Shelter from the Storm
The story “Gooseberries” begins on a dreary, overcast day as Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin are walking through the countryside. When it starts to rain, Bourkin suggests they go to a nearby friend’s house Anton Chekhov where they can get shelter from the weather. Upon arriving at the mill owned by Aliokhin, they are greeted warmly and invited into the house.
After the three men enjoy baths, warm clothes, and refreshments, Ivan begins to tell a story about his younger brother, Nicholai. He tells that he and his brother spent their youth in the country after their father died, leaving them only a small estate. As an adult, his brother longed to return to the countryside that he loved. Ivan explains that his brother worked for a government treasury office but became increasingly preoccupied with his dream of buying a modest farm beside a lake or river, where he could live peacefully for the rest of his life. Central to his vision of this farm was the presence of gooseberry bushes, from which he could pick and enjoy his own fruit. For years, he saved and planned, scouring real estate listings to fuel his dream.
As Nicholai became more determined to realize his dream, he became ‘ ‘terribly stingy,” according to Ivan. When Ivan would give him money for a short vacation, Nicholai would put the money in savings instead. When he was about forty years old, he married an “elderly, ugly widow, not out of any feeling for her, but because she had money.” He kept all of her money and gave her inadequate food in order to save more. Ivan blames Nicholai for her death, but adds that it never occurred to Nicholai that he had done anything wrong in keeping her underfed. Upon his wife’s death, Nicholai purchased three hundred acres with a small farmhouse. Because there were no gooseberry bushes, he bought twenty of them and had them planted on his land.
Ivan says that as his brother settled into country life, he became fat and lazy. He sometimes indulged the local peasants by giving them vodka. Feeling like a man of importance, he expected the locals to call him “Your Lordship.”
One night, Nicholai’s cook served them a plate of gooseberries from Nicholai’s own bushes. Although Ivan found them hard and sour, Nicholai declared them utterly delicious. Ivan explains that he believes that his brother has become delusional and is living in a state of denial and idleness. After this experience with his brother, Ivan began to see the world differently. He comments, “In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man [Nicholai] I was filled with something like despair.” Now he is disgusted by people who seem to be happy yet are living meaningless, empty lives based on their obliviousness to the rest of the world.
Ivan adds that he realized that he once lived in a state of contentment, too, but now he is filled with thoughts of the underprivileged of the world. This makes him impatient for change, and he is disturbed because he wants freedom and justice for everyone. At the same time, he feels that he has wasted his best years. He explains, “I am an old man now and am no good for the struggle. I commenced late. I can only grieve within my soul, and fret and sulk.” He then approaches Aliokhin and encourages him to do what he can while he is still young and strong.
Although they had been glad that Ivan was going to tell a story, Aliokhin and Bourkin are unsatisfied when Ivan concludes. They are, however, content because they are wearing warm cloths, sitting in a comfortable room, and being served by a pretty chambermaid. Aliokhin is tired and wants to sleep, but does not want to miss socializing with his guests. He gives no thought to Ivan’s story or his plea. Soon, the three men retire to their rooms for the night.
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.