One of my surprises reading Chekhov lately is that some of the stories contain ideas. Why is that surprising? For years I had a mental image of Chekhov as compassionate but cool and restrained, apolitical, writing about people’s lives and avoiding ideas. Part of it is true—his style is indeed quiet and understated—but it’s not true that his stories are all devoid of ideas.
Take “The Murder” for example, which could be seen as story about faith and religion. The chief conflict between Matvei and his cousin Yakov is their clash over faith, specifically the question of what the best way to serve God is. Chekhov doesn’t reduce his characters to mere embodiments of ideas, but the question, the clash is central to the story as a whole. There’s a long scene of Matvei telling the waiter and the policeman about his faith and extreme religious rituals in his old days, and about his conversion.
““… His words penetrated my soul; my eyes were opened. I listened, listened and—burst into sobs! ‘Be an ordinary man,’ he said; ‘eat and drink, dress and pray like everyone else. All that is above the ordinary is of the devil. Your chains,’ he said, ‘are of the devil; your fasting is of the devil; your prayer-room is of the devil. It is all pride,’ he said…
[…] And now I eat and drink like everyone else and pray like everyone else. . . . If it happens now that the priest smells of tobacco or vodka I don’t venture to blame him, because the priest, too, of course, is an ordinary man. But as soon as I am told that in the town or in the village a saint has set up who does not eat for weeks and makes rules of his own, I know whose work it is…””
(translated by Constance Garnett)
The cousins clash because Matvei has changed, realising the unnaturalness and meaninglessness of his rituals, but Yakov hasn’t.
At the end of the story, after Chekhov writes about the aftermath and some characters’ time in Sakhalin, we have this passage:
“Ever since he had lived in prison together with men banished here from all ends of the earth—with Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians, Chinese, Gypsies, Jews—and ever since he had listened to their talk and watched their sufferings, he had begun to turn again to God, and it seemed to him at last that he had learned the true faith for which all his family, from his grandmother Avdotya down, had so thirsted, which they had sought so long and which they had never found. He knew it all now and understood where God was, and how He was to be served, and the only thing he could not understand was why men’s destinies were so diverse, why this simple faith, which other men receive from God for nothing and together with their lives, had cost him such a price that his arms and legs trembled like a drunken man’s from all the horrors and agonies which as far as he could see would go on without a break to the day of his death.”
That is a poignant message. Chekhov doesn’t make it seem as though he wrote “The Murder” in order to send out a message about how to serve God and how to live, but the story is arguably about the question of religion and true faith.
“My Life”, a long story or novella, also has ideas. The narrator Misail is an architect’s son and doesn’t want to do any job suitable for his class, so he becomes a house painter and then later, after getting married to a woman who admires his independence and radical ideas, starts working on a farm together with her. To put it in a simplistic way, “My Life” shows the complications when the intelligentsia return to manual labour, depicts the harsh reality of the working class, and destroys any idealisation or idylising of peasants—in a way the story feels anti-Tolstoyan and seems to subvert the Levin strand in Anna Karenina.
At the same time, Chekhov lets us understand why the narrator has to get away from his own world, his own class, which he sees as full of scoundrels and hypocrites. In “My Life”, there are discussions, debates, clashing perspectives, etc. Like Tolstoy (but without such a dominating personality) and like Shakespeare, Chekhov has voices and counter-voices, presenting different ideas and different perspectives, and depicting things as they are rather than push for a message. My surprise was that I didn’t expect to see such debates in Chekhov’s works.
Interestingly, one thing makes me think of Tolstoy. One of the central themes in Anna Karenina is that people can’t change their nature and can’t help being themselves: Oblonsky can’t change who he is; Kitty wants to renounce vanity and pleasure and to be like Varenka but can’t change herself; Levin has a conversion at the end of the novel and thinks that everything would forever be altered but nothing changes, and so on. The same thing is in “My Life”: Masha feels drawn to Misail and fancies that she wants to become a simple peasant woman the same way she once fancied herself an opera singer, but can’t change herself and can’t adapt to the farm and life in the country; Misail’s sister Kleopatra stands up to their tyrannical father and escape from his control, only to be submissive and foolish to another man; the father doesn’t soften even when she’s dying; the failure of the marriage and farm life don’t make Misail return to office work or to the proper place of his class, as that would be against his nature, and he returns to working as a house painter, and so on.
These are such wonderful stories.