Friday 15 September 2023

Chekhov and shame

I prefer Chekhov’s later and longer stories, naturally. But many of his earlier stories, though just sketches, are very good.

In Volume 8 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov, shame is the theme in most of the stories: Chekhov depicts an encounter, a confrontation, or a confession, and pinpoints a moment of shame, of the realisation in some character that they have wasted their lives or been unkind to others. And it’s very moving. 

For example, in “The Chorus Girl”, a chorus girl named Pasha is with a man when his wife suddenly appears and asks about him: 

“Pasha felt that on this lady in black with the angry eyes and white slender fingers she produced the impression of something horrid and unseemly, and she felt ashamed of her chubby red cheeks, the pock-mark on her nose, and the fringe on her forehead, which never could be combed back. And it seemed to her that if she had been thin, and had had no powder on her face and no fringe on her forehead, then she could have disguised the fact that she was not “respectable,” and she would not have felt so frightened and ashamed to stand facing this unknown, mysterious lady.”

It is similar to a moment in “A Gentleman Friend”: 

“The staircase impressed her as luxurious, and magnificent, but of all its splendours what caught her eye most was an immense looking-glass, in which she saw a ragged figure without a fashionable jacket, without a big hat, and without bronze shoes. And it seemed strange to Vanda that, now that she was humbly dressed and looked like a laundress or sewing girl, she felt ashamed, and no trace of her usual boldness and sauciness remained, and in her own mind she no longer thought of herself as Vanda, but as the Nastasya Kanavkin she used to be in the old days. . . .” 

To go back to “The Chorus Girl”, the wife screams at her, curses her, begs her whilst the husband is hiding and hearing everything.  

“Pasha shrieked with horror and waved her hands. She felt that this pale, beautiful lady who expressed herself so grandly, as though she were on the stage, really might go down on her knees to her, simply from pride, from grandeur, to exalt herself and humiliate the chorus girl.” 

A large part of the story is about the chorus girl’s shame and humiliation—because of it, she does an impulsive act that she later regrets—but then the wife leaves and the man appears, and now what we see is his shame. 

“At a Country House” is also a sketch, but different from “The Chorus Girl”, shame is not a feeling that runs through the entire story but a moment of sudden realisation: 

“Rashevitch was fearfully confused. Dumbfoundered, as though he had been caught in the act of a crime, he gazed helplessly at Meier, and did not know what to say. Genya and Iraida flushed crimson, and bent over their music; they were ashamed of their tactless father. A minute passed in silence, and there was a feeling of unbearable discomfort…” 

That moment changes the colour, the tone of the rest of the story. 

“When he reached his own room, Rashevitch sat down on his bed and began to undress. He felt oppressed, and he was still haunted by the same feeling as though he had eaten soap. He was ashamed. As he undressed he looked at his long, sinewy, elderly legs, and remembered that in the district they called him the “toad,” and after every long conversation he always felt ashamed.” 

It also changes the way we perceive the character. Rashevitch is the kind of man Chekhov might not have liked in real life, for he speaks of blue blood and disparages the working class, but Chekhov humanises him—through shame—and makes us feel sorry for him. 

The subject of shame is even more developed, and better handled, in “Rothschild’s Fiddle”. Look at the moment when Yakov notices the look of joy on his dying wife’s face: 

“Looking at the old woman, Yakov for some reason reflected that he had not once in his life been affectionate to her, had had no feeling for her, had never once thought to buy her a kerchief, or to bring her home some dainty from a wedding, but had done nothing but shout at her, scold her for his losses, shake his fists at her; it is true he had never actually beaten her, but he had frightened her, and at such times she had always been numb with terror. Why, he had forbidden her to drink tea because they spent too much without that, and she drank only hot water. And he understood why she had such a strange, joyful face now, and he was overcome with dread.” 

Chekhov doesn’t use the word, but it’s a moment of immense shame. The feeling becomes stronger after the funeral: 

“He wondered how it had happened that for the last forty or fifty years of his life he had never once been to the river, or if he had been by it he had not paid attention to it. […] But nothing of this had happened, even in his dreams; life had passed uselessly without any pleasure, had been wasted for nothing, not even a pinch of snuff; there was nothing left in front, and if one looked back—there was nothing there but losses, and such terrible ones, it made one cold all over. […] Why do people always do what isn’t needful? Why had Yakov all his life scolded, bellowed, shaken his fists, ill-treated his wife, and, one might ask, what necessity was there for him to frighten and insult the Jew that day? Why did people in general hinder each other from living? What losses were due to it! what terrible losses! If it were not for hatred and malice people would get immense benefit from one another.”

Now connected with shame is the subject of waste—something that occupies Chekhov throughout his career, in both short stories and plays—the idea that we waste our lives and hinder each other from living. 

I shall end my blog post with a quote from Edmund White, as quoted on Anecdotal Evidence blog

“But surely the stories of Chekhov or the paintings of de Chirico move us not only because they are so well done, but because in each case the artist has arranged exactly the right things in the right order. The choice of subject matter has been at least half of the achievement. Of course, if the rendering were less accomplished, its inaccuracies would distract us or stand between us and what was going on; but the aptness of the rendering alone could never explain the mysterious hold those words in the dark have over us.”

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