Modern readers tend to skip nature descriptions and get back to the action of the story. But if you are a good reader, one who knows how to read genuine literary fiction—there are, admittedly, few of us left—you don’t do that. The nature description is not there just so the author can escape from his narrative, take a break from characters he may not like to breathe in the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine that he so lyrically describes.
Take the description at the end of “Man in A Case.” His story of Belikov told, the high school teacher Burkin walks out of the shed to where we the readers can see him for the first time. He is not an imposing figure: “He was short in stature, stout, absolutely bald, with a long black beard reaching nearly to his waist; two dogs came out with him.
‘Look at that moon!’ he said, gazing up overhead.
“It was already midnight. The whole of the village was visible on the right, the long street extending for a good five versts. Everything was plunged into a deep, quiet sleep; not a sound, not a stir, incredible how nature could be so silent. When on a moonlit night you gaze upon a village street, with its peasant huts, and hayricks and sleeping willow trees, a quietude descends on your soul. Steeped in serenity, sheltered by the shadows of the night from all toil, cares and grief, the village seems meek, melancholy and beautiful, the very stars seem to look down upon it caressingly, with deep feeling, and there seems to be no more evil in the world and all is well. To the left, where the village ended, the fields began, visible far, far away, to the very horizon, and throughout the whole broad expanse of those fields, flooded with moonlight, once more nothing stirred, and all was silent.”
Immediately following this description Ivan Ivanovich begins nattering on about how sad life is, how people lie and scheme, how we simply have to stop living the way we do. This will carry on from the end of this story into the following story, “Gooseberries.” So an obvious function of the nature description here is for contrast: life is beautiful, but we don’t know how to live. A typical attitude of the narrator in a great many Chekhov stories is to stand observing human nature while pondering human evil and stagnation.
But here the nature description has another function: it prepares us for the next story, “Gooseberries,” which describes a true lover of nature, a man who strives to escape city life and find joy in country living, communing with nature. And who ends up, nonetheless, living like a pig and reveling in tasteless gooseberries. Nature, it seems, cannot protect humanity from encasement.
Near the beginning of “Gooseberries” the melancholic Ivan Ivanovich, brother of the gooseberry man, splashes about merrily, reveling in the very thing (lovely nature) that has brought his brother to ruin:
“Ivan Ivanovich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, taking broad swim strokes with his arms, making waves all around him, and the white water lilies rocked on the waves he made. He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, trying to touch the bottom. ‘Ah, my God,’ he kept exclaiming joyfully, ‘Ah, my God.’ He swam up to the mill, had a talk with some peasants there and turned back, but when he reached the middle of the river he floated on his back, holding his face up to the rain. Burkin and Alyokhin were dressed and ready to go, but he went on swimming and diving.
‘God, God!’ he kept saying. ‘Lord have mercy!’
‘Enough, then!’ shouted Burkin.”
In his communion with nature this is the only time in “The Little Trilogy” that Ivan Ivanovich—who often plagues the reader and his companions with long melancholy moaning about how people live—is shown to be enjoying himself. Nature is different things for different people; some want to grow gooseberries, some want to swim.