Anton Chekhov

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Oil on canvas by Osip Braz, 1898. From the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Ант́он П́авлович Ч́ехов) (January 29, 1860 – July 15, 1904) was a major Russian playwright and perhaps the foremost modern writer of the short story. His technique, which included an almost clinical objectivity, rejected traditional plotting (rising and falling action, transformation of the hero, heroes vs. villains, etc.) for a more natural exposition. Chekhov is a modernist insofar as his impressionistic renderings of scene do not impose moral judgment as much as enlist the reader's subjective response. His attempts to paint life through vividly capturing commonplace incidents helped to revolutionize the short story genre.

Contents

Chekhov is best known in modern-day Russia for his several hundred short stories, many of which are considered masterpieces of the form, but his plays are also major influences on twentieth-century drama. From Chekhov, many contemporary playwrights have learned how to use mood, apparent trivialities, and inaction to highlight the internal psychology of characters. Chekhov's four major plays—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—are frequently revived in modern productions.


Early Life

Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, a small provincial port on the Sea of Azov, in southern Russia on January 29, 1860. The son of a grocer (his father had the official rank of Traderions of the Third Guild - купeц 3й гильдии) and grandson to a serf who had bought his own freedom, Anton Chekhov was the third of six children.

The Assumption Cathedral in Taganrog, Russia, where Anton Chekhov was christened on February 10, 1860.

Anton attended a school for Greek boys in Taganrog (1866-1868). At the age of eight he was sent to the Taganrog Gymnasium for boys, where he proved an average pupil. Rather reserved and undemonstrative, he nevertheless gained a reputation for satirical comments, for pranks, and for making up humorous nicknames for his teachers. He enjoyed playing in amateur theatrical productions, often attending performances at the provincial theater. As an adolescent he tried his hand at writing short "anecdotes," farcical or facetious stories, although he is also known to have written a serious long play at this time, Fatherless, which he later destroyed.

The writer's mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller, and Chekhov is supposed to have acquired his own gift for narrative and to have learned to read and write from her. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, a strict disciplinarian and a religious zealot, demanded from all dedication to the Eastern Orthodox Church and the family business. In 1875, facing bankruptcy, he was forced to escape from creditors to Moscow, where his two eldest sons were attending the university. For the next several years the family lived in poverty.

Chekhov Birthhouse in Taganrog.

Anton stayed behind in Taganrog for three more years to finish school. He made ends meet by giving private tutoring, selling off household goods, and later, working in a clothing warehouse. In 1879, Chekhov completed schooling at the gymnasium and joined his family in Moscow, where he gained admission to medical school at Moscow State University.

Short Stories

Early Period

In a bid to support his family, Chekhov started writing short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life, many under pseudonyms such as Antosha Chekhonte (Антоша Чехонте), Man without a spleen (Человек без селезенки), and others. His first published piece appeared in the St. Petersburg weekly Strekoza (Стрекоза, "Dragonfly") in March 1880. It is not known how many stories Chekhov wrote during this period, but his output was prodigious, and he rapidly earned a reputation as a satirical chronicler of Russian street life.

Nicolas Leykin, one of the leading publishers of the time and the owner of Oskolki (Осколки, "Fragments"), to which Chekhov began submitting some of his finer works, recognized the writer's talent but restricted the length of Chekhov's prose, limiting him only to sketches of a page and a half in length. Some believe that it was this limitation that developed Chekhov's trademark concise style.

Chekhov graduated from medical school in 1884, but while he worked as a physician, he continued writing for weekly periodicals. In 1885, he began submitting longer works of a more somber nature to the Petersburgskaya Gazeta ("The Petersburg Gazette"); these were rejected by Leykin. By December 1885 he was invited to write for one of the most respected papers of St. Petersburg, Novoye vremya (Новое Время, "New Times"), owned and edited by the millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin. By 1886 Chekhov was becoming a well-known writer, but he still considered his writing a hobby.

Dmitrii Grigorovich, one of the many writers who were attracted to Chekhov's stories, persuaded him to take his talents seriously. In an immensely fruitful year Chekhov wrote over a hundred stories and published his first collection "Motley Tales" {Pestrye rasskazy) with support from Suvorin. The following year the short story collection "At Dusk" (V sumerkakh) won Chekhov the coveted Pushkin Prize. This would mark the end of his early career and the beginning of a highly productive second phase.

Later Period

In the late 1880s, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis from a patient. In 1887, forced by overwork and ill health, Chekhov undertook a trip to eastern Ukraine. Upon his return, he started writing the long short story The Steppe (Step), which was eventually published in a serious literary journal Severny vestnik ("Northern Herald"). During this phase Chekhov developed the objective style that is most often associated with his name.

As a physician and man of science, Chekhov began to put human life under the microscope. His longer story, "Peasants," (1897) deals with the bleak existence of the story's namesake. Against the trend of Russian literature (Tolstoy, for example) and Russian thought, both radical and conservative, he did not present a romantic portrayal of peasant life and culture. Nor did he indict the regime. With precision, Chekhov portrayed both the brutish conditions and the brutish behavior that characterized peasant life, but also showed their warmth and human feeling. "In the Ravine" (1900) is even bleaker in its treatment of small town life rife with corruption. The scope of Chekhov's literary universe is much smaller than that of his predecessors, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. These novelists wrote massive tomes on the grand stage about universal truths. Chekhov employed the small screen to hone in on the common, the everyday problems and sins that plague people's lives. There is no "Life of the Great Sinner" here (a work that Dostoevsky once contemplated), but the petty, the venal, selfish actions of the ordinary sinner. Chekhov's technique is to describe many seemingly random details, sights, smells, and sounds that create the mood, but also carry the meaning of the story.

For example, in "Gooseberries" (1898), one of Chekhov's most fully realized stories, he conveys many details of two hunters walking through the woods who happen upon a mill. The story of the mill owner, a swim in the rain, the exchanging of stories, including one about a man whose ambition in life is to become a landowner so that he can eat is own gooseberries, paint a picture in which the good and evil elements cannot be easily separated into discreet categories. Chekhov is less concerned with the great evils of the world as he is with the fact that people "live badly." He does not seek to redeem life through a grand transformation, but in his stories there are moments of beauty and goodness side by side with the coarseness of life. His stories reject the typical notion of development. His characters are not portraits, but sketches. They do not typically undergo any transformation within the narrative, so the normal sense of plot is relegated to creating a vignette.

The Major Plays

Chekhov with Maxim Gorky at Yalta in 1900.

In 1896, Chekhov wrote the play The Seagull. After a successful production by the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, he wrote three more plays for the same company: Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov's plays have common features to his short stories. He eschews traditional plot lines and classic heroes. Rather, he creates ensembles without delineated lead characters. Like his stories, the characters don't develop or undergo transformation. Their inner workings are merely uncovered; dialogue sometimes overlaps.

Uncle Vanya is a play that deals with bitterness. Uncle Vanya has sacrificed his life for the sake of a now retired professor of literature, Serebryakov. Together with the professor's daughter, he has managed the professor's estate. But when Serebryakov decides to sell the estate, leaving him and Sonya no place to live, he realizes that his sacrifice was made in vain to a self-serving egotist who cares nothing about him or anyone else. He is so enraged he tries to shoot the professor, but misses. But this does not really represent a resolution to the conflict. Instead, things just go back to the way they were. This play has the same bleak outlook as some of his short stories.

Three Sisters (1901) tells the story of the fall of a noble family and its effect on three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina. They lose the family home to their brother and his wife, Natasha. The play is oriented between a wistful view of the past and a hopeful view toward the future, but neither view is really tenable. With their past taken away, they naively place all their hopes and dreams toward a future that the viewer recognizes will not come, most notably in their constant refrain of "to Moscow," which they imagine as the cosmopolitan place that will be the solution to all their problems. It is a journey that they will never make.

Cherry Orchard (1904) depicts the end of the era of the aristocracy and the rise of the new capitalist class. Lyubov Ranevskaya is the owner of an estate who must sell her cherry orchard to pay off her creditors. Lopakhin, a merchant who wants to buy the orchard and cut it down to make lots for summer homes, represents the ascendancy of the new merchant class. Chekhov’s storytelling technique is not paint one side as hero, the other as villain. Ranevskaya is capable of both pettiness and nobility. While there is a sense of loss over the cherry orchard, the way of life it represents is not romanticized.

The movement toward naturalism in theatre that was sweeping Europe reached its highest artistic peak in Russia in 1898 with the formation of the Moscow Art Theatre (later called МKhАТ, the Moscow Academy Art Theater). Its name became synonymous with that of Chekhov, whose plays about the day-to-day life of the landed gentry achieved a delicate poetic realism that was years ahead of its time. Konstantin Stanislavsky, its director, became the twentieth century's most influential theorist on acting.

Later Life

Accompanied by Suvorin, Chekhov visited western Europe. Their long and close friendship negatively reflected on Chekhov's popularity, as Suvorin's Novoye vremya was considered politically reactionary in the increasingly liberal times. Eventually, Chekhov broke with Suvorin over the attitude taken by the paper toward the notorious Dreyfus Affair in France, with Chekhov championing the cause of Alfred Dreyfus.

In 1901, he married Olga Leonardovna Knipper (1870–1959), an actress who performed in his plays. His illness forced Chekhov to spend long periods of time in Nice, France and later in Yalta in the Crimea. Chekhov died of complications of tuberculosis in Badenweiler, Germany where he had been visiting a special clinic for treatment. He was buried in Novodevichy Cemetery.

Assessment

Chekhov revolutionized the genre of short story; his subject matter and technique influenced many future short-story writers. It is often said that little action occurs in Chekhov's stories and plays, but he compensates for lack of outward excitement by his original techniques for developing internal drama. The point of a typical Chekhov story is most often what happens within a given character, and that is conveyed indirectly, by suggestion or by significant detail. Chekhov eschews the traditional build-up of chronological detail, instead emphasizing moments of epiphanies and illumination over a significantly shorter period of time. As such, his best stories have a psychological realism and conciseness seldom matched by other writers. Tolstoy likened Chekhov's technique to that of the French Impressionists, who daubed canvases with paint apparently without reason, but achieved an overall effect of vivid, unchallenged artistry.

As samples of the Russian epistolary art, Chekhov's letters have been rated second only to Alexander Pushkin's by the literary historian D.S. Mirsky. Equally innovative in his dramatic works, Chekhov sought to convey the texture of everyday life and move away from traditional ideas of plot and conventions of dramatic speech. Dialogue in his plays is not smooth or continuous: characters interrupt each other, several different conversations take place at the same time, and lengthy pauses occur when no one speaks at all.


Perhaps one of his best known contributions is Chekhov's dictum (also known as Chekhov's Gun): If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

Influence

A bust of Chekov in Badenweiler, Germany, where he died.

Though already celebrated by the Russian literary public at the time of his death, Chekhov did not become internationally famous until the years after World War I, by which time Constance Garnett's translations (into English) had become available. His elusive, superficially guileless style of writing, in which what is left unsaid is often more important than what is said, proved to be very influential in twentieth-century literature.

Chekhov's plays were immensely popular in England in the 1920s and have become classics of the British stage. In the United States his fame came somewhat later, through the influence of Stanislavsky's method acting technique. American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets have used Chekhovian techniques, and few important playwrights in the twentieth century have escaped Chekhov's influence entirely.

Many writers of prose, particularly of short stories, have also been influenced by Chekhov, such as Katherine Mansfield. John Cheever has been called "the Chekhov of the suburbs" for his ability to capture the drama and sadness of the lives of his characters by revealing the undercurrents of apparently insignificant events. American writer Raymond Carver was also frequently compared to Chekhov, because of his minimalist prose style and tendency to meditate upon the humor and tragedy in the everyday lives of working class people. Master of the short story, the British author Victor Sawdon Pritchett's works are prized for their craftsmanship and comic irony similar to that of Chekhov.

Works

Plays

  • That Worthless Fellow Platonov (c. 1881) – one act
  • On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco (1886, 1902)
  • Ivanov (1887) – four acts
  • The Bear (1888) – one-act comedy
  • The Proposal or A Marriage Proposal (c. 1888–1889) – one act
  • The Wood Demon (1889) – four-act comedy
  • The Seagull (1896)
  • Uncle Vanya (1899–1900) – based on The Wood Demon
  • Three Sisters (1901)
  • The Cherry Orchard (1904)

Nonfiction

  • A Journey to Sakhalin (1895), including:
    • Saghalien [or Sakhalin] Island (1891–1895)
    • Across Siberia

Short stories

Many of the earlier stories were written under the pseudonym "Antosha Chekhonte."

  • "Intrigues" (1879–1884) – nine stories
  • "Late-Blooming Flowers" (1882)
  • "The Swedish Match" (1883)
  • "Lights" (1883–1888)
  • "Oysters" (1884)
  • "Perpetuum Mobile" (1884)
  • A Living Chronology (1885)
  • "Motley Stories" ("Pëstrye Rasskazy") (1886)
  • "Excellent People" (1886)
  • "Misery" (1886)
  • "The Princess" (1886)
  • "The Schoolmaster" (1886)
  • "A Work of Art" (1886)
  • "Hydrophobia" (1886–1901)
  • "At Home" (1887)
  • "The Beggar" (1887)
  • "The Doctor" (1887)
  • "Enemies" (1887)
  • "The Examining Magistrate" (1887)
  • "Happiness" (1887)
  • "The Kiss" (1887)
  • "On Easter Eve" (1887)
  • "Typhus" (1887)
  • "Volodya" (1887)
  • "The Steppe" (1888) – won the Pushkin Prize
  • "An Attack of Nerves" (1888)
  • "An Awkward Business" (1888)
  • "The Beauties" (1888)
  • "The Swan Song" (1888)
  • "Sleepy" (1888)
  • "The Name-Day Party" (1888)
  • "A Boring Story" (1889)
  • "Gusev" (1890)
  • "The Horse Stealers" (1890)
  • "The Duel" (1891)
  • "Peasant Wives" (1891)
  • "Ward No. 6" (1892)
  • "In Exile" (1892)
  • "The Grasshopper" (1892)
  • "Neighbors" (1892)
  • "Terror" (1892)
  • "My Wife" (1892)
  • "The Butterfly" (1892)
  • "The Two Volodyas" (1893)
  • "An Anonymous Story" (1893)
  • "The Black Monk" (1894)
  • "The Head Gardener's Story" (1894)
  • "Rothschild's Fiddle" (1894)
  • "The Student" (1894)
  • "The Teacher of Literature" (1894)
  • "A Woman's Kingdom" (1894)
  • "Three Years" (1895)
  • "Ariadne" (1895)
  • "Murder" (1895)
  • "The House with an Attic" (1896)
  • "My Life" (1896)
  • "Peasants" (1897)
  • "In the Cart" (1897)
  • "The Man in a Case," "Gooseberries," "About Love" – the “Little Trilogy” (1898)
  • "Ionych" (1898)
  • "A Doctor's Visit" (1898)
  • "The New Villa" (1898)
  • "On Official Business" (1898)
  • "The Darling" (1899)
  • "The Lady with the Dog" (1899)
  • "At Christmas" (1899)
  • "In the Ravine" (1900)
  • "The Bishop" (1902)
  • "The Bet" (1904)
  • "Betrothed" or "A Marriageable Girl" (1903)
  • "Agafya"

Novel

  • The Shooting Party (1884–1885)

External links

All links retrieved May 10, 2013.


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