The Church Bells of Easter

Chekhov & the Path of Conversion

Most readers regard the sensibility of Anton Chekhov, the innovative Russian dramatist and modern master of the short story, as thoroughly secular, and the famous credo expounded in one of his letters seems to justify this view. “I would like to be a free artist and nothing else,” Chekhov wrote to the poet and critic, Alexei Pleshcheyev, in 1888. “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form they take.”

Despite the fierce exhilaration of such pronouncements, Chekhov can seem a gloomy writer, as if his stories and plays bear the image of the writer in his last, invalid days at Yalta—a pale, emaciated figure, dressed in black, pathetically unsteady on his feet. Gloomy epiphanies abound in his work; his characters are typically overwhelmed by circumstances and unable to act to improve their lot. And yet the particular circumstance that frequently overwhelms them is self-knowledge, an inescapable glimpse of themselves that they cannot bear. Chekhov knew the possibility of change inherent in self-knowledge, even if few of his characters took advantage of it. And as the comic pieces of his student years were replaced by psychological studies of increasing weight and depth, he became more interested in exploring what follows the bitter epiphany of self-knowledge. In doing so, he began to delineate with growing authority a paradigm of the Christian journey, a way of transformation that led at least some of his characters out of the prison of egoism into a more spacious awareness of self and others.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James memorably described conversion as “the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior, and happy, in consequence of his firmer hold upon religious realities.” A paradigm of just such a transformation first appeared in the lengthy stories Chekhov began to write in 1888. It contained three elements: the inescapable perception of a divided psyche characterized by lying and self-interest; an ordeal culminating in the emergence of a more unified self; and the effort to make amends and to live a more truthful life. And while James noted that the experience of conversion may be “purely ethical, containing...no theological beliefs whatever,” the careful reader of Chekhov perceives that in his hands this transformation may indeed be regarded as a conversion in the Christian sense. Though secular in predisposition, Chekhov’s characters experience an awareness of fault or sin, a transforming event that functions as a symbolic death and rebirth, and the repentant attempt to live an amended life.

The divided self is embodied in the original title of an 1889 story, “My Name and I.” Renamed “A Boring Story,” it concerns one Nikolai Stepanovich, an eminent and elderly professor of medicine who diagnoses his own fatal illness. Faced with his mortality, Nikolai desires to know the meaning of his life and to die a dignified and proper death. But he discovers in himself a profound disillusionment that poisons his relations with people. He resents his wife for the pettiness of her concerns, his children for their self-absorption and indifference to his suffering, his colleagues for their narrow-mindedness, and his students for their idleness. Even his own eminence, the public esteem in which he is held, now seems to him false and contemptible. Of the psychic state that precedes the conversion experience, William James writes, “The sense of it may beset one and crave relief as urgently as does the anguish of the sickened flesh or any form of physical misery.” It is in keeping with Chekhov’s secular emphasis that his character also brings to this crisis the detachment of the scientist. Are Nikolai Stepanovich’s new thoughts and feelings merely “morbid” symptoms, a result of “the general decline in my mental and physical faculties”? Or is it that the scales have fallen from his eyes and he now sees his own behavior, and that of others, for what it really is?

The conclusion of the story finds Chekhov’s protagonist dying in a hotel room in Kharkov—where an answer to his questions presents itself to him:

In my partiality for science, in my desire to live, in my sitting here on a strange bed, and in my longing to know myself, in all my thoughts, feelings, and concepts about everything, there is no common link, there is nothing that might bind them together into one whole. Each thought and each feeling lives in me separately, and the most skillful analyst could not discover what is known as a ruling idea or what might be called the god of the living man in all my opinions of science, the theater, literature, students, and all the pictures my imagination conjures up.

And if that is not there, nothing is there.

There is no longer any impulse to explain away his state. Instead, he continues to explore its ramifications:

When a man lacks the things that are higher and stronger than all external influences, a bad cold in the head is enough to upset his equilibrium and make him see an owl in every bird and hear a dog’s howl in every sound.

In realizing that some unifying force, whether “ruling idea” or “god of the living man,” is lacking in his divided being, Nikolai takes the first and indispensable step toward transformation. But the ordeal that might have brought about a conversion to a “consciously right, superior, and happy” state is denied him. Or is it simply that time runs out? His last visitor is his beloved adopted daughter Katya, a bored and disillusioned young woman whose theatrical ambitions have come to naught. Nikolai’s avuncular attitude toward her is flawed by his inability to empathize with her predicament or to accept her help, and even in the face of death he is unable to wish for change. “Goodbye, my precious,” he murmurs, as Katya departs without looking back, the symbol perhaps of the unawakened emotion that might have facilitated the next stage of transformation.

The moral development cut short by Nikolai’s death runs its full course in “The Duel,” published in 1891. The story concerns Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a young man from an aristocratic St. Petersburg family who runs off to a Black Sea resort with another man’s wife in the romantic hope of beginning a new life in communion with nature. But nature in the Caucasus turns out to be wild and intractable, and Laevsky’s resolve to work with his hands founders badly. When we first meet him, he has become estranged from his mistress Nadezhda, and is plotting to leave her in the lurch and return to the culture and refinement of Petersburg.

In order to escape, Laevsky tries to borrow money. The attempt ultimately thrusts him into conflict with Von Koren, a cold and arrogant intellectual, driven by the ideology of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, who condemns Laevsky for exerting a pernicious influence on the morals of the town by living in sin with Nadezdha. In a fit of rage Laevsky challenges Von Koren to a duel. On the night before it is to take place, Laevsky reviews his life dispassionately and decides that its keynote has been lying: “He had no need for the truth and did not seek it; bewitched by evil and lying, his conscience had slept or kept silent; like a stranger.... He had taken no part in the common life of men.” He concludes that returning to Petersburg would be useless, since his life there would be the same, full of deception. “Salvation must be sought only in oneself,” he reflects, “and if you don’t find it, why waste time? You have to kill yourself, that’s all.”

At this critical moment Laevsky learns that Nadezhda has been unfaithful to him. But instead of indignation, he feels remorse for the role he has played in her moral downfall, and experiences a resurgence of feeling for her—“this unhappy, sinful woman...the one person close to him, tied to him, and irreplaceable.” In this state of hope and fear, he leaves for the duel. It proceeds inconclusively. Laevsky no longer feels the rage that led him to challenge his opponent, and he fires gallantly in the air, while Von Koren shoots errantly and seems to miss. As Laevsky is driven home from the duel, he raises his fingers to his neck—and discovers that he has been grazed by Von Koren’s bullet. He conceives of his escape in terms of death and rebirth: “It seemed to him that they were all returning from the cemetery where they had just buried a tedious, unbearable man who had been a burden to everyone.”

The passage brings to mind Luke’s Gospel: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” What Laevsky is reborn into is a world of mundane domestic life with Nadezhda. He does not know “the real truth,” and he does not seem—in James’s formulation—to be “consciously right, superior, and happy.” But he surely has taken a step beyond the ineffectual self-knowledge of Nikolai Stepanovich in “A Boring Story.” He has weathered his own dark night of the soul and reconciled himself to a life of responsibilities.

Protagonists such as Nikolai and Laevsky are members of the intelligentsia, acutely capable of reflecting upon their lives. But Yakov, the elderly coffinmaker at the center of “Rothschild’s Fiddle” (1894), lives a life devoid of introspection. An insensitive miser preoccupied with his meager earnings, Yakov imposes a life of drudgery upon his long-suffering wife. His one saving grace is his ability to play the fiddle: he earns a little extra money with a Jewish orchestra, though he cannot restrain his contempt for Jews in general and for one in particular—Rothschild, who plays the flute beside him. Dulled by drinking, driven by avarice and blind resentment, Yakov seems an improbable subject for transformation; and yet Chekhov turns this unlikeliness on its head, as if to suggest the universality of conversion.

When Yakov’s wife Martha falls ill and informs him she is dying, the coffinmaker experiences a pang of remorse for his treatment of her. But his next, grotesquely selfish thought is that he will have to make her coffin—and lose money on it. He measures her and sets to work. Martha asks him if he remembers the loss of their child, “a little baby with curly golden hair.” Does he remember how “you and I used to sit on the bank of the river and sing songs under the willow tree?” No bald summary can convey the lightness of Chekhov’s touch here: the measuring of Martha for her coffin that is both farcical and tragic; her pathetic fear that Yakov will upbraid her for not continuing to do the work of the household; the comic incongruity of the child with “curly golden hair” and the miserly, irascible Yakov.

Martha dies, and Yakov congratulates himself on arranging a cheap funeral. But on his way home he feels ill, and his conscience begins to awaken:

He remembered again that he had never once pitied Martha or said a tender word to her. The fifty years of their life together lay stretched far, far behind him, and somehow, during all that time, he had never once thought about her at all or noticed her more than if she had been a dog or a cat. And yet she had lit the stove every day, and had cooked and baked and fetched water and chopped wood, and when he had come home drunk from a wedding she had hung his fiddle reverently on a nail each time, and had silently put him to bed with a timid, anxious look on her face.

Rothschild shows up to ask him to play at an engagement, and Yakov belligerently dismisses him. Fleeing, the flutist is chased and bitten by a dog. Yakov, meanwhile, walks by the river, and the inner process begun by Martha’s illness continues to work in him. “Suddenly,” Chekhov writes, “there flashed across Yakov’s memory with all the vividness of life a little child with golden curls, and the willow of which Martha had spoken.” The resurgence of memory paves the way for a new awareness of troubling questions:

Why did people always do exactly what they ought not to do? Why had Yakov scolded and growled and clenched his fists and hurt his wife’s feelings all his life? Why, oh why, had he frightened that Jew just now?

Yakov comes home tired and sick; it eventually transpires that he has typhus. Unlike Nikolai Stepanovich, he does not mind dying. He surrenders to his fate, and the prejudices of a lifetime fall away. When a trembling Rothschild arrives to ask him to play at a wedding, Yakov agrees, and plays so sorrowfully on the fiddle that Rothschild begins to weep. And later, when a priest comes to hear Yakov’s last confession, the coffinmaker recalls his wife’s sad face, and how Rothschild cried out in despair when the dog bit him. “Give my fiddle to Rothschild,” he murmurs to the priest.

Yakov’s trajectory does not touch all the stages of the conversion paradigm. He is not troubled by a perception of the disunity of his psyche, nor is he aware of lying as the source of his trouble. Rather he reproaches himself for his ignorance of the interdependence of human beings; he becomes aware of the effects of his unkindness on Martha and Rothschild, and endeavors to make amends in the only way he can—by bequeathing his fiddle to the Jew he despised. James distinguishes between two types of conversion, “the volitional type and the type by self-surrender.” Laevsky actively longs for his own transformation, even before it has begun to work in him, whereas Yakov, having realized the true extent of his losses, surrenders his most valuable possession, his personal symbol of hope and release.

“In the Ravine” (1900) is the last of Chekhov’s great long stories. What was represented as a journey of transformation in the earlier stories is here a finished state, one embodied by the central character of Lipa, a beautiful peasant girl who marries into a family of wealthy and avaricious merchants presiding over a village deep in a narrow valley. The Tsybukin family sells rotten beef to peasants at exorbitant prices, accepts clothing and tools as pledges from drunks, provides bad vodka, and generally makes a profit from the misfortunes of others. While detailing the family’s sins, Chekhov emphasizes Lipa’s saintly character, a saintliness that allows her to remain untouched by the corruption surrounding her and to represent the goal of the journey, the Christian ideal of a selfless life devoted to the service of others.

Chekov’s account of Lipa’s wedding presents her as a sacrificial lamb amid an orgy of gluttony and drunkenness that culminates when the family locks the rowdy, drunken bridegroom into the room where the petrified Lipa is being undressed. When her new husband leaves the village to return to his job as a police detective, Lipa’s childlike happiness returns, but she does not claim the privileges of a daughter-in-law and continues with perfect equanimity to perform the duties of a servant in the family’s house. Eventually Lipa bears a son, to whom Grigory Tsybukin, head of the family and owner of the business, wills a part of his property. Lipa’s sister-in-law, Aksinya, flies into a rage and scalds the baby with a pan of boiling water. There follows one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of Chekhov, as Lipa walks home from the hospital, carrying the body of her dead child. When she gets back to the Tsybukins, her father-in-law blames her for not having looked after his grandson, and she is obliged to wait at table during the funeral feast, where a gluttonous priest advises her not to grieve for her child because “the heavenly kingdom is for the likes of him.”

The rest of the story chronicles the fall of Grigory, who suffers a series of devastating losses, including the conviction of his son on counterfeiting charges, and ends up wandering about the village, hungry and virtually homeless. In the final scene he encounters Lipa at the head of a group of factory workers returning home. She greets Grigory respectfully, and, realizing that he is hungry, gives him a piece of meat pie from her bundle—an act of Christian charity the confused old man is scarcely capable of appreciating.

Grigory and Lipa are the moral opposites of the story. The old man reaps what he has sown when his own son makes him a gift of counterfeit rubles; his inability to distinguish between real and counterfeit money is emblematic of a moral blindness. Self-interest blinds him to the effect of his actions upon the local peasants, and thus the first condition of change, the awareness of one’s own selfishness, is left unfulfilled. This moral blindness differentiates him from Lipa, with her instinctive ability to choose the good. A verse from Matthew’s Gospel echoes the moral implications of this juxtaposition of characters: “The light of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” In the darkness of Chekhov’s ravine, Lipa’s is the only “eye” that is “single,” the only self that is undivided. Lipa has no need of being converted. Meekly accepting the loss of a child, turning the other cheek at injustice, extending compassion to those who have wronged her, she is already established in the Christian life.

Those who see in Chekhov only defeat and death are not entirely misled. Frequently, his characters are too devastated by the perception of their own divided and lying natures to do anything about it. They fail to realize the root cause of their suffering, or their attempt to change is cut off by circumstances or by death. Nikolai Stepanovich experiences only the first stages of the process of transformation, and Yakov makes amends on his deathbed. Laevsky perhaps best exemplifies the pilgrim on the way to transformation, while Lipa seems its culmination: a saintly type who embodies the virtues of conversion without having to undergo it.

Fragments of the paradigm of transformation can be found in stories from all stages of Chekhov’s career. But it is in the later stories that the outline of the Christian journey begins to emerge. In addition to the stories I’ve already discussed, there is also “The Name-Day Party” (1888), in which a posturing, self-important lawyer is brought by his wife’s miscarriage to acknowledge the façade of lies he interposes between himself and the world. Doctor Ragin of the famous “Ward No. 6” (1892) reproaches himself with his insensitivity to the suffering of his patients and his inability to relieve it. The narrator of “My Life” (1896) reconciles himself to the loss of social position, the desertion of a wife, and the death of a sister while maintaining a center of integrity and decency. These stories show Chekhov exploring the hinterland of self-knowledge, pointing the way toward experiences that might “convert” his characters and open up their continued moral development.

Did the writer who wanted to be regarded as “a free artist and nothing else” think explicitly in terms of the Christian journey? Perhaps the answer lies in the circumstances of his upbringing and family life. Chekhov’s father, Pavel, was regent of a monastery choir, and church singing played a large part in the boy’s life. Pavel was also an abusive father who beat his children. Chekhov emerged from childhood with a lifelong distaste for hypocrisy and a love of church music. Years later he would write, “The church bells of Easter Sunday are all that I have left of religion.” Indeed, during his adult life he rarely slept on Easter eve and instead walked about the streets, listening to the bells. He seems to have paid many visits to monasteries as an adult, and he had a great interest in the life of the clergy—hence the many priests and monks who appear in his stories. “In my childhood I had a religious education and a religious upbringing,” he wrote. “And the result? When I recall my childhood I now find it rather gloomy; I now have no religion.” And yet this religious training, inextricably mixed with the experience of abuse and injustice, left its mark on the writer’s sensibility.

Maxim Gorky described this sensibility in a wonderful image. He imagined Chekhov standing before a great crowd of Russians from all walks of life and telling them, in his quiet and unassuming manner, “You live badly, my friends. It is not good to live like this.” It is true that Chekhov did not shrink from the depiction of hypocrites, gluttons, or murderers. But there is no stridency in his voice. His most pervasive tone is one of tolerance, both for cantankerous old men like Nikolai Stepanovich and for idle and superfluous young men like Laevsky. His ideal was the meek and saintly character of Lipa, a truly Christian ideal of charity and patience. There was very little moralizing in Chekhov’s morality, perhaps because of his unspoken conviction that even the worst of us has the potential for redemption. It is his compassion that makes him such good company for the reader—and makes the experience of reading his stories like listening to a deep and profound music.


Related: That Which Is Lost, by Mollie Wilson O'Reilly:
a review of a 2009 production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 

Pierce Butler is writer-in-residence at Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts. His most recent book is the novel A Riddle of Stars (Zoland).

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