(Short Story Criticism)

"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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Mark Schorer (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Sean O'Faolain (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Thomas H. Gullason (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,"...

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Thomas Winner (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)

Carl R. Proffer (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Karl D. Kramer (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1287 words.)

Milton A. Mays (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,'"...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)

Valentine T. Bill (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4977 words.)

Irina Kirk (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Walter J. Slatoff (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Varieties of Armor and Innocence," in The Look of Distance: Reflections on Suffering & Sympathy in Modern LiteratureAuden 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...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

John Freedman (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7052 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 497 words.)