Sunday, 1 August 2021

“In the Ravine”, “Three Years”, and the question of sympathy/ empathy

Most of the Chekhov stories I’ve been reading lately, like “A Woman’s Kingdom”, “Three Years”, “My Life”, “Peasants”… are melancholic and gloomy. “In the Ravine” is tragic, and devastating. The shocking scene and its aftermath (those who have read the story know what I’m talking about) are probably going to haunt me for a while. 

One of the things I noticed reading “In the Ravine” was that there were 2 passages where Chekhov’s opinion came through.

“The clerk and the elder of the rural district who had served together for fourteen years, and who had during all that time never signed a single document for anybody nor let a single person out of the local court without deceiving or insulting him, were sitting now side by side, both fat and well fed, and it seemed as though they were so saturated in injustice and falsehood that even the skin of their faces was somehow peculiar, fraudulent. The clerk’s wife, a thin woman with a squint, had brought all her children with her, and like a bird of prey looked aslant at the plates and snatched anything she could get hold of to put in her own or her children’s pockets.” 

Chekhov’s renowned for his total objectivity and “invisibility”, but his opinion about the clerk and the elder of the rural district can be seen here—there’s a harsher, more contemptuous tone than usual.

Compare that to this passage about Grigory Petrovich Tsybukin (or old Tsybukin): 

“Grigory kept a grocer’s shop, but that was only for appearance’s sake: in reality he sold vodka, cattle, hides, grain, and pigs; he traded in anything that came to hand, and when, for instance, magpies were wanted abroad for ladies’ hats, he made some thirty kopecks on every pair of birds; he bought timber for felling, lent money at interest, and altogether was a sharp old man, full of resources.”

Or this one, also about old Tsybukin: 

“His wife and daughter-in-law saw him off, and at such times when he had on a good, clean coat, and had in the droshky a huge black horse that had cost three hundred rubles, the old man did not like the peasants to come up to him with their complaints and petitions; he hated the peasants and disdained them, and if he saw some peasants waiting at the gate, he would shout angrily:

“Why are you standing there? Go further off.”

Or if it were a beggar, he would say:

“God will provide!””

In these passages, Chekhov presents the character as he is, saying what he does and how he acts, without commenting. In the other one, he is not so “invisible”. I’m not complaining—my point is that the sentence about the clerk and the elder of the rural district stands out to me because Chekhov normally presents characters as they are, in all of their foibles and weaknesses and absurdities, and depicts everything in an objective way.

(I wrote “invisible” and “invisibility”, in quotes, because no novelist or short story writer, as opposed to a playwright, can be completely invisible and hidden. We can hear the compassionate, warm tone of Chekhov just as we can hear the harsh tone of Flaubert but also his overwhelming sadness about human stupidity and mediocrity. But place Chekhov next to Tolstoy, or more extreme, George Eliot, we see that Chekhov generally withholds judgment). 

In these lines about Aksinya, I think I can see what Chekhov thinks about her: 

“And in those unblinking eyes, and in that little head on the long neck, and in her slenderness there was something snakelike; all in green but for the yellow on her bosom, she looked, with a smile on her face, as a viper looks out of the young rye in the spring at the passers-by, stretching itself and lifting its head.”

The translation is by Constance Garnett so I can’t be sure of its accuracy, but a viper is a venomous snake, not a harmless one. 

Later Chekhov compares her to a snake again: 

“She drove herself, and when she met acquaintances she stretched out her neck like a snake out of the young rye, and smiled naively and enigmatically.” 

In the stories I’ve been reading lately, Chekhov seems to have compassion for everybody: all the characters in “Peasants”, including the mean-spirited and bitter Fyokla; both Laptev, the man who marries a woman who doesn’t love him, and Yulia, the woman who marries a man she doesn’t love, in “Three Years”, both Laptev’s former mistress Polina, an unhappy, resentful woman, and his tyrannical father, now lonely and blind; both Misail and his wife Masha in “My Life”; both the engineer’s family and the peasants in “The New Villa”; even the religious fanatic and convict in “The Murder”, and so on.

But it’s impossible to have compassion and sympathy for everybody. How can you have sympathy, or even empathy, for someone like Aksinya, especially when she doesn’t feel remorse and doesn’t pay for what she’s done? After the shocking event, Chekhov mostly focuses on Lipa and old Tsybukin. I’m trying to imagine “In the Ravine” where Chekhov entered the mind of the cruel Aksinya. 

On a side note, the question of sympathy and empathy makes me think of “Three Years”: as a pious, good-hearted woman, Yulia wants to take care of her father-in-law, despite his despotic and unkind nature, because he is now old, blind, and lonely, but is it right for her to expect her husband Laptev to do the same? 

The scene of Lipa going home from the hospital is magnificent: 

“The sun went to bed wrapped in cloth of gold and purple, and long clouds, red and lilac, stretched across the sky, guarded its slumbers. Somewhere far away a bittern cried, a hollow, melancholy sound like a cow shut up in a barn. The cry of that mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it was like or where it lived. At the top of the hill by the hospital, in the bushes close to the pond, and in the fields the nightingales were trilling. The cuckoo kept reckoning someone’s years and losing count and beginning again. In the pond the frogs called angrily to one another, straining themselves to bursting, and one could even make out the words: “That’s what you are! That’s what you are!” What a noise there was! It seemed as though all these creatures were singing and shouting so that no one might sleep on that spring night, so that all, even the angry frogs, might appreciate and enjoy every minute: life is given only once.
A silver half-moon was shining in the sky; there were many stars. Lipa had no idea how long she sat by the pond, but when she got up and walked on everybody was asleep in the little village, and there was not a single light. […] Lipa walked rapidly; she lost the kerchief from her head . . . she looked at the sky and wondered where her baby’s soul was now: was it following her, or floating aloft yonder among the stars and thinking nothing now of his mother? Oh, how lonely it was in the open country at night, in the midst of that singing when one cannot sing oneself; in the midst of the incessant cries of joy when one cannot oneself be joyful, when the moon, which cares not whether it is spring or winter, whether men are alive or dead, looks down as lonely, too. . . . When there is grief in the heart it is hard to be without people. If only her mother Praskovya had been with her, or Crutch, or the cook, or some peasant!”

It is deeply moving.

I’d choose Chekhov’s apparent simplicity and artlessness over many other writers’ linguistic brilliance any day.  

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