Russian storyteller and doctor Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was an artist who was fascinated and preoccupied not with the lofty ideas and illuminations which saturated the literature of his time, but with the seemingly trivial everyday which we have to deal with in our waking hours. He had a nonpareil ability to write about the ordinary with insight, humour and compassion, capturing life as it is, not as his immediate literary fiction made it out to be – clear, fluid, logical, harmonious and organised. He intuitively understood life as an ‘ordered juxtaposition of opposites’- as a certain Marcus Aurelius put it; and his stories revolve around the dynamic interplay between the brilliantly drawn personalities of his characters. He made universal banality and everyday his muse, and harnessing his humanistic intuition and keen sense of detached observation as a doctor, he created stories which develop and pivot around human pretensions and absurdities; the comedy of human contradictions, celebrating the human existence in all its conditional variety. He was more interested in the lifelikeness of fiction, as opposed to the more novelistic, instructive and didactic virtues typical of coeval literature, which was quite revolutionary.
His characteristically minimalistic style of storytelling, essentially invented the art of tidy storytelling mainstream today and is best encapsulated in the writing principle termed ‘Chekhov’s gun’, taking after his name:
‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’
– Anton Chekhov
He inspires affection, not admiration, due to the simplicity and humbly humoristic nature of his creative style and wisdom, as well as the beautiful way he lived his regrettably short life – with unsentimental humanistic action, enduring extreme hardship and illness; yet making the best of it by sustaining his failed family he was duty bound to love, and by treating the poor and the peasantry for free; the last potentially causing him to contract Tuberculosis - the disease which would lead to his death at only 44 years of age. Well, one can say he was true to his main literary form- his life was just as short and as meaningful as his stories.
Readers new to Chekhov are apprised that this exploration of Chekhov’s literary art draws heavily upon the short story ‘In the Ravine’ for its analysis and examples of Chekhov’s characters, pacing, storytelling style and unique elements, incorporating excerpts from the story to exemplify elements of the propounded analysis.
Born in 1860 in the port town of Taganrog to Pavel Yegorovitch, a merchant, and Yevgeniya ( In passing, it is worth noting that Yevgeniya, Chekhov’s Ukrainian mother was likely the one who inspired Chekhov’s aptitude for storytelling, by recounting tales of her travels across Ukraine and southern Russia to her six children) Chekhov was, by virtue of his socio-economic background, enriched with a rare vantage point and insight into the Russian peasant’s way of life and thinking -which titans like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wholeheartedly admired, but couldn’t penetrate fully due to the relative remoteness of their largely aristocratic or wealthy station. Furthermore, his occupation as a doctor facilitated his development as a storyteller because irrespective of station and possessions - illness and pain are a part of life, enabling him to observe an unusually wide variety of people under mental and physical distress. Consequently, he is often accredited with ‘democratising the short story’ by writing about people and experiences which previously had no voice in literature, hailing from all parts of Russia and all walks of life, to the point that his writing was even ridiculed in some circles as ‘unappealing and unattractive as human waste’-a viewpoint favouring elitism unsurprisingly articulated by a British journalist.
Chekhov’s stories start typically with mesmerizingly magical naturalist details, followed by equally artful character introductions–which seem to establish characters as people who are part of a setting, an environment…such that their importance to the story is diminished… their entire being, with its possessions and preoccupations, is assigned to a small, unassuming corner of the world; an effect created through simple, unexceptional and overtly generic biographical details – powerfully embodying the realistic notion that our individual persona is not at the centre of life as we think and behave it is, and that life instead is a complex reality, most of which remains outside our comprehension and control. A stellar example of this would be the anecdotal and almost conversational tone of the narrator, which meanders into different directions describing the village of Ukleevo (where ‘In the Ravine’ is set), before finally settling upon a key character in the story, Grigory Petrovich Tsybukin – the sharp old merchant:
‘The three cotton factories and the tan yard were not in the village itself, but a little way off. They were small factories, and not more than four hundred workmen were employed in all of them. The tan yard often made the river stink; the refuse contaminated the meadows, the peasant’s cattle suffered from Siberian plague, and orders were given that the factory should be closed. It was considered to be closed, but went on working in secret with the connivance of the local police officer, who was paid ten roubles a month. In the whole village there were only two decent houses built of brick with iron roofs; one of them was the local court, in the other, a two storied house just opposite the church, there lived a shopkeeper from Epifan called Grigory Petrovitch Tsybukin.’
Chekhov draws simple yet splendid character portraits by using epithet as a literary device to amplify some traits and personality attributes over others and then establishes these personalities through small situations, moments, expressions and dialogue to create characters with different voices which are apparent in their interactions with other characters; a remarkable artistic feat, considering the almost brutal brevity and authorial frugality the short story medium imposes on its storyteller. A Chekhovian realization of this remarkable literary virtue would be the characterisation of Lipa: the simple, timid, meek and childish poor girl selected to be the bride of Anisim, Grigory Petrovich’s Tsybukin’s son, and the victim of the increasingly grim events that unfold in the course of the story:
‘She was pale-faced, thin and frail, with soft, delicate features sunburnt from working in the open air; a shy mournful smile always hovered about her face, and there was a childlike look in her eyes, trustful and curious. Lipa stood in the doorway and looked as though saying: ‘Do with me as you will, I trust you.’
Her childish innocence and simplicity of thought are also made apparent in her speech and diction, replete with polysyndeton, repetition and highly emotive sentences made by patching up simple clauses:
‘Lipa was playing with her baby. She was tossing him up in her arms and saying enthusiastically:
“You will grow up ever so big, ever so big. You will be a peasant; we shall go out to work together! We shall go out to work together! Why do I love him so much, mamma? She went on in a quivering voice, and her eyes glistened with tears. ‘Who is he? What is he like? As light as a little feather, as a little crumb, but I love him; I love him so much…like a real person. Here he can do nothing, he can’t talk, and yet I know what he wants with his little eyes.” ’
Scintillatingly and skilfully, Chekhov engages in characterisation only when it is relevant to the matters at hand, which contributes to his characteristically kinetic narrative pacing as well as establishing setup and payoff, which reveals more about the character’s mental and emotional deliberations as the story goes on. He gracefully expresses the passage of time, in all its lifelike association with great change…in the circumstances of the characters and the mise en scene through creation of an atmosphere and the use of amplification – compellingly simulating the true to life quality of time’s passage being a continuum of change - so much so that one feels a sentiment similar to catching up with friends after a long while – familiar characters in changed circumstances. The following related string of passages instantiate this:
‘News had come long before that Anisim had been put in prison for coining and passing bad money. Months passed, more than half a year passed, the long winter was over, spring had begun, and everyone in the house and the village had grown used to the fact that Anisim was in prison. And when anyone passed by the house or the shop at night, he would remember that Anisim was in prison…’
‘It seemed as though a shadow had fallen upon the house. The house looked darker, the roof was rustier, the heavy, iron bound door into the shop, which was painted green, was covered in cracks, or, as the deaf man expressed it, ‘blisters’; and old Tsybukin seemed to have grown dingy, too. He had given up cutting his hair and beard, and looked shaggy...’
‘Lipa spent her time playing with the baby which had been born to her before lent. It was a tiny, thin, pitiful little baby, and it was strange that it should cry and gaze about and be considered a human being, and even be called Nikifor.’
Consequently, his stories are brilliantly paced; so much so that not a word seems out of place and every word seems to contribute to the narrative momentum of the story, with one select exception, where it stalls – Chekhov’s naturalist details, which occupy an important station in his craft of storytelling. Chekhov was passionate about gardening and was very attuned to the environment - and this is apparent in the way he depicts the interaction and connection between a person’s psyche and their environment; and how both seem to influence each other through pathetic fallacy and detailed, pervasive anthropomorphism. These moments of extensive natural detail offer us and occasionally, the characters with a universally common but overlooked experience in literature (primarily due to its simplicity) – namely, that of little moments of relief from our worldly problems and kerfuffles, causing us to pause and reflect, giving us a break from the often tedious and tiresome business of living our lives. Chekhov’s stories are full of such simple, magical moments of ephemeral joy and flowing with the present moment. Although free of didacticism and extensive philosophical exploration, his stories do seem to suggest that it is these little joys that we cherish in life which motivate us to live life, regardless of prolonged misery and hardship. His stories are snapshots of life, moments of tragedy sprinkled with moments of joy:
‘By now the Sun had set and a thick mist as white as milk was rising over the river, in the church enclosure, and in the open spaces round the factories. Now when the darkness was coming on rapidly, when lights were twinkling below, and when it seemed as though the mists were hiding a fathomless abyss, Lipa and her mother, who were born in poverty and prepared to live so till the end, giving up to others everything except their frightened, gentle souls, may have fancied for a minute perhaps in the vast mysterious world, among the endless series of lives, they, too, counted for something, and they, too, were better off than someone; they liked sitting here at the top, they smiled happily and forgot that they must go down below again all the same.’