Anthony Checkhov was a master playwright who was equally good at short stories. In The Essential Tales of Checkhov, Richard Ford, a great short story writer by his own right, gives us twenty Checkhov’s stories from among the over two hundred stories written by Checkhov. In these collection of short stories, one thing is abundantly clear: the characters, by their own choice, choose the course their lives takes. Although they seem to be victims of circumstances, a closer reading of their actions reveals one irrefutable fact: those circumstances are not to blame for whatever that befalls them. These characters choose very fatalistic philosophies of life that eventually explain their situations.
In “Ward no 6”, Ivan Dimitritch, the lunatic, fails to confront reality but instead hides in his books. When his books have been torn into several pieces by the young boys, he does not confront them but instead mourns his loss with philosophical tears – for want of a better term. He tells the youth that “you have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality” In “Neighbours”, Vlassitch is “revolted, indignant, and delighted always on the same note.” He is a man who in many ways dictates how his life turns out and “many people looked upon this free-thinking as an innocent and harmless eccentricity.”
In “An Anonymous Story,” Vladimir Ivanitch, the hero, is a particularly interesting character. His biggest wish is to find release, to escape from himself. Given a chance, he would probably step out of his mouth and ran away. He finds himself in various jobs all of which signify his need to escape and find something better. He finally comes to this interesting conclusion: “man finds his true destiny in nothing if not self-sacrificing love for his neighbor I want to live it would be enough for me to have you near, to hear your voice, to watch the look in your face” He unfortunately dies pretty soon and we do not see this coming to pass.
Dr, Dymov, a character in “The Grasshopper” is an active member of his society. He is involved very much in the dealings of his social class. He however unfortunately contracts diphtheria as he assists a patient of his. The doctor does not agree with his wife’s passion for art while at the same time being unable to appreciate his medical aspirations. Although we are not told much of Olga’s art, one cannot help but assume that it must be good. Dymov stops enganging his wife intellectually as he comes to the conclusion that she and medicine are diametrically opposed. He fails to take her through his profession and therefore fails as a husband. He eventually dies leaving Olga more experienced from learning straight from the lips of life itself.
Another doctor, Ragin, a character in “Ward no 6” also dies later without learning much from life. Unlike the social Dymov, he takes a different course through life. He prefers keeping to himself and seldom finds time to engage with others. He is disgusted by the backwardness of his society and in perhaps in a desperate bid to save himself, he avoids the people around him. He is eventually taken ill and becomes useless to the society. In an ironic twist, the very people he despised are the ones whose taxes benefit him as a patient.
What we learn from these short stories and the many others by Checkhov is that people are free agents. They have it in themselves to decide how their lives eventually turn out. Although as we have seen in the short stories, people are surrounded by things or people they do not like, situations cannot be to blame for what they turn out to be.
Richard Ford The Essentials tales of Checkhov London: GrantaBooks, 1999