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...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

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