Chekhov and His Prose, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 191-208.
[In the following excerpt, Winner examines "Gooseberries" as a response to Leo Tolstoy's story, "How Much Land Does Man Need?"]
The second part of [Chekhov's] allegoric trilogy, "Gooseberries," is told by Ivan Ivanych, who bears the grotesque surname Chimsha-Gimalayski. It is the story of his brother, Nikolay Ivanych, who, obsessed with the desire for a little estate upon which to retire, scrimps and saves, and, like Akaki in Gogol's "The Overcoat," denies himself all the pleasures of life and even food. He had entered into a mariage de convenance with a rich old widow and had contributed to her death by forcing her also to stint on food. The idyllic life of retirement was symbolized for him by a gooseberry bush from which he could eat his own gooseberries. When Nikolay finally realizes his dream, Ivan Ivanych visits him and he finds Nikolay, the landowner, old and fat. The first homegrown gooseberries are served; but they taste sour. Nikolay has achieved what he had dreamed of, but Ivan realizes its futility and is appalled at the price at which it had to be bought.
This story can be explained, as many critics have done, as a comment on Tolstoy's late moral philosophy, and specifically on his didactic exemplary tale, "How Much Land Does Man Need?" (Mnogo li eloveku zemli nu no?) in which Tolstoy advocates refusal of wordly goods. In Tolstoy's parable the peasant Pakhom, greedy for land, is told that he can buy cheaply as much land as he can walk around in one day. His avarice forces him to overstrain himself. He dies at the moment when he acquires a huge plot of land and is buried in six feet of earth. Tolstoy's answer to the question posed in the title of his exemplum is thus that man needs only enough earth to be buried in.
"Gooseberries" has many parallels with Tolstoy's story. The heroes of both stories lust for material possessions and both die as their desire is to be realized, although Chekhov's protagonist dies only spiritually having lost his humanity in his quest for property. But while externally the stories are similar, the treatment and implications of the theme are very different.
The import of Chekhov's story is more complex than that of Tolstoy's, as is implied by the remarks of the narrator, who seems to comment on the moral of Tolstoy's story.
It is a common saying that man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what is needed by a corpse, not by a man. It is also asserted that if our educated class is drawn to the land and seeks to settle on farms, then that is good. But then these little farms represent the same six feet of land. To leave the city, to leave the struggle and the noise, to escape, and to hide in one's own little homestead—that is not life, that is only egotism, laziness, a special kind of monasticism, but a monasticism without great deeds. Man needs not six feet of soil . . . but the whole earth, all of nature, where unhindered he can display all his capabilities and the properties of his free spirit.
How closely "Gooseberries" is related not only to Tolstoy's parable, but also to Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilich, can be gleaned from earlier versions of the story. In all but the final version, Nikolay truly dies; before death, like Ivan Ilich, he becomes conscious of the futility of his life. We read in Chekhov's notebook:
When he has cancer of the stomach and death is near, he is given a plate of his own gooseberries. He looks indifferently. . . . Looking at the plate with gooseberries: this is the final achievement of my life.
In a later entry we read:
The gooseberries were sour. "How stupid," said the official and died.
But in the final version there is neither death nor awareness. Awareness, in the reversal of the story, is transferred to the narrator Ivan Ivanych and, in a scene heavy with irony, Nikolay, sentimental over his gooseberries, can hardly speak from agitation, and eats the sour berries greedily, exclaiming over and over again: "how tasty, how tasty!"
The emptiness of Nikolay's quest is implied, then, by the contrast between his sentimentalized dream of rural life and its reality, while in Tolstoy's works the quest ends more obviously in death ("How Much Land Does Man Need?") or in disillusionment and death (The Death of Ivan Ilich). Of Nikolay's dreams of idyllic country life Ivan Ivanych says:
My brother Nikolay . . . dreamed of eating his own cabbage soup, which would fill the whole farmyard with its delicious smell, of eating on the green grass, of sleeping in the sun, of sitting for hours on a bench behind the gate, gazing at the fields and forests. Agricultural books . . . were his pleasure, beloved nourishment for his soul.
Expressions common in the language of the sentimental novel, as "nourishment for the soul" and "beloved," used with prosaic terms like agricultural books, set the note of the absurdity of Nikolay's aims. When he finally achieves his dream, the estate has none of the sentimental accouterments which he had imagined: there is no orchard, no gooseberry patch, no duck pond. "Country life has its advantages," Nikolay had said in his youth, "you sit on the porch drinking tea, your ducks swim in the pond, and everything smells so good and—and the gooseberries are growing." But reality brings a stream, on the banks of which there are a brick and a glue factory, which turn the water to the color of coffee. Even the gooseberries are not there and have to be planted.
The reality of the dream is clear in the narrator's description of his first view of his brother's estate, grotesquely called "Chumbaroklov" or "Himalayan Waste," which is strongly reminiscent of the description of Sobakevich's estate in Gogol's Dead Souls:
. . . It was hot. Everywhere there were ditches, fences, hedges, rows of fir trees. . . . I made my way to the house and was met by a reddish dog, so fat it looked like a pig. It wanted to bark, but was too lazy. The cook, a fat, barelegged woman, who also looked like a pig, came out of the kitchen and said that the master was resting after dinner.
Nikolay, who had hoped to free himself from the banal life of the civil servant, finds only the pošlost' which he had sought to escape. In his retour à la nature he has become a typical landowner who cures his peasants with castor oil. While he used to be afraid to voice an opinion, he now speaks only in platitudes masked as "incontrovertible truths" and does so "in the tone of a minister of state": "Education is necessary, but the masses are not yet ready for it; corporal punishment is generally harmful, but under certain circumstances it is useful"; "I know the common people . . . they love me and will do anything I want." And twenty times over, he would repeat "we of the gentry."
The theme, stated as "man needs not six feet of soil but the entire earth," is poetically implied in the introduction to the story, which paints a limitless nature, a picture which also ended the preceding story; both pictures present a contrast to the constricted lives of Belikov and Nikolay Ivanych. The deliberate slowing of the action makes this introduction more impressive. Burkin is reminded that Ivan Ivanych had promised him a story. But before Ivan Ivanych begins his tale, the weather and the countryside are described; there follows a delaying episode in which the two huntsmen are seen on the estate of Alekhin where idyllically all three swim in the millstream (Alekhin will later tell his own story in "About Love"). This little prologue then introduces the allegory of the gooseberries.
In the conclusion Ivan Ivanych . . . says that he is old, too old to carry into effect his dreams of action, but turns to Alekhin and begs him never to forget the aims of life. As the next story ["About Love"] indicates, however, this is ironic, for Alekhin's life is also limited; it is essentially a vie manquèe as were Belikov's and Nikolay Ivanych's.
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SOURCE: "Practical Criticism for Students: 'Gooseberries'," in From Karamzin to Bunin: An Anthology of Russian Short Stories, edited and translated by Carl R. Proffer, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 38-9.
[In the excerpt below, Proffer articulates the significance of "Gooseberries" in the context of Chekhov's "little trilogy" of short stories, which also includes "The Man in a Shell," and "About Love."]
"Gooseberries" is the middle story in Chekhov's "little trilogy" which was published in 1898 with consecutive pagination from the beginning of "The Man in a Case" to the end of "About Love." The two epigraphs Chekhov considered using suggest the trilogy's thematic unity: "But how many of those in cases remain" and "Man needs more than six feet—he needs the whole universe." The latter is aimed at Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does a Man Need," which concludes that the six feet of the grave are all man could or should expect. Death was a philosophical idée fixe for Tolstoy, but the gloomy, ascetic penchant for measuring life against death was alien to the unromantic Dr. Chekhov. Regarding the afterlife as dubious as unicorns or elves, he thought we should make the most of the life we have—life should be measured by life. It seems reasonable to consider Ivan Ivanych as Chekhov's puppet; most of what he says corresponds to the Chekhov we know from his letters. Note that Ivan Ivanych is a medical man, and both in stories and plays Chekhov often made physicians unofficial spokesmen. Ivan is more verbose than most of these, and because of this, the story is more openly didactic than is typical for Chekhov. Since he himself was the grandson of a serf and went through the long process of picking out an estate and settling down as a landowner, we may assume there are a few autobiographical demons which Chekhov was exorcising by writing the story.
Characters who are afraid of life or who narrowly circumscribe the limits of their life appear in many of Chekhov's tales, but Belikov, his man in a case, is the archetype. He smiles only when he is in his final case, a coffin. This is the first story of the trilogy; it is narrated by Burkin when he and Ivan Ivanych are out hunting. "Gooseberries" is Ivan Ivanych's reply. Alyokhin tells Burkin and Ivan Ivanych the last story—the story of how, due to overanalysis and timidity, he failed to get together with the woman he loved. Two details in "Gooseberries" foreshadow Alyokhin's story: (1) the pictures of the generals and ladies (two references to which "frame" Ivan Ivanych's story) look down as if saying it is tedious to hear about a poor clerk who ate gooseberries, so that Burkin and Alyokhin "For some reason wanted to speak and hear about elegant people, about women." (2) the brief but repeated description of "beautiful Pelageya"—the triple repetition of the same adjective is a typically Chekhovian device—who moves softly and efficiently about Alyokhin's house. At the beginning of Alyokhin's story we learn she is not, as we might suspect, his mistress; she is unreservedly in love with an ugly, drunken cook who beats her.
In the drafts, Ivan Ivanych's story about gooseberries ends differently. Originally, his brother comes to realize that what he has achieved is a caricature of his petty dreams. He knows the gooseberries taste bad, and eventually dies with the bitter taste of his life in his mouth. But Chekhov apparently decided that [Nikolai] Ivanych's self-revelation and death would not affect readers as much as his smug satisfaction with an illusion. The brick factory, coffee-colored river, servant resembling a pig, dog resembling a pig, etc., make it clear how illusory [Nikolai] Ivanych's accomplishment is. The gooseberries perfectly symbolize his trivial aspirations.
The last line of the story is Chekhovianly compendious. It refers back to the opening paragraph and serves as a kind of deflection. The bad smell of Ivan Ivanych's pipe would not be a good final impression for the reader. The rain helps remove the bad air, and at the same time it is a natural symbol for insomnia, pensiveness, and misfortune—perhaps echoing the knocks of the hammer on the door of happy people.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
SOURCE: "Stories of Ambiguity," in The Chameleon and the Dream: The Image of Reality in Chexov's Stories, Mouton, 1970, pp. 153-73.
[In this excerpt, Kramer discusses how Chekhov's trilogy of stories, "The Man in a Shell," "Gooseberries," and "About Love," are all connected by the theme of "retreat and escape from life."]
In the trilogy of stories from 1898, "The Man in a Case" (Celovek v futljare) "Gooseberries" (Kryzovnik), 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 Ivanyc, who are joined by a third figure in the next two, Alexin. All three stories focus on the theme of futljamost', 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." Then Burkin and Ivan Ivany 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.
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 Ivanyc, 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'."
When Ivan Ivanyc 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 Ivanyc 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 Ivanyc observes, "' . . . I never sympathized with his desire to lock himself up for his whole life on his own country estate'," 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 Ivanyc 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 . . . '." It is unclear whether Ivan Ivanyc 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 Ivanyc's story and his own life.
When the three men retire for the night, Ivan Ivanyc 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 Ivanyc'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 Ivanyc'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 Ivanyc's stirring message, or it may be, as Mark Schorer has suggested [in The Story: A Critical Anthology, 1950] 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."
"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 Ivanyc'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!"' 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 Ivanyc recall having met the woman whom Alexin loved: "Burkin was even acquainted with her and found her beautiful." 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 Ivanyc'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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2166
SOURCE: "'Gooseberries' and Chekhov's Concreteness," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 63-7.
[In the essay below, Mays argues that Ivan Ivanych's diatribe against human contentment in "Gooseberries" is undermined by his "obsessive" tone as well as the contrasting motif of the story's luxurious setting.]
The readings of Chekhov's "Gooseberries" all seem to run one way: Ivan Ivanych, who tells the "story within a story," and who points its moral, speaks for the author. "'Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit,'" says Ivan, passing judgment on the sordid life of his brother Nikolay, who has sacrificed everything for the country estate with the symbolic gooseberry bush. Professor Ernest J. Simmons, in his excellent life of Chekhov [Chekhov, 1962], says of this pronouncement "Here is expressed Chekhov's own unquenchable thirst for all of life, for everything accessible to man." It seems to me that this reading much oversimplifies "Gooseberries," one of Chekhov's finest stories, and one which is central to an important thematic pattern in the author's work as a whole.
If the meaning of "Gooseberries" is reducible to the moral Ivan Ivanych draws from his brother's story, we may ask why Chekhov has elaborated the circumstances with such care. Why Burkin and Ivan Ivanych's walk over the plain, the rainstorm, the refuge at Alyohin's, the bathing, and the tea upstairs with the "pretty Pelageya, stepping noiselessly across the carpet and smiling softly"? Why does Ivan Ivanych's story satisfy neither Burkin nor Alyohin? And why, finally, does Burkin, unable to sleep, notice an "unpleasant odor" in the room he shares with Ivan Ivanych—an odor that comes from his roommate's pipe? None of these circumstances receive much attention from Chekhov's critics. But the tendency of Chekhov's work is toward great economy of means—we recall the dictum about the gun on the wall in Act One which must be discharged before the play is over. "Gooseberries" is devised as a story within a story, and neither "envelope" nor "contents" alone can speak for the whole. The issue is not whether Ivan's views are "true" (who can quarrel with abstractions like "the meaning of life is to do good," as such?)—nor even whether they might be Chekhov's. It is rather that Ivan's story exists in a dramatic context which crucially modifies its meaning.
Since the whole situation is significant, a recapitulation will be useful. Burkin and Ivan Ivanych, two old hunting companions, are trudging wearily through the fields on a dull day when it begins to rain; by the time they have reached the estate of a nearby acquaintance, Alyohin, they are soaked. In a glum mood they arrive at Alyohin's mill, with its noise, vibration, wet horses standing about, and peasants running here and there with sacks over their heads. "It was damp, muddy, dreary; and the water looked cold and unkind. Ivan Ivanych and Burkin felt cold and messy and uncomfortable through and through; their feet were heavy with mud and when, having crossed the dam, they climbed up to the barns, they were silent as though they were cross with each other." But Alyohin greets them with pleasure, and invites them to bathe with him in his bathhouse on the millstream before changing. Later, all three men sit upstairs in Alyohin's best parlor "savoring the warmth, the cleanliness, the dry clothes and the light footwear," while Pelageya, the chambermaid—"a young woman so beautiful that both [Burkin and Ivan] . . . glanced at each other"—brings in the tea. In a mood of perfect physical content after fatigue and discomfort Alyohin and Burkin listen to Ivan's story of his brother Nikolay.
Nikolay's life-long dream of a country estate has co-existed with a sordid reality of avarice, cruelty, and self-delusion; indeed in a sense the dream has entailed this reality. As he tells his story, Ivan gets more and more worked up, ending with a diatribe against all contentment, and a pathetic plea to Alyohin to "do good" while he has his youth and strength. But "Ivan Ivanych's story satisfied neither Burkin nor Alyohin"; and the reasons for this are crucial to an understanding of "Gooseberries." Chekhov could be saying that Ivan's listeners are examples of that very complacency he is inveighing against. But this is not so: both the tone and the sense we get of their character in the other two stories of the group ("The Man in a Shell" and "About Love") prevent our thinking of Burkin or Alyohin as insensitive men. It is rather that Ivan has told the wrong story, in the wrong situation, and, especially, in the wrong tone. Certainly Nikolay has led a degraded life, and his happiness is disturbing: he has killed his own soul to acquire the property that is his dream; and he has also killed the woman he married for her money. Nikolay's contentment is swinish; he is a pompous, opinionated, snobbish ass eating sour gooseberries beside a polluted stream amid his equally swinish servants. In all this one agrees with Ivan; but we must be very careful about condemning "illusion" in Chekhov's world, for in too many stories (see and for instance) he suggests, like Ibsen in The Wild Duck, that illusion underlies much of life, perhaps most of its happiness—and that "truth-saying" is often destructive.
But in any case the conclusion Ivan Ivanych draws from his brother's experience is an ethical non-sequitur: because Nikolay's happiness is disgusting, it does not follow that all happiness everywhere is guilty or illusory. "'Behind the door of every contented, happy man,'" holds Ivan, "'there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, and that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws. . . . '" For Ivan, "'there is no happiness, and there should be none,'" and the purpose of life is to feel guilt and do good. Ivan has ironed the rich texture of life out to a liberal platitude; but the very scene into which he introduces his story, like a bad smell, proves him wrong. Ivan, Burkin, and Alyohin are sitting in a luxurious drawing room, dressed in "silk dressing gowns and warm slippers," savoring the physical ease after a long, fatiguing, wet day. "With the ladies and generals looking down from the golden frames, seeming alive in the dim light, it was tedious to listen to the story of the poor devil of a clerk who ate gooseberries. One felt like talking about elegant people, about women." And finally, "the fact that lovely Pelageya was noiselessly moving about—that was better than any story." As life is better than any, even the best, abstractions. The reality of the moment is caught in the concreteness of Chekhov's prose: we are made to feel the circumstances, sense the well-being, respond to the splendid woman. Only Ivan is a discord. No authorial statement of this is necessary, not even conveyed through the minds of Alyohin and Burkin, for the whole situation is expressive.
Even worse than Ivan's "moral" is his tone—querulous, strained, even obsessive. Ivan is prone to extremes, it seems—lacking in a certain saving balance or humor. His "man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe . . ." is a piece of flatulence of the kind 19th century Russian liberals are famous for, than which nothing could be further from the personal tone of Chekhov. It reminds us of Trofimov, the student radical in The Cherry Orchard (for whom the orchard represents a load of guilt that must be atoned for by suffering and work) when he says "All of Russia is our orchard." As Ivan Ivanych gets more carried away he confronts Burkin "wrathfully," and pleads "with a pitiful imploring smile" for Alyohin to "do good" while he has still his youth. Ludicrously excessive is Ivan's "'There is nothing that pains me more than the spectacle of a happy family sitting at table having tea.'" As for himself, Ivan Ivanych admits "'I can only grieve inwardly, get irritated, worked up, and at night my head is ablaze with the rush of ideas and I cannot sleep.'"
Ivan belongs, in fact, to a fairly distinct breed of Chekhovian character that might be called the "irritated man"—idealists, all, no doubt, but finally unbalanced. Ivan shares with his brother Nikolay a kind of "excessiveness"—he is the manic phase of which Nikolay is the depressive, so to speak. Ivan, with his oppression, irritation, and wrath, is akin to Pavel Ivanych, perhaps Chekhov's most interesting example of the type, in "Gusev." Pavel and Gusev are both dying in the sick-bay of a troop ship on its way back to Russia from the Far East. But if Gusev seems sane in his acceptance of life, for all his peasant simplicity, Pavel's is a rancorous hatred of life, fundamentally abstractive and life-denying. "Joy" is associated with Gusev—even if it comes only in the delirium in which he thinks he sees his family back in the village; and it is a joy reflected by nature as his body is received by the waters. Pavel, that "uneasy chap" with a "boastful, challenging, mocking expression," prides himself on being a truth-seer and a truth-sayer, whatever the consequences: "'I always tell people the truth to their faces. . . . My mind is clear. I see it all plainly like a hawk or an eagle when it hovers over the earth and I understand everything. I am protest personified. I see tyranny—I protest. I see a hypocrite—I protest, I see a triumphant swine—I protest.'" Nothing can shut him up; he is Ivan Ivanych's man with a hammer. But "'all my acquaintances say to me: "You are a most insufferable person, Pavel Ivanych." I am proud of such a reputation. . . . That's life as I understand it. That's what one can call life.'"
Chekhov's comment on life as Pavel Ivanych sees it is made quite concretely: "Gusev is not listening; he is looking at the porthole. A junk, flooded with dazzling hot sunshine, is swaying on the transparent turquoise water. In it stand naked Chinamen, holding up cages with canaries in them and calling out: 'It sings, it sings!'" Gusev sees a fat Chinaman in a boat and thinks "'Would be fine to give that fat fellow one in the neck,'" yawning as he watches. This is life as Chekhov sees it—a close weave of beauty, love, and joy, with brutality, ugliness, and meaninglessness, no single strand of which is to be reveled out as "Truth."
Ivan Ivanych's story is a "bad smell" in the context in which he tells it, and his "truth" traduces reality. Similarly, ideologically-bound critics traduce literature in trying to reduce it to statement. Ivan is in such a state that he is insensitive to the social circumstances; one might call his diatribe an expression of "bad form," an offense against taste. When Trofimov has his comic-pathetic encounter with Madame Ranevskaya in Act III of The Cherry Orchard it is again an encounter between abstractive ideology and rich, if muddled, life-involvement. "You mustn't deceive yourself. For once you must look the truth straight in the face," says Trofimov. Madame Ranevskaya replies "What truth? You know what truth is and what it isn't. . . . You're able to solve all your problems so decisively—but tell me . . . isn't it because . . . life is still hidden from your young eyes?" She asks for sympathy, not a moralistic lecture, but when Trofimov says "You know I sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart" Ranevskaya replies in a way also appropriate to Burkin and Alyohin's response to the gooseberries tale: "But you should say it differently . . . differently." Image and tone suggest Chekhov's meaning in the conclusion to "Gusev": as Gusev's canvas-shrouded body sinks into the sea, there is a shark waiting, but there is also a magnificent sunset; as Burkin lies in the cool bed "which had been made by the lovely Pelageya" and "gave off a pleasant smell of clean linen" Ivan Ivanych's pipe with its unpleasant odor keeps him awake for a long time, but "the rain beat against the window panes all night."
The pipe with the bad smell may seem the only crude touch in this story; but we see what Chekhov's intention is, and it cannot be ignored, because his endings are carefully contrived. "My instinct tells me," Chekhov has said, "that at the end of a novel or story I must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work." The endings of "Gusev" and "Gooseberries" project a sense of resolution, of a truth beyond "Truths," something for which (as Chekhov puts it at the end of "Gusev") "it is hard to find a name in the language of man."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4977
SOURCE: "Nature in Chekhov's Fiction," in The Russian Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 153-66.
[In the essay below, the critic contends that Chekhov believed in "the unity of all living things and of a disturbed harmony in nature to the end of his life." Bill then shows how this perspective influenced Chekhov's short fiction, including "Gooseberries."]
He (Chekhov) was the first one in literature to include man's relation to nature into the sphere of ethics.
A. P. Chudakov, Poetika Chekhova, 1971.
At a relatively early stage in his artistic development Chekhov formulated his basic view of life on this planet. In the story "The Reed Pipe" (Svirel') (1887), we hear the lament of an old shepherd: "The sun and the skies and the forests and the rivers and the creatures—all this is created, adapted, adjusted to each other. Each is at work and knows its place. And all this is doomed to perish." [Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Polnoe sobrante sochinenii i pisem, 20 vols. (Moscow, 1944-1951), 6:253. All quotations from Chekhov's writings are based on this edition of Chekhov's works. The translation of all quotations is my own.] He bewails the declining abundance of game, of animals, of bees, of fish . . . Rivers are drying up, forests are cut down or burn, plant life is diminishing . . . At least people are getting more intelligent, the shepherd's listener, the bailiff Meliton, interjects, trying to introduce a more cheerful note into the conversation. This may be so, the shepherd agrees, but "what use is intelligence to a hunter if there is no game? I am of a mind that God has given man intelligence but has taken away his strength. People have grown weak, extremely weak . . ." The name of the old shepherd is revealed only toward the end of the story as if to stress the significance of a heretofore anonymous lament: Luka Bednyi—Lucas the Poor.
Chekhov adhered to this basic view of the unity of all living things and of a disturbed harmony in nature to the end of his life. The lament of Luka Bednyi sounds like a prelude to the marvellously musical opening words of Treplev's play in the first act of the Seagull (1895)—a melodiousness which can be only inadequately conveyed in translation: "People, lions, eagles and partridges, antlered deer, geese, spiders, silent fish living in water, star fish and stars invisible to the eye—in short all lives, all lives, all lives, having completed their doleful cycle, are extinct . . ."
In "The Reed Pipe" Luka Bednyi plays a simple, melancholy melody on his crude instrument, a melody which consists of five or six notes only, the highest note sounding like human weeping. The opening words of Treplev's play sound, in Russian, like a poetic transcript of Luka's plaintive motif.
Man's life is inseparable from that of nature, but this unity is presented by Chekhov in a manner far different from the traditional treatment of nature in literature as backdrop for human experiences and emotions. To Chekhov, Man and Nature are one and neither is more important than the other. Trees, grass, flowers, birds, clouds—each particle, large and small, of life on this earth leads its own individual existence and at the same time is integrated into the universal process of life.
To show this interplay of integration and separation, Chekhov frequently presents us with images in which man contemplates or participates in a natural scene while at the same time the independence and autonomy of the particular piece of nature are stressed. Such images abound in the story "The Steppe" ("Step"'), that lyrical hymn to the Russian steppe. For instance: The two boys, Egorushka and Deniska, catch a grasshopper and offer him a fat fly which has just feasted on horse blood. The grasshopper moves his large jaws non-chalantly "as if Deniska were an old acquaintance" and bites the fly's belly off. The boys let him go. Settling in the grass he immediately begins to chirp. The fly is let off too: "It spreads its wings and flies, minus a belly, toward the horses."
In "An Unpleasantness" the windows of doctor Ovchinnikov's reception room are open. Outside, a group of starlings are hopping along a path. When disturbed by a noise from the window, the starlings turn their foolish noses to investigate and to decide: "should they get frightened or not? And, deciding to get frightened, they rush off one by one toward the tops of the birch trees, shouting gaily as if mocking the doctor who does not know how to fly."
In "The Peasants" young Sasha has been delegated by the grandmother to watch the geese who like to invade the vegetable garden. The little girl neglects her assignment, and the geese do invade the garden. After expelling the geese the grandmother whips Sasha. While Sasha is crying from pain and fright, "the gander came up to the old woman and hissed something; when he returned to his flock all the geese greeted him with an approving 'go-gogo'."
To stress that nature's existence is independent from man's, Chekhov frequently conjures images of a rapport between two elements of nature, a rapport in which man is not participating. In "The Steppe" an evening after a scorchingly hot summer day is described:
But then, at last, as the sun began to sink westward, the steppe, the hills, and the air could no longer endure the oppression, and, worn out, patience exhausted, they tried to throw off the yoke. Unexpectedly, from behind the hills appeared an ash-grey curly cloud. It exchanged a glance with the steppe saying: 'I am ready,' and glowered.
In "In the Ravine" ("V ovrage") the sun has gone down. It "took cover under a crimson golden brocade while long clouds, red and purple, stretched across the sky, guarding its rest."
Images of man and animal or even man and plant sharing an experience abound in Chekhov's stories. In "Three Years" Laptev, who feels trapped by his wealth and commercial enterprise, sees a black dog lying in the middle of the yard. And he asks himself: "What is it that keeps me here? And he felt annoyed at himself and at this black dog who lay around on the stones instead of running to the fields or woods . . . Apparently what prevented him and this dog from escaping was one and the same thing: habit of captivity, of slavery."
In "The Teacher of Literature," after Nikitin tells Maniusia of his love for her they run out to the garden: "A half-moon shone above the garden and on the ground; out of the shadows of the grass, feebly lit by this half-moon, sleepy tulips and irises reached out, as if they too were begging for a declaration of love."
In "A Case from Practice" ("Sluchai iz praktiki") a crowd of workers is walking home from the factory on a Saturday evening, and "it seemed that together with the workers on the eve of this holiday the field, the forest, the sun, too, were getting ready to rest—to rest and perhaps to pray."
A comparison of Chekhov's views with those of the two greatest bards of nature in nineteenth-century Russian literature, Tolstoy and Turgenev, is essential for an evaluation of the measure of Chekhov's originality. The alienation of modern man from his natural environment is one of the central themes of Tolstoy. Without nature man cannot be happy, nor can he hope for human dignity. "Majestically beautiful" is the simple girl Mar'iana in The Cossacks and valiant, proud, and tenacious the Caucasian rebel Khadzhi Murat in their unspoiled primitive environment.
Against a background of nature in its pristine majesty, grandeur, and nobility, Tolstoy paints a vast panorama of human folly, weakness, and aberration. In the famous scene of the battle of Austerlitz in War and Peace when the wounded prince Andrei gazes at the "immeasurably high sky" above, he muses how quietly, calmly, and solemnly the grey clouds float by—a movement so different from the running, shouting, and fighting of the men below. The noble death of the tree in "Three Deaths" is an indictment of human pettiness. The dying peasant Fedor gives his boots to young Serega in return for a promise to erect a stone on his, Fedor's, grave. But Serega fails to fulfill this promise. Driven by remorse, though still unwilling to go to any expense to buy a stone, he cuts down the young tree to make a cross over Fedor's grave. The simultaneously majestic and pitiful old age of the horse Kholstomer in the story of the same title contrasts with the reprehensible moral deterioration and ugly physical decline of his former owner Serpukhovskoy. After Kholstomer's death every bit of his body re-enters the eternal cycle of life. His hide is worked into leather, his flesh is eaten by a pack of young wolves, and his bones are gathered by a peasant and will be ground up. The "eating and drinking dead body of Serpukhovskoy," on the other hand, walked this earth for quite a while longer. When he was finally buried, "neither his skin, nor his flesh, nor his bones were of any use whatsoever."
It is interesting to note here the different treatment of a similar theme by Chekhov. "Gusev" is one of the few stories in which the author's attention to his hero continues beyond the point of death. The soldier Gusev, returning after five years of service in the Far East, dies of tuberculosis on board ship. His body is sewn into a canvas and now "resembles a carrot or a horseradish: wide at the top and narrow at the feet." The body is lowered into the sea. A shark approaches the sinking and drifting shape. It "lazily opens its jaws with two rows of teeth." After playing around with his find, the shark cautiously touches the shape with its teeth and "the canvas rips from head to toe." Like that of the horse Kholstomer, the body of Gusev will re-enter the eternal cycle of life.
The majesty and beauty of nature occupy Turgenev no less than Tolstoy. Yet, while Tolstoy places nature above modern man and indicts the human being's alienation from the natural environment, Turgenev sees a precipice which dooms man to eternal loneliness and isolation from nature. Turgenev paints his nature scenes with infinite love and care, blending colors, sounds, lights and shadows into compositions which highlight and reflect the emotions and experiences of his heroes. Turgenev knows the botanical names of every tree, bush, and grass; the species and characteristics of every bird and animal are observed and registered. Yet, there is a gulf impassable to man. "You are no concern of mine," says nature to man in "A Trip to the Forests." "I reign supreme and you see to it that you don't die." "No matter how much you knock at nature's door, you will not receive an intelligible word in response because nature is mute" says Shubin in On the Eve.
While Chekhov's starlings gayly shout and mock the doctor who cannot fly, the sight of a sparrow jumping and calling leads Chulkaturin in Turgenev's "Diary of A Superfluous Man" to muse: "He is healthy, and he has the right to shout and to rumple his feathers. And I am sick and I shall die—that's all." The hero of "A Trip to the Forests" watches a big fly basking motionless in the sun and feels that this spectacle has brought him a sudden understanding of nature's life, of its healthy equilibrium and serenity which is inaccessible to man. Coldly and indifferently, nature gazes at man who is doomed by death the day he is born—frail, insignificant, and fortuitous.
Chekhov, too, speaks of nature's indifference. In "A Lady with a Dog," Gurov and Anna Sergeevna sit on a bench in Oreanda and gaze down upon the sea:
. . . the monotonous, hollow sound of the sea coming up from below spoke of peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. The same sounds could be heard down there when there was neither a Yalta nor an Oreanda, they are audible today and they will continue equally indifferently and dully when we will no longer be on earth. And this constancy, this total indifference toward the life and death of every single one among us harbors, perhaps, a promise of our eternal salvation, of the continuous movement of life on earth, of continuous perfection.
There is none of Turgenev's sense of tragedy and assertion of human loneliness and frailty here. Man is part of the eternal cycle of life. And he is not frail.
In contrast to Turgenev's view of man's passive role vis-à-vis nature, the mature Chekhov came to speak with increasing insistence of man's active role, of man's responsibility toward preservation and restoration of natural harmony and balance. Tolstoy looked at nature as the savior of man. Chekhov sought man to become the savior of nature.
The trip to Sakhalin in 1890, so crucial for the evolution of Chekhov's views on human character and society, supplied him also with important observations of man's relations to his natural environment. In spite of the severe climate and grim setting of the penal colony, Chekhov found that Sakhalin could be a paradise for hunters and fishermen. Yet, the fabulous abundance of salmon and herring runs goes to waste. And the wealth of fur-bearing animals, of sable, fox, and bear, is untapped, for to engage in professional fishing or hunting man must be free, courageous, and healthy. The penal population of Sakhalin has none of these qualities. Thus, Luka Bednyi's observation in "The Reed Pipe" of the decreasing strength of man is supplemented by the assertion that freedom, courage, and health are prerequisites for man's successful exploitation of nature's bounty.
In the post-Sakhalin period Chekhov increasingly uses attitudes and behavior toward nature as a measure of the character and moral stature of individuals and groups. Indifference or thoughtlessness or cruelty to nature is seen as evidence of character and moral deficiency. Of Lubkov, the flighty, dissolute, irresponsible, forever laughing character in "Ariadna," Chekhov says: "Lubkov loved nature but regarded it as something long familiar and moreover actually infinitely inferior to himself, something created only for his pleasure. He would stop before a magnificent panoramic view and say: "Wouldn't it be nice to have a tea party here'?" Later, preparing to seduce the beautiful, cold Ariadna, Lubkov says: "I respect women . . . but I think that certain relationships are compatible with lyricism. Lyricism is one thing, and a lover is another thing. The same as in farming: beauty of nature is one thing, and the income from forests and fields is another thing."
In the story "Pecheneg," the old cossack Zhmukhin has thus been dubbed by his neighbors, for his lifestyle resembles that of the tenth-century wild nomadic steppe tribe of the Pechenegs. Untutored and uncouth, he keeps his wife in pitiful subjection and his two illiterate teenage sons in total neglect. "To tell the truth I do not consider woman to be a human being." Zhmukhin invites a chance acquaintance—a middle-aged attorney whom he meets on a train ride—to spend the night at his house. As Zhmukhin and his guest arrive at the house, they see the two boys: "The younger one threw a chicken into the air which flew in an arc, cackling; the older one, holding a rifle, fired, and the chicken, killed, hit the ground. "Those are my sons learning to shoot on the wing' said Zhmukhin."
Conversely, Tania's father in "The Black Monk," a straightforward, kind, and ebullient, though irrascible, man is portrayed as the loving and efficient guardian of his huge and profitable fruit orchards and flower gardens. Another Chekhov character devoted to the care of the things of nature—"clever, very kind, and universally respected"—is the hero of "A Story of the Head Gardener."
Misail, the hero of "My Life," speaks of his provincial town as inhabited by lazy, stupid, dishonest people. And as he looks back upon "a long, long row of suppressed, agonizingly slow sufferings he has incessantly observed in this town since his childhood," he thinks of "the tortured dogs that went mad, the sparrows plucked bare while alive by boys and then thrown into the water . . ."
It is when Chekhov turns his attention to human activities which ravage the face of the earth or result in widespread natural disturbances that the question of man's responsibilities toward nature comes most forcefully to the fore. And it is then that the idea of unity and solidarity between man and his environment is most vividly and insistently expressed.
Deforestation is the first reprehensible intrusion of man upon nature discussed by Chekhov. Doctor Khrushchev in the play The Wood Demon (1889) is a devoted conservationist. His ardor has earned him a nickname—the title of the play. He cuts peat to reduce the burning of wood logs and tends tree nurseries to counteract the depletion of forests. His monologue in the first act is a forceful variation on Luka Bednyi's lament in "The Reed Pipe": "All Russian forests crumble under the blows of axes, billions of trees perish, the abodes of animals and birds are ravaged, rivers grow shallow and dry up, wonderful landscapes vanish irrevocably, and all this because lazy man does not have enough sense to stoop and to pick up fuel available on the ground."
By 1896 Chekhov had reworked The Wood Demon into Uncle Vania. The number of characters was reduced and the action partly changed and concentrated in one place, but the role of Doctor Khrushchev, who now became Doctor Astrov, was retained and expanded, although he is no longer the only central figure. With minor changes Khrushchev's monologue was repeated by Astrov in the first act of Uncle Vania and graphically enlarged upon in the third act: Astrov, like Khrushchev before him, has prepared a map of the local district and now explains its meaning at length. Different colors are used on the map to show the distribution of flora and fauna as it was fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago, and as it is today. The picture is one of continuing depletion of forested areas, a drastic decline in some animal and bird species, and a complete disappearance of others: elk, swans, and grouse are gone:
"A picture of gradual and indubitable regeneration," remarks Astrov, ". . . if in place of these destroyed forests we would see highways, railroads, plants, factories, schools—people would be healthier, richer, more intelligent, but there is nothing of the sort here. We have in the district the same swamps, mosquitoes, lack of roads, poverty, typhus, diphtheria, fires . . ."
Chekhov also observes the beginnings of water pollution. In the humorous skit "Fish Love" (1892), a carp, sole inhabitant of a large pond situated near a foundry, falls madly in love with a young girl who daily comes to swim in the pond. "Due to proximity to the foundry . . . the water in the pond has long since turned brown, but nevertheless the carp could see everything." In "Gooseberries," the estate bought by Nikolai Ivanovich in fulfillment of his life's dream is situated near a river, "but the water in it was the color of coffee because on one side of the estate stood a brick factory and on the other a bone-processing plant." A leather factory ("In the Ravine," 1900) lay on the outskirts of Ukleevo. This factory was responsible for the fact that
the water in the stream often turned malodorous; the factory's wastematter contaminated the meadow, the peasants' cattle suffered from anthrax, and the factory was ordered closed. It was considered closed but operated secretly with the knowledge of the district's police officer and doctor, who each received ten roubles a month from the owner.
Survival of man and nature are tied. Doctor Khrushchev sees human destiny closely bound to the success and failure of his foresting: "When I hear the rustling of my young forest planted with these very hands, I realize that climate is a little bit in my power, and if in a thousand years man will be happy, in some small measure the responsibility will be mine."
Even more forcefully the same theme is expressed by the unhappy Elena Andreevna:
"There, as 'the Wood Demon' has just said, you all recklessly destroy forests, and soon nothing will be left on earth; in the same way you recklessly destroy humans, and soon, thanks to you, there will be neither faithfulness, nor purity, nor ability for self-sacrifice left on earth . . . You have pity neither for forests, nor for birds, nor for women, nor for each other."
By denying Astrov the central position which Khrushchev enjoys in The Wood Demon, Chekhov only strengthens and underscores the parallel between people and trees in Uncle Vania. The survival of trees and the survival of sensitive, self-effacing, humble people like Uncle Vania and Sonia merge into one. Both are two sides of the same theme: beauty—moral and natural—and its senseless destruction. As Tuzenbakh remarks in The Three Sisters shortly before his fatal duel: "What beautiful trees and, actually, how beautiful life should be near them!"
The heartless Iakov in "Rothschild's Fiddle" (1894) is totally absorbed in his business of making coffins and money. The fear of financial loss if an anticipated order for a coffin does not materialize is forever uppermost in his mind, though he earns some extra money by playing the fiddle in a local Jewish orchestra. Only when his wife is dying does he suddenly remember that during their long life together he has never had a kind word for her. The dying woman speaks of the little girl with blond hair that was born to them fifty years ago and died. "At that time," she says, "you and I used to sit by the river and sing songs under the willow tree." But Iakov cannot remember the child or the willow tree. After his wife's funeral he goes for a stroll along the river:
There was a spreading old willow tree with a huge hollow and with crows' nests in its branches . . . And suddenly there arose in Iakov's memory, as if alive, the baby with the blond hair and the willow tree his wife had spoken of. Yes, this is that very same willow tree—green, quiet, sad . . . How it has aged, the poor thing!
Iakov sits down and memories crowd upon him. Where he now sees a water meadow, there used to be a large birch forest. The bare hill on the horizon used to be covered by an old pine forest . . . Remorse about his own past life merges with apprehension of the changes he observes around him. Why did they cut down the birch trees and the pines? Why did he, all his life, scold, growl, brandish his fists, mistreat his wife? "The results are such losses, such terrible losses!"
Clearly there is unity between man and nature. But what of man himself? Does Chekhov view man as simply a more complex organism, more destructive perhaps than other beings, or is there something which distinguishes him from other creatures? À significant indication of Chekhov's answer to this question is found in the scene already mentioned from "A Lady with a Dog." Gurov ponders how beautiful everything is in this world, "everything except what we ourselves think and do when we forget about the higher goals of existence, about our human dignity." The concept of human dignity appears again in The Wood Demon. Khrushchev in his monologue and after him Astrov in Uncle Vania say: "Man has been given intelligence and creative power in order to increase what has been given to him, but until now he has not created, he has only destroyed." A small plot of land is not what man needs—exclaims the narrator in "Gooseberries" when he visits his brother Nikolai Ivanovich and finds him sunk to a level of vegetating existence which he enjoys—man needs "the entire terrestrial globe, the entire nature where, unhampered, he would be able to display all traits and features of his free spirit."
Man's spirit is the only living force on earth capable of voluntary and emotional acts, capable of creative achievements. While the animal and plant world lives immersed in its environment, powerless to change reality, man can detach himself from his environment, he can destroy it, to be sure, but he can also rise above it. Such a detachment, such a rise is shown by Chekhov in "Rothschild's Fiddle." To alleviate his remorse over a cheerless, wasted life and his anguish at surveying a ravaged environment, Iakov reaches for his fiddle. "Thinking about a lost, unprofitable life, he began to play he did not himself know what, but it came out plaintive and touching, and tears began to stream down his cheeks. And the deeper he thought, the sadder sang the fiddle." A member of the Jewish orchestra Iakov belongs to, by the nickname of Rothschild, listens, enraptured, to the sad and beautiful melody. Iakov has always been mean to Rothschild but now, at death's door, decides to give him his fiddle. Played by Rothschild, Iakov's melody lives on after his death, moving the local inhabitants again and again to tears.
"A Letter"—begun a year or so before Chekhov's death—was left unfinished. In it, Chekhov extolls the proud potentialities of the human spirit, saying through the author of the letter that "the most beautiful and the most rational, powerful, invincible part of nature is the part created by the genius of man, independently from nature's will." Genius of man, to Chekhov, is not only the ability of outstanding, gifted individuals to create works of art and excellence; he includes the spiritual potentialities to be found in every man as well. In "A House with a Mezzanine—a Story of an Artist" (1896) the plight of the peasantry is discussed and the artist says:
The whole horror of their situation is that they have no time to think about their soul, no time to remember their own image and likeness; hunger, cold, blind fear, a mountain of labor, have blocked, like avalanches, all roads to spiritual activity, to the very thing which distinguishes man from animal and constitutes the only thing that makes life worth living.
Later he adds: "The mission of every human being is spiritual activity—an incessant search for truth and meaning of life."
None of Chekhov's heroes who speak of man's place in the world, of man's responsibilities and unique attributes are endowed with exceptional abilities or achievements. In no way do they rise above the mass of simple, ordinary people who crowd the pages of Chekhov's fiction. Quite the contrary. Khrushchev in The Wood Demon says that every day he is gaining in stupidity and pettiness and losing in talent. Astrov in Uncle Vania feels sucked in by the surrounding provincialism and has taken to drink. Nikolai Ivanovich's brother in "Gooseberries," a veterinarian, is old, "unfit to struggle," as he puts it, and bemoans the fact that he is no longer young. The coffin maker Iakov in "Rothschild's Fiddle" is morose and engrossed in his petty business. Gurov in "The Lady with a Dog" is a Muscovite businessman of average means and standing. The author of the unfinished "Letter" is an invalid and former seminary student who left the academy without finishing his studies. And the artist in "A House with a Mezzanine" confesses to total idleness and to endless hours of aimless dreaming and roaming the countryside.
Yet, every one of these characters who express Chekhov's views on man and nature experiences or is aware of something which belongs to the realm of the spirit, that realm accessible only to man. In the last act of The Wood Demon Khrushchev experiences a great upsurge of will and determination. A forest fire is raging in the distance: "I may not be a hero," he exclaims, "but I will become one! I shall grow wings like an eagle and nothing will frighten me—neither this fiery glow nor the devil himself. Let the forests burn—I shall plant new ones!" Astrov's spiritual experience in Uncle Vania—aside from his love for his trees—is esthetic. He is temporarily drawn to the beautiful Elena Andreevna, yet neither in lust nor in love. It is beauty that attracts him: "I do not love anyone and I will not fall in love either. What still captivates me is beauty. I am drawn to it." The sight of the vegetating Nikolai Ivanovich in "Gooseberries" leads his brother to an acute outburst of despair and indignation over people who sink into the stupor of material contentment to the exclusion of higher goals and interests. Out of Iakov's remorse and sadness in "Rothschild's Fiddle" springs the beautiful melody that lived on after his death. The middle-aged, cynical Gurov in "The Lady with a Dog," who used to speak of women as "the inferior race," experiences deep and poignant attachment to Anna Sergeevna. The author of "A Letter" writes to a Maria Sergeevna of the sense of wonder, reverence, and ecstasy he felt while reading the book he is sending her. And the idling artist in "A House with a Mezzanine" dreams of "genuine sciences and art which would be oriented toward eternal and lofty goals rather than be concerned with passing needs and current problems of the day."
The spark of the sublime is there in every one of them, though it be only a spark. Resignation and enthusiasm, despondency and esthetic transport, pettiness and creative inspiration, cynicism and love, physical deficiency and mental ecstasy, inertia and artistic insight—they are all there side by side in man. So, Chekhov's vision of life on this earth was one of a cherry orchard in bloom, be it fifty, one hundred, two hundred or perhaps even one thousand years away.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187
SOURCE: "Search for Escapes," in Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 126-56.
[In this excerpt, Kirk examines Chekhov's treatment of romantic values in "Gooseberries."]
"Gooseberries" continues the narrative thread begun in "The Man in a Shell." The story opens with a description of Burkin and Ivan Ivanych walking on the open plain, where the vast landscape appears endless and beautiful to them. There is a mild pensive mood in nature that is somewhat reminiscent of the serene moonlit night the two men spent together in the barn, and perhaps this association leads Burkin to mention the story Ivan had desired to relate that night.
Ivan had intended to talk about his brother, but before he can begin the story it starts to rain. The two men seek refuge at a friend's, Alekhin's, house, where the theme of the beauty of nature is again introduced with Ivan's idyllic swim in the river.
The opening mood created by the wide unfenced expanse of the steppe is deliberately developed as a contrast to Ivan Ivanych's subsequent narration. Ivan speaks of his brother Nikolai Ivanych's obsession with acquiring a country estate, and remarks that he never sympathized with his brother's desire "to shut himself up for the rest of his life on a little property of his own. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man." Ivan's comment, as many critics have already noted, establishes an association with Tolstoi's didactic story "How Much Land Does Man Need?" in which Tolstoi concludes that man needs only enough earth to be buried in. Both authors agree that greed is destructive to freedom, but whereas Tolstoi's tale refutes ambitious desire altogether, "Gooseberries" attempts to shift its focus from petty, personal goals to wider, more humanistic pursuits:
To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one's own farm—that's not life, it is selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.
Ivan's description of Nikolai's life is one of Chekhov's most powerful portraits of the blind and sometimes destructive powers of banal romanticism. Nikolai deprives himself of food, of youthful enjoyment, and of love, and even drives his wife to her death—all because he
dreamed of eating his own shchi [sour cabbage soup], which would fill the whole farmyard with a delicious aroma, of picnicking on the green grass, of sleeping in the sun, of sitting for hours on the seat by the gate at field and forest. Books on agriculture and the farming items in almanacs were his joy, the delight of his soul . . . And he pictured to himself garden paths, flowers, fruit, bird houses with starlings in them, crucians in the pond, and all that sort of thing, you know. These imaginary pictures varied . . . but somehow gooseberry bushes figured in every one of them. . . .
The pathos of Nikolai's sacrifice and cruelty in order to attain his patch of land only increases after his dream has been realized. To begin with, the land itself hardly conforms to the idealized image Nikolai had dreamed about:
Through an agent my brother bought a mortgaged estate of three hundred acres with a house, servant's quarters, a park, but with no orchard, no gooseberry patch, no duck pond. There was a stream, but the water in it was the color of coffee, for on one of its banks there was a brickyard and on the other a glue factory. But my brother was not disconcerted.
Neither is Nikolai disconcerted when he tastes his first batch of homegrown but sour gooseberries. "He looked at the gooseberries in silence, with tears in his eyes. He could not speak for excitement . . . with the triumph of a child . . . he ate the gooseberries greedily, and kept repeating 'How tasty'."
Chekhov does not merely describe Nikolai's life in the country with such bathetic undertones. His depiction of that man's slothful yet high-handed morality also contains a vituperative denunciation of liberalism. When Ivan Ivanych first visits the estate, his initial impression centers on the selfish, pretentious life his brother leads there:
I made my way to the house and was met by a fat dog with reddish hair that looked like a pig. It wanted to bark, but was too lazy. The cook, a fat barelegged woman, who also looked like a pig, came out of the kitchen and said that the master was resting after dinner. I . . . found him sitting up in bed. . . . He had grown older, stouter, flabby . . . it looked as though he might grunt at any moment. . . . He was no longer the poor, timid clerk he used to be but a real landowner, a gentleman. . . . And he concerned himself with his soul's welfare too in a substantial, upperclass manner, and performed good deeds not simply, but pompously. He dosed the peasants . . . and then treated the villagers to a gallon of vodka. . . . Nikolai Ivanych, who when he was a petty official was afraid to have opinions of his own even if he kept them to himself, now uttered nothing but incontrovertible truths and did so in the tone of a minister of state: "Education is necessary, but the masses are not ready for it . . . I know the common people, they love me. I only have to raise my little finger, and they will do anything I want."
Although Nikolai is happy, Ivan questions his brother's smug contentment that is oblivious to the suffering around him. The theme of futliarnost' is thus transferred onto a political level, and Ivan comments:
Look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying . . . but we do not see or hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. . . . And such a state of things is evidently necessary. . . . It is a general hypnosis. . . . That night I came to understand that I too had been contented and happy. . . . Freedom is a boon, I used to say, it is as essential as air, but we must wait awhile. Yes, that's what I used to say, and now I ask: why must we wait?
Ivan concludes that he is too old now to combat the suffering around him, but he pleads with Alekhin to do something greater and more rational than simply to attain personal happiness. "Do good!" he advises.
However, neither Alekhin nor Burkin is visibly moved by Ivan's proselytizing. His final admonition to them shows that he is ignorant of the vital role beauty plays in their values, and they can only think:
It was tedious to listen to the story of the poor devil of a clerk who ate gooseberries. One felt like talking about elegant people, about women. . . . and the fact that lovely Pelageya was noiselessly moving about—that was better than any story.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1061
SOURCE: "Some Varieties of Armor and Innocence," in The Look of Distance: Reflections on Suffering & Sympathy in Modern Literature—Auden to Agee, Whitman to Woolf, Ohio State University Press, 1985, pp. 15-40.
[In the excerpt below, Slatoff considers possible reader responses, including his own, to the character Ivan Ivanych in "Gooseberries."]
[Ivan Ivanych in "Gooseberries"] is an elderly veterinarian who over the years has become so horrified by his brother's piggish and blind complacency that he becomes incapable of watching anyone's happiness without an "oppressive feeling bordering on despair." After spending an evening with his brother, he says to himself:
How many contented, happy people there really are! What an overwhelming force they are! Look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying—Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud. We see the people who go to market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good-naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is peaceful and quiet and only mute statistics protest: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition—And such a state of things is evidently necessary; obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and troubles will come to him—illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer. The happy man lives at his ease, faintly fluttered by small daily cares, like an aspen in the wind—and all is well.
Ivan has been saying all this in a comfortable sitting room to his friends Burkin, a high school teacher, and Alyohin, a gentleman farmer, and he goes on to lament that he is an old man now, unfit for action, capable only of grieving inwardly, becoming irritated, and lying awake at night with his thoughts. "Oh, if I were young!" he exclaims several times, pacing up and down the room excitedly, and then pressing Alyohin's hands, he implores him not to let himself "be lulled to sleep! As long as you are young, strong, alert, do not cease to do good! There is no happiness and there should be none, and if life has a meaning and a purpose, that meaning and purpose is not our happiness but something greater and more rational. Do good!" All this he says "with a pitiful, imploring smile, as though he were asking a personal favor." The story does not report how Alyohin receives this plea; it ends with the three men sitting for a while in silence and then going off to bed.
As always in Chekhov, there is much that complicates our response—both to Ivan and his point of view. Among other things, he more than anyone else in the story seems able to enjoy life and even to sleep well (if I read the end of the story correctly); and the story itself suggests there is much in life, including the lovely maid Pelageya, to be enjoyed. At the same time, Ivan's vision is never deeply undermined; and near the very end of the story, Chekhov compels us to measure our response against that of Alyohin, who "did not trouble to ask himself if what Ivan Ivanych has just said was intelligent or right" and who is pleased because Ivan was "not talking about groats or hay, or tar, but about something that had no direct bearing on his life."
I myself have no settled response to the story. At times Ivan's seems a silly view to take. How absurd to be pained by the sight of a happy man or happy families because others are suffering, especially if, as is true in Ivan's case, one has no clear idea of what to do about the suffering. How futile to implore the sleepy and uncomprehending Alyohin merely to "Do good!" How dangerously the vision veers away from a concern with the plight of the sufferers toward a wish to inflict pain on those who ignore it, a wish that "behind the door of every contented, happy man" there would be someone with a hammer "continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people" (emphasis mine), as though the discomfort alone were of value.
Yet how close or loud must the suffering be for happiness to be properly viewed as ugly or inappropriate? Only within eyesight or earshot? Only when it occurs within our own family, or town, or neighboring town? Only when it has not happened behind our backs, which after all are always turned toward some victim, intentionally or otherwise? Only when we witness the crucifixion? Shall we say that we ought not be troubled by suffering unless we know how to alleviate it or can make some effort to do so? And if we once begin to take on others' pain, when, where, and for what reasons shall we stop short of taking on the pain of the whole world? Obviously these are not directly answerable questions, but they help account for an obsession like Ivan's and for my own compulsion to become that someone with a hammer as I urge my own students to question the happiness of Chekhov's young student and remind them of the suffering he has forgotten, and as I write this book. I say not directly answerable because I like to think that the effort we are engaged in here may be a way of answering as well as asking.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7052
SOURCE: "Narrative Technique and the Art of Story-telling in Anton Chekhov's 'Little Trilogy'," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Freedman attributes the lack of critical consensus concerning Chekhov's political and social views to the author's maintenance of "a distinction between his own opinions and those of his characters." Freedman demonstrates how this distinction functions in "The Man in a Shell," "Gooseberries," and "About Love."]
The elusiveness of Anton Chekhov's art has caused no end of confusion among critics and readers ever since he began to publish serious literature in the latter half of the 1880s. The socially oriented critical industry of Russia of the late nineteenth century was alternately baffled and outraged by what it perceived to be an unprincipled, immoral writer. In time, Chekhov came to be known as the bard of twilight Russia. Soviet critics throughout much of the twentieth century have been wont to see in him an unabashed optimist and even a budding revolutionary. Recent times have generally seen a more sober attitude in his work, although there still exists no general consensus. Two examples demonstrate well the extremes to which Chekhov criticism has sometimes gone in the past. In 1926 Janko Lavrin wrote about Chekhov's "meek, evasive smile" and "sad voice" ["Chekhov and Maupassant," Slavonic Review, Vol. 13, June 1926], and in 1909 Leon Shestov opined that "Chekhov was doing one thing alone: by one means or another he was killing human hopes" ["Creation from the Void," Chekhov and Other Essays, 1966].
More recently, Georges Nivat has returned to the idea of Chekhov's cruelty [in Vers la fin du mythe russe, 1982]. After noting the contradictory nature of Chekhov criticism, he writes: "On parle de sa 'bonté,' de son 'humanisme,' de ce qu'il [Chekhov] appelait lui-même le 'talent humain de la compassion'; mais on doit bien constater que l'oeuvre tchekhovienne est une de plus cruelles qui soit." And, while no one entirely repeats Lavrin's excesses any more, such epithets as "sweet," "gentle," and "melancholic" still abound in descriptions of Chekhov's art. It should not surprise us, then, that the young, though perceptive Vladimir Maiakovskii entitled his 1914 article about Chekhov "Two Chekhovs."
The source of this confusion lies primarily in the nature of Chekhov's writing, in which he always maintained a distinction between his own opinions and those of his characters. A close look at a series of stories that the so-called mature Chekhov wrote in 1898—the "little trilogy," as it is frequently referred to, consisting of the stories "The Man in a Shell," "Gooseberries," and "About Love"—will allow us to define better the nature of Chekhov's story-telling art. In so doing, we may resolve some of the confusion concerning the writer's apparent split personality.
Each of the three stories is a frame story narrated by a different teller: "The Man in a Shell" by Burkin, a teacher at a gymnasium; "Gooseberries" by the veterinarian Ivan Ivanych Chimsha-Gimalaiskii; "About Love" by the miller and petty land-owner Pavel Konstantinovich Alekhin. In all three cases, Chekhov's narrator sets the stage for his story-teller and then almost entirely disappears during the course of the frame story. Upon completion of each narrated story, he intrudes once again to wrap up the story as a whole with maximum efficiency. In each of the frame stories there is a bare minimum of interruption from the narrator and the listeners. Each teller becomes, as it were, the independent author of his own story. The trilogy as a whole is marked by four distinct and widely varying voices: Burkin, Ivan Ivanych, Alekhin, and the narrator. There is a progressive movement of the tellers' points of view: from third-person (story one), to split third/first-person (story two), to first-person (story three). This movement causes a parallel shift in the attitudes of the tellers toward their subjects. Burkin, as we will see, displays a thinly veiled animosity for the "hero" of his tale; Ivan Ivanych displays something bordering on a love-hate relationship both to his brother and to himself; Alekhin tells of a love for Anna Alekseevna that is both passionate and tender. Any involvement, regardless of its position on a scale of positivity or negativity, will produce a skewed picture of events and personalities. Naturally, then, each story contains its own point of view, its own inconsistencies, its own peculiarities, and the point of view of one teller does not necessarily belong to any other teller—including the narrator—or to Chekhov himself.
"The Man in a Shell" is most often interpreted as a story about Belikov the Greek teacher, and in many respects this view is justified. However, to see Belikov as the focal point not only limits the story's scope but distorts its intention. Certainly Belikov is a "man in a shell." However, it is also frequently indicated that he is not the only one. "The Man in a Shell," like the other stories in the trilogy, begins with a folkloric prelude-story, a priskazka, in which Burkin and Ivan Ivanych encounter Mavra, who herself is a "woman in a shell." This meeting prompts Burkin to tell his story about Belikov, and he begins his narrative by indicating that there are not a few people in the world who, like hermit crabs or snails, try to hide in their shells. Upon completing his story, Burkin exclaims no less than three times how many men in shells there are, to which Ivan Ivanych replies, "'Isn't that the way it is'." Hints abound, then, that Belikov is not the only one who must be considered a man in a shell.
The teller in each story is a prominent figure in his own right: Burkin spins such a skewed tale that he cannot but be considered an active focus of the reader's and narrator's attention; In "Gooseberries," there is an overt indication that Ivan Ivanych is worthy of our careful attention when he states that the focal point of his story is not his brother's story but his own; Alekhin in "About Love" is both teller and actor in his own tale. Upon reading the group of stories as a whole, then, one wonders why critical discussion has seldom centered around Burkin as a character. Many critics never even mention him, assuming that he is Chekhov's unmediated voice, and quoting his words as though they are Chekhov's own. This failure to note Burkin's independent voice has distorted the story's ultimate significance.
Belikov's story is revealed entirely through Burkin's eyes, so that in order to appraise the legitimacy of Burkin's frequently harsh judgments it is necessary first to determine whether these observations are well-founded. Several moments indicate that they are not. Burkin tells his story in an omniscient mode, claiming to be privy to Belikov's thoughts at moments when no one could possibly have access to them. Burkin clearly perceives himself as a literary narrator and uses the common tricks of the trade to embellish his story. Perhaps it is this element of the story as much as any that has induced readers to accept Burkin's tale as Chekhov's. Let us then focus on a few isolated moments in the story that may allow us to distinguish between the points of view of Burkin and of the actual narrator of the story as a whole.
Early on Burkin provides us with a good reason to believe that his account of Belikov's life may not be strictly objective. He explains to Ivan Ivanych that Belikov oppressed everyone with his cautiousness and suspiciousness: "'With his sighs, his whimpering, the dark glasses on his pale little face, you know, like a polecat's face, he weighed us all down . . .' ." Burkin has an axe to grind and it is evident that we cannot expect from him an uncolored view. This in itself, however, does not yet provide sufficient reason to question the objectivity of his story. If in fact Belikov tyrannically imposed his will on others, his poor reputation among the townspeople would be justified. But the story reveals that Belikov was hardly a willful character. In fact, he was a meek, frightened recluse who almost never ventured out of his own private world. The romance which arises between him and Varenka is entirely the result of meddling on the part of the townspeople, Burkin included. His outrage at seeing Varenka ride a bicycle in public with her brother is less aimed at condemning Varenka than at protecting the privacy and stability of his fragile world, since he now knows that he is linked with Varenka in public opinion. His uncharacteristic outburst at Kovalenko's apartment is also more an effort to preserve his own anonymity than it is an overt attempt to exert control over others. In short, a disparity begins to arise between Burkin's Belikov and the Belikov who ostensibly gave rise to the story. This disparity is highlighted when we contrast Kovalenko's casual dismissal of Belikov with the difficulty Burkin and the other townspeople experience in interacting with him. As noted above, Burkin complains that Belikov's narrow-mindedness oppressed the entire town. He goes so far as to say that Belikov held the town hostage for fifteen years, during which time the town ladies were afraid to arrange theatrical gatherings and the clergy was afraid to eat meat during Lent or to play cards. In fact, Burkin says, "'We were afraid to talk out loud, to send letters, to make acquaintances, to read books, to help the poor, to teach others how to read and write'."
Despite Burkin's assertions to the contrary, such exaggerated fear could not have been induced by the likes of a Belikov unless the townspeople themselves were Belikovs of a sort. Prior to this passage Burkin attempts to characterize the teachers at the gymnasium as decent, thoughtful, and well-educated, but their meddling in Belikov's "romance" with Varenka is cruel. One need only consider the confrontation between Kovalenko and Belikov to see the extent of Belikov's "oppressive" nature. Belikov is frightened by Kovalenko's crude retorts and in order to preserve his insular existence, he threatens to report the conversation to the authorities. Unlike the other teachers or the rest of the townspeople, however, Kovalenko is undaunted, and before giving him a shove out of the door, he tells him to make his report. It is the humiliation of the rebuff—not the fall down the stairs—that ultimately brings about Belikov's rather Gogolian death.
Curiously, the plausibility of Belikov's "reign of terror" was called into question by one of Chekhov's contemporaries, although he did not develop his observation. After listing Belikov's nasty characteristics in detail, Evgenii Liatskii writes: "However, reader, does this really make sense? Is it conceivable that a gymnasium faculty and their director, consisting of educated people who have read Shchedrin, would submit to the influence of this pale caricature of Shchedrin's Judas for fifteen years?" But the critic is content to explain away this inconsistency as merely a small flaw in the story.
Certain of Burkin's comments that cause a careful reader to question his reliability are connected with his observations of the "outsiders" in the story, the Ukrainian Kovalenko and his sister Varenka. Both of these characters are drawn superficially. Varenka particularly is presented mockingly as a stereotypical "Little Russian" who is "'always singing Little Russian songs and laughing'"; she is said to be "'not a maiden, but marmelade,'" and is frequently referred to as a "'new Aphrodite'"; none of these descriptions are borne out by the subsequent portrayal of her in the story. Kovalenko himself is superficially portrayed as a rather gruff, self-assured, loud man, presumably in contrast to the more refined Great Russian inhabitants of the town (who are, Burkin assures us, a thoughtful lot, well-versed in Turgenev and Shchedrin). This inability to comprehend someone from outside the town's narrow confines borders on crude nationalist chauvinism at one point when Burkin says: " 'I have noticed that khokhlushki, top knots [a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians], only cry or laugh; they don't have any in-between moods.'" Burkin is incapable of seeing these people as individuals, and the true narrator of the story certainly does not expect his reader to accept these observations as truths. They serve instead to undermine the reader's confidence in Burkin's authority as an observer.
As has been noted more than once, Burkin claims to be privy to information that only an omniscient narrator could possess. One particularly striking instance of this occurs when he undertakes to describe Belikov's paranoia even while lying in bed at night: " 'When he went to bed he would pull the covers over his head. It was hot and stuffy. The wind knocked at the door and the stove hummed. Sighs, ominous sighs, could be heard coming from the kitchen. . . . He was terrified there beneath the covers.'" That these details are Burkin's own narrative creations is easily discerned from other moments in the story. For instance, Burkin describes Belikov's state on the morning following one of these hypothetical nights: " 'When we would go to school together he was drawn and pale and it was obvious that the bustling school to which he was going was terrible for him; that it was repulsive to his entire being; and that it was difficult for him, a solitary man by nature, to walk along beside me.'" Belikov's few utterances are entirely devoid of substance, and he does not share with Burkin his personal thoughts or feelings. Hence, it does not appear that Burkin has the right to speak of what Belikov was thinking the previous night while lying beneath the covers. In fact, Belikov's pale and drawn appearance may represent the discomfort he feels in the company of his hostile neighbor. This, of course, does not occur to Burkin.
Burkin's description of Belikov's occasional social visits to his colleagues also leads us to doubt that he could have learned of Belikov's inner thoughts from the teacher himself. Says Burkin, " 'He would call on some teacher, sit down and silently stare as though he were looking at something. He would sit there like that silently for an hour or two and then leave.'" This is hardly the picture of a man who would share his private moments with an unfriendly neighbor. Only after the idea of marriage has been planted in his head and he comes to think he is enamored of Varenka does he actually venture to engage Burkin in a conversation of any substance. But even then the conversation never ventures beyond the subject of Varenka, and his speech mannerisms (he speaks with a feeble, twisted little smile) and actual statements ("I must admit, I'm afraid.") once again indicate that Belikov does not present a threat to the town's stability.
In fact, Belikov is an outcast who is ostracized by the townspeople. When the idea of marrying him off to Varenka arises, everyone joins in the machinations with malicious joy, and no opportunity is missed to foist this unwanted, unthought-of event on Belikov, who is no match for the likes of the town busybodies. Burkin describes Belikov on an outing to the theater with Varenka as "a hunched-over little man, who looked as though he had been pulled out of his apartment with pincers." This is hardly the picture of a man who holds a town hostage.
The details of this story that point to an interpretation of Burkin and his fellow townspeople as the real oppressors are myriad. Let it suffice to conclude with an observation of Burkin's upon returning home after Belikov's burial: "'We returned from the cemetery in good humor. But not a week passed before the same severe, tedious, senseless life began anew.'"
It is evident, then, that our perception of Belikov is heavily colored by the picture Burkin draws of him, and as the details are examined it becomes clear that Burkin's fictionalization of Belikov actually becomes a major element in the story. We may certainly assume that the Belikov who prompted this story shared some characteristics with the one whom Burkin creates for us—his meekness, his fear of spontaneity, even his occasional petty cruelty—but the ferocity attributed to him by Burkin is fabricated. Burkin, and thus the element of story-telling itself, is as much an object of observation in this story as Belikov, and this fundamentally alters the basic premise of the story.
This inability to distinguish between Chekhov's narrative voice and that of his characters has also caused particular confusion in interpretations of "Gooseberries." In this story the good-hearted, sentimental Ivan Ivanych tells the story of his brother Nikolai who devoted his life's labors to acquiring an estate on which he could grow his own gooseberries. For Nikolai the idea of the estate and particularly that of the gooseberries are emblems of bourgeois success that naturally bring with them happiness. As Ivan Ivanych develops his narrative he becomes increasingly carried away by the moral that he perceives to exist in his story, since, for all his hopes, efforts, and transgressions, the "happiness" that Nikolai achieves is nothing but a lie. The gooseberries are hard and sour, and his pathetic, rundown estate, squeezed between two factories, one of which calcinates bones and the other of which makes bricks and turns the nearby river brackish, is far from being an idyll of the Russian countryside.
While Nikolai does not recognize that the realization of the dream is a fraud, Ivan Ivanych does, and as he warms to his subject he seeks to turn his story into a homily. At one point he interrupts his narrative to say: "'But he's not the point. I am I want to tell you about the change that took place in me. . . . '" This is the sort of red herring frequently employed by Chekhov to mislead those of his readers who were forever seeking tendentious statements in their literature. Shortly thereafter Ivan Ivanych launches into his now famous pronouncement that happy people are only happy because the unhappy bear their burden silently. Developing this notion with frequent rhetorical questions and exclamations, he finally implores Alekhin: "There is no happiness and there shouldn't be. And if there is any sense or purpose in life, then this sense and purpose are not at all to be found in our happiness but in something more rational and great. Do good!'"
On the other hand, Chekhov's narrator offers several other, more fruitful, hints that Ivan Ivanych's story is not what he thinks it is. When Ivan Ivanych completes his tale, the narrator describes the three men's surroundings and states of mind. Ivan is said to have told his whole story with a "pitiful, imploring smile"; the two listeners, Burkin and Alekhin, are said to be very "dissatisfied" with Ivan's story; and finally, Burkin is unable to fall asleep because of a mysterious, unpleasant stench that is in fact emanating from Burkin's burned-out pipe. Together, these details indicate that something is amiss with the story that has just been told. When juxtaposed against the narrator's neutral observations, the hyperbole of Ivan's narration takes on an almost grotesque tinge. That is, the contrast between the idealistic, impassioned, but misplaced harangue against "happiness" is suddenly revealed to be as much a "lie" as was his brother Nikolai's achievement of "happiness." Milton A. Mays cleverly puts it this way: "Ivan Ivanych's story is a 'bad smell' in the context in which he tells it, and his 'truth' traduces reality." ["'Gooseberries' and Chekhov's Concreteness," Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 6, Winter, 1972].
Even within the frame story itself there are hints that Ivan Ivanych's moralistic diatribe is not to be taken at face value. Ivan frequently arouses the careful reader's suspicions by committing slips of the tongue or by contradicting himself. He misquotes an excerpt from a dialog in Pushkin's "Geroi" (Hero), transforming the lyrical statement of an individualized character-poet into a generalized, aphoristic phrase. Whereas Pushkin's character proclaims, " 'I value more an ennobling deception than a multitude of base truths.'" Ivan Ivanych quotes, "'We find more dear a deception which ennobles us than a multitude of truths.'" His erroneous attribution of a statement by one of Pushkin's characters to Pushkin himself is a fittingly ironic twist.
After delivering a lulling, lyrical description of his youth in the country at the outset of his narration, Ivan expresses a nostalgic longing for the country. But later he reacts critically to his brother's desire to set up house on his estate and calls the exodus of the intelligentsia from the city to the country nothing more than selfishness and sloth. This inconsistency is uttered in the first paragraph of Ivan's story and should clearly induce the reader to doubt his reliability.
There is also a more organic perhaps it might be called psychological—flaw in Ivan's character that serves to undermine his reliability. Following his fervent soliloquy on the nature of happiness, during which he supposedly exposes the false nature of the concept, he passionately asks why man must wait for time to free him of his shackles. He implies that decisive action and a radical reevaluation of attitudes would make it possible to overcome the lethargy of social change and to institute a new order. But he no sooner expresses this idea than he ironically reveals his own incompetence and impotence: He is "too old," he says, and no longer capable of pursuing the struggle. He pleads with Alekhin to "do good" while he is young and able, justifying his own apathy with the impotent phrase " 'Oh, if only I were young!'" By the end of the story, then, the careful reader is wary of accepting what Ivan Ivanych says at face value, and it becomes evident that Chekhov's intent in writing this story is not to instill in it "instructive" qualities.
The third story of the trilogy, "About Love," presents somewhat different complications from the first two since there is a fundamental shift in the relationship of the story-teller to his tale. In "The Man in a Shell," as we have seen, Burkin recounts an essentially third-person narrative about Belikov. In "Gooseberries" Ivan Ivanych spins a tale that is approximately half third-person narrative (the elements of plot that touch upon his brother Nikolai) and half first-person (his essentially plotless portrayal of himself in relation to his brother's experience, most of which is taken up with his moral and philosophical concerns). The frame story in "About Love" is told entirely in the first-person. The teller in this case is the subject of his own tale. However, the relationship of each of the story-tellers to verisimilitude is constant: Alekhin, as will become apparent, is no more a reliable source of information than were Burkin or Ivan Ivanych. David E. Maxwell's observation that Alekhin frequently speaks in the subjunctive mood is illuminating in that it indicates his story may have no basis in fact ["The Unity of Chekhov's 'Little Trilogy'," in Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Paul Sebreczeng and Thomas Eekman, 1977]. As a result, the narrative irony of "About Love" is of a subtler nature than that of the other stories. In "The Man in a Shell" and "Gooseberries" the reader is able to achieve a measure of perspective by means of the distance that exists between the tellers and their tales, but that distance is lost in "About Love." In the final story the reader must rely on key phrases and omissions in the narrative to reconstruct the gulf that exists between the event as it may have happened and the event as it is related by Alekhin.
As does Ivan Ivanych in "Gooseberries," Alekhin inadvertently gives his listeners reason to doubt his full credibility early on. After his short prelude story about the beautiful Pelageia, Alekhin acknowledges the inscrutability of love and says, " 'Each case must be individualized, as the doctors say'." Burkin readily approves, initially reinforcing in the readers mind the apparent truth of the matter. However, Alekhin immediately reverses himself and launches into a generalization about love: "'We Russians, cultivated people, have a predilection for these questions which remain unsolved. People usually poeticize love, embellish it with roses and nightingales, but we Russians embellish our loves with fatal questions . . .'." He appears to be unaware of the inconsistency in his statements.
In light of the problems of point of view and teller's credibility raised in the previous stories, the reader's primary problem here is to achieve a reasonable understanding of Anna Alekseevna, the object of Alekhin's love. This problem is highly complex, since with one exception (to be discussed later) our only information about her comes from Alekhin, whose love for her makes him far from an objective observer. Can we accept Alekhin's account of the alleged love affair at face value? I think not.
Alekhin's first meeting with Anna provides us with a major insight into the probable nature of his relationship with her. Images of childhood (Alekhin's included) and motherhood are constantly repeated. The second time he mentions Anna, Alekhin notes that she has just given birth to her first child. He then describes how she first appeared to him: " 'I saw a young, beautiful, good, intelligent, charming woman, a woman such as I had never met before. And immediately I sensed in her a being close to me, already familiar, as though I had already seen this face, these friendly, intelligent eyes sometime in my childhood, in a picture-album which lay on my mother's chest of drawers'."
Alekhin's first impression of Anna, then, is closely intertwined with his memories of childhood and his own mother. As will subsequently become apparent, Anna's relationship to Alekhin is in fact quite maternal, and does not have the sensual nature that he comes to experience, and that he attributes to her feeling for him. The lonely Alekhin, isolated in the country with his mundane cares of running an estate, is smitten by the vision of a beautiful young woman who arouses in him a feeling of warmth, comfort, and a longing for maternal love.
As this vague and undefined feeling develops into a true sensual passion, Alekhin begins to question the nature of the relationship between Anna and her older husband, ultimately concluding that it is an unhappy marriage. But this is likely to be wishful thinking on Alekhin's part. Following is his account of the first evening he spends with the Luganoviches: " 'Both husband and wife tried to make me eat and drink more. From a few insignificant details, for instance, the way they made coffee together, and the way they understood each other without finishing their sentences, I was able to conclude that their life was peaceful and successful, and that they were glad to have a visitor. After dinner they played a duet on the piano . . .'."
These "few insignificant details" are apparently insignificant only for Alekhin, for they actually suggest the closeness that may well exist between the couple. This is not an isolated picture. The husband and wife are frequently mentioned together as a close unit ("both of them," "both husband and wife," "the Luganoviches," etc.). Anna is frequently referred to as either "the wife" or the "young mother." It is through this interplay of words between the true narrator and the character Alekhin that the ironic distance in the story looms large. Chekhov's narrator allows his character to speak of a love that he believes to have existed (and which presumably did exist for him), while by carefully selecting Alekhin's vocabulary and the scenes that he relates, Chekhov also allows his reader to arrive at a very different interpretation of the affair.
Alekhin introduces several instances that he believes corroborate his conclusion that Anna shared his love. The first occurs in his account of their friendship. After his first visit to the Luganoviches, Alekhin does not see them for nearly six months. One evening he meets Anna by chance at the theater. She tells Alekhin: " 'I must confess I was a little taken with you. For some reason you frequently came to mind during the course of the summer, and today when I was getting ready for the theater it seemed that I would see you'." She concludes by laughing and telling him that his tired appearance makes him look old. On the following day Alekhin accompanies them back to their summer home where, Alekhin relates, " 'I had tea at their place in quiet, domestic surroundings while the fireplace crackled and the young mother often went out to see whether her little daughter was sleeping'." Within the context of Anna's placid family life her comments made at the theater are probably little more than polite, endearing, perhaps lightly flirtatious conversation.
Over a period of years the friendship between Alekhin and the Luganoviches grows and Alekhin develops a particularly close relationship with the children, almost as though he himself were one of them. He even describes himself once as a child in relation to Anna: " 'I used to carry her packages for her, and for some reason I carried those packages with such devotion and ceremony as though I were a little boy'." Alekhin's utterance of "for some reason" is far from incidental, although he does not seem to recognize its significance. Hence, the relationship between Anna and Alekhin far more resembles that of mother and son than that of two lovers. Their long conversations (none of which is reproduced in the story) are often marked by silence, which Alekhin interprets as their mutual fear of acknowledging their love. He begins to speak of "our love" and "our lives," although nothing has transpired to justify this romantic link. Claiming a (novelistic) omniscient knowledge of Anna's thought processes, he reasons that Anna would have run away with him were it not for social constrictions and family concerns, but neither Anna's words nor her behavior provide any reason for such assumptions.
Toward the end of Anna's stay in the country the relationship sours. Alekhin tells us: "'Anna Alekseevna began to go away more often to her mother's and her sister's. She was frequently in bad spirits, she appeared to recognize that her life was unsatisfactory and ruined, and she didn't want to see either her husband or her children. She was already taking a cure for nervous prostration'."
Anna's dissatisfaction with her life reflects on her relationship with Alekhin as well. Their conversations more and more come to be marked by silences and she frequently responds to Alekhin's comments harshly and sarcastically. Alekhin describes it this way: " 'She displayed some sort of strange irritation with me'." The phrase "some sort of," as the previously mentioned "for some reason," is an indication that Alekhin fails to understand what the narrator, the reader, and, presumably, Anna herself do understand. Anna's irritation is "strange" only for Alekhin, whose perception of the "affair" is very different from hers.
In order to find a satisfactory explanation for Anna's dissatisfaction, we may turn to one of the central themes of the trilogy as a whole: the indolence and boredom of life in the Russian countryside. While this theme was openly dealt with in the first two stories, it is alluded to much more subtly in "About Love." Chekhov's narrator in "Gooseberries" had already exposed the futility of Alekhin's life in the country, and thus the reader comes to Alekhin's story with a ready understanding of his situation. While the narrator in "About Love" has little more to add on this account, the idea that Alekhin has squandered his talents buried in the country is supported by Anna's responses to him, by occasional comments that Alekhin makes about himself, and by an observation shared by Burkin and Ivan Ivanych. Certainly the oppressive atmosphere that poisoned the lives of the people in "The Man in a Shell," seduced the simpleton Nikolai and brought Ivan Ivanych to a state of impotent indignation, and caused Alekhin to squander his talents had a similar effect on the "young, beautiful, good, intelligent, charming" Anna. The difference is that while none of the other characters of the stories had the good sense to combat this killing life, Anna does. Her trips to her mother and sister are quite probably an attempt to escape the prison-like atmosphere of the country, and her irritation with Alekhin is more apt to be an informed expression of disgust with a capable man who has allowed himself to wither away aimlessly.
For Alekhin the climax of his tale is the final proof of Anna's love for him, while the careful reader is left far from convinced. The scene takes place at the train station as Alekhin, Luganovich, and the Luganovich children see Anna off. Alekhin follows her into the train car where he finally confesses his love for her. The tearful scene is striking in that, with one exception, the only "actor" is Alekhin himself. Here is the scene as Alekhin tells it:
It was necessary to say good-bye. When our eyes met in the train car our emotional strength abandoned us both. I embraced her, she lay her face on my breast, and tears began to flow. While kissing her face, shoulders, hands wet from tears,—oh, how unhappy we were!—I confessed to her my love and with a bitter pain in my heart I understood how senseless, insignificant and deceptive everything was which had stopped us from loving. . . .
I kissed her one last time, took her hand, and we parted—forever. The train was already moving. I took a seat in the next car—it was nearly empty—and I sat there weeping until we reached the next station. Then I went home to Sofyino on foot. . . .
Alekhin kisses Anna, Alekhin embraces Anna, Alekhin confesses his love to Anna. Nothing here suggests that Alekhin can justify his claim that "our emotional strength abandoned us both." Anna's only response is to rest her head on Alekhin's chest and perhaps to shed a few tears, although it is not entirely clear that even this is so. The phrase "tears began to flow" is an impersonal construction, so that we cannot say for certain whose tears they were. They may be Alekhin's and not Anna's. In any event, that Anna rests her head on his chest and perhaps even sheds a few tears is hardly proof that she passionately loves him and is suffering from the same tragedy as he is. There is more than ample proof in the text that she feels an affection for this family friend, probably understands his attraction to her, and even sympathizes with him. However, there is little to justify Alekhin's invoking of the pronoun "we" to relate what he perceives to be a shared experience of tragic sorrow. The small degree of affection that Anna does express may be a magnanimous, even frustrated, expression of sympathy rather than love. Even more convincing is the finale of the incident: Anna attempts neither to stop him when he goes, nor to follow him into the neighboring car where he sits alone and weeps. It would appear that Alekhin has "poeticized" and "embellished with roses" this instance just as he has the entire "affair."
In effect, Alekhin's outburst on the nature of loving is a reprise of Ivan Ivanych's similar outburst on the nature of happiness and strikes a similar discordant note. Here is what Alekhin has to say: " 'I understood that with love, one's thoughts must begin with something exalted, something more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their common sense, or one must not think about it at all'." Whatever truth there may be in this utterance, it is entirely out of place in the context of the story that has just been told. Even if Alekhin had acted in accordance with this reasoning, there is no real indication that anything would have come of it. The pathos of the situation arises not from the tragedy of unrequited love—as Alekhin sees it—but from the tragedy of Alekhin's misguided life: He has become obsessed by a dubious love while failing to notice that his life was wasting away in the depths of the country. The disparity between these two views is created by a gap that exists between the point of view of Chekhov's narrator and the point of view of his created character, Alekhin.
Following Alekhin's retelling of the train scene, the narrator once again steps in and describes the effect that the story has had on Burkin and Ivan Ivanych. The two of them "regretted that this man with good, intelligent eyes who had told his story with such sincerity truly was spinning 'round here like a squirrel in a cage on his enormous estate instead of busying himself with science or something else. . . ." The narrator deflects or attention from the story of unrequited love, indicating that Alekhin's real tragedy is his inability to comprehend the more probable source of his unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Our final meeting with Anna—the first and only one that is not portrayed through Alekhin's consciousness—occurs in the story's final sentence when the narrator laconically tells us that Burkin and Ivan Ivanych both occasionally met her in town and that "Burkin was even acquainted with her and found her to be pretty." This almost flippant observation about Anna stands in stark contrast to the more intense portrayal we have received of her throughout the story. What a difference from the string of adjectives Alekhin used to describe her at their first meeting! Once again, the narrator redirects the reader's attention away from the atmosphere of the story Alekhin has told.
If Chekhov was not interested in providing his readers with instructive social or moral tales through the narratives of Burkin, Ivan Ivanych, and Alekhin, what did he intend by imparting authorial bias to the characters and situations of his trilogy? Somerset Maugham offers a fitting insight: "It is natural for men to tell tales, and I suppose the short story was created in the night of time when the hunter, to beguile the leisure of his fellows when they had eaten and drunk their fill, narrated by the cavern fire some fantastic incident he had heard of" ["The Short Story," in Points of View, 1958]. Each story in the trilogy contains numerous references to the theme of story-telling, and in almost all cases the message is borne by Chekhov's narrator, either by direct narrative statement or by the manipulation of dialog, setting, and mood. It is in this manner that the characters all serve their primary function. Burkin, Ivan Ivanych, and Alekhin are, above all, story-tellers. Within the world of the work Burkin may have been a teacher of Greek, Ivan Ivanych a veterinarian, and Alekhin a petty landowner, but for Chekhov's narrator they are hunters after stories; raconteurs, not raisonneurs.
Burkin, whose tale most resembles a traditional "story," seems to be the most conscious story-teller of the three. His tale is not a personal confession as are the tales of Ivan Ivanych and Alekhin, and he narrates it with "presumptuous" omniscience. He selects for his subject the eccentric Belikov and employs innuendo, prejudice, elaboration, and exaggeration for the sake of a good story. Burkin foils Ivan Ivanych whenever the latter wants to intrude on the flow of Burkin's story, and he plays the role of Ivan Ivanych's "editor" in "Gooseberries" by invariably cutting him short whenever he begins to digress.
Chekhov's narrator frequently tells us that both Ivan Ivanych and Alekhin want to say or tell something. Each of the three frame stories begins with similar overt statements (my italics): "They were telling various stories" ("The Man in a Shell"); "Ivan Ivanych sighed heavily and lit his pipe so he could begin to tell a story" ("Gooseberries"); Alekhin told about how beautiful Pelageia was in love with the cook" ("About Love"). In "Gooseberries" Ivan Ivanych's initial attempt to tell his story is frustrated by a sudden downpour, but when he does begin his tale the narrator points out that "Ivan Ivanych launched into his story." In "About Love" Chekhov's narrator elaborates on the theme of story-telling:
It appeared that he [Alekhin] wanted to tell something. People who live alone always have something they would willingly tell about. In the city bachelors purposefully go to the baths and restaurants for no other reason than to talk and sometimes they tell the bath attendants or waiters very interesting stories. In the country on the other hand, they usually pour out their soul to their guests. In the window the gray sky and trees, wet from the rain, were visible. There was nowhere to go in such weather and there was nothing left to do but tell stories and listen.
Story-telling, then, in addition to being a form of entertainment, is a way for people to share and participate in their lives. For Chekhov, whose appetite for religion had long ago been squelched, and for whom tendentiousness was synonymous with narrow-mindedness, honesty and art stood on the highest pedestal. There can be little doubt he would have heartily agreed with John Updike's assertion that, "Being ourselves is the one religious experience we all have, an experience shareable only partially, through the exertions of talk and art" [Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1979]. Ultimately, it is not the "truth" of the tale that matters but the telling of it.
Even Chekhov's narrator cannot help but have a word to say in the final story of the trilogy. He too is struck by the beautiful Pelageia, who so astounds Burkin and Ivan Ivanych, and he too cannot refrain from admiring her beauty. While Alekhin may occasionally refer to her merely as Pelageia, Chekhov will not let his narrator be so indifferent. For him she is invariably the beautiful Pelageia, as she might be characterized in a folk tale. It is as though the cathartic act of story-telling has had its effect even on him. For those readers who have sought to find Chekhov in his stories, here he is: The craftily "absent author" who commands, as Virginia Woolf wrote [in "The Russian Point of view"], "exquisitely original and fastidious taste," whose "melancholy" is distortion, whose "cruelty" is misinterpretation, and whose honesty, appreciation of beauty, and ability to spin an intriguing yarn are always the hallmark of his best stories.
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
Egri, Péter. "The Short Story in the Drama: Chekhov and O'Neill." Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Tomus 20, Nos. 1-2 (1978): 3-28.
Examines structural affinities between the short story and dramatic forms, using examples from the one-act plays of Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill.
Hagan, John. "The Tragic Sense in Chekhov's Earliest Stories." Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts VII, No. 1 (Winter 1965): 52-80.
Offers a critical defense of Chekhov's early short fiction, arguing: "Many of Chekhov's early stories which appear at first glance to be no more than light-hearted jeux d'esprits turn out on closer inspection to be connected with themes of considerable significance."
Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 350 p.
Provides an overview of Chekhov's work in several genres. Hahn comments: "Chekhov is an author who must be seen whole if he is to be properly understood at all; and seeing him whole involves not merely tracing his development through the short stories, the novellas and finally the plays, but feeling what it is that he achieves, positively, with each new turn."
Katsell, Jerome H. "Character Change in Cexov's Short Stories." Slavic and East European Journal 18, No. 4 (Winter 1974): 377-83.
Argues that although Cchekhov "failed to write a novel, he still managed during his mature period (1888-1903) to incorporate in his stories character change and development, the normal province of the novel."
Klitko, Anatoli. "Chekhov and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art." Soviet Literature 1 (1980): 143-48.
Examines Chekhov's influence on Soviet short stories of the 1960s and 1970s.
Martin, David. "Figurative Language and Concretism in Chechov's Short Stories." Russian Literature VIII-II (March 1980): 125-49.
Detects a tendency in Chekhov's style in which "often complex abstract ideas are made the more readily assimilable to the reader by being reduced to physical terms which will easily impress themselves upon his imagination."
O'Toole, L. M. "Structure and Style in the Short Story: Chekhov's Student." The Slavonic and East European Review XLIX, No. 114 (January 1971): 45-67.
Provides "a framework for the structural analysis of the short-story form" and illustrates how "this framework works by applying it to a short story by Chekhov."
Pritchett, V. S. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 235 p.
Offers a biographical and critical examination of Chekhov's works, with an emphasis upon his short fiction. Pritchett comments: "[Chekhov's] genius, in my opinion, lies above all in his creative gifts as a writer of short stories."
Rossbacher, Peter. "Nature and the Quest for Meaning in Chekhov's Stories." The Russian Review: An American Quarterly Devoted to Russia 24, No. 4 (October 1965): 387-92.
Argues that "the Chekhovian character is thirsting for full life against the background of his inability to attain it."
Additional coverage of Chekhov's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 124; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian', Discovering Authors: Dramatist Module', Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; Something About the Author, Vol. 90; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 10, 31, 55; and World Literature Criticism.