Subtitled "The Story of a Provincial" this tale deals with the life of Misail Poloznev, a young gentleman who renounces the "privilege of capital and education" in favor of earning his living through manual labor. Misail's architect father despairs of his son's pedestrian ambitions and beats him for refusing to work as a clerk. But Misail stands firm in his goals, even when his sister Kleopatra begs him to reconsider. Consequently, Kleopatra's friend Aniuta Blagovo finds him work building a railway line for the engineer Dolzhikov.
Despite his initial optimism, Misail soon grows weary of Dolzhikov's sneering attitude and persuades a painter and laborer named Radish to employ him as a workman. Society's response to the protagonist's new lifestyle is overwhelmingly negative: people throw water at him in the street and accuse him of shaming his father. Although a family friend named Dr. Blagovo congratulates Misail on his integrity of character, he argues with the young man about the merits of manual labor. These arguments do not move the protagonist, who suspects that the doctor only pays him visits in order to see Kleopatra. As time passes, Misail's father grows enraged by his son's actions and disinherits him. The protagonist discusses his dreams with Masha Dolzhikov, the engineer's daughter, who is intrigued by the Misail's idealism. She encourages him to pay her frequent visits, and the young couple soon falls "passionately in love."
The lovers move to the village of Dubechnia, get married, and manage Dolzhikov's country estate there. Kleopatra offers them her blessing, although she informs Misail that their father is deeply upset. The newlyweds' happiness is also marred in other ways: the local peasantry steals from the landowners, and Masha's plans to build a school are undermined by the village council. This causes problems within the marriage—while Masha grows to detest the peasants, Misail decides that their imaginations have only been "stifled" by monotonous thoughts. Over the course of the summer, Misail notices that Masha spends more time with a handsome man named Stephan, who abuses his fellow peasants at every opportunity. It comes as no surprise when Masha tells her husband that she is disgusted by all the "filth [and] petty, mercenary interests" of provincial life. She departs for Petersburg and leaves Misail to manage his farm.
The protagonist is shocked to discover that his sister has become pregnant by Dr. Blagovo. The siblings move in together with Radish, and Masha writes asking for a divorce. Kleopatra comforts Misail by informing him that Aniuta is in love with him but that she cannot hope to marry him without compromising her respectability. The bemused Misail fills his time thinking about love and the vagaries of fate. He visits his father to tell him that Kleopatra is terminally ill, and the two men berate one another for their failures in life. After his sister dies, Misail takes his little niece to visit her mother's grave. Misail notes with sadness that although people have accepted his job as a laborer, he is now "silent, stern, and austere."
First published in censored form in 1896, this tale is one of Chekhov's longest and most politically contentious, as Donald Rayfield notes. It draws on common themes such as the town/country divide, self-realization through trial and hardship, and the disillusionment of failed ideals. Although Masha and Misail appear to be the perfect match, we see that the young woman is more intrigued by leading an "interesting" life than she is troubled by a social conscience. As a result, it is no surprise that Masha becomes disenchanted with the coarse Russian peasantry. In her comment to her husband, "if you work, dress, eat like a peasant you legitimize, as it were their heavy, clumsy dress, their horrible huts, their stupid beards," we see Masha's distaste for a real—as opposed to an idealized—peasant lifestyle. In contrast, Misail's hardships only strengthen his resolve to live close to the land. Misail recognizes his wife's shallow liberalism and concludes, "ideas and a fashionable intellectual movement served simply for her recreation and I was only the coach-driver who drove her from one entertainment to the other." Chekhov thus weaves marital conflict with social tensions to emphasize the complexity of the issues he is examining. Masha is not simply a hypocritical member of the gentry, who overlooks her father's alcoholism but revolts at the peasants' fondness for vodka; she is a woman who enters into debate on issues that concern her but for reasons of self-interest rather than altruism.
Within this debate, Dr. Blagovo assumes the cynical viewpoint of the intelligentsia. He is skeptical of Misail's ideals and argues vehemently that there are "no deep social currents among us." In his comment to Misail that "[w]e must study, and study, and study, and we must wait a bit for our deep social currents to tell the truth, we don't understand anything about them," the doctor reveals his own interest in social concerns. But he is unwilling to actually do anything to help the peasantry. For Blagovo, poverty and oppression are problems to be examined and intellectualized rather than acted upon. Chekhov makes no moral judgment on this objectified stance; he merely presents it as different viewpoint on the issues. As a result, there is no apex to the ideological triangle formed by Blagovo, Masha and Misail. Each holds his or her own views and acts according to his or her personal conviction. While we may sympathize with Misail at the breakup of his marriage and feel anger towards the doctor for abandoning Kleopatra, Chekhov complicates our view of the broader sociological issues where one cannot so easily apportion blame.
The tale shares many similarities with Chekhov's personal life. Set in a provincial town in southern Russia, it recalls the author's childhood home of Taganrog. Kleopatra's fatal illness recalls Chekhov's lifelong battle with tuberculosis, and he may have drawn inspiration for Masha's theatrical personality from any one of his actress-lovers. Also, the author's successful use of a first-person narrator underlines his identification with much of the plot. Although not an autobiography, My Life may be read as a fictionalized account of many of Chekhov's own anxieties and experiences.