The Art of Chekhov – a brief illustration

chess 1Enemies by Anton Chekhov (1887)

In this story from the period before Chekhov was writing his most famous masterpieces, it can be seen what he’s about, and just how he is refining the art of the short story. He is playing a pretty subtle game with the reader’s shifting alegences, as well as what other authors have long since been doing: playing a pretty game with the reader’s shifting expectations. Chekhov isn’t simply the master of “narrative vectors”; he’s mastering ‘empathy vectors”. Such mathematical metaphors are not whooly apt, but they do highlight a pretty subtle game being played on the page by Chekhov, and it’s a game with the reader.

We’re given a pretty deft set-up, there’s not much humming or hawing in getting things started…

Between nine and ten on a dark September evening the only son of the district doctor, Kirilov, a child of six, called Andrey, died of diphtheria. Just as the doctor’s wife sank on her knees by the dead child’s bedside and was overwhelmed by the first rush of despair there came a sharp ring at the bell in the entry. 


All the servants had been sent out of the house that morning on account of the diphtheria. Kirilovwent to open the door just as he was, without his coat on, with his waistcoat unbuttoned, without wiping his wet face or his hands which were scalded with carbolic. It was dark in the entry and nothing could be distinguished in the man who came in but medium height, a white scarf, and a large, extremely pale face, so pale that its entrance seemed to make the passage lighter.

 

But, seemed so to whom? And this is often the ambiguity with which Chekhov is playing.

The face of the entrant is referred to as “it”, making the reader doubt that the entrant is to be the protagonist and that we’re meant to adopt his point of view. So we fall back on the district doctor who we started out with one a few sentences before; however, heretofore, we’ve not been told how he’s feeling – though we can begin to imagine, which is one empathy vector that Chekhov is playing with – so now we’re wondering: how did things seem to the District Doctor. This is what Chekhov has us wondering.


“Is the doctor at home?” the newcomer asked quickly.

“I am at home,” answered Kirilov. “What do you want?”

“Oh, it’s you? I am very glad,” said the stranger in a tone of relief, and he began feeling in the dark for the doctor’s hand, found it and squeezed it tightly in his own. “I am very . . . very glad! We are acquainted. My name is Abogin, and I had the honour of meeting you in the summer at Gnutchev’s. I am very glad I have found you at home. For God’s sake don’t refuse to come back with me at once. . . . My wife has been taken dangerously ill. . . . And the carriage is waiting. . . .”

 

As well as being given the second story – the second vehicle which is on a collision course with the first – we’re given a little bit here of only what the newcomer could know – so his point of view: “and he began feeling in the dark for the doctor’s hand, found it and squeezed it tightly in his own”. Necessarily, the reader is now “feeling in the dark for the doctor’s hand”. Of course, it’s the omniscient narrator telling us this. But the reader is now wondering: whose point of view am I to adopt? But Chekhov is signaling: not too quick. Stay on your toes. Observe them both and keep your powder dry. What is Chekhov about?

And then we’re given all that direct speech – what seems to be a flood of words at this point – but why? What’s its effect? Are we caught up in the current of the speaker’s point of view, or do we feel battered by the onslaught of words?


From the voice and gestures of the speaker it could be seenthat he was in a state of great excitement. Like a man terrified by a house on fire or a mad dog, he could hardly restrain his rapid breathing and spoke quickly in a shaking voice, and there was a note of unaffected sincerity and childish alarm in his voice. As people always do who are frightened and overwhelmed, he spoke in brief, jerky sentences and uttered a great many unnecessary, irrelevant words.

 

Was he, this “newcomer” in a state of great excitement or not? Are we the reader? No. We observe one who is: we are asked to consider what “people always do who are frightened and overwhelmed”; we are not asked to emapthise, to imagine being such a person, but to imagine seeing one. We are told that “it could be seen that he was in a state of great excitement”; we are not told “he was feeling great excitement” which would edge us towards empathizing with this newcomer despite what has gone on up to this point. We observe someone who is like “a man terrified by a house on fire or a mad dog”, one who “could hardly restrain his rapid breathing and spoke quickly in a shaking voice”. Was he alarmed and sincere? Well, we’d have to guess, not being this character in that we don’t identify him. So we figure it out as we would of a person we met in real life: as “there was a note of unaffected sincerity and childish alarm in his voice” we are enabled to do this. We have this guy’s number. But it is not ours.

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“I was afraid I might not find you in,” he went on. “I was in a perfect agony as I drove here. Put on your things and let us go, for God’s sake. . . . This is how it happened. Alexandr Semyonovitch Paptchinsky, whom you know, came to see me. . . . We talked a little and then we sat down to tea; suddenly my wife cried out, clutched at her heart, and fell back on her chair. We carried her to bed and . . . and I rubbed her forehead with ammonia and sprinkled her with water . . . she lay as though she were dead. . . . I am afraid it is aneurism . . . . Come along . . . her father died of aneurism.”

Kirilovlistened and said nothing, as though he did not understand Russian.

 

Significantly, Abogin gives us his name in the first splurge of his direct speech. But how do we know the doctor’s name? It is simply assumed that we know it; the name ‘Kirilov’ is just dropped in as though it is pre-existing knowledge again and again – four times up to this point. This is on top of “the doctor” and the woman is referred to as the “doctor’s wife”. Names are important handles in fiction – they are ways of directing the reader’s empathies. We are always more Kirilov than Abogin, and this is somewhat down to how their names are introduced and used.

Then, the account we are given of Abogin’s troubles is so different to the account we are given of Kirlov’s – which come first significantly, but which are not thrown at us in the manner Abogin’s very much are. All we are give of the state of affairs with Kirilov is that “the only son of the district doctor, Kirilov, a child of six, called Andrey, died of diphtheria”: this is bare details – though significantly we are given the boy’s name – and for no good reason, it would seem. However, Abogin’s full frontal assault – a dramatic attempt to get the doctor (and the reader) to imagine the horror of his plight backfires: it’s poorly described, it’s rushed, and it doesn’t ring true somehow. He’s trying too hard. And, what’s more, it doesn’t reach the emotional pitch of the Doctor’s story, which we are given first. One account is little more than a string of words, the other is just what happened.

So, when “Kirilov listened and said nothing”, we are similarly taken aback. We too are listeners, not ‘empathizers’ with Abogin. And when Kirilov is stunned so too are we, as though we ourselves listen as though we “did not understand Russian”. By now we see, hear and feel things as Kirilov: we have adopted his point of view entirely, we sympathize with the doctor; our empathy has been captured.

 


When Abogin mentioned again Paptchinsky and his wife’s father and once more began feeling in the dark for his handthe doctor shook his head and said apathetically, dragging out each word:

“Excuse me, I cannot come . . . my son died . . . five minutes ago!”

“Is it possible!” whispered Abogin, stepping back a pace. “My God, at what an unlucky moment I have come! A wonderfully unhappy day . . . wonderfully. What a coincidence. . . . It’s as though it were on purpose!”

 

So why does Chekhov once again make a play for Abogin’s point of view? He “and once more began feeling in the dark for his hand” – this is something that Kirilov cannot know. The point of view must be Abogin’s. And when Kirilov replies “apathetically, dragging out each word” we, the reader, will struggle to fully empathise; though we will sympathise with the doctor, we aren’t the doctor at this point. Chekhov has taken a step back from our fully identifying with the doctor. Why now?


Abogin took hold of the door-handle and bowed his head. He was evidentlyhesitating and did not know what to do — whether to go away or to continue entreating the doctor.

“Listen,” he said fervently, catching hold of Kirilov’s sleeve. “I well understand your position! God is my witness that I am ashamed of attempting at such a moment to intrude on your attention, but what am I to do? Only think, to whom can I go? There is no other doctor here, you know. For God’s sake come! I am not asking you for myself. . . . I am not the patient!”

 

The word “evidently” is key here. So, as well as the continued stream of direct speech – which we, as readers, hear or witness as opposed to give – we are always only working out the motivations, thoughts, feelings of Abogin. We are still being kept at this important remove, apart from the slight lapse every so often afforded us by Chekhov (“once more began feeling in the dark”).


A silence followed. Kirilov turned his back on Abogin, stood still a moment, and slowly walked into the drawing-room. Judging from his unsteady, mechanical step, from the attention with which he set straight the fluffy shade on the unlighted lamp in the drawing-room and glanced into a thick book lying on the table, at that instant he had no intention, no desire, was thinking of nothing and most likely did not rememberthat there was a stranger in the entry. The twilight and stillness of the drawing-room seemed to increase his numbness. Going out of the drawing-room into his study he raised his right foot higher than was necessary, and felt for the doorposts with his hands, and as he did so there was an air of perplexity about his whole figureas though he were in somebody else’s house, or were drunk for the first time in his life and were now abandoning himself with surprise to the new sensation. A broad streak of light stretched across the bookcase on one wall of the study; this light came together with the close, heavy smell of carbolic and ether from the door into the bedroom, which stood a little way open. . . . The doctor sank into a low chair in front of the table; for a minute he stared drowsily at his books, which lay with the light on them, then got up and went into the bedroom.

 

But here Chekhov is at it again: “Judging from his unsteady, mechanical step, from the attention with which he set straight the fluffy shade on the unlighted lamp in the drawing-room and glanced into a thick book lying on the table”. We’re being asked to observe once more, but this time Kirilov, not Abogin. Chekov is trying to disengage our empathy somewhat. He “most likely did not remember”. Then it is described how “the twilight and stillness of the drawing-room seemed to increase his numbness” – it only seemed. Yet because a clear image is evoked here by Chekhov, one of few in the story so far, it is one we picture, as though we were there, as though we were in fact Kirilov. So not only did it “seem” “to increase his numbness”, it increases ours somewhat. We are both being pushed and pulled here in terms of empathy: empathise and do not. But by now it might well be too late. Chekhov would have to do a lot of back-peddling to make us desist in our intention to be Kirilov.

This little detail – that Kirilov “raised his right foot higher than was necessary” – is one we are given more than once. But why? It seems a pretty no-account detail.

That Kirilov “felt for the doorposts with his hands” only he can know, so the omniscience of the narrator is deployed once more to grab at our point of view, yet then we are told only that “there was an air of perplexity about his whole figure”, not that he was perplexed – we work it out as though we observe the man (not being the man). And there follows a series of “as-thoughs”: yes, this is what it looks like. Can you imagine what it might be to observe such a person, as you might have done in the past. That is, he is not you. You are in the room looking at him.

Yet, despite this, the scene as then described, where a “broad streak of light stretched across the bookcase on one wall of the study; this light came together with the close, heavy smell of carbolic and ether from the door into the bedroom, which stood a little way open… his books, …lay with the light on them.” Is a scene we share with the doctor as one we too witness, in our own weariness: we are fully empathising with the man in what he sees and how he sees it. For such is the dynamic that Chekhov has already set up, and every so often, such as here, we are drawn further into the character, the feelings, the point of view of one character (or another), as Chekhov deems necessary to the story. But why?

Our sympathies are being engaged in just this way. This is the clock-work of the story, as created by the master watch-maker, making such an intricate and delicate machine just as he sets each cog, gear and wheel in motion.

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Here in the bedroom reigned a dead silence. Everything to the smallest detail was eloquent of the storm that had been passed through, of exhaustion, and everything was at rest. A candle standing among a crowd of bottles, boxes, and pots on a stool and a big lamp on the chest of drawers threw a brilliant light over all the room. On the bed under the window lay a boywith open eyes and a look of wonder on his face. He did not move, but his open eyes seemed every moment growing darker and sinking further into his head. The mother was kneeling by the bed with her arms on his body and her head hidden in the bedclothes. Like the child, she did not stir; but what throbbing life was suggested in the curves of her body and in her arms! She leaned against the bed with all her being, pressing against it greedily with all her might, as though she were afraid of disturbing the peaceful and comfortable attitude she had found at last for her exhausted body. The bedclothes, the rags and bowls, the splashes of water on the floor, the little paint-brushes and spoons thrown down here and there, the white bottle of lime water, the very air, heavy and stifling — were all hushed and seemed plunged in repose. 

 The deployment of pathetic fallacy here and there in the next paragraph – where the scene of the death of the child is described – is yet another way Chekhov deploys to engage our sympathies: “in the bedroom reigned a dead silence”, everything was “eloquent of the storm that had been passed through”, then that everything “were all hushed and seemed plunged in repose”: just as the room reflects the feelings of the doctor, our feelings are brought into line: a deft wat of ensuring our empathy.

We don’t always empathise where our sympathies are engaged: it is down to the author to ensure that we do (or do not).


The doctor stopped close to his wife, thrust his hands in his trouser pockets, and slanting his head on one side fixed his eyes on his son. His face bore an expression of indifference, and only from the drops that glittered on his beard it could be seen that he had just been crying.

 

This balance of sympathy and empathy is straight away played with by Chekov again. We see the doctor as though he were before us; his “face bore an expression of indifference”, rather than being required to feel what he feels. Then from the observation that it was “only from the drops that glittered on his beard it could be seen that he had just been crying” we are nudged from observing to sympathizing, to empathizing.

Is it wrong to differentiate between sympathy and empathy here, or elsewhere? If sympathy is only the feeling of compassion, sorrow, or pity for the plight of another person; empathy is the business of actually putting yourself in the shoes of another, which is different. I think in this story the fulcrum on which it balances is that we empathize with Kirilov, but only feel sympathy for Abogin: this subtle differentiation, all too easily passed over, explains what Chekhov is about here as well as elsewhere in his stories. It seems we need more than two words – ‘sympathy’& ‘empathy’- to fully encompass as well as appreciate all the gradations of feeling in the reader he manages to instill. Once instilled, of course, Chekhov begins to weave, to pull, to unwind, to poke, to tease, to…


That repellent horror which is thought of when we speak of deathwas absent from the room. In the numbness of everything, in the mother’s attitude, in the indifference on the doctor’s face there was something that attracted and touched the heart, that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey. There was afeeling of beauty, too, in the austere stillness. Kirilov and his wife were silent and not weeping, as though besides the bitterness of their loss they were conscious, too, of all the tragedy of their position; just as once their youth had passed away, so now together with this boy their right to have children had gone for ever to all eternity! The doctor was forty-four, his hair was grey and he looked like an old man; his faded and invalid wife was thirty-five. Andrey was not merely the only child, but also the last child.

 

Now, deciding to stand back, Chekhov expects the same of us: let’s consider this, if you will, from a distance. Let’s not get too caught up in things (just as we’re fully ensnared and it’s probably too late to extricate ourselves). “The heart” is spoken of, rather than “a heart”, then “that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow”, that beauty “which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey” – ah that beauty we’ve heard about, seen represented elsewhere; we’re called upon to consider the scene as though we’re connoisseurs of the art of such representation, and not simple consumers, fully suspending our disbelief so that we can cry, flail our arms, and gnash our teeth with the most fervent and out of control of characters who have given themselves up to some emotion or other.

Then the move from the general determinate “the” to the indeterminate “a” is allowed us: “there was a feeling of beauty”; Chekhov invites us back in to the here and now of the scene, pulling us back in gently, and we are told that “they were conscious, too, of all the tragedy of their position”: so we’re empathizing once again, and what’s next: “their youth had passed away, so now together with this boy their right to have children had gone for ever to all eternity!” Ouch. A sharp sting of sympathy. Then, if you could just stand back a little and consider: “the doctor was forty-four, his hair was grey and he looked like an old man; his faded and invalid wife was thirty-five” – well, what a pitiful scene. Now that our sympathies have been captured, our empathy will be easier to manipulate going forward.


In contrast to his wife the doctor belonged to the class of peoplewho at times of spiritual suffering feel a craving for movement. After standing for five minutes by his wife, he walked, raising his right foot high, from the bedroom into a little room which was half filled up by a big sofa; from there he went into the kitchen. After wandering by the stove and the cook’s bed he bent down and went by a little door into the passage.

There he saw again the white scarf and the white face.

 

Again we get this seemingly no-account detail: “raising his right foot high”. Again, we’ll wonder why our attention is being drawn to this, as we would have done several paragraphs before. So what if he’s raising his foot high in the darkness? The previous iteration of this was that Kirilov “raised his right foot higher than was necessary”. The reader will now think back to that. This reminds me of that horrible saying of Chekhov’s that writers claim to rank among the wisest sayings of the great sages: Chekhov’s gun(if there’s a gun on the wall in the opening of a storym it had better go off before the end of the story – i.e. don’t waste a single plot detail). Because here is an example of the wisdom and art of Chekhov that leaves such crass plot machinations in the dust. First of all, it’s not a gun. Second of all, it doesn’t go off. Also, the first appearance of the ‘gun’ is louder than the second, so that when we come back to the gun (the raising of the foot) the second time it merely echoes lightly. And it is such a non-gun prop to begin with, the echo is softer still. But is this merely an example of a slip up, or an anti-gun plot device – i.e. here I give you nothing. No – this is a little trap set up by Chekhov, as another way to ensure our empathy for the doctor, a person who is utterly off balance since the death of his son moments before. Kirilov has lost the habitual awareness of where things are in his home, even in the dark. He’s off balance because his body no longer remembers where the floor is in each room, how high it is relative to the floor in the next room or the last room, nor how high or low tables and chairs are, indeed, where he is relative to the world he knew so well before his son died. Isn’t this far cleverer than a gun?

Also we are back again amongst generalities, being told that the doctor “belonged to the class of people”; however, we’re quickly back to this particularl doctor and his particular physical surroundings, seeing things as he might well see them, thereby empathizing with him in the sense of sharing his view – like an ‘over-the-shoulder-shot in a film. We’re walking in step with him now.

The sudden appearance of Abogin – “the white scarf and the white face” – is almost shocking; it certainly takes us by surprise and we’re encouraged to see Abogin as anything other than someone who we’d empathize with: he’s been reduced to a spectral presence, disembodied and rendered strange. In contradistinction to this presentation of Abogin, our sharing the almost dismay of Kirilov is assured.


“At last,” sighed Abogin, reaching towards the door-handle. “Let us go, please.”

The doctor started, glanced at him, and remembered. . . .

“Why, I have told you already that I can’t go!” he said, growing more animated. “How strange!”

“Doctor, I am not a stone, I fully understand your position . . . I feel for you,” Abogin said in an imploring voice, laying his hand on his scarf. “But I am not asking you for myself. My wife is dying. If you had heard that cry, if you had seen her face, you would understand my pertinacity. My God, I thought you had gone to get ready! Doctor, time is precious. Let us go, I entreat you.”

“I cannot go,” said Kirilov emphatically and he took a step into the drawing-room.

Abogin followed him and caught hold of his sleeve.

“You are in sorrow, I understand. But I’m not asking you to a case of toothache, or to a consultation, but to save a human life!” he went on entreating like a beggar. “Life comes before any personal sorrow! Come, I ask for courage, for heroism! For the love of humanity!”

“Humanity — that cuts both ways,” Kirilov said irritably. “In the name of humanity I beg you not to take me. And how queer it is, really! I can hardly stand and you talk to me about humanity! I am fit for nothing just now. . . . Nothing will induce me to go, and I can’t leave my wife alone. No, no. . .”

Kirilov waved his hands and staggered back.

“And . . . and don’t ask me,” he went on in a tone of alarm. “Excuse me. By No. XIII of the regulations I am obliged to go and you have the right to drag me by my collar . . . drag me if you like, but . . . I am not fit . . . I can’t even speak . . . excuse me.”

“There is no need to take that tone to me, doctor!” said Abogin, again taking the doctor by his sleeve. “What do I care about No. XIII! To force you against your will I have no right whatever. If you will, come; if you will not — God forgive you; but I am not appealing to your will, but to your feelings. A young woman is dying. You were just speaking of the death of your son. Who should understand my horror if not you?”

Before this argument has even started up, we’re empathising with Kirilov, whilst feeling Abogin as an alien presence; so it’s little wonder whose side we’re on throughout. We share the doctor’s state of mind far more than we ever would Abogin’s: Chekhov has made sure of this. So he’s directing what follows more easily after setting up the general current running through the story. We too “stagger back”, aghast.

Abogin’s voice quivered with emotion; that quiver and his tone were far more persuasive than his words. Abogin was sincere, but it was remarkable that whatever he said his words sounded stilted, soulless, and inappropriately flowery, and even seemed an outrage on the atmosphere of the doctor s home and on the woman who was somewhere dying. He felt this himself, and so, afraid of not being understood, did his utmost to put softness and tenderness into his voice so that the sincerity of his tone might prevail if his words did not.As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.

 

Now things get interesting. Because Chekhov has more or less established where our sympathies / empathies lie, he has a go at our heart strings on another flank.  We’re told that “Abogin’s voice quivered with emotion”, that “that quiver and his tone were far more persuasive than his words”. We’re told point blank that “Abogin was sincere”: how does this affect us? Can we gainsay this little bit of information? Is it not of the variety of information – proffered by an omniscient narrator who can’t quite put his tongue in his cheek owing to this self-same omniscience – that we have to accept. If we’re told there’s a tree in the field in this manner, there is perforce, a tree in the field. QED. So, on being assured of Abogin’s sincerity at this point, in this infallible way, do we not warm to him? Yes. we accept him as being sincere. And in real life, can we be similarly sure of other people? No. Not quite. So, are we not being ensnared in Abogin’s character, to the point where we’re empathizing with him? I would argue that this is not the case – it seems to me that what is now happening in the reader is more a case of looking at this object – this sincere man – and marveling at him, but not quite being him.

Chekov goes on that “it was remarkable that whatever he said his words sounded stilted, soulless, and inappropriately flowery…” and that Abogin too “felt this himself”, that he was “afraid of not being understood”, so he “did his utmost to put softness and tenderness into his voice so that the sincerity of his tone might prevail if his words did not”. So we’ve reached a point, have we not, that the tension between the two – Kirilov with whom we empathize, and Abogin, of whose sincerity we are fully assured – has been dissipated. Chekhov has made a calm at the centre of this storm. Then he waffles on about generalities “As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be…” but there’s a strong in the tail of this little bit of philosophizing that makes us wary of what is to follow: “to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial. Sure these are general widows and orphans, but we can’t help feeling deeply once more for the plight of our very own recently bereaved father, with whom we are fully on side.

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Kirilov stood in silence. When Abogin uttered a few more phrases concerning the noble calling of a doctor, self-sacrifice, and so on, the doctor asked sullenly: “Is it far?”

“Something like eight or nine miles. I have capital horses, doctor! I give you my word of honour that I will get you there and back in an hour. Only one hour.”

These words had more effect on Kirilov than the appeals to humanity or the noble calling of the doctor. He thought a moment and said with a sigh: “Very well, let us go!”

He went rapidly with a more certain step to his study, and afterwards came back in a long frock-coat. Abogin, greatly relieved, fidgeted round him and scraped with his feet as he helped him on with his overcoat, and went out of the house with him.

It was dark out of doors, though lighter than in the entry. The tall, stooping figure of the doctor, with his long, narrow beard and aquiline nose, stood out distinctly in the darkness. Abogin’s big head and the little student’s cap that barely covered it could be seen now as well as his pale face. The scarf showed white only in front, behind it was hidden by his long hair.

“Believe me, I know how to appreciate your generosity,” Abogin muttered as he helped the doctor into the carriage. “We shall get there quickly. Drive as fast as you can, Luka, there’s a good fellow! Please!”

The coachman drove rapidly. At first there was a row of indistinct buildings that stretched alongside the hospital yard; it was dark everywhere except for a bright light from a window that gleamed through the fence into the furthest part of the yard while three windows of the upper storey of the hospital looked paler than the surrounding air. Then the carriage drove into dense shadow; here there was the smell of dampness and mushrooms, and the sound of rustling trees;the crows, awakened by the noise of the wheels, stirred among the foliage and uttered prolonged plaintive cries as though they knew the doctor’s son was dead and that Abogin’s wife was ill. Then came glimpses of separate trees, of bushes; a pond, on which great black shadows were slumbering, gleamed with a sullen light — and the carriage rolled over a smooth level ground. The clamour of the crows sounded dimly far away and soon ceased altogether.

Kirilov and Abogin were silent almost all the way. Only once Abogin heaved a deep sigh and muttered:

“It’s an agonizing state! One never loves those who are near one so much as when one is in danger of losing them.”

And when the carriage slowly drove over the river, Kirilov started all at once as though the splash of the water had frightened him, and made a movement.

“Listen — let me go,” he said miserably. “I’ll come to you later. I must just send my assistant to my wife. She is alone, you know!”

Abogin did not speak. The carriage swaying from side to side and crunching over the stones drove up the sandy bank and rolled on its way. Kirilov moved restlessly and looked about him in misery. Behind them in the dim light of the stars the road could be seen and the riverside willows vanishing into the darkness. On the right lay a plain as uniform and as boundless as the sky; here and there in the distance, probably on the peat marshes, dim lights were glimmering. On the left, parallel with the road, ran a hill tufted with small bushes, and above the hill stood motionless a big, red half-moon, slightly veiled with mist and encircled by tiny clouds, which seemed to be looking round at it from all sides and watching that it did not go away.

In all nature there seemed to be a feeling of hopelessness and pain. The earth, like a ruined woman sitting alone in a dark room and trying not to think of the past, was brooding over memories of spring and summer and apathetically waiting for the inevitable winter. Wherever one looked, on all sides, nature seemed like a dark, infinitely deep, cold pit from which neither Kirilov nor Abogin nor the red half-moon could escape. .. .

 

There needs to be a journey in the darkness – we can’t just roll up at Abogin’s house all of a sudden, can we? And surely Chekov won’t expend 700 words to no effect, over and above denoting the passing of time and apace. Wouldn’t a ‘short while later, they arrived at Abogin’s home’ suffice?

 

What does Chekhov do to us on this journey? Are we the same – emotionally, point-of-view / empathy wise – by the end of the journey as we are when we set out? crucially, how are our expectations shaped by the intervening journey? I would argue that we are being wound up pretty tightly by Chekhov in these 700 words.

Take for instance “the crows, awakened by the noise of the wheels, stirred among the foliage and uttered prolonged plaintive cries as though they knew the doctor’s son was dead and that Abogin’s wife was ill… the clamour of the crows sounded dimly far away and soon ceased altogether.” Not giving a damn for crows generally, or specifically, they nonetheless affect the reader in the way pathetic fallacy has worked heretofore. However, what we’re getting is a deal of foreshadowing now too. When we’re told that there then “came glimpses of separate trees, of bushes; a pond, on which great black shadows were slumbering, gleamed with a sullen light — and the carriage rolled over a smooth level ground,” we are surely not expecting what we find at Abogin’s to be some kind of happy resolution? Indeed, coming after the death of a young child, surely we can’t be heading further downhill, can we? Our anxiety mounts.

Then our attention is called to how “on the right lay a plain as uniform and as boundless as the sky”, that in the distance…”dim lights were glimmering,”, that “above the hill stood motionless a big, red half-moon, slightly veiled with mist and encircled by tiny clouds, which seemed to be looking round at it from all sides and watching that it did not go away”: personification is such a good way of being creepy and causing a niggling anxiety to fairly eat away at the reader. Clouds looking at the moon, maybe at us? Then it’s odd that the lights were glimmering “probably on the peat marshes”. Why probably? This sudden faltering of omniscience must surely trouble the reader – an artful little move by Chekhov.

Then, we’re asked to consider the following state of affairs: “In all nature there seemed to be a feeling of hopelessness and pain. The earth, like a ruined woman sitting alone in a dark room and trying not to think of the past, was brooding over memories of spring and summer and apathetically waiting for the inevitable winter. Wherever one looked, on all sides, nature seemed like a dark, infinitely deep, cold pit from which neither Kirilov nor Abogin nor the red half-moon could escape”. Now this doesn’t bode well. If the reader isn’t fully and tightly wound up by this point, then there’s something wrong. We might even say that Chekhov has overdone it somewhat. But either way we’re well and truly primed, so that Abogin’s assurance of himself that all’s well on arrival is going to feel like dust in our mouths.


The nearer the carriage got to its goal the more impatient Abogin became. He kept moving, leaping up, looking over the coachman’s shoulder. And when at last the carriage stopped before the entrance, which was elegantly curtained with striped linen, and when he looked at the lighted windows of the second storey there was an audible catch in his breath.

“If anything happens . . . I shall not survive it,” he said, going into the hall with the doctor, and rubbing his hands in agitation. “But there is no commotion, so everything must be going well so far,” he added, listening in the stillness.

 

By now this “stillness” is anything but reassuring, especially coming immediately after Abogin’s “audible catch in his breath” as well as impatience, his keeping “moving, leaping up, looking over the coachman’s shoulder”. We’re expecting all sorts of hellishness. Now, each time the lack of sound is touched on, we’re more and more wary. Just like scary music or silence in a scary movie – though this only works if we’ve been primed, as we have been here. Well and truly.


There was no sound in the hall of steps or voicesand all the house seemed asleep in spite of the lighted windows. Now the doctor and Abogin, who till then had been in darkness, could see each other clearly. The doctor was tall and stooped, was untidily dressed and not good-looking. There was an unpleasantly harsh, morose, and unfriendly look about his lips, thick as a negro’s, his aquiline nose, and listless, apathetic eyes. His unkempt head and sunken temples, the premature greyness of his long, narrow beard through which his chin was visible, the pale grey hue of his skin and his careless, uncouth manners — the harshness of all this was suggestive of years of poverty, of ill fortune, of weariness with life and with men. Looking at his frigid figure one could hardly believe that this man had a wife, that he was capable of weeping over his child. Abogin presented a very different appearance. He was a thick-set, sturdy-looking, fair man with a big head and large, soft features; he was elegantly dressed in the very latest fashion. In his carriage, his closely buttoned coat, his long hair, and his face there was a suggestion of something generous, leonine; he walked with his head erect and his chest squared, he spoke in an agreeablebaritone, and there was a shade of refined almost feminine elegance in the mannerin which he took off his scarf and smoothed his hair. Even his paleness and the childlike terror with which he looked up at the stairsas he took off his coat did not detract from his dignity nor diminish the air of sleekness, health, and aplomb which characterized his whole figure.

“There is nobody and no sound,” he said going up the stairs. “There is no commotion. God grant all is well.”

 

With all the suspense – it’s literally dripping off every word and so fully taking up the reader’s attention and emotion both – “…no sound in the hall of steps or voices”, “all the house seemed asleep in spite of the lighted windows”, “the childlike terror with which he looked up at the stairs”, “no sound”, “no commotion” & “God grant all is well” – Chekhov has the freedom to squeeze in a raft of detail should he so wish to, so easily will they be carried away with the current in spate of the narrative at this point, and he chooses, oddly it would seem, at this point to interject a physical description of both the main characters. the difference is stark; however this starkness is barely registered by the reader who is keen to run past every detail now to get to the horrible truth around the next corner. Kirilov, the “doctor” is “tall and stooped, “untidily dressed, “not good-looking”, there was “an unpleasantly harsh, morose, and unfriendly look about his lips, thick as a negro’s”, he has “listless, apathetic eyes”, an “unkempt head” and “sunken temples”; he is prematurely grey, had a “pale grey hue of his skin” as well as “careless, uncouth manners” – hardly features that would endear him to us; but that is by the way, for we are already fully wrapped up in this person, feeling what he’s feeling, seeing how he sees. To be told that “the harshness of all this was suggestive of years of poverty, of ill fortune, of weariness with life and with men”, we’re only going to feel more deeply, our sympathy adds depth to the empathy we’re already trapped in. Chekhov knew of course that physical description mattered: square jaws, deep eyes, crooked noses, sloping brows – they each are a code in the game of fiction, not just symbolizing or signifying something, but telling us how to feel about a character, what to expect of them. It’s like glasses on the nerdy kid in a modern teen-drama. However, to get all of this meaning so late in the game, and when we’re least ready to register it, Chekhov is playing an odd game. Telling us how “Looking at his frigid figure one could hardly believe that this man had a wife, that he was capable of weeping over his child”, Chekhov delivers the blow, though really it’s more of a nudge: this is what we really look like. It’s like catching our reflection in the mirror, a moment of insight that flickers on our consciousness, but that strikes deep. Not only this is what we look like, but this is who we really are, how we appear in the world and fit in it, how we are seen, and how the world has made us.

On the other hand, Abogin’s appearance works so differently. The man is “generous”, “leonine”, he walks “with his head erect and his chest squared”, “he spoke in an agreeable baritone” and there’s “a shade of refined almost feminine elegance” in his manner, how he takes off his “scarf and smoothed his hair”, he is characterized by “paleness” and being “childlike”, having “dignity”, “sleekness”, “health”, and “aplomb”. But coming after the barrage of physical unpleasantness delivered up for Kirilov, we are not going to take well to this patina of grace and goodness: we are not going to trust all of these markers of significance in the same game of a chaeacter’s physical appearance in fiction. And, what’s more, mixed in with this slew of grace and elegance, is the narratively far more significant “the childlike terror with which he looked up at the stairs”, which fairly takes our breath away.

So then, what has Chekhov achieved by this little interlude of physical description: only to make clear that the world is on the side of Abogin, whilst we are very much on the side of Kirilov – our sympathy for Kirilov is now what dominates. And whilst the suspense builds starkly at this point, burning bright, the resentment and bitterness we feel smolders – and it is this layer of meaning, this stiff undercurrent, that we will carry away with us at the end of the story.

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He led the doctorthrough the hall into a big drawing-room where there was a black piano and a chandelier in a white cover; from there they both went into a very snug, pretty little drawing-room full of an agreeable, rosy twilight.

“Well, sit down here, doctor, and I . . . will be back directly. I will go and have a look and prepare them.”

Kirilov was left alone. The luxury of the drawing-room, the agreeably subdued light and his own presence in the stranger’s unfamiliar house, which had something of the character of an adventure, did not apparently affect him. He sat in a low chair and scrutinized his hands, which were burnt with carbolic. He only caught a passing glimpse of the bright red lamp-shade and the violoncello case, and glancing in the direction where the clock was ticking he noticed a stuffed wolf as substantial and sleek-looking as Abogin himself.

 

Abogin led the doctor – we look to him now. He’s in charge. And we don’t trust him in all sorts of ways now. “Kirilov was left alone” –  so are we. There’s a lot of luxury, comfort, elegance, snugness even; all of which we distrust. Our wariness of the veneer of elegance is matched by our anxiety of what is about to be revealed; and they each deepen the other, so that our wariness and anxiety are both sharpened and sharpened for as long as this is now drawn out. Abogin is now the “stranger” and this is the “unfamiliar house” – our identification with Kirilov is given yet another facet, at Abogin’s expense. When Kirilov notices “a stuffed wolf as substantial and sleek-looking as Abogin himself”, Chekhov might have over-egged this; but then, what’s revealed isn’t quite Abogin the wolf, not quite. That Abogin too turns out to be a victim makes this little sign interesting – for there is a deal of culpability wrapped up in Abogin’s victimhood, there is a “substantial” wolfishness and a “sleek-looking” wolfishness about him and his life heretofore.

It was quiet. . . . Somewhere far away in the adjoining rooms someone uttered a loud exclamation:

“Ah!” There was a clang of a glass door, probably of a cupboard, and again all was still. After waiting five minutes Kirilov left off scrutinizing his hands and raised his eyes to the door by which Abogin had vanished.

In the doorway stood Abogin, but he was not the same as when he had gone out. The look of sleekness and refined elegance had disappeared — his face, his hands, his attitude were contorted by a revolting expression of something between horror and agonizing physical pain. His nose, his lips, his moustache, all his features were moving and seemed trying to tear themselves from his face, his eyes looked as though they were laughing with agony. . . .

Abogin took a heavy stride into the drawing-room, bent forward, moaned, and shook his fists.

“She has deceived me,” he cried, with a strong emphasis on the second syllable of the verb. “Deceived me, gone away. She fell ill and sent me for the doctor only to run away with that clown Paptchinsky! My God!”

Abogin took a heavy step towards the doctor, held out his soft white fists in his face, and shaking them went on yelling:

“Gone away! Deceived me! But why this deception? My God! My God! What need of this dirty, scoundrelly trick, this diabolical, snakish farce? What have I done to her? Gone away!”

 

Of course we must know that when “someone uttered a loud exclamation” it must be Abogin. That it was uttered “somewhere far away” places Abogin just where he belongs: far away. We consider this man coldly now, judge him as other, not as we would judge ourselves (if one ever does, in the same sense).

The phrase “probably of a cupboard” is a nice little touch from the omniscient narrator, but it functions here merely to reinforce the point of view of Kirilov, who could have been thinking just that at that point in reaction to such a sound – Kirilov doesn’t know the source of the sound, nor do we; the omniscient narrator is getting on the couch with us as we sit there about to observe the “tragedy” unfold before our eyes.

Kirilov is “scrutinizing his hands”, then raises “his eyes to the door”, the door “by which Abogin had vanished”. The scene tightens its focus. And we tighten our point of view and empathy. And then there “In the doorway stood Abogin, but he was not the same as when he had gone out.” A revelation of sorts: “a revolting expression of something between horror and agonizing physical pain”. How his “nose, his lips, his moustache, all his features were moving and seemed trying to tear themselves from his face, his eyes looked as though they were laughing with agony” – here we have the monster. What will we (and Kirilov) make of it?

Abogin damns himself in his own words; just as his direct speech latterly has been used to make him feel other (we feel out upon by his splurges of dialogue), now we feel disturbed by his words: “dirty, scoundrelly trick, this diabolical, snakish farce”. This is his guilt somehow, not what turns out to be his wife’s. As Abogin feels sorry for himself – for what exactly we don’t fully know yet – and so can’t possibly empathies – the complete opposite of the death of the child at the story’s outset: “What have I done to her?” and “She has deceived me” and again “Deceived me”. And just then Abogin “took a heavy step towards the doctor”, “held out his soft white fists in his face, and shaking them” and “went on yelling: what are we (and Kirilov) to make of this?


Tears gushed from his eyes. He turned on one foot and began pacing up and down the drawing-room. Now in his short coat, his fashionable narrow trouserswhich made his legs look disproportionately slim, with his big headand long mane he was extremely like a lion. A gleam of curiositycame into the apathetic face of the doctor. He got up and looked at Abogin.

“Excuse me, where is the patient?”he said.

“The patient! The patient!” cried Abogin, laughing, crying, and stillbrandishing his fists. “She is not ill, but accursed! The baseness! The vileness! The devil himself could not have imagined anything more loathsome! She sent me off that she might run away with a buffoon, a dull-witted clown, an Alphonse! Oh God, better she had died! I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!”

The doctor drew himself up. His eyes blinked and filled with tears, his narrow beard began moving to right and to left together with his jaw.

“Allow me to ask what’s the meaning of this?” he asked, looking round him with curiosity. “My child is dead, my wife is in grief alone in the whole house. . . . I myself can scarcely stand up, I have not slept for three nights. . . . And here I am forced to play a part in some vulgar farce, to play the part of a stage property! I don’t . . . don’t understand it!”

Abogin unclenched one fist, flung a crumpled note on the floor, and stamped on it as though it were an insect he wanted to crush.

“And I didn’t see, didn’t understand,” he said through his clenched teeth, brandishing one fist before his face with an expression as though some one had trodden on his corns. “I did not notice that he came every day! I did not notice that he came today in a closed carriage! What did he come in a closed carriage for? And I did not see it! Noodle!”

“I don’t understand . . .” muttered the doctor. “Why, what’s the meaning of it? Why, it’s an outrage on personal dignity, a mockery of human suffering! It’s incredible. . . . It’s the first time in my life I have had such an experience!”

With the dull surprise of a man who has only just realized that he has been bitterly insultedthe doctor shrugged his shoulders, flung wide his arms, and not knowing what to do or to say sank helplessly into a chair.

“If you have ceased to love me and love another — so be it; but why this deceit, why this vulgar, treacherous trick?” Abogin said in a tearful voice. “What is the object of it? And what is there to justify it? And what have I done to you? Listen, doctor,” he said hotly, going up to Kirilov. “You have been the involuntary witness of my misfortuneand I am not going to conceal the truth from you. I swear that I loved the woman, loved her devotedly, like a slave! I have sacrificed everything for her; I have quarrelled with my own people, I have given up the service and music, I have forgiven her what I could not have forgiven my own mother or sister. . . I have never looked askance at her. . . . I have never gainsaid her in anything. Why this deception? I do not demand love, but why this loathsome duplicity? If she did not love me, why did she not say so openly, honestly, especially as she knows my views on the subject? . . .”

 

How are we now to judge this “farce”? How are we to judge what is next termed Abogin’s “perfect sincerity” – for it can be nothing of the kind, it all rings so hollow now, against the solid, deep resounding metal of Kirilov. So Abogin is “brandishing his fists”, saying “better she had died” – which brings to mind the only death in the story, which was where we set out from not so long ago. How are we to judge “my misfortune”? Was Abogin indeed treated “like a slave”? “Bitterly insulted”? Did this man really “never looked askance at her”? Did he not “demand love”? If not expect it?

We must, of course, share the doctor’s shock, his “dull surprise”, which is necessarily of a man who has been “bitterly insulted”. For it is indeed Kirilov who has been “bitterly insulted”. As have we. What is this crap? We must be wondering. This is life, tragedy, feeling, truth?

It starts with a “gleam of curiosity” in the “apathetic face of the doctor”. What an odd word to appear at this point: “curiosity” – but it draws us back into Kirilov’s state of mind and feeling: the ever so polite and pointless “Excuse me, where is the patient?” resounds for us, rings loud and clear: where indeed!

“’The patient! The patient!’ cried Abogin”: where is the patient? (Where is Chekhov’s gun? Indeed!)

but things are as they are at this juncture because of the way Chekhov has led us to this point, carefully steering and corralling our empathy, letting pool in places, drain away in others, sharpening it, loosening it, giving it enough free play in places, though only seemingly, before tying us up nice and tightly: “’The patient! The patient!’ we cry: where is the patient?


With tears in his eyes, trembling all over, Abogin opened his heart to the doctor with perfect sincerity. He spoke warmly, pressing both hands on his heart, exposing the secrets of his private lifewithout the faintest hesitation, and even seemed to be glad that at last these secrets were no longer pent up in his breast. If he had talked in this way for an hour or two, and opened his heart, he would undoubtedly have felt better. Who knows, if the doctor had listened to him and had sympathized with him like a friend, he might perhaps, as often happens, have reconciled himself to his trouble without protest, without doing anything needless and absurd. . . . But what happened was quite different. While Abogin was speaking the outraged doctor perceptibly changed. The indifference and wonder on his face gradually gave way to an expression of bitter resentment, indignation, and anger. The features of his face became even harsher, coarser, and more unpleasant. When Abogin held out before his eyes the photograph of a young woman with a handsome face as cold and expressionless as a nun’sand asked him whether, looking at that face, one could conceive that it was capable of duplicity, the doctor suddenly flew out, and with flashing eyessaid, rudely rapping out each word:

“What are you telling me all this for? I have no desire to hear it! I have no desire to!” he shouted and brought his fist down on the table. “I don’t want your vulgar secrets! Damnation take them! Don’t dare to tell me of such vulgar doings! Do you consider that I have not been insulted enough already? That I am a flunkey whom you can insult without restraint? Is that it?”

Abogin staggered back from Kirilov and stared at him in amazement.

“Why did you bring me here?” the doctor went on, his beard quivering. “If you are so puffed upwith good living that you go and get married and then act a farce like this, how do I come in? What have I to do with your love affairs? Leave me in peace! Go on squeezing money out of the poor in your gentlemanly way. Make a display of humane ideas, play (the doctor looked sideways at the violoncello case) play the bassoon and the trombone, grow as fat as capons, but don’t dare to insult personal dignity! If you cannot respect it, you might at least spare it your attention!”

“Excuse me, what does all this mean?” Abogin asked, flushing red.

 

What all this means, Abogin old chum, is that your life has been a silly little farce, no more. While a boy has been dying – dying – in front of his loving parents (real people both of them, down to their workaday features and workaday livingroom), you, my friend, have been playing the bassoon!

But Chekhov has caught us on the hop! Watch out! we damn ourselves with our own hard and certain revulsion. For Abogin’s tragedy is as real as that of Kirilov’s: whilst the alter has lost his sin, the only son he will ever have, the only chance of a full and meaningful life, it is revealed that Abogin’s life, meaning, substance, etc. was no more than a rather silly charade. And as we hurtle towards the end of this story, we are as stung by Kirilov’s conviction, prejudice, bigotry, as by our own, and even by Kirilov’s comfort in the substance of his own tragedy at the expense of that of Abogin’s, how the hollowness of Abogin’s life is more important to him, than the profound depth of his own loss.

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“It means that it’s base and low to play with people like this! I am a doctor; you look upon doctors and people generally who work and don’t stink of perfume and prostitutionas your menials and mauvais ton [the ill-bred]; well, you may look upon them so, but no one has given you the right to treat a man who is suffering as a stage property!”

“How dare you say that to me!” Abogin said quietly, and his face began working again, and this time unmistakably from anger.

“No, how dared you, knowing of my sorrow, bring me here to listen to these vulgarities!” shouted the doctor, and he again banged on the table with his fist. “Who has given you the right to make a mockery of another man’s sorrow?”

“You have taken leave of your senses,” shouted Abogin. “It is ungenerous. I am intensely unhappy myself and . . . and . . .”

“Unhappy!” said the doctor, with a smile of contempt. “Don’t utter that word, it does not concern you. The spendthrift who cannot raise a loancalls himself unhappy, too. The capon, sluggish from over-feeding, is unhappy, too. Worthless people!”

“Sir, you forget yourself,” shrieked Abogin. “For saying things like that . . . people are thrashed! Do you understand?”

Abogin hurriedly felt in his side pocket, pulled out a pocket-book, and extracting two notes flung them on the table.

“Here is the fee for your visit,” he said, his nostrils dilating. “You are paid.”

“How dare you offer me money?” shouted the doctor and he brushed the notes off the table on to the floor. “An insult cannot be paid for in money!”

Abogin and the doctor stood face to face, and in their wrath continued flinging undeserved insults at each other. I believe that never in their lives, even in delirium, had they uttered so much that was unjust, cruel, and absurd. The egoism of the unhappy was conspicuous in both. The unhappy are egoistic, spiteful, unjust, cruel, and less capable of understanding each other than fools. Unhappiness does not bring people together but draws them apart, and even where one would fancy people should be united by the similarity of their sorrow, far more injustice and cruelty is generated than in comparatively placid surroundings.

“Kindly let me go home!” shouted the doctor, breathing hard.

Abogin rang the bell sharply. When no one came to answer the bell he rang again and angrily flung the bell on the floor; it fell on the carpet with a muffled sound, and uttered a plaintive note as though at the point of death. A footman came in.

“Where have you been hiding yourself, the devil take you?” His master flew at him, clenching his fists. “Where were you just now? Go and tell them to bring the victoria round for this gentleman, and order the closed carriage to be got ready for me. Stay,” he cried as the footman turned to go out. “I won’t have a single traitor in the house by to-morrow! Away with you all! I will engage fresh servants! Reptiles!”

Abogin and the doctor remained in silence waiting for the carriage. The first regained his expression of sleeknessand his refined elegance. He paced up and down the room, tossed his head elegantly, and was evidently meditating on something. His anger had not cooled, but he tried to appear not to notice his enemy.. . . The doctor stood, leaning with one hand on the edge of the table, and looked at Abogin with that profound and somewhat cynical, ugly contempt only to be found in the eyes of sorrow and indigence when they are confronted with well-nourished comfort and elegance.

When a little later the doctor got into the victoria and drove off there was still a look of contempt in his eyes.It was dark, much darker than it had been an hour before. The red half-moon had sunk behind the hill and the clouds that had been guarding it lay in dark patches near the stars.The carriage with red lamps rattled along the road and soon overtook the doctor. It was Abogin driving off to protest, to do absurd things. . . .

All the way home the doctor thought not of his wife, nor of his Andrey, but of Abogin and the people in the house he had just left. His thoughts were unjust and inhumanly cruel. He condemned Abogin and his wife and Paptchinsky and all who lived in rosy, subdued light among sweet perfumes, and all the way home he hated and despised them till his head ached. And a firm conviction concerning those people took shape in his mind.

Time will pass and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind to the grave.

 

There’s so much else in this story’s end, but Chekhov’s description of the darkness that greets our frinds once more is as fitting an end as every other line he gives us: “It was dark, much darker than it had been an hour before. The red half-moon had sunk behind the hill and the clouds that had been guarding it lay in dark patches near the stars.”