On the office wall by my desk, I have placed a photograph of Lincoln; for a lawyer, not an unusual choice. Next to Lincoln is a photograph of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Few visitors recognize him. He is my favorite writer.
Tolstoy and Turgenev came from privileged backgrounds. Not so with Chekhov, whose father was born a serf and did not obtain freedom until age 16. Chekhov wrote of himself as being “a young man, the son of a serf . . . who was whipped many times . . . who used his fists and tormented animals . . . who was hypocritical in his dealings with God and men gratuitously, out of the mere consciousness of his insignificance – write [he tells an aspiring writer] how this youth squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how, waking up one fine morning, he feels that in his veins flows no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real man . . . .” (Solzhenitsyn believed that every Russian living under Stalinist rule needed, as Chekhov had done, to squeeze “the slave out of himself drop by drop.”)
Throughout his life, Chekhov helped poor people, providing medical treatment to peasants, assisting in famine relief and donating money and books to schools. Chekhov’s Last Will and Testament concludes with these words: “Help the poor. Look after mother. All of you live in peace.”
In living out his own life, what an extraordinary contrast Chekhov was to the passivity of so many of the figures in his short stories and plays. As an example, at age 30, enjoying the comforts of Moscow and literary recognition, Chekhov chose to undertake a long and difficult journey across Russia to the Pacific coast to visit the penal colony on Sakhalin Island. In this letter, he explains to his publisher why he is making the journey:
Chekhov spent three months on Sakhalin, conducting a medical census of prisoners. He wrote of his book based on these experiences, “It gives me joy that this harsh convict’s robe shall have a place in my literary wardrobe.”
I visit New York State prisons through my volunteer work with the Correctional Association of New York. This passage, from Chekhov’s short story, “The Murder,” about a Sakhalin convict, would evoke a sad, strong sense of recognition from prisoners I meet:
Chekhov lists “compassion” as one of his aesthetic tenets. In his short story, “An Attack of Nerves,” he writes of someone, “There are all sorts of talents – talent for writing, talent for the stage, talent for art; but he had – peculiar talent a talent for humanity.” As did Chekhov.
This passage from the short story, “Gooseberries,” conveys Chekhov’s humane concerns, “themes old but not yet out of date”:
In Chekhov’s short stories and plays, there are unhappy people from all classes, not just the poor, deserving of our sympathy. They find life difficult to live, like those in “The Cherry Orchard” who are unable to adjust to changing times. (Liubov Andryeevna here bids farewell to the just-sold family estate: “Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness . . . goodbye! . . . . Good-bye!”)
Chekhov extends his sympathy to each of them.
Ernest J. Simmons writes in “Chekhov, A Biography,” that even “with all his acute insight, Tolstoy never quite perceived the breadth and tolerance of Chekhov’s judgment, his tenderness for those who suffered, or his charity in the face of forgivable weakness.” Chekhov himself wrote that “An author must be humane to his finger tips.”
Vershinin in “Three Sisters” captures Chekhov’s sympathy for people entrapped by life, and also his quiet humor. “What shall I philosophize about now? . . . [Laughs.] Yes, life is difficult. It seems quite hopeless for a lot of us, just a kind of impasse . . . .”
“Three Sisters” conveys despair and courage, concluding with Masha’s words: “We’re left alone . . . to start our lives all over again. We must go on living . . . we must go on living.” “Uncle Vanya” ends with these words of Sonia: “Well, what can we do? We must go on living! [A pause.] We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya.”
Those of us who have a professional or official relation to the suffering of others – lawyers, judges, police, doctors, social workers, can benefit from reading Chekhov. He deepens our understanding of the human condition; a parlous condition, in his view.
Years ago, when I was in the Crimea, I visited Chekhov’s house at Yalta. In poor health much of the time, he lived there to avoid the bitter cold of Moscow. In full-view of the desk where he wrote “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” Chekhov had placed on the wall a large print of Alexander Pushkin. How pleased I was to find that Chekhov honored his literary hero in the same way I honor mine.
Postscript: My favorite Chekhov-Tolstoy encounter. Chekhov is traveling by night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg to visit his ill brother, Alexander. He writes his family from St. Petersburg: “Generally, a vile night . . . . My only consolation was my darling precious Anna (I mean Karenina) who kept me busy all the way.”
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.