Books

Living Under the Shadow of Death, Chekhov Spun Tales Around the Theme

On the Russian writer's 115th death anniversary, a look at three stories centred around life's end from three distinct periods.

One grey winter afternoon the village turner, Grigory Petrov, set off on a twenty-mile drive in a rickety old one-horse carriage. Matryona, the turner’s wife of 40 years, had taken ill, and Grigory was taking her to the hospital. It had been snowing since the morning, but Grigory had never seen anything like  the blizzard that swooped down on him presently. It was a blinding, numbing, shattering storm. The cutting cold wind blew in Grigory’s face and he could not tell if the whirling snow-flakes were coming down from the sky or rising from the earth. He could not see a foot ahead. The road was no more than an unending stretch of sludge and slush which the wretched little nag that Grigory had borrowed from a neighbour found it hard to plough through. It neighed pitifully, and all the lusty lashings of Grigory’s whip were of little avail. 

Grigory was a splendid turner, but he was also – had always been – a hopeless drunk, so he seldom worked or earned any money. He swore and shook his fist at Matryona every day, made her go the round of the village begging for bread, and thought nothing of hitting her if she so much as looked sourly at him. As his wife of 40 years lay inert on the open wagon, Grigory stole a glance at her and

(i)t struck him as strange that the snow on his old woman’s face was not melting; it was queer that the face itself looked somewhat drawn, and had turned a pale grey, waxen….

Was she dead already? How very foolish of her! Grigory could not bring himself to look round at Matryona again, for he was frightened. Afraid of not getting an answer, he could not ask her a question either. Finally, to end the uncertainty, he felt her cold hand. ‘The lifted hand fell like a log’.

Now, in the middle of a landscape over which a thick drape of snow and fog hung heavy, when he did not know in which direction he was driving, Grigory the turner felt sorry for his poor wife. He had never known grief before, and now

(s)orrow had come upon the turner unawares, unlooked-for, and unexpected, and now he could not get over it, could not recover himself. He had lived hitherto in unruffled calm,…. knowing neither grief nor joy, and now he was suddenly aware of a dreadful pain in his heart.

Grigory had lived with his wife for 40 years, but the years had passed by as it were in a fog. Petty squabbling, grinding poverty and drunkenness made those years indistinguishable from one another, and the turner now felt as though he had had no time to live with his wife, to show her that he cared for her, that he felt sorry for the hard life he had given her. Like the terrifying snow-storm on the open steppe, grief had waylaid the turner. It struck him that he could not live without Matryona, but there was no way he could tell her that. Grigory Petrov shed bitter tears as the icy night engulfed him.

Also Read: A Day at Chekhov’s Melikhovo

 Anton Chekhov published the story Sorrow in a weekly magazine in November, 1885. Now 25 years old, he had graduated from medical school in 1884 and begun practicing but, to support his parents and siblings, was obliged to continue writing short stories and humorous sketches which by now were quite popular and assured him a steady, if modest, income.

Indeed, he continued to write at a furious pace: in 1885 alone, he published as many as 38 short stories. Meanwhile, he had found himself coughing blood and, though he would not admit it, he already knew he had tuberculosis, a disease – incurable then – that would kill him when he was only 44.

Sorrow appeared at about the time that Chekhov had started taking writing seriously, when he no longer wrote only to keep the pot boiling. Perhaps the knowledge that he had not long to live brought a new sense of urgency to his work. He had written about death before this, for example in his 1883 story The Death of a Government Clerk, where a petty official who believed he had trodden on the toes of a powerful general died a sudden, miserable death. But there, death had taken on a nearly comical, absurd, aspect and the slant of the narrative remained satirical. Sorrow was palpably different. Perhaps, now that he had premonitions of his own death, Chekhov began to engage with the theme of life’s end with greater intensity. He had not given up on humour, of course, but the humour was now subsumed in a keener sensitivity to the human condition.

A statue of The Man in the Case. Photo: Author provided

The man in the case

Next to the Taganrog Gymnasium in Rostov – the school Chekhov graduated from – there stands a strange monument. It is a man who is clearly intent on guarding himself against something: his long coat with up-turned collars and his dark glasses pretty much hide his face; his ears are stuffed with cotton-wool; he has on galoshes and his right hand is tightly clasped around an umbrella. This is Byelikov, the protagonist of Chekhov’s July, 1898 story The Man in a Case.

Byelikov, the Greek teacher in a small-town school, is a man in a case, so to speak. He is paranoid about things going wrong, rules being broken, immorality getting the better of staid correctness, good order yielding to chaos. He is deeply skeptical of all change, thinks the past was the golden age, and feels called upon to do his utmost to protect himself and his immediate surroundings from odious ‘external influences’, promptly reporting what he sees as transgressions by students and colleagues to the principal. He gives everyone the impression of feeling the happiest inside the shell he has built around himself. In short, everybody in town hates him, but is also fearful of him.

This sleepy small-town community wakes up with a start as Varinka, a pretty, vivacious young woman takes up lodgings with his brother Mikhail Kovalenko, the school’s new history teacher. Her high spirits and her ringing laugh soon weave a spell on everybody, and even Byelikov, a bachelor, is not immune to her charms. Soon, the town’s womenfolk are busy plotting  Byelikov’s marriage with Varinka. Byelikov doesn’t seem to mind and begins to call on the Kovalenkos in the evening. All he does, though, is sit silently for a while, take in all that’s happening around him, and then take his hosts’ leave with exaggerated courtesy. And then one day someone thinks up a prank.

Some mischievous person drew a caricature of Byelikov walking along in his galoshes with his trousers tucked up, under his umbrella, with Varinka on his arm; below, the inscription ‘Anthropos in love’. The expression was caught to a marvel…

Byelikov is mortified. But the tipping-point is reached on the school’s picnic day. As the teachers and their families walk to the woods beyond the town, Mikhail and Varinka flash past them on two bicycles, laughing gaily. Byelikov is scandalised: how can a teacher and a young woman ride a bike? He drops out of the picnic, goes home and sulks. A day later he visits the Kovalenkos and remonstrates with Mikhail about their ‘unseemly’ conduct. Mikhail flies into a rage and pushes Byelikov down a flight of stairs. As he lies huddled at the landing, Varinka, entering the house from outside, sees him and cannot help breaking into a peal of laughter. Cut to the quick, Byelikov returns home and takes to his bed – and never leaves it till he dies. 

Now when he was lying in his coffin his expression was mild, agreeable, even cheerful, as though he were glad that he had at last been put into a case which he would not leave again. Yes, he had attained his ideal!

Everyone felt as though an enormous weight had lifted from their heads. They felt free and cheerful once again, though they were loathe to show it. 

“We returned from the cemetery in a good humour. But not more than a week had passed before life went on as in the past, as gloomy, oppressive and senseless – a life not forbidden by government prohibition, but not fully permitted, either: it was no better…..”

Written while at Melikhovo, perhaps the most productive phase of his career, The Man in a Case finds echoes in some other stories/novellas of the period, notably Gooseberries and My Life. Maxim Gorky best described the spirit in which these stories were written:

And now a great, wise man passes by this dull, dreary crowd of impotent creatures, casting an attentive glance on them all… and says, with his sad smile, in tones of gentle but profound reproach, with despairing grief on his face and in his heart, in a voice of exquisite sincerity:

‘What a dull life you lead, gentlemen!’

Bishop Mikhail. Photo: Author provided

The Bishop

The Bishop (first published in April, 1902) was Chekhov’s penultimate short story. Ever since failing  health and Moscow’s harsh winters had obliged him to move out of his country home in Melikhovo and relocate to sunny – but dreary – Yalta late in 1899, he wrote but little. Other than his two great plays – Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – only four stories belong to this four-and-a-half-year period, an astonishingly small output considering the prodigious amount of work he had managed to accomplish in his seven years at Melikhovo.

His many letters to his friends and to Olga Knipper, his actor wife who had stayed on in Moscow for professional commitments, are replete with references to his sense of loneliness, of frustration with a place where dull people lived uneventful lives. He was straining at the leash, yearning to travel abroad, to escape to a livelier milieu, and this desire grew in intensity as the disease pressed on relentlessly to ravage his body.

Also Read: The Education of a Writer

The Bishop took shape from this state of Chekhov’s mind. The immediate context of the story was provided by a photographer’s portrait of Bishop Mikhail of Tavria, Ukraine, that Chekhov had accidentally come across in Moscow. In the picture, Mikhail – only in his early 40s but suffering already from severe consumption – is seen with his old mother, and he has ‘this spirited, intelligent, very sad face of a suffering man’, as a writer-friend who was with Chekhov at the time was to remember later. The photo impressed Chekhov very deeply: the parallels with his own situation were hard to miss. 

Here is how The Bishop unfolds:

During the evening service on the eve of Palm Sunday, Pyotr, the Bishop of the Staro-Petrovsky Convent, felt even more unwell and exhausted than he had felt for some days. The candles burnt dimly or flickered, the air inside was stuffy and hot, the choir sang listlessly, and in the half-light the crowd of assembled parishioners heaved like the sea, faceless and endless. As the bishop handed out the palm to devotees, 

…all of a sudden, as though in a dream or delirium, it seemed to the bishop as though his own mother…., whom he had not seen for nine years, ….. came up to him out of the crowd ….

Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Unknown

It turns out later that it was indeed Pyotor’s mother who had come to visit her son. They meet the next day and the son is overjoyed. But soon he realises that his mother is strangely respectful, awkward, constrained in her behaviour towards him. All the happy memories of his childhood come back to Pyotr and he strokes his mother’s arm tenderly, tells her how dreadfully he had missed her when he had lived in a seminary abroad. His mother smiles in happiness but snuffs out the smile quickly, makes a grave face and says ‘Thank you’. Pyotr grows uneasy. His illness takes hold of him completely over the next few days. He performs all his ecclesiastical duties faithfully over Easter week, but is increasingly restless, insomniac. He is irked by all the crudity and insensitivity around him. Only briefly, at the service on Holy Wednesday eve, does he briefly feel ‘peace at heart and tranquillity’.

And he was carried back in thought to the distant past, to his childhood and youth …. and now that past rose before him – living, fair, and joyful…. . And perhaps in the other world, in the life to come, we shall think of the distant past, of our life here, with the same feeling. Who knows? The bishop was sitting near the altar. It was dark; tears flowed down his face. He thought that here he had attained everything a man in his position could attain; he had faith and yet everything was not clear, something was lacking still. He did not want to die; and he still felt that he had missed what was most important, something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past; and he was troubled by the same hopes for the future as he had felt in his childhood…..

His health declines swiftly. In the morning on Maundy Thursday, he begins to haemorrhage. Doctors arrive, examine Pyotr and pronounce a diagnosis of (then untreatable) typhoid. Pyotr’s eyes burn with fever, his head aches intensely, and slowly he falls into a stupor.

By now he could not utter a word, he could understand nothing, and he imagined he was a simple, ordinary man, that he was walking quickly, cheerfully through the fields, tapping with his stick, while above him was the open sky bathed in sunshine, and that he was free now as a bird and could go where he liked!

On Saturday, the bishop dies. Easter Sunday follows, and it is celebrated with customary joy and cheer. Bells peal, organs play, accordions squeak, spring birds sing and drunken men shout merrily.

A month later a new suffragan bishop was appointed, and no one thought anything more of Bishop Pyotr, and afterwards he was completely forgotten. And only the dead man’s old mother, who is living today… in a remote little district town, when she goes out at night to bring her cow in and meets other women at the pasture, begins talking of her children and her grandchildren, and says that she had a son a bishop, and this she says timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.

And, indeed, there are some who do not believe her.

Anjan Basu freelances as critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com