‘The Looking Glass’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov, Anton 1885a

The Looking Glass by Anton Chekhov, 1885

The magic trick:

Using a very elegant transition from reality to imagination in the introductory sequence

Happy New Year! This story is set on New Year’s Eve, so it seemed like an appropriate way to start the new year. It’s also about a terrifying glimpse of the future. So that’s a fun thought too for a January 1st.

The story begins with a young woman staring into the mirror. She drifts into her imagination. On bad TV shows of my youth, this would happen with harp strums and a ripple effect around the frame of the screen. Cue dream sequence.

In literature, it’s a little tougher to signify. “The Looking Glass” does the job very well. Nellie – the girl looking in the mirror – is described as falling into a half-awake, half-dream state. She sees someone or maybe she just sees aspects of someone. It’s unclear. The language becomes less authoritative. We’re not totally sure if these scenes are real or mere fantasies. Until finally, the action becomes more specific again, and the reader can safely assume we have transitioned completely into the realm of the imagined. It’s a very elegant transition. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.

The selection:

NEW YEAR’S EVE. Nellie, the daughter of a landowner and general, a young and pretty girl, dreaming day and night of being married, was sitting in her room, gazing with exhausted, half-closed eyes into the looking-glass. She was pale, tense, and as motionless as the looking-glass. 

The non-existent but apparent vista of a long, narrow corridor with endless rows of candles, the reflection of her face, her hands, of the frame — all this was already clouded in mist and merged into a boundless grey sea. The sea was undulating, gleaming and now and then flaring crimson. . . . 

Looking at Nellie’s motionless eyes and parted lips, one could hardly say whether she was asleep or awake, but nevertheless she was seeing. At first she saw only the smile and soft, charming expression of someone’s eyes, then against the shifting grey background there gradually appeared the outlines of a head, a face, eyebrows, beard. It was he, the destined one, the object of long dreams and hopes. The destined one was for Nellie everything, the significance of life, personal happiness, career, fate. Outside him, as on the grey background of the looking-glass, all was dark, empty, meaningless. And so it was not strange that, seeing before her a handsome, gently smiling face, she was conscious of bliss, of an unutterably sweet dream that could not be expressed in speech or on paper. Then she heard his voice, saw herself living under the same roof with him, her life merged into his. Months and years flew by against the grey background. And Nellie saw her future distinctly in all its details.


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