‘The Black Monk’ by Anton Chekhov

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov, 1894

The magic trick:

A story of philosophy

This is on the longer side of story, verging on novella. Well worth your time, though.

It’s one of Chekhov’s truly great pieces, in my opinion. It also is an excellent example of his way of showcasing idea over plot. You leave this story with a thorough consideration of ego, ambition, sanity, and delusions of grandeur.

That’s not to say there isn’t a plot here. There is a definitive story, to be sure. It’s just that everything – the characters, the developments, the consequences – is subservient to the story’s philosophy.

And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.

The selection:

“I have been all day thinking of a legend,” he said. “I don’t remember whether I have read it somewhere or heard it, but it is a strange and almost grotesque legend. To begin with, it is somewhat obscure. A thousand years ago a monk, dressed in black, wandered about the desert, somewhere in Syria or Arabia. . . . Some miles from where he was, some fisherman saw another black monk, who was moving slowly over the surface of a lake. This second monk was a mirage. Now forget all the laws of optics, which the legend does not recognise, and listen to the rest. From that mirage there was cast another mirage, then from that other a third, so that the image of the black monk began to be repeated endlessly from one layer of the atmosphere to another. So that he was seen at one time in Africa, at another in Spain, then in Italy, then in the Far North. . . . Then he passed out of the atmosphere of the earth, and now he is wandering all over the universe, still never coming into conditions in which he might disappear. Possibly he may be seen now in Mars or in some star of the Southern Cross. But, my dear, the real point on which the whole legend hangs lies in the fact that, exactly a thousand years from the day when the monk walked in the desert, the mirage will return to the atmosphere of the earth again and will appear to men. And it seems that the thousand years is almost up. . . . According to the legend, we may look out for the black monk to-day or to-morrow.”

“A queer mirage,” said Tanya, who did not like the legend.

“But the most wonderful part of it all,” laughed Kovrin, “is that I simply cannot recall where I got this legend from. Have I read it somewhere? Have I heard it? Or perhaps I dreamed of the black monk. I swear I don’t remember. But the legend interests me. I have been thinking about it all day.”


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