Wednesday, September 14, 2011

His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship - Chekhov introduces ideas to his fiction

“The Bet,” a Chekhov story from 1889, was suggested to me by mel u of The Reading Life.  I had not read it; that was easy to change.   Mel is right that the story is a good one, but it is also an unusual Chekhov story, one that encapsulates the evolution of Chekhov’s art.

A rough recap:  In 1886 and 1887 Chekhov published a story a week in newspapers.  I have been wandering through these stories recently.  They are typically short single episodes, often character studies or anecdotes or sketches or jokes.  Read in handfuls, they create an interestingly varied and large Chekhovian Russia, and are valuable for that reason alone, aside for the occasional fine images, sentences, and scenes.

At some point in 1887, these stories had become popular enough that Chekhov could up his fee substantially.  He began to write fewer but longer stories, so 1889 features only three stories:  “The Princess,” about which I remember nothing, the much-translated and anthologized “A Dreary Story,” the title could be attached to most Chekhov stories, and “The Bet.”  Chekhov was likely paid more for these three stories than for the 55 or more from 1886.  Literary biographers should include appendices detailing the income of their subject, broken down by year and source, adjusted for inflation, if necessary.

“The Bet,” although “realistic” in a strict sense – no supernatural business – is a moral fable.  An overheated argument about capital punishment leads to a bizarre bet:  two million rubles on the side that lifetime imprisonment is worse than death up against fifteen years of voluntary solitary confinement to prove that life is always preferable to death.

Chekhov works the plot so that both men succeed and both men are destroyed.  One could argue the point, though, because the most surprising feature of the story is the introduction of ideas.  The prisoner is forbidden human contact, but allowed books.  He spends a year with light novels, the moves on to classics, and then to languages and philosophy, then to the Gospels and theology, then to everything:

At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare, .  There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology.  His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching at one spar and then at another.

Now that hits a little too close to home.  All of the prisoner’s study and reading have led him to conclude that all is meaningless in the face of death and entropy.  “I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world…  death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor…”  He renounces all earthly and all unearthly things.

The banker, the man who put up the two millions, is the recognizably Chekhovian character, the true subject of the story.  How he reacts or changes in the face of his prisoner’s newfound wisdom, how the story really ends, is the return to the Chekhov I recognize.  The prisoner is an intruder from Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, a parody of the Underground Man and Anna Karenina’s Levin.  I see more clearly some of my attraction to Chekhov – we are both skeptical of the place of ideas as such in fiction.

Good stuff, mel, thanks!  I am, by the way, using Constance Garnett’s translation.


  1. I need to revisit Chekov--my last extended reading of him was a summer I worked construction. Read a series of his short stories at lunch break. To say I didn't fit in would be an understatement. ( little things change)

    One think I've wanted to look for in rereading him would be to see if I can get a better handle on the elusive Chekovian Christian (via Cornel West). Although such a thing may not actually exist.

  2. Reading this makes me so intrigued! I've just finished reading Balzac's The Black Sheep, am currently on Flaubert and Dickens and after that am on to Chekov and Zola. This makes me excited for the next few weeks. Thank you!

  3. This one seemed to me very uncharacteristic of Chekhov: unusually for this writer, the focus seems very much on the plot, and the moral aspect is more explicitly stated than is usual. I wonder if Chekhov was deliberately trying to emulate the sort of moral fable Tolstoy was writing at the time. Reading "The Bet" alongside something such as, say, "A Dreary Story" (written, as you say, in the same year), one would almost think they had been written by different writers.

  4. argumentativeoldgit-I do not think Chekhov is writing this to be like one of Tolstoy's Moral fables as it has a more realistic feel

    Amateur Reader-I know what you mean about these lines hitting to close for comfort "His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching at one spar and then at another."-I am glad you liked the story-I am getting ready to read The Cherry Orchard and can find online only a translation by Julian West-did Garnett not translate this play? I think R and P left "The Bet" out of their collection which kind of puzzled me-it is an odd Chekhov story

  5. The Chekhovian Christian - I had no idea. No, never mind, I did - the end of Uncle Vanya, Sonya's amazing closing monologue, a nightmare or culminating triumph for the actress.

    Scribbler - Excellent! How was The Black Sheep, by the way? It is one of the few Balzacs I have not read. "Few" = "63"

    Yeah, "The Bet" is surprising for Chekhov, isn't it? Yet parts of it, as mel says, are clearly within Chekhov's usual world, the same world as "A Dreary Story". And then one crucial part, the unusually plotty or gimmicky or conceptual part, is an experiment. I called it a parody rather than emulation because I do not think Chekhov was too seriously committed to the ideas his character expounded. But I don't really know that.

    mel - I think you're right, that Garnett did not do C.'s plays.

  6. The Black Sheep was brilliant!! I'd never had an opportunity to really delve into Balzac's world though I'd flipped through some short stories when I was studying European History from 1793-1914. It has a very interesting look at the idea of classical Melancholy and of course, as Balzac is so wont to do, at commodity, consumerism and such. I'd recommend it for sure.

    ALSO check this out:

    It's a really lovely news story about someone or someones bookish love. =D

  7. All right, I'll read The Black Sheep next. I mean the next time I read Balzac. He is almost the best writer about money. Trollope at his most hard-headed is as good.

    Thanks for the look at the Rankin-related book sculptures.