"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 28, 2013

The Best Stories of Anton Chekhov (3): Period of Maturity A (1888-1891)

From 1888 starts Chekhov's mature period as a story writer, inaugurated by "The Steppe." His stories would become more concentrated and the enormous production volume from the previous years would dwindle to a handful of stories per year - in these 17 years, until his death in 1904, Chekhov would only write 63 stories. In other words, he now is concentrating more on quality than on quantity - without sacrificing conciseness. As these stories contain many absolute masterworks, we will not make a selection anymore, but look at all the stories from Chekhov's mature and late periods. Here we start with the stories from 1888 to 1991.

In 1887, exhausted by overwork and ill health, Chekhov took a holiday by traveling to the Ukraine and his hometown Taganrog, a journey which would become the inspiration of his first masterwork, "The Steppe." In late 1887 Chekhov also wrote his first play, Ivanov.

The death of Chekhov's brother Nikolay from tuberculosis in 1889 inspired "A Dreary Story." Both this story and "The Party" draw on Chekhov's medical expertise, depicting psychosomatic illness or the psychological effects of physical distress.

Chekhov had been awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1888, and now in 1889 he was elected a member of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature. But the failure of another play, The Wood Demon, in that same year inspired Chekhov to retreat from literature for a while and dedicate himself to prison reform, an issue in which he had become obsessively interested. In 1890, Chekhov surprised his family and friends by undertaking the arduous one-man expedition by train, horse-drawn carriage, and steamer through Siberia to the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island. Here he spent three months conducting a painstaking sociological survey, interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers. Chekhov witnessed much that shocked him, and in his report published in 1893-94, he emphasized the duty of the government to guarantee humane conditions. But the harsh conditions of the journey may also have worsened Chekhov's own physical condition. Chekhov returned via Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal. Three stories would be based on his eastern journey: "Gusev," "In Exile" and "Murder."

In 1891, Chekhov worked on his novella "The Duel." Later that year, he visited Italy and France, experiences which would provide material for his later stories "An Anonymous Story" and "Ariadne."

Here are the stories from 1888, 1889, 1890 and 1891:

"A Story Without a Title” [1888]
A parable that tells in ironical way about the attraction of vice. This story has also been translated under the title "No Comment."
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Sleepy [Let Me Sleep]” [1888]
Varka, a 13 year old poor girl, works as maid in a shoemaker's family. In the daytime, she is constantly ordered around, at night she has to rock the cradle of the baby who is crying all the time. She suffers from severe lack of sleep and is hallucinating. Could she finally get some sleep if that little monster would be quiet?

“The Steppe [The Story of a Journey]” [1888]
A long and masterful story in which Chekhov revisits the Ukrainian and South-Russian steppes of his boyhood summer holidays; he was inspired by a trip back to his hometown of Taganrog in 1887.  The story is saturated with landscape, with the immense plains and the mysteries they harbored: from the coarse grass to ancient burial places and menhirs, windmills, water-towers, and Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants. The story is slight: a boy travels through the seemingly endless steppe with a caravan of carts loaded with cotton to the city where he will go to high-school. His companions are a priest and a merchant. During the trek there are various small incidents, above all the clashes with the bully Dymov. But instead of letting that come to a showdown, Chekhov deftly deflates the crisis into inconsequentiality - something which feels shockingly true to life. The story reads as a dictionary of Chekhov's poetics and was published in a literary journal rather than a newspaper - as would be mostly the case from now on.

“Lights” [1888]
A doctor riding through the steppe at night meets a railroad engineer and his young assistant. They see mystical lights in the distance, but each one of them has his own interpretation - the cynical young man says they remind him "of something long dead, that lived thousands of years ago." He sees no point in striving for success or love, for we all have the same fate - death. The old engineer then tells a story of his youth, how when visiting his hometown on business he happened to meet a childhood friend, a woman with whom he had been secretly in love but who now was unhappily married. He thought of having a brief affair with her, but she clung to him as her savior, fleeing from her loveless marriage - he took her away, only to callously abandon her after he had taken his pleasure. Later he realized that by betraying her he had committed a crime worse than murder and he went back to her to ask for forgiveness. When the doctor in the early morning rides off, he decides that nothing is clear in this world - but that is how it is, only fools and charlatans claim they know and understand everything.

"An Awkward Business" [1888]
A clash of social classes. A country doctor notes that his assistant is drunk and dishevelled on the job. The assistant (who has received his position through nepotism) refuses to obey an order and the doctor slaps the man in his face. Later the doctor feels slapping the assistant was an unprofessional act and he repents. He has never hit a man before. But although the doctor tries to be fair to his assistant, Russian conditions are such that he is comically doomed to be in his right, due to the laws of social hierarchy.
Google Books

“The Beauties” [1888]
A story containing two anecdotes about surprising and inexplicable "meetings" with young women who impressed the narrator with their beauty. One is a young Armenian woman serving tea. The second, many years later, is a carelessly dressed young Russian woman, who was standing outside a train window, speaking to one of the passengers. Nothing "happens" in this story - we only get two impressions that barely even amount to anecdote. It shows how little great literature needs plot. Chekhov's genius lies in the way he manages to convey a profound sense of the mystery of beauty - as well as of the sadness of sensitive people who observe and think. (Among colorful locals, in the first vignette this story also contains a portrait of Chekhov's grandfather Yegor).

“The Party” [1888]
An a hot and sultry day magistrate Peter gives a party for his nameday. His seven months pregnant wife Olga is dead tired and irritable, having to cope with the pressure of having to entertain the guests. Those guests are vain and argumentative and she hates that she must be pleasant to all those hypocrites. Moreover, there is an emotional tension between her and her husband, who provides no support, but instead flirts with other women at the party. She is also infuriated by her husband's failure to share his professional concerns with her - in fact Olga has a better education than her husband as she went to university. After the guests have finally left after midnight, Olga and Peter have an argument. The physical and mental strains of the whole day suddenly cause that Olga goes into a prolonged and painful labor. Chekhov gives a harrowing description of her labor pains, based on his clinical observations. The result is a stillborn baby. Peter is desperate, but Olga only feels indifference and emptiness.

“The Shoemaker and the Devil [The Cobbler and the Devil]” [1888]
A shoemaker dreams the Devil gives him wealth and riches, but after initial satisfaction, these only make him uncomfortable, so he is happy to wake up in his own world again.

“The Bet” [1889]
A banker and a young lawyer make a bet whether the death penalty or life in prison is preferable. The lawyer who argues the last point offers to spend 15 years in solitary confinement - with books, food and wine - to prove his point and win 2 million roubles from the banker. By his vast reading in this period, he becomes a man of letters and realizes that knowledge is more important than money. The banker, in the meantime, looses his fortune and contemplates drastic measures as he will be unable to pay the 2 million roubles. The ending is a surprise...

“The Princess” [1889]
A haughty princess, who is a widow, regularly visits a certain monastery for peace and quiet. This time she happens to meet a doctor who used to be in her service. He rebukes her for her vanity: not only is she a burden to the monks, she is heartless to her servants and others around her, and her so-called "good works" are only a self-deluding theatrical act and totally ineffective. The next morning, however, the doctor offers his abject apologies - again an instance of Russian hierarchy, or does he not want to cause her suffering out of the Christian spirit of the monastery?

“A Dreary Story [A Boring Story]” [1889]
Another medical story, this time consisting of the uninterrupted lament of a medical professor who is facing death and realizes he has lived without purpose. He is impatient with colleagues and weary with family affairs, only feeling indifference when his daughter elopes with a scoundrel and vulgarian. When his ward asks him for important advice about her life, he is unable to say anything. Having discovered the meaninglessness of life, the professor is now useless to the living. The story is, as it were, a hymn to the futility of existence, but without getting "dreary" - despite the title. Chekhov himself, by the way, was different: he was a skeptic, but never a cynic.

“The Teacher of Literature” [1889]
A young man, a teacher of literature at the local school, marries the woman of his dreams. Seemingly he has everything: a lovely wife, a secure job, and a comfortable house (thanks to his wife's dowry). But than he realizes how vulgar his wife and her family are, and also that he in fact hates his job. Suddenly, he feels trapped... trapped for life in a meaningless existence. Or is it his failure that he can't find the meaning of his life?

“A Nervous Breakdown [An Attack of Nerves]” [1889]
Three students spend a night on the town, drinking and visiting prostitutes. The law student Vasilyev is so repulsed by the animalistic women that he gets an"attack of nerves." He becomes obsessed with the social problem of prostitution. His friends, who are medical students, view the situation with clinical detachment and consider also Vasilyev himself as just a "medical case."

“The Horse-stealers (Thieves)” [1890]
A hospital assistant, weak against drink and women, seeks refuge in a tavern while a snowstorm is raging. In the same tavern he finds Kalashnikov, who is a notorious horse thief. He plans to leave at the same time as Kalashnikov, so that the thief will not be able to steal his horse (that belongs to the hospital), but he is waylaid by the bar maid Lyuba. Of course, his horse is stolen, and he finally looses his job.

“Gusev” [1890]
Five soldiers are lying ill in the infirmary of a ship returning from East Asia to Russia. Among them are Gusev, who keeps dreaming of his family's farm, and Pavel Ivanych, a member of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Gusev has always demure, even when badly treated; Pavel Ivanych is a troublemaker who always denounces injustice. He can not imagine he will die like the others, and protests, but can not evade the death that fate has in store for him. Gusev only feels baffled at his own impending death. After he dies, his body is sewn in a canvas bag and thrown into the sea and we follow it as it descends through a school of fish while the sun shines brilliantly on the waters. Gusev's death is understated, the pathos only implied.

“Peasant Wives [Peasant Woman]” [1891]
About a dysfunctional family living in a squalid village. A traveler comes by the village and tells the story of how in another village a woman poisoned her husband after being beaten up. One of the peasant women, whose life is made hell by her drunken husband and father-in-law, feels stimulated by the story, but is also afraid to take action. When the traveler leaves the next morning, her glimmer of hope of release also dies.

“The Duel” [1891]
A long story set in the Caucasus, depicting the antagonism between a young, Bohemian romantic and idealist, Layevsky, and a cold-blooded, hard-working, ambitious zoologist, von Koren, who has fanatical convictions about the need to "exterminate" cases like Layevsky. Layevsky reforms at the end. For a more detailed resume, see my separate post about The Duel.

The best stories of this period are in my view:

  • The Steppe
  • The Duel
  • A Dreary Story
  • The Party
  • The Beauties

Other posts in this series: