Short Story Master: Chekhov

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We just finished writing 5-6 page short stories in Creative Writing. We focused on the principles of imagery, tension, and insight in our stories. Having attempted this rich, challenging form, it seems fitting to pay homage to a man many consider the father of the modern short story: Russian physician, playwright, and master storyteller Anton Chekhov.

Bio Highlights

  • Life span, Jan 29, 1860 — July 15, 1904
  • Was a poor physician who got his literary start by selling short sketches to newspapers, “humorous stories and vignettes of contemporary Russian life”
  • In fact, “he published more than 400 short stories, sketches and vignettes by the age of twenty-six”
  • Many consider Chekhov to be “the founder of the modern short story”
  • Chekhov was also a playwright — he wrote such famous plays as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard
  • Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis starting in medical school
  • He did some of most prolific writing while recovering from tuberculosis in the country

You can learn more about Chekhov and read some of his short stories at American Literature

The Lady with the Little Dog

  • This is a good place to start if you want to get a taste of Chekhov’s subtle, wry style of storytelling
  • You can read it here
  • It features Dmitri Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, two melancholy Russians suffering from ennui in their married lives.
  • They have a fling in a resort city on the Crimean peninsula called Yalta, and their fling has lasting implications for their futures.
  • The story is named “The Lady with the Little Dog” because Anna Sergeyevna glides around Yalta with a white pomeranian, and this is how Dmitri Gurov first notices her.

Imagery, Tension, and Insight in The Lady with the Little Dog

“One evening he was dining in the gardens, and the lady in the bret came up slowly to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she was a lady, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was dull there. . . . The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were for the most part made up by persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he remembered these tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair, a romance with an unknown woman, whose name he did not know, suddenly took possession of him.”

  • Notice the “smooth camera work” going on in this image. Chekhov slides between close ups — “the lady in the bret came up slowly to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she was a lady” — and backstory: “The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue…”
  • Also notice the tension — Chekhov sets up a clear, specific conflict with great brevity. In just this passage, he establishes the existence of two characters with strong, specific desires. He hints at Anna’s desire by saying that she is married, alone in Yalta, and “dull,” or bored, there. Dmitri’s desire is more explicitly stated — his desire to have a “fleeting love affair” “suddenly [takes] possession of him.” The stakes are high — they are both married, and their presence in Yalta is temporary.
  • This passage also shows insight. For example, the way in which Dmitri is suddenly possessed of the desire to have an affair shows the reality that human beings sometimes embark on journeys with serious, even tragic implications on a whim. Impulsivity and superficiality are part of human nature, and a large part of many romantic encounters. The story will eventually explore the insight that sometimes, the drama and intensity of romance has less to do with the relationship between two people, and more to do with the internal workings of two separate individuals and their relationships to their own lives.

Speaking of insight, here are a few of Chekhov’s insights on the practice of writing:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

“The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”

“The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.”

“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other.”

 

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