Chekhov and the Divided Self
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.
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 ...!” (
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
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
, 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
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).