Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian short story writer and playwright. He was born in Taganrog, southern Russia, on January 29th, 1860, and died of tuberculosis at the health spa of Badenweiler, Germany, on July 15th, 1904. His playwriting career produced four classics, while his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Chekhov practiced as a doctor throughout most of his literary career: "Medicine is my lawful wife," he once said, "and literature is my mistress".
Anton Chekhov was born on 29 January 1860, the third of six surviving children, in Taganrog, Russia, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia where his father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, the son of a former serf, ran a grocery store. A choirmaster, religious fanatic, and keen flogger of his children, Pavel Chekhov has been seen as the model for his son's many portraits of hypocrites. Chekhov's mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller who entertained the children with tales of her travels with her cloth-merchant father all over Russia. "Our talents we got from our father," Chekhov remembered, "but our soul from our mother."
Chekhov attended a school for Greek boys, followed by the Taganrog gymnasium (now renamed the Chekhov Gymnasium), where he was kept down for a year at fifteen for failing a Greek exam. He sang at the Greek Orthodox monastery in Taganrog and in his father's choirs.
In 1876, Chekhov's father was declared bankrupt after over-extending his finances building a new house, and to avoid the debtor's prison fled to Moscow, where his two eldest sons, Alexander and Nikolai, were attending the university. The family lived in poverty in Moscow. Anton was left behind to sell the family possessions and finish his education.
Chekhov remained in Taganrog for three more years, boarding with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house. Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by — among other jobs — private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers. He sent every ruble he could spare to Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer up the family. During this time he read widely and analytically, including Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer; and he wrote a full-length comedy drama, Fatherless, which his brother Alexander dismissed as "an inexcusable though innocent fabrication". Chekhov also enjoyed a series of love affairs.
Gorky and Chekhov
In 1879, Chekhov completed his schooling and joined his family in Moscow, having gained admission to the medical school at Moscow University.
Chekhov now assumed responsibility for the whole family. To support them and to pay his tuition fees, Anton daily wrote short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life, many under pseudonyms such as "Antosha Chekhonte" and "Man without a Spleen". His prodigious output gradually earned him a reputation as a satirical chronicler of Russian street life.
In 1884, Chekhov qualified as a physician, which he considered his principal profession though he made little money from it and treated the poor for free. In 1884 and 1885, Chekhov found himself coughing blood, and in 1886 the attacks worsened; but he would not admit tuberculosis to his family and friends, confessing to Leikin, "I am afraid to submit myself to be sounded by my colleagues." Chekhov continued writing for weekly periodicals, earning enough money to move the family into progressively better accommodation. Early in 1886 he was invited to write for one of the most respected papers in St. Petersburg, Novoye Vremya (New Times), owned and edited by the millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin, who paid per line a rate double as much as Leikin and allowed him three times the space. Suvorin was to become a lifelong, perhaps Chekhov's closest friend.
In 1887, with a little string-pulling by Grigorevich, the short story collection At Dusk (V Sumerkakh) won Chekhov the coveted Pushkin Prize "for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth".
That year, exhausted from overwork and ill health, Chekhov took a trip to Ukraine which reawakened him to the beauty of the steppe. On his return, he began the novella-length short story The Steppe, "something rather odd and much too original", eventually published in Severny Vestnik (Northern Herald). In a narrative which drifts with the thought processes of the characters, Chekhov evokes a chaise journey across the steppe through the eyes of a young boy sent to live away from home, his companions a priest and a merchant. The Steppe, which has been called a "dictionary of Chekhov's poetics", represented a significant advance for Chekhov, exhibiting much of the quality of his mature fiction and winning him publication in a literary journal rather than a newspaper.
In Autumn 1887, a theatre manager named Korsh commissioned Chekhov to write a play, the result being Ivanov, written in a fortnight and produced that November. Though Chekhov found the experience "sickening", and painted a comic portrait of the chaotic production in a letter to his brother Alexander, the play was a hit, praised, to Chekhov's bemusement, as a work of originality. Mikhail Chekhov considered Ivanov a key moment in his brother's intellectual development and literary career. The death of Chekhov's brother Nikolai from tuberculosis in
1889 influenced A Dreary Story, finished that September, about a man who confronts the end of a life which he realizes has been without purpose. Mikhail Chekhov, who recorded his brother's depression and restlessness after Nikolai's death, was researching prisons at the time as part of his law studies, and Chekhov, in a search for purpose in his own life, soon became obsessed with the issue of prison reform himself.
In 1890, Chekhov undertook an arduous journey by train, horse-drawn carriage, and river steamer to the far east of Russia and the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census. The letters Chekhov wrote during the two-and-a-half month journey to Sakhalin are considered among his best.
What Chekhov witnessed on Sakhalin shocked and angered him, including floggings, embezzlement of supplies, and forced prostitution of women: "There were times," he wrote, when "I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man's degradation." Chekhov was particularly moved by the plight of the children living in the penal colony with their parents.
Chekhov later concluded that charity and subscription were not the answer, but that the government had a duty to finance humane treatment of the convicts. His findings were published in 1893 and 1894 as Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), a work of social science, not literature, and worthy and informative rather than brilliant. Chekhov found literary expression for the hell of Sakhalin in his long short story The Murder, the last section of which is set on Sakhalin, where the murderer Yakov loads coal in the night, longing for home.
Tolstoy and Chekhov
In 1892, Chekhov bought the small country estate of Melikhovo, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived until 1899 with his family. As well as organizing relief for victims of the famine and cholera outbreaks of 1892, he went on to build three schools, a fire station, and a clinic, and to donate his medical services to peasants for miles around, despite frequent recurrences of his tuberculosis.
Chekhov’s expenditure on drugs was considerable; but the greatest cost was making journeys of several hours to visit the sick, which reduced his time for writing. Chekhov’s work as a doctor, however, enriched his writing by bringing him into intimate contact with all sections of Russian society: for example, he witnessed at first hand the unhealthy and cramped living conditions of many peasants.
Chekhov began writing his play The Seagull in 1894, in a lodge he had built in the orchard at Melikhovo. In the two years since moving to the estate, he had refurbished the house, taken up agriculture and horticulture, tended orchard and pond, and planted many trees, which, according to Mikhail, he "looked after… as though they were his children. Like Colonel Vershinin in his Three Sisters, as he looked at them he dreamed of what they would be like in three or four hundred years."
In March 1897 Chekhov suffered a major hemorrhage of the lungs while on a visit to Moscow and, with great difficulty, was persuaded to enter a clinic, where the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis on the upper part of his lungs and ordered a change in his manner of life.
After his father's death in 1898, Chekhov bought a plot of land at Alushta, near Yalta, and built a villa there, into which he moved with his mother and sister the following year. Though he planted trees and flowers at Alushta, kept dogs and tame cranes, and received guests such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, Chekhov was always relieved to leave his "hot Siberia" for Moscow or travels abroad. He vowed to move to Taganrog as soon as a water supply was installed there.
On 25 May 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper — quietly, owing to his horror of weddings — a former protegée and sometime lover of Nemirovich-Danchenko whom he had first met at rehearsals for The Seagull.
By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill. "Everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off," Mikhail Chekhov recalled, "but the nearer Chekhov was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it." On June 3rd he set off with Olga for the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest, from where he wrote outwardly jovial letters to his sister Maria describing the food and surroundings and assuring her and his mother that he was getting better. In 1908, Olga wrote this account of her husband’s last moments:
“ Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe. The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: "It's a long time since I drank champagne." He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child... ”
Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow. Chekhov was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Always modest, Chekhov could hardly have imagined the extent of his posthumous reputation. The ovations for The Cherry Orchard in the year of his death showed him how high he had risen in the affection of the Russian public — by then he was second in literary celebrity only to Tolstoy, who outlived him by six years — but after his death, Chekhov's fame soon spread further afield. Constance Garnett's translations won him an English-language readership and the admiration of writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield. The Russian critic D.S. Mirsky, who lived in England, explained Chekhov's popularity in that country by his "unusually complete rejection of what we may call the heroic values". In Russia itself, Chekhov's drama fell out of fashion after the revolution but was later adapted to the Soviet agenda, with Lophakin, for example, reinvented as a hero of the new order, taking an axe to the cherry orchard.
One of the first non-Russians to praise Chekhov's plays was George Bernard Shaw, who subtitled his Heartbreak House "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes" and noted similarities between the predicament of the British landed class and that of their Russian counterparts as depicted by Chekhov: "the same nice people, the same utter futility".
Chekhov is now the most popular playwright in the English-speaking world after Shakespeare, but some writers believe his short stories represent the greater achievement. Raymond Carver, who wrote the short story Errand about Chekhov's death, believed Chekhov was the greatest of all short-story writers.