When I last wrote about Anton Chekhov, I was looking at some stories from 1892 and 1893, a period when Chekhov was writing with extraordinary mastery but was nevertheless nervous about Leo Tolstoy’s hectoring orders to write moral, Tolstoyan stories. I don’t know how Tolstoyan the resulting stories were, but they’re sure good.
Now I have haphazardly made it all the way to 1894. I assume Chekhov is still working out his Tolstoy anxiety, based on “The Student,” a short one, a throwback to an earlier Chekhov. Constance Garnett’s version is in The Witch & Other Stories. It is a Good Friday story.
At first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling, and in the swamps close by something alive droned pitifully with a sound like blowing on an empty bottle. A snipe flew by, and the shot aimed at it rang out with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence.
This is the opening, the masterful touch being the shot, the implied human hidden in the landscape. He is a seminary student who becomes infected by the pathetic fallacy (“the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things… the lapse of a thousand years would make things no better”). He stops at a peasant’s house to warm himself. At the fire, he thinks of Peter in the garden at Gethsemane. He tells the story if Peter’s denial of Christ, which deeply moves the peasants. “The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her,” thinks the seminarist.
The student’s connection to the order of things is restored, “and the feeling of youth, health, vigour – he was only twenty-two – and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”
Few Chekhov stories end this way. Many end in the exact opposite way. But for a holiday, Chekhov can allow his character some joy.
A few months earlier, Chekhov had published “The Black Monk,” in which a professor has a recurring vision of the title character, “like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column.” The monk even gives him advice. Whether a hallucination or a mystical gift, as long as the professor takes the black monk seriously, his life goes well. When he rejects the monk as the symptom of illness, his happiness disappears, too.
The sullen pines with their shaggy roots, which had seen him a year before so young, so joyful and confident, were not whispering now, but standing mute and motionless, as though they did not recognize him. (Ch. 8)
More of Chekhov’s sentient trees, one of his favorite themes. The idea of personified nature is entirely a human projection or creation, but it is also a manifestation of happiness, of health, as is the monk, oddly, even if it is also the result of mental illness, some kind of unconscious defense mechanism. The monk only reappears at the professor’s death, as do those pines, returned to life, “which was so lovely.” His death is ugly, yet “an unspeakable, infinite happiness flooded his whole being” (Ch. 9).
It is endings like this, the ironic capper of one of Chekhov’s harshest, most unpleasant stories, that make me nervous about the end of “The Student.” Good luck, kid.