Anton Chekhov is regarded as a master of the short story for his innovative structural techniques and his treatment of important themes. In ‘ ‘Gooseberries,” Chekhov demonstrates both by using a specific structure to help convey a theme. ”Gooseberries” contains a story within a story; the main character relates a tale about his brother to two of his friends. Some authors employ this technique to make the inner story more interesting, to create distance between the reader and the inner story, or to allow the story to be told by a certain kind of narrator. In “Gooseberries,” however, Chekhov takes the reader into the framing story, then into the inner story. When he returns the reader to the framing story, the reader better understands the narrator of the inner story. As a result of this insight, the reader is able to grasp Chekhov’s theme of perception more clearly, because the character of Ivan has been presented in two different ways.
Ivan tells the story of his younger brother, Nicholai. A government employee, Nicholai longed to buy a farm and move to the country. After years of planning, saving, and taking advantage of others, he has realized his dream. Having settled into farm life, he has become fat, lazy, and arrogant, but is happy above all. He is living exactly the life he dreamed of living. Ivan is judgmental of his brother and characterizes him as wasteful, self-centered, and delusional. He disapproves of both the means and the end of his brother’s life in the country. Although Nicholai is certainly flawed and grossly mistreats a wealthy widow, he is not completely bad. Ivan perceives his brother from his own narrow point of view, however, and as a result he sees everything about his brother as disgraceful.
Ivan’s harshest criticism of his brother, however, has to do with his willingness to be deluded. Ivan sees Nicholai’s happiness as warped, because he is happy without regard for the rest of the world. He chooses a life of inactivity, giving no thought to doing any good in the world. While Ivan is visiting Nicholai, they are served a plate of gooseberries, plucked from Nicholai’s own bushes. The gooseberry bushes were a central feature of Nicholai’s dream, and so the moment when he will taste the berries is much anticipated. To Nicholai, the romantic dreamer, the berries are delicious, but to Ivan, the hardened realist, they are tough and sour. This is a clear example of the contrasting perspectives of the two men. Ivan thinks his brother is incredibly foolish to surrender so fully to his dream that he begins to substitute fantasy for reality.
While Nicholai is an obsessive dreamer, Ivan is a harsh cynic, and while Nicholai substitutes fantasy for reality, Ivan substitutes reality for fantasy. Ivan sees things in absolute terms and is unable to see beyond his brother’s flaws to his virtues. He is never happy for his brother, who has finally achieved his one and only dream. Ivan sees Nicholai living contentedly, but Ivan is only disgusted by this. In fact, his experience with Nicholai leads him to deeper unhappiness as he begins to perceive the rest of the world as living in blind contentment. To Ivan, there are greater callings in life, such as fighting for the underprivileged and seeking freedom for all. His resentment then festers because he feels he has learned this lesson too late in life and is now too old to take up a cause. His only hope is to inspire other men, like Aliokhin, but he fails to do so (although he does not realize he has failed). He hopes, as Chekhov does, that his words alone will change others, yet he can never really know whether he has reached anyone or not.
The two brothers’ perceptions are opposite, and the men are unable to understand each other as a result. The difference is that Ivan forms very strong opinions about his brother, while Nicholai does not seem at all interested in sizing up Ivan. These fundamental differences between the brothers relate to another theme presented in this story, which is that of isolation. When Ivan first sees his brother, he seems to expect them to connect on a meaningful level because he projects his own feelings onto his brother. Ivan says,’ ‘We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think that we had once been so young, but were now both going gray and nearing death.” It soon becomes apparent to the reader that while this may have been what Ivan was thinking, it is unlikely that Nicholai (who has never been happier in his life) was thinking the same thing. This comment shows the reader that Ivan is completely unable to understand and accept his brother.
The reader is best equipped to understand Ivan after he concludes the story about his brother and begins entreating Bourkin and Aliokhin to learn from Nicholai’s example. Ivan especially focuses on Aliokhin because he is “young, strong, [and] wealthy.” As he does so, the reader sees that, deep down, Ivan feels passionate but powerless. He hopes that he can get someone else to take up his cause, and this quest has become an obsession for him just as the farm was an obsession for Nicholai. Ivan is hypocritical, but only the reader can see that. Similarly, when Chekhov reveals that neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin is the least bit moved by Ivan’s story, the reader understands more about the characters’ perceptions than the characters do. Aliokhin is more like Nicholai than he is like Ivan, but Ivan does not realize it because he is so narrowly focused on what he believes is important. Aliokhin, like Nicholai, lives a life of contentment in which he concerns himself with his immediate environment. He is no more likely to take on Ivan’s point of view than Nicholai is. In fact, after Ivan’s story ends, Aliokhin’s mind is wandering. Chekhov writes,
“He did not trouble to think whether what Ivan Ivanich had been saying was clever or right; his guests were talking of neither goats, nor hay, nor tar, but of something which had no bearing on his life, and he liked it and wanted them to go on.”
That Chekhov is able to lead the reader smoothly through two layers of storytelling to convey a theme is evidence of his genius as a writer. The technique is quite subtle and realistic. In fact, this is precisely the way people often learn about each other— through the stories they tell and how they tell them. Ivan does not give an objective telling of his brother’s story, and while the reader may wonder what Nicholai’s version of the story would be, the real lesson is about the incompatibility of narrowly defined perceptions. While Ivan is pleading with his friends to learn the lesson of Nicholai’s example (which they do not do), Chekhov is showing the reader how to learn from Ivan’s example.
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.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “Gooseberries,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.