FRAMING THE NARRATIVE, THE ENCASEMENT OF LOVE
One thing that makes Chekhov a great writer is his intuitive feel for how to structure a story. In writing “The Man in a Case” why did he choose to begin the story and conclude it with descriptions of apparently incidental characters, the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovich Chimsha-Himalaisky and the teacher Burkin, who are out hunting together? Since the story features mainly Belikov, the teacher of Greek, why not just tell the Belikov tale?
There are several reasons why, some of them complex. The first and obvious reason is that in framing the story about a man in a case—putting it in a frame—you, in a sense, demonstrate the main theme: encasement. Another reason is that the story within (or framed around) the main story has relevance to the primary theme. For example, the incidental character Mavra, who wanders the night in the frame story, at the very end, is another example of a person encased.
It seems logical that Chekhov already had three stories in mind when he began writing the first. Later on we discover that the behavior of the two hunters and their reaction to the tale of Belikov are not incidental at all, since they become important characters in the trilogy as a whole. As the stories progress we can see more and more clearly the relationship of Ivan Ivanovich and Burkin to the major issue of encasement.
The structural principle underlying the stories is as follows. With each succeeding story in the trilogy Chekhov chooses to bring the frame narrative (the story within a story) closer and closer to the action of the framed (main) story. In “Man in a Case” Belikov is a colleague of Burkin the narrator, but in “Gooseberries” the main character Nikolay is the narrator’s brother, and in “About Love” the main character is the narrator himself, Alyokhin.
As he brings the frame story closer and closer to the main story, Chekhov may be suggesting that life’s problems get more and more complex the more you are personally involved in them. Belikov is an character extreme in all respects, practically a paranoiac, utterly obsessed with order in life. Chekhov condemns his countrymen’s tendency to be passive, to allow such a man to dictate their behavior, but the reader, perhaps, can laugh at Belikov and condemn him out of hand. “I’m not like that.” The same can be said for Nikolay Ivanovich the gooseberry lover, who spends his life chasing an idle dream and ends up a living pig. “No way I’d live my life like that.”
But when we get to Alyokhin’s encasement in love, we realize that breaking out of shells and finding freedom is a difficult matter indeed. Here we have a decent man, no paranoiac, no gooseberry-loving pig. What does a decent man do when he falls in love with his best friend’s wife? Whatever he does he will be wrong. At the end of the story, after the woman he loves has left his life forever, after he has just admitted to her for the first time that he loves her, here is how Alyokhin sums things up.
“I confessed my love for her, and with a searing pain in my heart I understood how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceitful was everything that had hindered our love. I understood that when you love, then in your reasoning about that love you need to proceed from the highest principles, from something more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin, or virtue in their usual sense, or there’s no need to reason at all.”
Readers sometimes take such summary statements on the part of Chekhov’s characters as Chekhov’s ways of getting important truths into the story. Most frequently that is a mistake. Chekhov seldom speaks directly through his characters, and when a character expatiates at length on life’s truths you can almost always take it for granted that the character is a blowhard. Such is Ivan Ivanovich in “The Little Trilogy” (more on him later).
Alyokhin is not a blowhard, but if you take a good look at the passage quoted above, you can’t help thinking that he is saying not much of anything coherent. Earlier in the story he says that the only thing you can really say about human love is that love is a great mystery. That is more to the point.
And in taking off on Chekhov’s “About Love”—in his wonderful story titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—the American writer Raymond Carver ends up at the same place Chekhov did: with characters encased in love and wondering what love is. We’re talking really out our backsides when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.