Thursday, 29 July 2021

Sympathy: Chekhov on peasants

Look at this passage from “My Life”: 

“… I was growing used to the peasants, and I felt more and more drawn to them. For the most part they were nervous, irritable, downtrodden people; they were people whose imagination had been stifled, ignorant, with a poor, dingy outlook on life, whose thoughts were ever the same—of the gray earth, of gray days, of black bread, people who cheated, but like birds hiding nothing but their heads behind the tree—people who could not count. […] There really was filth and drunkenness and foolishness and deceit, but with all that one yet felt that the life of the peasants rested on a firm, sound foundation. However uncouth a wild animal the peasant following the plow seemed, and however he might stupefy himself with vodka, still, looking at him more closely, one felt that there was in him what was needed, something very important, which was lacking in Masha and in the doctor, for instance, and that was that he believed the chief thing on earth was truth and justice, and that his salvation, and that of the whole people, was only to be found in truth and justice, and so more than anything in the world he loved just dealing. I told my wife she saw the spots on the glass, but not the glass itself […] How could she forget that her father the engineer drank too, and drank heavily, and that the money with which Dubechnya had been bought had been acquired by a whole series of shameless, impudent dishonesties? How could she forget it?” 

Now look at this passage from “Peasants”, a story about a couple in Moscow who have a hard time and decide to return to the man’s family home in a village and live among peasants (the passage focuses on the perspective of the wife, Olga):  

“Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labor that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize?” 

(both translated by Constance Garnett)

It is incredible how Chekhov can write about peasants truthfully, without idealisation and without illusion, depicting all of their ignorance and pettiness and deceit and bad habits, but at the same time write with so much humanity and compassion.

In “Peasants” for example, Chekhov depicts Fyokla, one of the other daughters-in-law, as an unpleasant woman. Unlike the kind Marya, she is bitter, envious, and sarcastic, and often rebukes the family of Nikolai and Olga for coming and becoming a burden. She is a deeply unpleasant character. And yet one night, whilst everyone else is sleeping, Olga hears a soft tap at the window and opens the door to find Fyokla standing outside completely naked, having been undressed and turned out like that by some ruffians, you can’t help feeling sorry for her, especially that she’s now vulnerable and asking for help from a person to whom she has been hostile for some time.

A writer like Tolstoy may switch to Fyokla’s perspective and tell us her feelings, but Chekhov doesn’t. Instead, he writes:  

“All was stillness again. They always slept badly; everyone was kept awake by something worrying and persistent: the old man by the pain in his back, Granny by anxiety and anger, Marya by terror, the children by itch and hunger. Now, too, their sleep was troubled; they kept turning over from one side to the other, talking in their sleep, getting up for a drink.

Fyokla suddenly broke into a loud, coarse howl, but immediately checked herself, and only uttered sobs from time to time, growing softer and on a lower note, until she relapsed into silence.”

That is poignant. 

In “The New Villa”, Chekhov writes a variation of a basic idea of “My Life”. In “My Life”, an architect’s son and an engineer’s daughter decide to leave their own world and their own class, get married, move to the country and work on a farm, but they cannot get along with the peasants, keep getting cheated by them or getting into trouble with them, and soon the wife realises that it’s all a mistake, she cannot live such a life, and leaves. In “The New Villa”, an engineer builds a bridge in a village, then he and his wife like the area and build a villa, they try to be friendly and try to live on good terms with the peasants but fail and keep getting swindled by them or getting complaints from them, and in the end they have no choice but to move away. 

In “My Life”, Chekhov writes from the perspective of the “outsiders”. In “The New Villa”, he focuses more on the peasants. 

This is near the end (Elena Ivanovna is the engineer’s wife): 

“In their village, they mused, the people were good, quiet, sensible, fearing God, and Elena Ivanovna, too, was quiet, kind, and gentle; it made one sad to look at her, but why had they not got on together? Why had they parted like enemies? How was it that some mist had shrouded from their eyes what mattered most and had let them see nothing but damage done by cattle, bridles, pincers, and all those trivial things which now, as they remembered them, seemed so nonsensical? How was it that with the new owner they lived in peace, and yet had been on bad terms with the engineer?” 

(also translated by Constance Garnett) 

I should look at this passage now and then. As Scott commented on my blog post the other day about Chekhov, “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.” 

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