Chekhov became one of my favorite authors after I learned Russian—not because I had read mediocre translations before or could grasp the nuance of his language with my impoverished vocabulary, but because I suddenly realized how generous and humane he is to his characters. He has no villains, only people who suffer and inflict suffering to various degrees and almost always realize it but seldom deserve it more or less than the next person. Hence, when I felt stuck on own of my own short stories, I re-read four of Chekhov’s and learned two new things.
First, these Chekhov stories all end where they began, so that the story could almost spin forth anew unchanged, except for the insight the characters acquire along the way. In this way, Chekhov’s stories are like life: we come from nothing, we return to nothing, we have lessons in between. For instance, in “The Student,” the student is walking home on a swiftly chilling eve. He feels despair and avoids going straight home. By the end, he is walking home, but now he feels life is “enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning” (298 in my Everyman omnibus edition.) In between comes the re-enactment of Peter’s denial of Jesus thrice. In “The Man in the Case,” Ivan stands outside a barn smoking a pipe while, from the hay, Burkin tells him the story of Belikov. At the end, Burkin has fallen asleep and Ivan, restless, goes outside to smoke his pipe. One might wait for Burkin to awake as well and spin another yarn. A similar return occurs in “On Official Duty,” with almost identical sledge rides in the snow, whereas in “The Lady with the Dog,” the return varies slightly. Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna are now together, but one imagines them easily wandering to new seaside resorts to run from each other as they previously ran from their respective spouses.
Second, in these stories, the title coyly comments on some central character’s condition. In “The Man in the Case,” Ivan points out that maybe he and Burkin also live in their respective cases. Burkin wants to dismiss the idea, or at least not put his case on par with Belikov’s galoshes, umbrella, dark glasses, pencil case, and four-poster bed wrapped in curtains. Nonetheless, Burkin speaks from inside a dark barn—a case. In “The Lady with the Dog,” Anna Sergeyevna doesn’t have just a Pomeranian, she also has Gurov. “On Official Duty” suggests Lyzhin, the examining magistrate, has the official duty, which he largely shirks but feels bad about, and then he realizes that all human lives are intertwined and that his gain may require someone else’s loss, which was perhaps his existential if not official duty to realize. In contrast, Loshadin, the constable, whose name seems derived from the Russian for horse, forever schleps his official bag around the steppe. He has this duty. Lesnitsky, the insurance agent, committed suicide, which almost seems an act of his office and sets the whole story in motion. One had a duty to die, the other to survive, and the other to make the connections, though we never see Lyzhin make the connections in a way that explains the death. (It helps, as with Burkin-Belikov, that all the L-named characters relate importantly to one another.)
Like these characters, we may all learn something, but we will probably also miss something of equal or greater significance about ourselves. Thus, we would do well to keep Chekhov’s generosity and humaneness close to our hearts.