Author: Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
Translator: Constance Garnett (1861–1946)
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the port town of Taganrog in Southern Russia, the third of six children in a close-knit middle-class family. In 1875, the family fled to Moscow to escape creditors. Chekhov remained behind to finish high school.
In 1879, Chekhov joined his family and entered the University of Moscow to study medicine. He wrote to pay for his education and to support his family. He graduated in 1884 and practiced medicine for the rest of his life. He moved to the country where he set up his medical practice and continued writing. His scientific background and his experiences as a country doctor (often treating peasants for free) informed the realism of his stories.
After years of suffering from tuberculosis (or consumption), Chekhov died at a spa in Badenweiler, Germany. He was only 44 years old.
Today, Chekhov is perhaps best known for his plays The Seagull (1894), Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903). However, it may be his 600 odd short stories that have left a far greater mark on Western literature. The modern short story has been around since the likes of Washington Irvine, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. In Chekhov’s own time, the genre flourished under the pens of Igor Tugenev (1818–1883), Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893) and O. Henry (1862–1910). But it is Chekhov that is almost universally considered to be the greatest of them all and his influence has been acknowledged by later short story writers including James Joyce, William Faulkner, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Carver and John Cheever.
Because of the sheer number of Chekhov’s short stories, it is difficult to know where to start. Many commentators suggest the following as starting points: The Lady with the Dog (1899), Ward No. 6 (1892), The Darling (1899), Gusev (1890), The Huntsman (1885), and A Dreary Story (1889). Chekhov linked three well known stories in a trilogy sometimes referred to as “The Little Trilogy” (1898): The Man in a Case, Gooseberries, and About Love. Anton Chekhov himself has written that he personally liked The Student (1894).
What is the story about?
In 1890, Chekhov went on an extraordinary journey to the prison colony on Sakhalin Island. He wrote about his experience and the brutal conditions on the island in several letters and non-fiction pieces. While he was on a ship home from Sakhalin, Chekhov wrote one of his most overtly political short story, Gusev. The story is set on a steamer carrying injured soldiers from a war in Asia back to Russia. Gusev was a peasant who may have contracted tuberculosis during his tour of duty. He had a cheerful disposition and vivid imagination and wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his family. Pavel Ivanitch, on the other hand, was a firebrand revolutionary, telling Gusev that he protested whenever he saw “irresponsible tyranny … cant and hypocrisy … swine triumphant”. Despite their very different nature, they met the same fate. The very last paragraph is very symbolic: “Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors …. From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured …. The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.”
Chekhov explores the power of words in The Student. Ivan Velikopolsky, a student of the clerical academy, was at a low point in his life when he related a biblical story to an old woman and her granddaughter. Their emotional reaction led him to realise that “truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigour—he was only twenty-two—and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.” Given his own ill-health, Chekhov could have been ironic here.
Yegor Vlassitch, The Huntsman of the title, was a peasant who went to work for the gentry as a huntsman. He said “good-bye to the plough” as well a wife. In his single-minded attempt to climb the social ladder, he is reminiscent of another Chekhov character Nikolay Ivanovitch (Gooseberries).
The conflict between authority and the peasantry is at the heart of A Malefactor. Denis Grigoryev was arrested for stealing a nut from a railway track to make fishing nets. The magistrate convicted him of Article 1081 of the Penal Code which provides that “every wilful damage of the railway line committed when it can expose the traffic on that line to danger, and the guilty party knows that an accident must be caused by it … is liable to penal servitude.”
Historical context: In the second half of the 19th century, Russia was a European military power. However, economically, it was falling behind the commercialised and industrialised western world. This was due partly to the feudal system in existence in Russia since the 17th century; under this system, a landowning noble had control (although legally he did not own) over the peasants (called serfs) who lived on his land. A census conducted in 1857 showed that there were around 23 million serfs, amounting to nearly 40% of the population and about 50% of the peasantry. Tsar Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) issued the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861 proclaiming freedom and the rights of full citizens, eg. the right to own property etc, for serfs in 2 years. Ultimately, the reforms did not turn out to be entirely advantageous to the freed serfs. Many took up crippling mortgages to buy land at exorbitant prices. This condition provided fertile ground for revolutionary forces which would culminate in the two revolutions of 1917. Chekhov himself was the grandson of a serf.
Literary style: The author William Boyd wrote in Prospect Magazine (10 Jul 2006): “Why is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) routinely and correctly described as the greatest short story writer ever? All answers to this question will seem inadequate but, to put it very simply, the fact is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890s, revolutionised the short story by transforming narrative. Chekhov saw and understood that life is godless, random and absurd, that all history is the history of unintended consequences. He knew, for instance, that being good will not spare you from awful suffering and injustice, that the slothful can flourish effortlessly and that mediocrity is the one great daemonic force. By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot, by refusing to judge his characters, by not striving for a climax or seeking neat narrative resolution, Chekhov made his stories appear agonisingly, almost unbearably lifelike.”
Chekhov’s stories share some common themes, namely a cast of Ivan Ivanovs (the Russian equivalent of Average Joes) caught in a spiral of helplessness and hopelessness, physical and mental disease and death. Another common feature is the stories often end anti-climatically (even abruptly).
English readers were first exposed to Chekhov’s works thanks to Constance Clara Garnett (née Black) (1861–1946), one of the first translators of Russian literature. Her translations of Chekhov’s works are in the public domain. They are collected in Project Gutenberg as The Tales of Chekhov, Volume 1 The Darling and Other Stories (10 stories, 1916), Volume 2 The Duel and Other Stories (8, 1916), Volume 3 The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories (99, 1917), Volume 4 The Party and Other Stories (11, 1917), Volume 5 The Wife and Other Stories (9, 1918), Volume 6 The Witch and Other Stories (15, 1918), Volume 7 The Bishop and Other Stories (7, 1919), Volume 8 The Chorus Girl and Other Stories (12, 1920), Volume 9 The Schoolmistress and Other Stories (21, 1920), Volume 10 The Horse Stealers and Other Stories (22, 1921), Volume 11 The Schoolmaster and Other Stories (29, 1921), Volume 12 The Cook’s Wedding and Other Stories (25, 1922), and Volume 13 Love and Other Stories (23, 1922).
There are two widely available collections in print. The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Harper Perennial, 2000) is edited by Richard Ford and features Constance Garnett’s translations of A Blunder, A Misfortune, A Trifle from Life, Difficult People, Hush!, Champagne, Enemies, The Kiss, Kashtanka, The Grasshopper, Neighbours, Ward No. 6, An Anonymous Story, Peasants, Gooseberries, About Love, The Darling, The New Villa, On Official Duty, and The Lady with the Dog. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the acclaimed translators of Russian literature, have their own take on Chekhov’s works. Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov (Modern Library, 2000) collects The Death of a Clerk (1883), Small Fry (1885), The Huntsman (1885), The Malefactor (1885), Panikhida, Anyuta (1886), Easter Night, Vanka (1886), Sleepy (1888), A Boring Story, Gusev, Peasant Women, The Fidget, In Exile, Ward No. 6, The Black Monk (1894), Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894), The Student, Anna on the Neck (1895), The House with the Mezzanine (1896), The Man in a Case, Gooseberries, A Medical Case (1898), The Darling, On Official Business (1899), The Lady with the Little Dog, At Christmastime (1900), In the Ravine (1900), The Bishop (1902), and The Fiancée (1903).