Sometimes it can really help to have a professor guide your reading.
This was one of those times. I was well over halfway through Anton Chekhov’s novella My Life translated by Constance Garnett before I could decide just how satirical it was. To be honest before I could decide if it satirical or not.
There is a lot of Russian literature from Mr. Chekhov’s day dealing with the question of the rural peasantry. Tolstoy goes on and on about this in Anna Karenina, for example. Gogol makes fun of the situation as he critiques it in his marvelous novel Dead Souls. So that came as no surprise to me reading My Life.
But Chekhov seems to be so mean about it at points in this novella, that I had to pick between finding fault with his attitude or finding him funny.
Lucky for all of us who read him, he can be pretty funny.
The story concerns the son of a well-to-do rural family. His father wants him to find a respectable career worthy of his position in the local society. Instead, he wants to experience a more authentic life, one closer to the peasantry. The life of someone who gets bread at his own hand.
To this end he takes a series of jobs going farther and farther down the social ladder as he performs various types of labor alongside the peasantry who basically treat him with suspicion all the way through the novella.
By the end he has come to have a jaundiced view of the people he originally set out to help, seeing the peasants as devious, mean-spirited thieves who steal from him at every opportunity.
Read it as a commentary on the philosophies discussed in Tolstoy and elsewhere, My Life is biting satire. Read it as a straightforward account of life in rural Russia and it makes you think a bit less of Mr. Chekhov.
So, I’m choosing to find it funny and hoping someone more versed in this topic will back-up my reading in a comment.
Any professors of Russian literature out there?
6 thoughts on “My Life by Anton Chekov”
Recent Russian graduate here: I haven’t read the book, but from that description and from Chekhov’s other works, it’s almost guaranteed to be meant satirically. Adding to that, I don’t think he’s satirizing Tolstoy, who in War and Peace satirizes the same concept (rural aristocracy trying to live like the peasants – it does not work out for Pierre). The only major difference is that Tolstoy is poking fun at himself, because he’s an aristocrat/wannabe peasant, whereas Chekhov, with his humble upbringing, is a little more candid/objective/observational in his style.
Thanks for commenting on this. I have not read War and Peace, just a very large section of Anna Karenina a long time a go and several shorter works.
Walker is my son–a Russian major. He has almost made me want to reread War and Peace!
I have read this, but I am not a professor!
Join the club. 😛
I’d like to read some Chekhov but this is probably not the best of his work with which to begin?
Comments are closed.