Sunday, March 05, 2017
Happy and Unhappy People
by Anton Chekhov
“As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.” ― Anton Chekhov
This collection contains only thirteen of the hundreds of stories written by Chekhov. It does not contain the longer stories like The Steppe of Ward No. 6, but it does include a judicious selection by the translator Elisaveta Fen.
Chekhov's stories portray individuals and their relations with each other in specific situations. These often demonstrate the results of difficult choices with sometimes devastating results. I particularly enjoyed stories like "Enemies", "Teacher of Literature", and "The Cross of Anna". Each of these were a little further developed than some of the briefer sketches.
"The Cross of Anna" tells of the loss of innocence of a young girl when she marries a pompous and boring middle-aged man, with the idea of helping her young motherless brothers and a weak father who is a drunkard. At first she is dominated by her older husband, but when noticed by the governor of the province at a charity ball she is launched into provincial society. Her enjoyment of the new pleasures this brings turns her head away from her family and leads her to despise and defy her husband. In response to her success with the governor he awards her husband the cross of Anna, which he wears on a ribbon around his neck. This is the source of the Russian idiom, 'Anna around his neck' describing an unwanted burden.
"Teacher of Literature" portrays a favorite Chekhovian theme -- the emptiness of material prosperity and the tedium of provincial life with the gradual erosion of the 'happiness' of a young man.
While "Enemies" is the story of a clash between classes with a relatively poor doctor juxtaposed with a wealthy landowner. Surprisingly Chekhov explicitly states the moral of the necessity for greater tolerance and understanding between different types of people at the end of the story.
The most notable aspect in my reading was the modern feeling that I encountered in reading Chekhov. These stories, while set in a very different place and time are still relevant in the twenty-first century. The irony and sometimes melancholy nature of the stories shapes the realism that is found throughout Chekhov..