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The story is set in the village of Ukleevo, a grimy, rather nondescript place contaminated by pollutants from its three calico factories and inhabited by discontented peasants. The author writes that the village is located in a ravine and that it is renowned only because an old sexton had gorged himself on caviar at one of the factory owner's funerals ten years before the point in which the story begins. The story's protagonist, Grigori Tsybukin, runs the local grocery store but supplements his income by selling homebrewed vodka on the sly. Grigori's family—consisting of his wife Varvara, his sons Anisim and Stephan, and his "handsome" daughter-in-law Aksinia—aid him in his entrepreneurial endeavors. In particular, Aksinia is designated as Tsybukin's second-in-command, which encourages the young woman to think that she might become the heir to his business. Although many locals congratulate Grigori on his good fortune in life and the merits of his daughter-in-law, not everyone expresses such good humor. For example, the local peasantry resent Grigori or "Old Tsybukin" for his glib indifference to their poverty (in response to appeals from beggars, Grigori states in a smugly superior manner "God will provide!" before riding off in his carriage to earn more money.) In contrast, Grigori's wife Varvara is charitable and caring towards the poor, and she always provides the needy with the alms they require. Chekhov writes that Varvara's "charity had in those burdensome, foggy days the effect of a safety valve in a machine." The pressure cooker world of the Tsybukin family is thus described as one of greed, split loyalties, and village politics. While Grigori is perfectly content with his life and rides around in his carriage to show off his new horse, Aksinia befriends the young owners of the village calico factories and becomes embroiled in their feuds and sinister ambitions.
The story progresses to follow the marriage of the elder Tsybukin son—the policeman Anisim—with a beautiful but rather simple peasant girl from a neighboring village, Lipa. Anisim lives in town and sends his parents grandiose letters that have been written by his friend Samorodov. Grigori's older son is mysterious and troubled by something, although he does not reveal to his father what this could be. Anisim presents Grigori with an ostentatious gift of newly minted gold coin, which the author notes was done in a "superfluous manner." Unfortunately, this gift does not bode well for the future: Anisim and Lipa are awkward around each other after their marriage, and the young man is soon arrested for counterfeiting coins—some of which were the ones he gave to his father. Grigori accidentally pays his laborers with this false coin, which damages his reputation as well as the old man's confidence in his own judgment. While Anisim is serving his time in penal servitude, his young wife devotes her attention to their new baby Nikifor. Unlike Aksinia, Lipa is unambitious and does not aspire to a life of ease or wealth—in fact, the girl seems increasingly unhappy living among an avaricious family and burdened by their surfeit of riches. Lipa admits to her old family friend Elizarov that she is "frightened" of her new family. Gradually, the young woman is brought into conflict with Aksinia, who has invested in a local brickyard with some of her factory-owner friends. When Old Tsybukin decides to bequeath this same brickyard to his baby grandson in his will, Aksinia becomes demented with fury and murders baby Nikifor by scalding him with boiling water. Brokenhearted, Lipa brings her baby's corpse back from the hospital only to be forced out of the Tsybukin home by Aksinia.
The narrative moves ahead three years in the future, when Aksinia has assumed control of the family business. Grigori has retreated into a world of silent despair, after witnessing the erosion of his authority among the local peasantry and within his own family. The author notes that his old protagonist "does not keep any money because he cannot tell good from bad" and that while "some are glad, others are sorry for him." The story ends with Lipa and her mother running into Grigori on the street: they are moved to pity and give him some food. Almost in superstition, the two women cross themselves as they walk away from the miserable old man.
Tragedy overshadows this narrative as misfortune and evil blights the lives of its characters. We see that Grigori's authority in the village and within his own family is dependent on the fear he inspires in other people, which in turn educes their jealousy and resentment. He is a ruthless and avaricious religious hypocrite, yet he is also a man whom we grow to pity. In particular, Chekhov's poignant descriptions of Grigori sitting alone and starving because his family has forgotten to feed him inspire our sympathy. The author notes that the old man sits on the seat by the church "without stirring." In contrast, the highly capable Aksinia—whom Chekhov ironically describes as having a "naïve smile"—becomes monstrous to readers after she murders Lipa's baby. Thus, our reactions to Chekhov's characters change as his narrative progresses: this enables the author to refrain from moral judgment and let us pose our own questions of morality and accountability.
However, for all its undeniable pathos, Chekhov's writing is rich in humor and comic elements. The author presents both sides of human experience—the trivial as well as the weighty concerns that confront us all—and seems to delight in many of his characters' quirks and human foibles. He also interweaves the elevated with the petty so that we are often unsure how to react. Aksinia seems ridiculous even when she is at her most dangerous: whirling, dervish-like in rage around the yard, tearing petticoats and shirts off of clothes-lines, inspiring people to wonder "Wha-at a woman!" Similarly, Lipa's emotional collapse after her baby's death is interspersed with humorous episodes. When the young woman asks an old peasant how long her baby's soul will wander the earth, another man who has "been to school" and therefore considers himself fully educated in spiritual matters replies cryptically "Nine days. My uncle['s]...soul lived in our hut thirteen days after."
"In the Ravine" was first published in 1900 and is one of the longest stories Chekhov wrote in his later years. In the words of Donald Rayfield, the story "marks a partial return to the sociologically well-researched stories of the early 1890s and to the study of the disintegrating peasantry." Readers see how this tale—in contrast with others such as "Lady with the Dog"—focuses in depth on sociological tensions that were emerging in early twentieth century Russian society. The smooth pace of the narrative belies the many rifts that it examines: jealousies, rivalries, and greed force the Tsybukin family apart at the same time as they cleave Ukleevo society. The author simultaneously observes family interactions and poses broader sociological questions, such as the nature of the divide between members of the peasantry and wealthy shop- and factory-owners. Chekhov also cultivates our suspicion with regard to the dealings of Anisim's elusive secretary, Samorodov, whose sketchy characterization hints at a further divide between the village and townspeople. Consequently, readers are never sure which—if any—one character or social class possesses moral authority: there are good and bad elements in everyone.
Chekhov's genius lies in marrying his theme of disunity with a harmonious authorial style. We never lose sight of the text's central focus, which is the changeable fortune and emotions of its characters. Ultimately, the "ravine" of the story's title symbolizes the sense of entrapment that overshadows many human lives. Perversely, only the peasants who work to pull in the harvest seem liberated from this tyranny. Chekhov leaves his readers to decide whether his image of Lipa singing "with her eyes turned upward to the sky, breaking into trills as though triumphant and ecstatic that at last the day was over and she could rest" is the ultimate renouncement of middle class ambitions, or a denigration of those who are satisfied with life's meager opportunities.