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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Nina Tyurina

Spenders and Savers in Chekhov's Drama

Что русскому - счастье,
Немцу - смерть.

(Russian folk proverb)

The quote I chose for an epigraph distinguishes between different types of men while operating with ethnic categories. However, I believe the main message of the proverb to be in recognizing the futility of establishing a universal recipe for happiness, since behavior, unquestionably destructive for one person, can be natural and even beneficial for another. This work will present the interpretation of this folk wisdom through the eyes of Chekhov, via the sad and hilarious characters of his plays.

Acute attention to the theme of human happiness and self-realization is permanent in Chekhov's writing. In many of his short stories, such as those constituting the "Little Trilogy," Chekhov's characters philosophize about happiness, its origins and foundation. However, it would be misleading to take the character's verbose expatiations in all good faith. In "Gooseberries," the narrator Ivan speaks of his brother's happiness with disgust and indignation, while the majority of the readers would probably evaluate his brother's life story as that of a successful self-made man. Therefore, it is hard to say whether Ivan's indignation tells the reader more about his brother or about Ivan himself.

The development of the theme of happiness in Chekhov's dramatic works, on the other hand, possess a unique characteristic of taking place in a clearly defined genre: comedy, drama, or merely scenes. Observing this categorization becomes especially interesting since the genre attached to the plays is not always self-evident1 . I suggest interpreting Chekhov's generic decision as a certain value judgment, where characters' overall happiness and self-realization are criteria distinguishing comedy from tragedy. This unorthodox approach to understanding the genre allows asking further questions, the first of them being, what is happiness а la Chekhov?

This work will argue that in Chekhov's plays, the happiness of a character largely depends on the character's self-realization in the natural for him or her mode of life. Revealing the author's characteristic psychological subtlety, Chekhov's plays demonstrate how behavior that is destructive for one person can be beneficial for another. Analyzing the material from his five major plays2 , I will concentrate on the aspect of human personality that I will call life economy. Using the examples from the plays, I will show how Chekhov's characters demonstrate conspicuously different approaches to life economy, how this approach is realized in their lives, and how remaining in their preferred life mode is largely responsible for their successful self-realization and, ultimately, happiness.

After performing a multi-aspect analysis of Chekhov's characters, it appears possible to place each of them at a certain point on a continuum between absolute spenders and absolute savers. Each character's place on this continuum depends on his or her attitude towards economy and expenditure. While those leaning towards the spenders' end of the spectrum choose to squander away their fortunes, health, opportunity, and lives, those at the opposite extreme invest in meticulous saving and treat the same resources with scrupulous carefulness. I will call this tendency for either spending or saving a preferred life economy mode. The degree of consistency in either of the modes varies. For the sake of this work, I will analyze Chekhov's (rather numerous) characters that can be placed rather close to either end of the spectrum.

A given character's life economy mode reveals itself through a number of media. First of all, it is the content of the character's actions, the choices and decisions the character makes throughout the play. Furthermore, it is the form into which the character shapes his or her thoughts, i.e. verbal activity: speech structure and word choice. The third important source of information about the character's life economy mode is stage instructions, describing the characters' kinetic activity, their movement on stage, the degree of explicitness of their emotions, the openness with which the characters express their affection or anger.

In so far as the content of characters' actions is concerned, life economy mode reveals itself in decisions made in various aspects of life. The most obvious is the approach to money and material resources. Ranevskaia in The Cherry Orchard spends her last rubles as if she is still a wealthy estate owner, not a bankrupt aging woman with no means to sustain herself. She agrees to lend money 3, goes to town to a restaurant 4, throws a ball, invites an orchestra 5. Carelessly, merely because she does not find a silver coin in her purse, she gives away a golden ruble to a drunk, insolent passer-by, who is only asking for 30 kopeks 6.

Ranevskaia understands the unreasonableness of her actions: "Бедная моя Варя из экономии кормит все молочным супом, на кухне старикам дают один горох, а я трачу как-то бессмысленно. (Уронила портмоне, рассыпала золотые.) Ну, посыпались…" 7 However, she persists in her spending. When Varia humbly reproaches her for exhausting their last money, Ranevskaia reacts in a manner consistent with her usual behavior: "Что ж со мной, глупой, делать! Я тебе дома отдам всё, что у меня есть" 8.

One of the central characters of The Seagull, the actress Arkadina demonstrates the opposite attitude to money. In the first act, her son characterizes Arkadina as follows: "Она скупа. У неё в Одессе в банке семьдесят тысяч - это я знаю наверное. А попроси у неё взаймы, она станет плакать" 9. In the following acts, Chekhov confirms this characteristic by the choices Arkadina makes. When her brother explains her son's suicide attempt by his financial dependency and asks Arkadina to give Konstantin a small sum, the actress hesitates. After all, Konstantin's attempt to shoot himself had a strong impact on her, and she is willing to prevent this from happening again. However, her saving passion proves more powerful than her motherly love:

Аркадина. Всё-таки… Пожалуй, на костюм я ещё могу, но чтобы за границу… Нет, в настоящее время и на костюм не могу. (Решительно.) Нет у меня денег!"

Сорин смеётся.


Сорин (насвистывает). Так-с. Прости, милая, не сердись. Я тебе верю… Ты великодушная, благородная женщина.

Аркадина (сквозь слёзы). Нет у меня денег! 10

Arkadina does not need to act in front of her brother; her tears seem sincere. Motherly instinct is fighting with her demand to save. The latter wins, probably because it is more deeply rooted.

The decision to spend or save is almost instinctive. Therefore, the choice does not usually depend on the importance of the matter or the sum involved. Ranevskaia with equal ease squanders away her estate and gives a huge tip: "…и на чай лакеям даёт по рублю" 11. Arkadina is as consistent in her miserliness: she does not only save large sums on her family members, she also gives a conspicuously small tip. For the entire summer of faithful service, she gives her servants three times less than what Ranevskaia gives to each concierge who opens a door for her: "Не забывайте меня. (Подаёт повару рубль.) Вот вам рубль на троих" 12.

While attitude to money is the most obvious manifestation of one's life economy mode, there are other aspects where this tendency for either spending or saving reveals itself equally clearly. Attitude to one's health is one of these areas. While some of Chekhov's characters demonstrate special carefulness about their physical condition, others intentionally violate doctors' advice and the norms of common sense. Professor Serebriakov in Uncle Vania always wears extra layers of clothes to protect himself from an unexpected weather change: "Жарко, душно, а наш великий учёный в пальто, в калошах, с зонтиком, и в перчатках" 13. The actress Arkadina boasts her youthful appearance, which she managed to preserve better than 22-year old Masha 14. Borkin in Ivanov assesses everything from the point of view of whether it is useful or not for health: "В сущности говоря, пить очень вредно. Послушайте, ведь вредно? А? Вредно?" 15 These characters are among the savers.

On the other end of the spectrum, spenders consciously choose to disregard limitations imposed by their physical condition. Wheelchair-bound Sorin in The Seagull, who nearly faints from weakness several times during the play, insists on drinking sweet wine and smoking cigars, even though it is harmful for his health 16. Sara in Ivanov, who suffers from consumption, is laughing at doctor's recommendations:

Львов. …Как только бьёт шесть часов, вы должны идти в комнаты и не выходить до самого утра. Вечерняя сырость вредна вам.

Анна Петровна. Слушаю-с.

Львов. Что "слушаю-с"! Я говорю серьёзно.

Анна Петровна. А я не хочу быть серьёзною. (Кашляет.) 17

It is not naivete that makes Sorin and Sara act contrary to the demands of their health. Both characters are conscious of the danger to which they are exposing themselves and of the possible consequences. However, they insist in their self-ruinous behavior, because their natural mode of existence is spending.

Time and health are not the only areas in which Chekhov's characters reveal their attitude towards life's resources. An analogous division into savers and spenders is found in their approach to time, opportunity, and the notion of life itself. Chekhov's spenders waste time on meaningless activities, realize it, but still continue in the same manner. This is how Sorin in The Seagull comments on the way he spends his time: "Вчера лёг в десять и сегодня утром проснулся в девять с таким чувством, как будто от долгого спанья у меня мозг прилип к черепу и всё такое. (Смеётся.) А после обеда нечаянно опять уснул…" 18 Savers, on the other hand, treat time as a valuable resource worth preserving:

Ах, что может быть скучнее этой вот милой деревенской скуки! Жарко, тихо, никто ничего не делает, все философствуют.. Хорошо с вами, друзья, приятно вас слушать, но… сидеть у себя в номере и учить роль - куда лучше! 19

Chekhov's spenders fritter away their lives on trifles, just as Gaev in The Cherry Orchard frittered away his fortune: "Говорят, что я всё своё состояние проел на леденцах… (Смеётся.)"20 Yelena in Uncle Vania treats her life as a useless resource. Not only does she sacrifice her youth marrying an old professor, she also persists in hollow, meaningless life when she realizes that her sacrifice was fruitless. Nina in The Seagull begs a virtual stranger to take her life, as if it is completely worthless.

It is remarkable that Chekhov, renowned for his acute awareness of changeability of human nature, portrays his characters as remaining within the same life economy mode throughout their presence in the plays. The actress Arkadina in The Seagull is a saver in all the areas of her life. As it was discussed earlier, she refuses to spend the money, whether it is needed for her son's well being or for necessary social functions such as tipping 21. She demonstrates analogous carefulness about preserving her health, her youthful appearance 22, and her time23 .

Arkadina's attitude to life and her position in the society is comparable to her miserliness in financial matters. She is careful to maintain her position of an indisputably top actress by rapid elimination of any competition. "Она уже и против меня, и против спектакля, и против моей пьесы, потому что не она играет, а Заречная"24 , says her son. Arkadina's behavior during the performance of his play confirms this opinion; in a skillful subtle manner, the actress sabotages the performance and resumes the position of the center of attention 25. Facing a threat of losing her lover, Arkadina takes the matter into her hands and prevents this from happening. She resorts to extreme measures: a proud actress, a star, she descends to her knees, kisses her partner's hands, showers him with self-humiliating flattery 26. Apparently, saving what she believes to be hers is more important to Arkadina than pride or honesty.

In the camp of spenders, Sorin in The Seagull remains true to himself equally in trifles and important matters. As discussed earlier, he squanders away his time 27 and his health 28. His entire life becomes a matter of comparably careless waste:

Сорин. Вот хочу дать Косте сюжет для повести. Она должна называться так: "Человек, который хотел"….В молодости когда-то хотел я сделаться литератором - и не сделался, хотел красиво говорить - и говорил отвратительно…; хотел жениться - и не женился; хотел всегда жить в городе - и вот кончаю свою жизнь в деревне, и всё. 29

Along with the content of the characters' utterance, the form in which they express their thoughts reflects their preferred life economy mode. Spenders, such as Gaev in The Cherry Orchard, Sorin and Konstantin in The Seagull, are extravagant with words to the same extent to which they are extravagant with their life resources. These characters indulge in long speeches, noted and commented upon by the other characters. Gaev addresses his orations to a cupboard and to mother-nature. Uncle Vania's verbose monologues occur so frequently that Professor Serebriakov is afraid to stay alone with him:

Серебряков (испуганно). Нет, нет! Не оставляйте меня с ним! Нет! Он меня заговорит .30

As if driven by an uncontrollable desire to spend words, these characters even develop certain verbal ticks. Sorin unexpectedly bursts into unrelated stories. Gaev regularly spices up his speech with rather incongruous billiard-associated exclamations: "Жёлтого в угол! Дуплет в середину!" 31

The characters' word choice equally clearly manifests their orientation towards one or another life economy mode. In his speeches, Uncle Vania uses a broad variety of words and expressions from the semantic field of loss, waste, spending: "проворонил"32 , "потеряно безвозвратно," "израсходовано", "гибнет даром", "куда мне их девать, что с ними делать?" 33

The saver Arkadina, on the other hand, uses the words united by the common semantic content of maintaining, holding on to, saving: "держу себя", "сохранилась," "не распускала себя, как некоторые" 34 , "…не пущу… Ты мой… ты мой… и этот лоб мой, и глаза мои, и эти прекрасные шелковистые волосы тоже мои… ты весь мой"35 . Arkadina's consistency in the choice of words associated with ownership and possession is especially conspicuous when juxtaposed with Nina's utterances, in which she delegates the ownership of what is normally considered intrinsically hers to other people: "Я теперь принадлежу вам" 36; "Если тебе когда-нибудь понадобится моя жизнь, то приди и возьми её" 37.

It is interesting that these semantic tendencies spill out of character's own utterances and color what Bakhtin calls character zones 38. Thus, in an utterance addressed to Arkadina, Shamraev describes her condition as that of a well preserved youth, contrasting it to the tendency of other humans to "spend themselves": "Мы все стареем, выветриваемся под влиянием стихий, а вы, многоуважаемая, всё ещё молоды…" 39

While the discussed manifestations of life economy preference are derived from the characters' speech, stage directions reflect the distribution of yet another of its expression: kinetic activity on stage. Authorial stage directions prescribe noticeably varying amounts of kinetic activity to different characters. Those characters who have expressed tendencies for spending demonstrate noteworthy extravagance with kinetic activity as compared to those marked by the mode of saving. Such characters as Nina in The Seagull and Ranevskaia in The Cherry Orchard remain in the state of constant mobility, walking around stage, applauding, singing to themselves, embracing others, et cetera. Gaev in The Cherry Orchard develops a manner reminiscent of a kinetic tick, analogous to his verbal one: he constantly imitates movements required to play the billiard ball, although there is neither a ball in sight nor a cue in his hand.

Those tending towards the spending mode are marked by generously expressed emotions. They cry and laugh frequently and easily, quickly changing from one emotion to another. Thus, Ranevskaia's activity over a two-page stretch of text is described by the following stage direction: "Обнимает Трофимова, целует его в лоб," "Плачет," "Вынимает платок", "Смеётся," "Жмёт Трофимову руку", "Закрывает уши," "Рассердившись, но сдержанно," "Сердито", "Кричит вслед", "Танцует с Петей" 40. It is noteworthy that despite gender stereotypes discouraging overt manifestations of emotion in men in the Russian culture, male spenders in Chekhov's drama cry often and easily. Thus, Gaev in The Cherry Orchard not only cries several times throughout the play out of various emotions, but is also described as being at the verge of crying when he is not doing so 41. Similarly easily, Gaev winds himself up to the state of ungrounded emotional excitement, and passionately gives oaths he has neither means nor real desire to put into practice:

Гаев …(Возбуждённо). Счастьем моим клянусь! Вот тебе моя рука, назови меня тогда дрянным, бесчестным человеком, если я допущу до аукциона! Всем существом моим клянусь! 42

On the other end of the spectrum of life economy, Arkadina remains composed even during the most emotionally intense moments. When her lover expresses his desire to leave her for a younger woman, Arkadina retains enough composure to play out a scene of slavish admiration, which scenario was probably inspired by Maupassant's Sur l'eau read aloud in the previous act 43. After performing the scene, having confirmed the achieved effect, Arkadina switches off the emotional appearance and remains as calm as ever:

Аркадина (про себя). Теперь он мой. (Развязно, как ни в чём не бывало). Впрочем, если хочешь, можешь остаться 44.

Therefore, tendencies toward generosity or miserliness with kinetic activity and manifestations of emotion appear to agree with other expressions of a given's character's life economy mode.

Apparently, making a choice in favor of either spending or saving is an action in which Chekhov's characters demonstrate noteworthy constancy. This constancy of behavior is not instigated by faithfulness to an idea, since its manifestations lay within conspicuously various realms of human existence. Chekhov's characters stray from their preferred modes of life neither in significant philosophical questions, nor in petty peculiarities of daily life. Therefore, the author seems to be seeing the tendency either to spend or to save as an invariable of human character, and, therefore, an intrinsic feature. If this feature is essential, then acknowledging it and meeting its demands is a significant constituent of self-realization and happiness for every individual.

In the light of this approach, it is especially revealing to analyze the genres that Chekhov attributed to his plays. Why did not Chekhov define The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy? The house, which seems to be such a powerful symbol of everything valuable in life for Ranevskaia and Gaev, is lost forever. The present and the future of an entire family are ruined by their own hands. However, those bearing responsibility for this disaster are neither tortured by guilt nor killed by sorrow. The mood of the final scene can be described, on the scale of sadness, maximum as lightly wistful and nostalgic. Probably, the author does not see this ending as tragic because those bearing responsibility for this outcome acted true to their nature? By squandering away the estate, the orchard, and their chances for dignified life, Ranevskaia and Gaev satisfied their demand for spending. Therefore, the comical in this hardly hilarious comedy is found in the extent to which this uncontrollable spending is expanded.

The Seagull is another play, counter-intuitively defined as comedy. An idealistic maiden seduced and gone mad, two suicide attempts, one of them successful - these are hardly typical comical elements. However, Chekhov calls The Seagull a comedy. A closer look at the characters and their behavior allows concluding that in this play, as well as in The Cherry Orchard, the main characters remain true to themselves.

Konstantin throws away his young life when his talent was already recognized and his early success promised him the future of a successful writer. He kills himself exactly as he threatened to do in Act 2, when he dropped a killed seagull at Nina's feet. Nina, in her turn, leads her life into a dead end, takes immense risks, fails as an actress and as a lover. She treats her life with the same carelessness with which she offered to give it away: "Если тебе когда-нибудь понадобится моя жизнь, то приди и возьми её" 45. It seems that Nina finds satisfaction in self-ruin; she persists in remaining in her misery even when Konstantin offers her his love and a new life. This passion for wasting her life is hardly surprising if the reader remembers Nina's words said earlier in the play: "Я отдала бы толпе всю свою жизнь…" 46 Therefore, Nina appears to be successful in the life she has chosen: she managed to break the restraining bonds and live in the mode of spending, as she desired.

The saver Arkadina also lives in accordance with her life economy mode. She successfully saves all she wanted to save: her money, her beauty, her lover, her unshakable position of a theatrical star. The one point she loses - her son - has not been an object of her particular interest. Otherwise, Arkadina would have managed to save Konstantin for herself.

Taking into consideration the difference in the characters' life economy types, The Seagull's genre becomes more explicable. The tragic events of the play unravel as successful realizations of the characters' aspirations. The comical - or, rather, the sarcastic element - of the play thus consists in the extent to which the characters are driven by their life economy demands.

However, the situation is not always favorable enough to allow people to exist in their preferred life economy mode. External circumstances, sometimes personified as powerful others, may interfere and force a certain life style mode onto an individual. Even rooted in the best intentions, such interference deprives an individual of an opportunity to realize himself in the natural life economy mode and thus achieve happiness.

In a different scenario, an individual may lead himself into a dead end, where he or she is forced to live in an alien life economy mode. The story of Uncle Vania can be interpreted as one of a passionate spender locked in a role of meticulous saver. Eager to sacrifice his life for a grand idea, Uncle Vania voluntarily assumes the position of a country-bound estate overseer. This role requires monotonous work and scrupulous saving, which are torturous for this impulsive spender.

On the one hand, Uncle Vania succeeds: he manages to find an idea to which to sacrifice himself, a convenient reason to throw away his life. On the other hand, this sacrifice locks Uncle Vania in an unbearable position of a radical saver. This situation is simultaneously sad and ironic; Chekhov emphasizes its ambiguity by defining the play as scenes.

In conclusion, preference for spending or saving life resources is certainly only one of the numerous aspects of human personality. However, analyzing Chekhov's characters through the lenses of this approach provides a new insight into the complex relation between an individual's attitude towards life resources, self-realization, and happiness.

  1. The fact that The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull are comedies has caused confusion among a great number of stage directors and spectators alike. In fact, the first staging of The Seagull failed because of the inaccurate, as it appeared to the viewers, categorization of the play as a comedy.
  2. Ivanov, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull,Three Sisters, and Uncle Vania.
  3. Scene with the neighbor Pishchik. Действие первое. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад. Пьесы. Художественная литература: Москва, 1982. 257.
  4. Ibid. Действие второе. 262.
  5. Ibid. Действие третье. 271.
  6. Ibid. Действие второе. 269.
  7. Ibid. 262.
  8. Ibid. 269.
  9. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 84.
  10. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 110.
  11. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, 247.
  12. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 116.
  13. Чехов, А.П. Дядя Ваня, 136.
  14. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 96.
  15. Чехов, А.П. Иванов, 18.
  16. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 99.
  17. Чехов, А.П. Иванов, 29.
  18. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 83.
  19. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 99.
  20. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, 264.
  21. See footnotes 7, 8, 10.
  22. See footnote 12.
  23. See footnote 17.
  24. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 84.
  25. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 90 - 92.
  26. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 114 - 115.
  27. See footnote 16.
  28. See footnote 14.
  29. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, 121.
  30. Чехов, А.П. Дядя Ваня, 136.
  31. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, 264.
  32. Чехов, А.П. Дядя Ваня, Действие первое.
  33. Чехов, А.П. Дядя Ваня, Действие второе.
  34. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие второе.
  35. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие третье.
  36. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие второе.
  37. Чехов, А.П. Чайка. Пьесы. Художественная литература: Москва, 1982. 113.
  38. Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford Univ. Press, 1990. P. 329.
  39. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие четвёртое.
  40. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, Действие третье.
  41. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, Действие четвёртое.
  42. Чехов, А.П. Вишнёвый сад, Действие первое.
  43. In act 2, Arkadina is reading aloud: "…Итак, когда женщина избрала писателя, которого она желает заполонить, она осаждает его посредством комплиментов, любезностей и угождений". Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие второе.
  44. Чехов, А.П. Чайка, Действие второе.
  45. Чехов, А.П. Чайка. Пьесы. Художественная литература: Москва, 1982. 113.
  46. Ibid. 106.
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