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.
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