Chekhov's Short Stories
The Polyphonic Reflections of Death in The Grasshopper and Gusev
Chekhov’s post-Sakhalin stories express the author’s view of death as a prismatic focal point for the human condition. Through dialogue, narratorial comment, and subtextual connections, Chekhov’s stories examine death from so many angles that it becomes impossible to give the theme a singular meaning. Rather, the multiple interpretations of the protagonists’ deaths in The Grasshopper and Gusev signify that death can be implicated in social injustice, personal transcendence, or existential insignificance, depending on the opinions of whoever judges the death. This implies that death can be assigned significance by people and their ideologies, but it has no intrinsic ethical value. In The Grasshopper, Dymov’s death is examined from two social and moral perspectives, both defined by the narrative as extremely individualized viewpoints.
First, because Dymov died from performing a risky medical procedure, his colleague Korostelev concludes that “he served science and died in the cause of science” (89). Here, Chekhov plainly introduces, in one character’s voice, an opinion on what this specific death might signify. In Korostelev’s dialogue, we are introduced to the prospect that one can die as a sacrifice for the benefit of others. But that opinion is complicated by evidence of the speaker’s bias. The reader is given only Korostelev’s word to back up the ‘death for progress; interpretation, and it is made clear that this interpretation a way for the character to deal with his friend’s passing, rather than an authorial comment on death in general. This is evident in the way Korostelev’s judgment is delivered: “‘and what a moral force!’ he continued, getting more and more angry with someone” (89). The impartially-voiced third-person narrator draws specific attention to Korostelev’s personal indignation as the driving force of his view of Dymov’s loss as morally significant.
The reader is thus introduced to the possibility of death as a moral or progressive function, but because this view is drawn from the emotional experience of one man, Chekhov does not position it as a universal value of death. The social implications of Dymov’s death are interpreted in an entirely different light by his wife, Olga Ivanovna. It takes his passing and her subsequent recollection of their life together for Olga to realize that Dymov’s contemporaries “had all seen in him a future celebrity” (89). The celebrity- and prestige-obsessed Olga Ivanovna interprets her husband’s demise as a revelation of his social stature. Fame, rather than progress or moral leadership, is the most important thing to come out of death in Olga’s point of view.
As with Korostelev’s case, this interpretation is textually linked more to the character’s emotional state than to the general phenomenon of death. After her epiphany, the narrative zooms in on Olga’s subjective view of the room containing Dymov’s deathbed: “The walls, the ceiling, the lamp and the carpet on the floor winked mockingly at her, as if trying to say: ‘you’ve missed your chance!’” (89). The narrative mode’s switch from passive description (“she realized”) to perspectival focalization shows that Dymov’s death is only socially relevant to Olga and her desire to recognize and associate with famous people. Just as no one else in the story anthropomorphizes the death-chamber in this way, no one else sees Dymov’s demise as the rise of a hitherto-unknown celebrity. Now that the reader has seen two highly-personalized interpretations of death, they might suspect that these interpretations says more about the observers of the act than the act of death itself. In death, Dymov no longer has any agency or identity, so it remains for his widow and colleague to project their own upon him. This is supported by the third-person omniscient narrator’s neutral view of the deceased. Chekhov writes that “only his forehead, his black eyebrows, and his familiar smile showed that it was Dymov” (89). Earlier in the story, these features were commented on as signifiers of the portrait-like beauty that Olga projected onto her husband, but now they are used to say that, in death, only objective physical characteristics constitute an identity. The dead Dymov has no character unto himself, so it must follow that any values that are attributed to his passing are inspired by outside perspectives, not the physical reality of his death. In regards to his lack of agency, it is said that his “half-shut eyes gazed, not at Olga Ivanovna, but at the blanket” (90). The absence of intentional gaze from the corpse is contrasted to the accusatory gaze Olga feels from the environment. This juxtaposition between this purely realistic description of the corpse and Olga’s hallucinatory grief elucidates Chekhov’s point that any meaning of death is conjured in the mind of the bereaved, not in the act of dying.
Chekhov’s meditations on death in Gusev follow the same formula as in The Grasshopper. Once again, dialogic interpretations of the act of dying are introduced, but are complicated by perspectival bias. The two dying characters makes assumptions about death’s significance that are clearly tied to their personal outlooks on life. The characteristically anti-authoritarian Pavel Ivanych’s first monologue establishes his opinion that the seaborne death of the passengers results from a conspiracy by doctors who “have no conscience or humanity” (254). Again, narrative form makes it clear that Pavel’s opinion that “doctors put you on a steamer to get rid of you” because “you don’t pay them any money, you are a nuisance, and you spoil their statistics with your deaths” is an extremely biased view of the situation, not shared by the narrator (254). As a monologue, replete with ellipses to signify natural speech patterns, the narrative style of Pavel’s speech is an obvious indicator of a singular voice. The voice is then shown to lack authority over the theme of death by the introduction of that most Chekhovian of plot elements, the breakdown of human communication. Pavel’s audience of one “does not understand [him]” and misinterprets his social outrage for admonition (255). Because Pavel’s view of death cannot initially transcend his own viewpoint to reach even one other perspective, it cannot yet be considered an expression of a universal meaning for death. Rather, it is the multitude of incommunicable, personally-defined views of death in which the text first seems interested.
Two more of these views are seen in Gusev’s worries about his succumbing to the ship’s contagion. On one level, he worries for his family, admitting that he is afraid to die because “without [him] everything will go to rack and ruin, and before long it’s my fear that my father and mother will be begging for their bread” (266). This line of dialogue shows that, to Gusev, death is most relevantly connected to the fragility of his life as a peasant, and it is therefore thematically tied to forces of oppression. But, because this is expressed in dialogue, and because this dialogue refers to a motif of Gusev’s fever dreams, we realize that this social meaning of death is being presented as a voice in Chekhov’s choir of extremely individualized reflections. In another conversation, Gusev worries about the insignificance of his death because he won’t be remembered, except by impersonal bureaucracy. A sailor tells him “when you die, they will put it down in the ship’s log . . . and they will notify your district board or somebody like that” and “such a conversation makes Gusev uneasy” (264). The sailor’s upsetting words are somewhat reminiscent of Pavel Ivanych’s idea that the peasants’ deaths count only for statistics, so this time the juxtaposition does create a larger theme that subsumes individual perspectives. But this interpretation doesn’t ultimately represent the text’s thematic judgment, because the narrative counters the insignificance of Gusev’s death when it focuses on heavenly imagery and transcendent nature at the end of the story (268). As Gusev’s body sinks and is eaten by a shark, narrative attention is turned to the “magnificent enchanting sky,” its cloud forms, and its “colors for which it is hard to find a name in the language of man” (268). Despite the insignificance in earthly affairs that the story’s dialogue attributes to Gusev’s death, the omniscient narration connects it to high religious significance, with allusions to the ineffability of transmigration and a return to nature.
The end result is that Chekhov’s three main voices in the story – Pavel, Gusev, and the implied-author narrator – focus on different aspects of a very broad theme, and it is up to the reader to decide which seems most significant. As the one assured constant in life (and therefore also in mimetic literature), death is a universal symbol, upon which an infinite array of values can be projected. Chekhov realized this, prompted by the varied responses to death’s presence he found on his journey, and set his narrative focus on death as a mirror for the attitudes of the living. The scientist sees death as a sacrificial tool in the arsenal of progress. The fame-obsessed woman sees her dead husband join the pantheon of notables. The social critic focuses on unfair deaths. The lowly conscript sees his own death as a reminder of his social powerlessness. The omniscient speaker highlights the transcendent aspect of death. All together, their stories represent the diversity of human experience that is brought out by encounters with humanity’s common fate.
Chekhov the Fox and Visions of Transcendent Humanity
Anton Chekhov might look like a hedgehog when he returns time and again to the theme of universal humanity and its future path. But Chekhov as ‘the humanist writer’ does not really work towards a unified concept of mankind’s ultimate fate. Rather, the thinking men in his stories and plays present their own diverging and overlapping visions of human purpose. In a most Chekhovian manner, these perspectives are often frustrated or denied by the essential incommunicability of each man’s point of view. It then seems that Chekov’s narrative voice is more suited to the fox’s role, as it presents a polyphonic and individually refutable set of perspectives on a common theme. For some of Chekhov’s characters, the fate of man is fixed and predetermined, for others it is the uncertain product of generations’ toil. For some there is a religious drive to improving the current lot of humanity, and for others it is a biological or social imperative. Chekhov’s restless exploration of what humanity’s future means to different people proves that he would rather celebrate the philosophical diversity of his zeitgeist than constrain the intellectual developments of his age to a single framework.
Perhaps the most tellingly individualized view of humanity’s future in a Chekhov text is found in The Seagull. Kostya’s notion of the “World Soul” is an abstracted and dramatized vision of the standard Western theological and philosophical trope of mankind’s convergent destiny. Whether expressed in the biblical model of the rapture, in the political ideal of manifest destiny, or in the latest theories of a technological singularity, there has been a throughline in Western thought that structures humanity’s future as a unified turn to the greater good.
Kostya’s play-within-a-play defines his version of this fateful unity as the “dreams of what will be two hundred thousand years from now” (99). Nina’s character introduces herself as an allegorical projection of unified life in a lifeless world: “The bodies of all living things having turned to dust, eternal matter has transformed them into stones, water, clouds, and all their souls have merged into one. That great world soul – is I” (100). Then she speaks of the predestined action of this unified force: “in the cruel, persistent struggle with the devil, the principle of the forces of matter, I am destined to be victorious; then matter and spirit shall merge in glorious harmony” (101). However muddled or phantasmagorically contrived it comes across to his fictional audience, Kostya’s authorial voice tells Chekhov’s audience that the ultimate goal of humanity is to religiously transcend the physical realm. Whether or not Kostya himself literally believes in such a goal does not matter, his writing nevertheless produces that individual view of human transcendence.
Kostya introduces this transcendence as inevitable and out of the influence of currently living humans, in contrast with the views of some other Chekhov characters. Doctor Astrov, in Uncle Vanya, expresses the opposing opinion most strongly, taking personal responsibility for the future of the environment and, by extension, human happiness: “Man is endowed with reason and creative powers . . . I realize that the climate is somewhat in my power, and that if, a thousand years from now, mankind is happy, I shall be responsible for that too, in a small way” (175), Likewise, Vershinin in The Three Sisters, argues that his “dream . . . of the life that will come after us” in “a thousand years – the time doesn’t matter” will arise because humans are “living for it now, working . . . suffering, and creating it” (264). This argument is against Tuzenbach’s assertion that there will be no such transcendent future, regardless of whether modern man works for it or not: “Not only in two or three hundred years, but in a million years, life will be just the same as it always was” (265). The fox-like attributes of Chekhov’s oeuvre are evident in the way his characters’ conflicting opinions contribute to an intertextual argument on a specific strand of philosophy.
If Chekhov were a hedgehog, his dramas might then guide this argument towards one triumphant vision of human destiny. Instead, the armchair philosophers in The Three Sisters give no finality to the subject, with Vershinin concluding that “in any case, it’s a pity youth is over” and Tuzenbach saying “It’s difficult arguing with you, friends! Well, let it go” (266). Astrov becomes disillusioned with his own argument, telling Elena that is that “there’s nothing to understand, it’s simply uninteresting” (201). And most disappointingly, Kostya’s play is seen only as “decadent ravings” by his audience of family members (102). Chekhov’s great dramas define him as a fox because they not only develop many angles of his philosophical theme, but also present each distinct approach to the subject in the utterly fallible voice of a fictional character. As with many Chekhovian short story characters, the thinkers in these plays find that their lofty opinions count for naught when they cannot be properly communicated to another person. This trend denies the ultimate validity of each fictional viewpoint, such that even if there were consensus between all characters in different plays on the subject of humanity’s common future, it would still be impossible to pinpoint a singular perspective running through Chekhov’s theatrical work. The short stories that introduce variant perspectives on universal humanity are even more telling of Chekhov’s ‘foxiness.’ Their third-person narrative forms allow the author to more explicitly point out the incomprehensibility, and hence illegitimacy, of a character’s opinion to anyone outside of his personal perspective. The Black Monk features the most exaggerated instance of this narrative technique. Kovrin’s apparition descends upon him to explain that he is a divinely chosen genius whose work will lead mankind “some thousands of years earlier into the kingdom of eternal truth” (35). Combining Kostya’s vision of religious transcendence with Astrov’s belief in the necessity of individual labor, the Black Monk’s divine mandate represents yet another strain of “the immortality of man” that is pursued literally and as a symbol of mortal progress throughout much of Chekhov’s fiction (35).
The narrative, however, makes it clear that this belief is not to be taken at face value, because it originates, exists, and is expressible solely in the mind of its one believer. After accepting the mantle of genius, Kovrin questions the man that he knows to be a hallucination, “What do you mean by eternal truth?” and the third-person narrator proclaims that “the monk did not answer. Kovrin looked at him and could not distinguish his face. His features grew blurred and misty. Then the monk’s head and arms disappeared; his body seemed merged into the seat and the evening twilight, and he vanished altogether” (36). We see here that Kovrin’s vision of universal humanity is not even fully formed, because his ghostly guide disappears without revealing to him its entire meaning, thus introducing doubt to the reader that Kovrin is capable of pursuing such a vision. Throughout the story of The Black Monk, Kovrin and the narrator both acknowledge that the titular spirit exists only in the mind of the overworked philosopher. That narrative position, combined with the fevered, imperfect nature of Kovrin’s convictions, connotes the incommunicability of a personal belief in human transcendence. Whereas theatre allows characters to say aloud thoughts with which the audience or the author are clearly intended to disagree, narrative fiction enables the reader to see a viewpoint that is invalidated even further by its deviation from consensus reality.
The incommunicability of transcendental belief can also be found in the thematic subtext of two earlier Chekhov stories, Dreams and Gusev. It’s interesting to note that in Dreams Chekhov’s characters locate the impossible, shared vision of perfected humanity in the distant past rather than the future: “have these visions of a life of liberty come down to them . . . as an inheritance from their remote, wild ancestors? God only knows!” (48). Here is another testament to Chekhov’s foxiness; between texts, he radically varies the specifics of their common philosophical theme.
Dreams features the focalized ponderings of an odd tramp who sets the tone for the story when he says of the inexplicable motives of his mother: “She was a godly woman, but who can say? The soul of another is a dark forest” (45). As he is escorted through a literal dark forest, the tramp quixotically attempts to communicate to his soldier captors the vision of freedom and brotherhood that has taken root in his own soul. But, being in a Chekhov story, he travels one step forward and two steps back in pursuit of this merging of perspectives. The tramp succeeds at first in getting the soldiers’ imaginations to join his in “painting for them pictures of a free life which they have never lived” (48). But then, because “perhaps he is jealous of the vagrant’s visionary happiness” one of the “evil-boding fellow travelers” starts to argue against the realism of the tramp’s utopian escape (48). The shared vision fails because the soldiers cannot “force their minds to grasp what perhaps God alone can conceive of: the terrible expanse that lies between them and that land of freedom” (48). Here, Chekhov suggests another possibility for why these dreams of human transcendence are impossible to uphold – besides the madness, disillusionment, or indifference of the dreamer. It may simply be out of the scope of human cognition to share an understanding of the struggle needed to reach a perfect world.
Gusev contains no explicit reference to a vision of mankind’s ultimate goal, but it does share with the other texts a humanist message that is denied by miscommunication. Pavel Ivanych, a righteous dying man, attempts to impress upon the titular soldier that his conscription is inhumane, for “it is not plans that matter but human life. You have only one life to live and it musn’t be wronged” (256). Gusev fails to grasp the metaphysical implications of the injustice pointed out by Pavel Ivanych and seeks only to argue that the specific duties of his conscription are not too harsh. This intellectual disconnect between the two men is established earlier in the story, when in response to Pavel Ivanych’s diatribes against those he sees responsible for human suffering, it can only be said that “Gusev does not understand Pavel Ivanych; thinking that he is being reprimanded, he [responds] in self-justification” (255). Pavel Ivanych, like the tramp before him, and Kovrin and the dramatic figures after him, is a true Chekhovian humanist. All his attempts to share his belief in the proper way of living are frustrated by the uniqueness of his way of thinking. Chekhov the fox shows yet another way for a humanist vision to be denied: it is the surrounding environment of petty minds and morals that makes Pavel Ivanych’s quest for common humanity a self-defeating one.
Shifting the Binaries in “A Joke” by Anton Chekhov
The Anton Chekhov short story titled “A Joke” is an interesting read for the inquisitive readers. Very carefully written, the story allows the readers a chance to dive deeper into the unconscious of the characters and dig out layers of meaning behind the apparently normal words spoken and ordinary actions done by the pair of characters introduced in the story. The story concludes, shockingly enough, at the confusion the narrator is having of why he jested with his girlfriend. Throughout the story, the reader is made to feel that the narrator was just taking the idea of saying “I love you Nadia” to his girlfriend very carelessly and was perhaps doing it on purpose time and again to jest with her. On a deeper level analysis, however, binaries seem to shift quite swiftly when the reader traces the hints of the intensity the narrator experiences with his rising emotions.
Lets take a look at the apparent meanings that the plot of the story intervenes. First of all, the universally acknowledged dogma of the male being careless and the female being sensitive is somehow shown to be true. It is stated that whispering “I love you Nadia” in his beloved’s ears becomes sort of a sport for the narrator while on the other hand, Nadia starts to “crave this phrase as some people crave morphine or wine.” Secondly, whatever happens in the story somehow explains the miserable condition Nadia is in while there is no such trace of the narrator taking anything seriously.
On a closer look, however, revealing facts can come to light. First of all, the story is told entirely from the narrator’s own standpoint and understanding. If the narrator was just “jesting” with his girlfriend, why then did he remember each detail of how she felt? What evidence do we have that the whole thing was not just the narrator’s own imagination resulting from some emotional turmoil? Can’t it be that the narrator was in love with the girl but could not muster up courage enough to say it openly? Couldn’t that be the reason why he just whispered time and again and finding no answer, created the whole thing up in his mind? May be that is why her memories are still as vivid as ever while she is living a happy married life with her husband and kids and the story does not hint at the narrator settling in life afterwards.
It is interesting to note how the narrator is able to remember the tiny details of how it all started and the whole atmosphere, his girlfriend’s physical appearance and the surrounding particulars are as clear in his mind as ever. We learn that “the air was crisp with frost, and Nadia, who was walking beside me, found her curls and the delicate down on her upper lip silvered with her own breath.” The point is, if it was a matter of a joke for him, why is his mind perfectly recapturing a memory supposedly so trivial for him? Further on, we get to know that he is the one urging her in the first place to coast down while she is utterly reluctant in doing so. “Let us coast down, Nadia!” he begs, “just once! I promise you nothing will happen.” To our surprise, Nadia is “timid” and thinks that if she does take a ride, “she would die, she would go mad.”
This reluctance, on the surface level, is taken by the readers as an act of feminine cowardice which is fair enough an understanding. However, there could be other explanations if the binaries here are even slightly stirred. If we assume this reluctance to be just because she didn’t want to go with “him”, sufficient evidences from the text support this assumption. Even when she agrees to go with him because of his continuous begging and imploring, the uneasiness is there. “I could see from her face,” says the narrator, “that she did so, she thought, at the peril of her life.”
When they finally get seated in the sled, the narrator puts his “arm around her” and sled flies “like a shot out of gun.” The description here is very vivid. The narrator now starts to use “we” instead of “she” or “I” when he is describing the feelings of fear and anxiety. This shift from a singular pronoun to “we” might refer to the narrator’s urge to be one with his beloved. “The riven wind lashed our faces; it howled and whistled in our ears, and plucked furiously at us, trying to wrench our heads from our shoulders; its pressure stifled us; we felt as if the devil himself had seized us in his talons, and were snatching us with a shriek down into the infernal regions.” Now this is quite scary. The imagery used is intimidating enough to make one loose his memory. And yet, surprisingly enough, the narrator, in the middle of such horrifying situation, is able to whisper “I love you Nadia” in his partner’s ears. One explanation for this surprise could be that the narrator thought it to be the end of his life and wanted some emotional confessions before dying. Immediately after his utterance, the whole scenario starts to change. We gather that “now the sled began to slacken its pace, the howling of the wind and the swish of the runners sounded less terrible, we breathed again.” That sounds like pure magic.
When they get down, Nadia’s response is another shock for the readers: “Not for anything in the world would I do that again” says the “terror-stricken” woman. Could that be taken as an insult to his confession? From here onwards, the story takes a deeper plunge into more intriguing moments. “It was obvious that the riddle gave her no peace,” the narrator assumes. It seems as if Nadia suddenly hits a plan of jesting with the narrator and the story takes a very confusing turn. Enough evidence supports the idea that it is Nadia and not the narrator who has jested emotionally. It might sound like a farfetched fancy initially, but considering the textual evidences that support it, the idea seems to take a proper shape. “Oh, what a pretty play of expression flitted across her sweet face!” notices the narrator assuming she is unable to decide whether the words are spoken by him or not. But it seems as if she clearly knows that he has spoken them and instead of welcoming his confession, is up to some mischief. The naïve narrator sees that “she was struggling with herself; she longed to say something, to ask some question, but the words would not come.” We further learn that “she was terrified and embarrassed and happy.” If she is planning to make her lover suffer already, these feelings tend to have different origins. She is terrified because she is about to play with his feelings by making him confess again and again. She is embarrassed because may be deep down she realizes its not something she should be doing and she is happy because may be she can visualize all the fun this jesting is going to bring with it.
After this, for all the slides she takes with the narrator, Nadia clearly plays with his emotions. The quizzical look she has every time they get down might be a search for his open admittance while she is flirting with him so freely. After their continuous rides every other day, Nadia probably gets sick of his company and goes to the hill alone. The lonely ride she takes which is mistaken by the narrator as her urge to find out the source behind the words she hears might actually be just a run-away trick played by her. May be she is sick of his company and since he is blindly in love with her and is unable to see her disapproval, she plans to go alone sometimes. May be there are more times she has gone without him which he hasn’t found out. The condition the narrator describes as Nadia’s might actually be his own as he is the one relating all details from his own point of view. If not, why then is he peering through “a chink in the boards” to see Nadia? From a distance, he can see “her pale, sorrowful face.” Dramatically enough, he is even able to peep into her unconscious and share with us the source of her sadness. God knows what worldly distress or even some other love affairs are making Nadia worry but our naïve narrator is adamant in relating all her paleness and suffering to his going away from her.
Even though all of this “happened a long time ago,” and even though Nadia is married to “an official of the nobility” and has three children, the narrator goes on assuming she didn’t marry for love as she loved him only. He imagines, without any proof or evidence, that the memory of their coasting “is for her the happiest, the most touching, the most beautiful one of her life.” Did she call him up and explain all this? Did he receive a letter from her stating she wasn’t happily married? While our narrator continues to assume it was he who “jested with Nadia,” we as readers smile and pity him for not realizing it was actually she who made a joke of him.