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  • 1/24/2004

Anton (Pavlovich) Chekhov

January 29,1860 -July 14/15,1904

Russian playwright, one of the great masters of modern short story. In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and a doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist. Chekhov portrayed often life in the Russian small towns, where tragic events occur in a minor key, as a part of everyday life. His characters are passive, filled with the feeling of hopelessness and the fruitlessness of all efforts. "What difference does it make?" says Chebutykin inThree Sisters.
Anton Chekhov was born inTaganrog, Ukraine, as the son of a grocer and grandson of a serf who had bought his freedom in 1841. His mother was Yevgenia Morozov, the daughter of a cloth merchant. Chekhov's childhood was shadowed by his father's tyranny and religious fanaticism. He attended a school for Greek boys inTaganrog (1867-68) and Taganrog grammar school (1868-79). The family was forced to move to Moscow following his father's bankruptcy. At the age of 16 Chekhov became independent and remained for some time alone in his native town, supporting himself through private tutoring.
In 1879 Chekhov entered the Moscow University Medical School. While in the school he started to publish hundreds of comic short stories to support himself and his mother, sisters and brothers. By 1886 he had gained wide fame as a writer. Chekhov published his works in St. Petersburg daily papers,Peterburskaia gazeta from 1885, andNovoe vremia from 1886. He also published two full-length novels of whichThe Shooting Party was translated into English in 1926.
Chekhov graduated in 1884, and practiced medicine until 1892. In 1886 Chekhov met H.S. Suvorin, who invited him to become a regular contributor for the St. Petersburg dailyNovoe vremya. His friendship with Suvorin ended in 1898 because of his objections to the anti-Dreyfus campaign conducted by the daily. But during these years Chekhov developed his concept of the dispassionate, non-judgmental author. He outlined his program in a letter to his brother Aleksandr:"1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality; flee the stereotype; 6. compassion." Chekhov's refusal to join the ranks of social critics arose the wrath of liberal and radical intelligentsia and he was criticized for avoidance of offering solutions to his serious social and moral themes. However, he was defended by such leading writers as Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Leskov.
The failure of his playThe Wood Demon (1889) and problems with his novel made Chekhov to withdraw from literature for a period. In 1890 he travelled acrossSiberia to remoteIsland, Sakhalin, where he conducted a detailed census of some 10 000 convicts and settlers condemned to live their lives on that harsh island. Chekhov hoped to use the results of his research for his doctoral dissertation. From this journey was born his famous travel bookThe Island: A Journey to Sakhalin (1893-94). Chekhov returned to Russia via Singapore, India, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal. From 1892 to 1899 Chekhov worked in Melikhovo, and in Yalta from 1899. Chekhov's fist book of stories (1886) was a success, and gradually he became a full-time writer.
Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1888. In 1889 he was elected a member of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature. In 1900 he became a member of theAcademy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, but resigned his membership two years later as a protest against the cancellation by the authorities ofGorky's election to the Academy. Later, in 1900,Gorky wrote to him:"After any of your stories, however insignificant, everything appears crude, as if written not by a pen, but by a cudgel."
Although Chekhov wrote several hundred stories, his fame today rests primarily on his plays. Chekhov used ordinary conversations, pauses, no communication, no happening, incomplete thoughts, to reveal the truth behind trivial words and daily life. His characters belong often to the provincial middle class, petty aristocracy or landowners of pre-Revolutionary Russia. They contemplate their unsatisfactory lives unable to make decisions and help themselves when a crisis breaks out.
Chekhov's first full-length plays were failures. WhenThe Seagull was revised in 1898 by Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, he gained also fame as a playwright. Among his masterpieces from this period is Uncle Vanya (1900), a melancholic story of Sonia and his brother-in-law Ivan (Uncle Vanya) who see their dreams and hopes passing in drudgery for others.The Three Sisters (1901) was set in a provincial garrison town. The talented Prozorov sisters, whose hopes have much in common with the Brontë sisters, recognize the uselessness of their lives and cling to one another for consolation.
InThe Cherry Orchaid (1904) reflected the larger developments in the Russian society. Mme Ranevskaias returns to her estate and finds out that the family house, together with the adjoining orchard, is to be auctioned. Her brother Gaev is too impractical to help in the crisis. The businessman Lopakhin purchases the estate and the orchard is demolished."Everything on earth must come to an end..."
In these three famous plays Chekhov blended laughter and tears, leaving much room for imagination - his plays like stories reflect a multitude of possible viewpoints. Usually in Chekhov's dramas surprise and tension are not key elements, the dramatic movement is subdued, his characters do not fight, they endure their fate with patience.
In 1892 Chekhov bought a country estate in the village of Melikhove, where his best stories were written, including 'Neighbours' (1892), 'Ward Number Six' (1892), 'The Black Monk' (1894), 'The Murder' (1895), and 'Ariadne' (1895). He also served as a volunteer census taker, participated in famine relief, and worked as a medical inspector during cholore epidemics. In 1897 he fell ill with tuberculosis and lived since either abroad or in the Crimea. In Yalta he wrote his famous stories 'The Man in a Shell,' 'Gooseberries,' 'About Love,' 'Lady with the Dog,' and 'In the Ravine.' His last great story, 'The Betrothed,' was an optimistic tale of a young woman who escapes from provincial dullness into personal freedom. In 1901 he married the Moscow Art Theater actress Olga Knipper (1870-1959), who had on stage several years central roles in his plays. Chekhov died on July 14/15, 1904, in Badenweiler, Germany. He was buried in the cemetery of the Novodeviche Monastery in Moscow.

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