Considered one of the greatest litterateurs, along with Leo Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Russia has ever produced, Anton Chekhov was born on January 17, 1860 in Tagarong. His grandfather, Y.M. Chekhov, was a peasant from Voronezh, where he had served under a rich landlord, the son of one of Tolstoy’s disciples. A man of great perseverance, a sharp mind and intellect, he was harsh and tyrannical, subject to frequent fits of unreasonable rage. Chekhov was, however, greatly influenced by his father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, a man of many gifts who had artistic learning; he was a musician and painter. Chekhov acknowledged: “We get our tales from our father and our soul from our mother.”
Chekhov’s father, who had five sons and one daughter, was obsessed with the church choir he had created and organised. Choir members were selected from among the blacksmiths of Koblin and the musical voices were supplied by his own sons. But Anton was a great disappointment as a choir boy to his father as he had “a poor ear for music and a weak voice”; he also had “bad times”. “Many tears were shed during choir rehearsals and much healthy child sleep was lost owning to these rehearsals which went on till late at night.” But his father was convinced that by compelling his sons to sing, he was developing their inborn, hidden talents. The Chekhov brothers, Alexander and Anton, however, considered religious education as sanctimonious, hypocritical and slavish. In his later years, religion to Anton Chekhov became a symbol of torture and martyrdom. The plight of the people under the rule of the Tsars were so miserable that Chekhov did not believe that religion could be of any help to the people:
“I was bred up in religion myself and received a religions education with singing in the choir, in reading from the Apostles and psalms in the church, regular attendance in services, the repulsion to assist at the altar and ring the bells. And what is the result? I remember my childhood as a pretty gloomy affair and I am not a bit religious now.”
Chekhov was sent to the primary school at Tagarong in 1868 and, at the age of sixteen, he himself began to teach there. But he soon gave up this work of pupil-teacher and took up a job as shop assistant to a very rich merchant, who was also the Mayor of Tagarong. He has described his job as a shop assistant in the story, ‘Three Years’.
But he found the work very tiring. It deprived him of the joys and pleasures of childhood and he said: “There was no childhood in my childhood.” Then, he joined the grocer’s shop that his father had set up in the town. It kept open from early morning till late evening. His childhood was marked with humiliating corporal punishment, strenuous toil and perpetual lack of sleep, the only relieving feature being the softening and sobering influence of his mother who instilled in him the virtues of hard work, a sense of duty, discipline and independence of mind. Chekhov never liked the eccentricities of his father and uncle, and he has described them in the character of the hero in ‘A Letter from a Don Land Owner’.
Chekhov detested lies and falsehood from his early childhood. The feudal life involving coarseness and vulgarity, he realised, could not continue for long. He also became conscious of his latent literary qualities and he had a natural flair for humour. He faced injustice, tyranny and unjust domination through his sense of humour as he could change his appearance and voice with great rapidity. He could impersonate as a doctor, a monk and a professor effortlessly. He was specially fond of pretending to sit for the examination as a deacon, while his brothers enacted the drama of a bishop examining the candidate for a deacon’s orders. Chekhov was also fond of playing the role of the town governor during Tsar’s Day celebrations in the church. This accounted for his future training as a dramatist.
Interest in Theatre
Chekhov was keenly interested in the theatrical activities of Tagarong. High school boys were not permitted to go to the theatre those days. But so great was Chekhov’s passion for the theatre that he often went there without permission, sometimes by hiding his face so that no one could recognise him. He first visited the theatre when he was thirteen and fell in love with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He was also fond of the dramatised versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Helen the Beautiful.
Chekhov first acted in Gogol’s Inspector General, an amateur performance in which all the Chekhov brothers participated. Anton played the title role of the governor of the town. It was such a successful venture that the Chekhov brothers were encouraged to set up a real permanent theatre at the home of Drossi, a class fellow of Chekhov’s. It had a hall and a dressing room for the actors. It also provided stage properties, costumes and other paraphernalia. In fact, Chekhov’s love for the theatre was greater than his chosen avocation for writing plays. This becomes clear when we go through his instructions regarding characters, sets and props for the staging of all his plays, including The Cherry Orchard.
Theatre, in fact, acted as a stepping stone for Chekhov’s career as a dramatist and short-story writer. When his brothers Alexander and Nicolai went to Moscow in 1875 for higher studies, Anton Chekhov felt lonely; it left a void in his life as all the three Chekhov brothers had artistic leanings. Yet the sense of humour which Chekhov used to express in the presence of his brothers by way of light jokes persisted with him. He used to write humorous incidents and wrote about them to his brothers.
In his early years the young Anton was hindered by having to help his father in the shop at school, working there until late at night. But the work at the shop—under the sign ‘Tea, Coffee and other Groceries’—did not help Chekhov to make progress at school, it certainly helped him in his creative writing. The shop sold a variety of goods, including oil, fish, flour, tobacco, buttons, coffee, knives, confectionery, candles, spades, shoe polish and herrings. It provided not only an education in objects, but it also served as an animated lexicon. A shop in the provinces was a kind of club where people went not only to buy things but also to drink a glass of vodka or wine. It was frequented by cooks, shop assistants, the wives of officials, policemen, cab-drivers, fishermen, teachers, school students and sailors. They all talked, so from his early childhood Chekhov listened to the language of the people of the most varied occupations. Later critics were to be amazed by Chekhov’s knowledge of nautical terms, the language of timber merchants or of haberdashery assistants.
From early childhood Chekhov was kept busy with domestic chores: he shopped, cleaned the flat, fetched water from the well and even did the laundry. Household duties were exhausting in their monotony, in the meaningless repetition day by day of the same tasks, and such duties are especially burdensome for a young person. And not only for a young person—Chekhov would show later in his writing how anyone who lives only in the material world and lacks the ability to resist it becomes completely stifled by the everyday, humdrum existence, and then the spiritual completely gives way to the material values. In describing the situation, Chekhov understood this not merely as a detached observer but knew it from personal experience.
No less forcibly, Chekhov was exposed from early childhood to the full force of the Church Slavonic language through compulsory church attendance, singing in the church choir, religious rituals at home and studying the Bible. Thus, his childhood, divided by the airless store and the open sea, the corridors of the grammar school and the endless Steppe, between the narrow milieu of the petty clerks and the free and natural life of the country people, offered vivid contrast between natural and the material world which promised to foster an artist with a most unconventional aesthetic perception of life.
Chekhov’s father went bankrupt and was facing a prison sentence, so he and the family moved to Moscow. Chekhov spent the period from 1876 to 1879 alone in Tagarong making a living as a tutor while managing to send money to his parents. It was a time of solitude during which his character took shape.
From Tagarong to Moscow
In 1879, he joined the Faculty of Medicine at Moscow University. Early on, he became acquainted with the theories of Charles Darwin, which he continued to study after graduating. “I’m reading Darwin. What a treat! I simply adore him,” he wrote in one of his letters. Studying the natural sciences “exerted a colossal influence on the whole framework of his thinking. For him, the truths of the natural sciences radiated a poetic light and it was such truths as these, rather than socio-political doctrines, which shaped his fundamental perception of life as it is, and as it should be, and of man’s place,” says Olga Leonarda Knipper-Chekhova.
Early Literary Efforts
Even as a first-year student, Chekhov was already contributing to comic magazines (his first story appeared in The Dragonfly in 1880, but his main publisher was the magazine Fragments). It was not untypical of writers to start their careers in popular publications: this was true of Nikolai Nekrasov, Leonid Andregev, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few. But none of them published as many comic stories, sketches, spoof advertisements, scenes or anecdotes as did Chekhov. It is widely believed that this involvement with comic magazines distracted Chekhov from serious literary work. But it was not as simple as that. Comic magazines offered freedom of form: there were only two requirements—humour and conciseness. Nothing else, whether plot, composition, technique or style was bound by any literary rules. None of these publications belonged to any “established” literary school or style. The small press was by its very nature eclectic. Authors were free to write in any manner, invent new techniques, modify the old conventions, and experiment with new forms.
Chekhov realised this very early on. Like any great talent, he knew how to turn any circumstances to his own advantage. He was forever experimenting with new styles, assuming new noms de plumes, exploring ever-changing areas of life. If one looks at stories he wrote in the first five years of his career, it is difficult to discover a social stratum, profession or trade that is not represented among his characters. There are peasants and landowners, shop assistants and merchants, sextons and priests, policemen and tramps, detectives and thieves, school teachers, and students, medical orderlies and doctors, civil servants of all ranks, soldiers and generals, cornetts and princesses, reporters and writers, conductors and singers, actors, prompters, impresarios, artists, cashiers, bankers, lawyers, hunters, tavern-keepers, street-cleaners. From the beginning, Chekhov was an innovator who limited himself to no one area of subject-matter, a writer of universal and stylistic range.
Yet for the readers there exist two Chekhovs side by side. The one who wrote ‘Fat and Thin’ (1893), ‘A Chameleon’ (1884), ‘A Horse’s Name’ (1885), The Complaints Book’; and the other famous for ‘A Dreary Story’ (1889), ‘The Artist’s Story’ (Chekhov’s title is ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, 1896) and ‘A Lady with a Little Dog’ (1899). What could these ‘two’ authors possibly have in common? Certainly that was his contemporaries’ view.
In 1897, the prominent critic Nikolai Mikhailovsky wrote: “It is difficult to see anything in common between ‘Peasants’ (1897) and ‘Ivanov’ (1887-89), between ‘The Steppe’, ‘Ward Number 6’ (1892), ‘The Black Monk’ (1894) and vandevilles like The Bear (1888) or the numerous comic stories.” But in reality they are closely linked: Chekhov’s ‘humorous’ past had a significant bearing on the evolution of his innovative creative thought. His early works contain the first sketches, the silhouettes, of his future acclaimed characters. Bugrov in ‘A Living Chattel’ (1892) foreshadows Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard (1904), while other characters prefigure those in the later works, such as Toporkov in ‘Belated Blossom’ (1892), ‘Ionytch’ (1898), the lathe operation ‘Sorrow’ (1885), the coffin maker Yakov in ‘Rothschild’s Violin’ (1894) and many others.
Constant Artistic Principles
Many of the artistic principles, explored by Chekhov in his first five years as a writer, remained constant for the rest of his career. These were preliminary expositions of the situation, no excursions into the characters’ past, or similar introductions to the narrative—it always began instantly. It is the characters who create the action, and there is no explanation or, more accurately exposition, as to the causes of these actions. As Chekhov wrote: “Characters must be introduced in the middle of a conversation so that the reader has the impression that they have been talking for some time.” The avoidance of extended authorial comment, as well as the famous Chekhovian evocation of landscape, are also traceable to his early work. Equally, many of the distinctive features of his dramatic works have the same ‘humorous’ genealogy, such as random or meaningless remarks through mutual misunderstandings, and so on. Thus, it is not the character’s biography or some universal ‘problem’ that furnishes the basis of a comic story, but invariably some quite specific everyday disagreement or situation. For example, a character finds himself in a wrong place (the hen-house instead of a dacha), or is mistaken for somebody else (the swindler is taken for a doctor). Such mishaps occur all the time in everyday life and a comic story cannot exist in isolation from them. However, profound or sharply satirical the content may be (in, for example, ‘Fat and Thin’, ‘The Death of a Clerk’ (1883), ‘A Chameleon’ (1884), his comic stories are always developed out of an entirely comic situation.
In his late prose, Chekhov focussed on more complex socio-psychological problems but again they were never made explicit or central to the plot. The plot never revolved around such a problem, as in the case of Dostoevsky. Or around a character’s life-story as in Turgenev or Cooncharov. As with the earlier works, the basis of the narrative is furnished by some particular circumstances of everyday life. Circumstantial detail permeates Chekhov’s late prose as much as it does his comic stories. Characters meditate and philosophise while bathing, riding in a carriage or doing the rounds at a clinic, breaking off to deal with some mundane trifle or other.
In Moscow the Chekhovs lived in poverty (sometimes all six adults with children crammed into one room). For summers they went to Voskresensk, outside
(now called Istra), where Chekhov’s brother Ivan was principal of a school and had a flat. Chekhov and the family stayed in the village of Babkino, not far from Voskresensk, where Chekhov worked in the local clinic. His impressions of life and nature in the countryside around Moscow are reflected in many of his short stories, such as ‘The Conspirator’, ‘A Dead Body’ (1885), ‘Children’ (1889), or ‘The Kiss’ (1887). Moscow
February 1886 was a landmark in Chekhov’s literary career. His work began to be published in one of the most prestigious and popular Russian newspapers, Novoye Vremya (New Time). The offer, unrestricted by volume and terms, came from the owner and managing editor, Alexey Suvorin. Within two months Novoye Vermya had published ‘Office for the Death’, ‘The Enemies’ (1887), ‘Agafia’, ‘A Nightmare’ (1886), ‘Easter Eve’ (1886)—all ranked amongst Chekhov’s best short stories.
The five short stories published in Novoye Vremya, caused a commotion in St. Petersburg. The eminent writer Dimitri Grigorovich wrote to congratulate Chekhov. There were material benefits too the money from the first story in Novoye Vremya was more money than Chekhov could earn in a month from the journal Fragments. 1886 was the year of Chekhov’s greatest productivity: he wrote more than a hundred works, and his first collection, Motley Tales, appeared in print. Prior to this, he had only one small collection of short stories published in 1884, which appeared under a pseudonym. Then in 1887, Chekhov wrote his first play, Ivanov.
Chekhov’s collaboration with Novoyae Vremya continued through the late 1880s to the early 1890s, strengthening his friendship with Suvorin, whose aesthetic views he valued very highly. For his part, Suvorin loved Chekhov and always helped him in hard times. In 1891 and 1894 they travelled abroad together. Suvorin published the first short story collection, At Dusk (1887), and it was partly due to Suvorin’s enthusiastic backing that the book was awarded the Pushkin Prize. It was also Suvorin who published Short Stories (1888), Gloomy People (1890), Motley Tales (1891) and Plays (1897), all of which were then reprinted several times. A rift in the relations occurred after the Dreyfus Case, on which Suvorin’s paper took an extreme nationalist stand.
The late 1880s and early 1890s saw a blossoming of Chekhov’s talent. New collections of his stories appeared, and he was awarded the Pushkin Prize. His vandevilles, The Bear (1888) and The Proposal (1888-89) were staged by both professional and amateur companies across the country and ‘The Steppe’ was reviewed in dozens of papers.
Trip to Sakhalin
At the very height of his success as a short story writer and dramatist, Chekhov made his journey to Sakhalin—”it was a place of the most unbearable suffering that could ever befall a man, whether captive or free.” For a time, Chekhov was spared the necessity of working on the verge of the impossible, such as completing, while sitting for his exams, a hundred stories a year—a task which he had set for himself. By “reading, looking around and listening, there is much to learn and to discover… Besides, I believe this trip, six months of uninterrupted physical and intellectual labour, is absolutely necessary for me, because my Ukrainian laziness has started to show of late. It’s high time for me to get back into training.” This ‘training’ continued throughout his life, and is the outstanding characteristic of this most accomplished, self-taught writer.
The trip to Sakhalin was beset with the most enormous difficulties, Chekhov had to travel across Siberia, including 4,000 kilometres in horse-drawn vehicles. Within three months of his arrival, working on his own, Chekhov had made a complete census of the Sakhalin population, filling in over 8,000 reference cards. He spoke literally to each one, in their homes or prison cells. In 1895 his book, The Island of Sakhalin, was published. Impressions of this trip were also incorporated in stories, such as ‘Gusev’ (1890),’Peasant women’ (1891),’In Exile’ (1894) and ’Murder’(1895).
After Sakhalin, Chekhov began to write such philosophical stories as ‘Duel’ (1896) and ‘Ward Number 6’ (1892), questioning the meaning of life, death and immortality. Throughout his life Chekhov engaged in matters that were not directly related to literature: he organised relief for the famine-stricken provinces, practised as a doctor and built schools. These activities increased notably after March, 1892 when he bought the Melikhovo estate, not far from Moscow. In 1892 and 1893 he ran a free medical centre on the estate in response to a cholera epidemic. Whereas previously his medical practice had been occasional, now he treated more than 1,500 patients in two years. Thus, he extended the range of his experience.
Living in the country, Chekhov not only practised medicine but also personally financed the construction of three schools in the neighbourhood and served as a member of the examination board. He also participated in all local affairs, making no distinction between major or minor issues, whether fighting the cholera epidemic, digging wells, building roads—or opening a post office at the railway station. “It would be great if each of us left behind a school, a well or something of that kind so that one’s life wouldn’t vanish into eternity without a tree,” he wrote. His impressions of Melikhovo are reflected in such major works as ‘Peasants’ (1897), ‘In the Cart’ (1897), ‘New Villa’ (1899) and ‘In the Ravine’ (1900).
Relations with Women
By nature Chekhov was very reticent, and so little is known about his relations with women. He had his first sexual experience at the age of fourteen with a Greek woman, and his affair with an Indian Girl in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are known only because he wrote about them in one of his letters. His complicated relationship with Yevdokia Efros lasted for a year-and-a-half. Chekhov even referred to her as his fiancee and the episode is reflected in the relationship between Ivanov and Sarah in Ivanov.
No less complicated an affair was the one Chekhov had with “beautiful Lika”, Lidia Mizinova, a friend of his sister, Maria Chekhova, and later the whole of Chekhov family (echoes of this affair are found in The Seagull). His affair with the actress Lydia Yavorskaya was turbulent, but brief. During Chekhov’s trips from Melikhovo to Moscow he was often seen in the company of ladies from Moscow’s ‘bohemian’ artistic circles.
Lack of a Central Idea in His Works
Once Chekhov was established as a serious writer, the main criticism against him was his lack of a central idea, a clear-cut outlook, a unifying, theme. This criticism was best expressed by Mikhailovsky, who wrote in 1890:
“Chekhov treats everything equally: a man and his shadow, a bluebell and a suicide. Here oxen are being driven and there the post is being delivered...here a man is strangled and there people are drinking champagne.”
Beginning with the story, ‘The Steppe’, almost all of Chekhov’s works were criticised for their lack of a clear-cut structure; for their excess of incidental and irrelevant detail that impeded the flow of the narrative. For many years he continued to be criticised for his random sequence of episodes which made it impossible “to grasp the overall picture”. Particularly annoying was the total absence of an authorial view. Thus Chekhov’s innovative descriptive style was considered a violation of traditional canons of fiction writing, and parallels were drawn between him and the new European artists such as the Impressionists. But in general, from the early 1890s, both critics and readers began increasingly to single out Chekhov from the majority of his literary contemporaries. More and more critics ranked him on a level with the Russian classical writers—Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy.
Recognition as a Dramatist
Recognition of Chekhov’s drama was equally belated. The Seagull, premiered on October 17, 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was a flop. Chekhov was deeply upset by its failure and that might be said to Suvorin: “Even if I live for another few years, I’ll still not offer a single play to the theatre... I’m a failure in this sphere.” But the reason for its failure was Chekhov’s innovative dramatic technique, which was not understood until 1898 when the theatre of the new century, the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), staged its hugely successful production of The Seagull, and subsequently all his plays.
Following the MAT productions, Chekhov’s fame entered a new phase. His plays were produced across the Russian Empire. Each successive new work was a literary and theatrical event. From 1899 onwards, articles and reviews of his works appeared in the Russian press almost every day. Books devoted to Chekhov began to be published in Russia and abroad. About ten such books were published in Chekhov’s lifetime. He, however, objected to the clamour and the incessant demands that were made of him, but in private he had high self-esteem, he knew his worth and was fully aware of his position in Russian literature.
From 1897, Chekhov’s health deteriorated rapidly as tuberculosis began to take hold. As a doctor, Chekhov knew that his way of life had to change, but he persisted in working himself into the ground. His doctors recommended that he moves to Yalta, so he sold his Melikhovo estate and went to Crimea, where he spent the last five years of his life (1900-1904). During those years he wrote such masterpieces as ‘A Lady with a Little Dod’, ‘In the Ravine’, Three Sisters (1900-01), ‘The Bishop’ (1902) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).
But Chekhov did not like Yalta with its palm-trees and idle tourists. He loved the countryside of Central Russia, and he loved Moscow. Nevertheless, he bought a plot of land and built a lovely house. But the house had one serious defect, particularly for a sick man: in winter it was cold. The winter climate of Yalta is bad, with frequent cold winds. Chekhov always had an affinity with nature, a dependence on it with the seasons of the year marking important phases in his life. Rain, snow, any change in the weather was as equal in importance to him as his literary or public affairs.
There was another reason why Chekhov disliked Yalta, and, indeed, why it seemed like a prison to him: he had become involved with the MAT actress, Olga Knipper, and in 1901 he married her. Knipper stayed in Moscow, performing at the MAT, while Chekhov could not visit there as often as he wished. He missed her dreadfully and his letters were full of complaints and requests for her to come, which were echoed by his friends and acquaintances.
In Yalta Chekhov missed the literary milieu and his friends, although old and new acquaintances helped him to relieve his isolation: writers such as Ivan Bunin, Makim Gorky, Alexander Kupin and Nikolai Teleshev; the opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin and the composer Sergei Rakhmaninov. In April, 1900, the MAT made a special visit to Yalta to perform Chekhov’s plays for him.
In spite of worsening health, Chekhov still engaged in public and charitable activities in Yalta, giving money to build schools and clinics, and writing an appeal for tubercular patients which was reprinted in many papers and magazines across Russia. In 1902 Chekhov and Korolenko gave up the title of Honorary Academician in protest at the Isar’s decision to reject the election of Gorky to the Academy as inadmissible on political grounds.
On the occasion of the premiere of Chekhov’s last plays, The Cherry Orchard, in January 1904, Moscow honoured its much-loved writer, but at that time Chekhov was so ill that he could barely stand. The celebration seemed more like a farewell.
By the summer Chekhov’s health was even worse. He and his wife went to the spa at Badenweiler in Germany for the cure, where he died on July 1. Right to the end, Chekhov remained courageous and composed.