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Chapter 1. Chekhov’s Vision of Reality

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Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Related articles in Google Scholar. To cultivate the earth sensibly was for Chekhov a means of closing the gap between humanity and nature. As Ehrenburg perceptively pointed out:. Gardening was not for him a minor passion like fishing or shooting is for many; in the growth of a shrub or a tree he responded to the thing that moved him most — the affirmation of life.

Again and again the idea of progress occurs, and particularly the idea of progress through work.

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Sometimes the statement is made explicitly: 'The power and salvation of a people lie in its intelligentsia, in the intellectuals who think honestly, feel, and can work. A Mussulman for the salvation of his soul digs a well. It would be a pleasant thing if each of us left a school, a well, or something like that, so that life should not pass away into eternity without leaving a trace behind it.

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His basic belief in the potential of the natural world was expressed in an uncharacteristically effusive manner in a letter which he wrote to his publisher and friend A. Suvorin on his return journey from his research trip to Sakhalin. In this letter, written in late , Chekhov recounts his experiences while travelling through the Middle East.

How little there is in us of justice and humility, how poor is our conception of patriotism! We, so the newspapers say, love our great country, but how is that love expressed? What is needed is work; everything else can go to the devil. The main thing is to be just — the rest will be added unto us. He was a doer, not just a talker. As Simon Karlinsky has pointed out, Chekhov may not have been a revolutionary, but in both medicine and literature he attempted to bring about change and improvement in life.

His life was one continuous round of alleviating famine, fighting epidemics, building schools and public roads, endowing libraries, helping organize marine biology libraries, giving thousands of needy peasants free medical treatment, planting gardens, helping fledgling writers get published, raising funds for worthwhile causes, and hundreds of other pursuits designed to help his fellow man and improve the general quality of life around him.

Chekhov lived for only forty-four years and for much of that time he suffered from the debilitating disease of tuberculosis, from which he died. Despite the brevity of his life Chekhov managed to achieve an enormous amount. Besides involving himself in all of the activities noted by Karlinsky, he managed to write a large number of short stories, a scientific treatise on prison conditions, and the plays for which he is best known. In doing all of this in so short a time, Chekhov lived up to his own ideals.

Tulloch undertakes a sociological analysis of Chekhov and his work. Nevertheless, this dark view of Chekhov has been maintained by many important critics and as important a director as Stanislavski. Just how such a reading of Chekhov has come about needs to be explained. It is only by understanding why sensible people might interpret his works in this gloomy way, and by coming to see the validity of alternative readings, that we will avoid perpetuating these depressing and ultimately unsatisfying misinterpretations.

To define his tendency in a word I would say that Tchekhov was the poet of hopelessness.

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Stubbornly, sadly, monotonously, during all the years of his literary activity, nearly a quarter of a century long, Tchekhov was doing one thing alone: by one means or another he was killing human hopes. Herein, I hold, lies the essence of his creation. As a result, the playwright has been hailed as a forerunner of the Absurdist Movement. However, the absurdist vision of reality that they ascribe to Chekhov is, according to other important analysts, totally inapplicable to the playwright. This logical and critical impasse is actually only apparent and not real. By adopting the formal conventions of realism in the dramatisation of his vision of reality, Chekhov created plays which are potentially ambiguous.

The same events can be read as part of either an absurdist or a progressive world view. However Chekhov is not Beckett. Far from denying change or hope, his plays embody an attempt to awaken an audience to the possibilities of change and improvement.

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Chekhov depicts a world which has all the appearance of purposeless absurdity because humanity has failed to make life meaningful by refusing to work with nature in the processes of change and evolution. They resolutely refuse to face, or attempt to change, present reality. All his regrets and aspirations however are seen as ridiculous as he continues in the present to carry out the ludicrous and trivial tasks demanded of him by his gorgon of a wife:.

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One glass is enough to make me drunk, I might add. It feels good, but indescribably sad at the same time. Somehow the days of my youth come back to me. I somehow long — more than you can possibly imagine — to escape. Where to? Who cares? Chekhov, particularly in his short stories, presents human inactivity not as being inevitable but the result of human lethargy. Actual failure is seen in the light of potential achievement and not as an unavoidable part of the human condition. The difficulty of depicting failure while at the same time communicating the possibility of human achievement became one of the central problems that Chekhov faced.

Consequently, he could not show his reader or audience some putative utopian future, since the present life he was depicting was far from utopian. At best, Chekhov could suggest the possibility of such an improved future. As Vladimir Yermilov has pointed out, one of the main techniques that Chekhov employed, particularly in his short stories, was to consistently present a gap between the beauty of nature and the ugliness of human life as it is presently lived:.

The beauty of nature is used as a constant criterion in evaluating a given social reality and as a reminder of what it could and should be like on this lovely earth. Sixty thousand inhabitants busy themselves exclusively with eating, drinking, procreating, and they have no other interests, none at all. Wherever you go there are Easter cakes, eggs, local wine in fonts, but no newspapers, no books … The site of the city is in every respect magnificent, the climate glorious, the fruits of the earth abound, but the people are devilishly apathetic.

They are all musical, endowed with fantasy and wit, high-strung, sensitive, but all this is wasted. Chekhov, the short-term pessimist, was a long-term optimist.

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His optimistic long view is denied by critics like Ronald Hingley. And life will then be remarkably easy and convenient. It is because Hingley himself does not accept the possibility of radical change that he cannot accept it in Chekhov. His response to the conversion of Layevsky at the end of The Duel , a conversion that reminds one of the Damascan experience of St Paul, is totally negative:.

With regard to the ending of The Duel , though it would admittedly be praiseworthy and desirable for a real life Layevsky to take up serious work, pay off his debts and marry his mistress, the standards of real life and art do not always coincide, and the solution offered by Chekhov is an artistic disaster. We have evidence that Chekhov, while he believed that humanity was capable of degeneration, also believed in regeneration.

Hingley may find the idea of humans changing for the worse more convincing than the idea of their changing for the better but for Chekhov both types of change were possible and neither type of change was inevitable. He comes to see that many of the awful things that have happened to him have been brought about through his own self-centred inaction and self-deception:.

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He had failed to cultivate integrity, having no need for it. His conscience, mesmerized by depravity and pretence, had slept or remained silent. It was all lies, lies, lies. His conversion involves the rejection of lies altogether. A weak young woman, who had trusted him more than her own brother — he had taken her from her husband, her circle of friends and her homeland.

He had carried her off to this sweltering fever-ridden dump, and day after day she had inevitably come to mirror his own idleness, depravity and spuriousness, the whole of her feeble, listless, wretched existence being utterly abandoned to these things. Then he had wearied of her and come to hate her. But not having the guts to leave her, he had tried to enmesh her even more tightly in the web of his lies.

Achmianov and Kirilin had completed the job. Deception, especially self-deception, is constantly shown to be connected with human failure and waste. Again and again Chekhov, through the depiction of what happens to his inauthentic self-deceivers, tried to show his readers and audience that the very possibility of progress is destroyed if reality is not faced. One of his notebook entries is particularly illuminating on this need to reject all forms of deception:.

But naught my bitter tears avail The gloomy record to erase. The depressing realisation that the past has been wasted and is irremediable is only the beginning for Layevsky. The chapter ends on a more positive note. He goes out to have a duel with Van Koren but only after he has forgiven his mistress and restored his faith in life and the future:.

He stroked her hair, gazing into her face — and knew that this unhappy immoral woman was the one person in his life. She was near to him, dear to him. She was the only one.