“Now that’s from Chekhov’s Tolstoyan period,” says Scott Bailey, again and again – he said it yesterday – and I used to think, “What is he talking about? These are Chekhov stories, Chekhov, Chekhov!” But that was based on reading them years ago. Reading them now, the Tolstoyan anxiety is pretty obvious. But by the early 1890s, Chekhov had developed a strong personal style, so whatever his intentions, his writing remains deeply his own, in style and ethics. He has become such a great artist that he can’t write like anyone else.
My understanding is that the source of the anxiety was conversations with Tolstoy himself, who was brazenly projecting his own artistic conflicts onto poor, innocent Anton. Write about big ethical problems; write to reform people. Chekhov, who was moving fast, soon moved on to other problems, certainly by “Peasants” (1897). Poor Tolstoy never got so far.
Chekhov’s Tolstoy appears to me to reduce to two stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych and the Levin half of Anna Karenina. For several years he attacks from various angles. Chekhov had good taste. What is a good life? What is the point of life given the certainty of death? Big, big questions, the kind that reduce most writers to trivialities.
“The Duel” (1891) and “The Wife” (1892) show how Chekhovian impulses defeat Tolstoyan intentions. The narrator of “The Wife” wants to do good, to fight famine and feed the poor, in between writing a “History of the Railway.” He is hindered, though, by the fact that he is intensely annoying. No one wants his help; they barely even want his money. He is that much of a pest and egotist.
“Do you remember, Ivan Ivanitch, you told me I had a disagreeable character and that it was difficult to get on with me? But what am I to do to make my character different?” (Ch. 6)
His friend can only answer “I don’t know.” The story ends with a kind of progress – the narrator becomes reconciled to his weakness. “Now I feel no uneasiness.” His wife feeds the peasants while he writes his history. Described like this, the story almost sounds like a self-parody. Maybe I have described it incorrectly.
“The Duel” features a self-created Superfluous Man, a hilarious character, a lazy, lazy man who blames his weaknesses on the tenor of the times, on Turgenev, basically. If the men of his class are superfluous, nothing is his fault. The fact that he is latching onto a thirty-year-old political argument to justify his behavior is part of the joke.
A duel with a rationalist leads him to reform his life. He races through the stages of The Death of Ivan Ilych in an evening, although since Chekhov is a pagan, his religious turn looks like this:
“The storm!” whispered Laevsky; he had a longing to pray to some one or to something, if only to the lightning or the storm-clouds. “Dear storm!” (Ch. 17)
He changes his life. “When he went out of the house and got into the carriage he wanted to return home alive.”
All of these stories are filled with debates and discussions, perhaps too much, but Chekhov’s method is a dialectical humanism. Many sides of an argument are represented; many sides contain truths; many truths are irreconcilable. The arguments often disintegrate. The doctor in “Ward No. 6” spends many pages arguing about the meaning of life, but with a madman, the only person in town who will indulge such topics. The madman is often in the right, but he is not exactly reliable. Hey, maybe this story is also about Chekhov’s relations with Tolstoy.