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Yuri Corrigan_Chekhov and the Divided Self (2011)

Yuri Corrigan_Chekhov and the Divided Self (2011)

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Published by Yavuz Odabasi
Yuri Corrigan: “Chekhov and the Divided Self”

‘The Russian Review’, 70 (April 2011), pp. 272–87.
Yuri Corrigan: “Chekhov and the Divided Self”

‘The Russian Review’, 70 (April 2011), pp. 272–87.

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Published by: Yavuz Odabasi on Mar 26, 2014
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Chekhov and the Divided Self 
YURI CORRIGAN
O
ne of Chekhov’s favorite plots in his early stories involves a clash between two kindsof characters, one sensitive, excitable, and desperate for recognition, the other reservedand emotionally inaccessible. When the little clerk, Chervyakov, in “Death of a CivilServant” (“Smert' chinovnika,” 1883), sneezes on an important general, the general isunperturbed and hardly notices the offense. Chervyakov, however, is horrified by theaudacity of his act, and he apologizes profusely, mystified and alarmed by the general’sindifference. Eventually, on his sixth apology, he succeeds in irritating the general andeliciting the rebuke “Get lost!” (
 Poshel von!
), which causes the overwrought Chervyakovto die from terror and humiliation.
1
 Something in the dynamic between these twocharacters—something more basic than the social power imbalance that divides them—  persistently reemerges as a psychological pattern among Chekhov’s many characterizations.From the early 1880s onward these two individuals keep attempting to communicate—onetrembling, weeping, and struggling for justice within an enclosed sphere of concerns, whilethe other observes the comedy, without much interest, from outside.This article will examine how the simple dramatic conflict between engaged anddetached characters in many of the early stories anticipates a more philosophically complex psychological dualism that appears in the stories of the 1890s.
2
 Through an analysis of these “enemies”—first as distinct characters in conflict and then as warring identities withinthe individual—I shall examine how Chekhov conceived of a complex architecture for theself over the span of his career, how these attitudes in conflict in his early works initiate ameditation on the nature of compassion and the problem of the structure of the human personality. By following the development of this conflict, we can observe how Chekhovengaged and reenvisioned the larger European tradition of psychological dualism and personal fragmentation that he inherited at the end of the nineteenth century.
1
A. P. Chekhov,
 Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v tridtsati tomakh
 (
 PSS 
) (Moscow, 1974), 2:166. All passages are from this edition, and all translations are mine. Subsequent in-text parenthetical references are tothis edition and will contain volume and page numbers. Because the final twelve volumes of this thirty-volume edition comprise the
 Letters
 and are numbered 1–12, references to these volumes will be
 PSS, Letters
.
2
Early, that is, according to Aleksandr Chudakov’s division of Chekhov’s narrative strategies into three periods; 1880–87 (early), 1888–94 (middle), and 1895–1904 (late), in Chudakov,
 Poetika Chekhova
 (Moscow,1971).
The Russian Review
 70 (April 2011): 272–87Copyright 2011
The Russian Review
 
Chekhov and the Divided Self 
273
FORMULATING THE “ENEMIES”
In 1887, when Chekhov was twenty-seven and was in the midst of adopting a more seriousapproach to writing, the conflict between Chervyakov and the general went through a quick succession of drafts, some anecdotal and trivial, others deeper and more philosophicallyevocative. Two brief examples of the former type can flesh out the conflict as a recurrentcomic situation. In “A Defenseless Creature” (“Bezzashchitnoe sushchestvo,” 1887), a petitioner, Shchukina, appears at a bank, desperately begging for help: her husband wasshortchanged twenty-four rubles and thirty-six kopecks from his salary.
3
 The tired andailing banker—who is described as “barely breathing” from illness, with the appearance of a “dying” man, explains to her patiently that this is a bank, not a government office, andthat she has come to the wrong place (6:87). Shchukina, however, displays an unwillingnessto understand, reminiscent of Chervyakov’s thick-headedness. Sobbing with aggressivehelplessness, she begs frantically for the banker to intervene on her behalf. The banker,meanwhile, having explained countless times to no avail and by now furiously irritated,uses the same angry words that the general delivered to Chervyakov: “Get lost ...!” (
 Poshlavon ...!
 6:90). Bitterly annoyed, he gives Shchukina money from his own pocket in order torid himself of the nuisance.In “A Drama” (1887), written in a similar vein five months later, an aspiring playwrightcomes to a successful author and begs him to listen to a play she has written. He wantsnothing to do with her, but she is persistent, clasping her hands as if in prayer, moaning,with tears brimming in her eyes. After several remonstrations, he agrees to listen so as toget rid of her, and she proceeds to read aloud from her drama, which is a collection of themost unbearable clichés from the European stage. As she reads with passionate conviction,her counterpart, sweating from impatience, watches her slowly turn the pages of her disconcertingly large notebook: “‘The 17
th
 scene. ... When will it ever end? ... O my God!If this torment continues even ten more minutes, I will cry for help. ... Insufferable!’”(6:237). Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he lifts up a paper weight and kills her bystriking her over the head.These light, grotesque works, published under the pseudonym Antosha Chekhonte,display a common underlying narrative pattern. The desperate petitioner, engulfed withina sphere of compelling immediate concerns, cannot understand the patron’s indifference.The patron, in turn, cannot condescend to engage in the cares of the petitioner and only becomes increasingly irritated by his enemy’s naïve obliviousness. In the stories thatChekhov was simultaneously publishing under his own name in Suvorin’s
 New Times
, theconflict between patron and petitioner takes on a more philosophically meditative form. In“An Encounter” (“Vstrecha,” 1887), Efrem, a religious traveler, loses his way in the forestwhile collecting money for his church. By chance he meets a peasant, Kuzma, who agreesto guide him. The companions stop for the night and, while Efrem is sleeping, Kuzmasteals the money from Efrem’s collection and spends it on drink. The next morning, Efrem
3
All three of these petititioners from the Chekhonte stories have names derived from small creatures:Chervyakov from “cherv’” (worm), Schukina from “schuka” (pike), and Murashkina, the aspiring playwrightin “Drama,” from “murashka” (ant).
 
274
Yuri Corrigan
realizes he has been robbed, but he does not chide Kuzma. He adopts a demeanor of indifference, and his lack of concern confounds the thief. Kuzma at first denies taking themoney, but when Efrem continues to shrug his shoulders unconcernedly, Kuzma breaksdown and begs to be forgiven.From the familiar Romantic plot, we might expect the thief Kuzma, like Hugo’s JeanValjean at the hands of the Bishop of Digne, to be spiritually regenerated by Efrem’s failureto accuse him.
4
 Chekhov, however, interprets the scene in his own way. As Kuzma repeatedly begs forgiveness (like Chervyakov before him), Efrem refuses to engage the thief, tellinghim to appeal to God instead. Here, the conflict between engagement and detachmentacquires theological overtones as the enemies play out a battle between incompatible modesof immanence and transcendence. As Kuzma evokes Christ in his entreaties for condescension, he simultaneously plays the Christological role of the trembling, sufferingindividual: “He ran in front of Efrem and began to look him in the eye, as if hoping toconvince himself that he was not alone. ‘Forgive me, for the love of Christ,’ he said,trembling with his whole body.” But Kuzma, crying out for compassion, meets only withtranscendent impassivity from his enemy: “Under the influence of ... Efrem’s indifference,in which there was so little that was ordinary and human, Kuzma felt himself to be alone,helpless, abandoned to the mercy of a frightening, wrathful God” (6:128). As Efremmaintains his dignified godlike aloofness and Kuzma jumps up and down in tremblingagitation, Chekhov provides a sketch of the disconnection between these spheres of existencein human psychology (the human and the more-than-human; the immanent and transcendent).At this early point in his career, he is content simply to show the impossibility of intersection between them; Efrem conquers his opponent through nonresistance, but it is of an unsettling,cruel sort, one whose remoteness is as problematic as Kuzma’s tortured immediacy.Chekhov’s early masterpiece, “The Enemies” (“Vragi,” 1887), represents a moreethically complex treatment of the conflict between impassioned petitioner and impassive patron. In the story, a wealthy aristocrat, Abogin, arrives at Dr. Kirilov’s house in a state of emergency. His wife has had a sudden seizure, she could be dying, and Kirilov is the onlydoctor in the area. The timing could not be worse. Just five minutes earlier, Kirilov’s onlyson has died of diphtheria. The doctor’s wife is in catatonic shock, lying motionless over the boy’s corpse in the other room. Kirilov himself resembles a corpse, stunned andunresponsive in his grief. He tells Abogin to go away, but, much like in the stories discussedabove, the hysterical petitioner refuses to give up, and the doctor, like his earlier counterparts,finally agrees to help as the only way to be rid of him. When they arrive at Abogin’s house,they discover that the wife was not really ill and had simply feigned her seizure in order toescape with her lover. The story focuses on the aftermath of this discovery. Abogin, sobbingfrom a broken heart, and Dr. Kirilov, incensed at being submitted to such a vulgar melodramain his time of grief, stand face to face in the living room and find it intensely difficult tounderstand each other.
4
Thomas Winner, for example, argued that the “thief is regenerated because his victim refuses to reporthim.” See Winner,
È
exov’s ‘Ward No. 6’ and Tolstoyan Ethics,”
Slavic & East European Journal 
 3 (Winter 1959): 322.

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