Monday, 2 August 2021

“The Bishop”, “Betrothed”, and Chekhov vs Tolstoy

As I read “The Bishop” and “Betrothed”, the last 2 stories of the collection Peasants and Other Stories (translated by Constance Garnett), I couldn’t help thinking about how different Chekhov was from Tolstoy, in views and temperament.

“The Bishop” is about the last days of Bishop Pyotr, and Chekhov’s depiction of illness and death is significantly different from the way Tolstoy writes about death—most famously in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, but in more or less every single work of his. The bishop has to continue working, meeting one person after another, running from one place to the next, having no time to think about death, and he doesn’t think about death—he doesn’t even think about God. 

“The bishop of the diocese, a very fat old man, was ill with rheumatism or gout and had been in bed for over a month. Bishop Pyotr went to see him almost every day, and saw all who came to ask his help. And now that he was unwell he was struck by the emptiness, the triviality of everything which they asked and for which they wept; he was vexed at their ignorance, their timidity; and all this useless, petty business oppressed him by the mass of it, and it seemed to him that now he understood the diocesan bishop who had once in his young days written on “The Doctrines of the Freedom of the Will,” and now seemed to be all lost in trivialities, to have forgotten everything, and to have no thoughts of religion.”

I can’t help thinking, how extraordinary it is that Chekhov writes about a man of God, in illness, feeling oppressed by his work and having no thoughts of religion.  

When Bishop Pyotr thinks about his own life, he doesn’t think about whether he has lived a morally good and worthwhile life, the way Ivan Ilyich does, but instead, thinks about his childhood, his mother, and his loneliness, as he can’t confide in anybody and his own mother is uncomfortable, unable to be herself in front of him. Only in the last moments can his mother see him as her son and call him Pavlusha, but it’s too late, he’s too ill to respond or even hear her. 

“Betrothed” is about a young woman called Nadya, who lives with her mother Nina Ivanovna and her paternal grandmother Marfa Mihalovna. She’s engaged to be married to Andrei Andreyich, son of a priest, and at the beginning of the story, the wedding is fixed but there is no joy in her heart. 

“She could hear from the open windows of the basement, where the kitchen was, the hurrying servants, the clatter of knives, the banging of the swing door; there was a smell of roast turkey and pickled cherries, and for some reason it seemed to her that it would be like that all her life, with no change, no end to it.” 

Nadya realises that she doesn’t love Andrei Andreyich, and under the influence over the years of a distant cousin called Sasha (Alexandr Timofeich), she has gradually realised that her mother is not an exceptional woman, that they all are idle and do no work, even around the house, that Andrei Andreyich also does nothing except play the fiddle, and that she has to escape from this life, she has to live. And then she runs away—not to be with Sasha but to go to university. 

This is the ending: 

“…Nadya went on walking about the rooms and thinking. She recognized clearly that her life had been turned upside down as Sasha wished; that here she was, alien, isolated, useless, and that everything here was useless to her; that all the past had been torn away from her and vanished as though it had been burnt up and the ashes scattered to the winds. She went into Sasha’s room and stood there for a while.

“Good-bye, dear Sasha,” she thought, and before her mind rose the vista of a new, wide, spacious life, and that life, still obscure and full of mysteries, beckoned her and attracted her…”  

For those of you who don’t know and are wondering, “Betrothed” was published in 1903.

Is it not incredible that he writes sympathetically about a woman, who is engaged, running away from home to go to university and to have a new, wide, spacious life? I can’t imagine Tolstoy writing such a story, for his vision of women is in the home. 


People have different tastes, different sensibilities. If asked, I’m still a Tolstoy girl, but Chekhov is now another favourite writer of mine and I get it when some readers prefer, or feel closer to, Chekhov. 

It’s only when people act as though it’s a competition where only one can win and the other must be eliminated, when people have to denigrate Tolstoy in order to praise Chekhov, that I feel annoyed. Tolstoy and Chekhov, despite some similarities, are very different writers. They do different things and have different strengths: reading Tolstoy, I love the detail, the psychological depth and complexity, and never feel that it’s too long or superfluous; reading Chekhov, I love the mood, the restraint, the compassionate tone, and never feel that it’s too short or badly paced. It always feels right. 

I love both Tolstoy and Chekhov.  

And I’m grateful we have them both.     

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