Anton Chekhov: An Artist of Life
Mis à jour : janv. 11
Anton Chekhov in 1902
Extract from :
An analysis of form and vision in Chekhov 's major plays
by Mary Moylan Oppenheimer
"Tolstoy called Chekhov, and rightly so, "an artist of life". In his art, Chekhov confronted and gave expression to the major questions of man's existence. What was certain, at least to Chekhov, was that life, as he saw it around him, was not as it should be, sour and dull. He spoke of his times as ''flabby''.
He could not write about heroes, he said, because he had not seen any :
« I've often been blamed for not having any positive heroes... But where am I to get them ? I would be happy to have them ... Our life is proyincial, the cities are unpaved, the villages poor, the masses abused. Fine heroes we are ! »
The disparity between naturets greatness and man's smallness, between the potentiality and the actuality of man's achievements sickened and angered him :
« The Lord's earth is beautiful. There is one thing, howeyer, that is not beautiful, and that's us. How little justice there is in us, and how little humility. How badly we understand the meaning of patriotism ? We, the papers tell us, love our country, but how do we show this love of ours ? Instead of knowledge arrogance and immeasurable conceit, instead of honest work laziness and filth. We have no sense of justice and our conception of honour goes no further than the 'honour of uniform'. »
Given such a world, the obvious question is : How does a man go about living in it ? What, if anything, should he do about it ?
The world Chekhov saw and revealed in his plays is a world peopled by characters suffering from boredom, frustration, inaction, lack of communication, unrequited love and shattered dreams. Life is made bearable for some by their illusions ; for others their sufferings are tempered only by a belief in the dignity of work, the necessity of endurance, and faith in the future. But the present life, the life as it is, is stultifying and meaningless.
"Like most great artists, his revolt is mainly negative. Yet, it is also wrong to assume that Chekhov shares the pessimism which pervades his plays. Everyone who knew him testifies to his gaiety, humor, and buoyancy, and if he always expected the worst, he always hoped for the best.
Chekhov the realist was required to transcribe accurately the appalling conditions of life without false affirmations or baseless optimism ; but Chekhov the moralist has a sneaking belief in change. In short, Chekhov expresses his revolt not by depicting the ideal, which would have violated his sense of moral purpose, but by criticizing the real in the same time that he is represent it."
He quotes Chekhov's pronouncement that
"My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom, freedom from despotism and lies"
and comments :
"Chekhov himself embodies these qualities so perfectly that no one has ever been able to write about him without profound love and affection... Because of his hatred of untruth, Chekhov will not arouse false hopes about the future of mankind but because he is humane to the marrow of his bones, he manages to increase our expectation of the human race.
Coupling sweetness of temper with toughness of mind, Chekhov makes his work an extraordinary compound of morality and reality, rebellion and acceptance, irony and sympathy – evoking a singular affirmation even in the darkest despair."
Anton Chekhov in 1903
In November of 1898, he wrote his sister :
"According to one's strength, one must fulfill one's duty and nothing more."
This is the philosophy to which Chekhov basically adhered. The surface perhaps it seems simplistic. But there is nothing simple in the practice of it. It requires not only an acceptance of the conditions of life which run counter to man's desires and dreams but, more importantly, a willingness on his part to work on in the face of this knowledge.
This was Chekhov's endeavor, and it is the endeavor of his characters, but achievement did not come easily for him or for them. It involved a process which was for both author and characters a gradual one, and the plays are a record of the struggle.
Essentially Chekhov's conflict was the fairly universal one that what he wanted to believe about life and what experience showed him was true about it were two very different things. ''Like most men, he longed and sought for meaning, and this search, says Edith Hamilton, is a primary requisite of the tragedian'' ; he"must seek for the significance of life''.
Further, Edith Hamilton observes :
« When humanity is seen as devoid of dignity and significance, trivial, mean, and sunk
in dreary helplessness, the spirit of tragedy departs. »
Certainly the characters in the plays can be viewed as often "seemingly trivial, mean, and sunk in dreary helplessness". They are all at times comic, even ludicrous. Obviously, life viewed this way implies suffering on man's part, and, says Edith hamilton, "Tragedy's preoccupation is with suffering". Nevertheless, a valid generalization about Chekhov's art can be made : his plays grew out of his need to express his conflict and were created "in order to objectify and grasp the nature of his own inner drama" and, in the expression of this conflict to achieve some sort of "reconciliation".
This is, indeed, says Joseph Wood Krutch, the purpose of all great art :
"The function of all art, which must, in some way or another, make the life which it
seems to represent satisfactory to those who see its reflection in the magic mirror, and it
must gratify or at least reconcile the desires of the beholder, by at least satisfying the
universally human desire to find in the world some justice, some meaning, or, at the
very least, some recognizable order."
In his plays Chekhov strove to depict life as he saw it and to confront those central questions of man's existence which have ever been the concern of all great writers of
every thinking man. Life is inexplicable and displacement the lot of every man, and yet man must somehowcome to terms and make his peace with this life, a peace which ultimately passes understanding. And this Chekhov was able to do, I believe, through his art.
The answers which great literature provides to the riddle of life are not really answers but approaches, facile on the surface but in reality hard and harsh, truly apprehendable only through struggle and suffering. And these are approaches which apparently must be worked out and arrived at by each man in each age for himself.
"Man is not born wise. He must suffer to be wise",
says the chorus in Agamemnon.
However, Chekhov had hope for the new. He did not, he said, write his plays so that
people would weep. "I wanted something else," he said :
"I wanted to tell people honestly : "Look at yourselves. See how badly you live and how tiresome you are''. The main thing is that people understand this. When they do, they will surely create a new and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know it will be entirely different, not what we now have."
"An analysis of form and vision in Chekhov's major plays",
by Mary Moylan Oppenheimer