By Marlon Altoe
Marlon Altoe’s literary analysis essay explores themes of love in Chekov’s short stories. This essay was written for English 2150 with Professor John Lux.
Love. It is possible that no other emotion has brought more joy to the human race. Its every last facet has been scrutinized, not only by experts, but possibly by every single human who has ever lived long enough to be aware of his or her surroundings. But despite all this scrutiny, love is as poorly understood today as it was in antiquity. Pure, unaltered love appears to be the stuff legends are made of—a Holy Grail endlessly beckoning us near, appearing easily attainable, but elusive to human touch. All hope is not lost, though. There exists a maddeningly simple but indispensable secret to this pursuit: the farther down the path from self to selfless one gets, the closer one is to attaining the miracle of love.
As with an endless fountain, love must be able to circulate, flowing freely between those who share it, if it is to be sustainable. If there is an imbalance between the output and the input it is only a matter of time before the whole system collapses. Our desire to share our loved one’s experiences, thoughts, and aspirations is understandable and strong, but if we have nothing to give in return, then the word “share” loses its validity in this phrase and should be replaced by the word “take.”
Anton Chekhov draws such a scenario of egocentricity in his short story “The Darling.” In Olenka, the protagonist, Chekhov paints a picture of a person so devoid of personality—“what was worst of all, she had no opinions of any sort”—that she invariably attaches herself to someone to fill that void (240). Olenka is “always fond of someone,” and is unable to “exist without loving” (235). She goes beyond devoting herself to whomever she loves. She imitates him, she repeats his words, she thinks what he thinks—she becomes him. The narrator says of Olenka, “[h]er husband’s ideas were hers… [a]nd she always expressed herself with the same sedateness and dignity, the same reasonableness, in imitation of her husband” (238-39). However, is such an insatiable craving for another real love?
What seems at first extreme devotion is quickly understood by the reader to be infinite neediness. When her first husband, Kubin, passes away, she shows sorrow not for him; her concern is for herself: “Why did I ever meet you! … Your poor heart-broken Olenka is all alone without you,” she cries, upon hearing of his death (237). Just three months after Kubin’s death she meets her neighbor, Pustovalov, while walking home from church, and it is not long before she affixes herself to him: “He did not stay long, only about ten minutes, and he did not say much, but when he left, Olenka loved him—loved him so much that she lay awake all night in a perfect fever” (237-38). It is not likely that anything other than attraction, much less such intense love, will spring from this meager encounter, where so little intimacy is shared. Nonetheless, they soon marry. And when he too perishes, her selfish instincts show themselves once again: “I’ve nobody, now you’ve left me… Pity me, good people, all alone in the world,” she sobs, drowning in hedonistic pity (239). She acts as though she has lost her sole source of sustenance.
The story conjures a disturbing image not of love, but of a vampiric need of another’s vital energy—their essence—in order to survive. It is telling how her “loves” are always referred to in the past perfect, often succumb to sickness while she grows healthier—“Olenka grew stouter… while Kubin grew thinner and yellower” (236)—and seem to be of little concern to her—“she had loved her papa who now sat in a darkened room… she had loved her aunt… she had loved her French master” (235.) Does she not love these dear ones anymore? Having each served his or her, purpose, none is of use to her any longer. On the previously mentioned path to selflessness, Olenka has yet to take the first step.
It is possible that Chekhov uses Olenka to represent the plight of women in 19th century Imperial Russia. Sheltered from public life and from education, many women did not have the opportunity to develop their own identities. Their personalities and ideas were mere extensions of those of their husbands’. Nevertheless, if we take the story at face value, it becomes not an allegory for a group’s limitations in times past, but a portrait of the sad reality of many people in times present—those who mistake their misguided need to compensate for a lack of substance by living vicariously through others. Always using another person as a crutch, they stunt their personal growth, and their constant taking drains those around them of desire, ideas, and vigor. Love involves more than wanting another person; it’s characterized by a genuine concern for that person.
Love is sturdy, however. It can surmount very thorny conditions, and even take hold of us with a brawny grip in spite of ourselves. One more gem from Chekov’s mind is the short story, “The Lady with the Dog.” This complex tale begins with the introduction of a couple who come together for less than noble reasons, but ends as an overture to the vague hope that love’s tender roots have begun to infiltrate the unsuspecting, seemingly barren hearts of these two individuals. In the previous story Olenka represents someone stuck, someone who has not been able to, or who hasn’t had the courage to start her expedition in search of love. Anna and Gurov, the protagonists of “The Lady with the Dog,” show us that it is possible, albeit rare, for love to be born of self-interest. For these two, the realm of selflessness is not their intended destination, but that is the direction in which they find themselves headed.
At the opening of the story, Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov is a shallow man who lives a life of aimless pleasure and womanizing. His general discontent, although not directly stated, is clear from the start of the narrative. In the story’s introduction the narrator says of Gurov, “He had been talked into marrying in his third year at college, and his wife now looked twice as old as he did… he secretly considered her shallow, narrow minded, and dowdy” (244). His interest in life seems to be aroused only by fleeting romances—“every time he encountered an attractive woman he forgot all about his experience, the desire for life surged up in him, and everything suddenly felt simple and amusing”— but even these leave him wanting (245). “Every fresh intimacy, while at first introducing such pleasant variety into everyday life… inevitably developed… into a problem of exceptional complication leading to an intolerably irksome situation,” Chekhov writes (244-45).
While vacationing in Yalta, a Russian resort city on the Black Sea, Gurov encounters Anna Sergeyevna, a young married woman, a soul just as lost and dissatisfied as he, and “the seductive idea of a brisk transitory liaison, an affair with a woman whose very name he did not know, suddenly took possession of his mind” (245). Anna, for her part, does not put up much of a struggle. She is undeniably overcome with grief and guilt—“I’m a wicked, fallen woman, I despise myself”—but makes no genuine effort to slow the progress of their sordid romance (247). She almost seems to revel in her misery: “I have never been happy, I am unhappy now, and I shall never be happy,” she declares, almost proudly (253). She is not an unwilling victim to Gurov’s seduction; she seeks this situation, too. “I was devoured by curiosity. I wanted something higher… I could no longer control myself… and now I have become an ordinary, worthless woman” (247). Perhaps she sees this self-loathing as poetic and grand—as something interesting in her mundane life. Gurov listens to her with a mixture of amusement—“Anna Sergeyevna was very touching, revealing the purity of a decent, naïve woman who had seen very little of life”—and contempt—“Gurov listened to her, bored to death” (247). Showing his general disregard for women, whom he calls “lower race,” he humors her, and treats her like a toy, or a mere pet. “He had been friendly and affectionate with her, but in his whole behavior… there had been a shade of irony.” Love this is surely not. These are two individuals with similar needs using each other as means to their separate ends.
Once they both return to their regular lives a change takes over Gurov. The frivolity of his life, which had escaped him previously, now angers him. “What wasted evenings, what tedious empty days!… The greater part of one’s time and energy went on business that was no use to anyone… and there was nothing to show for it all but a stunted wingless existence” (251). He also cannot get the thought of Anna out of his head. “Anna Sergeyevna did not come to him in his dreams, she accompanied him everywhere,” Chekhov writes (250). A woman whom he had thought to be, and treated like, just another distraction, has surprisingly made a lasting impact on him. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he goes in search of her. Once found, Anna again dives into their association without struggle—although she does resort to her familiar sobbing. They begin a long distance affair, meeting every three months, and spending a few hours or maybe days together, and live the remainder of their lives in an expectant daze, always anticipating their few moments of bliss.
One might assume nothing more than lust, and the simple desire to escape their unhappy home-lives as the motivating factors for their arrangement, but Chekhov gives us glimpses of something deeper. “He and Anna Sergeyevna loved one another as people who are very close and intimate, as husband and wife, as dear friends love one another” (255). Gurov seems to begin a dismantling of the cocoon of superficiality in which he has enclosed himself. “Formerly, in moments of melancholy, he had consoled himself by the first argument that came into his head, but now arguments where nothing to him, he felt profound pity, desired to be sincere, tender,” he says, surprising himself with his newfound feelings (255). Bound by the constraints of their time and society, Anna and Gurov are kept from one another—“They were two migrating birds… who had been caught and put into separate cages”—and yet cling to the possibility of reunion (255). Both are committed to making an impossible situation work, now not solely for their own benefit, but truly for the other’s sake. “And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning,” writes Chekhov.
Is this real love? It appears to be. It is, at least, a promise of it. Whether that promise will be kept through the trials and tribulations of life is for each of us to decide. This is the genius of Chekhov. He invites the reader to be an active participant. He hands us the reins and allows us to decide whether this whisper of affection will build toward a victorious cry of authentic, enduring love.
And here we arrive at our final destination: pristine, unadulterated love. It is difficult to imagine a more clear description of true love than the one offered by Gimpel, the narrator and central character of “Gimpel the Fool,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This is a superbly written and poignantly funny story about a man who, despite being given the title of “fool” by his fellow villagers, displays greater wisdom than arguably any of us will ever achieve. He shows an unwavering willingness to trust, an insistent commitment to forgiving, and a sure readiness to give even when faced with outright disrespect. From a young age Gimpel has been the butt of most of the town’s cruel jokes. “I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me … What was I to do? I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good,” he exclaims in resignation (1142).
Although Singer sets up the story to make us believe Gimpel is oblivious to the true intentions of the villagers, it becomes clear once one delves into the account that stupidity is not what drives his trustworthiness. His actions are motivated by a calculated decision not to let the cynicism of those around him permeate his character. “I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What is the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God himself you won’t take stock in,” he explains (1147). This is not at all a foolish declaration. A deeply religious man with a naturally tolerant nature, Gimpel prefers to be mocked rather than risk jeopardizing the integrity of his soul. “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not the fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself,” he is told by a rabbi. Immediately following this exchange he is tricked by the rabbi’s daughter into licking the wall through the claim that doing this is “the law; you’ve got to do it after every visit” (1143).
Gimpel is coerced by the townspeople into marrying a woman of dubious reputation, who not only enters their union with a born bastard, but is also pregnant. Incapable of curbing his loving instincts, Gimpel says of the living proof of his wife infidelities, “I loved the child madly, and he loved me too” (1145). He will come to feel this way about each of the six children she bears throughout the duration of their union—all six unmistakably not his progeny. “I saw the newborn child’s face and loved it as soon as I saw it—immediately—each tiny bone,” he says, upon returning home for the first time in nine months (and soon before discovering his wife in bed with another man) (1148). Even for Elka, his cheating and abusive wife, Gimpel cannot help showing affection. “I didn’t dislike Elka either, for that matter. She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn’t get enough of her… I adored her every word. She gave me bloody wounds though” (1145).
Gimpel is, undeniably, an idealization, a man who represents a level of generosity of spirit not realistically achievable. It is nearly impossible to imagine any human capable of keeping his spirits intact after so much maltreatment. To persist in giving love in spite of so infrequenly receiving is a trait rarely recorded in our history. Nonetheless, this does not diminish Gimpel’s value. Perfection is obviously unattainable, but just reaching in its direction can create sufficient momentum to transform a life. As for his fellow villagers, if they represent society at large, a society so skeptical that it has ceased to believe in human goodness, where if one has fortitude to show good-faith he is taken for all his worth, then the real joke is on us. We shouldn’t feel bad for Gimpel, for we are the ones to be pitied.
Love is never static. It is a living, breathing, dynamic entity. In its infancy, it has a radiant, powerful attraction. As it grows, it can become a challenging creature. It is easily frightened. When not nurtured, it perishes. Sometimes, love requires time-consuming, intensive care. It can also be extremely insolent and at times even a bit perverse. It can, of course, hurt you. But if you show commitment, give love a good foundation, and instill in it the trust it needs to achieve its full potential, love will develop unimaginable strength. It will stand by you and withstand all hazards other than neglect. These three stories show a progression, an evolution that love inevitably requires. It follows an arc that begins with complete self-concern, proceeds toward an interlude of experimentation and development of bonds, and finally arrives at a point where we care as much for others as we do for ourselves. Only by giving can we open our hearts wide enough to receive love’s enormous gifts. Whatever your difficulties, pick yourself up, and force yourself to continue in this amazing odyssey. Because a life without love is barely a life at all; it is just the ticking of a clock that is sure to one day stop.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Darling.” Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. 12th ed. Pearson: Longman, 2010. 235 – 43.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Lady with the Dog.” Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. 12th ed. Pearson: Longman, 2010. 244 – 55.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimple the Fool.” Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. 12th ed. Pearson: Longman, 2010. 1142 – 51.
Published April 1, 2010
Photo credit: “Home in the Hillside” by Trey Ratcliff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0