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:Literary Review (long Read)

Ward No. 6 And Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
Dan Schneider

I’d long heard that Russian writer Anton Chekhov had written short stories, but like most people it was on the strength of his plays, those intense little mood pieces, that I knew him best.

Granted, I thought the plays uniformly strong, and considered him of a stature near that of a Tennessee Williams or George Bernard Shaw. So revered for decades, was Chekhov, for his dramatic works, that he even had an apothegm called Chekhov’s Gun named after him. It stated that if in the First Act that there is a gun presented, by Third Act it must be shot, lest its import as symbolism, and effect as a dramatic tool be nil and unjustifiable. Yet, as I’ve gotten more into reading short stories I discovered that far more people admired his short stories than his plays, or, at least, to a greater degree. Having now read a full collection of twenty-three of his tales, in a Barnes & Noble Classics Edition titled Ward No. 6 And Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett, I have to say I’m inclined to agree with those who declaim him a superior short fictionist to dramatist.

What I do not agree with, though, are those critics who would place him in a direct line from the French Guy de Maupassant, and a confrere of the American O. Henry. The reason is that even in the earliest tales- and they span a range from 1885’s The Cook’s Wedding to 1902’s The Bishop - Chekhov’s tales are imbued with an intellectual probing wholly absent from Maupassant or O. Henry, He goes off into soliloquies, rivaling and surpassing the best of Shakespeare, that are far deeper than anything the plot-driven Frenchman or American achieved. Whereas their tales are one dimensional and dependent upon twists at the end, Chekhov’s tales are almost devoid of ‘boom’ endings. They just sort of go on in the mind, dependent upon mood and the situations described. The characters’ outer actions are almost always mirrors of their inner states of being. That this was achieved in the mid-1880s is truly an accomplishment of great note, for he was, to beg the cliché, truly far ahead of his time.

Yet, he is not a sullen realist. Some critics have disparaged his bleak view of life, but this is not so. Yes, Russian 19th century peasantry was hard, but such is only the milieu in which the tales play out. Many tales are small triumphs of the volitional spirit against the larger burdens of life. And, as the tales in the collection progressed mathematically their psychological complexity seemed to increase geometrically. Having recently read collections of short fiction by modern American writers like TC Boyle, David Foster Wallace, and Rick Moody, I can say unequivocally that Chekhov is not only much better a writer- to the point that I would argue he is practicing a wholly different art form from these poseurs, but his art is far more modern and gripping, as well as, at times, far more funny. Compared to a TC Boyle, Chekhov’s humor flows naturally out of the tales and the reader laughs along with the experience, however humiliated the character feels. In a tale by a ‘humorist’ like Boyle a character is set up for ridicule by being shown as a fool with no redeeming qualities, yet it never verges into pure satire for Boyle has never learned that satire and parody work best once you’ve created a full-bodied character. Then, the humor resonates within and without. Chekhov’s characters cause gutbusters that rumble the diaphragm. Boyle’s characters result in an, ‘Oh, wait, he was trying to be comic here. Oh, yeah….I get it. Really, I do.’ Boyle and his ilk self-consciously preen their supposed superiority above characters they largely revile, while Chekhov puts a reader ‘in the moment’ with someone they have come to either care or be intrigued with.

The best example is probably the uproarious tale The Dependents, in which a sad and sadistic old man basically disowns his dog and horse. He sells both off to be slaughtered after they refuse to leave him after banishment. After their deaths, the old man, either in stupor or grief, offers himself up for slaughter, too. The end image after it’s plain he was not slaughtered, is poignant, yet also humorous. TC Boyle, in a dozen lifetimes, could never write a tale like this. The difference in quality and personal maturity is very telling.

Even in tales that do not wholly succeed. In an early tale, A Dead Body, we are presented with a moment-piece. Two peasants are charged with guarding a dead body one evening, as they wait for the authorities. They basically just talk of typically Russian things, yet one senses their discomfort with the situation. Then, as they wait, another man - a Cossack comes along, and wants one of them to go with him, to get the authorities, as they fear something must have delayed the authorities from arriving. They choose which of them will go, and the tale ends with the dumber of the duo staying to guard the body, falling asleep, and then some shadow falling over the corpse. Whether this is mere symbolism, or a wolf, or the original getter of the authorities I unknown. The tale is rather one dimensional, but you get the sense that their conversations might have more significance to a Russian. Overall, it affects the soul more than the mind, although it is clearly a precursor to Absurdist works like Waiting For Godot. Read:
  "He was a stranger."
  "Such is life! But I'll . . . er . . . be getting on, brothers. . . . I feel flustered. I am more afraid of the dead than of anything, my dear souls! And only fancy! while this man was alive he wasn't noticed, while now when he is dead and given over to corruption we tremble before him as before some famous general or a bishop. . . . Such is life; was he murdered, or what?"
  "The Lord knows! Maybe he was murdered, or maybe he died of himself."
  "Yes, yes. . . . Who knows, brothers? Maybe his soul is now tasting the joys of Paradise."
  "His soul is still hovering here, near his body," says the young man. "It does not depart from the body for three days."
  "H'm, yes! . . . How chilly the nights are now! It sets one's teeth chattering. . . . So then I am to go straight on and on? . . ."
  "Till you get to the village, and then you turn to the right by the river-bank."
  "By the river-bank. . . . To be sure. . . . Why am I standing still? I must go on. Farewell, brothers."
  The man in the cassock takes five steps along the road and stops.
  "I've forgotten to put a kopeck for the burying," he says. "Good orthodox friends, can I give the money?"
  "You ought to know best, you go the round of the monasteries. If he died a natural death it would go for the good of his soul; if it's a suicide it's a sin."
  "That's true. . . . And maybe it really was a suicide! So I had better keep my money. Oh, sins, sins! Give me a thousand roubles and I would not consent to sit here. . . . Farewell, brothers."

Yet, try to find such a piece in counterpart writers of the day, in Russia or abroad. It wasn’t happening.

The first fully mature piece in the book is On The Road (1886), which is really just an extended duoloquy on the sexes and the nature of the cosmos. But, it’s the way Chekhov phrases his speaker’s words and the in betweens that make the tale great. The Pipe is a similar ‘argument’ tale that succeeds for the brilliance of the ideas and their use in service to the plot, as well subordinating the plot to the dialectic. Perhaps the greatest of his argument tales is The Princess in which Chekhov brilliantly distills all the gripes of the working class from time immemorial into one bitter doctor who is allowed top vent his fury on an arrogant and immature princess whose profligate ways are bankrupting her subjects.

'Excuse me, I speak disconnectedly, but that doesn't matter. You don't look upon the simple people as human beings. And even the princes, counts, and bishops who used to come and see you, you looked upon simply as decorative figures, not as living beings. But the worst of all, the thing that most revolts me, is having a fortune of over a million and doing nothing for other people, nothing!"
The princess sat amazed, aghast, offended, not knowing what to say or how to behave. She had never before been spoken to in such a tone. The doctor's unpleasant, angry voice and his clumsy, faltering phrases made a harsh clattering noise in her ears and her head. Then she began to feel as though the gesticulating doctor was hitting her on the head with his hat.
  "It's not true!" she articulated softly, in an imploring voice. "I've done a great deal of good for other people; you know it yourself!"
  "Nonsense!" cried the doctor. "Can you possibly go on thinking of your philanthropic work as something genuine and useful, and not a mere mummery? It was a farce from beginning to end; it was playing at loving your neighbour, the most open farce which even children and stupid peasant women saw through! Take for instance your -- what was it called? -- house for homeless old women without relations, of which you made me something like a head doctor, and of which you were the patroness. Mercy on us! What a charming institution it was! A house was built with parquet floors and a weathercock on the roof; a dozen old women were collected from the villages and made to sleep under blankets and sheets of Dutch linen, and given toffee to eat."
The doctor gave a malignant chuckle into his hat, and went on speaking rapidly and stammering:
"It was a farce! The attendants kept the sheets and the blankets under lock and key, for fear the old women should soil them -- 'Let the old devil's pepper-pots sleep on the floor.' The old women did not dare to sit down on the beds, to put on their jackets, to walk over the polished floors. Everything was kept for show and hidden away from the old women as though they were thieves, and the old women were clothed and fed on the sly by other people's charity, and prayed to God night and day to be released from their prison and from the canting exhortations of the sleek rascals to whose care you committed them.

Yet, just when it seems the Princess is about to have an epiphany along the lines of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, reality sets in, and the doctor backs down, and all remains as it was. Grisha is a brief tale that follows a tot through his daily perambulations when, just on the cusp of a maturing realization, Grisha is put in his place as a child. It works on all levels for everyone can relate to the belittling they felt from adults when young. Typhus is a tale that, on the surface seems very Maupassantish, as a typhoid sufferer recovers only to find a person who nursed him got sick and died from his germs. Yet, there is a psychological depth in the description of the ill perceptions and the aftermath that raise this tale above mere mechanical constructions. There are no plot devices, only plot outcomes, and these might be termed anti-climactic, for they are distinctly different and more realistic than his contemporaries’ and forebears’ endings.

The Grasshopper is rightly considered a masterpiece and one of his best known tales. It is the tale of a cuckold and his faithless artistic wife’s follies, yet it is far more, as Chekhov sets scenes so well- with layers of details that are real, yet never mundane, and the conversations are wonderfully wrought, yet deceptively straightforward, to the point you don’t realize how well constructed they are until you are done with them, and exhale. In the end, the cuckold dies, after the wife, Olga, has been laid to emotional waste by her callow and cruel lover. Yet, again, it is the way Chekhov spins the tale. The cuckold suspects his wife’s faithlessness, yet never confronts her. He only looks askance her way. This suspicion- duly founded- justifies her affair, in her mind. She even declares his civility about it is sickening. She says, ‘That man is killing me with his magnanimity!’, a truly great literary quote. Then, the cuckold, a doctor, takes ill and nears death. Olga rues her folly, but it is too late for both of them, as she is left to a life of loneliness and regret, which is heightened by the perfunctory way all the others in her life keep on moving without her:

   Olga Ivanovna remembered her whole life with him from the beginning to the end, with all its details, and suddenly she understood that he really was an extraordinary, rare, and, compared with every one else she knew, a great man. And remembering how her father, now dead, and all the other doctors had behaved to him, she realized that they really had seen in him a future celebrity. The walls, the ceiling, the lamp, and the carpet on the floor, seemed to be winking at her sarcastically, as though they would say, "You were blind! you were blind!" With a wail she flung herself out of the bedroom, dashed by some unknown man in the drawing-room, and ran into her husband's study. He was lying motionless on the sofa, covered to the waist with a quilt. His face was fearfully thin and sunken, and was of a grayish-yellow colour such as is never seen in the living; only from the forehead, from the black eyebrows and from the familiar smile, could he be recognized as Dymov. Olga Ivanovna hurriedly felt his chest, his forehead, and his hands. The chest was still warm, but the forehead and hands were unpleasantly cold, and the half-open eyes looked, not at Olga Ivanovna, but at the quilt.
  "Dymov!" she called aloud, "Dymov!" She wanted to explain to him that it had been a mistake, that all was not lost, that life might still be beautiful and happy, that he was an extraordinary, rare, great man, and that she would all her life worship him and bow down in homage and holy awe before him.

Another tale with a similar theme, although not as well wrought, although nearly as famous, is The Lady With The Dog. Having now collated it within Chekhov’s oeuvre let me state that it is leagues above contemporary published fiction. Forty year old Gurov falls in love with beautiful young Anna, the titular character, and they begin an affair while on vacation. She returns home and Gurov, obsessed, is determined to track her down. He stalks and confronts her at a theater, and she relents to continue the affair. They do, and the tale ends with them knowing they should not go on, but desiring to, all the while in angst over their plight. As trite as the narrative sounds, the focus is the angst. Having recently read a whole book of excellent tales on adultery, called A Multitude Of Sins, by Richard Ford, I can say that Chekhov’s tales, with a little detail tweaking, are just as relevant as Ford’s. This is the mark of a great writer, for as told, the tale’s syllabus has been done to death. Yet, how Chekhov portrays the trite situation almost makes the tale a masterpiece in spite of itself. It is what he does not say of their plight that matters, and this works subtly within the tale as neither character is externally likable, but each is realistically recognizable. Gurov even describes Anna, the first love of his life, this way: ‘….she, this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lornette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy.’ Both characters, while in a trite situation, are not trite. Gurov is a man of depth, dealing with a new emotional reality- love- for the first time in his life, and acts like an impetuous teenager. Anna is a woman who is extremely unhappy to start, and just as unhappy at the end. But, it is a newer unhappiness, and one with a chance of eventual relent.

The titular tale, Ward No. 6, is also a masterpiece. His detail and character description is so rich and effective that it forces a fast reader to slow down, reread, and savor. Basically the tale follows the peregrinations of the patients of an asylum. Yet, to sum up the narrative is to miss the point of this almost ultimate slice of life tale. Yet, its end resonates deeply with that of The Grasshopper. There are five described patients of Ward No. 6, and we get each of their backstories, but the main character is educated Ivan Gromov. The doctor is Rabin, a good, but disillusioned, doctor who no longer cares, and rationalizes, ‘suffering leads man to perfection.’ here is the chilling end of the fourth section of the tale:

Fresh faces are rarely seen in Ward No. 6. The doctor has not taken in any new mental cases for a long time, and the people who are fond of visiting lunatic asylums are few in this world. Once every two months Semyon Lazaritch, the barber, appears in the ward. How he cuts the patients' hair, and how Nikita helps him to do it, and what a trepidation the lunatics are always thrown into by the arrival of the drunken, smiling barber, we will not describe.
  No one even looks into the ward except the barber. The patients are condemned to see day after day no one but Nikita.
  A rather strange rumour has, however, been circulating in the hospital of late.
  It is rumoured that the doctor has begun to visit Ward No. 6.

He befriends Gromov, though, who cores through the doctor’s presumptions. The staff begins to doubt the doctor’s sanity. He goes on vacation, but returns to find he has been fired, and grows depressed. He is eventually hospitalized, where Gromov has one of the other inmates beat Rabin, who sees it as payback for his callus treatment of them. The next day he dies of a stroke and only his old cook and a friend attend the funeral. Yet, while the syllabus of the tale may not excite many, the ideas expressed between the insane but realistic Gromov and the sane but resigned Rabin is fascinating. Rabin, at one point, even concedes that luck is the main factor in any life, as he believes only ‘idle chance’ has made him a doctor and Gromov a patient. And the tale later makes his point. Ward No. 6 is, in a sense, the most bare bones assertion of randomness ever penned. It is not, as many critics argued, a tale of Rabin’s moral conversion, for that ‘conversion’ is as fatuous as his earlier beliefs when an apathetic doctor, dictated merely by circumstance. The key is that both the earlier and later Rabin are the same, they are just reflected inwardly by different circumstances. Wisely, though, Chekhov allows readers to opine on their own.

  Rothschild’s Fiddle is another great tale that is a slice of life, and whose tale ostensibly is that of who in town will inherit a fiddle that is much desired for its owner was revered. Yet, the tale is really about life, itself, the way people interact with themselves and others. The longer tale In The Ravine, is likewise a compelling portrait of the ins and outs of a rich grocer family as it deals with scandals, financial burdens, and in-laws who are dissatisfied with the family’s functioning. The selfish patriarch is slowly maneuvered out of power in the family business by one of his daughters-in-law, an angry, woman, and a murder ensues over the details of a will, and the family is shattered, yet the real story is about the small town they inhabit is in a valley that is often overlooked, hence the title, and the metaphor that richness and strength can be found in even the most banal seeming of places. This is emphasized with the fact that the tale’s narrator tells us the only thing the town is known for is that an old sexton gorged himself on caviar at a factory owner’s funerals a decade earlier. Yet, all the characters in the tale, in the family or villagers, are wonderfully wrought, especially the daughter-in-law who turns murderous. Early on she is described as pleasant and capable, yet by the end, when she murders her baby nephew, the reader’s reaction to her is startlingly changed, yet, in narrative retrospect there is no creaky artifice in the revelation of her evil- it flows perfectly naturally. And, it flows just to flow, for it is not a political claim Chekhov is making, although his characters often make such claims, as when the murdered baby’s father, and son of the old man, explains to his mother why he must move on in life:

  "The elder does not believe in God, either," he went on. "And the clerk and the deacon, too. And as for their going to church and keeping the fasts, that is simply to prevent people talking ill of them, and in case it really may be true that there will be a Day of Judgment. Nowadays people say that the end of the world has come because people have grown weaker, do not honour their parents, and so on. All that is nonsense. My idea, mamma, is that all our trouble is because there is so little conscience in people...'

This tale also contains one of the best examples of Chekhov’s technical abilities to twist a tale, or concisely move on. The last section of the story jumps ahead in time in this fashion: 

At the present time the steps and the front door of the shop have been repainted and are as bright as though they were new, there are gay geraniums in the windows as of old, and what happened in Tsybukin's house and yard three years ago is almost forgotten

Note how the jarring passage of years, right after the murder, is subordinated to such a sly and subtle image. The last tale in the book, The Bishop, is a sad one that traces the end of the life of a man of faith, whose impact is negligible. Its end is one of the saddest in the book.

Yet, as said, Chekhov’s tales are not so much about what, but how, and this emanates from a primacy afforded characterization- a facet of the craft that he excelled at. His characters may seem, at first blush, to be cons and vain, or prigs and oddballs. Their personalities may seem curmudgeonly or fey, but there is always something lurking beneath the exteriors. He also realistically depicts the clash between human yearns and realities, with none of the creaky plot contrivances of his predecessors. Chekhov looks out at the world, not in at his characters, and thus, readers are already halfway home, at the start, to an understanding of them, and their plights- be they great or mundane. Yet, his writing rarely indulges mundanity to prove a point. This is too often the fatal failing of modern writers. Want to depict boredom - easy, I’ll write boringly.

And, it is not just in the great tales that he does this. Even in tales that are not wholly successful, like The Darling, we get a great character portrait of a woman whose giving nature is her very undoing. Even in a tale like this, which follows a not too unique trope, Chekhov succeeds wonderfully in at least that aspect of the tale. How often have you read modern short stories where from the first sentence to the last the whole thing reeks of awkward workshoppy Lego-like construction? At a time where Post-Modernism and even Post-Post-Modernism are still spoken of as daring, and innovative, for they move beyond plot and character, Chekhov shows that while plot is often disposable, it is virtually impossible to construct even a passable story without solid characterization. readers need to be drawn in, and an idea, no matter how ingenious, needs to interact with a character, and one that is not a stereotype. Human mnemonics is centered upon emotions, which are limned with characters, not by mere ideas. Ideas can suffice in philosophy but character creation is the engine that sets the art in motion, indeed, is often the art in the art of storytelling.

However, it is not that plot does not have its hand in Chekhov’s tales- it does. It is simply not the artifice of who did this, or what happened next, rather the natural denouement of why he felt that way, or how this turned around her ideas? And, on top of that, his plots are not driven by straightforward narration, rather by suggestion, or a lingering detail, or an act that seems a throwaway. In a sense, detail, in Chekhov, is not the buildup of brushstrokes in a painting, but Pointillist dots, with each dot seemingly pointless, but the whole forming a recognizable vision.

He is still vibrant and relevant. By contrast, I recently read a David Foster Wallace book of short stories that, a mere decade and a half after their appearance, are as dated as a John Dryden courtly poem. This is because Chekhov possesses an immediacy in his description that rips a reader back into his world, and lets you not focus away to bring in many assumptions or presumptions of the world outside the story, nor what comes after it, in the narrative line, nor the real world. The Russian Masters- Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev- are often criticized, rightly, for their lack of subtlety, and hammering home points too often, too long, and too stridently. In a sense their art is akin to the Big Box retail stores of today: Wal-Mart, Home Depot, K-Mart. If so, then Chekhov is a fleet newcomer- someone with innovations the others lack, while having all their introspection, yet none of their literary bloat. He is concise, with no pointless nor wasteful digressions. And this is what makes him - even just taking his prose fiction alone- the greatest of the 19th Century Russian Literary Masters. The essential dilemma he presents is a cosmos of its own demarcation, seemingly banal, but highly intimate, for Chekhov rarely imposes more than the basics, and allows imbuement to flower again and again in the minds of every individual reader. This philosophy is best summed up in a quote that reflects Chekhov’s approach to art, life, and meaning: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ In such moonshine are masterworks reflected.
© Dan Schneider September 2005

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