Updated: Feb 3
Anton Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of world literature. He was born on January 29, 1860, on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great, in Taganrog, a small port town in southern Russia. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, was a grocer and his mother, Yevgeniya Yakovlevna Chekhova, was a housewife and Anton was the third of six surviving children in his family. His father was director of the parish choir, a devout Orthodox Christian but a physically abusive parent. Many cite this dichotomy of devout religion and aggression as the template for the many representations of hypocrisy in Chekhov's work. Meanwhile Chekhov often stated his mother was a fantastic story teller who entertained her children with stories of her travels across Russia alongside her father. He is quoted as saying "Our talents we got from our father...but our soul from our mother." In later life Chekhov would chide his brother Alexander, for his treatment of his wife, by reminding him of the tyranny of their father in childhood.
The family struggled financially for much of Anton's childhood and in 1876 his father was declared bankrupt after attempting to fund the construction of a new family home. To avoid debtor's prison he fled with his family to Moscow, where they lived in poverty. Chekhov himself stayed behind in Taganrog to sell the family possessions and complete his education. He had to finance his own education, he did this through various means, private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches and many other other jobs. He would send as much as he could spare to his family in Moscow along with humorous letters to cheer them up. It was during this period that he started to write short sketches for newspapers to make money.
The Move to Moscow
He read widely and wrote a full length comic drama Fatherless while also experiencing a series of love affairs, including one with the wife of his teacher. In 1879 he gained admission to Moscow State University to study medicine, joining his family in the capitol. Chekhov assumed responsibility for his family, writing daily sketches under pseudonyms. He gained a considerable reputation. By 1882 he was writing for Oskolki (Fragments) owned by a leading publisher, Nikolai Leykin. It is impressive that despite all this activity he still managed to find the time to complete his studies and graduated from university in 1884 as a qualified physician. He considered this his primary profession although he made little money from it and often treated people for free. Between 1884 and 1886 it became clear to him that he was suffering tuberculosis but he did not admit as such to his friends and family. He continued to write at a prodigious rate, earning enough money to elevate his family to better accommodation.
In 1886 he was invited to write for Novoye Vremya (New Times), one of the most popular papers in St. Petersburg, owned and edited by millionaire Alexy Suvorin. He offered twice the payment of Leykin and gave Chekov three times the space. Suvorin was to become perhaps Chekhov's closest friend.
A New Stage
The following year saw Chekhov at the point of exhaustion due to overwork and ill health. He travelled to Ukraine for recuperation and while there he rediscovered his love of the steppe. The resultant work, The Steppe, was published in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald). The story follows a journey through the region with a boy sent to live with a priest and a merchant. This saw a major development in his career as it was published in a literary journal, rather than a newspaper.
That autumn he was commissioned to write a play. Chekhov described the process of writing Ivanov as "sickening" and he professed to be bemused when the play, written and produced in a fortnight, was received as a hit and an original work.
A Rising Star
Chekhov was rapidly gaining a nationwide reputation in literary and popular fields. He was contacted by Dimitry Grigorovich, a successful writer of the day, praising his talent. The senior author supported him in a campaign for the Pushkin Prize in 1888 for his short story collection At Dusk. At the end of the year he published The Cobbler and the Devil in the Peterburgskaya Gazeta and his friend Suvorin was promised a submission before New Year's Eve. The Bet was delivered to the editor on the deadline and published on the first of January.
Nikolai, Chekhov's brother died of tuberculosis in 1889 and this influenced his work A Dreary Story, which is about a man confronting the end of life and realising he has lived without purpose. In the depression that followed his brother's death Anon Chekhov found a passion in the issue of prison reform.
The visit to Sakhalin
Chekhov travelled to the penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan in 1890. This was an arduous journey across Russia by train, horse drawn carriage and steamer before he spent three months interviewing convicts and settlers for the census. Many consider the letters he wrote during this time as some of his most entertaining and notorious. His comments about the city of Tomsk were damning. He described the town and the inhabitants as dull. He was horrified at much of what he witnessed while on the island. Forced prostitution, corruption, beatings and the appalling poverty. His experiences resulted in a report, published in 1893 and 1894, in which he concluded that charity was not the answer and the state had a duty to provide for humane treatment of convicts. He found a fictional outlet with his long short story The Murder (1895).
Prolific work, rapid decline
Chekhov worked relentlessly as a medical doctor for the poor, spending a great deal of money on drugs and reducing his time for writing. It is clear though, that this contact with the poor provided him with insights for his writing. After returning from Sakhalin he oversaw the construction of a lodge in an orchard in Melikhovo forty miles south of Moscow. Here he would write one of his most famous works, his play The Seagull (1894).
On the premier of The Seagull in Saint Petersburg in October 1896, the audience responded with hostility and Chekhov renounced theatre as an outlet for his work. But director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko convinced his colleague Konstantin Stanislavski to direct a new production and in 1898 it opened in Moscow. The success of the production coaxed Chekhov back into writing for the theatre once more.
Chekhov had suffered a haemorrhage of the lungs in Moscow in March 1897 and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and ordered by doctors to change his lifestyle. Following the death of his father in 1898, Chekhov moved to a villa on the outskirts of Yalta, where his mother and sister joined him the following year. He would entertain Leo Tolstoy as one of his guests but referred to the place as his "hot Siberia" and was always keen to visit Moscow or travel abroad.
While in Yalta he wrote one of his most famous works, the short story The Lady with the Dog (1899) which recounts the story of a man and a woman, both married, who fall in love with each other after meeting on holiday in Yalta. The story charts their growing feelings and the desperation of the potential scandal.
He spoke of writing becoming a more challenging process and it took him a year to write his plays Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).
After spending much of his life as "Russia's most elusive literary bachelor", Chekhov quietly married Olga Knipper on May 25th 1901. He had met the actress during rehearsals for The Seagull. She had been a former lover of Nemirovich-Danchenko. Their relationship was deliberately kept at a distance, he in Yalta and she in Moscow. He wrote to her "I promise to be an excellent husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day."
In 1902 Olga suffered a miscarriage and historians argue whether the pregnancy was conceived with Chekhov or another individual. Their marriage has provided historians and literary scholars with a gold mine of material in their letters discussing the directing methods of Stanislavski and Chekhov's advice on performance.
By May 1904 Chekhov was terminally ill. On June 3 he visited the German Spa town of Badenwelier with his wife, where he died on 15 July. He was transported back to Russia in a refrigerated car meant for oysters and many mourners accidently followed the procession for General Keller by mistake. He was laid to rest in Novodevichy Cemetery alongside his father.
Chekhov would have been surprised by his posthumous reputation. His works are notable for their realism, humour, and insight into human nature. His plays, such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard, are considered masterpieces of the modern theatre, and his short stories, including The Lady with the Dog and The Bet, are widely anthologized. Chekhov's writing is known for its economy of language, with his characters and their relationships taking centre stage rather than elaborate plot devices.
Chekhov left a lasting legacy and is still widely studied and admired for his contributions to literature and to the theatre. His works have been translated into numerous languages and have inspired countless adaptations and reinterpretations. In addition to his enduring popularity as a writer, Chekhov is also remembered for his humanitarianism and his dedication to themes of poverty and prison reform.
The Bear (1888)
The Steppe (1888)
A Dreary Story (1889)
Wood Demon (1889)
The Bet (1889)
Ward Number 6 (1892)
The Black Monk (1894)
The Seagull (1896)
Uncle Vanya (1897)
The Lady with the Dog (1899)
Three Sisters (1901)
The Cherry Orchard (1904)
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