Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
BORN: 1860, Taganrog, Russia
DIED: 1904, Badenweiler, Germany
GENRE: Drama, fiction
The Cherry Orchard (1904)
Uncle Vanya (1899)
The Three Sisters (1901)
Celebrated for his innovative methods in prose fiction and drama, Anton Chekhov is known for his ability to combine both tragedy and comedy in works that substitute dialogue for action and ambiguity for moral finality. While his most characteristic works begin with revelations of personal feelings and observations, they ultimately balance emotion with stylistic control. This detached, rational artfulness distinguishes his work from that of his Russian predecessors—namely, from the confessional abandons of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the psychological fantasies of Nikolai Gogol. Though praised as an early
master of the short-story genre, Chekhov also helped initiate a new era in European theater, and his works continue to serve as models for the finest American and European writers of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Responsibility Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 16, 1860, in Taganrog, a Russian port city. Unlike the majority of well-known Russian writers who preceded him (who were aristocrats), Chekhov was only one generation removed from serfdom, a background that troubled him for many years. Serfs were Russian peasants who, in essence, were like slaves in that their lives were completely controlled by the aristocratic landowners whose fields they worked. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861. Chekhov's grandfather had bought freedom for his family, and had established himself as the keeper of a shop. According to a collection of letters edited by Simon Karlinsky, Chekhov wrote friend and publisher Aleksei Sergeevich Suvorin in January 1889 about the difficulty of “squeez[ing] the slave's blood out of himself in order to attain self-respect and independence not only as a man, but also as an author.
When his grocery store went bankrupt in 1876, Chekov's father moved to Moscow to escape debtors' prison. The rest of the family soon joined him, with the exception of Anton, who remained until 1879 in Taganrog to complete his secondary education. Chekhov received a scholarship to Moscow University, where he studied medicine and, because his father was incarcerated, began to provide his family with their main source of income. He carried this moral and financial responsibility for the rest of his life.
Humor and Suffering Encouraged by his older brother, Chekhov began submitting short, humorous pieces to popular magazines to earn money. In 1880, his first story was published in Dragonfly, a St. Petersburg journal. “A Letter from the Don Landowner Stepan Vladimirovich N. to His Learned Neighbor Dr. Fridrikh” parodies ridiculous pseu-doscientific ideas held by the pompous, poorly educated gentry. For the next several years, Chekhov looked to the streets of Moscow for the characters and themes he would then capture in anecdotes, jokes, character sketches, dialogues, and spoofs on authors of romance and adventure for humor magazines in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Chekhov's adoption of material from his own life, a method that he would use throughout his career, offended many of his friends and family.
After graduating in 1884, Chekhov went into medical practice, but because most of his patients lived in poverty, writing became increasingly important to him for financial reasons. From 1883 to 1886, Chekhov wrote more than three hundred pieces for Nikolai Aleksandrovich Leikin,
the publisher of the St. Petersburg journal Fragments. Although he and Leikin often had editorial differences, Chekhov was maturing and developing his writing skills, as evidenced by a newfound seriousness in his stories. In fact, many scholars consider Chekhov's time under Leikin as extremely valuable formative years, for it was during this time that Chekhov came to the conclusion that suffering is a part of everyday existence. Unfortunately, Chekhov was to become very familiar with suffering: during this time, he began to exhibit symptoms of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. Tuberculosis, also historically referred to as consumption, is an infectious and highly contagious disease that often causes bleeding lesions in the lungs, but can also affect most other parts of the body. In Chekhov's time, the disease was one of the greatest health threats in Europe; as late as 1918, one in six deaths in France was caused by tuberculosis. Doctors did not fully understand how the disease was spread until the 1880s, and the disease was not curable until effective antibiotics were developed in 1946.
Serious Writing In 1885, Chekhov moved to St. Petersburg and became friends with A. S. Suvorin, editor of the influential journal New Times. Impressed by Chekhov's literary talent, Suvorin encouraged the young writer to expand his gift with words, so Chekhov gave up writing for comic journals and began publishing more worldly stories in the New Times. In 1888, Chekhov published his first major literary short story, “The Steppe,” in the Northern Messenger. In addition to publishing short stories during the 1880s, Chekhov was also writing dramas, beginning with such popular one-act plays, or, as he referred to them, “jokes,” as The Bear (1888) and The Wedding Proposal (1888).
Social Responsibility In 1890, feeling restless and dissatisfied with his life, Chekhov traveled across Siberia to visit a penal colony on Sakhalin Island. Passionate about doing something practical to address the evils of Russian society, he based the book Sakhalin (1893), which calls for prison reform, on his observations there. Up to that point, the majority of Chekhov's works had been profoundly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's moral code, which included concepts of Christian love and nonresistance to evil; however, after his time on the island of Sakhalin, Chekhov rejected Tolstoy's ideas on the grounds that they provided an insufficient, unrealistic answer to human suffering. Chekhov was impatient with intellectual groups who only philosophized instead of taking action.
Major Dramas Beginning in 1892, Chekhov worked on The Sea Gull, his first major dramatic work, while treating peasants outside of Moscow during a cholera epidemic. When The Sea Gull was produced in St. Petersburg in 1896, it was a complete failure, primarily because audiences, directors, and actors alike did not appreciate Chekhov's concept of drama: that plot and action are secondary to mood and dialogue. In spite of this negative reception, Chekhov soon earned the reputation as the innovator of modern Russian drama, in part because of the formation of the Moscow Art Theatre.
The Moscow Art Theatre staged a new production of The Sea Gull in 1898 that proved highly successful. During rehearsals, Chekhov met actress Olga Knipper, whom he later married. He continued to write for the Moscow Art Theatre, which premiered The Three Sisters in 1901. Despite complications from tuberculosis and his doctor's advice to rest, Chekhov pushed himself to complete The Cherry Orchard and then to attend rehearsals for the play. He suffered a complete collapse in the winter of 1903 and died on July 15, 1904, in a health resort in Badenweiler, Germany.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Chekhov's famous contemporaries include:
Edith Wharton (1862–1937): Author of the American classics The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, Wharton's primary preoccupation was with the conflict between social obligation and individual fulfillment.
Knut Hamsun (1859–1952): This Norwegian writer is best known for Hunger, a novel based on his experience as a laborer on the verge of starvation.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939): Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, which has had a profound impact on literature and literary theory.
Henry James (1843–1916): Many novels written by James explore the impact of European civilization on American development.
George Santayana (1863–1952): Santayana was a prominent philosopher who believed that reason does not lie in idealistic dreams, but in logical activity based on fact.
Works in Literary Context
While his short fiction owes much to such literary greats as Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev, Chekhov's own influence on Western literature has proved vast. Writers from E. M. Forster to Virginia Woolf were inspired by Chekhov's prose style, especially his mastery of mood and setting, and his methods of developing character sketches that highlight the character's faults and human weaknesses. By developing innovative techniques, Chekhov reinvented the short-story genre. For example, he often
ends stories with a “zero ending,” a conclusion born from realism that is anticlimactic. Other stories, however, have surprise endings. Because of Chekhov's originality, readers for over one hundred years have admired his works, particularly for their humanity and authenticity.
Indirect Action Climate, environment, furniture, sound effects, costumes, characters—every element in Chekhov's plays enhances mood and meaning. Such intricacy has made his dramas popular with both audiences and actors and almost impossible to imitate effectively. Chekhov's four major dramas are distinguished principally for their technique of “indirect action,” a method in which violent or intensely dramatic events take place offstage. Therefore, the main action consists of conversations alluding to the unseen moments in the characters' lives. In this way, Chekhov more precisely conveys the effects of crucial events on a character's personality. The first drama written in this manner was The Sea Gull, which was a complete failure when it debuted in St. Petersburg. Nonetheless, it was produced successfully in Moscow two years later under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky, who contributed to the play's artistic success with a subtle interweaving of theme and character. As a result, action is reduced to a minimum, thereby allowing nuances of pacing and mood to become paramount to the full realization of dramatic tension.
Works in Critical Context
In comparison with works of other great Russian authors, Chekhov's writings often depict situations of boredom, hardship, and suffering. Uncle Vanya, for example, focuses on the influence of economic and social conditions on everyday life and people's inability to change. Chekhov portrays the ordinariness of life, bringing to the stage a realism that avoids the epic scale of traditional drama, yet also demonstrates previously unrealized possibilities for the stage. In an essay in Chekhov: The Critical Heritage, Francis Fergusson writes, “If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a strict sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible.”
Art of Melancholy Emphasizing the darker aspects of Chekhov's work, some critics believe his art is one of melancholy. Oftentimes, for instance, the mood and meaning of Chekhov's drama hover between the tragic and comic, imparting the idea that life is futile and absurd. Viewing Chekhov as a total pessimist, though, has often been met with opposition, especially from those critics who approach his work from a historical perspective, seeing him as a writer who has chronicled the degeneration of the landowning classes during an era of imminent revolution. Scholars have long tried to determine the degree to which the somber sprit of Chekhov's stories and plays reflects his personal philosophy; however, Chekhov's importance in world literature is not so much a result of his philosophical worldview as of the artistry that transformed literary standards for the genres of fiction and drama.
The Cherry Orchard Since its first production, controversy has surrounded the interpretation of Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, which he subtitled “A Comedy,” intending for it to be viewed as such. Often perceived as a nostalgic parable about the dissolution of an older class in Russian history, this work displays one of Chekhov's most important themes: the triumph of ignorance and vulgarity over elegance and nobility. Referring to what he called Chekhov's “tragic humor,” Maksim Gorky comments, “One has only to read his ‘humorous’ stories with attention to see what a lot of cruel and disgusting things, behind the humorous words and situations, had been observed by the author with sorrow and were concealed by him.” Despite the bleakness of the characters' situations, some critics recognize the inescapable humor of the play. For example, in a piece included in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays Dorothy Sayers writes that “the whole tragedy of futility is that it never succeeds in achieving tragedy. In its blackest moments it is inevitably doomed to the comic gesture.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II emancipated all serfs, initiating a new social order in Russian history. Although only a year old when the serfs were granted their freedom, Chekhov, the grandson of a former serf, explored the issue of class barriers in much of his writing. Listed below are other works in which plots revolve around social classes:
Miss Julie (1888), a drama by August Strindberg. In this naturalistic drama, the love affair between Miss Julie and Jean, her father's valet, demonstrates the often tragic consequences of breaking class barriers.
Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert's story investigates how striving for higher social status results in the destruction of Emma Bovary.
A Passage to India (1924), a novel by E. M. Forster. Set in India in the mid-1800s, this work tells the story of two Englishwomen who break social and cultural barriers when they become friends with an Indian man.
Responses to Literature
- Research the Russian class system that evolved after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. How do the new social classes relate to the characters in The Cherry Orchard?
- Explore the rise of the Moscow Art Theatre and its importance to Chekhov. Also, investigate the influence of its director, Constantin Stanislavsky, on the school of method acting that was taught by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg in America and popularized by such actors as Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, and Dennis Hopper.
- Chekhov intended for The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy. Nevertheless, when it was produced at the Moscow Art Theater, it was presented as a tragedy. Chekhov was so frustrated by the failure of the director and critics to view the play as a comedy that he burned all but one copy of the manuscript. After evaluating The Cherry Orchard, write a review of the play in which you explain whether you agree with Chekhov or the director as to the kind of play it is. Include a paragraph in your review discussing why you believe Chekhov reacted so extremely to the play's depiction as a tragedy.
- Chekhov said that the city of Perm was a model for the type of provincial city that provides the setting for The Three Sisters. Research what daily life would have been like in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the century, and then compare it with what life in Moscow would have been like at the same time. Where would you have preferred to live? Why?
Erneljanow, Victor, ed. Chekhov: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
Gorky, Maksim, Alexander Kuprin, and I. A. Bunin. Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov. Trans. S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1921.
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Jackson, Robert Louis. Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Karlinsky, Simon, ed. Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Malcolm, Janet. Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. New York: Random House, 2001.
Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
The Russian author Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is among the major short-story writers and dramatists of modern times.
During the last half of the 19th century the old order in Russia was crumbling. Political institutions were out of line with actual developments, and the agrarian, aristocratic society was increasingly yielding to an urban bourgeoisie and a new capitalist class. Turgenev and Tolstoy, among other writers, had depicted the weakened social structure of the 1860s and 1870s; Dostoevsky had dramatically described the intellectual conflicts. Anton Chekhov, however, was the first to depict a world essentially without heroes and villains. A Chekhovian personage vacillates, often Hamlet-like, between what he should do and what he wants, meanwhile becoming ever more conscious of the wrongs he is helplessly suffering. Romantic illusion wars with disillusion. Time after time, the individual fails, almost fatalistically, but never without either discovering for himself or allowing the reader to discover the forces behind his contest with life. Dramatic understatement, a deeply poetic perception of loss and psychological impotence, exquisite and often gay humor, and extraordinary linguistic aptness characterize what has come to be called "the Chekhovian manner."
Chekhov was born in Taganrog in South Russia on the Azov Sea on Jan. 17/29, 1860, third of six children of a grocery store owner. Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who bought his family's freedom in 1841. While his father tried to improve his social status by attending to civic duties, the young Chekhov and his brothers and sisters worked in the family store and studied in the local school. In 1876 his father went bankrupt and fled to Moscow to start anew. Chekhov's mother soon joined his father in Moscow. Chekhov, then 16, was left behind to finish his schooling.
The blond, brown-eyed Chekhov was a self-reliant, amusing, energetic, and attractive young man. In August 1879 he joined his parents in Moscow, where his father was a laborer and his mother a part-time seamstress. Chekhov soon took his father's place as head of the household, a responsibility he shouldered all his life. He immediately entered the medical faculty of Moscow University. After graduating in 1884, he went to work in the hospital at Chikino, but by December of that year he had begun to cough up blood, the first symptom of the tuberculosis that was to kill him.
In the winter after arriving in Moscow, Chekhov decided to try to augment family income by writing for the humor magazines he himself liked to read. In March 1880 the Dragonfly published his first sketch. During that year it published nine more, most of them signed "Antosha Chekhonte." In the fall of 1881 he had stories accepted by the Alarm Clock, and he and his older brothers Aleksandr and Nikolai published in a new humor magazine, the Spectator. In the fall of 1882 he was introduced to Leikin, editor of Fragments, to which he was soon contributing regularly. His first book was The Tales of Melpomene, a collection of six of these sketches published with his own money (on credit) in mid-1884. Written for money under numerous pseudonyms, Chekhov's first sketches were the work of a gay, witty, enthusiastic reporter well aware of the dark side of life but unaware of his own literary promise.
Midsummer 1886 saw the appearance of Chekhov's first substantial book, Motley Stories; on the title page his real name stood beside his old pseudonym. The book did well, and Chekhov was recognized as a new literary talent. He practiced medicine less and wrote more. "On the Road" was a special success in the late fall of 1886. In February 1887 he was elected to the Literary Fund, an honor accorded only prominent authors. In the Twilight, a collection of short stories, appeared in August.
Chekhov's first completed play, Ivanov, was produced in Moscow in November 1887. He had given up writing for the light magazines in favor of serious fiction, art which would, as he stated in a letter, "depict life as it actually is. Its aim is truth, unconditional and honest…. A man of letters …has to… realize that dung heaps play a very significant role in a landscape and that evil passions are as inherent in life as good ones." Nostalgia, disharmony, and a sense of life's pervasive irony became elements of his writing in this transitional period.
"The Steppe" (1888), a lyrical paean to the Russian countryside revolving around the adventures that befall 9-year-old Egorushka on his way with his uncle to a distant town, began a new literary life for Chekhov. Not only was it accepted by the fashionable Northern Messenger, bringing Chekhov a considerable (for him) sum of money, but it also was highly praised by outstanding writers. At this time Chekhov wrote, "I regard medicine as my lawful wife and literature as my mistress, who is dearer to me than a wife." In October 1888 he won the Academy of Sciences' Pushkin Prize. "The Lights," "The Name-Day Party," and "An Attack of Nerves" all appeared in this year.
The one-act The Bear had a modest success, but the St. Petersburg production of a revised Ivanov in 1889 was a triumph. Another collection of stories, Children, was published in March. Chekhov calculated that he could now support his family by his writing. He spent the summer of 1888 in the Ukraine (where his consumptive brother Nikolai died) and at Yalta. The events of this period inspired the Tolstoyan "A Dreary Story" (1889), in which a dying old man muses on what he considers his pointless life.
In addition to some one-act plays (among them, "The Wedding"), Chekhov worked on The Wood Demon, but the St. Petersburg Theatrical Committee rejected the play, deeply wounding him. In March 1890 Chekhov's seventh book appeared, a collection of stories entitled Gloomy People.
Late in April 1890 Chekhov set out for the penal colony on the remote Siberian island of Sakhalin. After spending 3 months studying the island, Chekhov returned home and wrote Sakhalin Island, which was serialized in 1893-1894.
Chekhov, who had once asked his brother Aleksandr for literary advice, now willingly helped younger writers. In the summer of 1890 the young Ivan Bunin brought his manuscripts, and he and Chekhov soon became warm friends. In the spring of the following year Chekhov spent 6 weeks in Europe. By summer he was in the country again, working on the story "The Duel," which delves into the characters' isolation from each other and discusses political and moral themes in the life of the intelligentsia. Olga Ivanovna, an amateur artist and the central figure of "The Grasshopper" (1891), so desperately seeks for a great man that her sense of beauty and of moral worth is obscured. Chekhov was scornful of the philistine and of the frivolous side of art; he admired science and dedicated his life to helping people in need, like those who suffered cholera in the wake of the famine of 1891-1892.
In February 1892 Chekhov bought the 675-acre "Melikhovo," 2 1/2 hours by train from Moscow. He, the grandson of a serf, had bought an estate, and he settled down on it with his family. To the local peasants he was a sympathetic doctor, but to his literary and theatrical friends he was the proprietor of a country retreat, and guests streamed out to visit him. By the end of 1893 he had paid off most of the mortgages on the estate and was supporting his family comfortably.
Chekhov began writing more slowly. "Ward No. 6" (1892), a powerful story of brutality and madness, added greatly to his reputation. "The Story of an Unknown Man" (1893), which tells of a love affair between a terrorist and another man's mistress, expressed new psychological care in portraiture. Unfortunately his health took a turn for the worse. To relieve his coughing, he went to Yalta in the spring of 1894 but quickly grew bored and hurried back to Melikhovo.
Stories by Chekhov regularly appeared in the leading St. Petersburg and Moscow magazines. Among his bestknown works of this period are "The Black Monk" (1894), "The Literature Teacher" (1894), "Three Years" (1895), "My Life" (1896), "The House with the Balcony" (1896), "The Peasants" (1897), "Ionych" (1898), "The Lady with the Dog" (1898), "The Gooseberry" (1898), "The Man in a Case" (1898), "The New Summer House" (1899), and "In the Ravine" (1900). The last years of his life, chiefly devoted to playwriting, saw revisions of his earlier stories for Collected Works (1899-1901) and creation of two new ones, "The Bishop" (1902) and "The Fiancée" (1903). Through most of them ran the haunting themes of human isolation, hopelessness, and want of understanding, which seem to reflect the Russian fin-de-siècle atmosphere with exceptional accuracy.
In Moscow, as in St. Petersburg, Chekhov was lionized. Long a bachelor and devoted to his sister Masha, who in turn idolized him, he had a number of vivacious, pretty, and talented women friends but none for whom he felt "love, sexual attraction, being of one flesh" in terms strong enough to propose marriage. But in 1898, when he was 38 and seriously ill, he met the actress Olga Knipper. By the time they married in May 1901, he not only was one of Russia's leading literary men, having been the first writer elected to honorary membership in the Academy of Sciences (January 1890), but was also engrossed in the theater, madly in love, and gravely tubercular.
The first draft of The Sea Gull (1896) drew heavily on a romance between Chekhov's former love Lidiya Mizinova and his writer-friend I. N. Potapenko. The play failed in its first presentation, but in 1898 in the new Moscow Art Theater it was such a spectacular success that the gull became, and remains, the theater's official emblem. Chekhov's other great plays followed quickly: Uncle Vanya, an extensive revision of The Wood Demon, in 1897; Three Sisters in 1900-1901; and The Cherry Orchard in 1903-1904. They all are about the passing of the old order. In each, a group of upper-class landowners, isolated in boredom and social impotence, struggles to preserve cultural values against the energetic social change insisted on by the middle-and lower-class teachers, writers, and businessmen to whom the new life belongs. Each character thinks chiefly only of himself, so that the conflict is expressed in the subtleties of small gestures, musically orchestrated, leading up to an overwhelming climax, usually a suicide, which is followed in a minor key by the general admission that nothing further can be done. The expressed hopelessness is counteracted by declarations of faith in an ideal. The audience perceives the difference between the esthetic harmony and the insurmountable pressures of moral choice and failure in everyday life.
Chekhov was at the height of his fame. He encouraged the writers Bunin and Andreyev, recommended writers for the Pushkin Prize, and was eagerly sought out for advice and comment. His wife acted in Moscow during the season while he stayed in Yalta. The letters between them indicate a deep and mutual passion. Chekhov's health worsened rapidly in 1904. Even in Yalta, where he lived in a villa he had built, little could be done. His doctors told him that he must go to a sanatorium. In June 1904 he set off for Badenweiler in the Black Forest. A friend who saw him in Moscow on the eve of departure for Europe quoted Chekhov as having said: "Tomorrow I leave. Good-bye. I'm going away to die." On July 2, 1904, he died in a hotel at Badenweiler; his body was returned to Moscow for burial.
Chekhov's plays and stories are available in many editions and translations. The best general work on Chekhov in English is Ernest Joseph Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography (1962). An excellent study is Thomas Gustav Winner, Chekhov and His Prose (1966). See also Walter Horace Bruford, Chekhov and His Russia: A Sociological Study (1948); Ronald Hingley, Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study (1950); Maurice Jacques Valency, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov (1966); Daniel Gillès, Chekhov: Observer without Illusion (1967; trans. 1968); and Robert Louis Jackson, ed., Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967). A good survey of Russian literature is D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (1949). □
The Russian author Anton Chekhov is among the major short-story writers and dramatists in history. He wrote seventeen plays and almost six hundred stories.
Early life in Russia
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog in South Russia on the Azov Sea on January 17, 1860. He was the third of six children of Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, a grocery store owner. Chekhov's grandfather was a serf (a peasant who lives and works on land owned by another) who bought his family's freedom in 1841. The young Chekhov and his brothers and sisters worked in the family store and studied in the local school. Their extremely religious father often beat them. In 1876 his father's business failed, and the family moved to Moscow, Russia, for a fresh start. Chekhov, then sixteen, was left behind to finish his schooling.
The blond, brown-eyed Chekhov was a self-reliant, amusing, energetic, and attractive young man. In August 1879 he joined his parents in Moscow, where his father was a laborer and his mother did part-time sewing work. Chekhov immediately entered the medical school of Moscow University. He soon took his father's place as head of the household, a responsibility he carried the rest of his life. After graduating in 1884 he went to work in the hospital at Chikino, Russia, but by December of that year he had begun coughing up blood—the first symptom of the tuberculosis (an infection in the lungs) that eventually caused his death.
In an attempt to add to his income in Moscow, Chekhov wrote for the humor magazines he himself liked to read. His first story was published in March 1880 by a magazine called the Dragonfly, which went on to publish nine more of his stories, most of them signed "Antosha Chekhonte," that year. In the fall of 1881 he had stories accepted by the Alarm Clock, and he and his older brothers' work was published in a new humor magazine, the Spectator. His first book was The Tales of Melpomene, a collection of six humor pieces published with his own money (on credit) in mid-1884. Chekhov's first stories were full of wit and enthusiasm and showed his promise as a writer.
Chekhov's first book published by someone else, Motley Stories, came out in 1886 with his real name on it. The book did well, and Chekhov was recognized as a new talent. He began practicing medicine less and writing more. In February 1887 he was elected to the Literary Fund, an honor given only to prominent authors. In the Twilight, a collection of short stories, appeared in August. Chekhov's first completed play, Ivanov, was produced in Moscow in November 1887. He stopped writing for humor magazines in favor of serious fiction and drama in an attempt to, as he stated in a letter, "depict life as it actually is."
"The Steppe" (1888), a story of the Russian countryside revolving around the adventures of nine-year-old Egorushka while on his way to a distant town with his uncle, began a new phase in Chekhov's writing career. Not only was it accepted by the high-class Northern Messenger magazine—bringing Chekhov a considerable sum of money—but it also was highly praised by other famous writers. In October 1888 he won the Academy of Sciences' Pushkin Prize. "The Lights," "The Name-Day Party," and "An Attack of Nerves" all appeared in this year.
Chekhov spent the summer of 1888 in the Ukraine (where his brother Nikolai died) and at Yalta. The events of this period inspired "A Dreary Story" (1889), in which a dying old man thinks back on what he considers his pointless life. After another collection of stories, Children, was published in March 1889, Chekhov decided that he could now support his family by his writing alone. He wrote some one-act plays and worked on The Wood Demon, but the St. Petersburg (Russia) Theatrical Committee rejected the play, deeply wounding him. In March 1890 his seventh book, a collection of stories entitled Gloomy People, appeared. Late in April 1890 Chekhov set out for the prison colony on the Siberian island of Sakhalin. After spending three months studying the island, Chekhov returned home and wrote Sakhalin Island, which was later published in serial form.
In February 1892 Chekhov bought a 675-acre estate outside of Moscow called Melikhovo, and he settled down on it with his family. Guests streamed out to visit him. By the end of 1893 he was supporting his family comfortably. He began writing more slowly and focusing more on writing plays than before, but his stories continued to appear in the leading St. Petersburg and Moscow magazines. Chekhov was popular and admired. He had a number of pretty, lively, and talented women friends, but none whom he felt strongly enough about to propose marriage. But in 1898, when he was thirty-eight and seriously ill, he met the actress Olga Knipper, and they began an affair.
Series of famous plays
Chekhov's play The Sea Gull drew heavily on a romance between his former love Lidiya Mizinova and his writer friend I. N. Potapenko. The play had failed in its first presentation in 1896, but in 1898 in the new Moscow Art Theater it was such a spectacular success that the gull became, and remains, the theater's official emblem. Chekhov's other great plays followed quickly: Uncle Vanya, a new version of The Wood Demon, in 1897; Three Sisters in 1900–01; and The Cherry Orchard in 1903–04. They are all about the passing of the old order. In each, a group of upper-class landowners struggles to preserve their cultural values against the social change insisted on by the middle-and lower-class teachers, writers, and businessmen to whom the new life belongs.
Chekhov was at the height of his fame. He encouraged younger writers such as Ivan Bunin (1870–1953) and Leonid Andreyev (1871–1919), recommended writers for the Pushkin Prize, and was eagerly sought out for advice and comment. In 1900 he became the first writer elected to membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in 1901 he and Olga Knipper were married. She acted in Moscow during the season while he stayed in Yalta to improve his health. The letters between them indicate a deep affection. Chekhov's health worsened in 1904, and his doctors told him that he had to go to a hospital. In June 1904 he set off for Badenweiler, Germany. A friend who saw him in Moscow the day before he left for Europe quoted Chekhov as having said, "Tomorrow I leave. Good-bye. I'm going away to die." On July 2, 1904, he died in a hotel at Badenweiler. His body was returned to Moscow for burial.
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Anton Chekhov. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Callow, Philip. Chekhov, the Hidden Ground: A Biography. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.
Chekov, Anton. The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories. New York: Seven Stories, 1999.
CHEKHOV, ANTON (1860–1904), Russian playwright and short story writer.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia, on 29 January (17 January, old style) 1860, the grandson of an emancipated serf. His father failed as owner of a small shop; to escape his creditors, he fled to Moscow. Chekhov was left on his own to finish school. He did so brilliantly and won a scholarship to medical school. While still a student, he began publishing (under one or another of several pseudonyms) comic sketches for popular journals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He did not at this early stage perceive his writing as "literature." As the major provider for his parents and siblings, he wrote simply to supplement his income as a doctor.
From 1880 on, Chekhov wrote numberless jokes, gossip pieces, parodies, and humorous anecdotes for such rags as Dragonfly and the weekly magazine Fragments. For the next five years his publications (with the exception of two rather unremarkable novel-length pieces) consisted of short, pointed vignettes, pithy and funny, but sometimes with a tinge of the melancholy that would become more apparent in his later work.
In 1885 (after finishing his medical degree) Chekhov visited St. Petersburg, where he was received with deep admiration by some of the most respected names in Russian literature. Chekhov was amazed and chastened by this turn, and he began to write longer and more carefully crafted stories. These were not suitable for the ephemeral publications where his previous work had appeared. But he became a friend of Alexei Suvorin, the powerful and wealthy publisher of the leading Russian daily newspaper, New Times. Chekhov's longer and more serious works became a staple of Suvorin's vast publishing empire, to the mutual advantage of both men.
Chekhov now began writing plays: Ivanov, a study of that archetypal creature, the Russian superfluous man, was successfully produced in 1887 and 1889. The Wood Demon had less success when staged in 1888 but was later reworked into one of Chekhov's late masterpieces, Uncle Vanya (1899). In this new phase of his career Chekhov also began publishing longer prose works, such as "The Steppe" (1888), which brought him attention in the more serious journals of the day. The stories of this period are marked by close attention to the natural landscape and detailed descriptions of people in crisis. In "Name-Day Party" (1888) he describes a woman undergoing a miscarriage, while in "A Dreary Story" (1889) a distinguished professor is brought low by old age as he approaches death. These stories reflect Chekhov's experience as a practicing physician and have the form of brilliant case histories.
By this time Chekhov defined himself as a writer, rather than a doctor, but not without some guilt. In the great tradition of Russian writers who felt they owed a debt to their society, Chekhov in 1890 made a journey across Siberia to the Pacific island of Sakhalin, where he applied his diagnostic eye and clinical descriptive skills to describing the community of native tribes and Russian convicts who inhabited the island (published as The Island of Sakhalin in 1893). He continued to treat peasants on his estate, and was active in famine relief. His high morals attracted him to Leo Tolstoy in the late 1880s, but by 1890 Chekhov became disillusioned with the religious aspect of Tolstoy's system. Chekhov, a believer in the Enlightenment and a much-traveled cosmopolitan, regarded Tolstoy's contempt for medical science as a sign of dangerous ignorance.
Chekhov's insistence on the clinical truth can be painful: Nikolai Stepanovich, the hero of "A Dreary Story," forces his beloved ward, an aspiring actress, to admit finally that she has no talent. And then, in a characteristic Chekhovian stroke, the old man says to Katya, "Let's go to lunch." The revelation of secret weaknesses—the human, all too human, aspect of Chekhov's best stories—results from his pitiless eye and his unsentimental recognition of the power of the quotidian.
In 1899 Chekhov prepared a complete edition of his works, entirely rewriting some of the earlier stories. But his last years were primarily occupied with his activity in the theater. The first performance of The Seagull in 1896 had been a failure. The cast and audience simply were not prepared for the novelty of Chekhov's revolutionary drama of indirect action, in which most of the action occurs offstage. But two years later Chekhov started his epochal collaboration with Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater (MAT), and a new chapter in the history of European drama began. The 1898 MAT production of The Seagull was a huge success, as was the 1899 production of Uncle Vanya, destined to become a staple in theaters all over the world. Three Sisters, produced in 1901, once again illustrated Chekhov's ability to find tragedy and high drama in the subtlest psychological effects. Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, was first performed on his final birthday, 29 January 1904. A profound historical commentary on changes in Russian society, it is as well an exquisite, if muted, comedy.
During his last years, Chekhov battled with tuberculosis. He found some happiness, nevertheless, in his magnificent house overseeing Yalta harbor and in his marriage to the MAT actress Olga Knipper. He died at the spa in Badenweiler, Germany, on 15 July (2 July, old style) 1904. In a final irony (that he would have appreciated), his body was conveyed back to Russia in a special railroad car used to transport oysters.
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Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich
CHEKHOV, ANTON PAVLOVICH
(1860–1904), short-story writer and dramatist.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was the author of several hundred works of short fiction and of several plays that are among the most important and influential dramatic works of the twentieth century. He was also a noted public figure who in his opinions and actions often challenged notions that were dominant in Russian social thought of the time.
Chekhov was born the grandson of a serf, who had purchased his freedom prior to the emancipation of the serfs, and the son of a shop owner in the Black Sea port of Taganrog, a town with a very diverse population. He received his primary and secondary education there, first in the parish school of the local Greek church, and from 1868 in the Taganrog Gymnasium, where his religion instructor, a Russian Orthodox priest, introduced his students to works of Russian and European literature. In 1876 his father declared bankruptcy, and the family moved to Moscow to avoid creditors. Chekhov remained in Taganrog to finish at the Gymnasium. During this period, he apparently read literature intensively in the Taganrog public library and began to write works of both fiction and drama. In 1879 Chekhov completed the Gymnasium, joined his family in Moscow, and began study in the medical department of Moscow University.
Chekhov later credited his medical education with instilling in him a respect for objective observation and attention to individual circumstances. While in medical school, at the suggestion of his elder brother Alexander, a journalist, Chekhov began to contribute to the so-called satirical journals, weekly periodicals that appealed primarily to lower-class urban readers with a mix of drawings, humorous sketches, and other brief entertainment items. By the time Chekhov finished his medical courses in 1884, he was already established as a successful writer for the satirical journals and was the primary support for his parents and siblings. Although Chekhov never entirely abandoned medicine, by the mid-1880s he devoted his efforts mainly to his career as a writer, gradually gaining access to increasingly serious (and better-paying) newspapers and journals, most notably in New Times, published by the influential newspaper magnate Alexei Suvorin, and then in various "thick journals." Chekhov first appeared in a thick journal in 1888 with his long story "The Steppe," published in the Populist journal Northern Herald. From that point on, Chekhov received increasing renown as the most significant, if problematic, author of his generation. Through his objectivity and techniques of economy and implication, as well as the increasing seriousness and complexity of his themes, Chekhov emerged as a founder of the modern short story and one of the most influential practitioners of the form. Such works as "Sleepy," "The Steppe," "The Name-Day Party" (all 1888), "A Boring Story" (1889), "The Duel" (1891), "The Student" (1894), "My Life" (1896), and "The Lady with a Lapdog" (1899) rank among the greatest achievements of short fiction.
In drama, after hits with several one-act farces but mediocre success with serious full-length plays, Chekhov emerged as an innovator in drama with the first of his four major plays, The Seagull (1895). Although the first production in Petersburg in 1896 continued Chekhov's string of theatrical failures, a new production by the newly formed Moscow Art Theater in 1898, based on new principles of staging and acting, won belated recognition as a new departure in drama. Subsequent Moscow Art Theater productions of Uncle Vanya (staged 1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904) solidified Chekhov's reputation as a master of a new type of drama and led to the worldwide influence of his plays and of Moscow Art Theater techniques. In addition, Chekhov's association with the Moscow Art Theater led to his marriage to one of the theater's actresses, Olga Leonardovna Knipper, in 1901.
In addition to his strictly literary activity, Chekhov also was engaged in a number of the social issues of his day. For instance, he assisted schools and libraries in his hometown of Taganrog, Melikhovo (the village near his estate), and Yalta, and served as a district medical officer during a cholera out-break while he was living at Melikhovo. He also initiated practical programs for famine relief during a crop failure in 1891 and 1892. Earlier, in 1890, he undertook the arduous journey across Siberia to the island of Sakhalin, which served at the time as a Russian penal colony. There Chekhov conducted a detailed sociological survey of the population and eventually published his observation as a book-length study of the island and its inhabitants, The Island of Sakhalin (1895), a work that eventually brought about amelioration of penal conditions. Most famously, Chekhov broke with his longtime friend, patron, and editor Suvorin over Suvorin's support of Alfred Dreyfus's conviction for espionage in France and opposed the anti-Semitic stance taken by Suvorin's paper New Times.
From the 1880s until his death, Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis, a disease that necessitated his move in 1898 from a small estate (purchased in 1892) outside Moscow to the milder climate of Yalta in the Crimea. He also spent time on the French Riviera. Finally in 1904 he went to Germany in search of treatment and died in Badenweiler in southern Germany in July of that year.
See also: moscow art theater; suvorin, alexei sergeyevich; thick journals
Heim, Michael Henry, and Karlinsky, Simon, tr. (1973). Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Simmons, Ernest J. (1962). Chekhov: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown.
Andrew R. Durkin
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich