This is one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read, Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov.
Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin are on a hunting trip. They’re tired of walking and the fields seem endless. Ivan is about to tell a story, but is interrupted by a sudden storm, so they take shelter at a nearby mill owned by Aliokhin. The story is delayed further as they bathe (first time for Aliokhin since spring), and then Ivan swims in the river in the rain, and then they dress in silk dressing gowns and warm slippers and settle by a fire.
Ivan tells his friends the story of his brother Nicholai Ivanich, a clerk for the Exchequer Court from the age of nineteen, who spent his youth working and pining away for the fields and woods where they passed their childhood days, seemingly happy, though poor as peasant’s children. “And you know once a man has fished, or watched the thrushes hovering in flocks over the village in the bright, cool, autumn days, he can never really be a townsman, and to the day of his death he will be drawn to the country.” Nicholai is obsessed with the idea of buying a farm and enjoying all of its pleasures, but mostly of raising gooseberries. “Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its gooseberrybush. ‘Country life has its advantages,’ he used to say. ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.’ He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things were shown on it: (a) Farmhouse, (b) cottage, (c) vegetable garden, (d) gooseberry bush.” (How I love the beautiful absurdity of this!) Nicholai marries a widow, lives as a miser, basically starves his wife to death, but, eventually buys his farm and orders twenty gooseberry-bushes and settles down to a country life.
Years later Ivan visits him. It’s a hot day, and he describes his brother, his brother’s dog, and his brother’s cook as fat and pig-like. “We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think that we had once been young, but were now both going grey and nearing death.”
Ivan’s brother disappoints him with his elitism and greed, his condescension to the peasants, his self-satisfaction, his hypocritical forgetfulness that their grandfather was a peasant and their father a common soldier. Then his brother eats his gooseberries, and as Ivan watches him, he suffers an existential crisis as he realizes that happiness is unobtainable if you’re aware of the suffering of others. “In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with something like despair. And at night it grew on me. A bed was made up for me in the room near my brother’s and I could hear him, unable to sleep, going again and again to the plate of gooseberries. I thought: ‘After all, what a lot of contented, happy people there must be! What an overwhelming power that means! I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . ‘”
He finishes his story, and the men he’s telling it to, as well as the portraits of lords and ladies on the walls seem to have found it tedious and unsatisfying. Ivan and his companion go to bed in comfortable rooms, with clean linen, and the unpleasant smell of Ivan’s pipe, left on the table, keeps his friend awake. And the rain beat against the windows all night long.
Chekhov very famously said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” And this seemingly simple story asks so many questions. I love these questions, though I believe there are no answers to them.
On one level, the story is an examination of happiness. What it means to be happy, if it’s selfish to be happy, if it’s even possible to be happy in the face of universal human suffering. These are all valid, inescapable questions, but the story of Nicholai is a story within a story, it’s not even the bulk of the story, and Ivan is an unreliable narrator. When he tells the story of his brother eating gooseberries, he admits that it’s really his own mood at the time that he wants to relate, and I think he tells more about himself, throughout the story, than about his brother. Or Chekhov is more interested in talking about Ivan than about Nicholai, the narrator and author become beautifully tangled when reading about the story within the story. Everything Ivan says makes perfect sense when he says it, and the reader likes and sympathizes with Ivan, you feel that Chekhov likes and sympathizes with Ivan, but it becomes more complicated the more you think about it (what a wonderful quality in a short story!)
Ivan is more like his brother (and like all people, I think) than he would want to admit. He disparages his brother’s desire to live in the country, [“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathised with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action.”] but his description of their childhood and the thrushes hovering in flocks on cool autumn days is the most lyrical passage in his story.
(It occurred to me that this story might be subtly satirical comment on Tolstoyism, and on an idealization of peasant life and a return to nature and farming, but I don’t know enough about Russian history or literature to say for sure. If anyone knows better, I’d love to hear about it!)
When Ivan swims in the river in the rain, after being clean and dry in the baths, he must be cold and miserable again, but he seems happy, or pretends to be, “Ah! how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious! … he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face.” It’s a lovely foreshadowing of his brother’s delight in eating hard sour gooseberries, and finding them delicious, though clearly they are not. And though he entreats his friends to be aware of the suffering of others, he thoughtlessly leaves his foul-smelling pipe burning through the night, keeping his friends awake, as he sleeps in clean sheets arranged by the pretty maid. He’s so eager for his companions to know about his epiphany in watching his brother eat gooseberries, but his response to the revelation of the endless suffering of others is to lamely entreat his rich friend to “do good.” And his judgmental, condescending description of the people he claims to care about so much that he can’t feel happiness is an uncomfortable read for anyone who might have found themselves distressed by the “the ignorance and bestiality” of Trump supporters, that “basket of deplorables.” And I’m aware that I’m judging Ivan for being judgmental, but I’m judging myself, too.
I do believe that Ivan is confusing comfort and happiness, though the two are intimately related. I do believe it’s possible to be elatedly happy though physically uncomfortable, although nobody should need to find that out. I do believe that rather than deciding that nobody should ever be happy, we should work on creating a world where everyone could be happy, and I do understand that writing that here is as ineffectual as telling your rich friends to “do good.” And Ivan says, “Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others.” So it’s not just the idea of others’ misfortunes that should thwart happiness, to Ivan, but the idea that everyone will bear misfortunes, will feel loss and sadness in their life. It’s a compelling argument, it feels correct, but surely this realization of inevitable suffering is exactly the realization that makes you appreciate the happiness you feel when you feel it. I think Ivan would find me trite and useless for writing that!
The other day as I was writing about Gooseberries, my second favorite Chekhov story, I revisited my first favorite Chekhov story as well, because I suspected that the protagonist of each story shared the same name (they do). I was delighted, delighted, to discover how much else the stories had in common, and a little ashamed that I’d never noticed all of this before. And then I started to take note of the differences as well, all the more remarkable in face of the similarities.
They both begin with a man named Ivan walking through fields in moody weather towards the close of day.
Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy, returning home from shooting, kept walking on the path by the water-logged meadows. His fingers were numb and his face was burning with the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy.
From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to them.
Both Ivans find a place to warm themselves, encounter people, and tell them stories.
Both Ivans think of the poverty, ignorance and evilness of people as inevitable and eternal. Both are swayed by the weather. The fields that are dull and dispiriting in Gooseberries looked different in the spring, in the sunshine. “In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.” And in The Student, Ivan’s mood shifts completely with the weather: “At first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling…with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest.” And the cold weather brings on the depressed thoughts. “And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.”
But there are telling differences. In Gooseberries, Ivan has been trying to tell his tale since even before the story begins, since the previous story in the trilogy. He has a sort of agenda and a message that he’s eager to share, but it keeps getting put off and interrupted. When the student stops at “the widows” he tells a story seemingly out of nowhere, almost surprising himself with the telling. And it’s a story from the Bible, one the widows tell him they’ve heard before.
And the stories are received very differently. The story Ivan had been waiting and wanting to tell in Gooseberries “…satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries.” But the student’s story moves the widows to tears, “Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.”
And Gooseberries ends with Ivan safe and warm in clean sheets, but unhappy and dissatisfied. And though the student Ivan has a long trip home across the icy river by ferryboat–to a home with a barefoot mother sitting on the floor and a sick father coughing in his bed, he’s hopeful, he’s elated. Not just because it’s a good feeling to tell a story that people pay attention to and respond to, although certainly that’s a part of it. The student is moved by the widows’ reaction because that moment of connection and recognition travels throughout human history as surely as the ignorance and poverty do. “The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul…And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.’ And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. …and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”
Ivan the student’s mood will shift again, undoubtedly. But so probably will the mood of the other Ivan. It will change with the weather, with the circumstances, with the illusion each needs to believe and exalt. Just as it will for all of us reading the stories. Thinking and writing about these two Chekhov stories made me happy, and the connection to Chekhov, to his characters, to his concerns, and to the things I detected in his stories that I suspected he didn’t even know he was telling, seemed enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.
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