This is day six of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
After a string of modern and post-modern works, we swing back to a classic master – Anton Chekhov. He wrote a prodigious number of stories on a wide variety of subjects, but all of them were uniquely his own unmistakable style. Often known more as a playwright, his masterly short stories may be his greatest achievement.
I have always been a fan of his famous story, The Lady with the Dog -(audio version). A few days ago, I wrote about Joyce Carol Oates. She produced a story, The Lady with the Pet Dog, which was a modern adaptation of the same tale, told from the point of view of the woman (with the dog). Together, the Oates and Chekhov versions make for some good reading and an interesting comparison.
Today’s story, “Gooseberries” is one of Chekhov’s later works, and is full of his characteristic ambiguity, moral questioning, and general good cheer. It is very attentive to the minutiae of daily life and the author manipulates these details to define and enrich the message and morals that he wants to convey.
Three men spend the day talking, and one tells a long “story within a story” which, on closer inspection has a very close relationship to the outer, framing story. The inner tale fails to interest the listeners, which makes the outer story that much more subtle and effective.
In the end, nothing much happens and nothing is decided… the rain continues to fall and the odor of spent tobacco keeps a character awake late into the night. The moral ambiguities are not resolved – the brother, eating his gooseberries that he thinks are delicious while the narrator confides are bitter – acts like a pig, but is undeniably happy in the way that a person can when his dreams come true.
I think that Checkov is ultimately telling us that this in how life is – there are no guarantees and victory is simply a slight shade away from defeat – happiness is elusive, but so are good works. Selfishness is evil, but charity is an illusion. All you can hope for is to muddle through – but maybe this is a miracle in itself.
“If I were young.”
He suddenly walked up to Aliokhin and shook him first by one hand and then by the other.
“Pavel Koustantinich,” he said in a voice of entreaty, “don’t be satisfied, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!”
Ivan Ivanich said this with a piteous supplicating smile, as though he were asking a personal favour.
Then they all three sat in different corners of the drawing-room and were silent. Ivan Ivanich’s story had satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries. . . . Somehow they had a longing to hear and to speak of charming people, and of women. And the mere fact of sitting in the drawing-room where everything — the lamp with its coloured shade, the chairs, and the carpet under their feet — told how the very people who now looked down at them from their frames once walked, and sat and had tea there, and the fact that pretty Pelagueya was near — was much better than any story.
—-Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov