Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904. He is considered one of the greatest short story writers and dramatists in the history of literature. In a letter addressed to Chekhov, fellow Russian writer Gorky commented: “You are doing a great thing with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence . . . (as cited in Magarshack, 1964, p. 14).“ In these words, Gorky captures the essence of Chekhov’s short fiction, which often features characters coming to the realization that they’ve taken their lives for granted. These characters learn that what they thought was true about the world and the state of their lives is really false. Chekhov’s characters are often depicted over the course of twenty pages with as much depth and richness as many talented novelists manage to achieve over the course of hundreds of pages in a novel. Chekhov seems to pick the perfect words to paint a scene and breathe life into his characters; he is the great master of linguistic economy, saying a lot with so little.
In “Grief” a drunk who habitually beats his wife travels in a terrible blizzard to bring his sick and dying spouse to the doctor. Along the way he reflects on his wasted life, his unhappy marriage, and considers how his life has seemed like one big fog of drunkenness since the day he was married. He remembers the day of his marriage when the future had seemed so full of hope and promise. He realizes that he has wasted his life in an intoxicated stupor. This is a story about regret, about a wasted life spent in drunkenness, and the character realizing he could’ve lived a much happier and more fruitful life had he made different choices, but only when it is too late to actually change anything.
“Agafya” is surprising in that the eponymous character doesn’t appear until halfway through the story. The beginning describes a handsome well-built intelligent young man named Savka whose major flaw is that he is lazy. The women of the village provide him with food in order to sleep with him. For his part, he loathes their loose morals and hypocrisy, as many of them are cheating on their husbands, although he sleeps with them anyway. Agafya then arrives halfway through the story. She is a woman married to a middle-class clerk who works out of town and has come to sleep with Savka, while her husband is away at work. She wants to do the deed before her husband arrives home on the train in order to remain undetected. Savka takes his time, unhurried, causing her to panic over the fact that the train will arrive soon and her husband, along with the entire village, will discover that she slept with Savka. She could, of course, just leave without sleeping with him. Although she becomes desperate as he continues to delay, her desire for Savka outweighs her fear over the social repercussions and her reputation. The village criticizes Savka for his laziness and thus not meeting their expected social standards, but each of these women who cheats on their husband with Savka shows the illusion of these social standards and the hypocrisy of these individuals who espouse them. These hard-working middle-class people live in a façade, claiming to live happy family lives as their wives cheat on them while the men work.
In “Misfortune” a married woman named Sophia Petrovna rendezvouses with a hopeful lover who is trying to convince her to cheat on her husband. She tries to convince him with various platitudes about the virtues of married life in order to get him to stop propositioning her. His response is that he wishes he could stop, but his desire keeps overpowering his rational thoughts and he can’t stop thinking about her. He rebukes her, claiming that if she really felt nothing she would not keeping meeting him like this only to return again and again. As she heads home to her husband, she considers this point about their continual meetings and comes to realize that she is unhappy with her husband. The story then hints that she goes back out to meet him in order to begin an adulterous affair. However, as she leaves she feels disgusted with her own hypocrisy and lack of virtue. This is another story about the hypocrisy of our inner desires in comparison to social expectations and the superficial contentment of middle-class lifestyle. Often a person thinks they want one thing, but it only takes one unexpected event to reveal to them that they want something else in their lives and never realized it.
“A Boring Story” is the tale of an old professor who is one of the most famous scientists in his country slowly dying from a disease and the changes to his life that occurred due to his fame. This story contrasts well with “Grief.” Whereas in “Grief” the main character lived a lowly and miserable life as a drunk, the professor in this story is as successful as one can get, celebrated in his profession, feeling an intense passion for his wife in their younger days, and originally having an extremely happy family life. In his early days, home was his sanctuary. However, time and fame has changed all that as success completely changed his life. Now in his old age and on the verge of death from disease, nothing gives him pleasure anymore. He wonders when his wife got so fat and the passion disappeared from their relationship, he no longer enjoys dinner at his table (where the simple meals that he enjoyed of earlier times have been replaced by more sumptuous fare), and even science that he has spent his life studying no longer gives him hope for the future. The story shows that even a life that seems filled with success and everything a person could desire can also be full of regrets and unhappiness. The coming of death makes all that once seemed meaningful and important suddenly meaningless. It also contain a sub-plot about an adopted daughter who has a life of regret as well after a failed theater career and a betrayal by her lover. She turns to the old professor, a father figure to her, for guidance in order to figure out what she should do with her life, but when she finally opens up to him for help it is when he has sunk to his lowest and has lost all meaning in life and accepted that he will soon die. For this reason he is unable to offer her the guidance she seeks. The story seems to imply that no matter how happy or successful we are, we all must die alone.
“The Grasshopper” is about a newlywed couple who form an unlikely pair. Olga is a highly cultured socialite with friends who are famous writers and singers; she believes the most important people in society are artists. The husband Dymov is a hardworking doctor and also a devoted husband, hosting grand parties with these famous people to keep his wife happy. Although she respects her husband as a person, she finds his boring job as a doctor rather plebeian in comparison to her famous artistic friends. Eventually Olga cheats on her husband with a morally bankrupt (but passionate) artist and Dymov ends up dying from not taking proper precautions when treating a patients for a serious illness. It is implied he did so due to feeling depressed over his wife’s infidelity. Only on his deathbed does Olga come to realize her husband’s greatest. After listening to the other doctors speak about his unrealized potential, she comes to understand that her husband was an extremely talented medical scientist who was on his way to being a famous name in the country before his life was cut short and realizes such a person is more important than all the writers, artists, and singers put together. This is another story where the character only realizes what they had after it is gone.
“Ward 6” begins by detailing the life of the inmates of a psych ward attached to a dysfunctional provincial hospital. It is a place of misery and poorly run. The apathetic doctor in charge of the place Dr. Ragin is responsible for all this misery by doing nothing to fix it. Most days he doesn’t even bother to visit the hospital. One day he decides to break his normal daily routine of reading literature and philosophy to visit the psych ward where he meets a young former student named Gromov who is now an inmate there. Dr. Ragin starts to take real pleasure in their conversations when he comes to realize Gromov is the only truly educated man in the entire countryside. They talk about deep philosophical issues in which the doctor advocates the ideas of the Stoics, claiming if a person really thinks about it there is no difference between being locked up in a psych ward versus freedom to do whatever one likes outside it. It’s merely a state of mind. Gromov counters that it is obvious the doctor has never suffered any real hardships and that’s why such a philosophy like the Stoics advocates seem good to him. Eventually the ambitious assistant doctor overhears Dr. Ragin’s deep conversations with this madman and manages to convince everyone in town, including the important political figures that Dr. Ragin has gone mad himself and that can be the only explanation for why he would spent so much of his time conversing with an insane individual in a psych ward. This leads to a tragic spiral where Dr. Ragin loses his position at the hospital, all his money, and eventually ends up in the psych ward himself. There he suffers both physical beatings from the former attendant that once worked for him and psychologically over his situation, which shows the shortcomings of all his previous philosophical rants. Stoic philosophy proves useless in the face of real tragedy and the evils of societal institutions, while its often these justifications that perpetuate such flawed systems.
In “Ariadne” a young Russian landowner on a steamer makes a new acquaintance and philosophizes about the nature of women and the obsession Russians have with them. He then tells the stranger about his most recent love affair with an impoverished noblewomen whose beauty and charms allow her to manipulate any man she wants. The story addresses the ideas of women’s liberation as a misguided extension of female manipulation. It takes a misogynist stance that women are manipulative towards men and see men only as potential husbands and lovers. At the same time, it also suggests the solution to this problem is broadening the education of women so that they receive an education similar to a male’s. It is also the personal story of a young man who goes from infatuation and naïveté to heartbreak when he discover his love interest is sleeping with another man to eventually becoming her lover himself and coming to realize over time how he is being manipulated by sacrificing his monetary comfort, personal morals, and property in order to fulfill her expensive tastes. It makes an interesting parallel with “Lady with Lapdog” because that story is about a seduction in which the adulterous affair makes both participants realize how stifled they feel in their marriages, while in “Ariadne” it is the affair that comes to feel stifling and the young Russian landowner wishes he can find some way to escape it.
“Ionych” is about a country doctor named Ionych who falls in love with Kitty Turkin, a young lady from a prominent family in town known for giving lavish literary and artistic entertainments. At these parties, the wife reads portions of her mediocre novels, Kitty plays the piano, the son acts out dramatic scenes, and the father tells jokes, witticisms, and provides hospitality. Kitty rejects Ionych’s marriage proposal because she believes she is destined to become a talented pianist and artist. In reaction to this rejection, Ionych gives up any real possibility at happiness, throwing himself into his work, putting on a ton of weight, and acquiring lots of money and property. Later, he meets Kitty again who is now interested in him romantically because she has become disillusioned with her dreams of being a famous artist and pianist after she meets many other girls her age who are as equally talented in the conservatory and she comes to realize that she is nothing special in terms of talent. However, Ionych doesn’t renew his proposal and chooses never to see Kitty again. He grows richer and fatter, turning into a grumpy old man driven by his greed. At first the Turkin’s lifestyle seems enchanting to Ionych, but after being rejected when he returns years later he comes to see how trite, mediocre, and insufferable is all their artistic pretensions and how mediocre they all are. Ionych acquires lots of money, but is miserable and unhappy.
“The Darling” is the story of a passionate woman who cannot function without a man or husband in her life. She marries two different men and takes on a lover after each previous one dies. In the end, she also starts to take care of her lover’s child as an overbearing mother figure, even though she isn’t related to him at all. All her opinions and views shift to match the opinions of her current partner, despite the fact that they may contradict the opinions that she held previously. She has no real idea or opinion of her own. It is her love interests that give her meaning and purpose in life. She has no individuality or autonomy without a love interest or role in relation to a male figure to guide her.
“Lady with Lapdog” is the story of a serial womanizer and adulterer who seduces a young woman with a lapdog who is vacationing in Yalta away from her husband. Unlike his previous love affairs, he falls in love with her, and their affair makes them realize how unhappy they are in their married lives. They both crave something more and find it in the affair, yet the expectations of society prevents them from being able to be with each other full time.