• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Chekhov the Subversive

Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary

Translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim. with Simon Karlinsky, introduction and commentary by Simon Karlinsky
Northwestern University Press, 494 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening into Eternity

by Richard Gilman
Yale University Press, 261 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Anton Chekhov: A Life

by Donald Rayfield
HarperCollins (To be published in the US by Henry Holt in March 1998), 674 pp., £25.00


One of the “most profoundly subversive writers who ever lived”: few even of Chekhov’s most devoted admirers would recognize him from this description in Simon Karlinsky’s introduction to a selection of his letters. Unlike the novels of Dostoevsky, which revealed the demonic potential of the human psyche, Chekhov’s plays and stories portrayed ordinary men and women leading uneventful, often humdrum lives. While Tolstoy preached anarchism and thundered against the Russian Church and State, Chekhov worked peacefully as a country doctor and small-scale farmer, until his health broke down and he was forced to spend his winters in Yalta.

It was a life that to many of his contemporaries seemed perversely uninvolved in the great issues of the time; yet it was precisely their lack of tendentiousness that made his writings so subversive. His ironic approach to the reigning canons of correctness now seems startlingly prescient. He undermined many of the assumptions of modern societies about the nature of progress, freedom, and personal morality, and (unlike Tolstoy) did not replace the myths he demolished with new ones of his own.

The society of his time looked to its writers for ideological and moral leadership in the battle against autocratic rule. Radical critics, whose authority over literature rivaled that of the official censorship, glorified second-rate writers such as Zlatovratsky and Gleb Uspensky who presented the conflict between reaction and enlightenment through crude stereotypes: priests, merchants, and army officers were invariably cast as villains, peasants and young radical idealists as pure-hearted heroes. When Chekhov’s ideas began to be the subject of debate in progressive circles, he outlined his credo in a famous letter to the fiction editor of a journal that had begun to publish his work:

I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else…. Pharisaism, dullwittedness, and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and…freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.

Chekhov’s loathing of violence and cant sprang from early and brutal exposure to both. As he once remarked (apropos Tolstoy’s idealization of the Russian peasantry), “I have peasant blood flowing in my veins, and I’m not the one to be impressed with peasant virtues.” He was born in 1860, the year before the abolition of serfdom in Russia. His grandparents on both sides had been serfs; his father, Pavel, gained a precarious foothold in the merchant class when he acquired a grocer’s shop in the South Russian town of Taganrog. A domestic tyrant much given to moralizing, he faithfully reflected the pious and patriarchal traditions of his peasant background. The third of six children, Anton later recalled that for him and his two elder brothers “childhood was sheer suffering”; they were thrashed every day by their father, and by the choirmaster in the church where they were made to sing for long hours kneeling on freezing stones.

As a schoolboy of sixteen Anton was left to fend for himself in Taganrog when his father went bankrupt and was forced to move most of the family to Moscow in search of work. The destitute and bewildered Chekhov siblings were typical of vast numbers of talented young people set adrift by the crumbling of Russia’s patriarchal structures and values. Some (like Anton’s two feckless elder brothers) acquired a higher education but remained unprincipled drifters; many others would find a new church and dogma in the radical movement.

Anton took a singular path. In three years alone in Taganrog, continuing his schooling while tutoring other pupils, he accomplished what Tolstoy spent his life trying vainly to do: he reinvented himself as a person of moral integrity, free from the disfigurements inflicted by the despotism that pervaded Russian life. He became the effective head of his family, whose survival depended on the money he sent them from his earnings. Meanwhile he civilized himself through voracious reading in the Taganrog public library.

What that solitary process entailed can be deduced from his advice some years later to his delinquent elder brother Nikolai: to overcome “the side [of you] raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts,” he must cultivate respect for the personalities of others, and refrain from all forms of force and deceit. “You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.” Anton’s own achievements in this respect were such that at the age of thirty he was able to protest to the editor of a journal that had called him an “unprincipled” writer: “I have never toadied, nor lied, nor insulted”; whatever the artistic defects of his work, “I have never written a single line that I am ashamed of today.”

Chekhov’s literary career began as a means of supporting his family when, equipped with a stipend from his home town, he was admitted to study medicine at Moscow University. He began submitting humorous sketches to weekly magazines, and their success was such that after graduating in 1884 he was able to divide his time between “medicine…my lawful wife and literature…my mistress.”

His short stories were remarkable for the originality of their form and the range of their subject matter, equally masterly in their depiction of the Russian landscape and of the inner worlds of women, priests, peasants, merchants, gentry, and animals. Before he was thirty he was acclaimed as a great writer; in 1887 his play Ivanov launched him as a dramatist. Solvent at last, he was able to buy his family their first settled home, a small estate within reach of Moscow, where he was lionized in artistic circles. He relished the social round and the company of beautiful women; several of the women with whom he had affairs before his marriage at the age of forty remained his devoted friends. Men also found his personality irresistible. The painter Konstantin Korovin describes him as “extremely handsome,” with kind eyes and a “special shy smile. His whole appearance…inspired in people a special sort of confidence.”

The source of this trust was his down-to-earth humanity, which gave him a sharp nose for political cant and hollow generalities. “I acquired my belief in progress when still a child; I couldn’t help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous.” He admired the moral idealism of many Russian radicals but found their polemical methods too reminiscent of his childhood milieu: “I am physically repelled by abuse no matter at whom it is aimed.” He accused intellectuals obsessed with their own utopias of ignoring the achievements of the zemstva—institutions of local government set up by the Great Reforms of the 1860s—in civilizing Russian society. Citing the advances in surgery in Russia over the previous two decades, he once noted that if he were offered a choice between “the ‘ideals’ of the celebrated 1860s” (expressed in radical utopias such as that in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?) and the poorest zemstvo hospital, “I’d take the latter without the least hesitation.”

His own record of humanitarian work was impressive. His book on the prison colony of the Siberian island of Sakhalin (based on a medical-statistical survey of conditions there) brought the horrors of the Russian penal system to public attention. His efforts to alleviate famine in his region in 1891-1892 were followed by a spell of exhausting activity traveling, often on foot, through the frozen countryside as an unpaid medical inspector charged with containing a cholera epidemic. He treated thousands of peasants in a clinic on his estate, planned and helped build schools, endowed libraries, and scraped together money and support for a multitude of other causes, including an attempt to rescue a bankrupt journal of surgery, and the purchase of horses to be distributed to peasants for transporting grain. This first-hand involvement with day-to-day practicalities made him scornful of all recipes for universal salvation: on a visit to Nice he observed that one of its pleasures was the absence of “Marxists with their self-important faces.” He had no faith, he wrote, in the intelligentsia en masse; he placed his hopes on individuals, be they intellectuals or peasants, scattered all over Russia, through whose inconspicuous efforts knowledge and social awareness were slowly and inexorably advancing: “They’re the ones who really matter.”

Chekhov’s early struggles and his medical practice helped to inspire a dominant theme of his art: the battle of human aspirations with unpropitious circumstances. He had observed and suffered the oppressive power of heredity and environment (he once described his father as “a man of average caliber unable to rise above his situation”), but his own life presented a notable counterexample. His experience in Taganrog taught him that the most important moral battles are won or lost not at points of great dramatic tension but through a succession of individually unremarkable choices. Hence the distinctiveness of the Che-khovian hero—and Chekhov’s advice to his editor and friend Aleksei Suvorin, who was writing a play with a traditional melodramatic denouement:

You can’t end with the nihilists. It’s too stormy and strident. What your play needs is a quiet, lyrical, touching ending. If your heroine…comes to realize that the people around her are idle, useless and wicked people…and that she’s let life pass her by—isn’t that more frightening than nihilists?


The strangeness of the ordinary, the drama of the undramatic, were the subject of the plays with which Chekhov revolutionized the Russian theater in the last decade of his life. His first major play, Ivanov, which retained elements of traditional melodrama, had been positively received; The Seagull (in which he first fully worked out his technique, dispensing with conventional plot) was a catastrophic failure on its opening night in October 1896, but its second production in Moscow in 1898 was acclaimed, as were the subsequent premieres of Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and, in January 1904, The Cherry Orchard. The fact that “nothing happens” in Chekhov’s plays was henceforth established as their distinctive mark, but critical discussion of them has tended to resort to cloudy platitudes, such as Chekhov’s ability to create “atmosphere” or “mood”; they are commonly interpreted as melancholy evocations of a “twilight Russia” in which the ineffectual representatives of a dying class contemplate their wasted lives.

These clichés are briskly demolished in Richard Gilman’s fine study, whose central theme owes much to the acknowledged influence of Francis Ferguson’s essay on The Cherry Orchard as a “theater-poem of the suffering of change.”1 Borrowing an observation by Henry James on Hedda Gabler, Gilman approaches Chekhov’s plays as “that supposedly undramatic thing: the portrait not of an action but of a condition”; the anguish in them derives from our universal predicament as mortal beings subject to the depredations of time and chance. Chekhov’s ability to dramatize the undramatic is most striking in Three Sisters, in which the passage of time (mentioned on a dozen occasions in the first few minutes of the play) steadily erodes the sisters’ hopes of future fulfillment through a return to the city that they identify with an idealized past. “Where has it all gone? Where? Where?…We’ll never get to Moscow, never…. I can see that now.” Irina’s weeping capitulation toward the end of Act III expresses what Gilman calls the play’s “enactment of deprivation…as our condition.” But all the major plays have to do with the losses brought about through time’s erosions; in three of them a home is threatened or (as in The Cherry Orchard) lost, along with a cherished way of life; hopes of love and creativity are unrealized, or realized differently from what had been expected.

  1. 1

    In Robert Louis Jackson, editor, Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 147-160. Originally untitled reprinted from The Idea of a Writer (Princeton University Press, 1949), pp. 161-177.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print