Selected Stories of Anton Chekov

INTRODUCTION

In the autumn of 1844 a young writer named Dmitri Grigorovich was sharing rooms with a friend of his from military engineering school, the twenty-three-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was at work on his first novel, Poor Folk. Through Grigorovich the finished manuscript reached the hands of Vissarion Belinsky, the most influential critic of the time, whose enthusiasm launched Dostoevsky’s career. More than four decades later, in 1886, this same Grigorovich, now an elder statesman of literature, came across the humorous sketches of someone who signed himself “Antosha Chekhonte,” brought them to the attention of the publisher Alexei Suvorin, and thus “recognized” the last great Russian writer of the nineteenth century—Anton Chekhov.

Grigorovich also wrote to the young man himself, scolding him for not taking his work seriously and for hiding behind a pseudonym. Chekhov was astonished and deeply moved. In his reply, dated March 28, 1886, after apologizing for scanting his talent, though he suspected he had it, and thanking Grigorovich for confirming that suspicion, he explained:

… In the five years I spent hanging around newspaper offices, I became resigned to the general view of my literary insignificance, soon took to looking down on my work, and kept plowing right on. That’s the first factor. The second is that I am a doctor and up to my ears in medicine. The saying about chasing two hares at once has never robbed anybody of more sleep than it has me.

The only reason I am writing all this is to justify my grievous sin in your eyes to some small degree. Until now I treated my literary work extremely frivolously, casually, nonchalantly; I can’t remember working on a single story for more than a day, and “The Huntsman,” which you so enjoyed, I wrote in a bathing house … All my hope lies in the future. I’m still only twenty-six. I may manage to accomplish something yet, though time is flying …*

Just a month earlier, Chekhov had written to a friend saying that his real commitment was to medicine, while literature was a mistress he would one day abandon. Now he likened the effect of Grigorovich’s letter on him to “a governor’s order to leave town within twenty-four hours.” And he obeyed the order. He began to write less and work more. The first story signed with his real name, “Panikhida,” appeared in Suvorin’s magazine New Time that same year—the start of a close and sometimes difficult collaboration between writer and editor that would continue for the rest of Chekhov’s life. Though a delight in the absurd and a sharp eye for human folly remained central to his work, he was no longer merely a humorist. The repentant sketch-writer had made his entry into serious literature.

Chekhov’s contemporaries were struck by his originality. He invented a new kind of story, which opened up areas of life that had not yet been explored by Russian literature. Tolstoy saw it at once. “Chekhov is an incomparable artist,” he is quoted as saying, “an artist of life … Chekhov has created new forms of writing, completely new, in my opinion, to the whole world, the like of which I have not encountered anywhere … Chekhov has his own special form, like the impressionists.” Tolstoy was not alone in using the term “impressionism” to describe Chekhov’s art. We may see what he meant if we look at “The Huntsman,” the story that first caught Grigorovich’s eye. Written entirely in the present tense, it opens with some fragmentary observations about the weather, a brief but vivid and (typically for Chekhov) slightly anthropomorphized description of the fields and forest, a few