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Chekhov Stories

Anton Chekhov

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, a southern Russian port, in 1860. The son of a shopkeeper and grandson of a serf, Chekhov was himself well educated and aspired to a career in medicine. His family entered financial difficulties when Chekhov was a medical student in Moscow, prompting the young man to write short stories for publication. (Throughout his life, Chekhov would juggle two careers, devoting his energies to the professions of medicine and writing.) These tales appeared in monthly periodicals and later, as his reputation grew, more illustrious journals. By 1888, Chekhov was recognized as an outstanding literary talent, popular with both critics and public alike. In this same year he was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Prize for a collection of short stories. Most of Chekhov's tales were written between 1885 and 1899, which was his most creative period as a short story writer. Over the following years until his death, Chekhov cemented his literary renown by writing works for the stage. However, plays such as Uncle Vanya (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1904) earned Chekhov criticism as well as praise. Many Russian critics deny that these works display the mastery of form and language reflected in Chekhov's tales.

As a writer of short fiction, Chekhov is indebted to such literary giants as Maupassant, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, but his own influence on western literature has been immense. The author's masterful handling of prose, as well as his sensitivity towards character, mood, and setting, impressed authors as diverse as E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Indeed, his economical use of language and ambivalent style—Chekhov weaves humor with pathos to magnify the inconsequential details of people's lives—helped redefine the short story genre. He also developed a technique of ending stories with what have been termed "zero endings"—or anti-climactic conclusions. This technique makes the stories seem more realistic, and often more pathetic, because readers are left to guess what will happen next. However, Chekhov also employs "surprise endings" to confound our expectations, and we can never be sure how a tale will end. Consequently, over a hundred years after his works were written, readers still marvel at Chekhov's freshness and originality. Although the author sketches his characters with compassionate good-humor, he never abstains from highlighting their faults, foibles, and human weaknesses. Chekhov's stories are thus deeply humane works of fiction: in detailing life's poignant trivialities, they are unrivalled in their sense of authenticity. As David Margarshack writes, when reading them "one gets the impression of holding life itself, like a fluttering bird, in one's cupped hands."

Like many of his characters, Chekhov's own life was touched by tragedy. Donald Rayfield notes that the author "mourned in fiction" for his gifted brother Nikolai's untimely death, his broken family, and the suicides of many of his friends. However these tragic events fostered an understanding of suffering and a certain liberalism of thought. Looking at Chekhov's life, Rayfield concludes that his "daring modern morality is in part born of bitter experience." Unfortunately, life did not get any easier for the troubled author. He became debilitated by tuberculosis and in 1898 exchanged his active lifestyle in Moscow for the tranquility of Yalta. Chekhov remained in this coastal resort—the setting for his most famous tale Lady with the Dog—for most of his remaining years. Although he married the famous actress Olga Knipper in 1901, Chekhov rarely saw his wife, who suffered a miscarriage in 1902. The author relocated to Badenweiler, Germany and died in 1904.

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