Gooseberries (Kryzhovnik) by Anton Chekhov, 1898

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by Anton Chekhov, 1898

Like all great writers Anton Chekhov not only reflected on timeless, universal themes, but he also exemplified the spirit of his own time and place. The disintegration of feudal Russia in the 1890s resulted in increased poverty for the lower classes; apathy, boredom, and frustration for the middle classes; and a kind of cocooning paralysis throughout Russian society as a whole. The uncertainty, loneliness, and failure of what O'Connor called "the submerged population" is all too apparent in Chekhov's mature stories. This societal paralysis transmutes itself into physical and mental inertia, and poetic vision and strength of expression take precedence over outward movement.

Chekhov's concern with social breakdown produced narratives not concerned with resolving dilemmas but instead intent on revealing a state of affairs. It is rather similar to Beckett's play Endgame, which the author claimed did not signify "the end of the game" but rather an arrested "state of play," caught for a brief but timeless moment (the implication being before complete dissolution). "Gooseberries" and its fellow stories, "Man in a Case" and "Concerning Love," form a trilogy linked by common characters designed to exhibit precisely this paralysis. The direct or indirect focus in each story falls on Nikolai Ivanich, Belikov, and Alekhin consecutively, three men whose automaton-like nature exemplifies the moral degeneracy and egotism inculcated by a complacent society.

The basic narrative detail of "Gooseberries" is, not surprisingly, uninspiring. Ivan Ivanich and Burkin take shelter from the rain in the farmhouse of an acquaintance, Alekhin. After bathing Ivan Ivanich recounts the story of his brother Nikolai, a minor government official whose sole aim in life is to acquire a country estate with gooseberry bushes. To achieve his desire, he lives in virtual penury, saving all his money, even to the point of starving to death the wealthy wife he calculatingly has married. Visiting him on this estate, his brother Ivan is overcome by the pettiness, bigotry, and self-deceit of Nikolai, and he implores his two listeners not to fall into the same habits. Burkin and Alekhin are unimpressed, and all three retire to bed as the storm rages outside.

The power of the story lies in its ability to convey emotion that surpasses the words used to describe such a feeling. Joyce was concerned with the same thing when he said that "its absence was as its presence." Chekhov achieves his effect not by the psychology of extended description and analysis but by investing significance in a concrete symbol more readily assimilated by the imagination. The gooseberries of the title perform this function in the story. They symbolize the rapacious, miserly, and pathetically self-deluding aspirations of Nikolai:

Speechless with emotion, he popped a single gooseberry into his mouth, darted at me the triumphant glance of a child who has at last gained possession of a longed-for toy, and said—"Delicious!" And he ate them greedily, repeating over and over again: "Simply delicious! You try them." They were hard and sour.

The incident convinces the narrator that all human happiness is "a kind of universal hypnosis" that conceals the injustice of "intolerable poverty, cramped dwellings, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying." Happiness is a delusion concealing a hard and sour reality. The gooseberries are what Chekhov called "a living image," giving visual immediacy in the same way that the blood-soaked potatoes on the floor in the superb story "The Murder" add poignancy to Yakov's realization that he has killed his brother. Yet Ivan's plea "Do good!" falls on deaf ears; indeed, the reader is likely to be suspicious of his diatribe against happiness because of his earlier delight in the natural landscape and his sensuous pleasure when swimming in the rain. The final scene resolves nothing beyond suggesting the inevitable movement toward death in a world seemingly incapable of change:

They were allotted a big room for the night, in which were two ancient bedsteads of carved wood, and an ivory crucifix in one corner. Ivan Ivanich undressed in silence and lay down. "Lord have mercy on us sinners," he said, and covered his head with the sheet…. The rain tapped on the window panes all night.

The subtleties of this fine story are barely explicable in so short a space: the "story within a story" technique giving Chekhov a control that is barely visible; the patterning of the characters adding to the many grim ironies, particularly the obvious similarities between Nikolai, Ivanich, and Alekhin; the Gogolian echoes of the bestial images, especially associated with pigs; and the sense of a whole society, a brooding mass of insignificant, frustrated individuals standing behind each character. The lack of any overt didactic purpose, other than the fallible and ignored assertions of Ivan Ivanich, makes "Gooseberries" all the more remarkable for its effect on the reader. The petty domestic bliss and trivial amusements seem all the more obvious for being understated. If a great story is not what it says but what it whispers, "Gooseberries" stands alongside the finest of Chekhov's achievements.

—Simon Baker