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,…

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