Tolstoy, Gorky and Chekhov
CHEKHOV WINKING AT TOLSTOY: (1) On love and adultery.
Throughout nearly all of the years of Chekhov’s writing career the most salient and powerful voice in Russian letters was Lev Tolstoy. Chekhov was in awe of Tolstoy’s talents as a literary master, but not always in agreement with the social stances of the old man.
Time and again, especially in stories of the late 1880s and 1890s, Chekhov uses parodic devices in his fiction, taking subtle pokes at Tolstoy and his socio-political views. He also frequently names his female characters ‘Anna,’ partially in tribute to his favorite novel, Anna Karenina, partly as a way of demonstrating the multiplicity of possible life’s paths for women of that name.
As one critic has pointed out, all three of the stories in The Little Trilogy are about love. “Each of the three stories involves a travesty of the ideal love relationship. Belikov of ‘Man in a Case’ considers marrying Varvara (Varenka) nor because he loves her, but because he feels that he ought to; Nikolai Ivanovich in ‘Gooseberries’ is in love with the dream of a country estate, not a woman; Alyokhin in ‘About Love’ is in love with a married woman” (David Maxwell).
Anna Karenina is probably the best literary work ever written on the theme of love, marriage and family. The novel, has, incidentally, a character named Varenka who does not quite get married. It also has a man, the main hero of the book, Levin, who is obsessed with the good life on his country estate, in communion with nature, and it has a man, Vronsky, who is in love with a married woman.
Throughout a period of a century and a half readers of Anna Karenina have argued over whether Anna really had to die, over why she and Vronsky could not get a divorce and live happily on. In his story “About Love,” Chekhov recapitulates the central drama of Tolstoy’s novel in just a few pages. His short story makes clear that every human situation involving love between men and women is unique in itself. Even more importantly, it makes clear that love triangles create predicaments that are not resolvable.
At the end of “Gooseberries” the overwrought Ivan Ivanovich pleads with Alyokhin to be an altruist, to “do good.” The story “About Love” is about how Alyokhin has in a sense done good. He has refused to commit adultery and betray his friend. But the “doing good,” so it turns out, has led to another sort of “encasement”—not only of him, but of the woman in the three-way situation, Anna Alekseevna, who, tormented by their unconsummated love, becomes a neurasthenic. Such is Chekhov’s brief take on Tolstoy’s broad theme.
Note, by the way, the name, borrowed from Tolstoy. Anna Alekseevna (Annie) in Anna Karenina is the daughter of Vronsky and Anna, but also is, in a sense, the daughter of both Vronsky and Karenin. She is born out of wedlock, but is legally Karenin’s daughter, since Anna is married to him when she is born. Both of her “fathers” are named Aleksey (in Russia children take their second name, the patronymic, from their father: hence “Alekseevna”). After Anna Karenina’s death by suicide Vronsky gives the care of his daughter into the hands of Karenin. At the end of the novel she is living with Karenin, who loves her dearly as his own daughter. She (the little girl) is emblematic in the flesh of Anna Karenina’s predicament: her state of limbo in the three-way that rules her life.