"Skuchnaia istoriia" as Coda:
Isolation and Chekhov's Prose of the 1880s
To what extent might "Skuchnaia istoriia" [A Dreary Story 1889] be a coda of sorts in which Chekhov brings together a number of earlier literary experiments with the topic of isolation? If we understand isolation broadly and simply to mean a position separate from a whole which presupposes that some force secludes a person or cuts him off in some way from usual participation in the world, then we recognize this position as one that we encounter fairly often in Chekhov's early writing. Common topics in Chekhov's stories of the 1880s include the elusiveness of harmony, the likelihood of misunderstanding, and the difficulties of communication and mutual acceptance, fertile situations and topics for comic and dramatic renderings of loneliness and isolation, and situations and topics that form much of the story and plot in "Skuchnaia istoriia." The topics and situations were fertile enough that in these stories isolation receives no single application or employment, occurs for various reasons, affects an array of characters, and is not addressed with any single response.
My aim in this paper is two-fold: to look at angles from which Chekhov regarded isolation in his early stories and to consider how these angles might inform our understanding of "Skuchnaia istoriia." We will look at four ways in which isolation arises in Chekhov's stories: stories in which characters isolate themselves, isolate another, endure isolation, and face a new experience after having lived in isolation. Then, we will consider "Skuchnaia istoriia." In that later, great story the isolation of Nikolai Stepanovich, the story's hero, grows because he does not recognize it, and isolation appears as both the product of his life to that point and the burden of the final period in his life. Isolation, we will see, unites decidedly different stories, revealing a variety of ways in which Chekhov employed it and proposing that Chekhov regarded isolation - be it physical, social, psychological, or emotional - as a most natural human condition. Of course, Chekhov was not the first Russian writer to deal with these aspects of isolation, but his experiments with the topic express his interest in it, the importance it has in his writing, and, for my purposes, some links between earlier stories and "Skuchnaia istoriia." With this sense of Chekhov's earlier experiments with isolation we might be in a position to regard more fully why Nikolai Stepanovich acts the way he does and where "Skuchnaia istoriia" fits in Chekhov's early writing.
Before turning to the stories, I should add a note on my approach. Many of Chekhov's stories of the 1880s demonstrate his reliance on set forms that were demanded by his editors and their periodicals as well as his indebtedness to topics, situations, and devices that appeared in the work of other writers, both the lesser writers and the great writers of Russian and other national literatures. Scholars have considered these connections in detail, yet I will consider the pre-1889 stories on their own as experiments with isolation and draw on them as sources for "Skuchnaia istoriia." By drawing on Chekhov's work alone in my readings I do not mean to downplay the effect that other writers' stories might have had on Chekhov's early writing or the clear and much-discussed effect that Tolstoy's "Smert' Ivana Il'icha" [The Death of Ivan Il'ich 1886] had on "Skuchnaia istoriia"; rather, I seek to trace threads in Chekhov's early writing that appear to come together in, and thus underscore the fullness of, "Skuchnaia istoriia." Such a reading also may help us to explain in more detail what critics have identified as Nikolai Stepanovich's passivity (Flath 275), his "lack of lively human relations" (Linkov 52), or his "incapacity to feel, to love, to communicate with another human being" (Ponomareff 477). Finally, this paper does not try to be an exhaustive study of isolation in Chekhov's writing, but to be a reflection on ways in which Chekhov incorporates isolation in his writing.
First, characters isolate themselves. In such an early story as "Vor" [The Thief 1883], isolation appears as an unexpected and unnecessary outcome brought on simply but startlingly by human foibles. Such devices as surprise occurrences and quick reversals of fortune give the story a somewhat comic flavor, yet these devices also serve to emphasize and effect the isolation that is the central character's outcome, an outcome that he brings upon himself. "Vor" relates the frustration the story's central character, Fedor Stepanych, feels when isolated in Siberian exile. He was caught stealing for a woman, Olia, who promised to join him in exile if the robbery went wrong, but her promise was empty. He was caught and exiled, and she stayed behind (until another exile offers her money to live with him). His frustration is forcefully played out in a pathetic, unnecessary act in which he kills his landlady's pet bird. The image of the bird in the cage clearly reflects his own situation. For killing the bird he is evicted from his lodgings, and the thoughtless justification for this act parallels the limited reasoning behind the robbery. As the botched theft leads to exile, because he killed the bird Fedor Stepanych is sent from the place he considered a home.
This story is less a view of Siberian exile and more a sense of how the isolation that Fedor Stepanych brings upon himself reduces his actions to folly. Isolation opposes the happiness that he foresaw or enjoyed. Chekhov treats firmly the petty decisions and single-mindedness that inspired Fedor Stepanych's actions, and isolation appears as his pathetic outcome. Despite its simplistic form, the story raises questions about the value of integrity, and isolation attunes Fedor Stepanych's awareness to how quickly careless actions can change his life. He must assume responsibility for those actions, and he learns quickly that isolation is a situation with which he must deal alone. Isolation is the real result of the momentary priorities and expectations that governed his actions, and Fedor Stepanych has no one to blame but himself.
In other stories priorities and expectations bring about a character's isolation, too, yet, unlike the momentary blindness that appears to cloud Fedor Stepanych's view, such aspects of another character's conduct evolve into obsessive behavior and callous demands that can drive his neighbors, closest relations, and the gentlest people away from him, alienating them and isolating himself. For instance, the title character of the 1885 story "Unter Prishibeev" [Sergeant Prishibeev] is a town boor who does not permit other townsfolk to stray from rules. Prishibeev is convinced that his single perspective is a correct one and, overcome by this conviction, he brings about his own isolation in the community with obsessive and excessive actions, actions for which he is being tried in a courtroom when the story takes place. This extreme personality is material for farce, and Chekhov turns the scenario into comedy when Prishibeev unintentionally implicates himself. Prishibeev's verbose and self-righteous defense before the investigator exemplifies the acts for which he is charged. In Prishibeev, Chekhov exaggerates a common human concern - attention to rules - embellishing Prishibeev's actions to the point that they seem farcical. Excessive action of Prishibeev's sort becomes exclusive and isolating because only he can determine if others are keeping in line.
Not unlike Prishibeev, Aleksei, the miserly and nasty miller of "Na mel'nitse" [At the Mill 1886] adheres closely to his own code of rules and isolates himself. He abuses two monks for fishing the river off his property illegally and, perhaps more importantly, makes little of - indeed, almost ignores - the visit of his mother, who comes to Aleksei because she and her other son need money. As she leaves, Aleksei struggles to offer her a twenty-kopeck coin from a wad of money, and it is in such struggle that we sense Aleksei's feelings and, thus, priorities. The story does not suggest that Aleksei became nasty and miserly; it shows simply that he is that way. The extent of this point is brutally exposed by how Chekhov opposes Aleksei first to the monks and then to his mother. He shows his priorities - his affection for what he alone has earned and his protective and greedy pinching of these earnings - and these priorities both produce the achievements that his mother outlines in her chat with him and confirm the material productivity of his actions. Social isolation is both the product of his actions and - if his achievements are to be based on his past actions - the key to his future material success. Aleksei might argue that this success justifies his maintaining his nastily earned isolation. Chekhov is putting it to the readers to decide - Aleksei has already decided - whether personal gain through hoarding and nastiness are more valuable than respectful and caring human relations.
Incompatibility marks the relations outlined in these stories and is at the heart of each story's presentation of isolation. The characters are unable to look at the world from anyone else's point of view. This inability causes Prishibeev and Aleksei to isolate themselves from others, and the men do not see the need to remedy this situation. It could be argued forcibly that they cannot remedy it, and this aspect of their personality invariably troubles, even hurts, others who dare to impinge on the heroes' domains. One reading of these works would suggest that these obsessive traits reveal how characters bring a lone life, even an isolated one, upon themselves. More generally, we see that excessive action is inflexible, inherently isolating. The characters are unable to overcome their separateness, because there is no common ground between them and others.
Second, Chekhov looks at how people isolate others, and such isolation appears blatantly as social discrimination in the short story "Khoristka" [A Chorus Girl 1886]. Chekhov employs a comic situation (the husband, Kolpakov, hides as his chorus-girl mistress, Pasha, has a discussion with his wife at Pasha's front door) that is lost in the shadows of social prejudices that inform how Kolpakov and his wife willfully disparage Pasha. Kolpakov and his wife exclude her from a level in a social hierarchy that the characters perceive to exist. The husband and wife accept this distinction and use it to bolster their self-righteousness and to absolve themselves from responsibility in anything that happens between them and Pasha. Pasha, herself, admits that she is different from the husband and wife, but she cannot bring herself - no matter how extreme their actions become - to ignore their human traits. She does not ask the wife to leave and, eventually, gives her over 500 rubles' worth of her own jewelry, an act that reflects her compassion and weakness, rather than her guilt.
The comment here is a social one that refers to how members of society judge others. Isolation, in this case, does not occur at the moment of the relationship. The isolating barriers already exist in theory; they simply are made concrete when Pasha meets with Kolpakov and his wife. Kolpakov and his wife share features with Prishibeev when they brandish self-righteousness and supremacy to bolster their opinions, rarely revealing the slightest sense that their opinions might be harsh, let alone wrong. They are oblivious to the possibility that their words and actions are inconsistent with the outcomes they hope for or the reasoning they proclaim. This blindness leads to their indiscriminately accepting their judgments as correct and necessary ones. The poses they assume distance them from such feelings as compassion, understanding, or thoughtfulness, from elementary features of human relations, and they openly isolate others.1
Third, characters endure isolation. The protagonists of "Gore" [Misery 1885] and "Toska" [Heartache 1886] are irrevocably separated from a person who, it turns out, is very important in their lives, and that separation causes them to act differently in the world and to display their capacity to endure the loss that causes their isolation. The lead character of "Gore," 60-year-old Grigorii Petrov, spends most of the story in a snowstorm on a journey to a doctor. The night before, his wife appeared to be dying and he realized that if he did not get help, she would die. The story reveals that Grigorii Petrov is not up to the task. Similarly, he was not up to the task of life, routinely facing it drunk. Ruthlessly and carelessly he threw his wife and life away. At one point in the journey, free from the numbness caused by his drinking, he expresses regret and guilt for his actions, presenting the human self that had been hidden under the influence of drink for forty years, and the stark reality of how he brought about this journey hits him. His sense of loss and loneliness are heightened by this awareness, and glimpses of humanity produced by strong feelings of guilt appear in him. Chekhov firmly yet plausibly entrenches Grigorii Petrov in isolation, portraying him alone and lost against nature and describing his past as a life that he lost in drunkenness and that he cannot recover. For most of "Gore" Grigorii Petrov wants to rescue both his wife and his past. That they are irrecoverable and irremediable makes the present especially tormenting.
Chekhov presents a frightful story of isolation through Grigorii Petrov's occasional asides and internal speech, as well as through the narrator's remarks and descriptions of nature. A chief aspect of these techniques is that they emphasize lack of direction and indifference - there is no vital force in his life to give it direction. Grigorii Petrov talks in broken sentences randomly, here addressing his wife who cannot respond, there voicing whatever thoughts occur to him. This lack of pattern expresses his agitation and parallels his journey. There is nobody listening; he is alone at that moment, as perhaps he made himself to be throughout his life. There is no beauty in the weather scenes, just relentless snow and cold that are as unforgiving as the emotions and thoughts that start to come to him. The only sounds are of Grigorii Petrov's voice and the knocking of his wife's head against the sled. Both seem meaningless for they do not result from conscious effort and they effect no response. His punishment, so to speak, consists of these few hours of lone retribution for forty years of mistreating his wife and for discarding his own life's potential. The suggestion that life can be unforgiving of one who squanders the chances that life provides resounds throughout the story, most obviously in Grigorii Petrov's lack of direction and lack of a past on which to support himself.
As the weather seemed to ignore Grigorii Petrov's immediate needs in "Gore," obstructing his path and increasing his discomfort, the snow that marks the opening scene in "Toska" shows that nature, like man - the story appears to emphasize - is indifferent to the isolation and suffering that someone experiences. When "Toska" opens, the central character, Iona Potapov, a cabby, and his horse seem frozen in time and space by the snowfall.
Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street
lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses'
backs, peoples' shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost.
As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole
snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps, he would not find it necessary
to shake it off. His nag, too, is white and motionless. Her immobility, the
angularity of her shape, and the sticklike straightness of her legs make her look
like a penny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought (Chekhov 1977,
Chekhov balances the description of Iona and his horse, giving three sentences each to Iona and the horse, identifying them and describing their snow cover in the third and sixth sentences; pointing out their stillness and the shape that their bodies hold in the fourth and seventh sentences; and, measuring the extent or reason for their stillness in the fifth and eighth sentences. Chekhov separates the cabby and his horse from all others, hiding them under their blankets of snow and thus symbolically isolating them, and unites them by similarly describing them, anticipating their dependable union that closes the story. Even on the busy streets they seem alone: when they are taking a fare or moving about the streets, noises and shouts are directed at them, but not to engage them. Yet, Iona seeks engagement. Just before the opening of the story his son died, and three times during the story Iona tries to tell others about the death and to share, if not ease, his grief, but no one cares to listen. Finally as he feeds his horse he starts to tell the horse of his feelings and receives solace. He perseveres. Grigorii Petrov could not find his way through the snow, but Iona can pull out from it when prompted, can find his way, and can soften the effect of his sadness. Iona lacks the guilt-laden baggage that Grigorii Petrov carries, and, although his physical isolation may remain a condition he cannot escape, he is able to alleviate his emotional pain.
In these stories loss is not excused or explained away as extraordinary. In fact, Chekhov subordinates the actual losing to the repercussions it effects. These stories have a simple structure that places the central characters in isolation immediately. A death alters a character's usual life, providing Chekhov with ample means to explore whether the character is able to endure both his separation from the past and his new surroundings. Gone, the message seems to be in "Toska," is that person who made life fuller or happier, but life goes on and adjustments must be made. Iona is not the cause of the loss, just its recipient. He finds a way to manage his sorrow and moments of insecurity. Grigorii Petrov feels he caused his loss and must contend with those feelings, too. His isolation continues as something more than physical loss. Not only must he endure the absence of his wife, he must deal also with his conscience. Such a death is not a life-ending occurrence, Chekhov suggests, but an occurrence that can produce painful feelings when burdened by conscience or accompanied by longing. Hope and sympathetic communication provide respite from the indifference, which nature and people seemingly show to obvious and unspoken needs of those who are isolated, respite from precisely those conditions that make enduring isolation a more lonely challenge. For these characters, isolation is their immediate existence, a situation that is made more painful when the characters are forced to look to the world for comfort and support.
Fourth, Chekhov portrays how isolation can define a character's past life, revealing him in the present as one who is unable to see the world outside the patterns and guidelines to which he has become used. Such a character lives an isolated existence as he gets on with daily tasks, busily involved in work and with no need or no sense of how to push outside this usual life. In "Verochka" (1887) and "Pripadok" [An Attack of Nerves 1888], two longer stories, Chekhov depicts learned and thoughtful characters whose sheltered lives do not prepare them for life experiences.
At the end of "Verochka" the hero, Ognev, returns extremely late to the inn where he has been staying. As he unlocks the door, the Old Believer innkeeper lightly chastises Ognev, assuming that Ognev has been loafing about [shliat'sia] all evening. The innkeeper has no idea that on that evening Ognev has, perhaps, lost something precious [ochen' dorogoe] and dear [blizkoe] that he will never find again. Whether the innkeeper knows of Ognev's loss makes no difference to the action of the story, but the scene neatly echoes a theme that appears in the story, unawareness, a theme that develops chiefly from the depiction of Ognev's isolated life.
Ognev finds himself (at a moment that he believes to be a final farewell) having to respond to a declaration of love from the story's title character. Unprepared for the sudden declaration - he did not recognize any signs of Vera's feelings and has never considered such an eventuality either with Vera or anyone else - Ognev believes that he muddles the moment, uncertain of the opportunity it presents to him and unaware of the importance it holds for Vera. He is unsure whether he loves her because he does not know how love should feel. He does not know how to respond, even to comfort her, and Vera returns home. Chekhov makes clear that, in the isolated life he lived before coming to the country and meeting Vera and her father, Ognev acquired the conditioning that he cannot overcome. Indeed, such an experience as walking in the country on a misty night is new for him. Before Vera declares her love to Ognev, the narrator hints - and Ognev admits - that he could not know how to respond to Vera. He lacks this experience, and thus there exists in him, he believes, a type of coldness that expresses his "impotence of the soul, an inability to respond deeply to beauty, and the premature onset of old age due to his upbringing, his desperate struggle to earn a living and his bachelor existence in furnished rooms" (Chekhov 1994, 141).3 He speaks not of a coldness that is biting and actively harmful, but of a lack of vitality that belies his name (the Russian adjective ognevoi can be rendered by the English "fiery").
Ognev's limited experiences in his isolated past reduce his options for action in the present. Events quickly present Ognev with the possibility of sharing his life with Vera, but the possibility disappears when it is not acted upon. Chekhov draws attention to Ognev's natural inexperience, inhibitions, uncertainty, and inability to express himself differently. Instead of using a declaration of love to focus on what has built up in the central character, Chekhov uses that declaration to reveal an understanding of human relations that Ognev does not seem to possess.
Unlike Ognev, who seems insensitive, Vasil'ev, the hero of "Pripadok," is too sensitive. His life in isolation kept him from hardening his sensibilities, leaving him open for an emotionally painful encounter when he ventures out on such a new experience as visiting brothels with his friends. Vasil'ev's encounter with the brothels challenges his mental images of that life, affects him physically, and finally overcomes him psychologically, testing his mettle in the midst of a world he does not know. All the time, Vasil'ev's reactions are laid bare for comparison to his friends' actions, displaying a sensitivity that is not shared by his friends. 4 The evening presents circumstances that are new to Vasil'ev, but ones he thought he knew and understood from books, and thus with which he believed he could contend. The reality he encounters dashes his expectations, and he reacts with extreme disillusionment that gives way to a nervous breakdown. In the end, questions and lost hopes play at his conscience uncontrollably, for he cannot defend himself from them. Both what he sees and the resulting actions of his conscience attack his sensibilities. His vision, his confidence, and his sense of place in the world are deflated. Neither do his friends follow his lead or train of thought, nor does what he has learned from books help him through his crisis. 5 The attitudes he clings to and the relations he has created cannot support him emotionally. His isolated life prepared him for none of this.
The magnitude of the circumstances that Ognev and Vasil'ev face is plainly evident. They confront happenings that they have never met physically or mentally. These unexpected situations challenge the characters' resourcefulness and fortitude, displaying their readiness for a new life experience. Each new experience measures the characters' lone efforts to cope with, and their movement into, the greater world. But the characters either do not have the knowledge to realize the potential of this encounter or have "faulty tools" with which to face the opportunity: Ognev cannot find the necessary feelings, words, or actions within himself and Vasil'ev succumbs. With nothing useful to brace themselves during these unplanned occurrences, they fall back on, or are forced back to, the solitary lives they know. This being said, however, the stories are about the nervous excitement that new experiences create. Certainly, isolation describes the usual, lonely, yet secure, existence to which the two characters became accustomed, and it accounts for why one character can lack appreciation for a delicate moment while another lacks hardened recognition of a social fact. Moreover, though, the feelings that conquer their usual thoughts during their nervous excitement separate Ognev and Vasil'ev for those moments from that usual existence, causing them to feel and act differently. Thus, isolation reflects the security of, and withdrawal into, the usual, as well as the alternative, if brief, sense of being alone in the throes of a new encounter, and the characters remain on the periphery of the world that others share.
In the stories I have discussed so far, some force associated with isolation has the power to restrain characters from attaining a plausibly fuller life. Often those characters or characters with whom they interact are unable to see or experience the world as others do. Whether it is the self-centeredness of Aleksei, the prejudicial treatment shown to Pasha by Kolpakov and his wife, the fanatical purpose of Prishibeev, the pent-up sorrow brought to Iona by his attempts to speak of his son's death, as well as the indifference of others to Iona's attempts, or the incapacity to know whether he loves that overcomes Ognev, it is with this force that each character must interact to avert isolation and reach for the individual potential or simple resolution extended by the events of the story. In its various forms, the circumstances of isolation offer Chekhov the means to examine more particularly a character's individual will and ability to free himself from the potential grips of physical, psychological, and social isolation, as well as what brings about a character's self-imposed or received isolation. In the simple and usual details of such confrontations, Chekhov touches on the fortuitous but likely moments that challenge this freedom, a fragile freedom that can as readily be claimed as taken away. The common occurrence of isolation in Chekhov's writing and the variety of character-types and settings to which he connects isolation propose that Chekhov understood isolation to be a usual aspect of an individual's existence and a condition that often occurred in the midst of other people. Certainly, by the late 1880s the condition was appearing in as diverse a collection of his works as the play Ivanov , the short story "Spat' khochetsia" [I'm sleepy 1888], and his longer prose work "Skuchnaia istoriia."
"Skuchnaia istoriia" is formed by the notes of Nikolai Stepanovich, a sixty-two year old well-known professor who has recently discovered that he may not live past the next six months, and consists of what he records from his daily routine, his encounters, thoughts, and feelings over the course of some three months. Although we may caution ourselves not to trust fully Nikolai Stepanovich's notes about himself - they are, as Jefferson Gatrall recently reminded us, "a character's subjective experience of illness" (Gatrall 263) - we can, I believe, cull from these notes reflections on what was usual and acceptable to him before his illness and which receive scrutiny only now: his habits and his manner of interacting in society. The notes present to us and to him his immediate, yet struggling, interaction with the world, and we follow as his physical and mental stamina, as well as any patience he once had with life around him, slowly give way to irritability and wondering. "Describing his life," writes Rufus Mathewson, "he destroys it retroactively by uncovering the full extent of its emptiness," an emptiness, we might add, that Nikolai Stepanovich does not immediately recognise (Mathewson 383).
Carol Flath has described how the story's changing space and time reveal a pattern of increasing isolation (Flath 273, 275), and that description deserves to be repeated and extended here in order to detail the fullness with which the story presents isolation. The story is presented in six parts and moves from depicting what is familiar to what is unfamiliar in Nikolai Stepanovich's life. Spatially, as the story proceeds, Nikolai Stepanovich is separated from his everyday surroundings to somewhere very temporary. The settings shift, approximately, from the university where he works, to his home, to his ward Katia's, to a summer cottage, and finally to a room in an inn in Khar'kov. The familiarity of activities in the story's first parts is emphasised by Nikolai Stepanovich's use of such adverbs as customarily [po obychaiu], usually [obychno, po obyknoveniiu], often [chasto], and always [vsegda], and subordinate clauses introduced by when [kogda] (in the sense of while or whenever). Temporally, the story's first half comprises a single day, revealing in general what happens to Nikolai Stepanovich of a day and thus implying his routine. This is a usual day when Nikolai Stepanovich is still working, but describes, most likely, his average working day over the past thirty years. The later parts of the story use present-tense verbs to describe the day's actions, but by the end of the third part the mix of generalisations sprinkled with new events gives way to more regular comments on new events, as well as to occasional musings. The fourth part starts a season later, when Nikolai Stepanovich is no longer working, and in its opening line he announces change: "Summer comes, life changes" (Chekhov 1970, 67) ["Наступает лето, и жизнь меняется" (Chekhov 1974-82, 7: 291)]. The story's most obvious constituents - the change in space and time - indicate the likelihood of Nikolai Stepanovich's isolation: Nikolai Stepanovich is physically and temporally separated from the usual. This separation occurs when he retires from work and thus loses a chief cause of his usual habits for the past thirty years. But the essence of his isolation appears more particularly from his attitudes. Two insights emerge from Nikolai Stepanovich's notes. The first concerns judgment and the second describes what, to Nikolai Stepanovich's mind, man must do to be independent in the world.
In parts II and III, respectively, Nikolai Stepanovich and Katia comment on how he sees his participation in the world. The statements may seem unrelated at first glance, but his manner of judgment creates a significant link. The first quote is Nikolai Stepanovich's. In comparison to images from the past, he observes change in his wife and daughter but feels that he has passed through time unscathed.
I've been used to holding out against external pressures since boyhood, I've
steeled myself pretty well. Such disasters in life as fame, reaching the top of
one's profession, abandoning modest comfort for living above one's means,
acquaintance with celebrities and all that - these things have barely touched me,
I've kept a whole skin (Chekhov 1970, 55). 6
The second quote is Katia's. She forcefully suggests, "Your eyes have been opened, that's all, and you've seen what, for some reason, you once preferred to ignore" (Chekhov 1970, 59).7 She raises a point that Nikolai Stepanovich has mentioned moments earlier, that new feelings rising in him may result from his seeing anew, from his having been blind [slep] before and, therefore, apathetic [ravnodushen]. In fact, what Katia infers echoes his wife's suggestion earlier the same day that he pretends he does not see anything. He responds firmly to these three proposals: he ignores his wife; he later discards the same idea as his own interpretation; and, lastly, he describes Katia's comment as nonsense [neleposti].
There is a contradiction here, yet he does not see it. Nikolai Stepanovich is claiming an ability to guard himself from, as he views them, destructive elements, things, he acknowledges, but from which he protects, hardens, himself [zakalil sebia]. But when Katia suggests, in essence, the same thing in the second quote - that he saw selectively - he brushes it aside. Katia does not accuse him of having closed his eyes actively and knowingly to what he did not want to see, but seems to imply it with her final words: you didn't want to notice [ne khoteli zamechat']. Both Nikolai Stepanovich's observation and Katia's constructive suggestion of his "not wanting to notice" imply a form of protection, yet taken further might suggest as different concepts as self-preservation and evasion, either of which can be noble or greedy, depending on context.
For that context it is helpful to back up in the story to the exchange that leads to Katia's comment. The exchange takes place at Katia's home and has been prompted by Nikolai Stepanovich. Considering Katia's eventual conclusions that he didn't want to notice, Nikolai Stepanovich's words that prompt her statement are pointed. He opens the discussion with the following admission:
The greatest, the most sacred right of kings is the right of pardon, and I've always
felt like a king because I've availed myself of this right up to the limit. I've never
judged, I've been indulgent, I've gladly forgiven all and sundry. […] Throughout
my life my sole concern has been to make my company tolerable to my family,
students, colleagues and servants (Chekhov 1970, 58). 8
"I've never judged," he says, Ia nikogda ne sudil. This assured statement jumps from the page. After all, who has never judged? He may convince himself that he has not attacked someone in his company with words that judge, but actions can be a form of judgment, too. Did Nikolai Stepanovich actively give way, nobly stand back? Or, did he not judge because he was not really taking part, was not entering the contest, because he did not have an opinion? In fact, he certainly does have opinions; he judges people, art, buildings, and things that happen around him. But, perhaps it does not matter. Whichever conclusion might be most accurate, what does stand out is that he felt that he enjoyed the right of not taking part, or as he words it, of pardon, of forgiveness [pomilovanie]. By his own admission, he was there in stature, in position, in title, in name, and in the body that holds in all these things, and was not there as an equal participant. He may have engaged the ideas but did not interact at a human level. In fact he did judge, he did make decisions and removed himself, isolated his participation. He chose not to take part in common human activities. He had complete control and held it over his context and those of others. He chose to make his company [obshchestvo] pleasing, not his self, his full human being. And here is the crux of the matter: he comes to Katia explaining that he is losing the ability to control. He continues the second quote, "But now I am a king no longer. Something is going on inside me - some process fit only for slaves" (Chekhov 1970, 58).9 The contrast he chooses is telling. The movement from king to slave, from being fully alive to facing death, is announced by a loss of ability to control his thoughts and actions, a foremost sign of which is that he can no longer not want to notice. Because of his sickness he cannot work, cannot control his body, and cannot control fully what happens around him. Figuratively, his "kingliness," his ability to control, has succumbed to his being slavishly at the beckon of other forces. Now, he must see the world around him. This puts him in an awkward situation because he has become unused to engaging the everyday activities that happen outside his work but that are connected to his life.
The second understanding that defines Nikolai Stepanovich's attitude is more pragmatic. Nikolai Stepanovich is not sympathetic to people who play parts, allow themselves to settle into mediocrity, or ignore the chance to express their independence. Everything - people, literature, theatre - lacks worth if it cannot overcome the conditions in which it is set. To be themselves, to keep from easing into mediocrity or to express their individuality, Nikolai Stepanovich believes, people need to conquer nature and self. Science, he believes, provides the means to this end.
On the brink of death my interests are just the same now as they were twenty or
thirty years ago - purely scientific and scholarly. Even at my last gasp I shall still
believe that learning is the most important, splendid and vital thing in man's life,
that it always has been and always will be the highest manifestation of love, and
that it alone can enable man to conquer nature and himself. Though the belief
may be naive and based on incorrect premises, it's not my fault if I hold this faith
and no other. Nor can I shake this conviction within me (Chekhov 1970, 42-3). 10
This is as close as Nikolai Stepanovich comes to explaining why he was bound to the particular "busy-ness" of his career. Either it attracted him more than any other aspect of life or he chose not to free himself from its stimulating grip. This logic, this "conquering sensibility" raised also in the king-slave comparison, finds its way into many of Nikolai Stepanovich's opinions. Moreover, this passage states a belief and does not explain it. What is explained is the steadfastness of this belief. It is firm, unwavering. This passage is an account of thirty years of Nikolai Stepanovich's life. It is, potentially, a passage that defines and distances Nikolai Stepanovich. There is indication of conscience, love and guilt - certainly human states and maybe even moral senses - but no reflection on interaction with other beings. This belief is inward looking and related only to himself. It explains both how he interacts with the world and why he isolates himself from it.
As theoretical premises these two understandings - controlling the moment and expressing individuality (that is, the individual ability to conquer oneself and nature) - represent a formula for self-fulfilment and self-isolation. In neither explanation does Nikolai Stepanovich see the possibility for, perhaps, less praiseworthy results, even though he appears to see such results in others who have found similarly attractive ways to channel their energies. Of his dissector [prozektor], Petr Ignat'evich, he notes: "He slogs away morning, noon and night, reads a great deal, and has a good memory for what he has read, in which respect he's a real treasure. […] outside his own special field he's like a baby, he's so naive" (Chekhov 1970, 39). 11 Nikolai Stepanovich does not entertain the possibility that any trait that he sees in Petr Ignat'evich might resemble such a feature in himself. His premises relate to proven patterns for self-mastery and imply immediate responsibility to oneself alone. Nikolai Stepanovich has reason to believe in his directives. He enacted them, found self-satisfaction, and, in directing his efforts wholeheartedly, earned the regard of others. Alone, this select application of his energies defines his life, and he is willing to accept the reverence and keep the routine. Yet, in accepting this reverence he provides his premises and choice with a particular sense of integrity and clear priorities that revolve around his work, and he cuts himself off from other aspects of life. 12 His usual working routine comes to define his whole existence. By his action and advice Nikolai Stepanovich proposes a program for holding one's own position and expressing independence. This sense of ordinary activity provides tools for successful work results and polite, maybe sterile, company. Considered together, his theoretical suggestions, advice, and practices reveal Nikolai Stepanovich during his work years as most often a focused man who, except for seemingly obligatory, brief social appearances, actively separates himself from family, physically, intellectually, and through manners. However, his growing limitations reduce his functions and professional usefulness, removing him from work and placing him at home, where everyday activities have continued without his active participation, even influence, for many years. The results of this inaction show themselves most clearly when Nikolai Stepanovich is called upon to take part in family matters.
He believes that at one time he was as involved with his family as he was with his work. There was a time when two worlds - private and public, family and science - to his mind, coexisted and together made life happy. At one point he had a collection of relationships, but he chose to continue only certain ones, ones connected with his work. His inability to account for the passing of time, and therefore any changes that appear in the actions and thoughts of his family members, is both an inability to understand and an admission of his absence. Although the actions of his wife, daughter and Katia do seem petty, they are strange to him specifically now. I am not sure that the juxtaposition of attitudes is as significant as the fact that he now notices these different manners. His family members' actions are part of their usual lives, part of the things they have done for a while, but are only apparent to him now that he has lost his ability not to notice, now that he must be a part of their usual lives. More significantly, not only are these actions strange to him, but the actions that they ask of him, including conventional fatherly demands, are foreign, too. He cannot respond to them because he does not know how to respond. 13
Consider three scenes. In part IV Nikolai Stepanovich recounts in his notes times when he looks from the window of his summer cottage. "I often enjoy watching a little boy and girl, both with fair hair and torn clothes, as they climb the fence and laugh at my hairless pate. In their gleaming little eyes I read the words: 'Go up, thou bald head.' They must be pretty well the only people who care nothing for my fame and rank" (Chekhov 1970, 69). 14 In the relationship between him and the children Nikolai Stepanovich acknowledges clearly and significantly that there are no expectations between him and the children, and to his mind this absence of expectations allows the relationship to be natural and pleasant, as perhaps was the intimacy he shared with his daughter many years earlier. He sees the children's childish fun for what it is. It requires little of him other than his presence at the window. It can be pleasing for him when there is little more for him to do than to be present.
Compare two other scenes of interaction with young people. In part V, at a moment when Liza is unwell, she and her mother seek his support and care, yet he cannot provide them. Their sincere affection juxtaposes his inability to respond to Liza's needs when his wife prompts him to do something. He fumbles in response to her request. Prior to that, he chose not to act on hearing sounds from Liza's room. Before his wife calls him from his room to help with Liza, he hears something, but is not sure if it is laughter or moaning. That he realises it might be moaning, yet still does not act, recalls Katia's words ne khoteli zamechat', of his "not wanting to notice," or comments forcefully on his not knowing what to do, despite noticing. No matter which interpretation is more accurate, the non-reaction begs asking whether this is the time for prudence or the right of a king to pardon, or is being ignorant in knowing what to do reason enough not to respond to possible moaning? Compare also from the end of the story Katia's request to Nikolai Stepanovich for direction. She cries to him: "Help me! […] You're my father, aren't you? My only friend? You're clever, well educated, you've had a long life. You've been a teacher. Tell me what to do" (Chekhov 1970, 82). 15 By his conscience [Po sovesti], he utters, he does not know what she should do (and he offers her breakfast!). Apparently, he accepts her actions for their honesty, but he is unable to respond to them. In both instances, the magnitude of the moment is lost on Nikolai Stepanovich. He can deliver no sign of concern or shared understanding. He either misjudges the meetings or, quite simply, does not know - has not learned - how to act. That the two young women turn to him suggests that they empower him with some responsibility. He is given two situations and is entreated to react to them, if not to control them. By not responding he fails to exercise this responsibility. In defence of Nikolai Stepanovich, he may not understand what to do now because in the past he received no exposure to such circumstances. What he judged to be most important over the past thirty years kept him from knowing how to respond to instances like the two outlined above. Thus, he did not act because he could not act.
Clearly Chekhov is concerned in this story with choices and their consequences. As a young woman Katia chose to pursue acting and left Nikolai Stepanovich and his family so she could work with a theatre. Liza, Nikolai Stepanovich's daughter, chooses to sneak away with Gnekker. Nikolai Stepanovich, too, makes (and made) his choices and has to live by them. And because of these choices he is left alone, led and conditioned by his beliefs and judgments, isolated by the actions and insensibility they inspired in him. Isolation emerges unexpectedly for Nikolai Stepanovich (but, perhaps, inevitably for the reader) from the activities and convictions developed during a successful professional life, at the end of which he is somewhat worn out, for the most part unbending, and not an active or effective family member.
Isolation receives different types of emphasis in Nikolai Stepanovich's story, but types of emphasis that appear in other stories that Chekhov wrote in the 1880s. His isolation in the present and the feelings of frustration and loneliness that it causes oppose the happiness he foresaw, and this situation recalls Fyodor Stepanych's. The inflexible views that guided Nikolai Stepanovich's actions and choices during his working years echo in slightly different form the attitudes of Prishibeev and Aleksei, and we sense from what we learn in those earlier stories that because of these actions and choices there can be little common ground between Nikolai Stepanovich and most others. When Nikolai Stepanovich expresses his opinions about his wife, daughter, and assistant, or discusses literature and theatre performances, his opinions reveal social understandings that, although not identical to the biases seen in "Khoristka," reveal how one person can be blind to the fullness of his words and thus also be insensitive to the potential views of others. As it had for Grigorii Petrov, being in isolation causes Nikolai Stepanovich to wonder about how he became isolated and forces him to contend with his conscience. And, in the isolation of the present, Nikolai Stepanovich, like Grigorii Petrov and Iona, is unable to recover or remedy his past - he alone is accountable for past actions - yet, unlike Iona, Nikolai Stepanovich is unable to try to reach outside himself and communicate freely with others. His isolated life, spent focusing on his work, accounts for his inability to mingle with others or attend to fatherly duties, and such a narrow life explains Ognev's inexperience and Vasil'ev's sensitivity, too. Ognev's lack of encounters in the past and the weakness of Vasil'ev's book-learned premises in the present leave both men, as limited experience and, perhaps, misplaced premises leave Nikolai Stepanovich, unable to cope with the present. And, all three men, unprepared to face the present, end up on the periphery of their world.
Throughout the 1880s Chekhov applied or reworked various patterns of isolation and conditions of loneliness, employing numerous characters and settings. By the time of "Skuchnaia istoriia" he was prepared to use a number of angles on isolation in that story alone. In each of these stories echoes the question of responsibility. I do not mean moral or social responsibility; rather, I have in mind a sense of responsibility in which each character is accountable to and for himself. I observed earlier that the circumstances and results of isolation offer Chekhov the means to examine more particularly a character's individual will and ability to free himself from the potential grips of physical, psychological, and social isolation, as well as to examine what brings about a character's self-imposed or received isolation. It is each character's task, Chekhov seems to suggest, to deal alone with the aspect of isolation he faces. Indeed, no one is going to rescue Fedor Stepanych, Prishibeev, Pasha, Grigorii Petrov, Ognev, or Vasil'ev. And, although one might be inclined to blame Aleksei and Nikolai Stepanovich for their own isolation, society for Iona's, and Kolpakov and his wife for Pasha's, this is not the point of the stories. Chekhov does not apologize for characters' travails or applaud their fortitude. It is the reality of contending with isolation alone - not the cause or result of such contending - that often matters most.
* - I am grateful to Ken Lantz and Ralph Lindheim, who read and commented on earlier versions of this paper.
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© M. Conliffe