Anton Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29, 1860 – 15 July 15, 1904) was a Russian playwright and short-story writer. He is considered to be one of the greatest writers in the world.

In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist. Chekhov portrayed often life in the Russian small towns, where tragic events occur in a minor key, as a part of everyday texture of life. Through stories such as The Steppe and The Lady with the Dog, and plays such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov emphasized the depths of human nature, the hidden significance of everyday events and the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 29th in 1860, in Taganrog, in Russia. His father, Pavel, was a grocer with frequent money troubles; his mother, Yevgeniya, shared her love of storytelling with Chekhov and his five siblings.

When Pavel’s business failed in 1875, he took the family to Moscow to look for other work while Chekhov remained in Taganrog until he finished his studies. Chekhov finally joined his family in Moscow in 1879 and enrolled at medical school. With his father still struggling financially, Chekhov supported the family with his freelance writing, producing hundreds of short comic pieces under a pen name for local magazines.

During the mid-1880s, Chekhov practiced as a physician and began to publish serious works of fiction under his own name. His pieces appeared in the newspaper New Times and then as part of collections such as Motley Stories (1886). His story The Steppe was an important success, earning its author the Pushkin Prize in 1888. Like most of Chekhov’s early work, it showed the influence of the major Russian realists of the 19th century, such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Chekhov also wrote works for the theater during this period. His earliest plays were short farces; however, he soon developed his signature style, which was a unique mix of comedy and tragedy. Plays such as Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889) told stories about educated men of the upper classes coping with debt, disease and inevitable disappointment in life. 

Chekhov wrote many of his greatest works from the 1890s through the last few years of his life. In his short stories of that period, including Ward No. 6 and The Lady with the Dog, he revealed a profound understanding of human nature and the ways in which ordinary events can carry deeper meaning.

In his plays of these years, Chekhov concentrated primarily on mood and characters, showing that they could be more important than the plots. Not much seems to happen to his lonely, often desperate characters, but their inner conflicts take on great significance. Their stories are very specific, painting a picture of pre-revolutionary Russian society, yet timeless.

From the late 1890s onward, Chekhov collaborated with Constantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater on productions of his plays, including his masterpieces The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).

Today Chekhov’s fame today rests primarily on his plays. He used ordinary conversations, pauses, noncommunication, nonhappening, incomplete thoughts, to reveal the truth behind trivial words and daily life. There is always a division between the outer appearance and the inner currents of thoughts and emotions. His characters belong often to the provincial middle class, petty aristocracy, or landowners of pre-revolutionary Russia. They contemplate their unsatisfactory lives, immersed in nostalgia, unable to make decisions and help themselves when a crisis breaks out.

Chekhov’s first full-length plays were failures. When Chaika (The Seagull), written in Melikhovo, was revised in 1898 by Stanislavsky at the Moskow Art Theatre, he gained also fame as a playwright. Chekhov described The Seagull as a comedy, but it ends with the suicide of a young poet. The idea for the play partly emerged from a day’s hunting trip Chekhov had made with his friend Isaac Levitan, who shot at a woodcock, which did not die. Disgusted, Chekhov smashed the bird’s head in with his rifle butt.

Another masterpiece from this period is Dyadya Vanya (1900, Uncle Vanya), a melancholic story of Sonia and his brother-in-law Ivan (Uncle Vanya), who see their dreams and hopes passing in drudgery for others. Tri sestry (1901, The Three Sisters) was set in a provincial garrison town. The talented Prozorov sisters, whose hopes have much in common with the Brontë sisters, recognize the uselessness of their lives and cling to one another for consolation. “If only we knew! If only we knew!” cries Olga at the end of the play.

Vishnyovy sad (1904, The Cherry Orchaid) reflected the larger developments in the Russian society. Mme Ranevskaias returns to her estate and finds out that the family house, together with the adjoining orchard, is to be auctioned. Her brother Gaev is too impractical to help in the crisis. The businessman Lopakhin purchases the estate and the orchard is demolished. “Everything on earth must come to an end…”

In these three famous plays Chekhov blended humor and tragedy. He left much room for imagination –his plays as well as his stories are in opposition to the concept of an artist as a mouthpiece of political change or social message. However, in his late years Chekhov supported morally the young experimental director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, who hoped to establish a revolutionary theater. Usually in Chekhov’s dramas surprise and tension are not key elements, the dramatic movement is subdued, his characters do not fight, they endure their fate with patience. But in the process, they perhaps discover something about themselves and their monotonous life.

As a short story writer Chekhov was phenomenally fast – he could compose a little sketch or a joke while just visiting at a newspaper office. During his career he produced several hundred tales.

Chekhov bought in 1892 a country estate in the village of Melikhove, where his best stories were written, including Neighbours (1892), Ward Number Six, The Black Monk (1894), The Murder (1895), and Ariadne (1895). He also served as a volunteer census taker, participated in famine relief, and worked as a medical inspector during cholore epidemics. In 1897 he fell ill with tuberculosis and lived since either abroad or in the Crimea.

Chekhov married in 1901 the Moscow Art Theater actress Olga Knipper (1870–1959).

Tolstoy, who admired Chekhov’s fiction, did not think much of his dramatic skills. When he met Chekhov in Yalta, he said: “Don’t write any more plays, old thing.” Chekhov himself thought that Tolstoy was already a very sick man at that time, but he lived longer than Chekhov.

Chekhov died on July 14/15, 1904, at the age of 44 after a long fight with tuberculosis. He died in Badenweiler, in Germany. His last words were, “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” His body was returned to Russia in a refrigerated railroad car marked “for oysters”. A number of people waited for it at the Moscow train station, but they first started to follow the wrong coffin, that of a General Keller, which was being eccompanied by a military band. 

Chekhov was buried in the cemetery of the Novodevichy (New Virgin) Monastery in Moscow, between the grave of his father and that of a Cossack widow. Though a celebrated figure by the Russian literary public at the time of his death, Chekhov remained rather unknown internationally until the years after World War I, when his works were translated into English.

He is considered as one of the major literary figures of his time. His plays are still staged worldwide, and his overall body of work influenced important writers of an array of genres, including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Henry Miller.