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The sky is overcast with heavy clouds, but it does not rain. Two old men—Ivan, a vet, and Burkin, a teacher—walk across the fields. Ivan prepares to tell his friend a story and lights his pipe in preparation. At this point a storm breaks and the men run to shelter at their friend Aliokhin's estate. They find the forty year-old standing in one of his barns near a winnowing machine. Aliokhin is dirty from his work, and he invites his friends into the main house to bathe. A beautiful young girl named Pelageia brings the men towels and some soap, and all three start to wash. Ivan and Burkin are shocked when the water around Aliokhin turns brown, but Aliokhin makes the excuse that he has not washed for a long while. Unexpectedly, Ivan rushes outside and flings himself into the wide expanse of water in front of the house, flinging his arms around and asking god for mercy.
The men return to the house, and the "lovely Pelageia" serves them tea. Ivan recounts the story he had intended to tell Burkin. He explains how he and his younger brother Nikolai spent their childhood "running wild in the country" after their dead father's estate was liquidated to pay debts and legal bills. Nikolai hated his job as a government official, which he found too restrictive, and yearned to buy himself a country estate. He then became "fearfully avaricious" and married a rich widow whom he did not love in order to raise capital. Nothing deterred the young man from his ambition to buy a townhouse where he could grow gooseberries. Following the widow's death, Nikolai purchased an estate where he planted twenty gooseberry bushes. On a visit to see his brother some years later, Ivan found that Nikolai had become insufferably supercilious. The vet comments that even his fresh gooseberries tasted "sour and unripe." Ivan remembers growing steadily depressed, because he identified in his brother's smug self-satisfaction the "insolence and idleness of the strong." He recalls wishing that a man could stand with a hammer "at the door of every happy, contented man...reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people." The vet ends his tale by examining his own sense of happiness and personal fulfillment. He concludes that he used to be as complacent as any other wealthy individual, believing that all men would one day become free. Sadly, Ivan admits that he is now too "old and unfit for the struggle," and he implores Aliokhin to do something.
Despite Ivan's impassioned sermonizing, Aliokhin and Burkin remain "unsatisfied" by his tale. Aliokhin feels sleepy but delays going to bed in order to see if the conversation becomes more interesting. He is intrigued by something that the two men discuss, but it is not revealed what this is. The three men soon go to bed, where Burkin is kept awake by the smell of Ivan's pipe. The tale ends with a comment that the rain lashed against the windows all night.
"Gooseberries" was written towards the end of Chekhov's life and was first published as the middle story of The Little Trilogy in 1898. We see that the author examines two of his favorite themes within this tale: social injustice and the quest for fulfillment. Ostensibly, this story deals with the hypocrisy of landowners who ignore the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves. But Chekhov also raises a subtler issue than class divides, as we see when Ivan asserts the hollowness of personal achievement. Ivan believes that successful people are blind to reality because they believe they are insulated from misfortune. Ivan thus despairs at his own happiness as he recognizes that "life will show him her claws sooner or later." By this stroke, which comes like a sting in the tail of his text, Chekhov jolts his readers out of complacent objectivity. We are forced to question whether life is something to be sailed through without the expectation of encountering problems or setbacks, or whether it provides us with an opportunity to grasp "something greater and more rational" than happiness. Chekhov takes his opportunity to answer Tolstoy's philosophical query, "How much land does a man need?", when Ivan asserts that man requires only the freedom to roam the globe, where he can "have room to display all the qualities and peculiarities of his free spirit."
Looking at Ivan's grand theorizing, we see that Chekhov raises more questions than he answers. In "Gooseberries," we are encouraged to use our own intellect and imagination to understand what motivates the characters and, additionally, to guess at the meaning behind events. But this only makes the episodes and characters depicted seem more realistic—in "real life" we also have to hypothesize about what drives people's actions. The means by which Chekhov dramatizes his narrative—the devices he uses to evoke atmosphere and create characters that feel genuine—also create an impression of a place filled with real people, living real lives. The author does not force the petty frustrations of human existence into the background of his text. In fact, he highlights such foibles in order to flesh out the personalities of his characters. For instance, we read that the "oppressive smell" of "stale tobacco" emanating from Ivan's pipe prevents Burkin from falling asleep. Similarly, we are shown how the water around Aliokhin turns brown because he has not washed in a long time. Very little escapes Chekhov's attention or fails to capture his interest; the smallest detail is used to vindicate the humanity as well as the frailty of his characters. However, although Chekhov's work is rich in important (yet seemingly inconsequential) detail, he does not force us to appreciate these wonderful touches. As the critic Maurice Baring noted in Landmarks of Russian Literature, Chekhov "never underlines his effects, he never nudges the reader's elbow." It is left to us to pick up on the minutiae and appreciate the finer subtleties of his text.