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.

The plays’ common subject is the destruction of illusions. Love, work, and the future are each presented as idealized abstractions through which characters try unsuccessfully to redeem, ennoble or escape their current situation. Six of the characters in The Seagull experience romantic longing for an “other” as an agent of salvation. Tuzenbach and Vershinin in Three Sisters and Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard look forward to a future golden age in which the world will be transfigured by labor. For Irina in Three Sisters, work (“How wonderful it must be to get up at dawn and pave streets, or be a shepherd, or a school teacher…”) is part of a sentimental package with love and the future: “I kept waiting for us to move to Moscow. I knew I’d meet my true love there.”

As Gilman puts it, many of Chekhov’s characters wish to become someone else or to be elsewhere; the plays force them back to where and who they are now. But there is no sense of fatality (Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are each subtitled “a comedy”); the conventional linear progression to a denouement is replaced by what Gilman calls a “dramatic field”: a range of reactions to a perceived loss. We see the characters only when, confined in their backwaters, they have nothing to distract them from responding to their immediate situation in dialogue that corresponds to the familiar rhythms of our lives—fragmentary, improvised, oscillating between memory and anticipation, punctuated by gaps and by the irruption of the comic into the serious.

In The Cherry Orchard, the entrepreneur Lopakhin (often wrongly interpreted as the instrument of inexorable social forces) speaks of “this unhappy, messy life”: it is life’s accidental and unpredictable quality (of which we are constantly reminded by the intrusion of such irrelevancies as the famous breaking of a string) that thwarts the characters’ hopes and plans. Some (such as Konstantin in The Seagull) are destroyed by their disillusionment; others (Nina in The Seagull, the sisters, Vanya’s niece Sonia) mature spiritually by accepting the constraints and the narrow potential of their situation. Their stamina (a particular virtue in Chekhov’s theater, as Gilman observes) is leavened by wit, affection, and in some cases by hope. By closing off some options, time opens others: acceptance of the loss of the orchard means new possibilities for Ranevskaya and her daughter, Anya.

Gilman’s exposition of the relation between Chekhov’s ideas and his dramatic techniques should be required reading for the producers and critics who persist in interpreting the plays as studies in failure and despair. (The New York Observer, for example, described the London Almeida Theater’s recent production of Ivanov as displaying “themes that Chekhov spent the rest of his life writing about—intellectual ennui, brooding Russian melancholia, death of the class system, and unforgivable cruelty.”)

We know that Chekhov was unhappy about Stanislavsky’s production of The Cherry Orchard. As he is reported to have said to another director: “With the exception of two or three parts nothing in it is mine. I am describing life, gray, ordinary life, and not this tedious whining. They make me either a crybaby or simply a bore.” Stanislavsky subsequently complained that in rehearsals for the premiere “the blossoms had only just begun to appear when the author arrived and messed everything up for us.” The continuing strength of the resistance to Chekhov’s perception of “ordinary life” suggests how subversive he still is. He is telling us something new about the familiar, offering a perspective on everyday experience which contradicts conventional assumptions and offends cherished beliefs about ourselves and the world.


To grasp more fully the perception of the world that is implicit in Chekhov’s plays and stories we need to turn to his life and letters. His biographers have tended to concentrate on the saint to the exclusion of the thinker. Donald Rayfield’s new Life claims to offer a fuller portrait of Chekhov than ever before, but his trawl through the Russian archives has produced a tediously detailed compilation of facts about Chekhov’s life that is strangely barren of insight into his mind or work. Here is the admirable man depicted by Ernest Simmons, Ronald Hingley, Henri Troyat, Daniel Gillès, and many others: the self-sacrificing son and brother, public-spirited doctor and citizen, and affectionate friend and husband, who also happened to be a writer of genius but whose inner world remains elusive. Rayfield seems to have excused himself in advance from the effort to enter it; while we can reconstruct a philosophy from Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s life and fiction, Rayfield asserts, “it is very hard to say what [Chekhov] ‘meant,’ when he so rarely judges or expounds.”

One is reminded of Chekhov’s response when accused of writing a story that lacked “ideology”: “But doesn’t the story protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that an ideology?” To understand the significance of Chekhov’s quarrel with those who complained, like Tolstoy, that “he has not yet revealed a definite point of view,” one needs to know something of the intellectual life of his time (a subject that is notably missing from Rayfield’s book). The best single source on Chekhov’s thought remains the selection of his letters translated by Michael Henry Heim and introduced and annotated by Simon Karlinsky. First published in 1973 and now, happily, reprinted in paperback, it provides a comprehensive picture of Chekhov’s views on literature, science, and society, skillfully shaped by Karlinsky’s commentaries into an intellectual portrait of a formidable thinker whose views on a range of issues, from female sexuality to conservation of the environment, were remarkably ahead of their time.

As Karlinsky points out, one of the keys to Chekhov’s thought is the autobiographical résumé he wrote for an alumni publication, where he asserts that his medical training in the empirical methods of the natural sciences had been the formative influence on his literary work. Astonishingly few commentators have found this revelation worth discussion (Rayfield does not mention it); however, the importance that Chekhov gave to his scientific background emerges clearly enough from his letters.

He insisted that (within the boundaries of artistic convention) the writer should be faithful to the empirical reality of the world and of human behavior, and present his characters’ views “with perfect objectivity.” He revered Tolstoy, but was repelled by his didactic story “The Kreutzer Sonata,” whose treatment of human sexuality exposed the great writer “as an ignorant man who has never at any point in his long life taken the trouble to read two or three books written by specialists.” He noted that writers with a smattering of scientific method were prone to the delusion that mankind was on the verge of resolving the ultimate mysteries of existence. His own training had taught him not to pontificate on the “scientifically unembraceable.” When one of his stories was criticized for having taken no clear position on the question of pessimism, he retorted, “It is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc.; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism.”

This did not imply a moral relativism. Chekhov’s goal was twofold: “to depict life truthfully and to show in passing how much this life deviates from a norm.” But no one, he said, can define that norm: “We all know what a dishonest deed is, but what is honour?—we do not know.” He will be guided, he writes, by those concepts of the good that have withstood the test of time: liberation of the individual from oppression, prejudice, ignorance, or domination by his passions.

This empirical approach made him suspicious of all schematic views of history and literature. One such theory of the rise of the Russian novel specifically excluded the influence of Gogol. Chekhov objected: “I don’t understand that. If you take the standpoint of natural development, it’s impossible to put not only Gogol but even the bark of a dog outside the current, for all things in nature influence one another, and even the fact that I have just sneezed is not without its influence on surrounding nature.”2

We are now familiar with the “butterfly effect,” in which the flutter of a wing in the Amazon rain forest can allegedly set off a storm in California; but in his sense of the incremen-tal significance of individually trivial, unclassifiable details, Chekhov was philosophically much in advance of his time. The traditional war between science and the arts, based on the claims of rival system-builders to have organized the totality of things into a single pattern, seemed absurd to him:

Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have identical goals and an identical enemy—the devil—and there is absolutely no reason for them to fight…. If a man knows the theory of the circulatory system he is rich. If he learns the history of religion and the song “I Remember a Marvellous Moment” in addition, he is the richer, not the poorer, for it. We are consequently dealing entirely in pluses. It is for this reason that geniuses have never fought among themselves and Goethe the poet co-existed splendidly with Goethe the naturalist.

Science and artistic intuition, he once wrote, have the same purposes and the same nature. “Perhaps with time, and with the perfecting of methods, they are destined to merge into one mighty and prodigious power, which now it is difficult even to imagine.”

An attentive reader of Darwin, Chekhov had no difficulty in accepting what many still find most unpalatable in the Darwinian revolution: the proposition that singular, unscripted events of the kind that concern the artist play as powerful a role as general laws in the evolution of life, and that mankind has no special destiny exempting it from the vicissitudes of that process. He compares the famine and cholera threatening his region at the beginning of the 1890s with an influenza epidemic then affecting horses in central Russia: “It is obvious that nature is doing everything in her power to rid herself of all weaklings and organisms for which she has no use.” Chekhov viewed life’s evanescence and unpredictability without resentment. As he observes to Suvorin, nature “gives a person equanimity. And you need equanimity in this world. Only people with equanimity can see things clearly, be fair and work.”

There was nothing gloomy in this acceptance of the way things are. The same letter contains a marvelous, precisely observed description of spring in a Ukrainian garden exuberant with myriad new life, where “every hour of the day and night has its own specialty…. Between eight and nine in the evening for instance, the garden is filled with what is literally the roar of maybugs.” Chekhov believed that the romantic yearning for a world modeled on religious or rational ideals of perfection had blinded mankind to the beauty and rich potential of the world they actually lived in. The history of Russian exploration in the Far East, which he read in preparation for his trip to Sakhalin, was “enough to make you want to deify man, but we have no use for it, we don’t even know who those people were, and all we do is sit within our four walls and complain what a mess God has made of creating man.”

A central theme of Uncle Vanya is Dr. Astrov’s passionate denunciation of the thoughtless destruction of the Russian landscape: “There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers dry up, wild animals are dying out, and with each passing day the earth is becoming poorer and uglier.” The beauty of the natural world is the subject of one of Chekhov’s most innnovative works, the long story “The Steppe,” about the journey through southern Russia of a nine-year-old boy, whose perceptions of the constantly changing face of the Russian plain in summer merge with those of the author-narrator.

Describing the steppe’s flora and fauna with a precision rarely matched by Chekhov’s translators, the story is concerned with the marvels that the everyday world can reveal to an attentive observer. The keen-sighted carter Vanya can see foxes playing in their burrows, hares washing their paws: “beside the world seen by everyone,” Vanya had “another world of his own, accessible to no one else, and probably a very beautiful one; when he gazed with such delight it was hard not to envy him.”

“Perhaps,” Chekhov wrote, “[‘The Steppe’] will open the eyes of my contemporaries and show them what splendour and rich veins of beauty remain untapped, and how much leeway the Russian artist still has.” Behind this modest wish lay a deeply subversive intention: a challenge to the aesthetic and moral assumptions underlying traditional aspirations to beauty and good as changeless perfection, ideals beyond history and time.

Chekhov’s insistence on the self-sufficient value of transient life is strikingly reminiscent of From the Other Shore, that great iconoclastic text of 1850, in which Alexander Herzen attacks all religious and secular eschatologies that view the present as a mere staging post in the progression to a future goal. In an age that had begun to look to science for all-embracing teleological explanations of the world and human behavior and for a guarantee of inevitable progress, Herzen pointed to the slowness and unpredictability of change, and the role of chance, heredity, and physiology in thwarting our attempts to impose a rational direction on history. In history as in nature “all is improvisation…all is ex tempore… there are no itineraries.”

Herzen urged that we adapt our moral vision to the flow of life by increasing our responsiveness to present reality. Chekhov’s observations of the natural world led him to similar conclusions and set him against Tolstoy’s ideal of moral perfection, which demanded the sacrifice of all the attachments and desires that distracted mankind from the pursuit of a narrowly defined good. “Alas! I shall never be a Tolstoyan!” Chekhov wrote to Suvorin: “In women what I like above all is beauty, and in the history of humanity, culture, which is expressed in rugs, carriages with springs, and keenness of thought.” But he was no aesthete: he was sometimes accused of being too crudely naturalistic in his writing, to which he retorted that “manure piles play a highly respectable role in the landscape.”

This all-embracing view of the concerns of art was at odds with the reigning orthodoxies of his time. As he wryly admitted, of all contemporary Russian writers “I’m the least serious and most frivolous…. I loved my pure muse, but lacked the proper respect, betrayed her, and all too often led her into realms unbefitting her.” He had an unbounded curiosity. In his correspondence with his family he inquires tenderly after the health of an evil-tempered mongoose that he had brought back from his travels in the Far East: as Karlinsky observes, it is hard to imagine Dostoevsky even noticing that such a creature existed. It is equally difficult to conceive of either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy as author of the following phrase (in a letter in which Chekhov bewails the financial pressures that forced him to keep writing): “My ideal: to be idle and love a fat girl.” To be idle, he wrote in a notebook, “involuntarily means to listen to what is being said, to see what is being done; but he who works and is occupied hears little and sees little.”

He indulged his passion for creative idleness. His trip to Sakhalin ended with a leisurely sea voyage through the Indian Ocean, and was followed the next year by an extended tour of Western Europe. His letters from abroad have none of the xenophobia characteristic of most great Russian writers. He was equally fascinated by the native peoples of Siberia and the dandyism of the cabbies in Vienna. The great European capitals delighted him with their art and architecture, the elegance of their women, and the opulence of their stores. The sight of two Dutch girls in Rome makes him picture “a neat little white turreted house, excellent butter, superb Dutch cheese, Dutch herring, a dignified pastor, a staid schoolmaster…and it makes me want to marry a sweet little Dutch girl and have her and me and our neat little house become a picture on a tray.” The narrator of “An Anonymous Story,” one of Chekhov’s most profound works, knows he will soon die from tuberculosis and is obsessed with the urge to live the time left to him to the full. “I was ready to embrace and include in my short life every possibility open to man. I wanted to speak, to read, and to hammer in some big factory, to stand on watch, to plough. I yearned for the Nevsky Prospekt, for the fields, for the sea; for every place to which my imagination could stretch.”

This was not the escapism of other Chekhov characters. The narrator (a disillusioned revolutionary whom he endows with many of his own views) is drawn to “ordinary, everyday life”; he dreams of how it would feel to have “a wife, a nursery, a little house with garden paths,” to be a country gentleman, a university professor, a retired navy lieutenant, a traveler, an explorer. Chekhov was fascinated by lives that were utterly removed from his own experience, although he managed to combine a formidable number of parallel existences in his forty-four years—writer, physician, civic activist, farmer, gardener (much admired for his skill in pruning roses), and for the last four years of his life, the husband of the actress Olga Knipper. While her stage career in the Moscow Art Theater condemned the couple to long periods apart, their correspondence leaves no doubt of the depth of their feeling for each other.3

When in 1897 Chekhov was diagnosed as suffering from advanced tuberculosis, Tolstoy arrived at his hospital bed to discuss death and immortality, but Chekhov remained unpreoccupied by ultimate questions. (He had had all the symptoms of the disease for about ten years but chose to ignore them.) He never gave up hope of recovery and resumed as many of his multifarious activities as he could: in the last months of his life he frequently expressed his intention to enlist as a military doctor in the Russian Far East. His last letter, written from Badenweiler, where he died on July 2, 1904, contained the following judgment: “There’s not a single well-dressed German woman: their lack of taste is depressing.” His wife describes his final moments in a scene that sounds like pure Chekhovian theater. The doctor ordered champagne to ease his breathing. Chekhov sat up, announced to the doctor in German, “Ich sterbe.”

Then he picked up his glass, turned to me, smiled his wonderful smile and said: “It’s been such a long time since I’ve had champagne.” He drank it all to the last drop, lay quietly on his left side and was soon silent forever. The …stillness…was broken only by a huge nocturnal moth which kept crashing painfully into the light bulbs…. [Then] the cork flew out of the half-empty champagne bottle with a tremendous noise.

In an essay written immediately after Chekhov’s death, the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov asserts that in his entire literary career, Chekhov “did only one thing; in one way or another he smashed human hopes.” The Seagull was typical of his work in that “in everything and everywhere autocratic chance reigns…boldly issuing a challenge to all world views.”

From a much longer perspective, however, Chekhov appears not as a pessimist but as a precursor of twentieth-century attempts to find new grounds for moral values. He was familiar with Nietzsche’s thought, and although he disliked his “bravura,” he once said that he would like to meet him on a train or a steamer and spend the whole night talking to him. His art can be seen as presenting a more measured alternative to Nietzsche’s electrifying message that there are “neither eternal facts nor indeed eternal values”: we are “historical through and through.4 In the last years of Chekhov’s life the Russian literary avant-garde became infatuated with Nietzsche’s irrationalist vision of the will to power as the sole creator of values: Chekhov’s scientific training led him to a more sober but by no means pessimistic view of the nature and limits of human freedom in a world where “everything…is relative and approximate.” This aspect of his work has yet to receive its due attention. His stories, even more than his plays, are remarkable for combining the insights of an artist and a Darwinian scientist into what it means to be creatures shaped by time and chance.

The weight of past time presses on Chekhov’s characters in the form of heredity, environment, memory, and habit, preventing the personal or social transformation to which they aspire. Chekhov’s own family history is reflected in the long story “Three Years,” where the young merchant Laptev, descendant of generations of serfs, feels crushed by the burden of the past. His wealth cannot compensate for his lack of a sense of personal worth; to a friend who believes that Russia will soon undergo a liberating transformation he retorts: “It will be many years before the slave is beaten out of us.” The characters whose talents and insights have outstripped their milieu tend to suffer from what (in a letter to the director Meyerhold) Chekhov described as “the sort of loneliness that only lofty…personalities experience,” expressed in a state of chronic irritability.

The isolation and unrequited love that afflict so many of Chekhov’s characters are frequently the consequence of the differing speeds and trajectories of their intellectual and emotional growth. Laptev’s life is slowly poisoned by the knowledge that his wife married him only to escape loneliness and poverty. After years pass she begins to love him, by which time he has ceased to be able to respond. The disenchanted revolutionary who narrates “An Anonymous Story” falls in love with a woman who wants from him only what he has ceased to be able to offer: a faith to restore meaning to her life.

The shaping of character through time was much harder to present on the stage, as Chekhov discovered through his portrayal of the world-weary nobleman in Ivanov. He points out to Suvorin that the relationship between the thirty-five-year-old Ivanov and his twenty-year-old neighbor Sasha was intended to reflect the clash between real life and romantic illusions. The critics saw Ivanov as a scoundrel, not recognizing that his inertia, punctuated by brief fits of enthusiasm, had become a chronic condition, and that Sasha’s desire to set him on his feet was based on literary notions about the redeeming power of love. “She doesn’t realize,” Chekhov wrote,

that for Ivanov love is merely an additional complication, another stab in the back. And what happens? Sasha works on him for a whole year, yet instead of reviving he sinks lower and lower….

Of course, I don’t use terms like…excitability, weariness, etc., in the play; I’d hoped that the reader and the spectator would be attentive and not need a sign saying, “This is a plum, not a pumpkin.”

A contemporary recalls Chekhov observing that the stage should portray how things really happen: “People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and in the meantime their happiness is taking shape or their lives are being destroyed.”5

Chance may seem sometimes to alter the course of a life (as in The Cherry Orchard, when a voice calling from offstage prevents Lopakhin from proposing to Varya); but whether a character bows to fate at such points is shown in the stories to depend in part on an outlook and values shaped by past choices. The eponymous hero of the story “Ionich” is a provincial doctor who is attracted to a young woman with whom he can discuss literature and art. She leaves the town to study while he sinks further into the selfishness and inertia of his milieu; when she returns after four years he is disconcerted by the reminder of his former idealism and begins to avoid her until, passing her house, he resolves to go in “for a moment but on second thoughts did not. And he never went to the Turkins’ again.” The story ends some years later, with the outcome of his succession of choices: a dreary, ruined life.

The fatalism of some Chekhov characters is a pretext for avoiding the responsibility of moral freedom: he wants us to see that the past does not necessarily foreclose the possibility of real choice or predetermine the potential of the present. In the stories the vision of some characters is distorted by romantic yearning, but others, like the carter Vanya, are able to perceive hidden depths in the seemingly banal. Laptev is oppressed by the cheerless monotony of Moscow winters; his friend (whose view of the present is enriched by a love of Russian history) is agreeably excited by the drab grey buildings lashed by rain.

At the end of Act IV of The Seagull Nina recalls the shot gull that had been laid at her feet years before: “I’m a seagull!… No, that’s not right…. I’ve changed…I’ve become a real actress….” Discarding the romantic image of a victim, she denies the power of the past to determine the future. A range of characters in the plays, from the oldest sister, Olga, in her twenties, to The Seagull’s Dr. Dorn at fifty-five, feel prematurely old, a way of expressing their sense of being trapped by circumstances. In the stories men visibly age, women become plainer, as the result of some emotional loss. But others, if only briefly, are able to cheat time through a transformed attitude to experience; the twice-widowed, prematurely aged “Darling” in the story of that name is rejuvenated when she finds herself able to care for a motherless child.

Chekhov protested against the critics’ tendency to call his characters failures: “Classifying people as successes and failures is looking at human nature from a narrow, biased vantage point. Are you a success or not? Am I? What about Napoleon?… Where is the criterion? You have to be a god to distinguish the successes from the failures without making a mistake.” His characters possess the quality of “unfinalizability” that Mikhail Bakhtin discerned in Dostoevsky’s heroes; they express their freedom through their capacity to surprise: a vulgar, cynical government clerk sits down at a piano and plays with astonishing depth and nobility of feeling—before reverting to his usual persona. Chekhov’s “anonymous hero” tells a world-weary intellectual that it is never too late to reshape one’s life: “The thief hanging on the Cross was able to regain the joy of life and boldly confident hope, though perhaps he had no more than an hour to live.” Life “is given only once and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty.”

This, surely, is “what Chekhov meant.”

This Issue

November 6, 1997