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Chekhov Stories

Anton Chekhov

Important Quotations Explained

Steppe (The Story of a Journey)

Key Facts

Kovrin now believed that he was one of God's chosen and a genius; he vividly recalled his conversations with the monk in the past and tried to speak, but the blood flowed from his throat onto his breast, and not knowing what he was doing, he passed his hands over his breast, and his cuffs were soaked with blood….

He called Tania, called to the great orchard with the gorgeous flowers sprinkled with dew, called to the park, the pines with their shaggy roots, the rye fields, his marvelous learning, his youth, courage, joy—called to life, which was so lovely. He could see on the floor near his face a great pool of blood, and was too weak to utter a word, but an unspeakable, infinite happiness flooded his whole being. Below, under the balcony, they were playing the serenade, and the black monk whispered to him that he was a genius, and that he was dying only because his frail human body had lost its balance and could no longer serve as the mortal garb of genius.

When Varvara woke up and came out from behind the screen, Kovrin was dead, and a blissful smile had congealed on his face.

This passage comes at the end of The Black Monk. It is an example of a Chekovian "surprise ending"—in that it has a definite and shocking climax—and thus contrasts with the "zero" endings that the author uses elsewhere. The passage incorporates some common themes of Chekhov including disease (tuberculosis), mental illness, and man's quest for fulfillment. We see that Kovrin's hallucinations merge with the memories of his childhood, creating a scene that is frenzied yet strangely touching. Although Kovin dies, he does so with a "blissful smile" on his lips, perfectly satisfied with his moment of supreme understanding. Thus, Chekhov presents his protagonist's mental illness with subtle ambivalence, seeing it as a disease that can destroy as well as an "infinite happiness" that can redeem.

As always, details are important for Chekhov—he notes that Kovrin's cuffs are soaked with blood, and that the protagonist thinks about "shaggy roots" and the dew "sprinkled" on flowers. Chekhov thus recreates the tangled minutiae of Kovrin's final thoughts, making his death seem more authentic and more moving.

The official got into his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted: 'Dmitri!' 'What?' 'You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit off!' These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, was uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for playing cards, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of your time, the better part of your strength, and in the end you are left with a life earthbound and curtailed, just rubbish, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though you were in a madhouse or penal servitude.

This quote is taken from one of Chekhov's most famous tales, The Lady with the Dog. Its protagonist, Dmitri Gurov, is fed up with his small-minded existence and cannot forget his innocent lover Anna. The interchange between Gurov and the official is comic yet insightful, and Chekhov uses it to show readers the shallow concerns of Moscovite society.

Gurov describes his situation as though he were imprisoned or incarcerated like a lunatic. This is not unique to The Lady with the Dog: many Chekhovian tales examine the theme of incarceration and entrapment. Whether bound by impoverished circumstances or the dull monotony of their provincial lifestyles, most of Chekhov's protagonists nurture a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives.

Somewhere far away a bittern cried, a hollow melancholy sound like a cow shut in a barn. The cry of that mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it looked like or where it lived. At the top of the hill by the hospital, in the bushes by the pond, and in the nearby fields the nightingale trilled. The cuckoo kept reckoning someone's years and losing count and beginning again. In the pond the frogs called angrily to one another, straining themselves to bursting, and one could even make out the words: 'That's what you are! That's what you are!' What a noise there was! It seemed as if all these creatures were singing and shouting so that no one might sleep on that spring night, so that all, even the angry frogs, might appreciate and enjoy every minute: you only live once….

Oh, how lonely it was in the open country at night, in the midst of that singing when you cannot sing yourself; in the midst of the incessant cries of joy when you cannot yourself be joyful, when the moon, equally lonely, indifferent whether it is spring or winter, whether men are dead or alive, looks down….

This passage evidences nature's indifference to mankind, which is a common theme in Chekhov's stories. The author's descriptions of frogs calling to one another are humorously anthropomorphic, but they highlight the alienation of the natural from the manmade worlds. This quote reveals Chekhov's fascination with nature's strange noises: he describes the nightingales' "trilling" and other creatures "singing and shouting." Such seemingly inconsequential details imply that life will continue with or without mankind. In particular, the narrator's comment that the moon is "indifferent" to nature's "incessant cries of joy" suggests that while men and women lament and suffer, the natural world continues regardless.

It's fashionable to say that a man needs no more than six feet of earth. But six feet are what a corpse needs, not a man. And they say, too, now, that if our intellectual classes are attracted to the land and yearn for a farm, it's a good thing. But these farms are just the same as six feet of earth. To retreat from town, from the struggle, from the bustle of life, to retreat and bury yourself in your farm—it's not life, it's egotism, laziness, it's monasticism of a sort, but monasticism without good works. A man does not need six feet of earth or a farm, but the entire globe, all nature, where he can have room to display all the qualities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

This quote is taken from Ivan's diatribe in Gooseberries against the greed of the Russian landowners. We see Chekhov refuting Tolstoy's argument that an individual needs only "six feet of earth" by noting that mankind needs "the entire globe" in which to wander. The author felt that man's liberation depended upon his freedom to roam the earth, connecting with nature and exercising the authority of his free will. However, many of Chekhov's tales show people oppressed by circumstance and suffering due to the vagaries of fate. One wonders whether the author admires but also recognizes the futility of Ivan's idealism.

Loshadin went in and out several times, clearing away the tea things; smacking his lips and sighing, he kept tramping round the table; at last he took his little lamp and went out, and, looking at his long, grey headed, bent figure from behind, Lyzhin thought: 'Just like a magician in an opera.' It was dark. The moon must have been behind the clouds, as the windows and the snow on the window-frames could be seen distinctly. 'Oo-oo-oo-oo!' sang the storm, 'Oo-oo- oo-oo!' 'Ho-o-ly sa-aints!' wailed a woman in the loft, or it sounded like it. 'Ho-o-ly sa-aints!' 'Boo-oof!' something outside banged against the wall. 'Trac!' The examining magistrate listened: there was no woman up there, it was the wind howling.

This quote is from the tale On Official Duty, and it evidences Chekhov's fascination with the trivialities of people's lives. The constable Loshadin, a stooped old man who suffers under his responsibility to the state, is both comic and pathetic. Although initially dismissive of the provincial peasants, the haughty magistrate seems affected by their superstitions: he is disturbed by strange noises during the night, which he thinks might be a woman in the loft. Although readers may laugh at the almost comic strip sound effects such as "Ho- o-ly sa-aints!" and "Boo-of!", Chekhov uses them to make a serious point. Ultimately, we cannot ignore the sense that the magistrate is troubled by the world around him and by the discontentment of those less fortunate than himself.

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