This passage of “The Steppe” grabbed me – remember that the story is from the perspective of a boy traveling on the Russian prairie:
But at last, when the sun was beginning to sink into the west, the steppe, the hills and the air could bear the oppression no longer, and, driven out of all patience, exhausted, tried to fling off the yoke. A fleecy ashen-grey cloud unexpectedly appeared behind the hills. It exchanged glances with the steppe, as though to say, “Here I am,” and frowned… [wind comes up] Prickly uprooted plants ran stumbling and leaping in all directions over the steppe, and one of them got caught in the whirlwind, turned round and round like a bird, flew towards the sky, and turning into a little black speck, vanished from sight. After it flew another, and then a third, and Yegorushka saw two of them meet in the blue height and clutch at one another as though they were wrestling. (185-6)
This is not exactly a description of what Yegorushka sees, but a personification. Is he the one who imagines that the steppe itself has lost patience, or that the cloud frowns, or that those magical plants have limbs and volition? I love those dancing plants. They return 90 pages later, when a real storm hits:
The tattered, ragged look of the storm-cloud gave it a drunken, disorderly air… By now, most likely, the whirlwind eddying round and lifting from the earth dust, dry grass and feathers, was mounting to the very sky; uprooted plants must have been flying by that very black storm-cloud, and how frightened they must have been! But through the dust that clogged the eyes nothing could be seen but the flash of lightning. (273-4)
So Yegorushka sees nothing but is remembering the plants from the day before, wondering what had happened to them, where they have gone. I have a hint here about the significance of the incidents of the story. It is not just that the boy has a series of experiences, but that he imaginatively acts on them.
Maybe. In “The Horse-Stealers,” a man is being robbed – his horse stolen – during a blizzard:
White clouds were floating about the yard, their long tails clinging to the rough grass and the bushes, while on the other side of the fence in the open country huge giants in white robes with wide sleeves were whirling round and falling to the ground, and getting up again to wave their arms and fight. And the wind, the wind! The bare birches and cherry-trees, unable to endure its rude caresses, bowed low down to the ground and wailed: “God, for what sin hast Thou bound us to the earth and will not let us go free?” (18, The Horse-Stealers & Other Stories)
This is a little – a lot – too much to credit to a character 1) busy with other things and 2) so distinctly unimaginative. “The Horse-Stealers” is the most frightening Chekhov story I know. This fellow stares evil in the face and his only response is to feel ashamed that he does not have the strength of character to be evil himself, because it seems like evil would be fun, more fun than his miserable life, at least. And this is in a world where the trees are Orthodox believers, at least.
The next step is “Gusev,” right? So I’ll write about “Gusev” next. Chekhovian metaphysics.