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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Johnston
 
PERHAPS the best criticism of Chekhov is contained constructively in a vivid word-picture by Maksim Gorky, who admired and loved the elder writer, and wrote of him with more gentleness and suavity than was his wont:
          “He looked at me sidewise, and smiled his gentle, charming smile, which always attracted one so inexpressibly to him and awakened an especially keen attention to his words…. A shadow of heavy melancholy covered his fine gray eyes; thin lines of wrinkles surrounded them, deepening his glance. Then he began to make fun of himself, ‘You see, I have braided you a whole leading article from one of the liberal newspapers…. Come, I’ll give you some tea, because you have been so patient!’ This often happened to him—to speak warmly, sincerely, and then suddenly to laugh at himself and his speech. And in his gentle, melancholy laughter was felt the fine scepticism of a man who knew the worth of words, the worth of thoughts; and also into his laughter slipped a charming, sensitive delicacy. Chekhov took my arm, coughed, and slowly said, ‘It is shameful and sad but true; there are many people who envy dogs!’ And immediately smiling, he said, ‘Today, I find nothing but decrepit words; it means that I am getting old!’”
  1
  This was not long before the end, when Chekhov had sought refuge in the warm southern sunshine of Kutchuk-Koi from the malady which finally claimed his life. But much of it is true of Chekhov, from the beginning, when the youthful medical student first began to scribble stories for the papers. There was always the same wonderful sensitiveness to impressions, the same breaking of melancholy into a charming smile, the same tenderness for humanity, and it must be added, the same failure of the deeper insight, the same malady of the will.  2
  There is, perhaps, a good deal in common between Anton Chekhov, the serf’s son turned writer, and Horace, also the son of a serf, who, in his Odes and Satires, with their irony, their humor, their delicate observation, their humane sympathy, give us a living commentary on the men and women, the daily sights and doings, of Augustan Rome. So Chekhov, moving to and fro among the multitudinous people of Imperial Russia, reflecting their changing moods—mirth changing into sadness, sadness changing into mirth;—with that wonderful, mobile sensitiveness of his, catching the finest shades of feeling, the most delicate differences of mood, “shows the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” To read Chekhov is to travel through the length and breadth of Russia, the vastest of all white nations; to travel with a charming and winsome companion, who draws your attention to things gay and grave, mirthful and pathetic, with delicate, unfailing sympathy and an interest in the appearances of life that bubbles up like a perpetual fountain.  3
  Gorky has given his own reading of Chekhov’s message:
          While reading Anton Chekhov’s stories you feel yourself in a melancholy day of late autumn, when the air is so transparent, and in it are sharply silhouetted the naked trees, crowded houses, grayish people…. It is all so strange, lonely, motionless, and impotent. The deep blue distances are empty and, blending with the pale sky, breathe with painful cold upon the earth, covered with frozen mud…. Chekhov’s mind, like the autumn sun, with cruel lucidity illumined the broken-up roads, the crooked streets, the close, dirty houses, in which little, pitiful folk are smothered in boredom and torpor, filling their houses with unintelligent, drowsy activity. Here Dushenka slips about, like a startled gray mouse, a charming gentlewoman, who can love with such servile intensity. Even if she is struck on the cheek, she will not dare to groan aloud, shy slave that she is…. Beside her sadly stands Olga, of the ‘Three Sisters’; she also loves deeply, and uncomplainingly submits to the caprices of her beloved brother’s dissolute and base wife; before her eyes, her sisters’ lives are broken, and she weeps and can never help anyone, and in her breast there is not one living, forceful word of protest against all this baseness…. There is the tearful Ranevskaya and the other former owners of the ‘Cherry Garden,’ egotistical as children, flabby as old men. They have missed their opportunity to die in time, and grieve, seeing nothing about them, understanding nothing, parasites, lacking the strength once more to attach themselves to life like leeches…. They pass before my eyes like a countless chain of slaves—slaves, men and women, of their love, their folly, their laziness, their greed for the blessings of earth…. And through all this bored, gray crowd of powerless people passed a great, wise man, noting everything; he looked on these tiresome inhabitants of his fatherland, and with a sad smile, in a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with hopeless anguish on his face and in his heart, said in a voice that was fine and sincere: ‘Sirs, you are living basely! It is shameful to live like this!’”
  4
  There is more, perhaps, of Gorky than of Chekhov in all this, but it has its truth. What Gorky does not sufficiently bring out in this criticism, though he suggests it in his word-picture, is that the quality of the heart in Chekhov has “attracted inexpressibly to him” all Russians’ hearts. Never was author better loved.  5
  Two things more. While, on the one hand, Chekhov seems to fail of the deeper insight that would reveal genuine moral and spiritual growth in his characters, so that he neither finds solutions, as Dostoyevsky does, nor even seeks them, with Tolstoy; on the other hand, his stories are full of the gentlest, most sensitive sympathy with things beautiful and charming, with children, with flowers and birds, with the living face of nature. And, as in ‘The Steppe,’ he is artist enough to communicate to us all that he feels, in his tender and sensitive heart, of that living charm.  6
  Several of Chekhov’s plays have been tremendously successful in Russia. Yet, in one sense, they are not dramatic at all. That is, there is almost no genuine action in them, no pressure of will against will. But if to write dramatically means that the speakers should by their words express every shade of their characters, then it may be contended that Chekhov is dramatic. The truth seems to be, that the plays have exactly the same qualities as the stories: atmosphere, sensibility, humor. They are simply “Chekhov stories” put on the stage and, since one of the strongest things in Chekhov’s stories is the conversation, there was no great difficulty in turning it into stage dialogue. Yet one feels that they quite lack the drive of genuine plays; that, but for the admirable skill of Russian actors, and, above all, Russian comedians, they would, as plays, have failed.  7
  Two of the shortest, ‘The Proposal,’ and ‘The Bear,’ are, probably, the best and are exceedingly funny; ‘The Anniversary,’ too, has its one admirable situation. But, in all three, the whole secret lies in the skillful working-up of hysteria, to the explosive point, and the same is true of ‘The Suburban.’ They are simply “Chekhov stories,” turned into stage-pictures, and losing rather than gaining in the process.  8
  It is harder to find substance in the long plays, like ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ and, even more, ‘The Seagull.’ Both might be called keen, ironical studies of maladies of the will, of the kind of gradual moral degeneration that a good many Russians have taken great pleasure in describing. But one feels convinced that, if they had been simply written as stories, they would have been finer, more natural, more delicate in their shading. The truth seems to be, that Chekhov is no dramatist.  9
  Anton Chekhov was born on January 17th, 1860, at Taganrog on an arm of the Sea of Azov, in Southern Russia. His father, Paul Chekhov, was a serf, but an able and successful man; when, in 1861, Alexander II. liberated the serfs, Paul Chekhov was free to shape the destinies of his son, who, after completing his preparatory studies at Taganrog gymnasium, went to Moscow and entered the medical school of the University. He took his degree in 1884, but, five years earlier, when he was nineteen, he had begun to write fugitive pieces for the lighter weeklies like Strekoza and Budilnik; succeeding in this, he began to write somewhat longer stories for the great metropolitan dailies like the Petrograd Gazette and Novoe Vremya.  10
  When Chekhov was twenty-six, the best of these stories were collected and published, a second volume coming out a year later, in 1887. Then, with an established reputation, he began to write for the more serious Russian magazines, which have given to the world so much that is best in Russian literature. In 1890, he made a journey to Sakhalin Island, on the east Siberian coast, north of Japan; and five years later he published a rather gloomy book recording his experiences there.  11
  Chekhov married Mlle. Knipper, an actress who played admirably the women in his dramas; then, threatened with consumption, he transferred his home to Yalta, in the Crimea, where he died, after a literary life marked by early and unbroken success. As a more formal recognition of his achievement, he was elected an Honorary Member of the Pushkin Academy of Sciences.  12
 
 
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