Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Notes of H3A, English Reading Group Meeting
Wednesday 7 November 2012

O dark, dark, dark,
Amid the blaze of noon
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse,
Without all hope of day
Samson Agonistes John Milton (1608 – 1674)

Milton’s words came to mind when we were discussing Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories.   Darkness, pessimism, hopelessness, these words summed up our response to Chekhov’s writing.

“A repetition of themes”, said one, “No 1 bleakness, No 2 bleakness, No 3 bleakness”

“After reading a number of these stories, you felt you could read them all and still not see a light at the end of the tunnel…… there was no way to protect oneself from being infected by the pessimism” said another

“After reading the first two or three, I decided to adopt the Quality Street sweets approach – picking out the ones with  purple or  green wrappers, finding one I liked the look of and then reading those… but the problem was I couldn’t find any I liked the look of” added a third member

Thus, at the outset of our meeting, it became clear that all of us found Chekhov a bit of a challenge.

Our initial reaction thus begs the question:  if he is such a challenge, what is it about Chekhov that inspires so many fellow writers, literary critics and readers to regard him as one of the greatest short story writers[1]? After all, as one person observed, he is probably the most literary author we have read to date.

Apart from the demands of the prose, there was also a practical challenge.   This was the first time we had tackled an anthology of short stories so we wondered how we should go about it.

  • Should we concentrate on individual stories;
  • should we be considering Chekhov’s style in general;
  • or try to find common themes;
  • is it a fair comment, taking a line from The Seagull, that often in Chekhov’s writing, “nothing happens”;
  • what does he tell us about the human condition,
  • or about Chekhov the man,
  • or life in late 19th century Russia;
  • and, as a writer, what about the contribution Chekhov made to the development of short stories as a genre?

As if this was not enough, we soon discovered that the title “Chekhov’s Short Stories” is misleading: Chekhov wrote over 200 short stories but different anthologies contain any number of combinations.  At our meeting two members realised that, between the versions they had chosen to read, there was only one story in common.

Nevertheless, the discussion was wide-ranging and touched upon some of the questions raised above.

Why So Gloomy?

This was the first question we asked in our discussion.  What had given rise to what we called the “bleakness” that pervaded so many of the short stories?  Was it something uniquely Russian?

  • Was there something about Russian psyche, or in their history or culture that predisposed Russians to this apparently gloomy, helpless and hopeless outlook on life?
  • Was it something about Chekhov’s life that led him down this road?
  • Or was it simply part of Chekhov’s writing technique designed to heighten our sympathies?

Russian History

It is always risky to speculate on how much a country’s history, geography and climate shape the character of its people.  However, Russian history over the past six or seven hundred years might lead one to suppose that the average late 19th century Ivan or Ivana in a small village out on the steppes wouldn’t have a huge amount to smile about;  nor, it would seem, were their middle class urban intellectual contemporaries much better off.

Serfdom.   As one member of the group noted, one major source of misery for the peasant class of Russia was the serf system which started under the first Tsar of All Russias, Ivan IV (The Terrible), in 1547.   Under this policy, peasants were owned by their landlords, they were forbidden to move from landlord to landlord and runaways became state fugitives.  Serfdom continued until 1861.

Environment and climate.   Another source of hardship was the crushing demands placed upon most of the population by the geography and harsh climate of Russia.   By the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Russia was the largest state in the world, in terms of area.[2]  Russia is vast, three times the size of continental Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean across nine time zones.

In the early 18th century, Russia was sparsely populated, only 14 million, and almost all the population were dependent on subsistence farming.   Harsh climatic conditions, especially long, dark, cold winters, meant that crop yields were poor.   Only a small fraction of the population lived in the towns. Russia remained isolated from the sea trade, its internal trade communications and many manufactures were dependent on the seasonal changes.  In short, life was tough.

Autocratic rulers.   A third source of misery was the autocratic rule of successive Tsars.     After Ivan and the ensuing civil war, the country was ruled for just over 350 years by a series of Romanov Tsars who struggled to hold Russia together.  On the way these Tsars frequently faced challenges to their authority from the nobility, revolts by the serfs as well as natural disasters such as crop failures leading to famine.   Successive Tsars pursued a policy of expansion into neighbouring territories, which made huge demands on the population in terms of military service and taxation.

Oppressive bureaucracy.   Successive Tsars survived by being ruthlessly autocratic, claiming their authority was God-given.    They were all supported by an overbearing, all-pervasive, corrupt, centralised bureaucratic system of administration which ensured further misery for the population.

The expansionist ambitions of both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the 18th century and the defeat of Napoleon in 1812  brought Russia the status of a  “great power”,  with attendant costly obligations to other great powers in the west.

Government inefficiency, isolation and economic backwardness.    This new status masked serious internal stresses and weaknesses.   These included the inefficiency of government, the country’s isolation, growing internal unrest and most of all economic backwardness.

  • Centuries-old bureaucracy was corrupt and counter-productive
  • highly centralised administration of this vast country did not work
  • the system of serfdom precluded economic progress at a time when Western Europe was accelerating as a result of the industrial revolution, sea trade and colonisation
  • lack of access to warm water ports isolated Russia from maritime trade[3]
  • the French revolution influenced the Russian intelligentsia, sowing the seeds for social unrest.

It was the Crimean War (1853 -1856) that spelt the beginning of the end of Tsarist Russia under the Romanovs.   Defeated by a coalition of the great powers of Europe –  the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire (not forgetting the Kingdom of Sardinia) –  the reverses suffered by Russia on land and sea fanned the smouldering embers of dissent.

Indeed it was this failure in the war which contributed to the emancipation of the serfs. In 1859, there were 23 million serfs out of a total population of Russia 67.1 million. The Tsar of the time, Alexander II, chose to abolish serfdom rather than wait for its abolition to be imposed through revolution. Some say emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history.   It stimulated social mobility and migration to cities which began to thrive; it stimulated industry and broadened land ownership; and it led to an increase in numbers and influence of the middle classes.  In certainly unleashed a power that was ultimately unstoppable.

When Nicholas II (1894–1917) succeeded his father, the European Industrial Revolution was at last beginning to exert a significant influence in Russia both economically and politically.   The political manifestation was the growth of socialist ideas amongst students and intellectuals who saw in the peasants a revolutionary class.

These forces would ultimately lead to the rise of the Bolsheviks, the first Russian Revolution in 1905, the cataclysmic Russian Revolution of 1917, the overthrow of the tsar and the eventual rise of communism and the world’s first communist state, the USSR[4].

Might the history of Russia have contributed to the apparent bleakness of life described by Chekhov?

  • Generations of his countrymen had become habituated to being helpless and hopeless in the face of an autocratic regime and an oppressive, all-pervasive central bureaucracy.
  • They had struggled against harsh climates, outdated farming methods, famine, economic stagnation, military defeat and grinding, soul-destroying poverty.

Little surprise, then, that the picture Chekhov painted of late 19th century Russia was so bleak.

Chekhov’s Life

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born 18 January 1860, in the small port of Taganrog, near Rostov, on the Sea of Azov.  His father was a grocer and his grandfather was a serf who had bought his freedom in 1841. The young Chekhov went to the local school for Greek boys and sang in the church choir.

Birth place of Anton Chekhov

Birth place of Anton Chekhov

When Anton was 16, his father was declared bankrupt and to avoid prison he fled to Moscow where two of his sons were at university.   Anton stayed in Taganrog to complete his education.

In 1879 he moved to Moscow to join his family and to take up a place at Moscow University to attend medical school.

In 1884 he qualified as a physician.

In the following two years it became clear to him he was suffering with the tuberculosis that was finally to kill him.

Chekhov's room at Melikhova

Chekhov’s room at Melikhova

In 1890 travelled to the far east of Russia, to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan where he spent three months interviewing prisoners for a census.

Melikhova near Moscow

Melikhova near Moscow

By 1892 his growing success enabled him to buy the small estate of Melikhovo[5], about 40 miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his parents, his sister and younger brother.  He was a good landlord, building schools, a fire station and a clinic where he treated patients from the area. He also took up horticulture, refurbished the house and worked in a small cottage in the grounds.

In 1894, whilst living at Melikhova, he began work on The Seagull.

In 1897 he was hospitalised with consumption and he spent the winter of 1897/98 in Nice to recuperate.   His doctors advised a change of life-style.

In 1898, after the death of his father, he bought a plot of land in Yalta on the Crimean peninsula, where the air was reputed to be good for respiratory problems.   He had a house built and moved there with his mother and sister the following year.

Anton and Olga on honeymoon 1901,_1901.jpg

Anton and Olga on honeymoon 1901,_1901.jpg

On 20 May 1901 he married actress Olga Knipper.   He was 41 and she was 33 years old.

In Yalta, in 1901, he wrote Three Sisters and in 1904, just before his death, he completed The Cherry Orchard.

On 15 July 1904, Chekhov died in the spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest where he had gone for treatment for his tuberculosis.  He was 44 years old.   Olga was with him when he died and in 1908 she wrote this account of his death:

Chekhov's grave

Chekhov’s grave

Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe (“I’m dying”). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.

His body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car reserved for fresh oysters[6] and he was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy[7] Cemetery.  In the 1930s, his remains were moved outside the walls where his grave served as the kernel of the so-called “cherry orchard”, a section of the cemetery which contains the graves of Konstantin Stanislavski and the leading actors of his company. 

Chekhov’s Writing Career

Chekhov began writing whilst still at school in Taganrog, making contributions to local newspapers as a way of paying for his education.  However it was after he had moved to Moscow in 1879, to enter medical school that his output increased.  At first he wrote daily short humorous sketches and vignettes earning himself a reputation as a chronicler of Russian street life.

By 1882 he was writing for a leading publisher, Nikolai Leykin.  He qualified as a doctor in 1884 but continued writing;   between 1882 and 1885, despite early bouts of tuberculosis, he published more than 40 short stories.

In 1886 he was invited to write for a leading St Petersburg newspaper, and its millionaire owner Alexey Suvorin became a life-long friend and supporter.

In 1887 his work attracted the attention of the doyen of Russian 19th century writers, Dmitry Grigorovich, who told him, “You have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation”.   He went on to criticise him for writing under a pseudonym and advised Chekhov to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality.

Chekhov’s response to the great man’s advice was undoubtedly heartfelt, if somewhat over the top, but then he had just received confirmation from the highest level of his own suspicions that he might just have some talent:

Your letter, my kind, fervently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a flash of lightning. I almost burst into tears, I was overwhelmed, and now I feel it has left a deep trace in my soul.

Chekhov went on to denigrate his own writing:

I became resigned to the general view of my literary insignificance ….I treated my literary work extremely frivolously, casually nonchalantly… I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.

He made excuses:

 I am a doctor and up to my ears in medicine

However, in the end, Chekhov gives a sign that he had taken notice of the great man:

All my hope lies in the future.  I’m still only twenty-six.  I may manage to accomplish something yet, though time is flying….

Prophetic words as his writing career was to last only 18 years. His words symbolise a real change of heart, too.  Just a month earlier he had written to a friend saying that his real commitment was to medicine, while literature was a mistress he would one day abandon[8].

He took heed of Grigorovich’s counsel, and began to write less, paying more attention to the quality and ceasing to be merely a humourist and sketch writer.

Between 1886 and 1887 Chekhov’s wrote over half (104) of all his total output.

In 1887 he was commissioned to write a play, and he completed Ivanov in just two weeks.   It was produced in November and, to his surprise, it was received as a work of originality.[9]

In 1889 Chekhov’s brother Nikolai died of tuberculosis.   This event affected Chekhov deeply and  possibly influenced one of his most famous works, A Boring Story, a very moving piece about a famous professor of medicine who, when facing death, feels he dies having had no uniting purpose in his life.

During the period of 1888 to1892 he wrote a 28 more short stories.

After his move to Melikhova in 1893, according to his brother Mikhail, the sick began flocking to Chekhov from miles around. They came on foot or were brought in carts, and often he was fetched to patients at a distance. Sometimes from early in the morning peasant women and children were standing before his door waiting.

When not working or  writing he refurbished the house, took up agriculture, tended the orchard and pond and planted many trees.

In 1894 he began work on the Seagull and by 1895 he had written a further 10 short stories.  The first night of The Seagull in Petersburg was a fiasco, booed by the audience, and the play’s reception stung Chekhov into a  temporary renunciation of the theatre.  When the play was  successfully re-staged by Stanislavski in his innovative theatre in Moscow, this restored Chekhov’s interest in writing for the theatre.

In 1896 he completed Uncle Vanya and in the next two years another 14 short stories.

After his move to Yalta in 1898, Chekhov’s output slowed and he took a year each over The Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard.

In 1899 he wrote one of his most loved stories, The Lady with the Dog, and his output in the last three years of his life included On Official Duty, The Bishop, At Christmas Time, In the Ravine and his final short story, The Fiancée.

Chekhov’s characters

As several members of the group noted, perhaps the first thing that marks out Chekhov from other Russian writers is his choice of characters.   Earlier writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky tended to draw their characters from the nobility and the rich but in Chekhov all Russian life is there.

On this subject, a member quoted the introduction to one of the editions Richard Pevear, one of the translators:

(An) aspect of Chekhov’s originality is the inclusiveness of his world.  He describes life in the capitals and the provinces, city life, village life, life in the new industrialized zones, life in European Russia, /Siberia, the Crimea, the Far East, the life of noblemen, officials clergy high and low, landowners, doctors, intellectuals, artists, actors, merchants, tradesmen, peasants, prisoners, exiles, pampered ladies, far women, children, young men, old men, the sane and the mad.

He continues:

His characters are not monumental personalities dramatically portrayed, like the heroes of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, they are sharply observed types – the darling, the explainer, the fidget, the student, the malefactor, the main in a case, the heiress, the bishop, the fiancée.   They are made of “the common stuff of humanity” as Mirsky has said…… his people are transients of a more accidental sort: summer guests, doctors on call, hunters in the field, riders on ferries, passers-by, city people displaced to the country, country people out of place in the city

Several of us wondered how anyone could acquire such a detailed knowledge of so many diverse locations and characters.  During his lifetime Chekhov travelled quite a lot, both at home and abroad.  He saw diverse areas of Russia:  his birth place in South Russia, Moscow and the countryside, St Petersburg, the Ukraine, and the far North West when made an arduous journey to the penal island of Sakhalin; finally he settled in Yalta on the Black Sea. He also travelled to Europe and returned from Sakhalin via several countries in South East Asia

As for his knowledge of people, although he made little money from it, his work as a doctor enriched him in other ways:

by bringing him into intimate contact with all sections of Russian society: for example, he witnessed at first hand the peasants’ unhealthy and cramped living conditions, which he recalled in his short story Peasants. Chekhov visited the upper classes as well, recording in his notebook: “Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women[10]

Chekhov’s Writing Style

Tolstoy likened Chekhov’s technique to that of the French Impressionists, who daubed canvases with paint apparently without reason, but achieved an overall effect of vivid, unchallenged artistry.

Chekhov is an incomparable artist, he is quoted as saying, an artist of life … Chekhov has created new forms of writing, completely new, in my opinion, to the whole world, the like of which I have not encountered anywhere

We felt Richard Pevear, in the introduction to one edition, had got it about right when he said of Chekhov’s style:

The most ordinary events, a few trivial details, a few words spoken, no plot, a focus on single gestures, minor features, the creation of a mood that is both precise and somehow elusive – such is Chekhov’s impressionism

Someone recalled a passage in Gooseberries, when Ivanych dives into a pond.   What Chekhov notes is not the commonplace descriptions of the action.  Instead his attention is drawn to how the white lilies swayed on the waves in the wake of the swimmer – a minute detail, one that does not immediately spring to mind but an example of how Chekhov adheres to the injunction to writers “don’t tell it, show it” when trying to share a scene with the reader.

His use of small details was seized upon by another member of the group who noted how he managed to say so much about individuals by telling us what the character did, where he or she fitted into the hierarchy of society.

Chekhov talked about the need for detail in a letter to his brother:

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.

And on another occasion:

Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions

In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!

Chekhov was a great believer in simple prose.   Writing to Gorky he advised:

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.

His writing seems to bear this out:  generally there is nothing complicated about Chekhov’s style, just simply words in simple sentences.   Therein lays its power, perhaps.


A range of themes merged as we discussed a range of stories:

Failure to communicate

This was a recurring theme, remarked upon by several members.   One commentator notes the ease with which human communication can be undermined by design, indifference, or accident[11]. One member drew attention to the story Little Jack (entitled Vanka in some editions) in which a young orphan boy tries to write to his grandfather to beg him to rescue him from a cruel shoemaker.   He writes a tender imploring letter and addresses it to “Grandpa in the Village” adding Grandpa’s name Konstantin Makarych.   He had learnt one put letters in a post box, but no one had told him of the need for a stamp or a proper address.

Another group member mentioned a similar example in Neighbours when the mother refuses to read the letter from her apparently wayward daughter.

We see it again in Christmastide, when the elderly couple hire someone to write to their daughter from whom they have heard nothing.   Unbeknown to them, the scribe writes nonsense and the husband of the daughter fails to post the letters she writes back.  Each is left thinking the other doesn’t care.

Women in Chekhov’s Russia

One member told us that research into her family roots had revealed that her Jewish great grandfather came from the Ukraine, or possibly Poland, and would have been familiar with the conditions of life which Chekhov describes.  She said that the short stories were revealing for her regarding the condition of women at her ancestor’s time.  She was surprised at the level of freedom enjoyed by some women in Russian society at the end of the 19th century compared, say, with the position of women under the Ottomans.    She had in mind particularly the woman who married and then ran off to live a wild life with a group of actors and artists.    It was noted though that this freedom was restricted to the intellectuals, the wealthy and the aristocratic.

A story such as Rothschild’s Fiddle shows the other side of the story, where the wife of the protagonist is almost a non-person;

He had never once been gentle with her, or sorry for her, had never once thought of buying her a little shawl or bringing her something sweet from a wedding, but had only yelled at her, scolded her for their losses, threatened her with his fists.

When she is dying he takes her to the doctor and refers to his wife as “my object.”

And then changes his mind to

my life companion, as they say, excuse the expression.

The two women in The Peasant Women, despite their fleeting plans to poison an abusive husband, are left with no way out from their misery.

Not all women were portrayed as weak and helpless.   Varvara, the protagonist of In the Ravine, initially gave one member a hope that here was a women with some strength who would rail against the world; by the end of the story, however, her stand against the world took the form of powerful manipulative woman taking revenge on all those around her.

One of our members drew attention to another kind of woman portrayed in Chekhov, the kind exemplified by Sofya in The Two Volodyas.  Sofya lives a vapid life in a marriage of convenience, whilst in love with a young man.   Surrounded with privilege but acting as an overgrown adolescent, she personifies a mood that appears in a number of the stories – “I’ve got all these (yawn) material advantages but, hey, life is rubbish” It is a “glass half-empty” perspective on life that occurs time and again in Chekhov’s portrayal of the wealthier characters.

Marital relations

Marital relationships and their emptiness, remarked one member, is another theme of many of the stories:  it seems, he said, marriages were just for convenience, someone needs to marry, and they just find someone suitable with no care for any emotion.  Where were the happy marriages?  We struggled to find happy marriages between “ordinary” people in the book:  the old couple in At Christmastide, perhaps?   Another commentator wrote:

his depiction of long-married couples is generally not one of marital bliss.

Anya, the young woman in Anna on the Neck who unwillingly becomes the “trophy” wife of the ambitious but cloddish older official is a good example of a woman who triumphs in one such marriage.  The husband Modest encourages his wife to ingratiate herself with “His Excellency” to engineer his own advancement but his ploy backfires.   Having established her place in Society, Anya finally turns on her feeble husband – Get out, blockhead! – before proceeding to spend all his money in having a great time.

However, Chekhov’s men are often critical of women:

In The Lady with the Dog, for example, he tells us Dmitri

almost always spoke ill of women  and when they were discussed in his company he would say of them “an inferior race.”

In On the Way Laharev declares in a bass voice, striking his fist on the table, albeit with some shame, 

Woman has been and always will be the slave of man.  She is the soft, tender wax which a man always moulds into anything he likes.

In Ariadne, during a chance meeting on a steamer, Ivan Ilyitch Shamohin suggests that women should be educated to be more like men:

A woman ought to be trained so that she may be able, like a man, to recognise when she’s wrong

These views of women led some members to wonder about Chekhov’s own relationships with women.

Chekhov and Marriage

One member of our group wondered whether Chekov had a problem with relationships with woman.   Certainly by the standards of the time, he was late in getting married, so much so that, until he finally married, Chekhov was known as Russian’s most eligible literary bachelor.

In his youth, Chekhov had a number of affairs, including one with the wife of a teacher.  Later on there were references to a mysterious fiancée and there was one Lika Mizinova with whom he was “nearly” in love.   Other commentators have noted that Chekhov seemed to prefer passing liaisons and visits to brothels over commitment.

In 1895, Chekhov himself set forth his views on marriage to his old friend and patron Suvorin:  

By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her … give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.

It seems this remark was prophetic.

Of German origin, Chekhov’s future wife,Olga Knipper, came to Moscow with her family when she was two years old. She attended a private school for girls, was fluent in French, German, and English, and took music and singing lessons. However, her father made it very clear at an early age that Olga’s aspirations in life should be confined to marrying well and becoming a house-wife.

After her father’s early death and with the reluctant help of her artistic mother Olga enrolled at the Philharmonic School, where she was taught by the future co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. It was through him that she met Stanislavski.  She was one of the 44 original members of the new Moscow Art Theatre where she became a successful actress.  It was here that she met Chekhov on 9th September 1898 whilst she was rehearsing for The Seagull.

Knipper and Chekhov exchanged telegrams and letters for the next few years.   Random letters of teasing and playfulness became letters of love and deep remorse that they lived so far apart from each other. Olga’s true colors shone throughout her letters of correspondence. Her ill-moods, volatile tempers, combined with her sporadic high spirits, kept Chekhov on his toes.

In the winter of 1900, Chekhov returned from Yalta and headed to Moscow, with a new play that he had written with a ‘dear actress’ in mind. “What a part I’ve got for you in Three Sisters. Give me ten roubles and you can have it, otherwise I’ll give it to another actress”, Chekhov wrote to Olga.

Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper eventually married on 25 May 1901 at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. It was a spur of the moment, small wedding about which hardly anyone knew, including Chekhov’s mother and sister, and Olga’s mother. Many close friends and family were hurt by the secrecy. [12]

Knipper acted in Moscow and had a very packed schedule, while Chekhov stayed in Yalta, the only place his sickness did not worsen. They both suffered their parting and their correspondence, touching and romantic, indicated their deep mutual affection. In one of the letters Chekhov wrote


Anton and Olga in 1901

Anton and Olga in 1901

If we are not together now, this is neither your, nor my fault – this is the devil who had inflicted this disease on me and this love of art on you
The literary legacy of this long-distance marriage is a correspondence which preserves gems of theatre history, including shared complaints about Stanislavski’s directing methods and Chekhov’s advice to Olga about performing in his plays.

This long-distance marriage was to last barely three years as Chekhov died on 15 July 1904.  Olga Knipper died in Moscow on 22 March 1959, aged 90.

Chekhov’s rules of writing

Quite early on in his writing career, in letter to his brother Alexander, dated May 10, 1886, Chekhov noted six principles of a good story.

  • Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  • Total objectivity
  • Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  • Extreme brevity
  • Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  • Compassion

Taken together they serve as a good yardstick by which to measure Chekhov’s writing.

Some members of the group thought he lacked compassion.   As one person said, his view of humankind was a very clinical one rather than an emotional one.  Where emotion is present, it is usually negative.   Several commentators have written of Chekhov’s almost clinical objectivity, the physician and man of science putting human life under the microscope.[13]

Others did see compassion at times, such as in the treatment of the girl who killed the child she was supposed to be caring for, having been deprived of sleep by her unthinking, apparently uncaring masters.

Portrayal of the state and bureaucracy

Despite everything happening in Russia during Chekhov’s life, he did not generally write directly about the failings of the state.   He certainly gave plenty of examples of the feelings of hopelessness felt by the people at the bottom of the heap in face of the petty rules, the corruption and the weight of bureaucracy bearing down on them – this is probably one of the most recurrent themes of all the short stories. 

On Official Business is perhaps a fairly obvious but mild attack on the business of officialdom.  Chekhov puts the barely veiled criticism into the mouth of one such petty official.  The acting coroner and the district doctor are on their way to conduct an autopsy when they are caught in a blizzard.   The acting coroner starts up a conversation with the elderly, garrulous local self-styled “biddle” (beadle) Ilya Loshadin.

How many years have you been going round as beadle?” asks the coroner

“How many? Thirty years now, I started 5 years after the freeing….I carry packages, summonses, writs, letters, various forms, reports and nowadays, my good sir, your honour, they’ve started having these forms for putting down numbers – yellow, white, red – and every landowner, or priest, or rich peasant has to report without fail some ten times a year on how much he sowed and reaped, how many bushels or sacks of rye, how much oats and hay, and what the weather was like, and what kind of bugs there were.   They can write whatever they want of course, it’s just a formality but I have to go and hand out the papers, and then go again and collect them”

It is mildly comic, poking fun at the bureaucratic machine – it would be funny if it were not so sad.

Individual Stories

Given the wide choice available, it was interesting that many members recalled details of the same stories.

The Black Monk

Someone mentioned that, in Chekhov’s stories, it sometimes feels as if happiness is forbidden.  He pointed to the mysterious tale of The Black Monk.  It starts off happily enough, with the protagonist recuperating with old friends in the country.   The father and daughter are fond of each other and of their guest.   The guest marries the daughter, the future of the estate is good hands and all seems well.  But it is as though Chekhov can’t bear happy endings, so the tale turns dark, the protagonist has a nervous breakdown, the marriage fails, the father dies and the protagonist is damned for all eternity.

Ward No 6

One of the darkest of Chekhov’s stories is Ward No 6.   It touched all of us to some degree.   At one level it was a relentless horrifying account of a mental health ward of a run-down hospital, overseen by an apathetic doctor for whom it was merely a matter of chance who was incarcerated and who was not[14].  The ultimate irony is that the doctor, who seeks to “philosophise” explanations for the way people are dealt the cards fate, is himself dealt a card that leads to his own incarceration and ultimate death.

Along with a number of critics, several members of the group wondered about the degree to which Ward No 6 was an allegory for the state of Russia and Russian society.

One commentator agrees with such a reading and adds that it should be read in the context of Chekhov’s visit to the penal colony in Sakhalin.  However he or she notes:

Chekhov does not use his story to force a personal or political philosophy onto his readers. Ultimately, we are left to make up our own minds on the issue of state control and institutional corruption. Ward No. 6 is a work that raises important issues regarding the relationships between citizens and state, and between people in positions of power and those whom they incapacitate[15]

Chekhov himself made an interesting comment on Ward No 6:

 I am finishing a story (“Ward No. 6”), a very dull one, owing to a complete absence of woman and the element of love. I can’t endure such stories.”[16]

Several members of the group talked about their own experiences of mental health care in various countries.

It seems never to be regarded as an illness in the way that physical illnesses are seen, said one.  She recalled visiting a friend and being horrified by the conditions in which the elderly, mentally ill lady was kept in a hospital in England.  When asked whether she had complained, her answer was pure Chekhov, “What was the point, that’s the way it is”.   Some things never change.

Another person remembered the so called radical treatment of many mentally ill patients in the Thatcher era when the vogue was for care in the community.  She recalled that the absence of any kind of support – even at the most basic level of accommodation and welfare – meant that both the individuals and the community suffered grievously.

The Lady with the Dog

From the time it was written in 1899, towards the end of his life, this story was a favourite with readers.   Our group was no exception.   Several commentators have remarked on the tenderness with which Chekhov treats the illicit relationship between the two protagonists.  By the standards of society at that time, their behaviour was reprehensible but it seems as though Chekhov forgives them.   It has even been suggested that the story is also influenced by Chekhov’s burgeoning love affair with Olga.  Rarely, for Chekhov, the end of the story seems to hold out some positive hope for the future:

It seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning

And so back to Bleakness

Wherever we look in Chekhov, we can feel the sense of despondency, the helplessness, the pointlessness of it all.  In so many of the stories there is a sense that nobody sees any point in challenging the rules.   That’s the way it is, all they can do is react to what is thrown at them, the best they can.  They have given up.  One of our group commented on the invariable lack of self-esteem felt by most of the characters, very few valued themselves particularly highly and if they did, they were usually shown to be mistaken.

Chekhov himself speaks of the hopelessness of the human condition:

We are accustomed to live in hopes of good weather, a good harvest, a nice love-affair, hopes of becoming rich or getting the office of chief of police, but I’ve never noticed anyone hoping to get wiser. We say to ourselves: it’ll be better under a new tsar, and in two hundred years it’ll still be better, and nobody tries to make this good time come tomorrow. On the whole, life gets more and more complex every day and moves on its own sweet will, and people get more and more stupid, and get isolated from life in ever-increasing numbers.

Elsewhere he asks how happiness can be possible in the face of so much misery:

Just consider this life–the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, all around intolerable poverty, cramped dwellings, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…and yet peace and order apparently prevail in all those homes and in the streets.

Of the fifty thousand inhabitants of a town, not one will be found to cry out, to proclaim his indignation aloud. We see those who go to the market to buy food, who eat in the daytime and sleep at night, who prattle away, marry, grow old, carry their dead to the cemeteries. But we neither hear nor see those who suffer, and the terrible things in life are played out behind the scenes.

Apparently those who are happy can only enjoy themselves because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and but for this silence happiness would be impossible. It is a kind of universal hypnosis.

Not a lot of cause for hope there, then.   So was he right then, the person who thought Chekhov was a pessimistic “poet of crepuscular[17] moods”?

Perhaps we should give Chekhov the last word.  As we have seen, he was generous in his advice to his fellow authors.  One small piece reads as follows:

When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly[18]

So was he just “bleaking it up” after all – the better to gain our sympathy?

Note of the Challenge of Short Story Writing

Although he wrote four successful plays, it is as a writer of short stories that Chekhov is most famous.    According to many critics, his stories are amongst the best ever written for the genre.   As one member of the group admitted, it was for this reason he had recommended that the group read Chekhov’s Short Stories.

According to V S Pritchett, who was a distinguished short story writer himself, short story writing is “an art or craft that is distinctive and, for the writer, exquisitely difficult“.    He continues:

The short story (is a) foundational form independent of the diffuse attractions of the novel:  the novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.

The art calls for the mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and ballad-maker, and the sonnet-writer’s concealed discipline of form [19]

The short story usually features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood[20]

Unlike novels, short stories tell their tales with great economy of words.   Novels allow time for expansive, discursive description of people and places, they permit digressions and reiterations – “they tell us everything”.   Short stories on the other hand demand that every word counts – the “skill of the rapid reporter” – the scene needs to be suggested rather than described, an impression hinted at rather than a detailed picture painted.

In form, too, short stories differ significantly from novels.

Historically, novels and plays usually follow a set dramatic structure.   German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag’s describes it thus: 

  • Exposition or introduction:  characters, settings and situations are introduced;
  • Rising action:  complications are brought into play, which Freytag calls rising action, a related series of incidents build toward the point of greatest interest
  • Climax:  The climax is the turning point, which marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs
  • Falling action:  During the falling action the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.
  • Dénouement, resolution, or catastrophe: The dénouement comprises events from the end of the falling action to the actual ending scene narrative. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

In short stories this structure is frequently absent or substantially re-ordered.   Some short stories may have an exposition but more frequently, they begin in the middle of the action.   They may have a climax, a single incident, a crisis or simply a turning point.  Often they end abruptly; they are left open, leaving us to wonder what happens next.

Modern films (and many novels) often adopt a similar technique and contemporary audiences are accustomed to entering a narrative in the middle of the action, with barely an introduction to the characters; we wait patiently, as climax gives way not to resolution but to exposition and rising action, in the form of flashback for example, or mere hints of what went before; we have learnt to be confident that sooner or later the writer or director will make everything clear.

However, it was not always so common:  tight sparse writing, people and places conjured up in a few images, entering in the middle of scene, leaving before the end – this was new when Chekhov was writing.  It was his consummate skill in handling these techniques that marks him out as a great short story writer.

[1]  See Endnote on the challenges of short story writing.

[2] This is still true today:  Russia 17m sq. km;  USA 9m sq. km; Turkey 775,000 sq. km;  UK 244,000 sq. km

[3] Russia’s northern ports are ice-bound in the winter; its access to the Mediterranean is dependent on being allowed to use the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.   This has always been a potential flash point between Russia and her neighbours.

[4] See for a more detailed account of Russian history

[5] See for more details and photographs

[6] This detail apparently offended Maxim Gorky.   Whether he felt the mode of transport to be an affront to Chekhov or to the oysters is not made clear.

[7] Famous Turkish poet, playwright and novelist Nazim Hikmet is also buried in the same cemetery

[8] Another version of this quotation reads: Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.

[9] From this period comes a famous observation of Chekhov’s which has become known as “Chekhov’s gun“.   If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.

[11] the Literature, Arts and Medicine Database –  a very useful source of brief comments on a wide range of writers

[14] One member drew a neat contemporary parallel to this determinist view of the human condition.  Citing the recent American presidential campaign, he pointed out that Mitt Romney, the recent presidential challenger, and his supporters, seemed to say that  if one is poor, underprivileged or deprived it is either because one is not trying hard enough or because God intended you to be that way


[16] The Wisdom of Anton Chekhov by Walter G Moss

[17]  Relating to twilight.    The Crepuscolari (Italian: “twilight poets”) were a group of Italian poets whose work is notable for its use of musical and mood-conveying language and its general tone of despondency.

[18] Advice to  Lydia Avilova, March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892

[19] Introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories edited by V S Pritchett ( OUP)


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