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Anton Chekhov

 

Anton Chekhov

Russian author
in full Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

born Jan. 29 [Jan. 17, Old Style], 1860, Taganrog, Russia
died July 14/15 [July 1/2], 1904, Badenweiler, Ger.

Main
major Russian playwright and master of the modern short story. He was a literary artist of laconic precision who probed below the surface of life, laying bare the secret motives of his characters. Chekhov’s best plays and short stories lack complex plots and neat solutions. Concentrating on apparent trivialities, they create a special kind of atmosphere, sometimes termed haunting or lyrical. Chekhov described the Russian life of his time using a deceptively simple technique devoid of obtrusive literary devices, and he is regarded as the outstanding representative of the late 19th-century Russian realist school.

Boyhood and youth
Chekhov’s father was a struggling grocer and pious martinet who had been born a serf. He compelled his son to serve in his shop, also conscripting him into a church choir, which he himself conducted. Despite the kindness of his mother, childhood remained a painful memory to Chekhov, although it later proved to be a vivid and absorbing experience that he often invoked in his works.

After briefly attending a local school for Greek boys, Chekhov entered the town gimnaziya (high school), where he remained for 10 years. There he received the best standard education then available—thorough but unimaginative and based on the Greek and Latin classics. During his last three years at school Chekhov lived alone and supported himself by coaching younger boys; his father, having gone bankrupt, had moved with the rest of his family to Moscow to make a fresh start.

In the autumn of 1879 Chekhov joined his family in Moscow, which was to be his main base until 1892. He at once enrolled in the university’s medical faculty, graduating in 1884 as a doctor. By this time he was already the economic mainstay of his family, for his father could obtain only poorly paid employment. As unofficial head of the family Anton showed great reserves of responsibility and energy, cheerfully supporting his mother and the younger children through his free-lance earnings as a journalist and writer of comic sketches—work that he combined with arduous medical studies and a busy social life.

Chekhov began his writing career as the author of anecdotes for humorous journals, signing his early work pseudonymously. By 1888 he had become widely popular with a “lowbrow” public and had already produced a body of work more voluminous than all his later writings put together. And he had, in the process, turned the short comic sketch of about 1,000 words into a minor art form. He had also experimented in serious writing, providing studies of human misery and despair strangely at variance with the frenzied facetiousness of his comic work. Gradually this serious vein absorbed him and soon predominated over the comic.


Literary maturity
Chekhov’s literary progress during his early 20s may be charted by the first appearance of his work in a sequence of publications in the capital, St. Petersburg, each successive vehicle being more serious and respected than its predecessor. Finally, in 1888, Chekhov published his first work in a leading literary review, Severny vestnik (“Northern Herald”). With the work in question—a long story entitled “Steppe”—he at last turned his back on comic fiction. “Steppe,” an autobiographical work describing a journey in the Ukraine as seen through the eyes of a child, is the first among more than 50 stories published in a variety of journals and selections between 1888 and his death in 1904. It is on this corpus of later stories, but also on his mature dramas of the same period, that Chekhov’s main reputation rests.

Although the year 1888 first saw Chekhov concentrating almost exclusively on short stories that were serious in conception, humour—now underlying—nearly always remained an important ingredient. There was also a concentration on quality at the expense of quantity, the number of publications dropping suddenly from over a hundred items a year in the peak years 1886 and 1887 to only 10 short stories in 1888. Besides “Steppe,” Chekhov also wrote several profoundly tragic studies at this time, the most notable of which was “A Dreary Story” (1889), a penetrating study into the mind of an elderly and dying professor of medicine. The ingenuity and insight displayed in this tour de force was especially remarkable, coming from an author so young. The play Ivanov (1887–89) culminates in the suicide of a young man nearer to the author’s own age. Together with “A Dreary Story,” this belongs to a group among Chekhov’s works that have been called clinical studies. They explore the experiences of the mentally or physically ill in a spirit that reminds one that the author was himself a qualified—and remained a sporadically practicing—doctor.

By the late 1880s many critics had begun to reprimand Chekhov, now that he was sufficiently well known to attract their attention, for holding no firm political and social views and for failing to endow his works with a sense of direction. Such expectations irked Chekhov, who was unpolitical and philosophically uncommitted. In early 1890 he suddenly sought relief from the irritations of urban intellectual life by undertaking a one-man sociological expedition to a remote island, Sakhalin. This is situated nearly 6,000 miles (9,650 km) east of Moscow, on the other side of Siberia, and was notorious as an imperial Russian penal settlement. Chekhov’s journey there was a long and hazardous ordeal by carriage and riverboat. After arriving unscathed, studying local conditions, and conducting a census of the islanders, he returned to publish his findings as a research thesis, which retains an honoured place in the annals of Russian penology: The Island of Sakhalin (1893–94).

Chekhov paid his first visit to western Europe in the company of A.S. Suvorin, a wealthy newspaper proprietor and the publisher of much of Chekhov’s own work. Their long and close friendship caused Chekhov some unpopularity, owing to the politically reactionary character of Suvorin’s newspaper, Novoye vremya (“New Time”). Eventually Chekhov broke with Suvorin over the attitude taken by the paper toward the notorious Alfred Dreyfus affair in France, with Chekhov championing Dreyfus.

During the years just before and after his Sakhalin expedition, Chekhov had continued his experiments as a dramatist. His Wood Demon (1888–89) is a long-winded and ineptly facetious four-act play, which somehow, by a miracle of art, became converted—largely by cutting—into Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya), one of his greatest stage masterpieces. The conversion—to a superb study of aimlessness in a rural manor house—took place some time between 1890 and 1896; the play was published in 1897. Other dramatic efforts of the period include several of the uproarious one-act farces known as vaudevilles: Medved (The Bear), Predlozheniye (The Proposal), Svadba (The Wedding), Yubiley (The Anniversary), and others.


Melikhovo period: 1892–98
After helping, both as doctor and as medical administrator, to relieve the disastrous famine of 1891–92, Chekhov bought a country estate in the village of Melikhovo, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Moscow. This was his main residence for about six years, providing a home for his aging parents, as also for his sister Mariya, who acted as his housekeeper and remained unmarried in order to look after her brother. The Melikhovo period was the most creatively effective of Chekhov’s life so far as short stories were concerned, for it was during these six years that he wrote “The Butterfly,” “Neighbours” (1892), “An Anonymous Story” (1893), “The Black Monk” (1894), “Murder,” and “Ariadne” (1895), among many other masterpieces. Village life now became a leading theme in his work, most notably in “Peasants” (1897). Undistinguished by plot, this short sequence of brilliant sketches created more stir in Russia than any other single work of Chekhov’s, partly owing to his rejection of the convention whereby writers commonly presented the Russian peasantry in sentimentalized and debrutalized form.

Continuing to provide many portraits of the intelligentsia, Chekhov also described the commercial and factory-owning world in such stories as “A Woman’s Kingdom,” (1894) and “Three Years” (1895). As has often been recognized, Chekhov’s work provides a panoramic study of the Russia of his day, and one so accurate that it could even be used as a sociological source.

In some of his stories of the Melikhovo period, Chekhov attacked by implication the teachings of Leo Tolstoy, the well-known novelist and thinker, and Chekhov’s revered elder contemporary. Himself once (in the late 1880s) a tentative disciple of the Tolstoyan simple life, and also of nonresistance to evil as advocated by Tolstoy, Chekhov had now rejected these doctrines. He illustrated his new view in one particularly outstanding story: “Ward Number Six” (1892). Here an elderly doctor shows himself nonresistant to evil by refraining from remedying the appalling conditions in the mental ward of which he has charge—only to be incarcerated as a patient himself through the intrigues of a subordinate. In “My Life” (1896) the young hero, son of a provincial architect, insists on defying middle-class convention by becoming a house painter, a cultivation of the Tolstoyan simple life that Chekhov portrays as misconceived. In a later trio of linked stories, ”The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love” (1898), Chekhov further develops the same theme, showing various figures who similarly fail to realize their full potentialities. As these pleas in favour of personal freedom illustrate, Chekhov’s stories frequently contain some kind of submerged moral, though he never worked out a comprehensive ethical or philosophical doctrine.

Chayka (The Seagull) is Chekhov’s only dramatic work dating with certainty from the Melikhovo period. First performed in St. Petersburg on Oct. 17, 1896 (O.S.), this four-act drama, misnamed a comedy, was badly received; indeed, it was almost hissed off the stage. Chekhov was greatly distressed and left the auditorium during the second act, having suffered one of the most traumatic experiences of his life and vowing never to write for the stage again. Two years later, however, the play was revived by the newly created Moscow Art Theatre, enjoying considerable success and helping to reestablish Chekhov as a dramatist. The Seagull is a study of the clash between the older and younger generations as it affects two actresses and two writers, some of the details having been suggested by episodes in the lives of Chekhov’s friends.


Yalta period: 1899–1904
In March 1897 Chekhov had suffered a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis, symptoms of which had become apparent considerably earlier. Now forced to acknowledge himself a semi-invalid, Chekhov sold his Melikhovo estate and built a villa in Yalta, the Crimean coastal resort. From then on he spent most of his winters there or on the French Riviera, cut off from the intellectual life of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was all the more galling since his plays were beginning to attract serious attention. Moreover, Chekhov had become attracted by a young actress, Olga Knipper, who was appearing in his plays, and whom he eventually married in 1901; the marriage probably marked the only profound love affair of his life. But since Knipper continued to pursue her acting career, husband and wife lived apart during most of the winter months, and there were no children of the marriage.

Never a successful financial manager, Chekhov attempted to regularize his literary affairs in 1899 by selling the copyright of all his existing works, excluding plays, to the publisher A.F. Marx for 75,000 rubles, an unduly low sum. In 1899–1901 Marx issued the first comprehensive edition of Chekhov’s works, in 10 volumes, after the author had himself rejected many of his juvenilia. Even so, this publication, reprinted in 1903 with supplementary material, was unsatisfactory in many ways.

Chekhov’s Yalta period saw a decline in the production of short stories and a greater emphasis on drama. His two last plays—Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters) and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard)—were both written for the Moscow Art Theatre. But much as Chekhov owed to the theatre’s two founders, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstanin Stanislavsky, he remained dissatisfied with such rehearsals and performances of his plays as he was able to witness. Repeatedly insisting that his mature drama was comedy rather than tragedy, Chekhov grew distressed when producers insisted on a heavy treatment, overemphasizing the—admittedly frequent—occasions on which the characters inveigh against the boredom and futility of their lives. Despite Stanislavsky’s reputation as an innovator who had brought a natural, nondeclamatory style to the hitherto overhistrionic Russian stage, his productions were never natural and nondeclamatory enough for Chekhov, who wished his work to be acted with the lightest possible touch. And though Chekhov’s mature plays have since become established in repertoires all over the world, it remains doubtful whether his craving for the light touch has been satisfied except on the rarest of occasions. Yet oversolemnity can be the ruin of Three Sisters, for example—the play in which Chekhov so sensitively portrays the longings of a trio of provincial young women. Insisting that his The Cherry Orchard was “a comedy, in places even a farce,” Chekhov offered in this last play a poignant picture of the Russian landowning class in decline, portraying characters who remain comic despite their very poignancy. This play was first performed in Moscow on Jan. 17, 1904 (O.S.), and less than six months later Chekhov died of tuberculosis.

Though already celebrated by the Russian literary public at the time of his death, Chekhov did not become internationally famous until the years after World War I, by which time the translations of Constance Garnett (into English) and of others had helped to publicize his work. Yet his elusive, superficially guileless style of writing—in which what is left unsaid often seems so much more important than what is said—has defied effective analysis by literary critics, as well as effective imitation by creative writers.

It was not until 40 years after his death, with the issue of the 20-volume Polnoye sobraniye sochineny i pisem A.P. Chekhova (“Complete Works and Letters of A.P. Chekhov”) of 1944–51, that Chekhov was at last presented in Russian on a level of scholarship worthy—though with certain reservations—of his achievement. Eight volumes of this edition contain his correspondence, amounting to several thousand letters. Outstandingly witty and lively, they belie the legend—commonly believed during the author’s lifetime—that he was hopelessly pessimistic in outlook. As samples of the Russian epistolary art, Chekhov’s letters have been rated second only to Aleksandr Pushkin’s by the literary historian D.S. Mirsky. Although Chekhov is still chiefly known for his plays, critical opinion shows signs of establishing the stories—and particularly those that were written after 1888—as an even more significant and creative literary achievement.

Ronald Francis Hingley

 

 

 


THREE SISTERS
 

Òyðå of work: Drama
Author: Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Type of plot: Impressionistic realism
Time of plot: Nineteenth century
Locale: Russia
First presented: 1901

 

Three Sisters, a poignant drama rich in perceptive character studies, treats the lassitude of the middle class with ironical scorn. Although Chekhov's male characters are weak-willed and incapable of action, his women, among them the three sisters, have hopes of achieving happiness, if only because they live on dreams.

 

Principal Characters
Andrey Prozorov (an-dra' pro-zo'raf), the son of a high-ranking Russian army officer. He studies to be a professor, but after his marriage he turns to gambling in order to forget his boorish wife, who takes a lover. He is an ineffective man who accomplishes nothing.
Natasha (na-ta'sha), Andrey's ill-bred, selfish wife. She takes a local official, Protopopov, as her lover.
Masha (ma'sha), one of Andrey's sisters and the wife of Fyodor Kuligin. She once thought her husband clever, but she has been disillusioned. She falls in love with Vershinin, though he cannot leave his wife and children for her.
Fyodor Kuligin (fyo'dar êîá'11-gin), Masha's husband, a rather ineffectual man who teaches in a high school.
Olga Prozorov (ol'y-gs pro-zo'raf), one of Andrey's sisters. She wants desperately to return to Moscow. She teaches languages in the town's high school and becomes headmistress, but she is unhappy with her lot.
Irina Prozorov (ir-Ãï'ý pro-zo'raf), one of Andrey's sisters. Her hopes are dashed when Baron Tusenbach is killed by Captain Solyony in a duel, for she had thought she could escape the little garrison town by marrying Tusenbach.
Ivan Chebutykin (Ivan' cheboot'ykin), an incompetent doctor and a friend of the Prozorovs.
Baron Tusenbach (too'sen-bach), an army lieutenant in love with Irina Prozorov. He is killed in a duel by Captain Solyony, his rival for her affections.
Captain Vassily Solyony (va-si'liy soTyon'y), Baron Tusenbach's rival for Irina Prozorov's love. He kills Tusenbach in a duel over the young woman.
Alexandr Vershinin (al-eks'andr vershi'mn), an artillery commander, he believes that the world and people will get better and better. He falls in love with Masha but cannot leave his family for her.
Protopopov (pro-to-po'paf), a local official who becomes Natasha Prozorov's lover.

 

The Story

On Irina's name day, her friends and family called to wish her happiness. It was exactly one year after the death of their father, who had been sent from Moscow eleven years before to this provincial town at the head of a brigade. Irina and Olga longed to go back to Moscow, and Masha would have liked to go too, except that she had been married to Kuligin, whom she once thought the cleverest of men. They all pinned their hopes on then-brother Andrey, who was studying to become a professor.
An old army doctor, Chebutykin, brought Irina a samovar because he had loved her mother. Masha's husband gave Irina a copy of the history of the high school in which he taught; he said he wrote it because he had nothing better to do. When Irina told him that he had given her a copy for Easter, he merrily handed the new copy over to one of the army men who was calling.
Tusenbach and Solyony quarreled halfheartedly because Tusenbach and Irina had decided that what they needed for happienss was work. Tusenbach had never done anything but go to cadet school, and Irina's father had prepared her only in languages. Both had a desire to labor hard at something.
Vershinin, the new battery commander, came to call, reminding the girls that he had lived on the same street with them in Moscow. When he praised their town, they said they wanted to go to Moscow. They believed that they had been oppressed with an education which was useless in a dull provincial town. Vershinin thought that for every intelligent person then living, many more would appear later, and that the whole earth would be unimaginably beautiful two or three hundred years hence. He thought it might be interesting to relive one's life to see if one could improve on the first version.
Natasha came in while they were still sitting at the dinner table. Olga criticized her dress, and the men began to tease her about an engagement. Andrey, who could not stand having her teased, followed her out of the room and begged her to marry him. She accepted.
After their marriage, Andrey lost any ambition he ever had to become a professor and spent much of his time gambling in order to forget how ill-bred, rude, and selfish Natasha really was. Irina, meanwhile, had taken a job in the telegraph office, and Olga was teaching in the high school. Tired when they came home at night, they let Natasha run the house as she pleased, even to moving Irina out of her own bedroom so that Natasha and Andrey's baby could have it.
Vershinin had fallen in love with Masha, though he felt bound to his neurotic wife because of his two daughters. Kuligin realized what was going on but cheerfully hoped Masha still loved him.
Tusenbach, afraid that life would always be difficult, decided to give up his commission and seek happiness in a workingman's life. Vershinin was convinced that by living, working, and struggling people create a better life all the time. Since his wife periodically tried to commit suicide, he did not look for happiness for himself but for his descendants.
Audrey asked Chebutykin to prescribe a cure for his shortness of breath, but the old doctor swore he had forgotten all the medical knowledge he had ever known.
Solyony fell in love with Irina, who would have nothing to do with him. He declared that he would have no happy rivals.
One night all gathered to have a party with some mummers who were to come in. Natasha, however, decided that the baby was not well and canceled the party at the last minute. Then Protopopov, the Chairman of the Rural Board, came by with his carriage to take Natasha riding while Audrey sat reading in his room.
A short time later, fire destroyed part of the town. Olga gave most of her clothes to those whose homes had been burned and, after the fire, invited the army people to sleep at the house. Natasha berated Olga for letting her old servant sit in her presence and finally suggested that Olga herself move out of the house. The old doctor became drunk because he had prescribed the wrong treatment for a woman who later had died. After the fire people wanted him to help them, but he could not. In disgust, he picked up a clock and smashed it.
Masha, more bored than before, gave up playing the piano. She was disgusted, too, because Andrey had mortgaged the house in order to give money to Natasha. Everyone but he knew that Natasha was having an affair with Protopopov, to whose Rural Board Andrey had recently been elected.
Irina, at twenty-four, could not find work to suit her, and she believed she was forgetting everything she had ever known. Olga persuaded her to consider marrying Tusenbach, even if he was ugly; with him, Irina might get to Moscow.
Masha confessed that she was in love with Vershinin and that he loved her, though he was unable to leave his children.
Andrey berated his sisters for treating his wife so badly and then confessed that he had mortgaged the house, which belonged to all four of them. He had so hoped they could all be happy together.
Irina heard a report that the brigade would move out of town. If that happened, they would have to go to Moscow because no one worth speaking to would be left.
On the day the first battery was to leave, the officers came to say their farewells to the sisters. Kuligin told Irina that Tusenbach and Solyony had had words because both of them were in love with her and she had promised to marry Tusenbach. Kuligin eagerly anticipated the departure of the brigade because he hoped that then Masha would again turn to him. Masha was bored and spiteful. She felt that she was losing, bit by bit, the small happiness she had.
Andrey wondered how he could love Natasha when he knew she was so vulgar. The old doctor claimed that he was tired of their troubles, and he advised Andrey to walk off and never look back. Yet the doctor, who was to be retired from the army in a year, planned to come back to live with them because he really loved them all.
Irina hoped to go off with Tusenbach. Olga intended to live at the school of which she was now headmistress. Natasha, expecting to be left in sole charge of the house, planned all sorts of changes to wipe away the memory of the sisters' having been there. Andrey wondered how his children could possibly overcome the deadening influence of their mother's vulgarity.
After Tusenbach had fought a duel with Solyony, Chebutykin returned to tell them that Tusenbach had been killed. So the sisters were left alone with their misery, each thinking that she must go on with her life, if only to find out why people suffer so much in a world that could be beautiful.

 

Critical Evaluation

In a seven-year span, Anton Chekhov wrote and saw produced four plays that established him as a brilliant and important playwright. The four are The Sea Gull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Taken together, the plays present a portrait of provincial town life in late nineteenth century Russia; they are filled with varied, complex characters who express a broad range of attitudes about life, from world-weariness to foolish hopefulness. Dramatically, the plays are original and distinctive; Chekhov overthrows conventions about plot, stage action, and structure. The first productions by the Moscow Art Theater occasionally put the dramatist at odds with the director and performers who failed to grasp the play's subtle mood and innovative devices.
Of Chekhov's major plays, Three Sisters is perhaps the best. It is his most somber play, full of melancholy punctuated by moments of fragile beauty. Its titular heroines are attractive characters with whose struggles to improve their lives an audience easily sympathizes. Their fate, however, is not simply their own: It has ramifications for the nation during a time of historic change. Three Sisters is also Chekhov's most ingeniously crafted play, subtly interweaving the diverse actions and motivations of Masha, Olga, Irina, and Andrey into one account of the fall of the house of Prozorov.
Chekhov's theatrical premise is that real drama is found in the routine of everyday living rather than in contrived, complicated conflicts. Thus, the dramatist presents characters engaged in ordinary activities and conversing about normal interests. The playwright does not divide the cast into major and minor parts; all actors and actresses take approximately equal part in stage activity and in speaking. Many characters are on stage together, but they do not interact with every other character or defer their own stage business to so-called leading characters. Thus, in the opening scene three distinct activities occur simultaneously: Olga and Irina reminisce, Masha reads and whistles softly, Chebutykin and Tusenbach joke. The entrance of Solyony draws the characters together in a common conversation about work. When Vershinin enters, he engages each of the others in an extended but separate exchange, thus once more fragmenting stage activities. As the name-day party progresses, characters move about the rooms rearranging themselves in shifting groups of two or three. No one holds center stage; conversations develop stage right only to fade before conversation from stage left. The dialogues vary in mood: While one pair engages in serious discussion, another pair jokes, and a third makes each other's acquaintance. Chekhov's characters are choreographed like dancers.
No action emerges as the main plot with precedence over minor plot. Masha's growing affection for Vershinin is as important as the competition between Tusenbach and Solyony for Irina's hand in marriage; Olga's increasing commitment to her school teaching is as important as Andrey's marriage to Natasha. All four stories unfold together, their principals sometimes—but not always— interacting and influencing each other. Chekhov avoids the design of the well-made play, which puts plot within plot like Chinese boxes and resolves them all neatly at the denouement.
The unity of the four plots of Three Sisters derives from the common theme of dispossession. The prosperous house of Prozorov disintegrates and declines during the course of the play. Though in the end Irina, Masha, Olga, and Andrey are conscious that their expectations are frustrated, they are less conscious that they have lost control of their own property. The Prozorovs realize with sadness that their future is destroyed: Masha nobly gives up the love of Vershinin, Irina weeps for her slain finance, Olga accepts a permanent life at the school, and Andrey abandons plans to be a professor. They are less conscious that Natasha, by taking over the wealth and space of the household, has stolen from them both their past and their present. Natasha's theft is less noticeable because it seems natural that Andrey's marriage and fatherhood should bring gradual changes. The change is also less noticeable because the Prozorovs concentrate on impractical ideals. Natasha lacks the Prozorov sensibility about life's larger purposes, but she intently pursues life's immediate concerns: self, sexuality, and status.
The subtlety of Chekhov's dramatic art is evident in the way that Natasha's takeover of the Prozorov household is dramatized. In each act, there is a brief scene that emblemizes her growing ascendancy. At the end of act 1, Natasha joins the name-day party, but her garish dress and awkward manners are an embarrassment. Protectively, Andrey embraces her behind a screen: The future scholar finds Natasha sexually irresistible, whatever her social sophistication. At the opening of act 2, Natasha prowls the house possessively and interrupts Andrey's study with her worries. Why are Olga and Masha let out? Will the carnival carousers disturb them? Is the baby all right? Does little Bobik need his room now? Perhaps Irina could move in with Olga.
In act 3, Natasha openly asserts her authority. With a second child in the nursery and the house crowded, Natasha decides to dismiss Anfisa, Olga's elderly servant. When Olga protests, Natasha has a tantrum; Olga decides to live at the school with Anfisa. In act 4, Andrey pushes a child in a baby carriage; when he attempts to console Masha over Vershinin's departure, Natasha reprimands him noisily for disturbing the children. As Natasha surveys her realm from a window, a servant brings Andrey mortgage papers to sign: Without informing his sisters, he has plunged all of them into debt to support Natasha's expensive tastes. At the final curtain, the pathos is strong. The Prozorovs' plans for the future have collapsed, and their security in the present has evaporated.
The theme of dispossession—manifested in the characters' conversations about work, heritage, and family— reflects Chekhov's awareness of the changes occurring in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. A century before, it had been a static society: A royal house ruled autocratically over a nation of serfs; an aristocracy knew the wealth, privilege, and leisure that flowed from loyal service to the royal house; the agricultural economy depended on the landowners and landworkers staying on their estates and villages. In Chekhov's time, change was under way. Serfdom had been abandoned, and some democratic political participation was being permitted. Aristocrats shared status with nouveau riche merchants, and industrialization drew workers from the land to the city. Chekhov's interest was not the cause or the value of these changes; he was not a sociologist or an economist.
His concern was one small consequence of these vast changes. A sense of beauty was dying: The leisure to cultivate aesthetic experience, to reflect upon serious questions, and to touch with another soul was being lost in the press of immediate needs. Those like the Prozorovs who require time to think, to feel, and to love are the first to be dispossessed in an era of change.

 

 

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