Love, Desire and Heartbreak in Three Short Stories by Anton Chekhov who Died this Month in 1904
Chekhov was only twenty-seven when he wrote ‘The Kiss’, yet this tragicomic tale of disappointment and longing remains one his most remarkable achievements. The story begins with a group of soldiers who, while billeted for the night in a rural backwater, receive an invitation from a retired general to a reception in his local estate. Ryabovich, a guileless, awkward staff captain – ‘short, round-shouldered … with whiskers like a lynx’s’ – is appalled by the prospect of spending an entire evening observing social niceties with his hosts and escapes to a dark, quiet corner of the house at the first opportunity.
Here Ryabovich, completely inexperienced with the opposite sex, is approached by a woman who, having confused the captain for her beau, promptly plants a kiss on his cheek. The stranger retreats in horror when she realizes her mistake but for Ryabovich, the effect is nothing less than electrifying. The once dour captain, now giddy with desire, becomes obsessed with the episode and is duly haunted by the ‘slight, pleasant, cold tingling’ kiss with its distinctive tang of ‘peppermint’.
Another short story writer – Chekhov’s contemporary Maupassant, say – might have spun a sensational tale, rich in intrigue, passion and melodrama, out of this key encounter, but from the perspective of plot at least, the drama leads nowhere. Chekhov, a master of the anticlimax, refuses Ryabovich the catharsis he longs for. The woman is never seen again and when, some pages later, he finally musters the courage to share the story of the kiss with two of his fellow soldiers, one is bored, the other incredulous: ‘[she] falls on your neck without calling your name … must be some sort of psychopath!’
Moreover, ‘in that minute he had told it all and was quite amazed to find that the story had taken such a short time. He had thought he could go on talking about the kiss all night.’ Few lines in nineteenth-century literature capture as effectively and economically as these the demise of a dearly-held fantasy. Later, his hopes now well and truly dashed, Ryabovich finds himself back in the town in which the kiss took place and it strikes him that ‘the whole world, the whole of life is ‘a meaningless futile joke’.
If Chekhov’s steadfast refusal to pander to the reader’s expectation for plot development and incident seems perverse to some readers, it’s only because life itself can feel perverse; dreams, as we know, often go unfilled and fantasies remain just that. There are far more Ryabovichs – lonely, average, a little dull – in the world than there are dashing Don Juans, and Chekhov is bearing witness to their plight in his own inimitable way. By placing Ryabovich center stage, Chekhov is suggesting that the unlived life is as worthy of the reader’s attention as the most dazzling; this might not seem particularly ground-breaking in 2017 but it’s worth remembering that Chekhov was writing long before Beckett spun plot-free stories around hapless vagrants or Raymond Carver honed in on the unremarkable lives of blue-collar everymen.
If Ryabovich’s abject state at the end of ‘The Kiss’ suggests that Chekhov believes true happiness exists only for those who find romance, nothing could be further from the truth. For every heartbroken Ryabovich in Chekhov’s short fiction, there’s someone who succeeds in love – only to find it’s not at all what they imagined. If Ryabovich were to read Chekhov’s story ‘The Duel’, in which a nihilistic young man tries to extricate himself from his relationship with the married woman he’d long pursued, he might count himself lucky to be spending his nights alone.
A particularly enduring take on relationships is to be found in the frequently anthologized ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, perhaps the most famous of Chekhov’s works. The story begins with a chance encounter between two people, both married, in the seaside resort of Yalta. Dmitry Gurov, a Moscow banker with three young children, is a serial philanderer whose attitude to the opposite sex is encapsulated in his declaration that ‘women are the lower breed’. Anna, the ‘lady’ of the title, is as an attractive young naïf who, holidaying without her husband, is clearly ripe for the picking.
With Gurov portrayed as avaricious, cynical, and easily bored, and Anna as starved for attention, Chekhov seems to lay the groundwork for one kind of tale, only to tell another.
As the story develops, Gurov becomes smitten with Anna and it is he who follows her to the provincial town in which she lives after their fling has purportedly come to an end.
What makes this oblique, deceptively unobtrusive story so intriguing is not only Chekhov’s eye for telling detail, but the way the prose ebbs and flows between the lyrical and the matter of fact, the sincere and the ironic. Much of the humor in Chekhov’s stories arises from those moments in which an otherwise serious episode is punctured by farce. There are few better examples of this than when Gurov, at the height of his infatuation with Anna, prepares to give an impassioned account of the affair to an acquaintance whose concerns prove far more earthly:
One night, coming out of the doctor’s club with his partner, a civil servant, he [Gurov] could not restrain himself and said: ‘If you only knew what a charming woman I met in Yalta!’
The civil servant got into his sledge and set off, but suddenly turned and called to him: ‘Dmitry Dmitrich!’
‘You were right just now: that sturgeon did smell off!”
But Chekhov is no pessimist and ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ ends with the suggestion – however ambivalent – that Gurov’s love for Anna is genuine and that their relationship may, despite everything, even endure.
Chekhov’s characters, although flawed, are rarely above redemption. His attitude to humanity is perhaps best summed up in the closing paragraph of the ‘The Duel’ where the seemingly reformed cad Ivan Laevsky looks out to sea as his erstwhile arch rival, Von Koren, departs.
‘The boat’s tossed back,’ he thought; ‘it makes two movements forward and one back, but the oarsmen don’t give up, they swing the oars tirelessly and have no fear of the high waves. The boat moves on and on, now it’s disappeared from view. In half an hour the rowers will be able to see the ship’s lights clearly and within an hour they’ll be alongside the ladder. Life is like that … As they search for truth people take two paces forward and one back. Suffering, mistakes and life’s tedium throw them back, but thirst for the truth and stubborn willpower drive them on and on. And who knows? Perhaps they’ll arrive at the truth in the end.’
For more related reading by Chekhov and about Chekhov have a look at:
A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekhov
My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead edited by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm