Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Russian: Анто́н Па́влович Че́хов, pronounced [ɐnˈton ˈpavləvʲɪt͡ɕ ˈt͡ɕexəf]; 29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904) was a Russian physician, dramaturge and author who is considered to be among the Read more ...
greatest writers of short stories in history. His career as a dramatist produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Chekhov practised as a medical doctor throughout most of his literary career: "Medicine is my lawful wife", he once said, "and literature is my mistress."
Chekhov renounced the theatre after the disastrous reception of The Seagull in 1896, but the play was revived to acclaim in 1898 by Constantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently also produced Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and premiered his last two plays,Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. These four works present a challenge to the acting ensemble as well as to audiences, because in place of conventional action Chekhov offers a "theatre of mood" and a "submerged life in the text."
Chekhov had at first written stories only for financial gain, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story. His originality consists in an early use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, later adopted by James Joyce and other modernists, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.
Anton Chekhov was born on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great (17 January Old Style) 29 January 1860, the third of six surviving children, in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, the son of a former serf, was from a village Vilkhovatka near Kobeliaky (Poltava region) and ran a grocery store. A director of the parish choir, devout Orthodox Christian, and physically abusive father, Pavel Chekhov has been seen by some historians as the model for his son's many portraits of hypocrisy. Chekhov's mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller who entertained the children with tales of her travels with her cloth-merchant father all over Russia. "Our talents we got from our father," Chekhov remembered, "but our soul from our mother." In adulthood, Chekhov criticized his brother Alexander's treatment of his wife and children by reminding him of Pavel's tyranny:
Let me ask you to recall that it was despotism and lying that ruined your mother's youth. Despotism and lying so mutilated our childhood that it's sickening and frightening to think about it. Remember the horror and disgust we felt in those times when Father threw a tantrum at dinner over too much salt in the soup and called Mother a fool.
Chekhov attended a school for Greek boys, followed by the Taganrog gymnasium, now renamed the Chekhov Gymnasium, where he was kept down for a year at fifteen for failing a Greek exam. He sang at the Greek Orthodox monastery in Taganrog and in his father's choirs. In a letter of 1892, he used the word "suffering" to describe his childhood and recalled:
“When my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing the trio "May my prayer be exalted", or "The Archangel's Voice", everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts.”
Despite having a religious background and education, he later became an atheist.
In 1876, Chekhov's father was declared bankrupt after over-extending his finances building a new house, and to avoid the debtor's prison fled to Moscow, where his two eldest sons, Alexander and Nikolay, were attending university. The family lived in poverty in Moscow, Chekhov's mother physically and emotionally broken. Chekhov was left behind to sell the family possessions and finish his education.
Chekhov remained in Taganrog for three more years, boarding with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house. Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by—among other jobs—private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers. He sent every ruble he could spare to Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer up the family. During this time, he read widely and analytically, including Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer; and he wrote a full-length comedy drama,Fatherless, which his brother Alexander dismissed as "an inexcusable though innocent fabrication." Chekhov also enjoyed a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.
In 1879, Chekhov completed his schooling and joined his family inMoscow, having gained admission to the medical school at I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.
(I’m jumping ahead here to a time when Chekhov, established as a writer, a doctor, and enduring recurrent bouts with his own tuberculosis, helps his less fortunate countrymen.)
In 1892, Chekhov bought the small country estate of Melikhovo, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived until 1899 with his family. "It's nice to be a lord," he joked to his friend Ivan Leontyev (who wrote humorous pieces under the pseudonym Shcheglov), but he took his responsibilities as a landlord seriously and soon made himself useful to the local peasants. As well as organizing relief for victims of the famine and cholera outbreaks of 1892, he went on to build three schools, a fire station, and a clinic, and to donate his medical services to peasants for miles around, despite frequent recurrences of his tuberculosis.
Mikhail Chekhov, a member of the household at Melikhovo, described the extent of his brother's medical commitments:
“From the first day that Chekhov moved to Melikhovo, the sick began flocking to him from twenty miles around. They came on foot or were brought in carts, and often he was fetched to patients at a distance. Sometimes from early in the morning peasant women and children were standing before his door waiting.”
Chekhov's expenditure on drugs was considerable, but the greatest cost was making journeys of several hours to visit the sick, which reduced his time for writing. Chekhov's work as a doctor, however, enriched his writing by bringing him into intimate contact with all sections of Russian society: for example, he witnessed at first hand the peasants' unhealthy and cramped living conditions, which he recalled in his short story Peasants. Chekhov visited the upper classes as well, recording in his notebook: "Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women."
By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill with tuberculosis. Mikhail Chekhov recalled that "everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off, but the nearer [he] was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it." On 3 June he set off with Olga for the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest, from where he wrote outwardly jovial letters to his sister Masha describing the food and surroundings and assuring her and his mother that he was getting better. In his last letter, he complained about the way the German women dressed.
Chekhov's death has become one of "the great set pieces of literary history", retold, embroidered, and fictionalized many times since, notably in the short story "Errand" by Raymond Carver. In 1908, Olga wrote this account of her husband's last moments:
“Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe ("I'm dying"). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: "It's a long time since I drank champagne." He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child …”
Chekhov's body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car for fresh oysters, a detail which offended Gorky. Some of the thousands of mourners followed the funeral procession of a General Keller by mistake, to the accompaniment of a military band.Chekhov was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery
“He was a rationalist, but he had to confess that he liked the ringing of church bells.”