In his short, productive life, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), a mild-mannered, hardworking Russian doctor, managed to influence profoundly the development of two branches of world literature, the short story and drama. The stories that you read today in literary journals and magazines and what you see in many plays are something of what they are because of Chekhov. His nearly 600 short stories demonstrate, in Wallace Stegner’s view, that he was ‘‘the most extraordinary master of that form in literary history.’’ For writers a century later, Chekhov’s fiction remains a model of cleareyed observation and concise expression, and, as we’ll see, his many letters also contain a great deal of writing instruction.
Chekhov showed, in such famous stories as ‘‘The Lady with the Dog,’’ ‘‘The Darling’’ and ‘‘The Kiss,’’ that short fiction could be about characters rather than events, and that stories did not need trick endings. An author did not have to be a puppet master or judge and jury; instead, the narrator was, in Chekhov’s view, an observer, quiet and deliberately objective, usually with an unstated but sympathetic moral point of view.
‘‘Measures, judgments, analyses, are foreign to Chekhov’s genius,’’ while ‘‘impartial observation is basic to it,’’ Stegner wrote in Atlantic Brief Lives. ‘‘If fiction is a mirror in the roadway, it may also be a mirror in a hallway or drawing room, and in Chekhov often is. It reflects pompous entrances, treacherous kisses, false friendship, agonized self-examination, ridiculous self-deception—reflections of an extraordinary complexity.’’
Chekhov believed that how characters see themselves is more important, finally, than how an author sees them, and that we as readers can understand characters more deeply if we don’t have an author standing between us and them. If we remember the heavy-handedness of most 19th-century short fiction, Chekhov’s attitude, coupled with his fine comic and tragic sensibility, was a revelation.
Chekhov’s first rule of creative writing was to write—a lot. He advised his older but less disciplined brother Alexander: ‘‘To have as few failures as possible in fiction writing, or in order not to be so sensitive to failures, you must write more, around one hundred or two hundred stories a year. That is the secret.’’ And to a young but aspiring writer, he wondered, ‘‘But can you really have written only fifteen stories?—at this rate you won’t learn to write till you are fifty. Write another twenty stories and send them. I shall always read them with pleasure, and practice is essential for you.’’
In another letter to Alexander, sent in his mid-20s, Chekhov described as succinctly as possible, as translator Simon Karlinsky pointed out, the makeup of his famous stories: 1) An absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2) total objectivity; 3) truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4) extreme brevity; 5) audacity and originality, avoiding stereotype; 6) compassion.
A related principle for Chekhov was avoiding or curbing egotism. While Alexander managed to publish many stories himself, he embodied the sloth, self-pity and moral lassitude that Anton had determinedly purged himself of. Anton cautioned Alexander about egotism, about intruding and coloring a fictional world with one’s own cynical or sentimental views, or what Chekhov calls here and elsewhere simply ‘‘subjectivity’’:
“But even in your writing you lay too much stress upon trivial things. And you were not born a subjective writer. . . . That kind of writing is not inborn in one; it is acquired. . . . It is as easy to give up that self-acquired subjectivity as to drink a glass of water. One needs only to be a bit more honest; to throw oneself absolutely overboard, not to push oneself as the hero of one’s novel, to deny oneself for even half an hour. There is a story of yours where a young couple sit kissing each other all through dinner, sitting and cooing and talking rubbish. There’s not a single sensible word, but thorough sentimentality [or complacency]. And you were not writing for the reader. You wrote because that chatter pleased you. Why don’t you describe the dinner—how they ate, what they ate, what the cook was like, how vulgar your hero was, how satisfied with his lazy contentment, how vulgar your heroine, how ridiculous her love for that smug, napkinned, overfed gander? Everyone likes to see well-fed, happy people— that’s true. But if you are going to write about them it’s not enough to tell what they said and the number of times they kissed. A something else is needed. You must deny yourself the personal impression that honeymoon happiness produces on all embittered persons. Subjectivity is an awful thing—even for the reason that it betrays the poor writer hand over fist. . . . If only you would give up that subjectivity you would become a most useful writer.”
Chekhov was always specific in his criticisms, and they show that his few and rarely stated literary principles were primarily moralistic, holding that a writer’s detached, sympathetic observation brought more moral understanding than subjective evaluation. I believe that in regard to his brother (how tactful are siblings, after all?), Chekhov was attempting to apply the same forceful artistic discipline he used on himself. When scolding Alexander’s laziness and artistic indifference in 1886, Chekhov makes his feelings clear that thoughtless, unimaginative writing is a moral choice. One might very well write slop, but one shouldn’t give up and make such writing the goal:
“Why do you write so little? How disgusting! Sverchok and Boudilnik [editors] have space at your service, and yet you sit with folded arms and whimper, like Hershka [a Russian folk character] bitten by fleas in his sleep. Why are you idling . . . ? All the stories you sent me for Lakin [an editor] smell strongly of idleness. You have written them in one day? Out of the whole mass I can select only one good, talented story, but all the rest is worthy of the pen of Taganrog Sprightly [a sarcastic reference to the Chekhov boys’ backwater hometown’s literary journal]. The subjects are impossible. . . . Only idleness could write for a censored journal about a priest christening a baby in the font—idleness that does not think, that works at one draft, at random. . . . Respect yourself, for the love of Christ; don’t give your hands liberty when your brain is lazy! Write no more than two stories a week, shorten them, polish them. Work should be work. Don’t invent sufferings you have not experienced, and don’t paint pictures you have not seen—for a lie in a story is much more boring than a lie in conversation.”
Anton gets very personal with Alexander, but really only to deliver some general truths:
“The play will be worthless if all the characters resemble you. . . . Is there no life outside of you? And who is interested in knowing my life or yours, my thoughts or your thoughts? Give people people, and not yourself. Avoid ‘‘choice’’ diction. The language should be simple and forceful. The lackeys should speak simply, without elegance. . . .”
It was in his frustration with his brother, in whom Chekhov recognized greater literary potential than in himself, that he was most severe, blunt and honest:
“My advice is to try to be original in your play and as intelligent as possible; but also, have no fear of appearing stupid. Freethinking is what’s needed and only he who is not afraid of writing stupid things is a real freethinker. Don’t smooth things over, don’t polish them, be clumsy and daring. Brevity is the sister of talent. Keep in mind that declarations of love, infidelities of husbands and wives, the tears of widows and orphans and all other kinds of tears have long since been described. But the main thing: Mom and Dad got to eat. So write.”
So, art is a moral act, but let’s be practical and remember, first things first, we need to make a living! We sense Chekhov’s own struggles to write well and purposefully in his chastising of Alexander about a story:
“‘‘The City of the Future’’ is a splendid theme, both in novelty and interest. I think that if you are not lazy you will write it well; but, the Devil knows, you are an awfully idle dog! ‘‘The City of the Future’’ will be a work of art only on the following conditions: 1) Absence of long word eruptions of a politico-socio-economic character; 2) thorough objectivity; 3) truthfulness in descriptions of characters and objects; 4) a twofold conciseness; 5) courage and originality (avoid cliches); and 6) sincerity. . . . In descriptions of Nature one has to snatch at small details, grouping them in such a manner that after reading them one can obtain the picture on closing one’s eyes… For instance, you will get a moonlight night if you write that on the dam of the mill a fragment of broken bottle flashed like a small bright star, and there rolled by, like a ball, the black shadow of a dog, or a wolf—and so on. Nature appears animated if you do not disdain to use comparisons of its phenomena with those of human actions, etc… The same, too, in the sphere of psychology. God defend you from generalizations. Best of all, avoid describing the psychological state of the characters; one should contrive that this is clear from their actions. One should not hunt after an abundance of characters. The center of gravity should be two: he and she… I am writing you this as a reader with a definite taste. I also write for this reason: that in working you should not feel you are alone. Loneliness in creative activity is a hard lot. Better unfavorable criticism than none. Is that not so?”
A SCOLDING FROM TOLSTOY
We can doubt if Alexander agreed with that last statement, but Anton certainly believed it. He never minded criticism of his work for its lack of artistry. In fact, he often seemed to enjoy quoting criticisms of his work. Perhaps the best instance of such enjoyment came in 1900, at the sword of his hero, the great Russian novelist Tolstoy. Chekhov, in his own charming, guileless manner, related to a friend what Tolstoy had told him about his plays: ‘‘You know, he does not like my dramas. He swears that I’m not a playwright. There is only one thing that comforts me. . . . He said to me: ‘You know, I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. Shakespeare, however, grabs the reader by the scruff of his neck and leads him to a definite objective, not permitting him to wander off the road. But where are you going with your heroines? From the divan where they lie to the closet and back.’’’ At this point in his account, Chekhov laughed so hard that his pince-nez fell off his nose. ‘‘But really, Leo Nikolayevich [Tolstoy] is serious,’’ Chekhov continued. ‘‘He was ill. I sat with him at his bedside. When I began to get ready to leave, he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: ‘Anton Pavlovich, you are a fine man.’ Then, smiling, he let my hand go and added: ‘But your plays are altogether vile.’’’
Chekhov’s feelings don’t seem to have been hurt. He had long been critical of his own work in detail and in general. He defended his work only for its ‘‘honesty’’:
“I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines and who want to see in me either a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, nor a conservative, nor a meliorist, nor a monk, nor an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist, and nothing more, and I grieve that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate falsehood and violence in all their aspects. . . . Hypocrisy, stupidity and arbitrariness reign not in shopkeepers’ houses and prisons alone. I detect them in science, in literature and in the younger generation. . . . For these reasons I nurse no particular partiality for gendarmes, or butchers, or savants, or writers, or the younger generation. I look upon trade-marks and labels as prejudices. My Holy of Holies is the human body, health, mind, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood in whatever they may be manifested. This is the program I would follow if I were a great artist.”
That today he is regarded as a great artist Chekhov would consider an amazing mistake. He had pride in his work but modesty about its effects. He saw his place not in the pantheon of world literature with Tolstoy, but as a humble and awestruck teammate of a Hall of Famer:
“I fear Tolstoy’s death. If he were to die there would be left in my life a great, empty space. In the first place, I love no man as I do him; I am an unbeliever, but among all faiths, I consider that of Tolstoy nearest my heart. . . . Secondly, when there is Tolstoy in literature it is easy and pleasant to be a literary worker; even to be aware that you have done and will do nothing is not so terrible, because Tolstoy does enough for all. His activity serves as a justification for those . . . expectations that are attached to literature. Thirdly, Tolstoy stands unshaken; his authority is tremendous, and while he lives, bad taste in literature, all sorts of vulgarity, insolence, and sentimentality, all kinds of shoddy, irritated ambitions, will remain deep in shadow. His moral authority alone is able to hold to a certain height so-called literary moods and tendencies. Without him, these would be a shepherdless herd or a hodgepodge in which it would be difficult to find anything that rings true.”
Chekhov’s adherence to modesty serves as a correction to the tendency to vanity and egotism of writers and remains one of his more attractive qualities: ‘‘I do not know whether I have ever suffered more than shoemakers, mathematicians, or railway guards do; I do not know who speaks through my lips—God or someone worse.’’ Chekhov’s professional expertise as a doctor might be what led him to believe that writers should be modest on principle and leery of presuming moral or intellectual authority.
“It seems to me that the writer of fiction should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, etc. His business is but to describe those who have been speaking or thinking about God and pessimism, how, and under what circumstances. The artist should be, not the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased witness. . . .My business is merely to be talented, i.e., to be able to distinguish between important and unimportant statements, to be able to illuminate the characters and speak their language. . . . The time has come for writers, especially those who are artists, to admit that in this world one cannot make anything out, just as Socrates once admitted it, just as Voltaire admitted it. The mob think they know and understand everything; the more stupid they are, the wider, I think, do they conceive their horizon to be. And if an artist in whom the crowd has faith decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees,—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”
Following up the subject of this letter to his friend and editor Aleksey Suvorin, he explained:
“In conversation with my literary colleagues I always insist that it is not the artist’s business to solve problems that require a specialist’s knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future, of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women. An artist must judge only of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist—I repeat this and insist on it always. That in his sphere there are no questions, but only answers, can be maintained only by those who have never written and have had no experience of thinking in images. . . . You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin [Pushkin’s verse novel] not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems in these works are correctly stated. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.”
We have Suvorin to thank for challenging Chekhov to continue and clarify his credo (which he would never again reveal so unreservedly):
“You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: ‘‘Stealing horses is an evil.’’ But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse-thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse-stealing is not simply theft but a passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.”
So for Chekhov, ‘‘objectivity’’ is the writer’s goal, if by subjectivity we mean the judgment that interprets rather than presents, and that squashes or ignores distasteful or disturbing material. His enduring gift to us, through his letters and stories, is a passionate and intense attention to the quiet but resounding details of life’s everyday dramas.
Excerpts in this article were drawn from these books: Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, edited by Simon Karlinsky and translated by Michael Henry Helm; The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekhov, edited with translation by S. S. Koteliansky and Philip Tomlinson; Letters on the Short Story, the Drama, and other Literary Topics, edited by Louis S. Friedland; The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited by Lillian Hellman; and Leo Tolstoy by Ernest J. Simmons.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Bob Blaisdell, ‘‘A Few Words of Advice from… Anton Chekhov,’’ inWriter, Vol. 117, No. 9, September 2004.