The International Writers Magazine:Literary Review (long Read)
No. 6 And Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
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
Chekhovs 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 Ive 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 Im 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 1885s The Cooks Wedding to
1902s The Bishop - Chekhovs 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, Chekhovs 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, Chekhovs 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 youve
created a full-bodied character. Then, the humor resonates within and
without. Chekhovs characters cause gutbusters that rumble the
diaphragm. Boyles 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
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 its
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
"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 wasnt 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, its the way Chekhov phrases his speakers
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
"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
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 wifes 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 dont 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 wifes 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
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
"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 Chekhovs 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 Chekhovs
tales, with a little detail tweaking, are just as relevant as Fords.
This is the mark of a great writer, for as told, the tales 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,
.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 doctors presumptions.
The staff begins to doubt the doctors 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 Rabins 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.
Rothschilds 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 familys 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 tales narrator tells us the only thing the town is known for
is that an old sexton gorged himself on caviar at a factory owners
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 readers
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 babys 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 Chekhovs 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, Chekhovs 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, Ill
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 Chekhovs
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
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 Chekhovs
approach to art, life, and meaning: Dont 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
Dan Schneider reviews the Oscar Winning 'Monster'
now on DVD
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