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Chekhov Stories

Anton Chekhov

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

How does Chekhov use the natural world within his tales?

Chekhov's tales are episodic and impressionistic rather than plot-driven. The natural world thus forms a changing backdrop to ordinary lives, which tend to remain the same from day to day. While the characters follow a monotonous daily existence, nature blossoms or undergoes violent transformations. In particular, Chekhov focuses on the details of nature. He delights in describing a snowstorm that is like an "orgy," the flashing hues of a sea lit by moonlight and the ceaseless murmuring of birds and insects. These features represent the true dramatic focus of Chekhov's tales. In contrast to nature, the concerns of mankind seem insignificant, while men and women themselves appear highly vulnerable.

The author also focuses on his characters' relationship to the natural world across all levels of society. On a basic level, we see that the peasants are closer to nature than either the aristocrats or intelligentsia. Lipa in In the Ravine is much happier toiling in the fields than cloistered in the Tsybukin mansion, while others—such as the peasants in My Life—simply have no other option but to work the land. In contrast, Chekhov's upper-class characters take more of an aesthetic interest in nature: Anna and Gurov in The Lady with the Dog admire the majestic beauty of the sea at Yalta, while young Yegorushka marvels at the arid landscape of the plains in Steppe. But not every character appreciates such scenic appeal. Ivan's brother in Gooseberries wants to buy an estate and grow fruit to showcase his prosperity. The author suggests that for many nobles, land is firmly equated with wealth, prestige, and aristocratic status. Chekhov thus looks at nature in two ways: he both examines the importance of the natural world to a feudal society and looks at its symbolic relationship to mankind.

Chekhov was an educated professional whose grandfather was a serf. For what stylistic purpose does the author cross class boundaries within his tales and assume the perspectives of characters from different walks of life?

Chekhov's style is resolutely objective, and it is difficult to identify an authorial tone within any of his works. Instead, the author shifts viewpoints easily and lets the stories unfold from his protagonists' perspectives. Tales such as Ward No.6 and In the Ravine show the author shifting between characters, as though he is watching the action unfold through different pairs of eyes. Thus, Ward No. six is told from the perspective of a reclusive doctor and a militant lunatic, while Chekhov switches between the viewpoint of a simple peasant girl and an avaricious landowner in In the Ravine. By this means, the author complicates our responses and makes his characters seem more realistic. By abandoning an authorial tone, Chekhov refrains from making a moral judgment and forces his readers to assess the characters for themselves.

How does Chekhov treat romance in his tales? Why are all the characters' relationships seemingly doomed to failure?

Generally, Chekhov's protagonists have relationships that peter out or end badly. There are numerous examples: Kovrin and Tania's marriage collapses in The Black Monk just as Misail and Masha divorce in My Life; Olga loses two husbands and one lover in The Darling, while Osip's death leaves his wife a young widow The Grasshopper. Even Agafya's fling with Savka ends in complication and embarrassment. It says a lot for the harsh reality of Chekhov's tales that the only successful romance—the relationship between Anna and Gurov in The Lady with the Dog—ends on a note of uncertainty, when the characters acknowledge that their love will most likely bring them pain and disconsolation.

The question remains as to why there are so few lasting relationships in these stories. Frequently, Chekhov's protagonists sacrifice love in the name of personal ambition—as we see in My Life and The Grasshopper. The author suggests that his characters are self-obsessed and do not realize when they forfeit something of value in their lives. Indirectly, therefore, Chekhov underscores the importance of open communication and selflessness within society. Unfortunately, in the closed and hierarchical culture of Imperial Russia, we see that openness and selflessness are rare virtues.

Suggested Essay Topics

What different roles do Chekhov's female characters play—are they primarily a background feature or a strong presence within his tales? How does the author use women to question gender relationships within society?

Is it fair to say that Chekhov's older characters are either repositories of cultural wisdom or doddery fools who cling to an outdated social order? How does the author refute or uphold preconceptions about the role of the elderly within society?

It has been said that Chekhov avoids adopting a strongly moral or even obvious authorial tone. How does the author's use of third-person narration and his ambivalent treatment of his characters suggest his impartiality?

Chekhov's stories are comic and tragic, seemingly light-hearted yet also deeply profound. Does humor distract us from the characters' suffering or make their experiences seem more real?

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