Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
The setting of “The Kiss” is a Russian village on a May evening. The officers of an artillery brigade encamped nearby are invited by a retired lieutenant general, the leading landowner in the village, to spend an evening dining and dancing in his residence. After describing a panoramic scene of aristocratic society, Chekhov focuses on one of the officers, Ryabovich, an inarticulate conversationalist, a graceless dancer, a timid drinker, and an altogether awkward social mixer. During the evening, he strays into a semidark room, which is soon entered by an unidentifiable woman, who clasps two fragrant arms around his neck, whispers, “At last!” and kisses him. Recognizing her mistake, the woman then shrieks and runs from the room.
Ryabovich also exits quickly and soon shows himself to be a changed man: He no longer worries about his round shoulders, plain looks, and general ineptness. He begins to exercise a lively romantic fancy, speculating who at the dinner table might have been his companion. Before falling asleep, he indulges in joyful fantasies.
The artillery brigade soon leaves the area for maneuvers. Ryabovich tries to tell himself that the episode of the kiss was accidental and trifling, but to no avail: His psychic needs embrace it as a wondrously radiant event. When he tries to recount it to his coarse fellow officers, he is chagrined that they reduce it to a lewd, womanizing level. He imagines himself loved by, and married to, the woman, happy and stable; he can hardly wait to return to the village, to reunite with her.
In late August, Ryabovich’s battery does return. That night, he makes his second trip to the general’s estate, but this time he pauses to ponder in the garden. He can no longer hear the nightingale that sang loudly in May; the poplar and grass no longer exude a scent. He walks a bridge near the general’s bathing cabin and touches a towel that feels clammy and cold. Ripples of the river rip the moon’s reflection into bits. Ryabovich now realizes that his romantic dreams have been absurdly disproportionate to their cause. When the general’s invitation comes, he refuses it.
It is a masterful tale, as Chekhov demonstrates his vision of life as a pathetic comedy of errors, with misunderstanding and miscommunication rooted in the psychic substance of human nature. Lieutenant Ryabovich, the least dashing and romantic of men, is transformed by the kiss meant for another into a person with a penchant for an intense inner life that runs its dreamy course virtually separate from the dreariness of external reality. He inflates an insignificant incident into an absurd cluster of fantasies centering on ideal love and beauty. All the more embittering, then, is his plunge from ecstasy to despair as he recognizes, in the story’s anticlimactic resolution, the falseness of his hopes, the frustration of his yearnings.
Chekhov dramatizes two of his pervasive themes in “The Kiss.” One is the enormous difficulty, often the impossibility, of establishing a communion of feelings between human beings. Ryabovich discovers that he cannot explain to his fellow officers his happiness that an extraordinary event has transformed his life. Lieutenant Lobytko regards Ryabovich’s experience as an opportunity to parade and exaggerate his own sexual adventures. Lieutenant Merzlyakov dismisses the lady in the dark as “some sort of lunatic.” The brigade general assumes that all of his officers have his own preference for stout, tall, middle-aged women.
The other great Chekhovian theme (which he shares with Nikolai Gogol) is the contrast between beauty and sensitivity, and the pervasiveness of the elusive characteristic best expressed by the Russian word poslost’. The term is untranslatable, but it suggests vulgarity, banality, boredom, seediness, shallowness, and suffocation of the spirit. Ryabovich, surrounded by the coarseness of his comrades, depressed by the plodding routine of artillery maneuvers, poignantly tries to rise above this atmosphere of poslost’ by caressing an impossible dream.
When Ryabovich returns to Lieutenant General von Rabbeck’s garden in late summer, “a crushing uneasiness took possession of him.” His exultant mood disappears as he confronts the prospect of a nonexisting reunion with a nonexisting beloved. Chekhov symbolizes Ryabovich’s feelings of rejection and disillusionment. As Ryabovich touches the general’s cold, wet bathing towel and observes the moon’s reflection, this time torn by the river waters, he has a shattering epiphany of heartbreak: “How stupid, how very stupid!” he exclaims, interpreting the endless, aimless running of the water as equivalent to the endless, aimless running of his life—of all lives. “To what purpose?”