Chekhov: From a Lay Perspective

Anton Chekhov wrote a story called ‘Gooseberries’ in 1898.

It’s available online here. I read it in a collection called ‘About Love and other stories’ translated by Rosamund Bartlett.

Having no training in literary critique, the story appears to be about the relationship between happiness and sadness. Chekhov’s thesis appears to be that happiness exists at the cost of someone else’s unhappiness.  The elements of the story are artfully arranged to support this.

Two friends, Ivan and Burkin, take a walk in the woods, but the weather turns inclement and they seek refuge from rain in their friend Alyokhin’s house. Ivan tells a story and both he and Burkin stay the night since the rain does not let up.

From the opening there are rain clouds. Both Ivan and Burkin are in a good mood while they ramble, but then it starts to rain. Their mood sours, but Alyokhin is upbeat. A significant scene is when they are invited to the bath area while  he washes before going into the house. Alyokhin enjoys the swim and keeps repeating that he hasn’t had a wash in ages. On the first read I could not understand why Chekhov spent so much time on this swim, and I almost cheered when Burkin said: ‘Come on, that’s enough!’ but it demonstrates that Alyokhin’s pleasure is at the expense of his friends.

Ivan tells the story of his brother Nikolay, who always dreamed of a house in the country, thinking this would be the source of his happiness. In fact the title comes from Nikolay’s insistence on having gooseberry bushes in his country home. His dream comes true at the expense of his rich wife, who has to die before the Nikolay can buy his house. When Ivan visits he is served some sour berries from Nikolay’s bushes. Nikolay is content, though, and Ivan reflects that this is at the expense of the peasants who work for him and who suffer when he expounds opinions like “Education is vital, but it is premature for the populace”.

“apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him — illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind — and everything is all right.”

It’s an interesting story that bears rereading. Chekhov uses many techniques to keep the reader interested, because ultimately not a lot happens and it’s kind of bleak, but deliberately so. Chekhov even acknowledges this when he writes: “Neither Burkin nor Alyokhin found Ivan Ivanych’s story satisfying.”

It’s as if Chekhov warns us that there is something here, but it won’t be obvious or satisfying if you don’t look deeper. Or there’s some kind of meta-narrative where he’s saying he won’t make the reader happy because to do that would be at the expense of some sadness. Proving his thesis.

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2 Comments

Filed under review, story, writer

2 responses to “Chekhov: From a Lay Perspective

  1. Love Checkov, his work is always so layered. There are so many meanings to garner from his stories.

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