Chekhov Stories

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The Black Monk

Summary The Black Monk

Interestingly, Kovrin is not troubled by his own ill health or insanity. In fact, Kovrin embraces his own madness because it is accompanied by a state of absolute joy. As Kovrin admits following his return from hospital, "I was going mad, I had megalomania; but I was cheerful, confident, and even happy; I was interesting and original." Kovrin considers himself blessed by madness because it represents liberation from emotional and intellectual constraint. Kovrin is not satisfied by the mediocrity of academia or Yegor's horticultural pursuits; he desires "gigantic, unfathomable, stupendous" ideas that will elevate his own genius. In this way, Chekhov's tale is a testament to the power of the nonconformist mind: the author deliberately blurs the boundaries between mental illness and furious intellectual speculation.

Thus, depending on how one looks at the text, the monk may be understood as a vision symbolizing Kovrin's derangement or his freethinking genius. The creepy specter's "pale, thin face" and his ability to morph in size make him discomforting and distinctly eerie to us. But the changes he effects in the protagonist are initially positive: Kovrin is energized, becomes more curious about the world, and gains the confidence to confess his feelings to Tania. Unfortunately, this confidence evolves into egomania, and we see that Kovrin starts believing he is the "incarnation of the blessing of God." As in other Chekhov tales, the protagonist is characterized as a farcical yet tragic figure held in thrall to powerful forces. The author leaves us to determine whether these forces are truly divine or merely the promptings of a deranged and arrogant mind.

Typically, the author uses appropriately poetic language to convey the complexity of his subject. Chekhov's text is filled with images of momentous energy: the orchard is "plunged in smoke," characters race to get their work done, and the monk's arrival is heralded by a rapid whirlwind. The story of Kovrin's descent into madness is, thus, one of frenzied motion conveyed in harmonious prose. In this way, it is very similar to a piece of music. Rayfield notes that The Black Monk reminded the famous Russian composer Shostakovich of a sonata, particularly in its pacing and development, and we see how Chekhov's musical prose adds momentum to his narrative. In particular, the protagonist's description of the bay at Yalta is neatly cadenced: he notes that the sea "looked at him with its multitude of light blue, dark blue, turquoise and fiery eyes." Like a great classical composer, Chekhov tempers his drama with a note of tranquility: the protagonist dies in the throws of a terrible and bloody fit, yet he is found with a "blissful smile … congealed on his face."

Chekhov shows how Kovrin's madness triumphs absolutely. It even destroys the last vestige of reason in his life—Yegor's prized orchard—where "the trees were arranged like chess pieces, in straight and regular rows like ranks of soldiers." The Black Monk thus introduces the theme of the ruined orchard that Chekhov would later use in his play The Cherry Orchard. As Rayfield argues, the orchard is "wrecked as it passes from the old order to the new" or from an age of reason and restraint to one of chaos and selfishness.