Literary Devotional: Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was one of literature’s great masters of the short story and one of its finest dramatists.  In several landmark plays and countless miniature prose masterpiece, he mined remarkable stories from everyday life.  Although his works are by and large serious, they consistently walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy.

Chekhov was born into a debt-ridden family from southern Russia that had purchased its freedom from serfdom just a generation earlier.  As a medical student in Moscow, Chekhov wrote short comic pieces to support his parents, selling hundreds of them under a variety of pen names.  He continued writing after finishing his medical degree in 1884 and developed a large popular following by his late twenties.  As Chekhov gradually tackled weightier subject matters and made his first forays into dramatic writing, he began to attract the attention of literary critics.

The now-legendary Saint Petersburg premiere of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896) was an unmitigated disaster.  The play was falsely advertised as a comedy, and when the audience started hissing, Chekhov fled the theater in humiliation—an experience that nearly led him to abandom dramatic writing altogether.  Later productions of The Seagull, however, were well received, and Chekhov scored another triumph when he revised one of his mediocre early plays into the extraordinary Uncle Vanya (1897).  He followed with The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), also considered tragicomic masterpieces.  These plays feature generational conflicts and other family troubles, with onstage dramatics kept to a minimum.  The most important events happened offstage, conveyed through dialogue rather than action.

Though Chekhov is most renowned for his plays, his short stories are brilliant and arguably without equal.  They unfold in a melancholy landscape of keenly observed reality, populated by characters who are mired in self-pity over the dullness and triviality of their everyday lives.  The stories’ plots usually are minimal and misleadingly simple, with the most important elements hidden under the surface and little or no resolution provided at the end.  More than 200 in number, Chekhov’s short stories were integral in establishing the short story as the major literary form it is today.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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