Biography of A.P. Chekhov
Pavlovich Chekhov, considered the father of the modern short story and
of the modern play, was born, the third of six children, in the Russian
seaport town of Taganrog, near the Black Sea. Son of a grocer and
grandson of a serf who had bought his family's freedom before
emancipation, Chekhov was well-acquainted with the realities of
nineteenth- century lower-middle-class and peasant life, an acquaintance
that was reflected objectively and unsentimentally in his mature
Chekhov's father, Pavel, was a religious zealot and family tyrant who
terrorized Anton and his two older brothers, Alexander and Nicolay.
Although the three younger children recalled a much less terrifying
figure in Pavel, Chekhov remarked to Alexander in an 1889 letter
reprinted in Avrahm Yarmolinsky's Letters of Anton Chekhov, "Despotism
and lying mangled our childhood to such a degree that one feels queasy
and fearful recalling it." The writer's mother, Yevgeniya, was an
excellent storyteller, and Chekhov is supposed to have acquired his own
gift for narrative and to have learned to read and write from her.
At the age of eight he was sent to the local grammar school, where he
proved an average pupil. Rather reserved and undemonstrative, he
nevertheless gained a reputation for satirical comments, for pranks, and
for making up humorous nicknames for his teachers. He enjoyed playing in
amateur theatricals and often attended performances at the provincial
theater. As an adolescent he tried his hand at writing short
"anecdotes," farcical or facetious stories, although he is also known to
have written a serious long play at this time, "Fatherless," which he
The first real crisis in Chekhov's life occurred in 1875, when his
father's business failed. Threatened with imprisonment for debt, Pavel
left to find work in Moscow, where his two eldest sons were attending
the university. Yevgeniya, left behind with Anton and the younger
children, soon lost her house to a local bureaucrat who had posed as a
family friend. She and the children departed for Moscow in July, 1876,
leaving Anton in Taganrog to care for himself and finish school. The
episode provided him with a theme--the loss of a home to a conniving
middle-class upstart--that was to appear later in the short story"Tsvety
zapozdalyie" ("Late-blooming Flowers," 1882), and to mature in his last
play, Vishnyovy Sad: Komediya v chetyryokh deystriyakh (The Cherry
Orchard: A Comedy in Four Acts, 1904). The family struggled financially
while Pavel looked for work, and Chekhov helped by selling off household
goods and tutoring younger schoolboys in Taganrog. In 1877 Pavel found a
position in a clothing warehouse, and in 1879 Chekhov passed his final
exams and joined his family in Moscow, where he had obtained a
scholarship to study medicine at Moscow University.
Chekhov was first prompted to write less by an urge toward artistic
expression than by the immediate need to support his family. His
earliest efforts at publication, after his move to Moscow, were directed
at the lowbrow comic magazines that flourished during this period of
political repression in Russia, when to speak directly and critically of
the imperial government and its vast bureaucracy could doom a writer to
the penal colony of Sakhalin Island in Siberia. But Chekhov, who was
never politically motivated in his writings or committed in his personal
views, was not in danger of provoking official ire. Although he believed
strongly in artistic freedom and scientific progress, "politically
speaking," revealed Ronald Hingley in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, "he
might as well have been living on the moon as in Imperial Russia."
Chekhov had read and enjoyed the comic weeklies since his schoolboy
days, was under no illusions about their literary standards, and simply
sought the income they provided. His first published piece appeared in
the St. Petersburg weekly Strekoza ("Dragonfly") in March, 1880. Many
more items followed during the next three years in similar journals and
under various pseudonyms, the most common being "Antosha Chekhonte," a
nickname bestowed upon Chekhov some years before by his favorite grammar
In 1882 Chekhov met Nicolas Leykin, the owner and publisher of Oskolki
("Fragments"), the finest of the St. Petersburg comic weeklies, to which
he began submitting most of his better work.Oskolki was distinguished
from the general run of comic periodicals by the firmness of Leykin's
editorial control and his friendly acquaintance with the St. Petersburg
censor, which allowedOskolki to be a bit more outspoken than its
competitors. Leykin insisted on very short items, no more than two and
one-half pages, with a consistently comic tone throughout. While the
young writer resisted the uniformly comic requirements, the restrictions
on length proved salutary to Chekhov, who was to become the first modern
master of a spare and economical prose style in fiction.
The years 1883 to 1885 were very productive for Chekhov, who was in
desperate need of money; but in the general litter of tired jokes and
farcical trivia that came from his pen at this time, only a few stories
stand out: "Smert' chinovnika" ("The Death of a Government Official,"
1883), "Tolsty i tonki" ("Fat and Thin," 1883), "Doch Al'biona" ("The
Daughter of Albion," 1883), "Khameleon" ("A Chameleon," 1884),"Ustritsy"
("Oysters," 1884), "Strashnaya noch" ("A Dreadful Night," 1884), "Yeger'"
("The Huntsman," 1885), "Zloumyshlenniki" ("The Malefactors," 1885), "Neschastye"
("The Misfortune," 1885), and "Unter Prishibeyev" ("Sergeant Prishibeyev,"
1885). To these early writings of quality must be added Chekhov's only
attempt at a novel, the serialized Drama na okhote (The Shooting Party,
Making their first appearance among these brief vignettes and jokes are
the themes that predominate in Chekhov's fiction: the obsequiousness and
petty tyranny of government officials; the sufferings of the poor as
well as their coarseness and vulgarity; the vagaries and
unpredictability of feeling; the ironical misunderstandings,
disillusionments, and cross- purposes that make up the human comedy in
general. But Chekhov's art was also developing during the mid-1880s to
embrace more serious themes-- starvation in"Oysters," abandonment in
"The Huntsman," remorse in"The Misfortune." The narrative began to
identify more closely with a particular character's point of view and to
show more atmosphere or mood by evoking through concrete details the
emotions at work in a character's mind.
One of the earliest examples of what D. S. Mirsky in hisModern Russian
Literature essay labeled "biography of a mood" appears in"The Huntsman,"
which presents a roving peasant who refuses to go home with his wife
because he prefers the freedom of a sporting life--as a "shooter" for
the local landowner--and cohabitation with another woman. Here, as so
often in Chekhov's mature stories, there is no real plot, no dramatic
emotional flare-up, only a moment of confrontation which radically
condenses the life histories of both husband and wife. In this moment
nothing changes in their relationship or promises to change. Details of
the scene--the heat and stillness, the road stretched "taut as a
thong"--reflect both the hopeless stagnation of the couple's marriage
and the tension of this encounter.
Chekhov's interest in more serious writing found its first outlet in the
newspaper Petersburgskaya gazeta ("The Petersburg Gazette"), to which,
in 1885, he began sending stories that Leykin and other comic editors
had rejected as unsuitably somber. Here Chekhov found no restrictions on
length or tone. Soon after his first visit to St. Petersburg in
December, 1885, he was invited to write for the most respected of the
city papers, Novoye vremya ("New Times"), owned and edited by the
conservative anti-Semite Alexis Suvorin, who insisted that Chekhov now
publish under his own name. Chekhov was not particularly bothered by
Suvorin's political views. Although the young writer was to receive
harsh criticism from the left-wing intelligentsia for publishing with
Suvorin, he was much more upset at having to abandon his pseudonym:
still considering literature, even at this point, to be second in
importance to medicine, he had hoped to reserve the use of his real name
for future medical publications. "Besides medicine, my wife," he wrote
Alexander in a letter printed in Yarmolinsky's collection, "I have also
By 1886, however, Chekhov was becoming a well-known writer in St.
Petersburg. He had already published one collection of magazine stories
in 1883 and another, Pestrye rasskazy (Motley Tales), was to appear in
May. According to Ernest J. Simmons inChekhov: A Biography , a letter
reached Chekhov in March from D. V. Grigorovich, the dean of Russian
letters, praising "Antosha Chekhonte" 's work as showing "real talent,"
which "sets you in the front rank among writers in the new generation."
It was one of the few laudatory remarks on his writing by which the
typically undemonstrative Chekhov seemed genuinely moved, and his
appreciative reply to Grigorovich was uncharacteristically enthusiastic
The years 1886 to 1887 were the most productive of Chekhov's career.
Though he was still writing stories in an ironically comic vein, such as
"Roman s kontrabasom" ("Romance With Double Bass," 1886), "Mest"
("Revenge," 1886), and"Proizvedeniye iskusstva" ("The Work of Art,"
1886), his more serious plots were becoming attenuated almost to the
point of stasis. In addition, while sounding a strong note of pathos, as
in"Van'ka" ("Vanka," 1886), Chekhov maintained strict authorial
detachment: "Grisha" ("Grisha," 1886),"Ved'ma" ("The Witch," 1886), "Svyatoy
Noch'yu" ("Easter Night," 1886), "Toska" ("Heartache," 1886), "Verochka"
("Verochka," 1887), and"Potseluy" ("The Kiss," 1887) all demonstrate
Chekhov's growing ability to render life from within the minds of his
characters through the registration of significant details and to
portray experience without preaching or attitudinizing.
It was precisely for his refusal to pass judgment on even his most
despicable characters--in stories like "Anyuta" ("Anyuta," 1886), "Zhiteyskaya
meloch" ("A Trifle From Life," 1886), "Vragi" ("Enemies," 1887),
and"Tina" ("Mire," 1886)--that Chekhov received his most negative
criticism. Even his friend and country-house landlady, Mariya Kiselev,
could not refrain from scolding him for "rummaging in a dung heap," to
which he replied, as Yarmolinsky's collection shows, in a manner
thoroughly compatible with his medical training and outlook: "To think
that it is the duty of literature to pluck the pearl from the heap of
villains is to deny literature itself. Literature is called artistic
when it depicts life as it actually is.... A writer should be as
objective as a chemist." As for trying to instruct his readers, which
was the principle task of any great writer according to contemporary
critics of Russian culture, he later wrote to Suvorin in a letter
printed by Yarmolinsky, "You are confusing two concepts:the solution of
a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is
obligatory for an artist." Granted Chekhov's strictures on authorial
preaching, however, many stories from this period--for example, "Vstrecha"
("The Encounter," 1887), "Nishchy" ("The Beggar," 1887),"Beda" ("In
Trouble," 1887), and "Khoroshyie lyudi" ("Excellent People," 1886)--show
the unfortunate moralizing tendencies of Leo Tolstoy, who had by this
time become an object of admiration for the young writer.
Despite the general brightening of the Chekhov family's monetary
prospects throughout the 1880s, debts continued to mount, mostly due to
the spendthrift habits of the older brothers, Alexander and Nicolai,
debts which Anton undertook to pay. At the same time his health had been
deteriorating since December, 1884, when he had suffered his first
episode of bloody sputum and painful lungs, symptoms of the tuberculosis
that was eventually to kill him. Though a doctor himself, having
received his medical degree in the summer previous to his first attack,
Chekhov spent most of his remaining years denying that there was
anything seriously wrong with him. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1887,
debt, ill health, and the prodigious effort of writing to keep pace with
family expenses forced Chekhov to take a vacation trip to the Steppes
and eastern Ukraine, including a visit to Taganrog.
The trip refreshed Chekhov's boyhood memories and provided material for
his first publication in a serious literary, or so-called "thick,"
journal, Severny vestnik ("The Northern Herald"), in March, 1888. "Step"
("The Steppe") tells the story of a nine-year-old boy's journey across
the vast plains of southern Russia with his merchant uncle and a local
priest. Considered too long, impressionistic, and plotless by the
popular press, "The Steppe" marked Chekhov's entry into the ranks of the
major Russian writers and the beginning of his artistic maturity. Later
in 1888 he received the Pushkin Prize from the Division of Russian
Language and Letters of the Academy of Sciences for his collection of
stories, V sumerkakh (In the Twilight), published the previous year.
Typically, he declared himself unimpressed. This collection and later
ones--Rasskazy (Tales, 1888), Detvora (Children, 1889), and a collection
whose title has been translated as "Gloomy People" (1890)--went through
Meanwhile, Chekhov had made his theatrical debut in the autumn of 1887
with the premiere of his four-act play, Ivanov, at the Korsh Theater in
Moscow. He had written two earlier one-act plays, neither of which had
been produced, and a very long, melodramatic, four-act potboiler,
Platonov, which was neither produced nor published in his lifetime. In
Ivanov, a middle-aged landowner beset by debts and weary of marriage
seeks an affair with a neighbor's daughter while his Jewish wife, Sara,
rejected by her family for marrying a Gentile, is dying of tuberculosis.
The play marks a great advance over the histrionics and verbosity of
Platonov but shows little of Chekhov's later experimentation with
understatement, anticlimax, and implied feeling. Audience and critical
reaction was polarized: on the one hand, the play was very well made, so
good, in fact, that Hingley in A New Life of Anton Chekhov deemed it
superior to Chayka: Komediya Chetyryokh deystviyakh (The Seagull: A
Comedy in Four Acts), Chekhov's first truly innovative contribution to
modern drama. On the other hand, the playwright had refused to represent
his hero's behavior in an unfavorable light and even showed the only
character who denounces Ivanov, Sara's doctor, Lvov, to be
self-righteous and narrow-minded. This constituted another instance in
which Chekhov's objectivity violated the canons of Russian literary
From 1888 to 1890 Chekhov continued to write for the theater. In
addition to a new but poorly received four-act play,Leshy (The Wood
Demon, 1889), he wrote four one-act farces,Medved' (The Bear),
Predlozheniye (The Proposal), Tragic (A Tragic Role), andSvad'ba (The
Wedding), all quite successful. On January 31, 1889, Ivanov opened its
St. Petersburg run at the Alexandrine Theater to extremely favorable
reviews. But Chekhov, bending under the strain of overseeing rehearsals,
advising his producers, and dealing with the press, was becoming morose
and irritated at his success. He declared himself "bored" withIvanov and
contemptuous of theatrical people. In general, he was impatient with
praise because it seldom matched his own highly critical
self-estimation, while fame brought with it heightened public
expectations and unsolicited advice. It also brought visitors, and even
toward welcome visitors Chekhov often felt ambivalent. When alone with
his family, as at his rented country house in Babkino or in summer
residences at Luka in the Ukraine, he longed for company and the
excitement of city life. But he quickly grew tired of guests because
they kept him away from his work.
After 1888 Chekhov's fiction diminished in quantity but increased in
quality. He began trying to write longer stories without sacrificing
conciseness. To the period from 1888 to 1890 belong such prized works as
"Nepriyatnaya istoriya" ("An Awkward Business," 1888), "Krasavitsy"
("The Beauties," 1888), "Spat' khochetsya" ("Sleepy," 1888), and his two
brilliant long stories, "Imeniny" ("The Name-Day Party," 1888) and "Skuchnaya
istoriya" ("A Dreary Story," 1889).
These two works, along with "Sleepy" and "The Seizure," are among the
finest instances of what Oliver Elton inChekhov: The Taylorian Lecture
called the "clinical study": stories drawing on Chekhov's medical
expertise and depicting psychosomatic illness or the psychological
effects of physical disease or distress. It was a form he had used in
earlier stories such as"Oysters" and "Tif" ("Typhus," 1887) but had
never before developed at such length or with such skill. In"The
Name-Day Party" a pregnant wife, hurt and infuriated by her husband's
failure to share his professional concerns with her, must cope with the
added pressures of entertaining the guests at his name-day party. This
superb study of the emotional effects of marital and social hypocrisy
ends with a harrowing description of the wife's experience of
miscarriage, which results from the day-long physical and mental strain.
Chekhov claimed that many of his female readers attested to the accuracy
of this story's description of labor pains, a description based on his
In "A Dreary Story" a dying medical professor, Nicolai Stepanovich,
recounts at length his final months, his night fears and insomnia, his
impatience with colleagues and weariness with family affairs. Alarmed by
his own indifference to his daughter's elopement with a scoundrel and
vulgarian, he registers that indifference as "a paralysis of the soul, a
premature death," and discovers within himself only a bundle of peevish
desires uninformed by any "general idea, or the god of a living man."
When his ward, Katya, a disillusioned actress who has been seduced and
betrayed and who is beset by the advances of a new unwanted suitor, begs
for Nicolai's advice, he cannot reply, leaving her bitterly
disappointed. Having discovered the meaninglessness of life, the
professor is now useless to the living.
Scholars have drawn numerous parallels between Chekhov and his
protagonist in "A Dreary Story," particularly in the professor's
pessimistic and cynical opinions on life, on the academic professions,
and on the theater, despite Chekhov's own vigorous disclaimers to
Suvorin, recorded by Simon Karlinsky in Anton Chekhov's Life and
Thought: "If I present you with the professor's ideas, have confidence
in me and don't look for Chekhovian ideas in them." In any case, the
theme of life's meaninglessness recurs often in the writer's later work,
along with a healthy skepticism--but never cynicism--toward the possible
fulfillment of human hopes. It is far from true that, as Lev Shestov
maintained in Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays, Chekhov was doing only
one thing in his writing, "killing human hopes"; but it is a rare
occasion in his fictive universe when expectations of
happiness--especially in matters of the heart- -are fulfilled. At the
same time, Chekhov strongly believed in scientific and technological
progress--slow though it might be in coming--and was a thoroughgoing
pragmatist, like another character of his, Dr. Astrov, the
conservationist and physician in Dyadya Vanya: Stseny iz derevenskoy
zhizni v chetyroykh deystviyakh (Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life
in Four Acts). The author believed in doing one's best for today,
letting tomorrow take care of itself, and remaining open to the joys of
life, however vulnerable to subsequent disappointment such openness
might leave one. Chekhov's least likeable characters are nearly always
energetic and efficient but indifferent to deeper human feelings, or
else so benumbed by suffering and privation as to have died emotionally,
like the narrator of "A Dreary Story" or the Siberian ferryman, Semyon,
of"V ssylke" ("In Exile," 1892).
By early 1890, Chekhov's spirits were low. His brother Nicolai had died
the previous summer after a protracted bout of tuberculosis. In the
autumn, The Wood Demon had been rejected by two theaters and had closed
for good after three performances at a third. A projected novel had been
abandoned after two years of intense work, and the liberal press was
attacking him for his "unprincipled writing." On top of everything else,
Chekhov was bored. In April, after months of preparation, he set off to
visit the eastern Siberian penal colony of Sakhalin Island to take a
census of its inhabitants, interview its officials, and write a report
on conditions there. Though he cited scientific, humanitarian, and
literary reasons for his unusual decision, and a vague desire to "pay
off my debt to medicine," according to a letter printed by Yarmolinsky,
Chekhov was motivated principally by the need for a radical change of
The trip was arduous and hazardous, even for a healthy man: five
thousand miles across the Siberian wilderness, three thousand by
horse-drawn cart along the infamous trakt, the dirt road that spanned
Siberia. On arrival, Chekhov observed and carefully recorded the misery
of life on the five-hundred-mile-long island, conducting some 160
interviews a day. In October he sailed for Odessa by way of Vladivostok,
Hong Kong, Singapore (which he found depressing), Ceylon (which he
thought a paradise on earth), and Port Said, arriving December 1. Once
in Moscow, he joined his family in their new lodgings on Malaya
Dmitrovka Street. Material based on his eastern journey later appeared
in "Gusev" ("Gusev," 1890), "In Exile" (1892), and "Ubiystvo" ("Murder,"
From February to March of 1891, Chekhov worked on"Duel" ("The Duel,"
1891), a long story set in the Caucasus and depicting the antagonism
between a young, Bohemian romantic and idealist, Layevsky, and a
cold-blooded, hard-working, ambitious zoologist, von Koren, who has
fanatical convictions about the need to "exterminate" social "drones"
like Layevsky. Typically, their creator refuses to take sides in the
dispute, although Layevsky reforms at the end. In March and April,
Chekhov journeyed with Suvorin and his son to Italy and France, locales
which appeared later in Rasskaz neizvestnovo cheloveka (An Anonymous
Story, 1893) and Ariadna (Ariadne, 1895). That summer, he lived at
Bogimovo in a mansion provided for the season by an admirer of his work.
There he began a scholarly book, Ostrov Sakhalin (Sakhalin Island),
finished "The Duel," and wrote"Baby" ("Peasant Women," 1891). In
September he returned to Moscow where he spent the winter working on "An
Anonymous Story," "Zhena" ("My Wife," 1892), and a work whose title is
translated as "The Butterfly" (1892).
In March, 1892, Chekhov and his family moved to his newly purchased
country estate at Melikhovo in Moscow District. Here they remained in
residence until 1899, their longest--and happiest--stay in any one home.
Chekhov the landowner was on good terms with the local peasants,
treating their medical problems free of charge, paying for his own
dispensary, financing and overseeing the building of schools, and
organizing measures against the cholera epidemics of 1892 and 1893. His
experiences greatly influenced his depiction of peasant life in such
mature works as "Muzhiki" ("Peasants," 1897) and"V ovrage" ("In the
Ravine," 1900), the former of which caused a furor when first published
because Chekhov refused to sentimentalize or idealize his peasants in
the accepted manner of such promoters of unsophisticated wisdom as
Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. At one point, "Peasants" even reads like
an indictment of the peasantry for its brutality, greed, and sordidness.
While thenarodniks , or "peasant fanciers," of the liberal press
excoriated Chekhov, the Marxists praised the story for its realistic
portrayal of class conditions.
Dissatisfied, as ever, with staying in one location for too long,
Chekhov made frequent trips to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the south of
Russia. Everywhere he went he was welcomed, praised, and celebrated with
parties, but he felt rather distant from it all and soon wearied of the
social round. At about this time Chekhov apparently took his first
mistress, Lydia Yavorsky, an actress at Moscow's Korsh Theater. It was
not a passionate affair. Chekhov had always manifested a somewhat
fastidious attitude toward sex, commensurate with his generally stolid
or passive temperament, and seemed to believe that unrestrained sexual
activity contributed to senility. As Hingley delicately put it in A New
Life of Anton Chekhov, "We are certainly entitled to deduce that he was
somewhat undersexed." Chekhov's very brief "engagement" to his sister's
Jewish friend, Dunya Efros, in January, 1886, is treated so lightly and
ironically in his letters to his friend, Bilibin, as to lead Hingley in
A New Life to regard it as a private joke.
Other women figured in Chekhov's life during the early 1890s, including
Lydia ("Lika") Mizinov, another friend of his sister's whose intense
love for him he reciprocated only as friendship, and Lydia Avilova,
wife, mother, and minor writer, who, at their first meeting, managed to
convince herself that Chekhov felt toward her a passionate, undying love
that was stifled only by guilt over her marital status. Mizonov finally
turned her attentions to Chekhov's friend, the Ukrainian writer Ignatius
Potapenko, a married man; Chekhov used the affair as a model for the
relationship between Trigorin, the writer, and Nina, the aspiring
actress, in The Seagull, much to the chagrin of Mizinov and Potapenko.
As for Avilova's allegations presented in her memoirs Chekhov in My
Life, most modern scholars--with the exception of David Magarshack, who
added an appendix to the 1970 reprint of Chekhov: A Life specifically to
refute Ernest Simons's dismissal of Avilova's claims--see them as highly
subjective interpretations unsubstantiated by corroborating evidence in
Chekhov's notebooks and correspondence.
During his stay at Melikhovo, Chekhov began to publish more frequently
in the liberal press, particularly in Russkaya mysl ("Russian Thought")
and Russkiye vedemosti ("The Russian Gazette"). His trip to Sakhalin and
the publication of a chapter on escapees in late 1891 were admired by
left-wing critics and helped to patch up a quarrel between Chekhov and
V. M. Lavrov, the editor ofRusskaya mysl . After two years of hesitation
over possible censorship, Chekhov sent Lavrov Sakhalin Island, minus the
last four chapters, for serialized publication from October, 1893 to
July, 1894. The entire work was printed in the journal during 1895.
Chekhov's longest piece by far, it was hailed by liberals as a signal
contribution to the movement for prison reform. Over the ensuing
yearsRusskaya mysl was to publish The Seagull, Tri syostry: Drama v
chetyryokh deystviyakh (The Three Sisters: A Drama in Four Acts), and
thirteen of Chekhov's finest stories, including Palata No. 6 (Ward
Number Six, 1892), in which the irresponsible director of a decrepit
insane asylum ends up committed to his own ward. According to W. H.
Bruford inAnton Chekhov , Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin, reading
the story as an allegorical representation of a repressive society,
later wrote, "When I had read this story to the end, I was filled with
awe. I could not remain in my room and went out of doors. I felt as if I
were locked up in a ward too."
Ward Number Six and a later story Moya zhizn (My Life, 1896), the
account of a young man who defies his architect father to work as a
common laborer, mark Chekhov's final experiments with the Tolstoyan
philosophy of pacifistic resistance to evil. Tolstoy was still, however,
a towering object of Chekhov's admiration because of his two great
novels, War and Peace andAnna Karenina , the latter of which had
influenced Chekhov's writing of"The Name-Day Party." In August, 1894,
Chekhov visited Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's family estate, and the two
became good friends despite their divergent views on the role of
literature and the arts.
Other outstanding works from Chekhov's Melikhovo period include a study
of intellectual megalomania, "Chorny monakh" ("The Black Monk," 1894), "Babye
tsarstvo" ("A Woman's Kingdom," 1894), "Volodya bol'shoy i Volodya
malen'ki" ("The Two Volodyas," 1894), "Tri goda" ("Three Years," 1895),
"Ariadne" (1895), "Skripka Rotshil'da" ("Rothschild's Fiddle," 1895),
"Na podvode" ("In the Cart," 1897), "Vrodnom uglu" ("At Home," 1897),
and the so-called "trilogy" of stories--one whose title has been
translated as "A Hard Case" (1898),"Kryzhovnik" ("Gooseberries," 1898),
and "O lyubvi" ("Concerning Love," 1898)--each of which is told by one
narrator to characters who figure as narrators in the other two stories.
All three stories focus on a failure to grasp the essential joys of life
by not taking advantage of opportunities that come only once in a
lifetime, for fear of making a mistake.
From October to November, 1895, Chekhov wrote The Seagull, a play that
deliberately flouts the stage conventions of nineteenth-century theater:
it has no starring role, its dramatic action declines rather than builds
with each act, and it eschews dramatic crises and the direct
representation of powerful feelings. Yarmolinsky's Letters records the
playwright's own assessment of his art in The Seagull: "I began it forte
and wound it up pianissimo--contrary to all the precepts of dramatic
art." As his first effort in a radically new form of dramatic
composition, The Seagull reveals the full extent of Chekhov's
originality. But the play is flawed by heavy-handed symbolism borrowed
from the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen--the use of the dead seagull
to represent hopes betrayed; and the work contains an ambivalence of
tone that does not resolve itself, as it does in the later plays, into a
perfect balance of opposites. While Donald Rayfield argued inA Chekhov
Companion essay that the play is in many ways meant to be "farcical,"
critics are generally undecided about how seriously to take its
subtitle, "A Comedy in Four Acts," since the work treats the ruin of a
young woman's life and the suicide of the young man who once loved her.
The Seagull's premiere on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrine Theater
in St. Petersburg was a complete disaster, due as much to the
circumstances in which the play was produced as to its originality.
Besides being under-rehearsed, The Seagull was scheduled for the benefit
night of a well-known comic actress, for whom there was no part in the
play. Her assembled fans were displeased with what they felt was
highbrow experimentation, and a riot ensued. Though later performances
were well received, theater management decided to close the play after
only five performances. Chekhov was devastated and swore never again to
write plays. He was nevertheless devoting a great deal of effort to
revising The Wood Demon, the 1889 stage failure that eventually became
the play Uncle Vanya.
On the evening of March 22, 1897, Chekhov suffered a violent hemorrhage
of the lungs while at dinner with Suvorin in Moscow. He was hospitalized
for two weeks, during which time he suffered a second hemorrhage. He
then had to acknowledge his illness. During the ensuing summer at
Melikhovo, he stopped writing completely, cut back on all his
activities, and his health began to improve.
For the winter of 1897 to 1898, Chekhov sought a climate favorable to
his health, resuming his writing in Nice on the French Riviera. In
France at this time controversy was stirred by the Dreyfus affair, in
which military officer Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly tried and imprisoned
for treason against France; Chekhov took an interest in the case,
particularly after the publication of Emile Zola's "J'accuse," a defense
of the court-martialed Jewish lieutenant. Support for Dreyfus also
earned Chekhov's partisanship, which led to a break with his friend
Suvorin, whose Novoye vremya was publishing vehemently anti-Semitic
attacks on the Dreyfusards.
In Nice Chekhov was contacted by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko,
cofounder along with Constantin Stanislavsky of the new Moscow Art
Theater, which was intended to stimulate public taste for the "new
drama." Nemirovich-Danchenko was ecstatic about The Seagull and
persuaded Chekhov to let him produce it as part of the troupe's first
season. From that point on, Chekhov's activities as a dramatist and
those of the Moscow Art Theater were intertwined. In September, 1898, on
his way to winter in Yalta, Chekhov attended rehearsals of his play and
was introduced to the members of the new theater troupe, including Olga
Knipper, the actress who later became his wife. On December 17, 1898,
the Moscow Art Theater performed The Seagull for the first time since
its disastrous premiere. At the end of the first act, after a stunned
silence, the audience exploded into applause. At their insistence, a
telegram was sent to Chekhov in Yalta to tell him of his success.
During Chekhov's stay in Yalta that winter he purchased land on which to
build a new villa and bought a seaside cottage not far from the city.
His stories from this time, such as "Novaya dacha" ("New Villa," 1898),
and especially "Po delam sluzhby" ("On Official Business," 1898), show a
growing awareness of the rift between the upper and lower classes and a
new concern for social justice. It was at this time, perhaps not
coincidentally, that he became friends with a young writer of social
conscience, Maksim Gorky. In early 1899 Chekhov was elected an Honorary
Academician of the Pushkin Section of Belle Letters of the Academy of
Chekhov divided his time between Melikhovo and Moscow during the spring
and summer of 1899, helping the Maly Theater in its preparations for the
Moscow premiere of Uncle Vanya, which had been making the rounds of
provincial theaters since its appearance two years before in Chekhov's
collected plays. Except for its principal characters and central theme,
Uncle Vanya is almost unrecognizable as a later version of The Wood
Demon. The play focuses on the Voynitsky household, plunged into turmoil
by the sudden appearance of the now nearly senile Professor Serebryakov,
the intellectual brother-in-law for whose benefit "Uncle" Vanya
Voynitsky, to manage the family estate, has sacrificed his adult life.
In representing this situation Chekhov fulfilled the promise ofThe
Seagull : he created a perfectly orchestrated tragicomedy of nuanced
pauses, significant breakdowns and cross-purposes in conversation,
elusively symbolic objects, and farcical violence, all pointing up the
unrecoverable loss of a whole and meaningful life.
However, the play was much too ambiguous for the Theatrical and Literary
Committee that administered the imperial theaters, of which the Maly was
one. They voted to send Uncle Vanya back to its author for cuts and
changes. Chekhov took the opportunity to withdraw the play and submit it
to his new friends at the Moscow Art Theater, where it became the talk
of the autumn season in Moscow after its first performance on October
From October to December, 1899, Chekhov worked on his last group of
stories--"Na Svyatkakh" ("At Christmas," 1899),"In the Ravine" (1900),
and "Dama s sobachkoy" ("A Lady With a Pet Dog," 1889)--the last of
which Virginia Llewellyn Smith, inAnton Chekhov and the Lady With a Dog
, called "a summary of the entire topic" of "Chekhov's attitude to women
and to love." Meanwhile, he and Olga Knipper had begun exchanging
letters after her short visit to Chekhov's Yalta villa the previous
April, when the Moscow Art Theater had made a Crimean tour. During the
summer of 1900 the two became lovers, but only after Olga first made a
point of securing the friendship of Chekhov's sister, Mariya, and the
good will of the Chekhov household. By August Olga was playfully
cajoling the writer in her letters from Moscow to marry her.
During October, 1900, Chekhov joined Olga in Moscow with the manuscript
of The Three Sisters, to which he had devoted nearly all his energies
since the new year. In The Hudson Review Howard Moss described The Three
Sisters as "the most musical of all of Chekhov's plays in construction,
the one that depends most heavily on the repetition of motifs," and yet
a play that is "seemingly artless." Charles J. Rzepka declared in his
Modern Language Studies essay that The Three Sisters continually invokes
"a world of art" larger than life while, like life itself, betraying no
"sense of ... a final cause" or "ultimate purpose." The Three Sisters
was also the most difficult play, as it turned out, for Chekhov to
complete to his satisfaction, and he was still revising it on his
arrival in Moscow. Ominously, the Art Theater actors and producers felt
it to be unplayable. Irritated, as much with Moscow in general as with
the players, and feeling definitely uncomfortable with Olga's constant
presence, Chekhov took a brief trip to St. Petersburg and then left for
Nice; from there he sent back to Moscow revised versions of Acts III and
IV and detailed stage directions for The Three Sisters.
In general, Chekhov was unhappy with most of the Art Theater's
productions of his plays because of Stanislavsky's tendency to overplay
and underscore scenes that Chekhov had conceived as exquisitely
understated and indirect. This clash of interpretative styles became
very clear during rehearsals for The Three Sisters, where the real
tragedy appears not in such events as the killing of Irina's suitor,
Tusenbach, by the ironical dandy, Solyoni, nor in the success of
Natasha, the grasping and ruthless sister-in-law of the Prozoroffs, but
in the agonizing stultification of three lives that are finally
smothered under the weight of everyday occurrences. When The Three
Sisters premiered on January 21, 1901, response was lackluster,
criticism lukewarm. The public did not know how to receive the play.
This news reached Chekhov as he was touring Italy.
After he returned to Yalta in early 1901, Olga increasingly pressured
Chekhov to marry her. She did not want to spend time with him and his
family in Yalta, living in his house and secretly joining him in his
room at night. In May, Chekhov reluctantly agreed to matrimony and
joined Olga in Moscow to exchange vows. His sister, Mariya, was bitterly
hurt, even "nauseated," by the event, but while her year-old
relationship with Olga was temporarily strained, the two ultimately
resumed a friendship that endured for many years after Chekhov's death.
Contemporary accounts suggest that the marriage itself was something
less than blissful. I. N. Altshuller, Chekhov's Yalta doctor, felt the
liaison was a disaster for Chekhov's health. Chekhov's friend, the
writer I. A. Bunin, was even more negative, seeing Olga's theatrical
milieu as alien and threatening to her husband's peace of mind. Chekhov
spent most of his time in the south while Olga performed with the Art
Theater in Moscow or on tour, so the two lived as much apart as
together. Olga would often write Chekhov from Moscow, describing wild
cast parties and the amorous advances of fellow actors, apparently in
order to excite jealousy in her rather passive husband. Chekhov, on his
part, would frequently excuse himself from joining her in Moscow or,
when with her, contrive reasons to take brief journeys away from her.
During the summer of 1901, in Yalta, Chekhov began coughing up blood
once more, and his declining health prompted him to make his will. When
he went to Moscow in September, he immersed himself in more rehearsals
of The Three Sisters for the new season, personally producing Act III.
On September 21 he saw it performed, and for perhaps the first time in
his life felt perfectly satisfied with the interpretation of one of his
plays. He was applauded in two curtain calls after Act III.
The following winter Chekhov's health worsened, but he continued to
write, sending "Arkhiyerey" ("The Bishop") to"Zhurnal dlya vsekh"
("Journal for Everyone") in February of 1902. Also that month Olga
visited Chekhov in Yalta. In March she had a miscarriage, and for the
next four months her health fluctuated drastically. By July she had
recovered sufficiently to allow a six-week holiday for her and Chekhov
at Stanislavsky's family estate, Lyubimovka. These were perhaps the
happiest few weeks of the Chekhovs' married life: they enjoyed abundant
food, drink, relaxation, good company, and, most important, good
fishing. But Chekhov left Lyubimovka in mid-August without providing his
wife with a sufficient explanation for his departure, and afterward he
and Olga quarreled by letter for a month.
In August, too, Chekhov, along with his friend and fellow academician,
Vladimir Korolenko, resigned from the Academy of Sciences in protest
over the expulsion of Maksim Gorky, who had been elected the previous
February. Czar Nicolas II, discovering that Gorky had a police record
and was under surveillance in connection with recent student unrest, had
expressed his "profound chagrin" at the younger writer's appointment.
Chekhov's resignation had little effect on the Academy, but did much to
bolster Chekhov's reputation with the liberal intelligentsia. Back in
Yalta over the winter, separated from Olga for five months, Chekhov
worked on his last story, "Nevesta" ("A Marriageable Girl," 1903), and
set about writing the first draft of The Cherry Orchard, which he had
been pondering for two years. He finished it in October, 1902, and sent
it to Moscow for rehearsal.
By this time Chekhov's health had seriously worsened. He was irritable
and impatient with everyone and became furious at Stanislavsky's and
Nemirovich-Danchenko's misinterpretations of his new play. Unwilling to
leave the play's production in their hands, he journeyed to Moscow
against the advice of Dr. Altshuller and threw himself into preparations
and rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard, revising and editing as he went
along. It was obvious that he and Stanislavsky were working at cross-
purposes once again. Chekhov had conceived the play as a comedy, a
"farce," while Stanislavsky kept encumbering the staging with ponderous
Indeed, The Cherry Orchard represents the perfect embodiment of that
exquisite balance of tragedy and farce with which Chekhov so skillfully
imbued his mature plays. This portrait of the economic exploitation of
the Ranevskaya family--doomed devotees of a humane and life-loving
tradition--by the middle-class vulgarian Lopakhin conveys the major
themes of Chekhov's career placed in unresolvable but organic tension:
the intrinsic value of opening oneself up to the beauty of the world and
the love of others, and the foolishness of such openness in the face of
the inevitable destruction of beauty and love. When it premiered on
January 17, 1904, as part of a "Jubilee Celebration" of its author's
twenty-five years as a writer,The Cherry Orchard was an immediate
success. Later, back in Yalta, Chekhov was pleased by news of the play's
successful opening in St. Petersburg on April 2, even though he remained
convinced that the company did not really understand the play.
In May, quite near death, Chekhov left Russia on his doctor's orders for
a spa at Badenweiler, Germany, taking Olga with him. Through most of
June his health seemed to improve, but on June 29 he suffered a heart
attack. He recovered, only to suffer another attack the next day. In the
early morning hours of July 2, 1904, he awoke choking and delirious but
had enough presence of mind to send for a doctor. While awaiting the
physician Olga prepared some crushed ice to place on her husband's
chest, but Chekhov protested, "You don't put ice on an empty heart."
When the doctor arrived, Chekhov revealed, "Ich sterbe" ("I am dying").
Taking a sip of champagne, which at that time was considered salutary
for heart victims, he remarked that he hadn't drunk champagne for ages,
then turned on his side and closed his eyes. Moments later he was dead.
In an ironic twist that he might have appreciated, Chekhov's body, sent
back to Russia in a refrigerator car, was enclosed in a box marked
Chekhov's influence on the modern short story and the modern play was
immense. Among his innovations were his economical husbanding of
narrative resources, his concentration on character as mood rather than
action, his impressionistic adoption of particular points of view, his
dispensing with traditional plot, and, as Charles May declared in an
essay collected in A Chekhov Companion, his use of atmosphere as "an
ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection." In
all these regards Chekhov had an immediate and direct impact on such
Western writers as James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Sherwood
Anderson; indirectly, most major authors of short stories in the
twentieth century, including Katherine Anne Porter, Franz Kafka, Ernest
Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, and Raymond Carver, are in his debt.
With respect to twentieth-century drama, few playwrights with so small
an oeuvre have wielded such vast influence over the course of literary
history. With Ibsen and Strindberg, Chekhov pioneered what Magarshack in
Chekhov the Dramatist called the "indirect action" play: he used
understatement and broken conversation, off-stage events and absent
characters as catalysts of tension, but retained a strict impression of
realism. He went further than his contemporaries in his rejection of the
classical Aristotelian plot- line, in which rising and falling action
comprise an immediately recognizable climax, catastrophe, and
denouement. In Chekhov's mature plays, realism extended to the strict
coincidence of stage time with real time, so that it was the elapsed
time between acts, sometimes extending over months or years, that showed
the changes taking place in characters. Thus, as Martin Esslin pointed
out in an essay appearing in A Chekhov Companion, "the relentless
forward pressure of the traditional dramatic form was replaced by a
method of narration in which it was the discontinuity of the images that
told the story, by implying what had happened in the gaps between
episodes." At the same time, Chekhov's realism was not a simple
transcription of life but a highly structured portrait subtly held
together by complex networks of verbal imagery, repeated sounds and
phrases, ambiguously suggestive or simply enigmatic props--all of which
made up what has come to be known as the "subtext" of a Chekhov play.
Among Western playwrights, George Bernard Shaw was the first to grasp
Chekhov's intentions and techniques, and he modeled his own "Heartbreak
House" (1919) on The Cherry Orchard. Yet it was not until the mid- 1920s
that Chekhov caught on with English audiences, becoming one of the trio
of major dramatists regularly performed in British playhouses, along
with Ibsen and Shakespeare. His influence on English playwrights other
than Shaw, up to and including Harold Pinter, has been less direct, but
no less powerful. In American drama the notion of "subtext" that Chekhov
originated informs many of the works of Tennessee Williams, Arthur
Miller, Clifford Odets, and William Inge. Chekhov's methods also
anticipate Bertolt Brecht's technique of "Vefreundungseffekt"
("estrangement") and Samuel Beckett's dramatic stasis and derealization;
although Kenneth Rexroth's contention in Classics Revisited that
"Chekhov's is truly a theater of the absurd," may overstate the case,
Richard Gilman nevertheless concurred with Rexroth in The Making of
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Chekhov's canon is the diversity of
responses it excites. Early portraits of the man and his work tended
toward sentimentality: Gorky in Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov recalled
the "quiet, deep sigh of a pure and human heart," and Nina Andronikova
Toumanova in Anton Chekhov: Voice of a Twilight Russia described a
"gentle soul ... in desperate fear of life," taking refuge "in a queer
world of silvery twilight and dark shadows." The modern portrait of
Chekhov, while much more nuanced and complex, is also contradictory. In
Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art, Donald Rayfield detected at least
three different Chekhovs emerging from the critical canvas, "optimist,
pessimist, decadent, [and] scientific impressionist"; in an essay
appearing in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Gassner sees
two figures: on the one hand, "an artist of half-lights, a laureate of
well-marinated futility, and a master of tragic sensibility," and on the
other, "a paragon of breezy extroversion."
Nearly all his commentators concur that Chekhov was a master ironist,
but not all agree on just when he was being ironic. InThe Cherry
Orchard, for instance, is the student Trofimov--"buoyant, enthusiastic,
and filled with hope" about the progress of humanity--indeed "Chekhov's
spokesman," as Ruth Davies contended inThe Great Books of Russia ? Or is
he simply a "queer bird," as the character Madame Ranevskaya tells him,
someone whose "talk," asserted Joseph Wood Krutch in Modern Drama: A
Definition and an Estimate, "like that of nearly all Chekhov's
characters, will never be anything but talk"? Does the cherry orchard
itself symbolize, as Krutch insisted, "the grace and beauty of the past
which is being sacrificed because it has no utilitarian value"? Or is it
what Magarshack identified in Chekhov the Dramatist as "a purely
aesthetic symbol" that expresses "the destruction of beauty by those who
are utterly blind to it"? These are the kinds of questions excited by
the enigma that was Chekhov--lyricist and realist, comedian and
tragedian, ironist and progressive. Perhaps, in the end, as Hingley
suggested in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, Chekhov was himself "that
tantalizing phenomenon: a Chekhov character."
A brief chronicle of life
1860, 17 (29) January. In Taganrog born Anton Pavlovich
1869 -1879. Studying at a high school.
1877. The first visit to Moscow.
1877 - 1878. "Pesa untitled (" Bezottsovschina "),
1879. Joined at the medical faculty of Moscow University.
1880, March 9. The first publication was founded to "Letter
donskogo landlord Stepana Vladimirovicha N. neighbour to the
scientist, Dr. Friedrich (weekly" Dragonfly ").
1884. June. The end of the medical faculty of Moscow
University. The release of the compilation "Tales Melpomeny.
Six stories A. Chehonte. "
1885-December. First visit to St. Petersburg. Getting A.S.
Suvorinym (publisher of the newspaper "Novoye Vremya").
1886, 15 February. Printed first story says in the newspaper
Novoye Vremya "," Orleans ". 1886. Left Book Pestrye
1886, 27 August. The move into the house at
1887, August-Sept. Send in the book "In the dusk. Essays and
stories "," Innocent speech. " 1887, 19 November. The
premiere of comedy "Ivanov" in a Moscow theatre F. A.
Korsha. 1888, March. The journal Northern Gazette published
1888, May-June. Left Book Stories. "
1888, 7 October. Chehovu awarded academic Pushkinskaya Award
for a collection of "B dusk."
1889, January 31. The first presentation of the play
"Ivanov" at the scene Aleksandrinskogo theater.
1889, July 2. After the death of his brother Nicholas (June
17), went to Odessa, then in the fall.
1890, the end of March. Left book "Hmurye people."
1890, April 21. Departure of Sakhalin.
1890, July 11-Sept 13. Stay on Sakhalin.
1890, October 16. - December 1. The return of the sea-from
Vladivostok, via Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, the Indian
Ocean, the Suez strait Constantinople in Odessa.
1891, March-April. The trip to Europe (visit Vienna, Venice,
Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Nice, Monte Carlo, Paris).
1891, Dec-1892, Feb. Help the hungry peasants Nizhny
Novgorod and Voronezh provinces. 1892, March 4. Transfer to
1892, summer. Treating patients during the cholera epidemic
in the Tula province.
1893, June-July. Ended book Sakhalin Island. "
1894, September 14. The trip to Europe (Vienna, Trieste,
Venice, Milan, Genoa, Nice, Paris). 1895, 8 to 9 August. The
Czech delegation in Yasnoy Polyana. Reading LN Tolstym aloud
chapters of the novel "Resurrection".
1895, October-November. Work on Shakespeare "Chaika."
1895, 14 December. Getting IA Buninym.
1896, June. Chekhov began construction in Melihove
1896, 17 October. Premiere of "sky" in Aleksandrinskom
1897, in January. - early Feb. Participation in the census
Bavykinskoy parish Serpuhovskogo county.
1897, February-July. Construction of school, Novoselkah.
1897, March 22 - April 10. Strong lung bleeding.
1897, May 6. Chehovu granted bronze medal for work on the
1897, 1 September. The trip to Europe (Paris, Biaritsts).
1897, 31 October. Czech elected as a member of the Union
Mutual Russian writers and scholars.
1898, summer. The trilogy, "Man in jewel case",
"Kryzhovnik", "One Love".
1898, July-August. Construction in Melihove zemskoy schools.
1898, September. Getting O. L. Knipper.
1898, 12 October. In Moscow, died after an operation Pavel
Yegorovich Chehov father writer. 1898, October. Buying land
Autke (a suburb of Yalta) for the construction of testimony.
1898, November-December. The collection of donations for
hungry children Samara province. 1898, 17 December. The
premiere of "sea" at the Moscow Art Theatre.
1899, January 17. Treating with knigoizdatelstvom A. F. Marx
for a meeting of essays AP says.
1899, March 19. Getting M. bitter.
1899, November-December. Help in construction Muhalatskoy
schools and the collection of funds for construction of a
resort for tuberculosis patients.
1899, 6 December. Granted the Order of St. Stanislav third
degree "for her outstanding dedication in the affairs of
1899 - December. The first meeting of the Works was founded
to be published A. F. Marx. 1900, January 8th. Czech elected
Honorary Academician on a beautiful literature.
1900, 11 December. The trip to Europe (Nice, Pisa, Florence,
1901, January 31. The premiere of the play "Three Sisters"
at the Art Theatre.
1901, May 25. The wedding in Moscow with O. L. Knipper.
1902, 25 August. Sent a letter to the Academy of Sciences of
the refusal of honorary academician.
1903, the beginning of December. The publication of the last
1904, January 17. The premiere of "Vishnevogo garden" at the
1904, May. Last prizhiznennaya publication Chehova-drama
1904, June 3. Chekhov's wife went to Badenveyler.
1904, 2 (15) July. At 3:00 nights Chehov died.