Chekhov on Happiness

I have just finished a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) entitled The Wife and Other Stories which has been, by far, the best book I have read so far this year. Even though her translations are being increasingly considered as clunky and slightly archaic, I really enjoyed Constance Garnett. The following discussion on happiness vs. unhappiness is from a story entitled “Gooseberries.”

I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…. Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes…. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition…. And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.

A Writer Who Understands People As They Are

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

It started last summer, when I reread his novelette The Steppe in a Reykjavik guesthouse. I said to myself, “This is a writer who understands people as they are.” Tonight, I read his play The Seagull, which gives us a rural Russian estate and introduces us to a group of people of are dissatisfied with themselves and one another. If I have my way, I will read a good deal more of Anton Chekhov this next year. It is so easy to be cowed by Tolstoyevsky—as my late mother used to refer to the two giants of 19th century Russian literature—that one is prevented from reading their contemporaries.

This is a great pity, because there are so many great writers to choose from among their contemporaries. I am thinking not only of Chekhov, but also Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Lermontov, and Alexander Pushkin. And I am sure there are half a dozen more that I just don’t know about yet.

Chekhov was a physician, a playwright, and perhaps the world’s greatest writer of short stories. In addition, he wrote a great travel book about a visit to the island of Sakhalin off the East coast of Siberia, which was an early prison colony. In addition to a description of the conditions there, we have his description of the trip there and back in the days before the Trans-Siberian Railroad was built.

Chekhov was a prolific writer who lived a short life. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was a victim of tuberculosis. As a doctor, he knew what was happening to him. Yet his writing never suffered any ill effects.

In addition to his plays, there are a handful of his stories that are well worth seeking out. My favorites are “The Steppe,” “The Lady with the Dog,” and “Ward Number Six.”