Authors: Anton Chekhov

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Russian playwright and short-story writer

January 29, 1860

Taganrog, Russia

July 15, 1904

Badenweiler, Germany

Biography

Anton Chekhov (CHEHK-awf)—also written Chekov, Tchehov, and Tchekhov—was Russia’s foremost playwright and one of the great masters of the short story. He was the third child of Pravel Yegorovitch Chekhov, a “merchant in the third guild”—that is, the proprietor of a small grocery shop—in Taganrog, where the future writer was born in 1860. When, after an unhappy childhood, he entered Moscow University to study medicine, he assumed the burden and responsibility of supporting the family, which he undertook to do by writing humorous sketches and stories for periodicals. The first of these tales was published in 1880, and in the next seven years he wrote as many as six hundred stories. On his graduation in 1884, with health already impaired by hard work and tuberculosis, he took up the practice of medicine, which he was to pursue somewhat desultorily in later years, as inclination and poor health permitted. There would be no lack of patients, but money was always scarce. {$I[AN]9810001509} {$I[A]Chekhov, Anton} {$S[A]Chekov, Anton;Chekhov, Anton}{$S[A]Tchehov, Anton;Chekhov, Anton}{$S[A]Tchekhov, Anton;Chekhov, Anton} {$I[geo]RUSSIA;Chekhov, Anton} {$I[tim]1860;Chekhov, Anton}

Anton Chekhov

(Library of Congress)

His literary aspirations received strong encouragement in 1885 when he made his first visit to the nation’s literary capital, St. Petersburg. There he met A. S. Suvorin, wealthy and influential editor of the New Times, who invited contributions. Chekhov’s first three stories published in this paper found enthusiastic readers. He was already well known and admired in the city on the strength of earlier stories, most of which he confessed were carelessly written. In the next five years, he gave critical attention to his writing and formulated sound theories of art. In a letter in 1887, he pointed out that “a man of letters is not a pastry cook, nor an expert on cosmetics, nor an entertainer; he is a responsible person, under contract to his conscience and the consciousness of his duty . . . [and] he is in duty bound to battle with his fastidiousness and soil his imagination with the grime of life.” During this period, he came under the influence of Leo Tolstoy. A few of the tales show the impact of Tolstoyan ideas on morality and nonresistance to evil.

In 1890, Chekhov decided to make the arduous journey to Sakhalin Island, penal colony of the czarist government, to study conditions there. His motives are not clear, for he gave conflicting explanations. However personal the real reasons were, his humanitarian sympathies were genuine enough, and he may have felt an impulse to make practical use of his keen powers of observation and his scientific training. He reported to Suvorin that he spoke with every man, woman, and child on the island. His book based on the survey—in which he said, “I have paid my debt to learning”—helped to bring about changes of policy in the colony, but soon both the investigation and the book were forgotten. One significant consequence was that Tolstoy’s ideas no longer seemed adequate to reach the deep-rooted ills of humankind. Chekhov’s carefully wrought “Ward No. 6” (1892), for example, pointed to the weakness of the “nonresistance” principle.

Chekhov had already written several plays, but his high reputation as a playwright dates from 1898, when The Seagull, a failure at its first performance on October 17, 1896, was presented by Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater. The same group presented Uncle Vanya in the autumn of 1899, and the whole troupe went to the author’s home in Yalta to petition him for further works. Chekhov obliged with The Three Sisters, which brought his subtle methods close to perfection in a deftly articulated story. In the last year of his life, The Cherry Orchard made his high rank secure. External action in this haunting masterpiece is almost nonexistent, for the writer’s intention, as in many of his tales, is to project a mood, an elusive state of mind. The central figures are a set of futile but charming gentlefolk, far better able to feel than to act, who have outlived their own day but are powerless to adapt to the new.

Chekhov’s rise to fame as a playwright coincided with the culmination of his long battle against tuberculosis. In 1897, he suffered a severe attack, and from that day his activities and travels were dictated by his illness. During his stay at Nice, searching as usual for a tolerable climate, he became a partisan of Émile Zola in connection with the Dreyfus affair. This stand brought him into open conflict with the conservative principles of the St. Petersburg New Times, and his close friendship with Suvorin ended. He found a new friend, however, in Maxim Gorky, and in 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper, a young actress of the Moscow Art Theater. Much of their wedded life was spent apart, Chekhov in Yalta and his wife in Moscow pursuing her theatrical career, the two of them anxiously querying and reassuring each other by letter as to the quality and durability of their devotion. They were together in Badenweiler, Germany, however, at the time of Chekhov’s death on July 2, 1904. His body arrived in Moscow in a coach bearing the legend “Fresh Oysters.”

Although Chekhov was occasionally charged with being a writer without a philosophy or a point of view, his stories and plays clearly illustrate his artistic principles and his conception of human truths. The drabness and tedium of life, the ugliness of hardship and poverty, and the silent loneliness of the individual are set forth without compromise or palliation, but there are many glimpses of beauty in nature and humanity. The author’s very real personal woes never defeated his innate kindness, his keen sense of humor, his love for humankind, or his faith in the future.

Author Works Drama: Platonov, wr. 1878–1881, pb. 1923 (English translation, 1930) Ivanov, pr., pb. 1887, revised pr. 1889 (English translation, 1912) Medved, pr., pb. 1888 (A Bear, 1909) Predlozheniye, pb. 1889 (A Marriage Proposal, 1914) Leshy, pr. 1889 (The Wood Demon, 1925) Svadba, pb. 1889 (The Wedding, 1916) Tatyana Repina, 1889 (English translation, 1999) Yubiley, pb. 1892 (The Jubilee, 1916) Chayka, pr. 1896, revised pr. 1898 (The Seagull, 1909) Dyadya Vanya, pb. 1897 (based on his play The Wood Demon; Uncle Vanya, 1914) Tri sestry, pr., pb. 1901, revised pb. 1904 (Three Sisters, 1920) Vishnyovy sad, pr., pb. 1904 (The Cherry Orchard, 1908) The Plays of Chekhov, pb. 1923–1924 (2 volumes) Nine Plays, pb. 1959 Long Fiction: Drama na okhote, 1884, 1955 (The Shooting Party, 1927 Short Fiction: Skazki Melpomeny, 1884 Pystrye rasskazy, 1886 Nevinnye rechi, 1887 V sumerkakh, 1887 Nevinnye rechi, 1887 Rasskazy, 1888 Detvora, 1889 The Tales of Tchehov, 1916–1922 (13 volumes) The Undiscovered Chekhov: Forty-Three New Stories, 1999, revised 2001 Nonfiction: Ostrov Sakhalin, 1893–1894 Letters on the Short Story, the Drama, and Other Literary Topics, 1924 The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955 Miscellaneous: The Works of Anton Chekhov, 1929 Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy i pisem A. P. Chekhova, 1944–1951 (20 volumes) The Portable Chekhov, 1947 The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Unpublished, 1954 The Oxford Chekhov, 1964–1980 (9 volumes) Bibliography Allen, David. Performing Chekhov. New York: Routledge, 2000. A look at the production of Chekhov’s dramatic works on the stage. Bibliography and index. Bartlett, Rosamund Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. This biography takes a look, not only at Chekhov’s life, but also at the geography and history of the Russian empire. Bloom, Harold, ed. Anton Chekhov. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A volume in the series Modern Critical Views. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and an introduction by Bloom. Callow, Philip. Chekhov, the Hidden Ground: A Biography. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998. A biography of Chekhov that covers his life and works. Bibliography and index. Clyman, Toby, ed. A Chekhov Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A collection of critical essays, especially commissioned for this volume, on all aspects of Chekhov’s life, art, and career. Some of the most important critics of Chekhov’s work are represented here in essays on his major themes, his dramatic technique, his narrative technique, and his influence on modern drama and on the modern short story. Flath, Carol A. “The Limits to the Flesh: Searching for the Soul in Chekhov’s ‘A Boring Story.’” Slavic and East European Journal 41 (Summer, 1997): 271–286. Argues that “A Boring Story” affirms the value of art and offers comfort against the harshness of the truth about ordinary life and death. Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening into Eternity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A scholarly study of the dramas of Chekhov. Bibliography and index. Gottlieb, Vera, and Paul Allain, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A guide to the life and works of the playwright. Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of Major Stories and Plays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Hahn focuses on The Cherry Orchard as the principal Chekhov play with which to introduce his dramatic technique, although she does discuss the earlier plays as well. This study is particularly notable for its study of Chekhov’s relationship with Tolstoy and of his depiction of women in his plays. Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. London: Unwin Books, 1950, rev. ed. 1966. Hingley provides a general introduction to the life and work of Chekhov, focusing on both Chekhov’s language and his relationship to the social issues significant in Russia during that time. Hingley, Ronald. A New Life of Anton Chekhov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. A more detailed and more thoroughly biographical study than Hingley’s earlier work, this biography makes use of many documentary materials not previously available, particularly eight volumes of Chekhov’s letters. It also focuses more on the mysterious subject of Chekhov’s relationships with women than do previous studies. Johnson, Ronald J. Anton Chekhov: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to Chekhov’s short stories, from his earliest journalistic sketches and ephemera to his influential stories “Gooseberries” and “Lady with a Dog.” Discusses Chekhov’s objective narrative stance, his social conscience, and his belief in the freedom of the individual. Includes excerpts from Chekhov’s letters in which he talks about his fiction, as well as comments by other critics who discuss Chekhov’s attitude toward religion and sexuality. Kirk, Irina. Anton Chekhov. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This solid study in the Twayne series offers a good departure point for serious further inquiry. In addition to provocative interpretations of selected fictional and dramatic works, it includes a useful chronology and select bibliography. The study is most helpful in delineating the guiding principles of Chekhov’s art. Lantz, K. A. Anton Chekhov: A Reference Guide to Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. Lantz offers an indispensable tool for the researcher. The work provides a brief biography, a checklist of Chekhov’s published works with both English and Russian titles, chronologically arranged, and a very useful annotated bibliography of criticism through 1983. McMillin, Arnold. “Chekhov and the Soviet Village Prose Writers: Affinities of Fact and Fiction.” The Modern Language Review 93 (July, 1998): 754-761. Discusses Chekhov’s influence on Soviet village prose writers. Malcolm, Janet. Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. New York: Random House, 2001. With her favorite Russian dramatist as a guide, Malcolm draws on her observations as a tourist/journalist to compose a melancholy portrait of post-Soviet Russia. Malcolm weaves her encounters with contemporary Russians with biographical and critical analyses of Chekhov and his writings. Martin, David W. “Chekhov and the Modern Short Story in English.” Neophilologus 71 (1987): 129-143. Martin surveys Chekhov’s influence on various English-language writers, including Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, and Frank O’Connor. He compares selected works by Chekhov with pieces by those he has influenced and discusses those Chekhovian traits and practices revealed therein. He credits Chekhov with showing how effete or banal characters or circumstances can be enlivened with the dynamics of style. The article is a good departure point for further comparative study. Pritchett, V. S. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. New York: Random House, 1988. Pritchett’s study is a critical biography and a good general introduction to Chekhov. Himself a writer of fiction, Pritchett has a very readable, engaging style. His discussions of selected works, though helpful, are prone to summary rather than extensive analysis. The work is not recommended as a guide for further study. It has no bibliography or other aids. Prose, Francine. “Learning from Chekhov.” Western Humanities Review 41 (1987): 1-14. Prose’s article is an appreciative eulogy on the staying power of Chekhov’s stories as models for writers. She notes that while Chekhov broke many established rules, his stress on objectivity and writing without judgment is of fundamental importance. The piece would be of most help to creative writers. Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A detailed biography of Anton Chekhov including material about his relationship with various members of his family and his antecedents, his literary friendships, and the literary environment of prerevolutionary Russia. Rayfield, Donald. Understanding Chekhov: A Critical Study of Chekhov’s Prose and Drama. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. A critical examination of the writings of Chekhov. Index. Senelick, Laurence. The Chekhov Theatre: A Century of the Plays in Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A look at the stage history and production of Chekhov’s works. Troyat, Henri. Chekhov. Translated by Michael H. Heim. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. Troyat’s biography, drawing heavily on Chekhov’s letters, is a much more detailed and comprehensive study of Chekhov’s life than is V. S. Pritchett’s (above). It is less a critical biography, however, and is mainly valuable for its intimate portrayal of Chekhov the man. It is well indexed and documented by Chekhov’s correspondence. Illustrated with photographs.

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