Anton Chekhov in 1889
An analysis of form and vision in Chekhov's major plays
by Mary Moylan Oppenheimer
"The world of Chekhov's plays seems to some excessively dreary and bleak, but it is a world which was modeled on life as the author saw it in his time and place. lt is a discordant little world which Chekhov depicts in Uncle Vanya, says Valency,
"a group of pleasant people in idyllic surroundings, hopelessly at odds with themselves and with one another - and this world mirrors, it is suggested, the illness of the great world of which it forms a part".
ln large part Chekhov's vision, Valency obseryes, was akin to, shared by, many of
But although Chekhov saw the world in which he lived in much the same way as other writers of his day and patterned the world in which his characters live upon it, his perception was different from his contemporaries too. And this difference is primarily accounted for in that he looked upon life with the knowledge that he would soon be leaving it, and this knowledge quite naturally colored his vision."That Chekhov saw his Russia through the eyes of a dying-man is a fact too obvious to require emphasis", says Valency.
"It was inevityable after 1890 that he should see the world around him in terms of his own illness, and it was norrnal for him to project upon it his own symptoms. This world, his Russia, was a continent in decay. It was wasted by a disease that was perhaps curable, but there was no immediate prospect of a cure. The treatment would in any case be long, and the method was uncertain.
In the meantime, the symptoms were unmistakable. The languor, the weariness, the hopelessness, the resignation of this Russia so clearly reflected his own exhaustion that the closeness of the correspondence was perhaps· not entirely clear even to himself, for he was a man of buoyant spirits and naturally optimistic temper.
But the world which he saw, and so vividly represented, was not quite the world that other people saw. It was the world of a man whose illness necessarily colored everything that was before his eyes, brightening some things and shadowing others in accordance with an inner principle of illumination that was specifically his own."
Time was running out for Chekhov, and he knew it. Although he seldom talked about his disease and was embarrassed and made impatient by solicitous questions or references of others to his condition, he could, when he felt obliged, speak openly about it. He had suffered his first hemorrhage in 1884 at the age of twenty-four, and though he knew from that time on that longevity was something that he would not be granted, he was able for about fifteen years to live a more or less normal life.
By 1899, however, his health was rapidly and obyiously deteriorating, a situation which required that some decisions be made and measures be taken which heretofore had not been necessary. Of primary importance was the question of his place of residence. Although restlessness was a major characteristic of his personality and he was much attracted by and given to travel, Moscow had been his home from the time he left Taganrog, and it was in Moscow that he was happiest.
But its climate was considered unsuited and injurious to a consumptive. For a number of years Chekhov, unwilling to give up life in Moscow, had compromised by spending portions of his winters in places where the climate was warm, in Hice, in Biarritz, but chiefly in Yalta.
Toward the end of 1898, he seems to have resigned himself to the necessity of permanent residence in Yalta. He bought some land and commissioned the building of a house. However, he always "yearned for Moscow", declaring, Ernest Simmons notes,"that he would much rather be destroyed by the rigorous climate of the North than by the provincial boredom of this town where the doctors had condemned him to live." Nevertheless, it was in Yalta that, for the most part, his few remaining years were spent.
Chekhov in his garden in Yalta, 1900
As important as the question of where he would live was the matter of what he was to live on. All of his life Chekhov was beset by financial worries. His work increasingly brought in more money, but as the primary breadwinner for his rather large family, there never seemed to be quite enough.. About the time that he made the decision to move to Yalta, however, he was approached by the well-known publisher A. F. Marx who offered to buy out all of his works and publish a complete edition of them.
In January of 1899 Chekhov signed a contract with Marx. Because he would receive lump sum payments far larger than any he had ever previously been offered, (all told seventy-five thousand rubles) Chekhov found the tenns of the agreement attractive, but, "in reality,says Simmons·, "the astute publisher found Chekhov a rather easy mark."
Members of his family and many of his friends were opposed to the transaction. However, Chekhov, Simmons contends, was "not unaware of some of the drawbacks of the contract, from a long range point of view he realized that he risked losing much, but "Chekhov's agreement was clearly influenced by his own cool assumption that his years were numbered. He told Suvorin that the contract would be profitable if he lived less than five or ten years, and unprofitable if he lived longer".
And when his friend A. S. Yakolev protested this view, contending that he was being overly pessimistic, Chekhov remonstrated, telling him:
"My friend, you forget I am a doctor, however bad a one I may be. The medical experts do not at all deceive me; my case is a poor one; and the end is not far off."
In moving to Yalta and in signing the contract with Marx, Chekhov had confronted and resolved the problems of where to live and what to live on. These were not easy decisions, but since they dealt with matters mainly concrete and physical, they were a great deal easier to arrive at than the much more complex and abstract question of how to live.
Exiled, displaced, soon to die, he was in a position which would have plunged many a man into despair. He was, nevertheless, as his correspondence shows, endeavoring to come to terms with his condition. His attitude frequently and naturally fluctuted between resentment and resignation. In February of 1899 he wrote Lydia Avilova, a friend who for years had been an ardent (sometimes too ardent for comfort} admirer:
This letter not only illustrates Chekhov's disatisfaction with his situation but also typifies two of his most salient characteristics : his modesty and his refusal to distort the truth as he saw it, a truth which in this instance was, as it was so often, of an ironical nature.
However, he could at times be very didactic. Worried about his mother, who had been recently widowed and whose health was poor, he wrote his sister in November of 1898:
"Tell Mother that after summer winter must come, after youth old age, after happiness unhappiness; or the contrary; man cannot be healthy and cheerful all his life, bereavements always await him, he cannot avoid death even though he were Alexander of Macedon -- therefore, one must be prepared for anything and accept it as unavoidable and necessary, however sad it may be. According to one's strength, one must fulfill one's duty and nothing more."
This is the philosophy to which Chekhov basically adhered. On the surface perhaps it seems simplistic. But there is nothing simple in the practice of it. It requires not only an acceptance of the conditions of life which run counter to man's desires and dreams but, more importantly, a willingness on his part to work on in the face of this knowledge.
This was Chekhov's endeavor, and it is the endeavor of his characters, but achievement did not come easily for him or for them. It involyed a process which was for both author and characters a gradual one, and the plays are a record of the struggle. (...) Each play was written with more difficulty than the previous one. But with each succeeding play he came closer to articulating a fuller and more complete expression of life, and in this sense, each succeeding play is greater than the one which precedes it."
* * *
An analysis of form and vision in Chekho
Download • 7.08MB