The Book of J by Harold Bloom

In this book, the great literary critic Harold Bloom attempts to tackle the J writer as an ancient poet. In some ways it is refreshing to read a literary critic who is not a professional theologian, religious philosopher, or even a trained secular scholar of Biblical studies. Bloom’s fame perhaps rests in his ability to continually extend himself beyond his original area of specialty, the English Romantic poets, and read and write about all areas of literature. To his credit, and out of necessity, he does quote some other biblical scholars, both theological and secular, to support his points and readings. Indeed, his entire reading requires him to accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to comment on the great “epic” writer who makes up the core of the Bible: the J writer.

The weakest part of the book is when Bloom attempts to imagine the life of J.  He surmises that J is a woman of the royal line, descended from David and Solomon, who is now living under the ineffectual king Rehoboam after the United Monarchy splits into two separate kingdoms. He also imagines her to be in literary competition and have a healthy rivalry with the Court Historian who wrote 2 Samuel who might also her husband. All of this seems to be a figment of Bloom’s imagination, which he readily admits, but comes off as bad literary criticism and history. Since many scholars consider the J source to be the oldest of the four writers, Bloom argues that J’s work is the true core of the Bible in which every other writer extends, challenges, or tries to edit.

Bloom is at his strongest in the book when he deals with J as writer and not when he tries to historicize his or her identity or surmise a make-believe background for the possible author. For him, J is a dramatic ironist rather than a theologian or historian. She isn’t interested in developing a cohesive or correct theology, nor does she want to portray history as it actually occurred. In fact, the way she portrays God in her portions of the Torah is rather irreverent. Her Yahweh is neither good or bad. He is more like a living force, with a personality that both destroys and creates.

“For J . . . Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature the human is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism (277).”

He is a Being that unleashes potential, while preventing illegitimate expressions of potential. In sense, this is how you can read Yahweh and his relationship with humans and patriarchs throughout the portions ascribed to J. Yahweh is constantly molding humans beyond the initial Creation story, teaching them how to exist properly in the world, showing them His vision and expecting them to obey, and then sometimes reacting ferociously when they don’t.

“[His] leading quality is . . . The sheer energy and force of becoming, of breaking into fresh being (294).”

He sets the limits on human activity and potential, the boundaries, while always pushing them to be more, to thrive, but then coming back with a vengeance when they go too far. The patriarchal stories are about this give and take, push and limit relationship. The patriarchal stories are not real histories, but psychological dramas.

“Probing psychological elements in the stories of how Yahweh deals with Abram or Jacob or Moses is the heart of J’s activity as a writer (287).”

Her literature, as Bloom insists, is a literature of incomensurates. Human beings challenge God or obey Him or follow his voice (in the case of Abraham), but ultimately it’s a one-sided act. The fight to resist or obey God is a fight humans can’t really win, but the beauty of J’s art work is in showing that despite these incommensurates between man and the divine, man and other men, the humans still try to thrive and survive anyway. Some instances include Abram challenging the justice of God and haggling to save the city prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses the stutterer inflicting plagues on mighty Pharaoh, and even Pharaoh foolishly attempting to challenge the might of God, etc.  God is a force beyond their ability, yet many characters still strive against this incommensurate force. At the same time, He is the force that makes everything happen, blessing who He will and Creating.  Bloom’s insight into Yahweh’s character and central issue in his relations with humans: be like me, but don’t be too much like me.

For Bloom, J’s greatest originality is the scope of her work. It is full of puns, jokes, ironies, a God who creates and destroys, who pushes forward and limits, all while employing a minimalistic style. J tells wonderfully creative stories and probes deeply into the human mind, along with the unknown, while giving us bare minimum details, making her a master of minimalistic writing.  Likewise, her great character as an author is Yahweh. However, her portraits of Yahweh are anything but reverential. Only Shakespeare and handful of other writers outperforms her in their insight into humanity and sheer writing ability according to Bloom.  For all these reasons, this is a work that will probably annoy both traditional theologians in the way it challenges traditional readings and reverent portraits of God, as well as secular scholars in the way it abandons traditional scholarly standards, relies heavily on surmise and generalizations, and sometimes ignores scholarly debates.

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Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (trans. J. M. Cohen)

Francois Rabelais earned his living as a physician, and earned his fame as a writer of the satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel. His name in the form of an adjective, Rabelaisian, has come to denote literary works or ideas, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of character, or bold naturalism. “ Although not abandoning religious piety completely, the book brings an earthy materialism as part of its atmosphere, aesthetics, and themes. Rabelais brought his knowledge of anatomy directly into his fictional book, which often displays an obsession with the physical processes of the body. Pages upon pages are dedicated to farting and defecation. If Rabelais didn’t invent the fart joke, he made a strong attempt at perfectly it.

A good example of this use of anatomical descriptions and physical pleasures of the body can be found early on during the birth of Gargantua. These early chapters are dedicated to Grandgousier, the sire of Gargantua, and his wife, Gargamelle, enjoying a feast of tripe and booze out in the fields.  The consumption of too much tripe causes Gargamelle to go into a painful labor. It is so painful that she threatens to chop off her husband’s genitals so that she never has to experience anything so painful again, but then concedes that she is jesting as she quite enjoys his intimate parts. Then finally comes Gargantua’s miraculous birth from Gargamelle’s ear!

“By this misfortune the cotyledons of the matrix were loosened at the top, and the child leapt up through them to enter the hollow vein. Then, climbing through the diaphragm to a point above the shoulders where this vein divides in two, he took the left fork and came out by the left ear (52).”

Here the description allows Rabalais to show off his learning as a physician, while also describing her body as a veritable maze and serving a playful take on the miraculous birth narrative found in so many ancient sources. Meanwhile, these opening chapters that involve feasting on delicacies, drinking, arguments about body parts, and a fairly graphic birth sets the earthy tone for the rest of the work with its focus on the pleasures, pains, and physical realities of this life. All these fart jokes, bodily pleasures, and descriptions of anatomy serve a crucial purpose in the narrative. They are there to remind us that although God and the afterlife are important, we must also not forget to enjoy the physical pleasures of this life. Indeed, each book begins by addressing his audience as a bunch of wine-guzzling drunks. The ethos of the book might be described as: drink today and enjoy life with all its varied pleasures and colorful cast of characters, for tomorrow you may die!

Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of five books. The first two books explore the birth, childhood, education, and victory in battle by both Gargantua and Pantagruel respectively. Gargantua defeats his former friend and ally, Pirochole, who invades Gargantua’s lands after the latter overreacts to an incident between their peasants over a bunch of cakes. This leads to many funny incidents; in particular, the extremely bad advice Pirochole receives from his advisers that he should use this military invasions as the beginning of world conquest and that his victory over the rest of the world is assured. The final three books involves the cowardly and wily Panurge, a friend and companion of Pantagruel, who wants to get married, but fears becoming a cuckold. Pantagruel convinces him to consult different oracles and omens in an attempt to learn what will happen should Panurge choose to get married. All the omens point to the fact that he will be a cuckold, beaten, and robbed by his future wife, but Panurge keeps interpreting these same omens as being favorable to him. At last, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their other companions go to seek the advice of the Oracle of the Bottle, which leads them to brave dangers at sea and visit many strange islands.

 

The Renaissance saw the birth of the Humanistic spirit through the rediscovery of Ancient Greece sources and forgotten Latin ones, especially new works by Cicero. Like the essayist Montaigne who often developed his thoughts on a topic by turning to the Ancient writers as exemplars for a deeper perspective, the characters throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel quote ancient sources from the Greek, Latin, and sometimes the Bible as support for their arguments about life. Cicero is an especial favorite, and is not only treated as a talented rhetorician, but a topnotch philosopher, reflecting his important status for the Renaissance Humanists.

 

This new learning and its contrast with the old ways is a major theme within the book. Gargantua is originally being “educated” by Sophists and this causes him to lead a wasteful life gaming and boozing, and doing little of value. Similarly, the old-style of medieval education, even particular textbooks, are castigated in favor of learning to read Latin and Greek, and reading the original ancient sources. In the Humanist tradition, Rabelais hints that the point of education is to make virtuous human beings who enjoy life, but also balance it with wisdom, bravery, and other desirable attributes. After receiving a better education, Gargantua comes to embody many of these characteristics, but it is Pantagruel, his son, that represents the epitome of this educated virtuous human. It is Pantagruel who is celebrated for his learning, who shows prowess and bravery in battle, but also honors his friends, and maintains an appropriate balance between religious sentiments and enjoying the pleasures of this life. Pantagruel is the righteous and rational anchor that balances the narrative’s bawdiness and some of the characters’ less virtuous and irrational tendencies, especially Panurge, who shows a wily and cowardly nature, and whose pranks on those who irritate him sometimes lead to their death or extreme humiliation.

The final books where they visit many strange islands is a forerunner of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and reflects the age of exploration. At one point, Canada is mentioned explicitly as is the Protestant reformation. The islands are full of strange wonders, giving us a sometimes over the top depiction of how Europeans must have viewed these new “worlds” full of “strange” peoples, while also allowing Rabelais to satirize his own culture, such as when they land on an island full of Papists who are obsessed with Papal decretals as if these official decrees by the Popes over the ages are even more important than the Bible itself.

Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a common trope in various forms of media these days. The psychological literary power of such a trope resides in the duality inherit in Christianity between spiritual gain in an unseen spiritual realm versus material gain in this world. In most cases where a character sells their soul, they are trading their spiritual reward for some material desire in the here and now. On a more fundamental psychological level, they are trading long-term satisfaction for instant gratification. The Faust tradition represents one of the most famous traditions of this literary trope. The most famous versions of the Faust story were created by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

 

Christopher Marlowe’s version of the play presents Faust as a dissatisfied scholar who employs magic to contact the devil. He makes his deal with the devil in order to discover the ultimate answers hidden from humanity and experience forbidden pleasures.  Marlowe’s work serves as a meditation on the dangers of giving up one’s soul for forbidden pleasures and secret knowledge in this world.

 

Goethe’s Faust also is a scholar. He has mastered the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. He, too, has elements of the dissatisfied scholar, but Goethe goes further with the character and presents a Faust that is tired and weary of life in general. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles to experience the world and find the elusive sense of joy in life that books and immersing himself in scholarship have never brought him. Much like Marlowe’s Faust the work critiques the formal education systems of the time, and draws on the general human desire to know and explores the limitations of knowledge, but Goethe’s version shows us a Faust who wants more than just new knowledge, this Faust seems hungry to experience life to its fullest. This Faust feels that all this study has been a waste of time. He makes the deal not only from a desire to have new experiences, but also because at this point he has come to believe he will never experience true bliss so in a way the deal seems like a good bet. He will only lose his soul if Mephistopheles can get him to experience a moment which he doesn’t want to end. Since he believes he can’t experience such happiness, it seems unlikely to him that he will ever lose the deal.

Goethe also recasts the play into a failed love story, which aligns it with his other work, such as his novels, which also features relationships that falter. In this version, Faust pursues his lust for the pure-hearted innocent and religiously inclined Gretchen, which ends up ruining the life of Gretchen. Goethe reminds us that the pursuit of our own selfish desires can harm other people. It also adds another dimension to the deal with the devil trope as Faust not only promises his own soul, but almost costs Gretchen her soul. She even kills their child in a fit of madness after Faust disappears for a while, which perhaps is an allusion to Euripides’ Medea who also murders her own children when Jason abandons her. Faust functions as Gretchen’s devil, her temptation, the irresistible force that causes her to betray the moral standards in which she has lived the first half of her life. Why does she go along with this temptation? I think Goethe implies that for all her humble peasant upbringing in contrast to Faust’s elite education, she also feels a dissatisfaction with life.

The beginning prologue in which Mephistopheles asks permission from God to tempt and corrupt Faust is an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. Unlike Job who begins with everything a person could want and has that taken from him, the situation is flipped, Faust has nothing he wants in life and makes the deal with Mephistopheles to find the happiness that is missing from it. Job is brought to the height of unhappiness only to be confronted by God and have new rewards bestowed upon him for his faithfulness, whereas Faust sells his soul and betrays his loyalty to God to find elusive happiness in the world.

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steve Sloman and Philip Fernbach

The authors of this book tackle three central ideas: why are people ignorant, why do people think they are knowledgeable when they are actually ignorant, and the importance of recognizing that knowledge is communal. They use a combination of scientific studies, philosophy, and real-world examples to address these issues.

The modern world is extremely complex with technologies that make life very convenient. However, how much does the average person really understand about these technologies? Oh sure, you know how to push the button on your Keurig machine and brew an instant cup of coffee. If you opened up the Keurig and dissected it, would you know what each and every part does? Do you really understand how it works? For that matter, do you know how your toilet works? Yes, you can flush the toilet and use it for your practical purposes. But what happens once you push that lever? The average person probably could not give a detailed causal explanation about what happens underneath the toilet once you flush, how each component works, and the scientific principles behind it.

People often overestimate their knowledge about how the world works. They think they know how the toilet works, how the Keurig works, or even all the nuances behind complex political policies or social problems. As many studies have shown people experience what psychologists call an illusion of explanatory depth.  One way psychologists have studied this phenomenon is by having people rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how well they think they understand how something works (like a zipper or a toilet or a computer), then they ask these same people to describe in detail all the steps of how the object works, and finally they ask them to rate their knowledge a second time on a scale from 1 to 7. Typically, people rate their knowledge lower after they are forced to explain how something works and realize they can’t do this.  The illusion of explanatory depth goes beyond technical knowledge as well. Similar studies have been done involving people’s political positions on controversial policy issues. People rated how well they thought they understood a particular political policy. Then they were asked to generate causal explanations and explain how each of these policies actually worked with step-by-step details. When many people realized they couldn’t do this, they lowered their political extremity. The authors of the book also mention that there was a control in some studies where they did the same basic procedure, but instead of asking people to explain in detail how a policy worked, they simply were asked to explain their reasons for holding their position on the policy issue. In those instances, people had no shift in attitude.

Humans are causal reasoners. We evolved to have two types of reasoning as outlined in dual-processing theory. These two types of causal reasoning are fast versus slow, intuitive versus reflective, shallow versus deep. The two types of reasoning can lead to different conclusions. By asking people to reflect on how something works with detailed causal explanations it seems to force people to activate the more reflective type of thinking and make them deliberate on their lack of knowledge. Tests such as the Cognitive Reflection Test has shown that some people are naturally more deliberative and reflective thinkers and less prone to illusions of explanatory depth.

Often it’s the very complexity of our knowledge and technology that fuels the problem. The internet is a wonderful resource, giving us access to a great deal of knowledge in the world, but this can give us the illusion that we know the information ourselves. People often confuse the knowledge in their heads with the knowledge outside of themselves; they confuse the knowledge they possess with the fact that they know where to get the knowledge if needed.

Experts are also less prone to mistakes in knowledge, especially as it relates to their own field. After all, that is why they are experts; they have put a huge investment in time to learn the information in a field, its methods of knowing, and specialize in particular sub-areas. However, the authors note that even experts and scientists are prone to illusions of knowledge, which can lead to some catastrophic blunders. One example is the detonation of Castle Bravo where scientists underestimated the power of nuclear reactions. Likewise, many individual academics, and sometimes groups, will fail to accept new ideas that don’t conform to previous conceptions. It takes long periods of time for those new ideas, if they have validly and evidence, to replace the old. It is also important to realize that the financial security of many scientists, archaeologists, historians, theologians, and other types of academics depend on convincing the larger world and their fields of their importance. In other words, we always need to keep in mind that even academics of various stripes aren’t completely unbiased neutral individuals. They, too, get a pay check usually tied to their expertise. That engineer has reasons to convince you that bridge needs repair, that chemist working for the pharmaceutical company has additional reasons for you to buy that new medicine. However, at the same time, while acknowledging this facts, the expert is still our best to get accurate knowledge. He belongs to an entire field, an entire community of other experts, who will challenge and test his or her ideas, others who will sift through their results, and others who are performing their own studies to compare with previous results. Likewise, the individual expert is not only a master of his particular sub-domain, but also understands what they don’t know yet about their direct area of study or even a different area of study within their field.

 

This leads to the most important idea of the book: that knowledge is inherently communal. We can’t be an expert in everything. There is simply too much to learn in a modern society. Very few people can be an expert in one field, let alone multiple fields. Therefore, we need to accept the inevitability of ignorance; not only the ignorance of other people, but our own ignorance. As the authors point out, the issue isn’t ignorance itself, which can’t be avoided, it’s our failure and unwillingness to recognize our ignorance. However, we don’t have to know everything since we belong to a community of knowledge.  There are other people who are experts who can answer questions when they arise and there are areas where we are experts. We each have a part to play in the community of knowledge. This has important implications for education. Most people conceptualize education as having the purpose of creating independent thinkers or to learn key facts from various important fields of knowledge. Instead we should become experts in areas that interest us, develop general critical thinking skills to evaluate areas that we don’t know much about, and knowledgeable about how to locate information when we do need it.

The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s four major plays all feature characters who come to realize that they’ve wasted their lives and have not found happiness. These various characters are stuck in a rut, unable to change and adapt to the times. They are plagued by the hard truth that it is now too late. The plays share many of the same themes as his short stories, but whereas the form of the short story required him to focus heavily on a few set of characters and usually interpersonal romantic relationship, the form and structure of drama, with its many characters who have speaking parts, allows him to explore other types of relationship besides romantic ones.

The Seagull is a play about Konstantin Treplyov who lives in the shadow of his mother, a once famous actress. Konstantin aspires to be a renowned writer and finds himself envying Boris Trigorin, an already established writer, who is visiting his uncle’s estate because he is persuing an affair with the mother. While on the estate Trigorin begins a second affair with the son’s current love affair, a young countrygirl named Nina, who aspires to be an actress. Living the shadows of others accomplishments, losing his girlfriend to the writer he envies, and struggling to find his own artistic voice leads to suicide. This is about a boy struggling to find his place in the world. However, Nina’s struggle to fulfill her dream and become an actress parallels Treplyov’s struggle to become a writer. Everyone struggles to achieve the dream. Meanwhile the mother struggles with letting go of the past and being the parent she ought to be with her obviously mentally ill (depressed?) child. The mother seems to genuinely love her son, but she loves her lifestyle, fame, and vanity more. The play gives the impression that she persues her affair with Trigorin because it puffs up her ego and makes her feel young, beautiful. and famous like in her old acting days.

 

Uncle Vanya is about a man called Uncle Vanya who has given up a large portion of his life and financial security managing an estate in order to pay for the lifestyle of his brother-in-law who was a professor at a university. Now that the professor has aged, become sickley, and is living with a wife far too young for him, Uncle Vanya has come to the realization that all this sacrifice was for nothing. The professor’s scholarly work and ideas were frivolous and he is a selfish man who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifice of others. Uncle Vanya resents the life he has given up for him. He is especially concerned for Yelena, the young wife, who has her whole life ahead of her, but has given it up to the idea of remaining loyal to her aged husband. There are hints that Vanya secretly loves her, but it his concern can also be fueled by his desire to keep Yelena from the same fate of sacrificing her youth in order to support the professor. In other words, Vanya sees himself and his greatest mistake in her. It is really a depressing story in many ways; Uncle Vanya suffers terribly over the fact that he never lived his life because he sacrificed for the good of another whose work amounted to nothing useful. It’s a play about sacrificing our life to a delusion.

The Three Sisters is a play about three sisters and a brother living together after the death of their father and how their lives revolve around a group of army officers. They lonng to return to the city-life of Moscow where they spent their youth, but never manage to return. The brother marries a woman who is cruel to the servants and who cheats on her husband behind his back with a local town official, while the brother gives up his dreams of becoming a professor at a university. Instead he joins the local town council with the very man cheating on his wife and sinks into heavy debts from gambling. One of the sisters, Irina, chooses to marry one of the officers after he leaves the army, although she does not love him. She does believe she could have a good life with him despite the lack of love. However, he dies in a duel with another officier who loves her as well and vows to fight any rivals. This was my least favorite of the four plays.

 

The Cherry Orchard is about a noblewoman in severe debt who must do something to save her estate, but she is incapable of changing her frivolous ways. She continues handing out money to anyone who asks, holding parties she cannot afford, and is unwilling to chop down her prized cherry orchard in order to make vacation housing that would bring in enough money that would allow her to keep her property. This solution is offered by a local businessman and the son of a former serf who once worked on the same estate. So when the time comes for the auction to buy the property he is the one who ends up buying it and carrying out the plan. It shows the fuility of being unable to change one’s habits and ways in the face of a crisis. The cherry orchard that the noblewoman wanted to save will be cut down anyway. Many of the characters in the play are elderly nobility who cannot move beyond the past and reminisce about the glory days when the peasants were serfs who served them. The noblewoman who owned the estate suffers from a personal tragedy in the past that haunts her: the death of her son. The cherry orchard represents different things to different characters: a beautiful aesthetic object that should never change, a potential source of profit, and a connection to a lost past where nobles ruled and peasants served. It is a drama about the dangers of being unable to adapt to life’s changes.

 

 

2017 In Review

Another year, another list of books. I had illusions of grandeur thinking I could get back to 50 books per a year with a two year old, a full-time job, and all while studying Spanish and math. However, unsurprisingly, I only made it to the 20 books per a year range (around half of what I hoped). So the list of books read during 2017:

  1. Pensees by Blaise Pascal
  2. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  3. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
  4. The Woman in White
  5. Piers Plowman by William Langland.
  6. The Lais of Marie de France
  7. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
  8. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine d Pizan
  9. Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  10. Selected Poetry by Alexander Pope.
  11. The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
  12. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
  13. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine
  14. A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Stanley Mayer Burstein, Walter Donlan, Sarah B. Pomeroy
  15. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  16. The Man of Feeling by Henry MacKenzie
  17. Took: a Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn
  18. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
  19. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
  20. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  21. Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  22. Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

I spent the entire summer reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. It is one of the longest works in the English language. I made it to book 5 out of 9 when I quit. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I did enjoy parts of it, but there were sections that I found dreadfully boring, repetitive, and it was way too long. I’ve read some long novels before that have kept me riveted, but this wasn’t one of them.  So I’m not sure if I should count it or not.

Meanwhile, one of my goals this past year was to improve my math skills. I worked my way through a high school level Geometry Textbook and continued reviewing algebra, while starting on early topics of Calculus. However, then I got interested in trying to learn Spanish again and I found balancing everything too difficult. So math over the last four months has disappeared from my daily routine. I’m not thrilled about this, but I’m not sure where I can get the time and energy to do both a second language and math, while keeping up with my normal reading.

I hope to read at least 30 books this coming year (more reasonable than 50 books), keep working on improving Spanish and maybe get to the B-levels (based on the European framework) or be at least conversationally fluent by the end of the year, and maybe find some time to incorporate the math I already learned so I don’t lose what I did?

 

Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. David Magarshack)

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.