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Anton Chekhov’s Journey From Vignettes to Masterpieces

A Study in tone, point of view, and structure

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was one of the most prolific short story writers of all time and is regarded as one of the originators of the form. In the course of a twenty-year career he wrote hundreds of short pieces. This article will examine Chekhov’s development as writer over those years in how his use of tone, point of view, and structure changed and matured over time by examining  three stories: one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from end of his career.

Chekhov’s earliest stories were short, darkly comic pieces that profiled, and sometimes savaged the various tiers of Russian society at the end of the 19th century in Russia, from royalty to gentry, to peasants and servants. In “The Little Apples” (1880) we get this stinging introduction to landowner Trifon Semyonovich:

He owned an estate of comprising about 8,000 acres of black earth. This estate, being in his full possession, had been mortgaged and offered for sale. The “For Sale” notices were put up before he acquired his bald spot, but the estate has never been sold, thanks to the gullibility of the bank manager and the skill of Trifon Semyonovich, and so the worst has not befallen him. One day, of course, the bank will fail, because Trifon Semyonovich and all those others whose names are legion take bank loans without paying the interest. Indeed, whenever Semyonovich did pay a little interest on his loan, he always made a great ceremony of it, as a man does when he offers a penny for the repose of the souls of the dead or for the building of a cathedral. If this world were not this world, then Trifon Semyonovich would be called by another name than Trifon Semyonovich: he would be given a name usually reserved for horses and cows. Frankly, Trifon Semyonovich is nothing more than a beast.

Following this introduction is a narrative describing an event that also illustrates Semyonovich’s cruelty. While on a summer morning walk with Karpushka, his henchman-servant, they encounter a peasant girl and boy picking apples in his orchard. What follows is a confrontation in which the sadistic Karpushka threatens to flog them for stealing and Semyonovich taunts the boy, demanding that he entertain him with a story. Then he turns his attention to the girl, dubbed “Dulcinea” by the narrator and demands that she punish her partner for teaching her to steal. She boxes her boyfriend’s ears and then, at Semyonovich’s urging, begins pulling his hair. Semyonovich then orders the boy to punish his girlfriend. Out of fear the boy grabs her hair and begins hitting her. Angry at Semyonovich, the boy becomes incensed and beats her harder and harder. They are finally rescued by Semyonovich’ s daughter, Sashenka calling her father to come to tea. Sashenka, however, is not motivated by the plight of the young couple. Instead, she is amused. The narrative concludes with Semyonovich, letting them leave.

Chekhov's BirthhouseThe narrator describes the main actors in this story in the harshest terms and has no problem passing judgement on their cruelty. In contrast to this, the characters with whom the readers empathize with, the young couple, receive far less attention. Chekhov refers to them essentially as types. The girl, he refers to has “Dulcinea” and the boy isn’t even given a name. “The Little Apples,” one of Chekhov’s earliest stories, is a character study—of Semyonovich, his henchman Karpushka, and finally his children—while the narrative and dramatic part of the story, is an anecdote that provides a basis for the judgement that Chekov provides at the beginning of the story: Trifon Semyonovich is a bad man. The main character of this story is not changed in any way by the dramatic action and has no arc.

Written five years later in 1885, “The Huntsman,” displays Chekhov’s growth as a writer. Yegor Vlassich, the huntsman, is walking down a country road where he encounters Pelageya, his estranged wife. They have been married for twelve years, but he has only visited her a few times when he was drunk and abusive. Pelageya begs him to visit her more often. Yegor rebuffs her, claiming that as the best huntsman around and is employed by a wealthy benefactor, he is used to a pampered lifestyle and can no longer live a peasant’s life in a village:

“You might come back to me just once,” said Pelageya.

“Why?” Yegor sighed, and he removed his cap and wiped his red forehead with his sleeve. “I don’t see any need for it. There’s no sense in coming for just an hour or two—it will only upset you! As for living all the time in your village, well it’s beyond endurance! You know yourself how I have been spoiled…I have to have a bed, and good tea, and fine conversations…Me, I want all the fine things of life, and as for you—you enjoy the poverty and smoke of your village…I couldn’t stand it for even a day. Imagine there came an order saying I must live permanently with you—well, I’d rather set fire to the cottage or lay hands on myself! Ever since I was a boy, I was always spoiled—there’s no getting away from it!”

“Where are you living now?”

“With the gentleman here, Dmitry Ivanitch, as a huntsman. I furnish his table with game, but he keeps me…more for his pleasure than anything.”

In this story, the narrator withholds judgement of this unsympathetic character and simply lets the character speak for himself; Chekhov shows rather than tells. Judgement, in this case is provided by the other character in the story:

“That’s not proper kind of work, Yegor Vlassich! …People call that fooling around—there’s only you who thinks of it as an occupation, a real job of work…”

In spite of this admonishment, Pelageya, continues to weep and begs Yegor to return to the village with her. Yegor is adamant and goes so far as to renounce their marriage as a meaningless sham because they have nothing in common. He is the great huntsman for the landed gentry, and she is the lowly peasant woman happy to live in filth. Finally, Yegor gets up and turns to continue on his journey. He hesitates and turns back to Pelageya offering her a crumpled ruble note, insisting that she take it. Then he returns to the road with his dog and continues his journey. Pelageya continues to watch him until he is out of site.

Although this story has an unsympathetic and harsh main character like “The Little Apples,” the writing is far more nuanced and subtle. The emotional states of the characters are revealed through their behavior and body language. At the beginning of the encounter there’s an awkwardness in their interaction:

“Sit down? Well, if you want me to …” Yegor said in a tone of indifference, and he chose a spot in the shade between two fully grown fir trees. “Why are you standing, eh? You sit down, too!”

Pelageya sat down a little way away in the full sunlight. Ashamed of her happiness, she hid her smiles with her hand. Two minutes passed in silence.

At the end of the story, Pelageya’s sadness and longing is revealed not by the narrator describing her feelings but by describing her actions:

… At last she could see only his cap, and suddenly Yegor turned sharply to his right into a clearing, and the cap vanished in the green depths.

“Good-by, Yegor Vlassich,” whispered Pelageya, and she stood on tiptoe, hoping to see the white cap.

In “The Huntsman,” we can see that Chekhov has moved beyond the simple character sketch of “The Little Apples.” The action and the dialogue carry the burden of revealing character and the results are subtler, more complex, and more resonant.

Our final story, “About Love,” published in 1898, Chekhov’s final years, where the changes in the style and structure of his stories indicated in “The Huntsman,” has become fully realized.

In “About Love,” two men, veterinary surgeon Ivan Ivanovitch and his friend Burkin, a schoolmaster, seek shelter at a third man’s (Alyokhin) estate while on a hunting trip. Over breakfast, the men discuss the mismatched relationship between Alyokhin’s servant girl, Pelageya, and Nicanor. Pelageya is young and beautiful and in love with Nicanor while Nicanor is a drunk and abusive. Pelageya does not want to marry Nicanor, but Nicanor’s religious convictions make him insist on marrying. Spurred on by this dilemma, the men start talking about love, and Alyokhin tells them what is essentially his life story and his own experience a difficult, unresolvable love.

In this story, all the narration is in first person. The first narrator is another guest who listens to the other guests and observes them. The primary narrative is told by Alyokhin. This framing of the “story within the story” is an interesting choice by Chekhov. He could have left out the framework and just presented the story as told directly by Alyokhin. This framework, however, provides an objectivity and emotional detachment if the story were told directly. This allows Chekov to present the story in a larger context:

He [Alyokhin] had the appearance of a man who wants to tell a story. People who lead lonely lives always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about. Bachelors living in town visit bathhouses and restaurants for no reason except to talk, and sometimes they tell exceedingly interesting stories to the waiters and bathhouses attendants; and in the country they will usually pour out their hearts to their guests.

This observation of Alyokhim as a lonely man with a desperate need to tell his story would not be possible without this framework. While this approach adds a level of complexity to the story, it’s not arbitrary. Alyokhin’s narrative gives us the intimacy that first person narratives do, while the framing narration provides larger, less skewed perspective. Also, by showing Alyokhin’s barely restrained desire to tell his story, the reader’s interest is raised. We get the feeling that Alyokhin is forever haunted by what happened in the story he is about to tell, and it’s not the first time he’s told it.

Alyokhin is an educated man whose father left him with a large debt. Being responsible, he works his farm himself in order to pay off the debt even though he doesn’t enjoy the manual labor. As an educated man, he is elected to a judgeship which requires frequent trips into town and in the course of his work, he makes many friends, one of whom is Dmitry Luganovich, a colleague. Alyokhin, a bachelor, becomes close friends with Luganovich and his wife, Anna Alexeyevna.

Anna and Luganovich are happily married as Alyokhim observes:

…From little things that happened—for example, the way they made coffee together, the way they understood one another without finishing their words or sentences—I came to the conclusion that they were living peacefully and in harmony together, and were glad to welcome a visitor.

There are, however, some hints of a possibly deeper emotional connection between Alyokhin and Anna. When Alyokhin is disturbed by an arson trial he is presiding over in which he believes the defendants are all innocent and only on trial because they are Jews, Anna finds this upsetting and keeps asking her husband, “Dmitry, how can this be?” Luganovich is of a single mind about it:

Luganovich was a good-natured fellow, one of those simple-minded people who hold firmly to the opinion that once a man is brought before the court he must be guilty, and that one should not express any doubts about the correctness of a judgement unless all legal formalities have been complied with, and never over dinner or in the course of private conversations.

“You and I did not set fire to the place,” he said softly, “and as you see, we are not on trial, and we are not in prison.

Over time, Alyokhin’s relationship with the couple strengthens and he comes to be treated as a member of the family. He also falls in love with Anna. He becomes haunted by his thoughts about her. He also realizes that she feels the same way, but they use their strength to resist a temptation that would otherwise destroy their lives:

… We were afraid of everything that would reveal our secret even to ourselves. I loved her tenderly, deeply, but I reflected and kept asking myself, what our love could lead to if we lacked the strength to fight against it: it seemed to me beyond belief that my gentle and melancholy love could crudely obliterate the happy course of their lives, the lives of her husband and her children and the entire household where I was loved and trusted.

Years go by and Alyokhin and Anna continue their platonic relationship attending theater and concerts. Finally, to thinks occur that will inevitably split them apart forever. First, Anna begins haven emotional difficulties and suffers a nervous breakdown. Then, Luganivich takes a judgeship in another province. Anna is being sent to the Crimea for medical care while Luganivich and their children are to move to the western province.

At the train station Alyokhin sees Anna off. When they are alone for the last time in her train compartment, Alyokhin finally confesses his love to her:

I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how needless and petty and deceptive were all those things which had kept us from loving one another. I came to realize that when you are in love, then in all your judgements about love you should start from something higher and more important than happiness or unhappiness, virtue and sin in all their accepted meanings, or you should make no judgements at all.

The final framing of the story, the denouement, told by our original unnamed narrator. The weather has broken and he observes the two men, Burkin and Ivan Ivanich walk out on the balcony to consider Alyokhin’s story. Both of the men are acquainted with the woman in the story and understand how heartbroken Alyokhin must be.

The tone of the writing is also restrained more than the earlier two stories. This actually helps the reader feel the character’s emotions more deeply. Generally, the more powerful the emotion, the more controlled the language should be. Instead of overly emotional language, behavior, gesture, and above all, dramatic context are used to convey emotion.

Chekhov's StudyWe can see how Chekhov’s writing changed and matured during his career. In the first story we discussed, “The Little Apples” all of what we know about the primary character is told to us by Chekhov as exposition in the opening pages of the story. There is a lot of character description in these opening pages than is necessary. The present action that occurs later in the story reveals nothing new and only serves to justify the judgement that has already been made. In “The Huntsman,” considered a turning point in his career, there is no character study in the beginning and there is an economy of style in how the characters are revealed to us. They actual reveal themselves to us in their actions and dialog and gestures over the course of the story and we are never told anything that is superfluous to the story.

In his final stories, Chekhov took what he first did in “The Huntsman” and extend them over a longer narrative. The action in “The Huntsman” takes place only over a few minutes, whereas the action in “About Love” takes place over many years. To cover that amount of time, any backstory that is needed must be kept to a minimum. In “About Love” there is no required backstory at all. Or, one can consider the bulk of the story—Alyokhin’s narrative—is the backstory. Either way, the action proceeds in a linear fashion. The story within a story structure of this store is more than just a device or affectation. The structure allows us to see that not only do the characters in Alyokhin’s narrative have an arc, but the listeners also have affected and changed by listening to the story told.

In reviewing these stories, we can clearly see how Chekhov developed as a writer and how he brought the short story form into prominence and set the stage for modern practitioners such as Ernest Hemingway.

© 2017, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.