Introduction

Anton Chekhov had a short but successful life. He spent most of his life doing what he loved, practicing medicine and writing. Chekhov’s interests were not closely related to each other, but he felt just as passionately about them individually. Currently he may be most well known as a brilliant Russian playwright and author of short stories. However, he was also a successful medical doctor for a majority of his life. These dual interests often times pulled him in different directions, forcing him to pick one over the other. At other times, Chekhov used his knowledge and experience in one field to help him in the other. While he made time for both of his passions, he acknowledged that he had two separate lives in a letter to an Alexei Suvorin, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other." 1

Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_image.jpgEarly Life

Chekhov was born on January 17, 1860 in Taganrog, Russia. This town is in the old Black Sea port, which is located between the Ukraine and Russia. He was the third of six children. His parents were Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov and Yevgeniya Chekhov. His grandfather was a serf, until he bought his freedom. Chelhov’s father was also born a serf. Eventually Chekhov’s father began a grocery business, which struggled at times. Chekhov was forced to work in his father’s store to help out. After he grew up, Chehov spoke poorly about his childhood, partly due to the fact that he spent most of it working and trying to please his father. In addition to requiring him to work in the store, his father also requested that Chekhov joined the church choir which his father was in charge of. 7 “Despite the kindness of his mother, childhood remained a painful memory to Chekhov, although it later proved to be a vivid and absorbing experience that he often invoked in his works." 2 These memories stuck with Chekhov throughout his life, perhaps influencing why he never had children himself. Although a majority of his childhood memories were not as he hoped they would be, he did spend his summers as a young boy on the estate that his grandfather managed. While there he participated in youthful activities such as fishing, roaming the countryside, and playing games with the peasants who resided on the estate. When Chekhov was fourteen his father moved the family to Moscow due to financial problems, while Anton stayed in Taganrog.

Education

The reason Chekhov stayed behind was because he wanted to continue to go to school. He obtained an education by staying in Taganrog. In order to live on his own, he started tutoring younger students. This indicates that he must have been a good student. The reason that he was able to finally commit himself to his studies is because he was free of the burden that required him to work every day.
After graduating high school with high honors, he decided that he wanted to continue his education further. He enrolled at the University of Moscow. This reunited him with his family, while he continued to learn. Around the time that Chekhov joined the university, about 200 students were graduating per year from the five year course that he was taking. 7 This is important because before then, the medical field in Russia was dominated by German doctors and medical theories.
The classes that he was taking were in clinics on Rozhdestvenka. In the beginning of his studies, he started out taking the basic classes such as, inorganic chemistry, physics, mineralogy, botany, zoology, and theology. By the time he was a third year student he had the opportunity to take more strenuous classes and work with live bodies. Some of these classes included diagnostics, obstetrics, and gynecology. For anatomy, students worked with live bodies, as well as corpses. Dissections were performed on the poor people of Moscow that had died from diseases and other issues related to poverty. 7 In addition to seeing those diseases, he was also responsible for learning and observing the effects of venereal diseases, syphilis in particular. Both of these standards exposed him to the unjust and terrifying reality that the lower classes live in.

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Early Writings

Chekhov’s first writings were mostly in the form of short stories. His first collection was published in 1887 and was immediately successful. He did not publish his writings under his own name. Instead he used pseudonyms, two of which are ‘The Man without a Spleen’ and ‘Mr. Baldastov.’ His early short stories were often times not written completely to his liking. For example, The Bet. The reason for this is because at this time the Tsar had censorship of all literature that the public was exposed to. At the time this prevented him from publishing anything that pertained to crime, politics, or reflected poorly on society and the way it was run. In order to make extra money to support his family while he practiced medicine, and still do what he enjoyed, Chekhov worked as a journalist for The Spectator and the Alarm Clock. It was because of his work for this company that he became known as ‘Moscow’s most fearless reporter.' 7 It was important to him for his readers to know the truth, and that is what he tried to do. After his popularity expanded he was offered a job at a weekly illustrated magazine, Moscow.
After he mastered the art of short stories, Chekhov decided to branch out and begin writing dramas and plays. One of his first plays was only four acts and titled, The Wood Demon. He created this piece in 1888 and 1889. Another one of his works was Chayka (The Seagull) which at first was not popular. This made Chekhov embarrassed and discouraged about his abilities. He was not used to getting a negative reaction from his audience. However, two years later he revised it, making it more successful. His writing was reflective of what he saw around him. This tended to be more gloomy than his earlier writing, “...the shadows that darkened his later works began to creep over his light-hearted humor." 1 People did not always respond to this in a positive way, because a lot of people were not comfortable accepting the dark side of the society they live in. He was aware of these hesitations that his audience was feeling. With this being said, he was also not afraid to address the people who questioned his literary choices. Chekhov responded to these negative opinions when he said,
“The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language." 5
Chekhov’s writing was more about the readers’ perceptions and experiences while reading than the plot of the works. With this being said, he was striving to give his readers genuine experiences and feelings through his writing. The reason for this assumption is because he said in the previous quote that he believed his only job was to capture the important parts of human nature and experience and draw people’s attention to them.
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Major Works

Four of Chekhov’s major works include, Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and Cherry Orchard. Lewis states that his plays are known to have “an air of anxiety and pessimism." It has even been said that “In the plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), tragedy and comedy are inextricably intertwined." 6 He viewed both Seagull and Cherry Orchard as comedies, when the content would classify them otherwise. These four works are his most well-known and people have trouble classifying any of them as strictly tragedy or comedy. Chekhov was different than most playwrights of his time. His plays gave the audience a different experience than most of the other plays at the time. It was common for audiences to go to plays just looking for entertainment and that is what they received. For the most part theatre was an unattached experience for the audience. They were not emotionally or mentally attached or connected to the characters in any way. He was considered a naturalist writer, but what distinguished him from his peers was the fact that his writing created the audience to self-reflect. This self-reflection added a psychological aspect to theatre that had not been present before. 7
Another way that Chekhov’s plays changed theatre was the fact that many of them did not have lead characters or conventional plots. Conventional plots would be considered a common love story or ending with a gunfight. Instead, Chekhov explores “the drama of the undramatic." This means that his plays were less eventful than most and critics complained about this, because they felt that “nothing happened." 6 What these critics did not understand is that this was not a lack of writing ability, Chekhov was doing this on purpose. He was attempting to make theatre more realistic, “Chekhov claims to represent the world as it is, without moral judgments. Most of the climactic action in his works takes place offstage, often before the beginning of the play. What takes center stage is conversation." 6 This was a new concept that soon became more popular and still influences theatre today. Which is shown by the realistic dialogue and settings that playwrights often work to achieve.
All four of Chekhov’s major works were directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky was the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. It was known as the “Russian people’s theatre." 6 This meant that it was a place where the new ideas and concepts that Russian playwrights were forming could be shared openly there. Chekhov’s plays were performed at the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky helped Chekhov work on the psychological aspect of his plays and together they changed theatre by making it more of an emotional experience for the audience instead of purely entertainment.
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Sakhalin Journey

One of Chekhov’s other works, The Island of Sakhalin was based on his own journey to Sakhalin, which is on the Eastern end of the Russian Empire. His destination was over 6,000 miles away from Moscow and it was understood that he may not return. The trip involved crossing the Sahara, some of which he did alone. Chekhov’s motivation to complete this journey was stemmed by the horrifying deeds that were going on there. Sakhalin was where the Tsar had over 10,000 imprisoned and living in savage conditions. Perhaps Chekhov wanted to prove that he cared and was knowledgeable of the information that he included in his writing. That is exactly what he did, he said that he obtained enough research “…for three dissertations” 1 By embarking on such a trip is a huge commitment. One that took over a year and in Chekhov’s case paid off in the end, “This journey to the heart of evil was a Dantean exploit that rehabilitated Chekhov in radical eyes." 7 The journey also strengthened the sociological aspect of his writing. There was much more depth to his characters after he experienced and interacted with the people of Sakhalin. Many of his peers in the literary community were happy that he was out of the spotlight for the year that he was gone. The reason that they were relieved that he was gone was because he was becoming popular and gaining new attention. When he got back these authors were envious of his sudden rise to success upon his return.
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Declining Health

Even though Chekhov spent a great deal of his life taking care of the sick, he himself suffered from terrible physical health for a substantial amount of time, leading up to his death. It has been said that some of the misery that appears in his writing could be due to his declining health. In March of 1887 he had a lung hemorrhage that was caused by tuberculosis. There were symptoms prior to the hemorrhage. Also, in 1889, heart troubles were added to his list of health issues. Due to his declining health, Chekhov moved around frequently in search of helpful medical assistance and “healthier climates." 1 With all of his moving around Chekhov was unable to consistently live with his wife, Olga Knipper. She was an actress who appeared in several of his plays. They married in 1901. His illness was not something that he accepted easily. Chekhov did not like to think of himself as incapable of anything. This is reflected by how long he ignored his symptoms. However, he was forced to accept the severity of his condition when he almost had a heart attack in public while he was alone one day. “I walked quickly across the terrace on which the guests were assembled, with one idea in my mind, how awkward it would be to fall down and die in the presence of strangers." 1 Eventually, he sold his estate and built a villa.
Chekhov passed away at the young age of 44 on July 14th 1904. Although he accomplished so much in his life, it is bittersweet to think of what he could have done if he had lived longer. However, his stories and plays will live on and new readers will have the opportunity to experience his works.
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List of Works

Short Stories:

  • “A Bad Business”
  • “A Blunder”
  • “A Chamelion”
  • “A Classical Student”
  • “ACountry Cottage”
  • “A Daughter of Albion”
  • “A Day In The Country”
  • “A Dead Body”
  • “A Defenseless Creature”
  • “A Doctor's Visit”
  • “A Father”
  • “A Gentleman Friend”
  • “A Happy Ending”
  • “A Happy Man”
  • “A Jok,”
  • “A Lady's Story”
  • “A Living Chattle”
  • “A Malefactor”
  • “A Misfortune”
  • “A Mystery”
  • “A Nervous Breakdown,”
  • “A Nightmare,”
  • “A Peculiar Man,”
  • “A Pink Stocking,”
  • “A Play,”
  • “A Problem,”
  • “A Slander,”
  • “AStory Without A Title,”
  • “A Story Without An End,”
  • “A Tragic Actor,”
  • “ATransgression,”
  • “A Trifle From Life,”
  • “A Tripping Tongue,”
  • “A Trivial Incident,”
  • “A Troublesome Visitor,”
  • “A Woman's Kingdom,”
  • “A Work Of Art,”
  • “Aborigines,”
  • “About Love,”
  • “After The Theatre,”
  • “Agafya,”
  • “An Actor's End,”
  • “An Adventure,”
  • “An Anonymous Story,”
  • “An Artist's Story,”
  • “An Avenger,”
  • “An Enigmatic Nature,”
  • “An Inadvertence,”
  • “An Incident,”
  • “An Inquiry,”
  • “An Upheaval,”
  • “Anna on the Neck,”
  • “Anyuta,”
  • "Ariadn, Art,”
  • “At A Country House,”
  • “At A Summer Villa,”
  • “At Christmas Time,”
  • “At Home,”
  • “At The Barber's,”
  • “Bad Weather,”
  • “Betrothed,”
  • “Boots,”
  • “Boys,”
  • “Champagne,”
  • “Children,”
  • “Choristers,”
  • “Darkness,”
  • “Difficult People,”
  • “Dreams, Drunk,”
  • “Easter Eve,”
  • “Enemies,”
  • “Excellent People,”
  • “Expensive Lessons,”
  • “Fat And Thin,”
  • “From The Diary Of A Violent-tempered Man,”
  • “Frost,”
  • “Gone Astray,”
  • “Gooseberries,”
  • “Grisha,”
  • “Gusev,”
  • “Happiness,”
  • “Home,”
  • “Hush,”
  • “In A Hotel,”
  • “In A Strange Land,”
  • “In Exile,”
  • “In Passion Week,”
  • “In The Coach-house,”
  • “In The Court,”
  • “In The Dark,”
  • “In The Graveyard,”
  • “In The Ravine,”
  • “In Trouble,”
  • “Ionitch,”
  • “Ivan Matveyich,”
  • “Joy,”
  • “Kashtanka,”
  • “Ladies,”
  • “Lights,”
  • “Love,”
  • “Malingerers,”
  • “Mari D'elle,”
  • “Martyrs,”
  • “Minds In Ferment,”
  • “Mire,”
  • “Misery,”
  • “My Life,”
  • “Neighbors,”
  • “Nerves,”
  • “Not Wanted,”
  • “Oh! The Public,”
  • “Old Age,”
  • “On Official Duty,”
  • “On The Road,”
  • “Overdoing It,”
  • “Oysters,”
  • “Panic Fears,”
  • “Peasant Wives,”
  • “Peasants,”
  • “Polinka,”
  • “Rothschild's Fiddle,”
  • “Shrove Tuesday,”
  • “Sleepy,”
  • “Small Fry,”
  • “Sorrow,”
  • “Strong Impressions,”
  • “Talent, Terror,”
  • “The Album,”
  • “The Beauties,”
  • “The Beggar,”
  • “The Bet,”
  • “The Bird Market,”
  • “The Bishop,”
  • “The Black Monk,”
  • “The Cattle-dealers,”
  • “The Chemist's Wife,”
  • “The Chorus Girl,”
  • “The Cook's Wedding,”
  • “The Cossack,”
  • “The Darling,”
  • “The Death Of A Government Clerk,”
  • “The Dependents,”
  • “The Doctor, The Duel,”
  • “The Examining Magistrate,”
  • “The First-class Passenger,”
  • “The Fish,”
  • “The Grasshopper,”
  • “The Head Gardener's Story,”
  • “The Head Of The Family,”
  • “The Helpmate,”
  • “The Horse Stealers,”
  • “The Huntsman,”
  • “The Husband,”
  • “The Juene Premier,”
  • “The Kiss,”
  • “The Lady With The Dog,”
  • “The Letter,”
  • “The Lion And The Sun,”
  • “The Looking-glass,”
  • “The Lottery Ticket,”
  • “The Man In A Case,”
  • “The Marshal's Widow,”
  • “The Murder,”
  • ‘The New Villa”
  • “The Old House”
  • “The Orator”
  • “The Party”
  • “The Petchenyeg”
  • “The Pipe”
  • “The Post, The Princess”
  • “The Privy Councillor”
  • “The Requiem”
  • “The Runaway”
  • “The Schoolmaster”
  • “The Schoolmistress”
  • “The Shoemaker And The Devil”
  • “The Steppe”
  • “The Student”
  • “The Swedish Match”
  • “The Teacher Of Literature”
  • “The Trousseau”
  • “The Two Volodyas”
  • “The Wife”
  • “The Witch”
  • “Three Years”
  • “Too Early”
  • “Typhus”
  • “Uprooted”
  • “Vanka”
  • “Verotchka”
  • “Volodya”
  • “Ward No. 6”
  • “Whitebrow”
  • “Who Was To Blame?”
  • “Zinotchka”

Plays:

  • A Tragedian In Spite Of Himself
  • Ivanoff
  • On The High Road
  • The Anniversary
  • The Boor
  • The Cherry Orchard
  • The Proposal
  • The Sea-Gull
  • The Three Sisters
  • The Wedding
  • Uncle Vanya.

References

  1. “Anton Chekhov-Biography and Works.” Online-Literature. n.p. n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/.
  2. “Anton Chekhov” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  3. “Anton Chekhov.” Theatre History. n.p. n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. http://www.theatrehistory.com/russian/chekhov001.html.
  4. Bartlett, Rosamund. Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters. London: The Penguin Group, 2004. Print.
  5. Malcolm, Janet. Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journal. New York: Random House Inc. Print.
  6. Pericles, Lewis. “Anton Chekhov.” Yale University. 2010. Web. 18 April 2015. http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/Anton_Chekhov
  7. Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Print.
  8. Sekirin, Peter. Memories of Chekhov. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. 2011. Print.