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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “Gusev,” Chekhov offers two radically opposed views of life and of possible ways to deal with its hardships. He wrote the story on his return voyage from a visit to the Russian penal colony on the Siberian island of Sakhalin, where he had encountered a series of disturbing scenes of human degradation and cruelty. Pavel Ivanych’s indignant criticism of social injustice undoubtedly reflects something of Chekhov’s own dismay at the prevalence of brutality and evil in the world. However, Pavel Ivanych’s protests are strikingly ineffectual. Gusev pays little attention to his words and does not understand very much of what he hears. For his part, Pavel Ivanych does not try very hard to find the appropriate words with which to make an impression on such listeners as Gusev. One wonders whether he would be capable of transforming his negative words into positive deeds; he appears to be content with his role as an insufferable individual—“protest personified.” Such an attitude significantly undermines his validity as a spokesman for Chekhov.

In Gusev’s character Chekhov presents a potential alternative to Pavel Ivanych’s stance of irritated protest: Gusev humbly accepts all that comes his way and appears content with his lot. His calm complacency recalls the positive heroes depicted by Leo Tolstoy in his fiction, and it is likely that Chekhov intended the character to embody, at least in part, the Tolstoyan ideal of passive acceptance. However, the character of Gusev, like that of Pavel Ivanych, contains evident flaws. In his passivity he appears almost subhuman or animalistic; one detects a penchant for mindless violence beneath his veneer of stolid placidity. When looking out the porthole, Gusev sees a corpulent Chinese man in a boat and thinks of bashing the fat man in the neck. Earlier, he had recounted an episode in which he beat four such men simply because they had come into his courtyard.

Neither Pavel Ivanych’s posture of angry protest nor Gusev’s manner of blind actions strikes the reader as completely satisfying or worthy of emulation. No character in...

(The entire section is 530 words.)