Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Death and Disease
Disease features prominently in Chekhov's stories, and his protagonists often suffer tragic and untimely deaths. It is unsurprising that the author seems haunted by the notion of infirmity, since he was plagued by tuberculosis for most of his adult life and died of the disease at the age of forty-four. Often—as in The Black Monk and The Grasshopper—disease acts as a physical representation of a character's psychological turmoil. Osip sickens in The Grasshopper because he is depressed about his wife's infidelity, while Chekhov subtly blends the symptoms of Kovrin's mental illness with those of tuberculosis in The Black Monk. But the author's recurring use of this theme is neither pathological nor self-pitying; Chekhov recognizes man's subservience to forces greater than his or her own will. The author uses the symbolic power of his dying protagonists—such as Kovrin in The Black Monk or Rabin in Ward No. six—to emphasize life's transience as well as humankind's subservience to the whims of fate. Chekhov also examines disease as a reflection of social degeneration. For example, Kovrin's psychosis— which ruins his marriage, kills his father- in-law and wrecks Yegor's prized orchard—seems to symbolize the disintegration of society at large. Chekhov thus focuses on disease to indicate individual frailty as well as the growing conflicts within society.
Disillusionment and Failed Ideals
Chekhov's stories examine many kinds of disappointment and failed ideals. Often the protagonists are disillusioned by events that force them to reevaluate their personal philosophies and understanding of the world, and this disillusionment usually occurs toward the end of stories. Such climaxes range from the mildly pathetic—as when the narrator in The Night Before Easter sees Jerome in daylight and realizes that he is just an ordinary man, to the monumentally tragic—such as Rabin's incarceration in Ward No. six and his subsequent nervous breakdown. The protagonists of The Darling and My Life also tackle frustrated dreams, loneliness, and the breakdown of romantic ties, but they never fundamentally alter their view of the world. Consequently, we see that Chekhov's tales conclude with either a moment of revelation or anti-climax (these endings have been termed "zero" and "surprise" endings, respectively.) His protagonists are either crushed by their sense of disillusionment with the world, or they hold out hope in a better future.
The Breakdown of Aristocratic Society
In 1861, when Chekhov was one year old, Tsar Alexander II liberated Russian serfs. This act seemed to herald the dawn of a new age and the collapse of aristocratic privilege, although, in reality, peasants were still impoverished, disempowered, and tied to the land. Many intellectuals began to discuss ideas on liberty and the rights of all social classes to land and education. Although Chekhov did not openly speculate on the fall of the old social order, his writing shows that he was caught up in the debate. Many of his stories examine the effect of change on a prevailing social or familial hierarchy. For example, My Life focuses on a young member of the gentry who defies his father and social convention by working as a laborer. But Chekhov is very subtle in his treatment of change. Most often, the revolutions one witnesses in the stories are neither positive nor negative; they are simply alterations to established systems. In the Ravine deals with a mercenary, Grigori Tsybukin, who is ousted from his position of power when his cunning daughter-in-law takes over the family business. Similarly, Rabin's confinement in Ward No. six shows how professionals as well as peasants can be subjected to social coercion. The only obvious change for the worse occurs in The Black Monk, when Yegor's orchard passes into the hands of a younger generation and is ruined. In most of his stories, therefore, Chekhov deals with the breakdown of an old social order with characteristic moral ambivalence.
Communication and Non-Communication
Communication and its interruptions bear much importance throughout Chekhov's stories. In particular, the author focuses on the extent of communication between people of different social classes and the diverse views these people hold on social inequality. Some characters take positive steps to discuss this issue—such as Ivan in Gooseberries, who wants to open channels of communication between the landowners and the peasants. But as we see in My Life or in In the Ravine, these channels sometimes either do not exist or are easily broken down. Often, the characters simply fail to understand one another's point of view. For example, in Ward No. six, we see that Rabin is desperate to share his ideas with the gifted lunatic Gromov, who openly dismisses Rabin's ideas as "rationalization" (although the doctor is finally convinced of the lunatic's philosophy.) In On Official Duty, the constable Loshadin talks to the examining magistrate about duty and personal responsibility, but the young man seems more depressed than animated by their conversation. On a more personal level, Olga in The Darling has no views of her own to express, while Gurov in The Lady with the Dog finds that he cannot communicate with his friends or his wife. In general, therefore, Chekhov's characters search for understanding but fall short in their inability or reluctance to communicate.
The Natural World
Many tales, such as Agafya and Steppe, are set in the Russian countryside and focus on the beauty of its landscape. Chekhov is clearly intrigued by his characters' relationship to the land and how this varies—or does not vary—according to social standing. Peasants work to earn their daily bread, while some members of the upper class drive around in grand chaises admiring the view. Often, it is Chekhov's aristocratic characters who seem shocked by the diverse wildlife and scope of their surroundings. For example, little Yegorushka in Steppe is bemused by the steppe's vast distances, while Gurov in The Lady With the Dog admires scenic sea views from a vantage point in Yalta. Nature consistently inspires either fear, wonder, or discomfort in Chekhov's protagonists. Often, Chekhov's impressionistic evocation of the landscape overshadows his plot altogether. In particular, we see that Steppe's major focus is its setting, rather than the events that it describes.
The Night Sky
The cosmos has symbolic significance in many Chekhov stories. In particular, the protagonist of The Night Before Easter is impressed by the vast starry landscape of the night sky. Lipa in In the Ravine also looks to the moon and stars but sees them as splendid symbols of nature's indifference toward humankind. The night sky thus takes on whatever significance the characters accord it and can be either a force for admiration or despair.
Food and Drink
Along with their clothes and houses, food and drink symbolize the wealth and social status of Chekhov's characters. The gentrified Yegorushka is fascinated by the peasants' plain fish stew in Steppe, while the peasant Savka relishes his plain boiled eggs and "greasy cakes" in Agafya. In contrast, the Tsybukin family in In the Ravine glut themselves on homemade jam and feast on four meals a day while peasants starve. We thus see how food assumes a symbolic as well as practical import in Chekhov's tales. As a marker of affluence and class affiliation, it provides readers with clues as to the characters' likely outlook on society.
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