Peasants and Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading Series)

Overview

The contemporary short-story is unimaginable without Anton Chekhov. He stripped the story of many of the features that had seemed essential to nineteenth-century readers: plot, narrative tension, and denouement. Terms such as “slices of life” and “sketches” are used to highlight the fact that often very little happens in Chekhov’s short stories. What is left unsaid reveals as much or more than what is said. The result is a sparse and atmospheric work that has less in common with that other major fictional ...
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Peasants and Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Digital Library)

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Overview

The contemporary short-story is unimaginable without Anton Chekhov. He stripped the story of many of the features that had seemed essential to nineteenth-century readers: plot, narrative tension, and denouement. Terms such as “slices of life” and “sketches” are used to highlight the fact that often very little happens in Chekhov’s short stories. What is left unsaid reveals as much or more than what is said. The result is a sparse and atmospheric work that has less in common with that other major fictional form—the novel—than it does with the lyric poem. The creation of this new literary form enables Chekhov to express some of the most penetrating psychological insights in modern literature and to share with readers a gentle and compassionate view of humanity.
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The grandson of a serf who had bought his own freedom, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in 1860 in the Crimean provincial town of Taganrog in southern Russia. His severe and pious father ran a small shop, and Chekhov, the third of six children, described his childhood as “sheer suffering.” Chekhov began writing merely as a way to supplement his family’s meager income while he studied medicine.
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The contemporary short-story is unimaginable without Anton Chekhov. He stripped the story of many of the features that had seemed essential to nineteenth-century readers: plot, narrative tension, and denouement, among others. Terms such as “slices of life” and “sketches” are used to highlight the fact that often very little happens in Chekhov’s short stories. They rarely have traditional climaxes and often seem to end arbitrarily. What is left unsaid reveals as much or more than what is said. The result is a sparse and atmospheric work that has less in common with that other major fictional form—the novel—than it does with the lyric poem. The creation of this new literary form enables Chekhov to express some of the most penetrating psychological insights in modern literature and to share with readers a gentle and compassionate view of humanity. At the time of his death from tuberculosis the age of forty-four, Chekhov had transformed two genres—short fiction and drama.

Chekhov began writing merely as a way to supplement his family’s meager income while he studied medicine. The grandson of a serf who had bought his own freedom, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in 1860 in the Crimean provincial town of Taganrog in southern Russia. His severe and pious father ran a small shop, and Chekhov, the third of six children, described his childhood as “sheer suffering.”[i] When he was sixteen, the store failed and his father fled with the family to Moscow to avoid being jailed for unpaid debts. Chekhov remained alone in Taganrog to finish his secondary studies, earning a bed in his old home by tutoring the son of the new owner. Two years later, he rejoined his family, who often lived in a one-room basement apartment in Moscow. In Moscow, Chekhov enrolled in the study of medicine. To earn money while still a student, he followed the example of his elder brothers and wrote for newspapers. For the rest of his life, he would assume the burden of providing for his parents and siblings.

Chekhov’s earliest works were short humorous sketches, jokes, and anecdotes, which he produced at a prodigious rate. Though these were far from serious literary endeavors, a few stories showed glimpses of the young author’s future gifts. He continued to write such pieces even after receiving his medical degree in 1884, and by the time he became a doctor he had already achieved substantial literary renown. He often joked that medicine was his lawful wife, and literature his mistress; indeed, it was literature that enabled him to support himself and his family, since he frequently provided his medical services without charge.

In 1886, the well-known writer Dmitrii Grigorovich sent Chekhov a letter praising his talent but urging him to focus upon more serious work. He was greatly moved by the elder writer’s belief in him:

Your letter … struck me like a flash of lightning. I nearly cried. I was overwhelmed, and now I feel it has left a deep mark in my soul….

If I have a gift which I ought to respect, then I confess before the purity of your heart that I have not respected it till now. I felt that I had it, but I had grown accustomed to consider it insignificant.[ii]

Through Grigorovich, Chekhov became acquainted with Aleksei Suvorin, the editor of the newspaper Novoe vremya (New Time), who was to play a considerable role in the author’s life. Thanks to Suvorin, he was able to publish longer, more serious works that allowed him to grow as an author. Although much of the Russian intelligentsia disapproved of the collaboration due to Suvorin’s conservatism, the two men remained close friends until Suvorin’s anti-Semitic opinions on the Dreyfus affair—the scandal that divided French society throughout the 1890s when in 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was convicted of treason, which led to a series of highly publicized trials eventually proving the evidence against him was manufactured—prompted Chekhov to break from his mentor.

Chekhov belonged to a later generation than the great novelists of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His work was smaller in scope than that of his compatriots, not simply because he wrote stories whereas they wrote novels, but also because he was uninterested in the epic mode. This can be attributed to temperamental disparities; whereas Tolstoy declaims and Dostoyevsky philosophizes, Chekhov’s attitude toward the weaknesses of his characters is typically bemused tolerance. This quality of gentle acceptance has made Chekhov one of the most beloved of Russian authors, both at home and abroad. His focus on the moment over the era, the incident over the event, the minor over the major key all contribute to the sense that his is a literature made not for giants, but to fit a human scale.

The greatest literary influences on Chekhov in Russian were arguably Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolai Leskov, and from abroad Guy de Maupassant. Leskov, author of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and an author praised for being in touch with the Russian people, was among the first to recognize the younger writer’s talent. After a night of drunken carousing, Leskov offered to anoint an amused Chekhov with oil. The figure of the superfluous man—an upper-class man who rejects his duties for an idle, self-indulgent but unfulfilling life—appears in Chekhov’s work; he met this nineteenth-century Russian stock character in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, as well as Aleksandr Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin (written in reply to Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). Chekhov’s “The Duel” is an extended treatment of this character. Most importantly, Chekhov greatly admired Tolstoy, and was in turn embraced by him. However, the two men had their differences. Though in his youth Chekhov fell under the sway of Tolstoy’s philosophy of non-resistance to evil, eventually he turned away from it. Ultimately, Chekhov, still rebelling against his strict Orthodox upbringing, could not share Tolstoy’s religious fanaticism. In addition, Chekhov read widely in French and German literature, as well as Shakespeare. Perhaps most significantly, he learned from Guy de Maupassant, the French short-story master, that the story did not require a denouement, the final outcome or resolution to the plot, which had been a feature of Western literature since the Classical era.

Because his interest lay in emotional reality, Chekhov rarely offered elaborately plotted tales. In this way, his interventions in the short story paralleled his innovations in drama. Though Henrik Ibsen before him had moved away from the conventions of classical drama (foregoing dramatic asides and monologues), it took Chekhov to make the even more radical break from the most traditional assumption of dramatic structure: the expectation for logical movement toward a climax. He explained:

In real life people do not spend every minute in shooting each other, hanging themselves, or declaring their love for each other. They don’t devote all their time trying to say witty things…. One ought to write a play in which people come and go, eat, talk about the weather, and play cards. On stage everything should be just as complicated and just as simple as in life. People eat their meals, and in the meantime their fortune is made or their life is ruined.[iii]

In his plays, as in his stories, Chekhov presents scenes that might be culled from ordinary life. This transformation of the drama was so radical that it took both audiences and critics time to appreciate. It required the productions of the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater to make them accessible before they could be loved. Chekhov only wrote five major plays—Ivanov (1887), The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1900), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). So strong was his conception of drama that he succeeded in modernizing the ancient form with so few plays. In so doing he challenged some of Western culture’s most profound notions as to what constitutes literature.

A striking difference between Chekhov and his Russian contemporaries is his refusal to ascribe to any social philosophy. The Russian literary scene in Chekhov’s time was highly sectarian, with writers and critics typically aligning themselves with one school of politics or another. For Chekhov, maintaining intellectual freedom was intimately related with his conception of the author’s role, as he explained in a letter to Suvorin:

I always insist that it is not the artist’s job to try to answer narrowly specialized questions…. You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author. (October 27, 1888)[iv]

This agnostic stand with regard to politics did not imply that Chekhov was unengaged with his society. Only two generations removed from serfdom, he did not share a conservative nostalgia for the past. While he maintained his sense of humor—on selling his copyrights to A. F. Marks, he punned, “I’ve now become a Marxist”—he could be serious, too. [v] He greatly admired the defense of Dreyfus by the French novelist Émile Zola, arguing to Suvorin, “great writers and artists engage in politics only insofar as it is necessary to defend people against politics.”[vi] Ultimately, Chekhov is not a moralist, and his works are not vehicles for revealing any preordained truth, whether spiritual or political. Rather than propping up any one system, his concern is to systematically dismantle that which is false or deceptive in any system.

Even in his writing, Chekhov prided himself on being a man of science. He cultivated an objectivity that would allow him to observe human behavior without fear or judgment, and it is this attitude of detachment that has made him among the most compassionate of authors. His reputation for kindness and generosity was enhanced by his humanitarian works—including hunger relief and aid to the sick, especially during the calamitous famine of 1891–92 and resulting cholera epidemic; his building of schools and libraries; and an arduous trans-Siberian trip undertaken to chronicle the desperate conditions in the penal colony of Sakhalin Island. Yet, it is the profound humanity of his stories that has impressed readers for more than a century.

Though considered one of Russia’s most eligible bachelors, Chekhov did not marry until the age of forty-one, when he secretly wed Olga Knipper, a lead actress in the Moscow Art Theatre. The original Masha in The Three Sisters, Knipper was generally considered to be the greatest interpreter of Chekhov’s dramatic roles. The couple did not live together, as Knipper needed to be in Moscow for her career, while illness forced Chekhov to seek the warmer climate of Yalta. Chekhov seems to have preferred the independence that this arrangement afforded him.

Chekhov’s stories differ from the nineteenth-century realism that was popular when he began writing—and anticipate the concerns of modern storytellers. Although he is generally labeled a realist—and because of his dedication to science, a naturalist—in his concern for objectivity, he nonetheless abandons many of the conventions of realism. The realist story can be said to create for the reader an experience of verisimilitude through the accretion of precise detail, dialogue that sounds the way people really talk, and narratives that are both plot- and character-driven. For Chekhov, however, the realist imperative to portray life “as it is” gave way to the modern desire to express the emotional world, and doing so required the invention of a different vocabulary for the story.

Charles May, an influential critic of the short story, notes that Chekhov uses external details to express a sense of internal reality; T. S. Eliot would later coin the term “objective correlative” to describe this technique, which would come to predominate in the modern short story.[vii] Such images puzzled early audiences who had not yet learned to read them as his stories demand. For example, in “Peasants” when the waiter Nikolay Tchikildyeev collapses, the only precise description provided is that he drops a tray laden with ham and peas; the particular dish is meaningless unless one envisions the peas cascading as Nikolay falls to the ground.

The stories in this volume have been selected to represent some of Chekhov’s greatest work, and “Peasants” ranks among his most important stories in both subject and form. This long story features the family of the waiter, who becomes too ill to continue working in Moscow and decides to return to the village of his birth with his wife, Olga, and ten-year-old daughter, Sasha. The story is loosely plotted, and follows the rhythms of village life. The squalid conditions and the casual cruelty they encounter at home show them quickly that their return was ill advised. In time, Nikolay dies, and Olga and Sasha leave for Moscow on foot, begging along the way. Chekhov originally planned to conclude the story with Sasha becoming a prostitute in the city, but Russian censorship would have made this ending unpublishable. The work has no hero, and foregoes an individual focus in order to hold up a lens to peasant life as a whole.

“Peasants” catalogues the range of afflictions affecting the Russian peasantry: hunger is rampant; the shabby hut is filthy and overcrowded; the men drink away what little money they have; the wealthier peasants abuse and exploit their poorer brethren. The authorities exist only to burden the peasantry with taxes; they confiscate the samovar, and when they seize hens and sheep, allow the animals to die from lack of care. The nobility is distant and incomprehensible; though the Moscow-bred Olga sees them as angels, her sister-in-law Fyokla despises them, and Marya fears even the little girls as creatures of another species who might crush her. Brutality, alcoholism, and greed weigh down peasant life.

Russia emancipated the serfs in 1861. By the 1890s, there was great concern that their standard of living had deteriorated, and the question of whether emancipation had harmed the serfs was widely discussed. In “Peasants,” old Father Osip describes the plentiful meals of cabbage and cucumber, cabbage soup and boiled grain that he remembers from serfdom, and Granny enthralls the children with the story of the elopement of a young mistress. Yet Chekhov, who was born in 1860 and would have been a serf himself had his grandfather not managed to buy his freedom, gives the final word to the long-suffering Marya: “No, freedom is better.”

Despite their difficulties, the peasants have two things to sustain them. The first is the natural world. On their arrival from Moscow, Olga exclaims, “It’s lovely here in your parts.” The story has some especially lavish descriptions of nature, even for Chekhov, who favored such detail. Poverty mars the view with the ugliness of the pitiful, dilapidated huts, but it still cannot destroy the splendor of the local environs:

Sitting on the edge of the slope, Nikolay and Olga watched the sun setting, watched the gold and crimson sky reflected in the river, in the church windows, and in the whole air—which was soft and still and unutterably pure as it never was in Moscow. And when the sun had set the flocks and herds passed, bleating and lowing; geese flew across from the further side of the river, and all sank into silence; the soft light died away in the air, and the dusk of evening began quickly moving down upon them.

The Russian landscape itself is the peasants’ most precious possession.

Religion provides another—more complicated—comfort for the peasants. For Chekhov, it matters little that their understanding of church doctrine is unsophisticated. He himself rejected his Orthodox upbringing; however, years of singing in the church choir left him with an appreciation of Orthodox ritual and music. When Olga feels a “sweet flutter at her heart” on reading from the Bible “forasmuch” and “verily,” it is in part because these words derive from the earlier Old Church Slavonic. Olga understands little of the Gospels she reads, but the very sound of the words moves her. Her religion is simple: “She believed in God, in the Holy Mother, in the saints; she believed one must not offend anyone in the world—not simple folks, nor Germans, nor gypsies, nor Jews—and woe even to those who have no compassion on the beasts.” Even those peasants most hardened by their life find some hope, however fleeting, in religion, when it is brought before them in the form of a procession bearing an icon of Mary:

All suddenly seemed to realize that there was not an empty void between earth and heaven, that the rich and the powerful had not taken possession of everything, that there was still a refuge from injury, from slavish bondage, from crushing, unendurable poverty, from the terrible vodka…. But the thanksgiving service ended and the ikon was carried away, and everything went on as before….

Chekhov realizes both the consolation religion brings the peasants, as well as its limits to truly alleviate their suffering.

The appearance of “Peasants” in 1897 created something of a sensation in Russian literary circles for both personal and political reasons. The story’s publication coincided with Chekhov’s experiencing a severe hemorrhage while visiting Moscow. Although he had felt the first symptoms of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, and the disease had already taken the life of his brother, Nikolai, Chekhovlong refused to see a doctor or acknowledge the true nature of his ailment. His own medical background made him acutely aware of the disease that would cut his life so tragically short, but after the hemorrhage the Russian public finally understood that he was profoundly ill.

Even more important to the story’s reception were the critical passions it raised. For the first time, Chekhov had chosen an undeniably political subject in writing about peasant life. However, the richly evocative mood of the story led many critics to see their own preferred viewpoints in it: for conservatives, it evidenced the peasants’ responsibility for their own condition, while for Marxists, it was a portrait of the desperation created by capitalist modernization. Tolstoy, though himself a nobleman, had long upheld the Russian peasant as the model of stoic virtue, and denounced the story as “a sin before the people.”[viii] The majority disagreed, however, and “Peasants” was one of Chekhov’s most highly praised works.

“The Duel” features a pair of heroes, neither of whom commands the author’s—or the reader’s—complete sympathies. Layevsky, a Petersburg gentleman, has run away to the Crimea with his married lover, Nadezhda. Though he dreamed of working the land, the idle and self-indulgent man has grown bored with Nadezhda and wishes to get rid of her so he can resume his life in the city. His dissolute ways have drawn the ire of von Koren, a stern young scientist preparing for a Siberian expedition. Layevsky is weak and quick to justify his selfish urges; he borrows money he cannot repay and neglects his government post. Von Koren, as his Germanic name implies, is a model of efficiency and industry. However, his unyielding devotion to neo-Darwinian theories leads to his harsh position that the world would be better off without Layevsky, and he coolly provokes a duel as a form of surgical cure for society. These main characters are counterpoised by Dr. Samoylenko, a kind army doctor who borrows money so he can lend it to his friends, as well as the mild-mannered deacon, whose shriek of horror prevents the duel from being fatal.

The question of women’s sexuality is key to “The Duel.” Nadezhda has forsaken her marriage to run away with Layevsky. Yet even while von Koren and certain other characters scorn her illicit sexuality, the story itself treats her sympathetically, even as her vulnerable position leads to greater trouble. She has had a brief liaison with the police chief, who forces her to resume the affair under threat of blackmail. To further complicate matters, she secretly owes three hundred rubles at the local shop, and is therefore at the mercy of the shopkeeper’s son, who also desires her. Nadezhda is not presented as naturally beyond reproach. Although Dr. Samoylenko reveres her education, she is untidy and fancies herself fashionable, while the other women laugh behind her back at her style of dress. Nonetheless, the story challenges expectations: when Layevsky discovers Nadezhda and the police chief in bed, instead of being enraged he realizes his true love for her. In Layevsky’s response, the story also signals a rejection of Tolstoy’s influential diatribe against pernicious feminine sexuality, which he made most famously in “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Chekhov’s response is decidedly more modern; by way of comparison, it would not be until nine years later in 1900 that Theodore Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, the first American novel in which a women’s extramarital sexual affairs go unpunished. Of course, Chekhov also wrote stories with negative views of women and women’s sexuality, but “The Duel” exemplifies the empathy toward women of which he was capable.

Pavel Andreitch, the unpleasant narrator of “The Wife,” is working on a history of the railways when he receives an anonymous note begging for his help to mitigate the effects of famine. The railroad is a potent symbol of modernization—in Chekhov’s lifetime Russia’s total mileage of train tracks increased from roughly one thousand to forty thousand—and his claim that he is too busy with an intellectual study of the railroad to help starving peasants in his midst quickly establishes his disagreeable character. Andreitch’s character is apparent to everyone else; he only manages to deceive himself as to his true nature. He sees merely a search for justice when he prosecutes hungry peasants who steal bags of rye, and he is confused when a family friend who has known him since childhood advises him: “try to be different! One is ill at ease with you, my dear fellow, one really is!”

The greatest conflict of the story lies between Pavel Andreitch and Natalya Gavrilovna, his wife. The estranged couple leads virtually separate lives, each maintaining their own households on different floors of the estate. Because he underestimates his wife, the narrator only slowly realizes that she is running a successful relief campaign, which he immediately determines to take over. He belittles her accounts, and impugns the honesty of the doctor and others involved. In the internal change that Andreitch undergoes, Chekhov demonstrates the way that a love of rank, property, and their associated privilege interfere with human relationships. Gavrilovna sees the relief campaign as the only justification of her existence, and Andreitch comes to realize that no true connection with his wife is possible until he recognizes his responsibility to others. In a drastically truncated ending—another typical move for Chekhov— Andreitch quickly and calmly gives his whole estate into his wife’s hands, and finally achieves a peace that had theretofore eluded him.

“My Life: The Story of a Provincial,” Chekhov’s longest work since “The Duel,” picks up the theme of the hypocrisy of bourgeois life. The twenty-five-year-old narrator, Misail Poloznev, ranks among the provincial nobility, but cannot abide the disparity between appearance and reality that characterizes its lifestyle: he condemns, at various times, homes with gorgeous facades but festering kitchens, upper-class women who dress in finery but sleep in filthy beds, and respected gentlemen whose moral code allows them to accept bribes as a matter of course. Misail disdains the professional options available to young men of position—the story opens with him provoking his superintendent, who fires him two days later—and dreams of redemption through manual labor. The very idea of Misail as a common workman infuriates his father, who proudly declaims the family lineage from a military great-grandfather who as a general fought Napoleon at the decisive battle of Borodino. The father himself enjoys considerable renown as the town’s only architect; however, Misail sees his work as dull and uninspired, and regrets that the poverty of his father’s imagination has yielded a style for the entire town.

Despite its length, “My Life” is one of Chekhov’s most tightly structured works. The story is divided into three parts: Misail’s decision to become a laborer; his marriage to Masha, and their attempt to work the land; and finally his return to labor after Masha abandons him. The story focuses upon three women: Mariya Viktorovna Dolzhikov, nicknamed Masha, the privileged daughter of the wealthy railroad engineer; Misail’s sister, Kleopatra; and her friend, Anyuta Blagovo. Masha, bored and friendless in the provincial town, marries Misail in order to have a comrade for her plans to work the land and uplift the peasantry. When the peasants seek only to get the better of her financially, her disillusionment brings to an end not only her experiments with running an estate, but also her marriage. She leaves for St. Petersburg, and eventually for a new life in America. Kleopatra, who like Misail was burdened by their father with a pretentious, uncommon name, begins the story as her brother’s foil. While he rebels, she cowers under her father’s demands, and spends her life dutifully tending to his whims and exhorting Misail to reconcile the family. Only when she meets and is seduced by the charismatic, but married, Dr. Blagovo does the meek Kleopatra find happiness. Hovering on the edges of the story is Anyuta Blagovo, the doctor’s sister, who loves Misail, but does not have the courage to face the town’s disapproval, and so refuses to acknowledge him in public. Having vowed never to marry anyone else, she haunts the cemetery at the story’s end, hoping to encounter Misail visiting Kleopatra’s grave.

Likewise, there are three fathers (or father figures) in the story: Misail’s cruel and unyielding father, who opens the story by beating Misail for losing another job, and who arrogantly claims a “sacred fire” that runs through their familial line, separating them from the common worker; the engineer, Dolzhikov, Misail’s father-in-law, who continually prides himself on having worked with his hands—he spent two years in Belgium working as an oiler—before gaining his vast wealth, but ridicules Masha’s plan to do good works for an ungrateful peasantry; and finally Radish, the contractor who hires Misail and takes both him and Kleopatra in when her pregnancy makes her an outcast in the town. Radish is the spiritual father not just of Misail, but of the entire story. He states the tri-partite adage, “Lice consume the grass, rust consumes the iron, and lying the soul.” So while Poloznev prattles about sacred fire, and Dolzhikov about oil, Radish shares Misail’s recognition of rust, the deception eating away at the soul of the entire society. Yet at the end of the story Misail finds inspiration not merely in the labor that he and Radish share, but in the fact that he himself has become father to his orphaned baby niece.

“Betrothed” is the last story that Chekhov wrote before his death. Nadya (the shortened form of Nadezhda, the Russian word for “hope”) is a member of the provincial gentry. Engaged to Andrey Andreitch, and despite having longed for nothing but marriage since the age of sixteen, she feels unease and desolation as the event approaches. Sasha, a sick and shabby relative whose education her grandmother had supported, comes to visit, and urges her to abandon the material life of comfort for the pursuit of education and a nobler way of life. Her initial response to his exhortations is resistance, and even boredom, for he has spoken them all many times before. His particular view of the future is less important than the fact that he has a view of some future, any future. He represents the possibility of change. When Sasha finally dies of tuberculosis, Nadya realizes with sorrow that she does not feel as pained as she expected, but then like her fiancé he is only a vehicle for her, and not the main person with whom she must contend.

Before she will be able to extricate herself from the life that looms ahead of her, Nadya has to break with her mother. She had always considered her mother an “extraordinary woman,” and felt pride in her, in the same way that Andrey Andreitch feels pride in his equally common father. Not only does Nadya come to recognize that her mother is controlled by her grandmother’s money, but even more painfully, she must accept her mother’s failure to respond to her anxieties about marriage. This inability to comprehend her feelings—creating a distance from the person with whom she felt the greatest intimacy—convinces Nadya that she must create a new life for herself.

The night that Nadya decides to run away from her life, there is a terrible storm that blows all the apples to the ground and knocks down a plum tree. The passions that agitate a woman are reflected in nature, a technique that Chekhov uses elsewhere, most notably in “The Witch.” The apple trees recall Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, in which Sasha, too, finds a parallel in the student Trofimov. Together, these two last works survey the end of an era and a provisional future. In the last line of “Betrothed,” the author uses the phrase “as she supposed” to qualify any precise view of what is to come:

“Good-bye, dear Sasha,” [Nadya] thought, and before her mind rose the vista of a new, wide, spacious life, and that life, still obscure and full of mysteries beckoned her and attracted her.

She went upstairs to her own room to pack, and next morning said good-bye to her family, and full of life and high spirits left the town—as she supposed forever.

Or perhaps this is to say that nothing definite can be said about the future, and therein lies hope.

In these and the other masterful works in this volume, Chekhov experimented with the form and subject matter of the short story. His innovations captured the imaginations of generations of writers to come, and his spare, moody works revolutionized the short story. Chekhov’s stories influenced some of the great twentieth-century practitioners of the genre, from Katharine Mansfield and James Joyce to Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and they continue to influence the way we read the story today. Yet ultimately it is the profound humanity of Chekhov’s stories that still touches readers after more than a century.

Lara Merlin holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Rutgers University. She has taught literature and women’s studies at Bowdoin College, Colby College, and New York University.

[i] Clyman, Toby W. “Chekhov: A Biography.” A Chekhov Companion. Ed. Toby W. Clyman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 17. And Karlinsky, Simon, selection, introduction and commentary. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Translated by Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of CA P, 1973. 217.

[ii] Koteliansky, S. S., and Philip Tomlinson, eds. The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekov. Translated by the editors; biographical note by E. Zamyatin. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1925. 71.

[iii] Esslin, Martin. “Chekhov and the Modern Drama.” A Chekhov Companion. Ed. Toby W. Clyman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 137.

[iv] Karlinsky, Simon, selection, introduction, and commentary. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Translated by Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of CA P, 1973. 116–7.

[v] Pitcher, Harvey. “Chekhov’s Humour.” A Chekhov Companion. Ed. Toby W. Clyman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 87.

[vi] Koteliansky, S. S., and Philip Tomlinson, eds. The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekov. Translated by the editors; biographical note by E. Zamyatin. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1925. 255.

[vii] May, Charles E. “Chekhov and the Modern Short Story.” A Chekhov Companion. Ed. Toby W. Clyman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 150.

[viii] Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. NY: Henry Holt, 1997. 431.

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