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As a student and aficionado of American literature, I am often guilty of assuming that the short story is a quintessentially American narrative form, and one which was historically forged within the American literary marketplace. Poe and Hawthorne are ready founding fathers – Poe was concerned with sensation and effect, Hawthorne considered the short story equal to his ambitions of probing America’s history and destiny, whilst Melville, Twain, James, Anderson, and Hemingway each provided a lively digression from the established tradition. Whilst Hoffman, Maupassant, Kafka, and Saki potentially rebuke such a bias towards American short fiction, the greatest challenge apparently arrives in the person of Anton Chekhov, who is routinely described as the greatest ever writer of short stories.

Chekhov is unequalled, so it goes, because nobody else is quite as solemn, achieves such crystalline realism, or attains so completely the mood of (a word used admiringly by Chekhovites) grey. “Never in the history of literature has human loneliness been described with such passion…” Frank O’Connor gushes of Chekhov’s tales in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1963). Thomas Own Beachcroft was, like O’Connor, a practising short story writer, and his own survey of this genre The Modest Art (1968) testifies to Chekhov’s impact directly from the field. Chekhov seemingly enjoyed a rather cold reception in the West: Hemingway found him “an amateur writer,” Anderson insisted that he had not read Chekhov before completing Winesburg, Ohio (Beachcroft suggests the same of Joyce and Dubliners), whilst Lawrence could be relied upon to dismiss Chekhov as a “second-rate writer and a willy wet-leg.” Beachcroft contends, however, that Katherine Mansfield’s fiction “represents the transference of the Chekhov influence to English stories” and that her “epoch-making” Bliss and Other Stories (1920) settled the status of the short story within modernism:

Mansfield and these others were creating in English a new way of treating the short story, and we may call this for want of a better term, “the Chekhov kind of short story”… [which] is not merely one kind among many. The phrase stands for a complete attitude towards the modest art which after centuries of development has, for a period at least, swept the field.

Beachcroft argues that Chekhov’s ambitions for the short story were accepted from America to Japan; he portrays a generation of highbrow writers (including himself) who contributed to specialist short story papers such as The Criterion, The Adelphi, and The London Mercury and treated the short story with an unprecedented respect; although he concedes that Chekhov’s shadow had faded by the 1940s. Yet when Richard Ford (another short story writer) entitles his introduction to The Essential Tales of Chekhov (1999, trans. Constance Garnett) “Why We Like Chekhov,” the “We” denotes the ranks of short story writers influenced by Chekhov for whom Ford is apparently a spokesman.

O’Connor concludes that Chekhov was “more interested in ends than in means,” whilst Beachcroft agrees that his “methods… are simply subservient to his central purpose.” Chekhov’s perceived straightforwardness is affirmed by the repetition of motifs which characterises, or even haunts, his fiction. In Chekhov’s tales, every marriage is comprised of three people, at least one of them is dying of a respiratory disorder, either the husband or wife is married to the wrong person, and infidelity is almost a natural quality or even a conclusion of marriage, as defining an attribute as cohabitation and children. Participant number three is merely, of course, a not-entirely-satisfactory symbol of the freedoms which actually lie outside the triangle. “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), for example, ends at the point when Gurov and Anna’s love will open out, and, as formulaically as an interaction between bodily cells, a third person will assuredly soon appear, allowing the formation of a new triangle and the process to continue its eternal, mechanical course.

One can only deduce that Chekhov’s entire world is waiting for the church to fall and the pill to be invented, so that everybody can live like students or rabbits. Marriage, for Chekhov, is not a particularly moral problem because it appears to require a technical or a bureaucratic solution – just a bit of social organisation – although Chekhov possesses no faith that society can ever organise anything. Another recurring theme in Chekhov’s fiction is that of the pitiful, emasculated bourgeoisie – specimens of which are forever alienated from the peasants huddling outside in the cold night – and Chekhov’s portrayal of Russia’s middle-class is so unsparingly unflattering that one may almost consider him a prophet of the revolution which befell the country thirteen years after his death. In Chekhov’s tales, the time for the Russian bourgeoisie to get its act together is running out.

Chekhov’s runt bourgeoisie at first seems almost over-equipped to reform society, with their fine books and cultivated minds, but all of their thinking merely amounts to weeds which have grown over barren terrain. “There are a great many opinions in the world, and a good half of them are held by people who have never been in trouble!” it is damningly observed in “A Misfortune” (1886). The Vlassitch of “Neighbours” (1892) is “revolted, indignant, and delighted always on the same note” and “many people looked upon this free-thinking as an innocent and harmless eccentricity…” In “Ward No. 6” (1892) the lunatic Ivan Dmitritch, whose own books have been “pulled to pieces by boys,” rages at a professed Stoic that “you have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality…”

In “The Kiss” (1887), the pitiful Ryabovitch is enjoying an empty, detached life when eternal reality crashes into this world in the form of a single, accidental kiss. Ryabovitch is so lonely that he can derive sustenance from this kiss – “something warm and delightful in his life” – for the rest of the summer. If the girl had flicked his balls, he would have probably ended up over the moon. Yet after reality has gone to Ryabovitch’s head, the hangover is the realisation that the world is “an unintelligible, aimless jest,” and Ryabovitch shrinks back into himself.

In “The Grasshopper” (1892), on the other hand, we encounter a proactive and socially-engaged representative of the bourgeoisie: the Christ-like doctor Dymov, who fatally contracts diphtheria after slurping mucus out of a choking patient’s throat. Yet Dymov is actually a somewhat suspicious character. One can envisage a reading which roundly castigates his wife Olga for failing to appreciate the virtues of the doctor, and for inhabiting a la-di-dah world of art which is as irresponsibly removed from society and suffering as Ryabovitch’s smooching obsession. We are told nothing about the “art” of Olga and her friends, however, and for all we know it may be beautiful, enriching and redemptive. Olga’s mistakes can be merely attributed to her youth and inexperience rather than any greater moral failing (she is twenty two and nine years younger than Dymov); her love for Ryabovsky is probably a consequence of sexual disappointment with the doctor; and if we still think that she is an airhead, then the question remains of why Dymov ever agreed to marry her in the first place? Dymov decides that medicine is not her “line” – perhaps he believes that she cannot understand the subject – and he ultimately fails to provide any leadership as a husband or an educator. At the end of the story, we are left with a dead doctor, the same old declining Russia, and a sadder but wiser girl whom anybody would surely wish the best of luck for the future.

Ragin from “Ward No. 6” is another useless and soon-to-be dead doctor, although he takes an antithetical approach to Dymov in showing no interest in the world outside his mind. The backwardness of the society around him suggests a blank slate upon which he could easily inscribe some good, although he makes no attempt to tame reality and it soon arrives to gobble him up. If Ragin would only use a little common sense then he may be saved, but it seems wrong to wish for the doctor to save himself when he should have applied his mind to the benefit of his community. Ragin ends up becoming as parasitic upon our pity as he is upon the town’s taxpayers (equally as doctor and patient), when we should really feel admiration for Dr. Hobotov, whose energy and ambition now renders him the only person capable of elevating the town: tellingly, Hobotov’s “forefathers had probably come from one of the many alien races of Russia.”

“Vladimir Ivanitch,” the nameless hero of “An Anonymous Story” (1893) wishes to altogether escape himself, his identity, and his ideas. He initially chooses to live as a footman, set apart from the succession of scenes which he witnesses and serves. His status as anarchist-spy, however, leaves him equally detached from his role as a flunkey, although his weariness of the world also negates his obligations as a spy, so that all his identities cancel each other out. Eventually he finds that what remains is unconditional love: “man finds his true destiny in nothing if not in self-sacrificing love for his neighbour… I want to live…it would be enough for me to have you near, to hear your voice, to watch the look in your face…” He soon dies of tuberculosis, leaving the problem of how exactly to live with these ideas to the next generation, as represented by the infant Sonya. His beloved Zinaida has found no real love in the world, however, and in a horrific scene, she poisons herself immediately after giving birth.

Doctor Chekhov was, like Dymov and his diphtheria, both an observer of Russia and contaminated by it, and whilst highlighting the desperate need for the Russian bourgeoisie to provide a bit of social leadership, he overrides this call to arms with a lack of faith – almost approaching philistinism – in bourgeois culture. The result is the grumbling of the 1920s modernists without any of the established modernity which had reduced their despair in bourgeois society to something inconsequential and harmless. In “Neighbours” the weak-willed Pyotr gallops off to what we may assume will be a fiery confrontation, although his antagonist is eventually revealed to be even more pathetic than himself. The failure of their social class is put into historical perspective by the yarn about the old Frenchman Olivier, who had his daughter’s suitor flogged to death whilst he drank claret. The Frenchman’s rage and the suitor’s martyrdom both convey passions lost on the present generation.

Chekhov’s bourgeois protagonists grow ever more shamefaced at their privilege, uncertain of their power, and preoccupied with intractable personal disasters which mirror their hopelessness in the public sphere. In “Gooseberries” (1898), Ivan Ivanovitch despairs that:

“I am old and am not fit for the struggle; I am not even capable of hatred; I can only grieve inwardly, feel irritated and vexed, but at night my head is hot from the rush of ideas…”

Such night terrors similarly haunt the magistrate in “On Official Duty” (1899) with the peasant cry that:

“We take from life what is hardest and bitterest in it, and we leave you what is easy and joyful; and sitting at supper, you can coldly and sensibly discuss why we suffer and perish, and why we are not as sound and as satisfied as you.”

Peasants” (1897) demonstrates that sheer, blank monotony – born of ignorance and lack of opportunity – is the true stuff of peasant suffering, although this story and “The New Villa” (1899) ultimately conclude that the peasants are a hopeless case, and that to try and help them is like stoking an extinguished fire. Those amongst the peasants can only conform to their brute ignorance and destructiveness, and any solidarity between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie who could potentially improve their prospects is duly impossible. The spy of “An Anonymous Story” will abandon Russia altogether. The farmer in “Difficult People” (1886) is unable to express pride in his student son Pyotr, who is destined to become exiled from the family. Conversely, the waiter Nikolay in “Peasants” will be lost – identity, family and all – within the peasantry whom he thought he had escaped.

Chekhov’s reader ends up as alienated and distant from the peasantry as his bourgeois characters, and the peasants are thus safely left to themselves, as if the whole of Russia is so depleted that there is little likelihood of the country ever undergoing anything as lively as a revolution:

You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us… Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and the streets… there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud.

Russia was in for an unpleasant surprise. To return to the head of this review, I believe that Poe, Le Fanu, Saki – even Lovecraft – remain more significant contributors to the short story tradition than Chekhov. Throughout Chekhov’s fiction, one continually senses that we are not dealing with true enlightenment or misanthropy, but merely a little local difficulty. Chekhov repeatedly demanded a social responsibility which he seemed to have concluded was beyond Russia. Far removed from the exploited peasantry, all Chekhov could offer them was guilt, despair, a dreamy wish for “the gift of insight into life, a gift which is evidently not bestowed on all,” and the rather charmless suggestion that we should pity the bourgeoisie for their bloodlessness. Chekhov was not, of course, the first Russian to be unable to pull solutions for all his country’s problems out of a hat, but neither could he entirely process them on an artistic plane. Some tales such as “Neighbours,” “The Grasshopper,” and “Peasants” wittily articulate his gripes – others such as “Enemies” and “An Official Duty” are impaired by them. Outside Russia, Chekhov tale’s may provoke the same despair as that of Darya Mihailovna in Nice: “Oh, how badly Russians do behave here!”

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