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

0 thoughts on “Excellent People by Anton Chekhov

  1. excellent post… i always have trouble with this sort of question, as it seems to me to depend entirely on knowing what will happen in the future… so many times, good things rise out of bad events and vice versa… how is right action possible when there's a good chance the results will be harmful or evil…?

  2. I think it's a layered question …. good can come out of bad, so we have to look for that, but I do think we need to fight against evil but with humility. The WAY people combat evil can often be problematic. It's certainly not an easy topic and with this short story, Chekhov creates more questions and no answers, which I think emphasizes the difficult of the issue. I wish I knew if he meant the title to be serious, in that we can all have good intentions and different point of views 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? Actually I think I'm going to add this question to my review. 🙂

  3. Excellent review, Cleopatra. I really like Chekhov. He not only examines the human psyche so well he expresses it in his writing.

    I have not read this particular short story and I need to find it.

  4. i haven't read Chekhov very much: what i have read was ambiguous and unsatisfying, which is probably why i quit… there are many, maybe most, ethical questions that don't have definitive answers and if they're too general, they just create frustration in the reader… in reality, situations, not always, but frequently, have pretty obvious solutions, and can be dealt with in a rational way… it seems to me that C, maybe rightly, was trying to express the indecisiveness of human nature without delving too much into actual, solvable dilemmas… that makes his work sort of pointless, imo… life has no prescribed answers, and grown-ups know that and learn to deal with it… C, in some way, seems not to have learned that… what do you think?…

  5. I do know what you mean and I think normally the story would make me frustrated. But because Chekhov is Russian, I tend to give him more latitude, only because I find Russian literature often "angsty" and exaggerated and I had such trouble with it when I started reading it that I've really tried to have an open mind with it.

    I found this story valuable because I find in modern times people THINK they have an answer for everything. Because we've become so self-focused and so self-satisfied, be have less patience and understanding for others and are less open-minded. This story reminded me of that 1) we all have different points of view; 2) things often don't turn out or resolve in the way we think they will; and 3) that we're still people after all and that there is perhaps more value in human compassion and understanding instead of progress or being right. Now, that is only how it resonated with ME. I can absolutely see others having a negative feeling of hopelessness after reading it. Which is sort of what Chekhov is saying, isn't it? We all have different points of view and perhaps, realities …..

  6. I love Chekov and this one seems no exception! I will try and get hold of this one soon. I love the question posed and how the dynamics change by a simple question against the established! Good Intentions? I think if there is one cliche saying that is the TRUTH, it's that the road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions! But then do we stop? I mean the point of good intentions is to have a good end, so the journey should be important, but is it if it does not see through a good end? Ok…rambling! I will stop! Excellent Review as always!

  7. Perhaps the issue is hubris. We believe we have the truth and that we have the answers and that we know the way, and we become so focused on being right, or the end goal, that we miss all the lessons along the way THAT, if we had noticed, might have changed our outlook or our intentions. People can be so blind at times …. ALL people. It's so important to live in the present, listen to and have compassion for others and remember perhaps that the end goal is not what is most important.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!