Sunday, 25 July 2021

Ideas in Chekhov: “The Murder” and “My Life”

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. 


  1. My Life has a Tolstoyan subtext while Murder has Dostoevskian subtext. Here is an essay if you want to dig deep (pdf)

  2. A lot of readers seem to prefer his shorter works which focus on character sketches or some incident in an ironic manner and often ending in some kind of epiphany but these longer stories from the late period are the real deal. Ward No. 6 is also very rich in ideas, often disturbing and haunting, it's one of my personal favourites. The Duel is another long story full of arguments, though it is relatively more conventional. I think these two are not there in this collection.

    1. Oh really? I much prefer the longer works. I think some of these stories are going to stay with me for a while, especially "Three Years", "A Woman's Kingdom", and perhaps "My Life".
      I have some other Chekhov collections so they should have those stories.
      Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

  3. I have the 13-volume collection of Chekhov stories translated by Garnett, and I've been reading these stories over and over for years. In fact, right now I'm reading Volume Five again, and as usual I wonder why I ever read anything but Chekhov. There is so much to him, and I find new depth each time I return.

    Anyway, Chekhov was harassed by his writer friends for not engaging actively with politics or current affairs in his work, and Chekhov--to his credit--resisted, because his stories are already full of the ideas that life itself is beautiful and precious, and we ruin it for ourselves and each other through selfishness. There is, in Chekhov's opinion, no bigger idea than this, and he was examining this idea constantly, right there on the page. For about two years Chekhov let Tolstoy bully him into tacking didactic and moralistic endings onto some of his stories, paragraphs that detract from the impact and artistry of the tales. Happily, Chekhov abandoned this moralism and focused on his own methods.

    As Chekhov said to Gorky, "tell my friends that they are living badly, and they must change." The stories (after about 1890, say) and the full-length plays burst at the seams with this idea, that how we live is wrong, that we misuse one another, that we must change. As Olga says at the end of Three Sisters, "Our life is not ended yet. We shall live! It seems as though a little more and we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering...If we only knew--if we only knew!" I find so much in Chekhov that is deeply moving, an immense idea about life.

    1. Scott,
      "There is so much to him, and I find new depth each time I return."
      Yeah I didn't quite get Chekhov several years ago, I think I understand him better now. Older, wiser, all that.
      I agree about the big idea in Chekhov, but when you say "For about two years Chekhov let Tolstoy bully him into tacking didactic and moralistic endings onto some of his stories, paragraphs that detract from the impact and artistry of the tales", which stories are those?
      "I find so much in Chekhov that is deeply moving, an immense idea about life."
      Yeah, I do think that Ozu is in many ways very much like Chekhov. I'm not crazy about Ozu (compared to Kurosawa or Mizoguchi), but maybe I'll get there like I now love Chekhov.
      Is Chekhov your favourite Russian writer?

    2. Chekhov is my favorite writer, period. I just now read your previous post re Chekhov, and it's good stuff.

      The stories Chekhov wrote around 1890 or so that have the taint of Tolstoyan moralism are thankfully few. I would maybe point to The Bet (the lecture on the vapidity of literature and artifice), The Princess (a great story in many ways, but the skewering of a vain aristocratic woman is not Chekhov's thing while it's entirely Tolstoy's), A Dreary Story (also mostly a masterpiece until the end, when a "bad" woman is punished), The Horse Thieves (the paragraph near the end where the humanity is divided into classes), and even The Duel (one of the greatest novellas ever written, a perfect piece of work that weaves Turgenev, Pushkin, and Lermontov into the story of a disaffected government employee and his married mistress in a Crimean town, the narrative spoiled at the end by a clumsy metaphor about "the search for truth").

      Tolstoy did not think much of Chekhov's writing (nor apparently of anyone's but his own) and called his plays "worse even than Shakespeare's," a terrible insult seeing as Tolstoy reviled Shakespeare. Chekhov never publicly criticized Tolstoy, but he grew tired of him and wrote to his friends about his absolute hatred of The Kreutzer Sonata. Chekhov admired Anna Karenina but said he'd have left out the ending, as it was not the author's job to punish evildoing.

      Sometime this week, I hope, I'll look over your movies list again and write something about Poirot. I adore Poirot, such a terrific character. And I meant, what was it--months ago now? to ask you for a list of a dozen or so movies I should try out.

    3. Oh yes, the Tolstoyan period. I've vaguely heard of it but never made note of which stories. Thanks for that.
      From what I've read, I think Tolstoy did think highly of Chekhov as a short story writer, but not as a playwright, and that "even worse than Shakesepare's" remark is quoted everywhere.
      I know that Chekhov got out of Tolstoy's shadow/ influence (Patrick Kurp has a blog post titled something like "Tolstoy has departed from my life", quoting Chekhov's letter), but didn't know that he hated The Kreutzer Sonata. Very interesting. Do you know what he thought about Dostoyevsky? I can't find anything online.
      I don't think that Tolstoy didn't think much of anyone's writing but his own though. This is for example a list of books that influenced him most:
      Look forward to your post about Poirot. I've just watched one now, actually, though I think I prefer the early episodes to the 2000s ones.
      A list of films? I need that narrowed down somehow, I don't know what you've seen and not seen, haha.


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