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Anton Chekhov: where to start with his literature

Anton Chekhov: where to start with his literature
Image via Wikimedia

10 August 2021

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is somewhat of an outsider in the 19th century Russian literary canon. Rather than a member of the landed nobility, he was the grandson of a serf, and a practicing doctor. He didn’t think of literature as an arcane pursuit, and despised literary salons. Neither did he have much patience for philosophical and political discussions in general. Instead, he preferred pragmatic philanthropy: he treated peasants for free, built schools and libraries, and had a hand in reforming prison policy. Maksim Gorky famously said that in Chekhov’s company “one felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.”

These biographical details are important inasmuch as they reveal something about Chekhov’s approach to his craft. He writes with precision and economy, his letters reveal an anxiety about taking up more time than is necessary of the reader (never the critic!). His prose is deliberately simple. Bar the revolutionaries, Chekhov includes the entire spectrum of Russian society in his prose.

He is among the most radical proponents of “show, don’t tell”. It strikes me every time I return to him how he deftly he pulls off a veneer of effortless realism, while a closer look reveals his stories to be studies: they hold up something distilled about, say, love, poverty, or power, examined through plot and perspective rather than explicit commentary. Empathy often takes the form of humour in Chekhov, it’s an escape route from clear-cut judgement and singular truth. His characters are done like drawings from an anatomy book, individuals and exemplars at once, both portrayed with accuracy.

There are many places where you could explore one of Russia’s greatest humorists, but here’s what I’d recommend to set you off on your Chekhov journey.

About Love and Gooseberries

About Love is the last of the connected stories-within-stories Chekhov wrote during one single summer, in 1898. In these stories, we meet protagonists Burin, the schoolteacher, and Ivan Ivanovich, the veterinarian, as they find shelter after a walk or hunt. It’s no coincidence that the stories they exchange on their break revolve around what we lose when we opt for sheltered lives. In Gooseberries, we learn about Ivan’s brother who, after literally starving his old wife to death, wraps himself in the cocoon of a countryside idyll. His happiness is a grotesque, manufactured product, tenable only by isolation and greed. In a Chekhov signature move, Ivan’s insistence on the immorality of his brother’s approach meets Burin and the host’s mild indifference. About Love takes place on the next day, when Alehin, the host, recalls an unfulfilled past affair: he fell for a married woman, Anna Alexievna, but both had been suppressing their feelings for years, until Anna moved town with her husband, and their pretence finally broke down on the train. Chekhov turns the conventional plot into a quiet examination of conformity: Alehin is not a caricature, yet his clinging on decency and his effort not to lose face are a form of self-protection, just like Ivan’s brother’s idyll in Gooseberries. Both are elusive stories; they trace self-deception without proposing alternatives or showing a way out, as peripatetic as Burin and Ivan Ivanovich’s walks.

Ward no. 6 and the ‘doctor stories’

Doctors feature in many stories by Chekhov: Anyuta is a portrait of objectification in art and science: a medical and an art student exploit a poor woman whose naked body serves as a live tool for their intellectual pursuits; in A Nervous Breakdown, a young doctor, overwhelmed by a first encounter with sex workers, is bullied into detachment and objectivity by his peers, and later by a psychiatrist.

Like these, Ward no. 6. examines the ethics of medicine in a dark tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. The short story’s burnt-out physician, Andrey Yefimich Ragin, who gives up healing his patients in the ill-equipped, underfunded district hospital, is possibly Chekhov’s most famous doctor. Ragin’s vocation had eroded into nihilism, he reasons that any attempt to better his patients’ lives is futile in light of their imminent death. A brilliant paranoid, a sort of archetypical sane madman, Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, shakes him out of his numbness, and Ragin becomes obsessed with Gromov’s capacity to challenge him. In a hilarious move, Chekhov makes Ragin end up in the same mental ward, this time as a patient himself. He dies of a stroke shortly after.

The Cherry Orchard

One of Chekhov’s four major plays, The Cherry Orchard is a story of a clueless, near-bankrupt aristocratic family and their entourage losing their beloved orchard to a local businessman, a descendant of the estate’s former serfs. Rather than taking their place, Lopakhin aims to parcel up the land and turn it into a residential suburb for a growing city nearby — as the curtains close, trees are being cut down. This could be a nostalgic cry about a bygone world, or a celebration of new opportunity (and opportunism). The Cherry Orchard is unique because it is neither: carefully balancing absurd drama and realism, it is a sounding board for all possible attitudes towards the disintegrating social order it depicts.

The characters are all pathetic yet relatable, from Lyubov Andreyevna, the woman who just got back from Paris after a failed affair, to Petya Trofimov, the smart and radical, but inapt teacher. They all seek salvation through others. Chekhov brings them onto a crowded stage, where they speak with verve and honesty, but their monologues and pontification rarely lead to real dialogue.

When staged in Moscow for the first time, the play was directed as a tragedy, and it has been rare to see adaptations that stress its comic elements. Yet, The Cherry Orchard is primarily a comedy, laced through with just enough tragedy to sour the laughter, but not enough to leave the audience shaken. It is a puzzling, complex, and cheeky play, showing Chekhov’s alchemy at its best.

The Steppe

The Steppe was Chekhov’s first work published in a literary journal. It is a novella that describes a journey to what is now Eastern Ukraine, mostly the Donbas, and it is one of Chekhov’s few works centred around a child’s perspective and sensibilities. Nine-year-old Yegorushka is taken to a far-off town to school by his merchant uncle and an enterprising priest who accompany wagons of wool they hope to sell. They are always a step behind the obscure entrepreneur Varlamov, on whom trade seems to depend. The journey is a tableau of encounters with shepherds, Ukrainian and Russian peasants, a Jewish inn-keeper, a Polish Countess, drivers and others involved in accompanying wagons across the drought and heat. The Steppe is a love letter to the landscape, its hidden wildlife (seen only by the mutilated driver Vasya) and spectacular storms, a study of journeying, both in the uncle’s goal-driven, business-minded manner and with Yegorushka’s dreamier, meandering ways.

Sakhalin Island

Chekhov, the non-fiction writer, never found success the way that Chekhov the dramatist or the author of short fiction did. There is no good reason for this. As with his fiction, his “travel notes” are written with the same down-to-earth engagement with the surrounding world. Sakhalin Island, his grand reportage is in equal parts a travelogue, a diary, social commentary, and investigative journalism. It is fuelled by a similar lyricism we find in The Steppe, this time embedded in a hugely ambitious project of describing the life and conditions of a penal colony.

In 1890, Chekhov spent three months traveling through Russia to Sakhalin, where he undertook a census, aiming to reach every single household on the island. The resulting account, based on intense field research and impressive background research, slipped through censors and stirred a conversation that ultimately led to policy reforms. It was undoubtedly written with a critical agenda in mind, and as such, the text could have aged into oblivion. That it has not is thanks to how personal Chekhov’s vantage point is. He writes in the first person, including everything he seems fit, so the penal colony’s conditions are never isolated from the rest of his observations. The result is a comprehensive account that follows his own growing understanding. Documentary facts are enveloped by the minutiae of everyday life, sketches of gestures, turns of phrase captured and preserved along with statistics. The penal colony is long since gone, its portrait remains fresh and absorbing.

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