BORN: I860, Taganrog, Russia
DIED: 1904, Badenweiler, Germany
GENRE: Drama, fiction
The Cherry Orchard (1904)
Uncle Vanya (1899)
The Three Sisters (1901)
Anton Chekhov. Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Celebrated for his innovative methods in prose fiction and drama, Anton Chekhov is known for his ability to combine both tragedy and comedy in works that substitute dialogue for action and ambiguity for moral finality. while his most characteristic works begin with revelations of personal feelings and observations, they ultimately balance emotion with stylistic control. This detached, rational artfulness distinguishes his work from that of his Russian predecessors—namely, from the confessional abandons of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the psychological fantasies of Nikolai Gogol. Though praised as an early master of the short-story genre, Chekhov also helped initiate a new era in European theater, and his works continue to serve as models for the finest American and European writers of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Responsibility. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 16, 1860, in Taganrog, a Russian port city. Unlike the majority of well-known Russian writers who preceded him (who were aristocrats), Chekhov was only one generation removed from serfdom, a background that troubled him for many years. Serfs were Russian peasants who, in essence, were like slaves in that their lives were completely controlled by the aristocratic landowners whose fields they worked. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861. Chekhov’s grandfather had bought freedom for his family, and had established himself as the keeper of a shop. According to a collection of letters edited by Simon Karlinsky, Chekhov wrote friend and publisher Aleksei Sergeevich Suvorin in January 1889 about the difficulty of ‘‘squeez[ing] the slave’s blood out of himself’’ in order to attain self-respect and independence not only as a man, but also as an author.
When his grocery store went bankrupt in 1876, Chekov’s father moved to Moscow to escape debtors’ prison. The rest of the family soon joined him, with the exception of Anton, who remained until 1879 in Taganrog to complete his secondary education. Chekhov received a scholarship to Moscow University, where he studied medicine and, because his father was incarcerated, began to provide his family with their main source of income. He carried this moral and financial responsibility for the rest of his life.
Humor and Suffering. Encouraged by his older brother, Chekhov began submitting short, humorous pieces to popular magazines to earn money. In 1880, his first story was published in Dragonfly, a St. Petersburg journal. ‘‘A Letter from the Don Landowner Stepan Vladimirovich N. to His Learned Neighbor Dr. Fridrikh’’ parodies ridiculous pseudoscientific ideas held by the pompous, poorly educated gentry. For the next several years, Chekhov looked to the streets of Moscow for the characters and themes he would then capture in anecdotes, jokes, character sketches, dialogues, and spoofs on authors of romance and adventure for humor magazines in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Chekhov’s adoption of material from his own life, a method that he would use throughout his career, offended many of his friends and family.
After graduating in 1884, Chekhov went into medical practice, but because most of his patients lived in poverty, writing became increasingly important to him for financial reasons. From 1883 to 1886, Chekhov wrote more than three hundred pieces for Nikolai Aleksandrovich Leikin, the publisher of the St. Petersburg journal Fragments. Although he and Leikin often had editorial differences, Chekhov was maturing and developing his writing skills, as evidenced by a newfound seriousness in his stories. In fact, many scholars consider Chekhov’s time under Leikin as extremely valuable formative years, for it was during this time that Chekhov came to the conclusion that suffering is a part of everyday existence. Unfortunately, Chekhov was to become very familiar with suffering: during this time, he began to exhibit symptoms of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. Tuberculosis, also historically referred to as consumption, is an infectious and highly contagious disease that often causes bleeding lesions in the lungs, but can also affect most other parts of the body. In Chekhov’s time, the disease was one of the greatest health threats in Europe; as late as 1918, one in six deaths in France was caused by tuberculosis. Doctors did not fully understand how the disease was spread until the 1880s, and the disease was not curable until effective antibiotics were developed in 1946.
Serious Writing. In 1885, Chekhov moved to St. Petersburg and became friends with A. S. Suvorin, editor of the influential journal New Times. Impressed by Chekhov’s literary talent, Suvorin encouraged the young writer to expand his gift with words, so Chekhov gave up writing for comic journals and began publishing more worldly stories in the New Times. In 1888, Chekhov published his first major literary short story, ‘‘The Steppe,’’ in the Northern Messenger. In addition to publishing short stories during the 1880s, Chekhov was also writing dramas, beginning with such popular one-act plays, or, as he referred to them, ‘‘jokes,’’ as The Bear (1888) and The Wedding Proposal (1888).
Social Responsibility. In 1890, feeling restless and dissatisfied with his life, Chekhov traveled across Siberia to visit a penal colony on Sakhalin Island. Passionate about doing something practical to address the evils of Russian society, he based the book Sakhalin (1893), which calls for prison reform, on his observations there. Up to that point, the majority of Chekhov’s works had been profoundly influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s moral code, which included concepts of Christian love and nonresistance to evil; however, after his time on the island of Sakhalin, Chekhov rejected Tolstoy’s ideas on the grounds that they provided an insufficient, unrealistic answer to human suffering. Chekhov was impatient with intellectual groups who only philosophized instead of taking action.
Major Dramas. Beginning in 1892, Chekhov worked on The Sea Gull, his first major dramatic work, while treating peasants outside of Moscow during a cholera epidemic. When The Sea Gull was produced in St. Petersburg in 1896, it was a complete failure, primarily because audiences, directors, and actors alike did not appreciate Chekhov’s concept of drama: that plot and action are secondary to mood and dialogue. In spite of this negative reception, Chekhov soon earned the reputation as the innovator of modern Russian drama, in part because of the formation of the Moscow Art Theatre.
The Moscow Art Theatre staged a new production of The Sea Gull in 1898 that proved highly successful. During rehearsals, Chekhov met actress Olga Knipper, whom he later married. He continued to write for the Moscow Art Theatre, which premiered The Three Sisters in 1901. Despite complications from tuberculosis and his doctor’s advice to rest, Chekhov pushed himself to complete The Cherry Orchard and then to attend rehearsals for the play. He suffered a complete collapse in the winter of 1903 and died on July 15, 1904, in a health resort in Badenweiler, Germany.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Chekhov's famous contemporaries include:
Edith Wharton (1862-1937): Author of the American classics The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, Wharton's primary preoccupation was with the conflict between social obligation and individual fulfillment.
Knut Hamsun (1859-1952): This Norwegian writer is best known for Hunger, a novel based on his experience as a laborer on the verge of starvation.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, which has had a profound impact on literature and literary theory.
Henry James (1843-1916): Many novels written by James explore the impact of European civilization on American development.
George Santayana (1863-1952): Santayana was a prominent philosopher who believed that reason does not lie in idealistic dreams, but in logical activity based on fact.
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924): Wilson was the twenty- eighth president of the United States and oversaw the country's involvement in World War I and the creation of the Federal Reserve system.
Works in Literary Context
While his short fiction owes much to such literary greats as Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev, Chekhov’s own influence on Western literature has proved vast. Writers from E. M. Forster to Virginia Woolf were inspired by Chekhov’s prose style, especially his mastery of mood and setting, and his methods of developing character sketches that highlight the character’s faults and human weaknesses. By developing innovative techniques, Chekhov reinvented the short-story genre. For example, he often ends stories with a ‘‘zero ending,’’ a conclusion born from realism that is anticlimactic. Other stories, however, have surprise endings. Because of Chekhov’s originality, readers for over one hundred years have admired his works, particularly for their humanity and authenticity.
Indirect Action. Climate, environment, furniture, sound effects, costumes, characters—every element in Chekhov’s plays enhances mood and meaning. Such intricacy has made his dramas popular with both audiences and actors and almost impossible to imitate effectively. Chekhov’s four major dramas are distinguished principally for their technique of ‘‘indirect action,’’ a method in which violent or intensely dramatic events take place offstage. Therefore, the main action consists of conversations alluding to the unseen moments in the characters’ lives. In this way, Chekhov more precisely conveys the effects of crucial events on a character’s personality. The first drama written in this manner was The Sea Gull, which was a complete failure when it debuted in St. Petersburg. Nonetheless, it was produced successfully in Moscow two years later under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky, who contributed to the play’s artistic success with a subtle interweaving of theme and character. As a result, action is reduced to a minimum, thereby allowing nuances of pacing and mood to become paramount to the full realization of dramatic tension.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II emancipated all serfs, initiating a new social order in Russian history. Although only a year old when the serfs were granted their freedom, Chekhov, the grandson of a former serf, explored the issue of class barriers in much of his writing. Listed below are other works in which plots revolve around social classes:
Miss Julie (1888), a drama by August Strindberg. In this naturalistic drama, the love affair between Miss Julie and Jean, her father's valet, demonstrates the often tragic consequences of breaking class barriers.
Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert's story investigates how striving for higher social status results in the destruction of Emma Bovary.
A Passage to India (1924), a novel by E. M. Forster. Set in India in the mid-1800s, this work tells the story of two Englishwomen who break social and cultural barriers when they become friends with an Indian man.
Works in Critical Context
In comparison with works of other great Russian authors, Chekhov’s writings often depict situations of boredom, hardship, and suffering. Uncle Vanya, for example, focuses on the influence of economic and social conditions on everyday life and people’s inability to change. Chekhov portrays the ordinariness of life, bringing to the stage a realism that avoids the epic scale of traditional drama, yet also demonstrates previously unrealized possibilities for the stage. In an essay in Chekhov: The Critical Heritage, Francis Fergusson writes, ‘‘If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a strict sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible.’’
Art of Melancholy. Emphasizing the darker aspects of Chekhov’s work, some critics believe his art is one of melancholy. Oftentimes, for instance, the mood and meaning of Chekhov’s drama hover between the tragic and comic, imparting the idea that life is futile and absurd. Viewing Chekhov as a total pessimist, though, has often been met with opposition, especially from those critics who approach his work from a historical perspective, seeing him as a writer who has chronicled the degeneration of the landowning classes during an era of imminent revolution. Scholars have long tried to determine the degree to which the somber sprit of Chekhov’s stories and plays reflects his personal philosophy; however, Chekhov’s importance in world literature is not so much a result of his philosophical worldview as of the artistry that transformed literary standards for the genres of fiction and drama.
The Cherry Orchard. Since its first production, controversy has surrounded the interpretation of Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, which he subtitled ‘‘A Comedy,’’ intending for it to be viewed as such. Often perceived as a nostalgic parable about the dissolution of an older class in Russian history, this work displays one of Chekhov’s most important themes: the triumph of ignorance and vulgarity over elegance and nobility. Referring to what he called Chekhov’s ‘‘tragic humor,’’ Maksim Gorky comments, ‘‘One has only to read his ‘humorous’ stories with attention to see what a lot of cruel and disgusting things, behind the humorous words and situations, had been observed by the author with sorrow and were concealed by him.’’ Despite the bleakness of the characters’ situations, some critics recognize the inescapable humor of the play. For example, in a piece included in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays Dorothy Sayers writes that ‘‘the whole tragedy of futility is that it never succeeds in achieving tragedy. In its blackest moments it is inevitably doomed to the comic gesture.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Research the Russian class system that evolved after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. How do the new social classes relate to the characters in The Cherry Orchard?
2. Explore the rise of the Moscow Art Theatre and its importance to Chekhov. Also, investigate the influence of its director, Constantin Stanislavsky, on the school of method acting that was taught by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg in America and popularized by such actors as Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, and Dennis Hopper.
3. Chekhov intended for The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy. Nevertheless, when it was produced at the Moscow Art Theater, it was presented as a tragedy. Chekhov was so frustrated by the failure of the director and critics to view the play as a comedy that he burned all but one copy of the manuscript. After evaluating The Cherry Orchard, write a review of the play in which you explain whether you agree with Chekhov or the director as to the kind of play it is. Include a paragraph in your review discussing why you believe Chekhov reacted so extremely to the play’s depiction as a tragedy.
4. Chekhov said that the city of Perm was a model for the type of provincial city that provides the setting for The Three Sisters. Research what daily life would have been like in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the century, and then compare it with what life in Moscow would have been like at the same time. Where would you have preferred to live? Why?
Erneljanow, Victor, ed. Chekhov: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
Gorky, Maksim, Alexander Kuprin, and I. A. Bunin. Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov. Trans. S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1921.
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Jackson, Robert Louis. Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Karlinsky, Simon, ed. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Malcolm, Janet. Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. New York: Random House, 2001.
Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2000.