Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - eighth installment

The Teacher of Literature (1889-94)
Sometimes I read something and it is as if someone has seen into my feculent (I am trying to get all the new words I am finding rooted into my brain, and the only good way I can think of doing that is by using them) mind. So it is with some of this Chekhov.

In this story an ordinary man, a school teacher, courts and marries a young woman from a liberal family. The young woman has a sister who is slightly older and therefore feels 'left on the shelf' on the day of the wedding and this scene is remarkably moving, and deftly written. The young teacher lives with a friend, another teacher, who provides some comic relief since he is the sort of person 'who always says what everyone else already knows' e.g. on the teacher's wedding day: 'Hitherto you have been unmarried and have lived alone, and now you are married and no longer single.'

The story is in two parts: the first part deals with the courtship; the second with life after the marriage. While the courtship is charming in its awkwardness and things left unsaid, it is the second story which has startled me the most. At first the schoolteacher feels content, but after about a year he is coming home after playing cards and he begins to feel irritated with what one of the other players has said (an implication that losing did not matter to him because of the substantial dowry from his wife), and from that time on he begins to feel dissatisfied.

Chekhov is analytical. The reason the school teacher is not content is because he has everything and is not harrassed by anxiety. When he goes to bed that night he cannot sleep. he feels his head is 'an immense and empty as a barn, and that new peculiar thoughts were wandering about it like tall shadows...he thought that apart from this little world in which he and this cat (and his wife!) lived so peacefully and happily , there was another world...and he had a passionate, poignant longing to be in that other world, to work at some address big audiences, to write, to publish, to raise a stir, to suffer...'

Ah, reading that now, I again think how true that is. When life is calm and contented, when we have time to think - is it true for all of us that we wish were doing something else?

He talks to himself, tells himself how ridiculous he is and how he is in the most noble of professions, but then he convinces himself otherwise: he is nothing 'but a government employee...commonplace...mediocre...'

He realises his peace of mind is lost and that happiness is no longer possible for him. 'He realised that the illusion had evaporated , and that a new life of unrest and clear sight was beginning which was incompatible with peace and personal happiness.'

After that he just goes through the motions, paying lip service to guests and family problems. The story ends with an entry in the teacher's diary: 'Where am I , my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches , stupid women...There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind.'

Ah, yes, how true, how true...that's it doubt the people around me feel exactly the same way too.


Blogger JL said...


Okay, I am in awe.

Thank you.

Thu Feb 21, 03:31:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

I'm writing down new words I read in a list and trying to learn a new one every day. Didn't manage it yesterday though, sadly...

Love your blog, by the way, JL - that description of the birth was extremely well done - quite heroic!

Thu Feb 21, 01:19:00 pm  

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