Born in 1860, third of five brothers and one sister, in Taganrog, a port on the northeastern tip of the Sea of Azov, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was left to fend for himself in 1876 when his father, a grocer, fled to Moscow to escape imprisonment for debt. Anton remained alone in Taganrog to complete his schooling, paying for room and board by giving private lessons and rejoining the family in Moscow in 1879, when he found them living in poverty in a damp basement. From then until his early death from tuberculosis in 1904, Chekhov would never be away from them for so long, particularly his mother and younger sister Maria. While his elder brothers, Alexander, a writer, and Nikolai, an artist, moved out and married, Anton stayed at home, rapidly becoming both the breadwinner and the darling of the family. The decision to seek an income writing short stories was part of that transformation: the money would tide the family over until he could complete his degree in medicine and practice a profession.
Chekhov’s grandfather, a serf, had worked hard to buy the family’s freedom from bonded labor, and Chekhov’s father, whose main interest was church choral music, had plunged his family into poverty; now Chekhov would raise its members to genteel society, eventually buying and building country houses where his parents and his young brothers and his sister could live together, while paying for Maria to study to become a teacher. She kept a portrait of Anton in her bedroom and frequently worked as his secretary; he discouraged her from marrying. The youngest brother, Mikhail, was given the task of pestering publishers till they paid up Anton’s royalties. In Memories of Chekhov (a compendium of firsthand accounts of meetings with the author), the future painter Zakhar Pichugin recounts a visit to the family when Anton was just twenty-three:
As I came in, I greeted the father of Anton Pavlovich, and heard in reply the words which he whispered in a mysterious tone.
“Hush, please don’t make noise, Anton is working!”
“Yes, dear, our Anton is working,” Evgenia Yakovlevna the mother added, making a gesture indicating the door of his room. I went further. Maria Pavlovna, his sister, told me in a subdued voice,
“Anton is working now.”
In the next room, in a low voice, Nikolai Pavlovich told me,
“Hello, my dear friend. You know, Anton is working now,” he whispered, trying not to be loud. Everyone was afraid to break the silence….
In 1886 Chekhov published a story, “Hush,” in which a writer demands silence from his family but doesn’t respect their need for sleep; Anton, it seems, used to wake his sister…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.