Chameleon by Anton Chekhov, 1884
The magic trick:
Working within severe space constraints and still creating a complete story
As I understand it, Chekhov had a strict limit on the number of lines his stories could be during his early days as a published author. Sometimes his publications had space for just 100 lines. It must have been challenging, but what a great mechanism of ingenuity to force upon a young writer. He seems to have done pretty well with it.
“Chameleon” is an excellent example of those compact, gemlike, early stories. Inside a very small word count, Chekhov manages to describe a scene, introduce a set of characters and generate both comedy and social commentary. Crucially, as the title indicates, he even demonstrates a character’s inconsistent nature depending on who’s around. All with the brevity of a master. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
“Here comes the General’s cook, ask him. . . Hi, Prohor! Come here, my dear man! Look at this dog. . . . Is it one of yours?”
“What an idea! We have never had one like that!”
“There’s no need to waste time asking,” says Otchumyelov. “It’s a stray dog! There’s no need to waste time talking about it. . . . Since he says it’s a stray dog, a stray dog it is. . . . It must be destroyed, that’s all about it.”
“It is not our dog,” Prohor goes on. “It belongs to the General’s brother, who arrived the other day. Our master does not care for hounds. But his honour is fond of them. . . .”