Anton Chekhov’s Use of Nature
Anton Chekhov, like other great Russian writers of the 19th century, creates a marvelous balance between the intrigue and excitement of city life and the contemplative beauty of living in the country. Chekhov’s descriptions of the natural world, especially, stand out in a body of work that is often understated, open-ended, and non-judgmental. They stand out precisely because of this — because they often take on a greater meaning than any of the dialogue, actions, or feelings of individual characters.
For instance, about halfway through perhaps his most famous short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” Chekhov places the two lovelorn main characters in a scene that transcends their lives entirely:
“At Oreanda they sat on a bench not far from the church and gazed below at the sea and were lost in silence. Yalta was scarcely visible through the morning mist. Motionless white clouds covered the mountaintops. No leaves rustled, but the cicadas sang, and the monotonous muffled thunder of the sea, coming up from below, spoke of the peace, the eternal sleep awaiting us. This muffled thunder rose from the sea when neither Yalta nor Oreanda existed, and so it roars and will roar, dully, indifferently, after we have passed away. In this constancy of the sea, in her perfect indifference to our living and dying, there lies perhaps the promise of our eternal salvation, the unbroken stream of life on earth, and its unceasing movement toward perfection.”
The two characters meet at what turns out to be a turning point in each of their lives, but, as Chekhov demonstrates over and over again, it is simply one point in those lives. The story was published in 1899, about five years before Chekhov died.
In the early 1890s, he visited Sakhalin Island to experience — and try to affect a change in — katorga, the 19th-century Russian system of forced penal labor, carried out mostly in Siberia. According to translator Robert Payne, Chekhov was deeply disturbed by the idea of cruelty. A doctor by trade, he worked sincerely in the service of his fellow humans, especially those in desperate situations. His experiences in the katorga camps had a strong impact on him; he applied new vigor to his humanitarian work, wrote a book about Sakhalin, and in 1892, published a short story entitled “In Exile.”
The story concerns a couple of men sentenced to katorga in Siberia. Semyon, nicknamed Smarty, has been there for twenty years, and will probably remain, working on a small boat and drinking vodka, for the rest of his life. Despite the dismal surroundings, he remains content (if also a little contemptuous) because he has learned to live that way and wants nothing more. The young Tartar (no one knows his name), on the other hand, lives miserably, constantly cold and sick, and wants nothing more than to see his beloved wife (and his mother too, if possible), even for only one day.
Chekhov says, “for such happiness he would be willing to bear any torture whatsoever, and he would thank God for it. Better a single day of happiness than nothing at all.”
The writer’s treatment of nature here performs a bit of a shift in tone from the serenity (a quality that in itself seems to transcend ages) found in “The Lady with the Dog,” to one more fitting for the bleak setting of Siberian exile:
“Ten paces below, the river flowed darkly, muttering to itself as it dug a path between the steep clay banks and made its way to the distant sea. […] Far-off, on the further shore, dying down and flickering up again, were little serpents of fire: they were burning last year’s grasses. And behind these serpents darkness again. There could be heard the sound of little blocks of ice crashing against the barge. Dampness and cold . . . .”
Semyon and the Tartar share stories and argue over their different philosophies, invoking God and the devil (not to mention the perhaps Biblical allusion to the serpent that Chekhov slips in) to lend weight to their beliefs, but they will never reach a resolution. And, in the end, the Tartar lashes out fiercely against Semyon, who characteristically dismisses his plight. But their individual beliefs lay beside the point; they are simply ways to deal with the situation.
Going back even further, to 1884, we find the young Chekhov crafting stories full of playfulness, mystery, and wonder. In reverse chronological order, we move from “In Exile” to “In the Cemetery,” with this set-up: “The wind was playing among the yellow leaves of the ancient birch trees, and from the leaves heavy raindrops came showering down on us. One of us slipped in the mud, and to prevent himself from falling he grabbed at a large gray cross.”
We learn that the name of the deceased saving grace is Yegor Gryaznorokuv (which means “muddy hands”), that he died because he was spying from behind a heavy door, and that he hated verses and epigrams . . . so his gravestone is covered in them. That’s the last we hear of Gryaznorokuv because the tale spins from there into a rumination on the similarities between actors and government officials, the differences between drinking and “eternal remembrance,” and the bad influence of good theater. And all this in three pages.
Arguably, from a literary standpoint, Chekhov reaches his apex with “The Lady with the Dog.” This achievement occurs about seven years after he had plumbed the depths of social misfortune with “In Exile.” But even before that, “In the Cemetery” demonstrates a grasp on life and, crucially, mortality that, without passing judgment or stating belief, gets to us.
Whether it’s the constancy of the sea, the darkness of the river, or the mud in the graveyard, Chekhov knows how to address humanity, how to reach beyond individual philosophies in an attempt to find something universal.
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