Excellent People by Anton Chekhov

“Once upon a time there lived in Moscow a man called Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky.”

Wow, Chekhov was in fine form with this short story!  A narrator relates a story of a literary man trained at law, Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky, and his sister, Vera Semyonovna, a listless woman who has been disappointed in life.  At the start of the story, Vladimir has compassion and love for his sister, who had her new husband die, survived a suicide attempt, and now is living with him, quietly revering his talents.
And although there is a peaceful harmony at the beginning of the story, we sense a restlessness within Vera, and a somewhat egotistical, intolerant manner within Vladimir who displays a rather self-satisfied demeanour with regard to his talents and an intellectual judgement over his those who cannot share is views.
However, one day their quiet and predictable life is shaken when Vera poses an unsettling and unexpected question, “What is the meaning of non-resistance to evil?” Suddenly a new idea is brought upon Vladimir by someone close to him, someone whom he is used to seeing as a subordinate and one who praises him, no matter what the situation.  It is a liberal question that presses against his conservatism, a progressive question that goes against tradition, an elephant in the room, so to speak.  At first he cannot quite comprehend but Vera persists, “Where would we all be if human life were ordered on the basis on non-resistance to evil?”  Vladimir attempts to slough off the idea, by approaching it lightly in his next article but his sister is not satisfied, “Why would a gardener sow for the benefit of thieves and beggars, as one did in the story she just read?  Did he behave sensibly?” Vladimir is further distressed as he senses for the first time, the admiration he is used to receiving from her is uncomfortably absent.  He expounds that to write in such a way is to allow the thought that thieves deserve to exist. What garbage!
Moscow in Winter (1872)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Their interactions increasingly degrade, as the question and Vera’s change in manner begin to tear apart the equanimity and peace of their previous existence.  Vera wants to explore ideas, to search for answers; Vladimir simply wants to remain grasping his ideas, the ideas he has survived on during his life.  They talk and they discuss.  They do not understand each other.
The ending I will leave uncommented on if others want to read this tale, but needless to say, it is not happy. Again, I’m so impressed with this story.  Chekhov explores tradition versus progress through this interaction of genders and siblings.  Who should better understand each other than people of the same blood, people who have lived together in close community and have a certain respect and love for one another?  However, they not only cannot agree, they cannot even understand one another.  But yet, one has to ask themselves what their relationship was built on, as it was only in harmony when the sister admired the brother and only gave compliments?  Was it their lack of a truthful and deep relationship that undermined their ability to comprehend one another, or was it really a clear picture of the struggles of Russian society between the old tradition and the new ideas of the time.  And we must not forget the title, Excellent People.  Both the brother and sister are good people but each have different ideas.  If we focus on “ideas” or “philosophies” and forget that we are dealing with people do we become less human and less able to understand each other?  And while life would have been more harmonious if the sister remained in her apathetic devotion to her brother, and the brother remained happy in his narrow-minded pursuits, would it have been better?  Their lives would have been more comfortable and untroubled, yet not as real.  Ask yourself, is it better to remain peaceful and happy in a life of past tradition and apathy, or is it more “human” to strive for goals and struggle for something better for self and society, but remain miserable within this quest?  And a question from Mudpuddle’s comment below:  I wish I knew if Chekhov meant the title to be serious, in that we can all have good intentions and different points of view and yet still experience unsatisfying and disharmonious outcomes, or sarcastic in that both the brother and sister where not able to communicate their views and come to a resolution, their inner lives became more turbulent from examining them, and nothing really changed, so then they were really “excellent” only in the way they viewed themselves?  Great questions with no easy answers!
I definitely have to read this again at a later date after it settles and percolates a little.  I encourage anyone who has a spare ten minutes to read it and if you decide to come back and leave your thoughts, I’d love it.  While it’s only a 7-8 page short story, it would have made a great read-along.  Who would have thought!
Deal Me In Challenge 2018 #1 ~ Two of Clubs

The Runaway by Anton Chekhov

I’m trying to get back on track with my Deal-Me-In Challenge, and I finally drew the first short story of the year, The Runaway by Anton Chekhov.

Science and Charity (1897)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

After a long journey, young Pashka and his mother wait at the hospital to see the doctor. Pashka has a boil on his elbow, but the mother has waited too long and the doctor scolds her, declaring that the wound is infected and the boy may lose his arm.  A stay is required, about which Pashka is not thrilled but he is lured by the doctor’s promises of seeing a live fox and eating sugar-candy.  After a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast beef and bread, the boy awaits the doctor to honour his commitment but when he doesn’t come, he explores the wards, finally returning to his own where he hears the patient, Mikhailo, coughing and wheezing.  When he wakes late in the night, he finds three people at the dead Mikhailo’s bed, yet when they leave, the old man’s chest wheezes again.  Terrified, Pashka screams for his mother, leaps out of bed and tears through the wards and into the yard, intending to run home but a graveyard looms ahead, and Pashka is intensely relieve to spot the kind doctor through a window in a building.  When he burst inside the doctor’s words echo:  “You’re a donkey, Pashka!  Now aren’t you a donkey?  You ought to be whipped ….”

The Runaway (1958)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart



Well, what to make of that?  There is the danger of infection, the tension of being separated from his mother, the doctor’s promises that manipulate (for good or ill, who knows) yet come to nought, the wards of sick people and the boy’s terror, perhaps at hearing a dead man who appears to still live.  It’s curious, especially since Pashka’s condition appears serious, yet the reader never has a whisper as to its outcome.  Chekhov himself spent most of his life in the medical profession, so one wonders if he is also exploring the psychological methods physicians might use on their patients.  Through the boy’s eyes the doctor is “kind” but is he really?  The boy has a serious medical condition yet no one seems to be rushing him to surgery, and the doctor has promised many delights for Pashka and is delivering none of them.  What is behind Chekhov’s tale?  Is it a simple tale or a story with a deeper meaning?

Birthhouse of Anton Chekhov
source Wikipedia

Deal Me In Challenge #11

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov’s story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night’s stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she’d earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor’s replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ….. why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she’s made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others ………. in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess’ stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a “vile woman”.  Three days later Chekhov wrote, “I want to write protest stories this season ——  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I’m not used to it,” which makes one wonder if the doctor’s social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character’s roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov’s works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) – Six of Clubs