The story of Nicholai is one of single-minded determination. In Nicholai’s case, he acquires the subject of his obsession, a small farm that allows him to lead a simple life in the country. Ivan comments, “Once a man gets a fixed idea, there’s nothing to be done.” Nicholai equates the lifestyle he longs for with the farm setting, and an important part of that setting is gooseberry bushes. He finds the gooseberry bushes a source of delicious fruit that is his own, yet he can enjoy it without exerting much effort to nurture the bushes. When he buys his farm, it does not have all the features he had always dreamed it would have, but the gooseberry bushes are so important that he buys twenty of them and plants them on his land. His obsession runs so deep that to achieve it he married an elderly widow who had money and then kept her underfed (to save money) until she died.
Having achieved his dream, Nicholai finds other benefits of his lifestyle that he did not anticipate, and these become new objects of his preoccupation. He finds that he is more educated and more wealthy than the local peasants, and he relishes his new feelings of superiority. He treats the locals to a feast on his birthday and occasionally gives them vodka. Because of his new “standing,” he expects to be called’ ‘Your Lordship,” and he spouts condescending opinions about the peasants. Ivan observes, ‘ ‘Nicholai Ivanich, who, when he was in the Exchequer [his former place of employment], was terrified to have an opinion of his own, now imagined that what he said was law.”
Although Nicholai came to see himself as a success, according to Ivan’s story, Ivan sees him as a complete failure. To Nicholai, his obsession with his dream brought it to fruition beyond his expectations, but to Ivan, the realization of the dream has made his brother foolish and misguided.
Every scene in “Gooseberries” is set in isolation, including the outer story (with Ivan, Bourkin, and Aliokhin) and the inner story (with Nicholai and Ivan). There are never more than four people in any scene, and the locations are almost all isolated from the rest of the world. For example, the story begins with Ivan and Bourkin walking through fields, and then they visit Aliokhin, who lives alone. In the scenes that take place in the city, the characters (Nicholai and Ivan) feel isolated from their surroundings. They embody the idea of being alone in a crowd. This consistent sense of isolation throughout the story results in the reader feeling a subtle intimacy with the characters that would be lost if any of the story involved interaction with many people. While Ivan tells his story, for example, the reader cannot help but feel present in the cozy room with the characters.
By moving to the country and living alone (except for the cook) on a three-hundred-acre farm, Nicholai achieves the isolation he has wanted since childhood. He is unhappy working in the city, where his only pleasure is mentally escaping into his dream. Ivan judges his brother harshly for his decision to isolate himself: “To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life—it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action.” Once Nicholai moves out to the country, however, he is peaceful and content. For Nicholai, physical isolation makes him happy.
Aliokhin also lives in the country alone and is satisfied with his way of life. The difference between Nicholai and Aliokhin is that Nicholai has modest means, while Aliokhin is described by Ivan as wealthy. Chekhov shows the reader that money is not the source of peace or solitude, but rather that a certain state of mind is required.
After visiting his brother, Ivan says that he is no longer happy in the city because he feels oppressed by the peace and quiet he finds there. He seems to view city life not as a bustling community, but as a random collection of segmented lives. He cannot look in windows at happy people because his point of view has changed. For Ivan, the isolation he feels is psychological, and it makes him deeply unhappy.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Anton Chekhov, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.