Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov, 1898
Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov, 1898
The magic trick:
Taking on the essential choice someone has a member of a society – to give or take
Forgive me if I get emotional about this topic. It’s just that it’s probably the thing I have been the most passionately confused about my entire adult life. As members of society, are we compelled to contribute toward the whole? Or are we permitted to take what we can get and enjoy what we have while we have it? The question burns with only more passion as the years go by and the inequality gap widens in America and around the world.
Chekhov weighs in on this debate in “Gooseberries,” set in a time and place (19th century Russia) where the economic disparity makes modern America look like one big Salvation Army collection of kindness. And he makes his point with poignancy and passion.
Chekhov uses three key tricks to make his point.
One: the story is structured with exterior and interior stories. The interior tale – a man who works his entire life in order to achieve his obsessive goal of being a country squire – provides the central issue. The exterior – two men stopping at a friend’s house for dinner, drink, and discussion – allows Chekhov to play with different points of view and reactions to the central issue.
Two: Chekhov expertly uses symbolism to let the central issue take root in the reader’s imagination and linger there in the memory. The swimming scene, in one paragraph, speaks to the seduction of joy and comfort. The gooseberries of the title, meanwhile, serve as the physical manifestation of the brother’s dreams of easy, country life.
Three: the story ends with Ivan Ivanovitch in a furious speech, pleading with his audience to fill their lives with grand acts of good. The aforementioned swimming scene might out Ivan as a hypocrite, depending on your reading. I prefer to read it as a humanizing moment. Even the most passionate advocates are tempted to contradict their own platforms at times. His speech is a call to arms aimed at himself as much as anyone else in the room.
Perfect structure, memorable symbolism, and a revolutionary worldview for a lifetime. Not bad for a short story. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
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… Meanwhile in all the houses, all the streets, there is peace; out of fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one to kick against it all. Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation… And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happens would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. 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. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind – and everything is all right.”