ANTON CHEKHOV, born at Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southwestern Russia, on 29th January 1860, began writing his short stories as a medical student in Moscow. His first story was published in a Petersburg humorous magazine in January 1880. The stories he published during the next three years in the Moscow and Petersburg humorous magazines all appeared under his pseudonym of Antosha Chekhonte. Already in those ‘thoughtless and frivolous tales’, as he subsequently described them, his characteristic quality of exposing the hidden motives of his characters and revealing the influence of their environment upon them was clearly discernible. His real chance as a writer came at the end of 1882, when he became a regular contributor to Fragments, a Petersburg weekly magazine of some literary standing, for which he wrote about 300 stories during the next three years. These stories, however, had to be very short, and it was not until Chekhov became a contributor to the big Petersburg dailies, the Petersburg Gazette and the New Times, that he was freed from the constraint of limiting his stories to a few hundred words. Gradually his stories began to appear in some of the most important monthly periodicals, and it was in these that the greatest stories of his mature period were published. The eleven stories in this volume were written between 1885 and 1899, that is during Chekhov’s most productive period as a short writer, and reading them one gets the impression of holding life itself, like a fluttering bird, in one’s cupped hands.
Grief, the first story in this volume, was published in the Petersburg Gazette on 25th November 1885, still under Chekhov’s pseudonym of Antosha Chekhonte. It immediately impressed the critics by its mixture of comedy and tragedy, a feature that was to become characteristic of Chekhov’s art as a whole.
Agafya, one of the first stories to be signed by Chekhov’s full name, was published in the New Times on 15th March 1886, and so impressed the veteran novelist Dmitry Grigorovich, whose first stories, too, had dealt with the life of Russian peasants, that in an excited letter to Chekhov he hailed him as a writer of genius and warned him against frittering away his talent on writing trifles. Referring specifically to Agafya, Grigrovich declared that ‘judging by the different qualities of your undoubted talent, your true feeling of inner analysis, your majestic descriptive passages, the way in which you give a complete picture of a cloud at sunset in a few words, etc., you are destined, I’m quite sure, to become the author of many excellent and truly artistic works.’ Grigrovich was even more outspoken two years later, when he again referred to Agafya in a letter to Chekhov: ‘Only a true artist,’ he wrote, ‘could have written a story like Agafya. Its two characters are only lightly sketched and yet nothing more could have been added to make them more alive or get the figures and characters of each into sharper relief: not in single word or movement does one feel that the story has been “made up” – everything in it is true, everything in it just as it could have happened in real life. The same is true of the descriptive pages. . . . Such a masterly way of conveying one’s observations of life can be found only in Turgenev and Tolstoy.’
It was Grigrovich’s letters that finally led Chekhov to decide to take his literary work more seriously, and subsequently to devote all his time to literature. The reference to Turgenev and Tolstoy, however, is much more pertinent than Grigrovich suspected, for both Grief and Agafya are largely derivative; Agafya in particular bearing a close resemblance to Rendez-vous, one of Turgenev’s last additions to his Sportsman’s Sketches, though certainly treated in quite a different and much less sentimental way.
Misfortunate, published in the New Times on 16th August 1886, is also largely derivative, showing quite clearly the influence of Anna Karenina (Chekhov was at the time quite obsessed with Tolstoy’s great novel). But though derivative, these stories reveal an originality of mind and attitude that is largely due to the different social background in which these three great writers grew up, Turgenev and Tolstoy never really being able to shake off the influence of their aristocratic environment, while Chekhov, the son of a freed serf, was quite amazingly free from class consciousness as well as class prejudice.
It was three years later that Chekhov wrote A Boring Story, his first masterpiece, in which his great gifts as a creative artist and profound thinker found their fullest expression. Chekhov began writing A Boring Story in March 1889 and finished it at the end of September. ‘Today,’ he wrote to the poet Pleshcheyev on 3rd September 1889, ‘I have finished my story for the Northern Herald. . .I have never written anything like it before. The themes are quite new to me, and I am afraid that inexperience may have let me down badly.’ On 14th September he informed the same correspondent that he had revised the story thoroughly. ‘In my story,’ he wrote, ‘there are not two but fifteen different moods. Quite possibly you will think it is a lot of rubbish. . . . but I flatter myself with the hope that you will find two or three new characters in it who are of interest to every educated reader; you will also find two or three new situations in it. I further flatter myself with the hope that my rubbish will provoke a certain noisy reaction in the enemy camp, for in our age of telegraphs and telephones abuse is the sister of advertisement.’ In a letter to another correspondent on 18th September, Chekhov wrote: ‘This is not a story, it is a dissertation. It will be to the taste only of those who like heavy reading, and I should really have sent it to the Artillery Journal!’ He sent off the story to the Northern Herald, a rather highbrow periodical, on 24th September. ‘This letter,’ he wrote to its literary editor, ‘is being sent to the post together with the story, which I have given up trying to revise any more, saying to it: Get thee hence, accused one, into the fire of boring criticism and the readers’ indifference. I got tired of tinkering with it any longer. Its title is A Boring Story (From an Old Man’s Notebook). The most boring part of it, as you will see, consists of all sorts of arguments which, unfortunately, cannot be cut out, because my hero cannot do without them. These arguments are both fatal and necessary, like a heavy gun-carriage to a field-gun. They characterize the hero, his models and his continuous shifting and shuffling.’ Chekhov warned Alexey Suvorin, the editor of the New Times, with whom he was on very friendly terms at the time, not to try to identify the views of the hero of his story with his own views. ‘If I present you with my professor’s ideas,’ he wrote, ‘you must not look for Chekhov’s ideas in them.’
The story, as Chekhov had expected, aroused a lively discussion in the literary journals, but little abuse. It was rightly considered the most important work Chekhov had so far produced. Six years later Chekhov used some of its themes in The Seagull.
The main theme of The Grasshopper, written in 1891 for the new periodical North, is the conflict between the ‘two cultures’ – science and art – and the misunderstanding that sometimes arise as a consequence in the private lives of people belonging to the two cultures. The story, published in January 1892 – ‘a sentimental love story for family reading’, as Chekhov described it, with his tongue in his cheek, to the editor of North – had a very unfortunate sequel, for it brought about a temporary rift between Chekhov and one of his intimate friends, the landscape painter Isaac Levitan. It is in fact one of the very few stories which Chekhov drew direct from life, without bothering to camouflage it sufficiently. It is based on an incident in the lives of Levitan and Sophia Kuvshinnikov, the wife of a doctor. Sophia was taking painting lessons from Levitan, with whom she was having an affair, and with whom, like Olga and the painter Ryabovsky in the story, she had gone off on a Volga painting expedition. Chekhov was often present at Sophia’s weekly parties, held at her flat under the watch-tower of a fire station, which – again like Olga in the story – Sophia had converted into a very arty-crafty place. Her parties were attended by artists, musicians and writers. Dr. Kuvshinnikov, like Dr. Dymov in the story, never put in an appearance at these parties, but at twelve o’ clock he would open the dining-room door, holding a knife in one hand and a fork in the other, and solemnly announce that supper was served. Like Olga in the story, Sophia used to address her husband by his surname. Rushing up to him, she would exclaim: ‘Kuvshinnikov, let me shake your honest hand!’ And, addressing her friends, she would add: ‘Look what an honest face he has!’
When the storm broke over his head after the publication of The Grasshopper, Chekhov is reported to have said: ‘Why, my grasshopper is a pretty young girl, while Sophia Kuvshinnikov is neither so pretty nor so young.’ It was certainly a lame excuse, but with the passage of time the incident lost its significance. The story remains a brilliant work of art, in spite of Chekhov’s perhaps too faithful reproduction of the artistic avant-garde circles of his day, which do not seem to have changed a great deal during the last seventy years.
Chekhov first entitled the story Philistines, then altered its title to A Great Man – which Kuvshinnikov, unlike Dymov, never was – but the new title did not satisfy him either. ‘I really don’t know what to do about the title of my story,’ he wrote to the editor of North on 14th December 1891. ‘I don’t like A Great Man. Call it –.’ And he took for his title the first word in Krylov’s fable The Grasshopper and the Ant, ‘Poprygunya’ – that is ‘Jumpity-jump’, the onomatopoeic adjectival noun Krylov used for the description of the grasshopper.
Ward 6 is the only major work Chekhov wrote in 1892 (he began writing it in March and finished it two months later). For some time Chekhov was a Tolstoyan, but he turned against Tolstoy’s teachings at the end of 1890, after his return from Sakhalin, the Russian Devil’s Island, where he had gone to study the conditions of life in the convict prisons and settlements. Ward 6 is Chekhov’s challenge to the main tenet of Tolstoy’s faith—non-resistance to evil. The hero of the story, Dr Ragin, a non-resistor to evil both by nature and conviction, is shown is a fully integrated work of art, none of its themes being arbitrarily imposed upon its characters, but rather flowing naturally out of them.
The story brought about Chekhov’s return to the liberal camp, from which he had been alienated for a time because of his close friendship with the reactionary Suvorin. It was published in the leading liberal monthly Russian Thought, in which two years earlier, Chekhov had been accused of being ‘the high-priest of unprincipled writing’, an accusation he indignantly repudiated, in a letter to its editor on 10th April 1890, as ‘a libelous statement’. ‘I never was,’ he wrote, ‘a writer without principles, or, which is the same thing, a scoundrel. I have written many stories and articles which I would gladly throw out as worthless, but I have never written a single line of which I should now be ashamed.’
A ruthlessly brilliant study of a type of predatory woman, Ariadne was published in Russian Thought in December 1895. In Chekhov’s notebooks the hero of Ariadne is described as ‘an artist’, but all that Chekhov preserved of his original character was his ‘little round beard’. It is not without interest that Chekhov should have pleaded (through the mouth of the hero of his story) for co-education and equal rights for women as remedy against the havoc wrought by the Ariadnes of this world. Chekhov himself visited Abbazia in the autumn of 1894 and, as can be gathered from his description of the place in Ariadne, he was not particularly impressed by that ‘paradise on earth’.
The House with an Attic, originally entitled My Fiancée, was published in Russian Thought in April 1896. Chekhov spent the summer of 1891 on the estate of Bogimovo near the small town of Alexin and in The House with an Attic he described the empty mansion on that estate, with the vast drawing-room which he occupied and the wide sofa on which he slept. The avenue of fir trees, too, he found on a neighbouring estate.
In this seemingly sentimental story of a young girl’s shattered love, Chekhov’s main intention had been to carry on with his polemic against Tolstoy’s beliefs as well as against the different palliatives with which the ‘progressives’ of that time sought to solve the most pressing political and economic problems. In ‘The people,’ Chekhov makes the hero of his story declare, ‘are entangled in a great chain, and you do not cut through that chain, but merely add more links on it.’
Ionych, published in 1898 in the September literary supplement of the popular weekly magazine Neeva, is one of the most perfect examples of Chekhov’s genius for compressing a man’s life within twenty odd pages. The title of the story – a familiar form of its hero’s patronymic – shows the slightly contemptuous attitude of the townspeople towards the doctor for whose moral degeneration they were to a large extent responsible.
Chekhov’s notebooks contain the following description of the main theme of the story:
The Philimonovs [changed to the Turkins in the story] are a talented family, so everyone says in the town. He is a civil servant, acts on the stage, does conjuring tricks, jokes (‘Good morning, please’), she writes novels with a liberal flavour, talks in an affected manner: ‘I’m in love with you – oh, what if my husband finds out!’ She says this to everyone, in her husband’s presence. The servant-boy in the entrance hall: ‘Die, unhappy woman!’ At first all this really strikes one as clever and amusing in a dull and boring town. Three years later I went there for the third time, the servant-boy was already sprouting a moustache, and again: ‘I’m in love with you – oh, what if my husband finds out!’ And the same impersonation: Die, unhappy woman!’ And when I left the Philimonovs, I could not help feeling that there were no more tedious and mediocre people in the world.
In another note Chekhov wrote:
Ionych. Got fat. When at the club in the evenings dines at the big table and when the conversation turns on the Turkins asks: ‘What Turkins are you talking about? Those whose daughter plays the piano?’ Has a large practice in town, but does not give up his country practice: greed has got the better of him.
According to Chekhov’s sister, Chekhov gave a description of the Taganrog cemetery in Ionych.
The Darling, which Chekhov wrote in Yalta in the winter of 1898, was published on 3rd January 1899, in the first number of the new periodical Semya (Family).
The first outline of the subject matter of the story in Chekhov’s notebooks already contains the characteristic traits of its silly but warmhearted heroine. ‘She was the wife of an actor,’ Chekhov wrote, ‘she loved the theatre, seemed to have been completely absorbed in her husband’s business, and everyone was surprised that it should have turned out to be so successful a marriage; but her husband died, she married a confectioner, and it seemed that she never liked anything so much as making jam and she despised the theatre, for she had become very religious in imitation of her second husband.’
The story, greatly altered in its final version, so delighted Tolstoy that he read it aloud to his friends on four consecutive nights, for curiously enough it seemed to him to confirm his own anti-feminist views. Tolstoy reprinted the story in 1906, two years after Chekhov’s death, and in an afterword he wrote: ‘Chekhov intended to curse, but the god of poetry commanded him to bless, and he unconsciously clothed this sweet creature in such exquisite radiance that she will always remain a model of what a woman should be in order to be happy herself.’ The Darling, Tolstoy further argued, was so ‘excellent’ just because its effect was ‘unintentional’, for according to Tolstoy ‘Chekhov wanted to cast the darling down, but instead he raised her up against his own wall’ The length to which even a man of Tolstoy’s attainments will go to find a justification for his own preconceived ideas is truly remarkable.
Chekhov wrote Lady with Lapdog in Yalta between August and October 1899. It is a story of a great love arising out of a pick-up of a young married woman by a middle-aged roué. It was published in the December issue of Russian Thought, and (in a thoroughly revised version) in the complete edition of Chekhov’s works three years later. Gorky wrote to Chekhov that after reading Lady with Lapdog everything he himself wrote seemed ‘coarse and written not with a pen but with a log’. Gorky went on:
You are doing a great thing with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence. Your stories are like exquisite cut-glass bottles with all different scents of life in them, and, believe me, a sensitive nose will always find in them the delicate, pungent, and healthy scent of what is genuine and really valuable and necessary, which is to be found in every cut-glass bottle of yours.