Anton Chekhov Biography
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904), like Pushkin, Lermontov, Bielinski, and Garshin, died young, and although he wrote a goodly number of plays and stories which gave him a high reputation in Russia, he did not live to enjoy international fame. This is partly owing to the nature of his work, but more perhaps to the total eclipse of other contemporary writers by Gorki. There are signs now that his delicate and unpretentious art will outlast the sensational flare of the other’s reputation. Gorki himself has generously tried to help in the perpetuation of Chekhov’s name, by publishing a volume of personal reminiscences of his dead friend.
Like Gogol and Artsybashev, Chekhov was a man of the South, being born at Taganrog, a seaport on a gulf of the Black Sea, near the mouth of the river Don. The date of his birth is the 17 January 1860. His father was a clever serf, who, by good business foresight, bought his freedom early in life. Although the father never had much education himself, he gave his four children every possible advantage. Anton studied in the Greek school in his native city, and then entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Moscow. “I don’t well remember why I chose the medical faculty,” he remarked later, “but I never regretted that choice.” He took his degree, but entered upon no regular practice. For a year he worked in a hospital in a small town near Moscow, and in 1892 he freely offered his medical services during an epidemic of cholera. His professional experiences were of immense service to him in analysing the characters of various patients whom he treated, and his scientific training he always believed helped him greatly in the writing of his stories and plays, which are all psychological studies.
He knew that he had not very long to live, for before he had really begun his literary career signs of tuberculosis had plainly become manifest. He died in Germany, the 2 July 1904, and his funeral at Moscow was a national event.
Chekhov was a fine conversationalist, and fond of society; despite the terrible gloom of his stories, he had distinct gifts as a wit, and was a great favourite at dinner-parties and social gatherings. He joked freely on his death-bed. He was warmhearted and generous, and gave money gladly to poor students and overworked school-teachers. His innate modesty and lack of self-assertion made him very slow at personal advertisement, and his dislike of Tolstoi’s views prevented at first an acquaintance with the old sage. Later, however, Tolstoi, being deeply interested in him, sought him out, and the two writers became friends. At this time many Russians believed that Chekhov was the legitimate heir to Tolstoi’s fame.
In 1879, while still in the University of Moscow, Chekhov began to write short stories, of a more or less humorous nature, which were published in reviews. His first book appeared in 1887. Some critics sounded a note of warning, which he heeded. They said “it was too bad that such a talented young man should spend all his time making people laugh.” This indirect advice, coupled with maturity of years and incipient disease, changed the writer’s point of view, and his best known work is typically Russian in its tragic intensity.
In Russia he enjoyed an enormous vogue. Kropotkin says that his works ran through ten to fourteen editions, and that his publications, appearing as a supplement to a weekly magazine, had a circulation of two hundred thousand copies in one year. Toward the end of his life his stories captivated Germany, and one of the Berlin journalists cried out, as the Germans have so often of Oscar Wilde, “Chekhov und kein Ende!”
Chekhov, like Gorki and Andreev, was a dramatist as well as a novelist, though his plays are only beginning to be known outside of his native land. They resemble the dramatic work of Gorki, Andreev, and for that matter of practically all Russian playwrights, in being formless and having no true movement; but they contain some of his best Russian portraits, and some of his most subtle interpretations of Russian national life. Russian drama does not compare for an instant with Russian fiction : I have never read a single well-constructed Russian play except Revizor. Most of them are dull to a foreign reader, and leave him cold and weary. Mr. Baring, in his book Landmarks in Russian Literature, has an excellent chapter on the plays of Chekhov, which partially explains the difficulties an outsider has in studying Russian drama. But this chapter, like the other parts of his book, is marred by exaggeration. He says, “Chekhov’s plays are as interesting to read as the work of any first-rate novelist.” And a few sentences farther in the same paragraph, he adds, “Chekhov’s plays are a thousand times more interesting to see on the stage than they are to read.” Any one who believes Mr. Baring’s statement, and starts to read Chekhov’s dramas with the faith that they are as interesting as Anna Karenina, will be sadly disappointed. And if on the stage they are a thousand times more interesting to see than Anna Karenina is to read, they must indeed be thrilling. It is, however, perfectly true that a foreigner cannot judge the real value of Russian plays by reading them. We ought to hear them performed by a Russian company. That wonderful actress, Madame Komisarzhevskaya, who was lately followed to her grave by an immense concourse of weeping Russians, gave a performance of The Cherry Garden which stirred the whole nation. Madame Nazimova has said that Chekhov is her favourite writer, but that his plays could not possibly succeed in America, unless every part, even the minor ones, could be interpreted by a brilliant actor.
Chekhov is durch und durch echt russisch: no one but a Russian would ever have conceived such characters, or reported such conversations. We often wonder that physical exercise and bodily recreation are so conspicuously absent from Russian books. But we should remember that a Russian conversation is one of the most violent forms of physical exercise, as it is among the French and Italians. Although Chekhov belongs to our day, and represents contemporary Russia, he stands in the middle of the highway of Russian fiction, and in his method of art harks back to the great masters. He perhaps resembles Turgenev more than any other of his predecessors, but he is only a faint echo. He is like Turgenev in the delicacy and in the aloofness of his art. He has at times that combination of the absolutely real with the absolutely fantastic that is so characteristic of Gogol: one of his best stories, The Black Monk, might have been written by the author of The Cloak and The Portrait. He is like Dostoevski in his uncompromising depiction of utter degradation ; but he has little of Dostoevski’s glowing sympathy and heartpower. He resembles Tolstoi least of all. The two chief features of Tolstoi’s work—self-revelation and moral teaching—must have been abhorrent to Chekhov, for his stories tell us almost nothing about himself and his own opinions, and they teach nothing. His art is impersonal, and he is content with mere diagnosis . His only point of contact with Tolstoi is his grim fidelity to detail, the peculiar Russian realism common to every Russian novelist. Tolstoi said that Chekhov resembled Guy de Maupassant. This is entirely wide of the mark. He resembles Guy de Maupassant merely in the fact that, like the Frenchman, he wrote short stories.
Among recent writers Chekhov is at the farthest remove from his friend Gorki, and most akin to Andreev. It is probable that Andreev learned something from him. Unlike Turgenev, both Chekhov and Andreev study mental disease. Their best characters are abnormal ; they have some fatal taint in the mind which turns this goodly frame, the earth, into a sterile promontory; this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, into a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. Neither Chekhov nor Andreev have attempted to lift that black pall of despair that hangs over Russian fiction.
Just as the austere, intellectual beauty of Greek drama forms striking evidence of the extraordinarily high average of culture in Athenian life, so the success of an author like Chekhov is abundant proof of the immense number of readers of truly cultivated taste that are scattered over Holy Russia. For Chekhov’s stories are exclusively intellectual and subtle. They appeal only to the mind, not to the passions nor to any love of sensation. In many of them he deliberately avoids climaxes and all varieties of artificial effect. He would be simply incomprehensible to the millions of Americans who delight in musical comedy and in pseudo-historical romance. He wrote only for the elect, for those who have behind them years of culture and habits of consecutive thought. That such a man should have a vogue in Russia such as a cheap romancer enjoys in America, is in itself a significant and painful fact.
Chekhov’s position in the main line of Russian literature and his likeness to Turgenev are both evident when we study his analysis of the Russian temperament. His verdict is exactly the same as that given by Turgenev and Sienkiewicz—slave improductivite. A majority of his chief characters are Rudins. They suffer from internal injuries, caused by a diseased will. In his story called On the Way the hero remarks, Nature has set in every Russian an enquiring mind, a tendency to speculation, and extraordinary capacity for belief; but all these are broken into dust against our improvidence, indolence, and fantastic triviality“
The novelist who wrote that sentence was a physician as well as a man of letters. It is a professional diagnosis of the national sickness of mind, which produces sickness of heart.
It is absurd to join in the chorus that calls Turgenev old-fashioned, when we find his words accurately, if faintly, echoed by a Russian who died hi 1904! Hope springs eternal in the human breast, and wishes have always been the legitimate fathers of thoughts. My friend and colleague, Mr. Mandell, the translator of The Cherry Garden, says that the play indicates that the useless people are dying away, “and thus making room for the regenerated young generation which is full of hope and strength to make a fruitful cherry garden of Russia for the Russian people . . . the prospects of realisation are now bright. But how soon will this become a practical reality? Let us hope in the near future!” Yes, let us hope, as Russians hoped in 1870 and in 1900. Kropotkin says that Chekhov gave an “impressive parting word” to the old generation, and that we are now on the eve of the “new types which already are budding in life.” Gorki has violently protested against the irresolute Slav, and Artsybashev has given us in Jurii the Russian as he is (1903) and in Sanin the Russian as he ought to be. But a disease obstinately remains a disease until it is cured, and it cannot be cured by hope or by protest.
Chekhov was a physician and an invalid; he saw sickness without and sickness within. Small wonder that his stories deal with the unhealthy and the doomed. For just as Artsybashev’s tuberculosis has made him create the modern Tamburlaine as a mental enjoyment of physical activity, so the less turbulent nature of Chekhov has made him reproduce in his creatures of the imagination his own sufferings and fears. I think he was afraid of mental as well as physical decay, for he has studied insanity with the same assiduity as that displayed by Andreev in his nerve-wrecking story A Dilemma.
In Ward No. 6, which no one should read late at night, Chekhov has given us a picture of an insane asylum, which, if the conditions there depicted are true to life, would indicate that some parts of Russia have not advanced one step since Gogol wrote Revizor. The patients are beaten and hammered into insensibility by a brutal keeper; they live amidst intolerable filth. The attending physician is a typical Russian, who sees clearly the horror and abomination of the place, but has not sufficient will-power to make a change. He is fascinated by one of the patients, with whom he talks for hours. His fondness for this man leads his friends to believe that he is insane, and they begin to treat him with that humouring condescension and pity which would be sufficient in itself to drive a man out of his mind. He is finally invited by his younger colleague to visit the asylum to examine a strange case; when he reaches the building, he himself is shoved into Ward No. 6, and realises that the doors are shut upon him forever. He is obliged to occupy a bed in the same filthy den where he has so often visited the other patients, and his night-gown has a slimy smell of dried fish. In about twenty-four hours he dies, but in those hours he goes through a hell of physical and mental torment.
The fear of death, which to an intensely intellectual people like the Russians, is an obsession of terror, and shadows all their literature,—it appears all through Tolstoi’s diary and novels,—is analysed in many forms by Chekhov. In Ward No. 6 Chekhov pays his respects to Tolstoi’s creed of self-denial, through the lips of the doctor’s favourite madman. “A creed which teaches indifference to wealth, indifference to the conveniences of life, and contempt for suffering is quite incomprehensible to the great majority who never knew either wealth or the conveniences of life, and to whom contempt for suffering would mean contempt for their own lives, which are made up of feelings of hunger, cold, loss, insult, and a Hamlet-like terror of death. All life lies in these feelings, and life may be hated or wearied of, but never despised. Yes, I repeat it, the teachings of the Stoics can never have a future; from the beginning of time, life has consisted in sensibility to pain and response to irritation.”
No better indictment has ever been made against those to whom self-denial and renunciation are merely a luxurious attitude of the mind.
Chekhov’s sympathy with Imagination and his hatred for commonplace folk who stupidly try to repress its manifestations are shown again and again in his tales. He loves especially the imagination of children ; and he shows them as infinitely wiser than their practical parents. In the short sketch An Event the children are wild with delight over the advent of three kittens, and cannot understand their father’s disgust for the little beasts, and his cruel indifference to their welfare. The cat is their mother, that they know; but who is the father? The kittens must have a father, so the children drag out the wooden rocking-horse, and place him beside his wife and offspring.
In the story At Home the father’s bewilderment at the creative imagination and the curious caprices of his little boy’s mind is tenderly and beautifully described. The father knows he is not bringing him up wisely, but is utterly at a loss how to go at the problem, having none of the intuitive sympathy of a woman. The boy is busy with his pencil, and represents sounds by shapes, letters by colours. For example, “the sound of an orchestra he drew as a round, smoky spot; whistling as a spiral thread.” In making letters, he always painted L yellow, M red, and A black. He draws a picture of a house with a soldier standing in front of it. The father rebukes him for bad perspective, and tells him that the soldier in his picture is taller than the house. But the boy replies, “If you drew the soldier smaller, you wouldn’t be able to see his eyes.”
One of Chekhov’s favourite pastimes was gardening. This, perhaps, accounts for his location of the scene in his comedy The Cherry Garden, where a business-like man, who had once been a serf, just like the dramatist’s own father, has prospered sufficiently to buy the orchard from the improvident and highly educated owners ; and for all the details about fruit-gardening given in the powerful story The Black Monk. This story infallibly reminds one of Gogol. A man has repeatedly a vision of a black monk, who visits him through the air, with whom he carries on long conversations, and who inspires him with great thoughts and ideals. His wife and friends of course think he is crazy, and instead of allowing him to continue his intercourse with the familiar spirit, they persuade :him he is ill, and make him take medicine. The result is wholesale tragedy. His life is ruined, his wife is separated from him ; at last he dies. The idea seems to be that he should not have been disobedient unto the heavenly vision. Imagination and inspiration are necessary to life; they are what separate man from the beasts that perish. The monk asks him, “How do you know that the men of genius whom all the world trusts have not also seen visions?”
Chekhov is eternally at war with the practical, with the narrow-minded, with the commonplace. Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Professor Bruckner has well said that Chekhov was by profession a physician, but an artist by the grace of God. He was indeed an exquisite artist, and if his place in Russian literature is not large, it seems permanent. He does not rank among the greatest. He lacks the tremendous force of Tolstoi, the flawless perfection of Turgenev, and the mighty world-embracing sympathy of Great-heart Dostoevski. But he is a faithful interpreter of Russian life, and although his art was objective, one cannot help feeling the essential goodness of the man behind his work, and loving him for it.
- The citations from Chekhov are from the translations by Long.
- Published at Yale University by the Yale Courant.