Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of Encasement (Two): Universality
In all three stories of Chekhov’s trilogy the characters are all “encased” in one way or another, trapped in lives that are stultifying and never fulfilled. But world literature is full of such characters. You might even say that “encasement” is a condition typical of the human predicament.
To speak only of Russian literature, in reading these stories, one constantly is reminded of authors and literary works who came both before and after Chekhov. Gogol’s characters (say, Shponka and Akaky Akakievich) are men in cases. So is the vile Iudushka in Saltykov’s The Golovyov Family and Sologub’s Peredonov in The Petty Demon. Nabokov’s Pnin is a man who craves “discreteness,” who constantly seeks protection from the intrusive world around him. Belikov, the Man in the Case, loves pronouncing the word “man” in ancient Greek (Anthropos), as will later Maxim Gorky in his apotheosis of Soviet man: “Man: that word sounds proud!”
Many Russian authors themselves are in cases of their own making, or sometimes at least partially made by their society. Gogol was in a case practically all his life, Tolstoy in a different sort of case, Mayakovsky in a case that drove him to suicide. The list could be extended almost indefinitely.
“Oh, I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Who said that? Another man in a case, Prince Hamlet.
Readers of Chekhov in the year 1898, and the year 1998, and the year 2098 (if there is any humanity left then, and any readers), look at the major theme of Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy” and say to themselves: You know what? I’m a man in a case myself.