I see some terrific essays now and then from students—critical essays, critical theses, and lectures. Sometimes they find a home, sometimes the AWP Chronicle picks them up. But often they just languish because they’re too long for a lot of magazines, or too craft oriented for general magazines, or not academic enough for scholarly magazines. That’s a shame because they are full of insights and real hands-on instruction in the art of writing. So it’s a great opportunity not to be missed for Numéro Cinq. Julie Marden’s essay is a wonderful analysis of Chekhov’s stories and an explication of the narrative structure I call “thematic passages.” It fits in especially well since we have had a run of Chekhov posts, including David Helwig’s translation of Chekhov’s story “On Love.” See also Julie’s short essay on Chekhov and Alice Munro.
None other than Flannery O’Connor has warned against a consideration of literary theme at a technical level. “I feel that discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme,” she says, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” “is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.” I take her point. We expect theme to arise naturally from the details of our stories, not to be something we should work at specifically. But later in the same essay, O’Connor says this: “I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. . . The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it . . . the meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully. Which brings me to my subject: the different ways Chekhov makes statements about meaning in his stories “Grief” and “Gusev.” Personally, I would like to get better at making such statements in my own fiction, and have concluded that expecting theme or meaning to arise naturally from my stories’ details can be unproductive. In doing so, I may neglect to write the very passages that make those details significant, passages that might bring me, while writing, into deeper contact with my story’s potential, and that might help readers, while reading, experience that potential more fully.
Douglas Glover, in his essay, “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise” in Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, picks up where O’Connor leaves off by defining such statements as “thematic passages.” According to Glover, “a thematic passage is any text in which the narrator or some other character questions or offers an interpretation of the action of the story.” This definition provides technical clarity to O’Connor’s idea, since by questioning or interpreting a story’s action a narrator or character renders that action more available to a reader’s experience and understanding.
Let’s quickly consider the two distinct ideas of action and interpretation. Suppose I wrote, “One spring afternoon I gave up my job and enrolled in an MFA program for fiction writers.” That’s action. Then say I wrote, “what a reasonable thing to do.” That’s interpretation. Of course, it’s just a quip, but nevertheless it holds up the action to further inspection, making it easier for a reader to relate to than if it were merely stated and then abandoned. By addressing its readers, the comment invites them to participate in the action. In fiction, thematic passages can open our stories to greater ideological depth and allow them to develop with increasing psychological and or mythic resonance. Thematic passages also bring life to our stories, making them seem aware of their own implications. They are a way for us to declare intent. In reading the two Chekhov stories as well as other fiction I’ve come to believe that writing them well requires and therefore helps develop a suppleness and control with respect to voice and point of view.
Anton Chekhov’s story “Grief” is about a talented turner (or woodworker) and abusive alcoholic named Grigory. He’s a poor Russian peasant and has been married for 40 years, coming home drunk and beating his wife every night, until the night before the story begins (yes, there’s a flashback). That night, Grigory comes home drunk and is about to beat his wife when she gives him a look that scares him so much he doesn’t beat her. Instead, first thing next morning he borrows a neighbor’s horse and sledge to take her to the rural district hospital to cure her of whatever is causing the funny look that scared the shit out of him the previous night. But a terrible blizzard slows him down, no matter how hard he whips the borrowed horse. His wife dies before they reach the hospital. Grigory thinks he should head to the cemetery but for some reason keeps heading to the hospital. He gets lost. Night comes on. He starts to freeze. His hands become so numb he can’t control the reins. The horse goes on unguided until it stops in front of a building, which Grigory can just make out in the dark and through the snowstorm. By this time, Grigory’s so cold he can’t even move his feet, so he decides (as if he has any choice) to fall asleep in the sledge, not even minding that he might die in the process. But he doesn’t die. The next day, he wakes up in the hospital. He recognizes the doctor – the one he’d wanted to take his wife to. He wants to get out of bed and fall on his knees to thank the doctor or beg him for help – he’s quite confused. But he can’t move. He has lost all four of his limbs to exposure. The doctor tells him not to complain – he’s had a good, long life – and leaves the room. The end.
“Grief” is short – about 2,000 words – and is told by a third-person narrator, limited for the most part to Grigory, who delivers a long muttered monologue in the first half, which doesn’t really end until he falls asleep but which is interrupted mid-way through by the narrator. (The other character who speaks in this story is the doctor, but just for a few lines.)
“Grief” was written in 1885, fairly early in Chekhov’s writing career. It is considered pivotal to that career for its emotional depth and its blend of comedy and tragedy, which are remarkable considering the story’s length. The story’s thematic passages have a lot to do with that depth and blend. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Grief” appeared just as Chekhov was getting good at writing these passages, discovering his own way to mine his stories for meaning.
In “Grief,” the four main thematic passages appear fairly close to each other in the center of the story. Of course, as Flannery O’Connor has reminded us, almost no word or phrase can ever be given completely to one function or another, so I’ve put text that I feel is especially thematic in bold.
He let his tongue run on mechanically, so as to stifle as much as possible the feeling of heaviness in his heart. Grief had taken the turner unawares, like a bolt from the blue, and he was still unable to recover from the blow, he was still unable to come to his senses, to think clearly. He had till now lived a carefree life, in a kind of drunken stupor, knowing neither grief nor joy, and all of a sudden there was that terrible pain in his heart. The lighthearted tippler and idler found himself for no rhyme or reason in the position of a man who was busy and worried, a man in a hurry, struggling against nature herself.Grigory remembered that his grief had started the night before. When he had come home in the evening, drunk as usual, and from old habit had begun to swear and brandish his fists, his wife had looked at her bully of a husband as she had never looked before. Usually the expression of her old eyes was martyred and meek, like that of a dog who is beaten a lot and given little to eat, but now she gazed sternly and fixedly at him, as saints do from icons, or dying people. It was this strange disturbing look in those eyes that made him conscious of his feeling of grief.
See how Chekhov persists at describing the look in Matryona’s eyes until he can open it up into that third, almost sweeping thematic statement – “it was this strange disturbing look in those eyes that made him conscious of his feeling of grief.” The next passage occurs after Matryona dies.
And the turner wept. He was not so much sorry as vexed. His grief had only just begun, and now it was all over. He had not really begun to live with his old woman, to open his heart to her, to feel sorry for her, and now she was dead. He had lived forty years with her, but then those forty years had passed as though in a fog. What with drinking, fighting, and poverty he had not noticed how life had passed. And, as though to spite him, his old woman had died just when he was beginning to feel that he was sorry for her, that he could not live without her, that he had wronged her terribly.Forty years ago, he remembered, Matryona had been young, beautiful, gay. She had come from a well-to-do family. . . Everything pointed to a happy life, but the trouble was that, having flung himself dead drunk on the stove after the wedding, he had not seemed able to wake up properly. He could remember the wedding, but what happened after it he could not for the life of him remember, except perhaps that he had been drinking, lying about, and fighting. So forty years had been wasted.
What these passages do and don’t do is clear. They don’t provide much action or setting or even character. Instead, using a little summary and past history, they provide the moral and emotional core with which those particulars – the characters, actions, and setting — can engage. Over and over, in these passages, Chekhov reiterates the idea that his story is about a moral, emotional awakening after a wasted life, an awakening brought on by the specter of death.
But before discussing these passages in detail, let’s look at what precedes them.
Whenever I read the first paragraph of “Grief,” I always feel as though I’m looking at an oil painting – or a snow globe.
Grigory Petrov, a turner, who had long enjoyed a reputation as an excellent craftsman and at the same time as the most drunken ne’er-do-well in the whole Galchino district, was taking his wife to the rural district hospital. He had to drive about twenty miles, and yet the road was so terrible that not only a lie-abed like the turner Grigory but even the postman could not cope with it. A sharp cold wind blew straight in his face. The air was full of whirling clouds of snowflakes, and it was impossible to say whether the snow came from the sky or from the ground. Neither fields, telegraph poles, nor woods could be seen for the snow . . . The feeble aged mare dragged herself along at a snail’s pace. . . . The turner was in a hurry. He jumped up and down on his seat restlessly, now and again whipping the mare across her back.
Chekhov holds us at a distance, in an observer’s role, even as he shines a spotlight on Grigory and presents us with Grigory’s desire, action, conflict, and setting, all in one paragraph. We continue as observers as we hear Grigory speak.
“Don’t cry, Matryona,’ he muttered. “Put up with it a little longer! We’ll soon be at the hospital, and, God willing, you’ll be all right in time. Pavel Ivanych will give you some drops, or tell them to bleed you . . . He’ll shout a bit, stamp his feet maybe, but he’ll do his best for you. . . . A nice gentleman he is, very obliging, bless him. Soon as we’re there, he’ll come running out of his room and start cursing. “What’s all this?” he’ll shout. “How did it happen? Why didn’t you come earlier? Am I a dog, to be looking after you all day, damn you? . . . Get out! I don’t want to see you. . . . But I’ll say to him, “Your honour, sir. Pavel Ivanych, sir.”
Clearly, this is a character study, depicting Grigory as a stock, comic figure, at whom we laugh even as we become aware of his panic. As his monologue continues, Grigory reveals his simple peasant religion (“But how could I get here in time, sir, if God – the Holy Virgin – got angry and sent a blizzard like this?” ), his emerging guilt (“Your honour, sir, what do you take me for? A heartless villain or a heathen? My old woman’s giving up the ghost, she’s dying, she is, and me run to the pubs? Really, sir! May they all sink to the bottom of the sea, the pubs I mean, sir!” ) and his physical talents (“I’ll do everything for your honour. A cigarette case, if you like, of Karelian birch. Croquet balls. Skittles.” )
On top of this, the monologue also offers a completely dramatized comic version of the entire story, a hypothetical, imagined, and future scene in which Grigory barely gets his wife to the hospital, uses his peasant wits to persuade the doctor to cure her, and everything works out for the best. Like any stock comic peasant, he boasts. “Well, old woman, you see I know how to talk to the gentry!” He’s the Russian Ralph Kramden. This entire comedy, though, is layered over the darker action of the present journey to the hospital, to which Grigory’s mind can’t help returning (“Only God grant I don’t lose the way. What a snowstorm! Can’t see a thing for the snow!”) right before the narrator steps in with the story’s first thematic passage. (Another great effect of the monologue is that the fiction of Grigory’s imagined scene makes the fiction of the “real” scene all the more real.)
Thematically, things get pretty interesting in these four passages, as Chekhov reaches into his story and changes its and our perspectives, so that instead of looking at Grigory from the outside, we now see him from within. The narrative voice becomes more subjective and bold, as Chekhov repeats the title word four times in these passages, (at least in this translation by David Magarshack), starting with: “Grief had taken the turner unawares, like a bolt from the blue, and he was still unable to recover from the blow, he was still unable to come to his senses, to think clearly.” This is not subtle language.
Note how far apart in consciousness the narrator and Grigory are in the first passage. The narrator articulates things about Grigory that Grigory is unable to say for himself, because, as the narrator tells us, he is “unaware.” In fact, Grigory is still delivering his monologue – staving off these new emotions, unable and unwilling to “come to his senses” – but the narrator presses Grigory’s mute button and tells us what’s going on.
And what happens to this stock comic figure, this wife-beating drunk? To our horror – because it makes us identify with him – Chekhov gives him dignity. With this first thematic passage, Chekhov begins to process both Grigory and us as, here in the middle of the story, the comedy turns tragic. Perhaps Chekhov was discovering his signature style of interpretive writing, discovering that narrative voice in which he manages to be, all at once, respectful, attentive, unpretentious, and emotionally honest.
Finally, Chekhov uses this first passage to bring his exposition to a close. When he restates the conflict (“The lighthearted tippler found himself. . . in the position of a man in a hurry, struggling against nature herself”), we don’t know what will happen but we understand the story’s internal and external parameters.
Now let’s look at the second thematic passage. Two important things happen here. First, Chekhov attaches it to a one-sentence-long scene, a flashback scene that dramatizes the moment described more abstractly in the first thematic passage, the moment when grief strikes Grigory “unawares.” We learn that Grigory’s pain was already there, but that he’s only now becoming “conscious” of it.
Secondly, the narrator no longer gets sole credit for the interpretive work here; Grigory himself is “remembering.” A look ahead at the next two passages shows that they repeat this pattern: in one the narrator explains, in the next Grigory “remembers.” Chekhov makes these subtle shifts in perspective as Grigory begins to emerge from his long “drunken stupor.” Grigory and the narrator become closer, even as we the readers begin to experience the story from the inside, no longer peering into it as we might a snow-globe or painting.
In the third thematic passage, the narrator describes Grigory’s despair at Matryona’s death, extending our view of Grigory’s past from the events of the night before to the general quality of his forty years of marriage. (“What with forty years of drinking, fighting, and poverty, he had not noticed how life had passed.”) Chekhov again uses that simple, authoritative, and respectful voice to reveal Grigory’s growing moral awareness of himself, his tragic discovery that he can’t live without Matryona, that “he had wronged her terribly.”
The fourth passage shows Grigory remembering the previous forty years more specifically, recalling his wedding day and subsequent inability “to wake up properly.” This passage offers the most damning interpretation of Grigory’s situation yet. It ends with the final, reverberant thematic statement: “So, forty years had been wasted.”
Now the story has reached its lowest point, with Grigory recognizing that he must wake up from these forty years of sleep with the pain of his wife’s death as part of the bargain. At this point, the narrator’s, Grigory’s, and the reader’s perspectives are all fairly unified, through the work of these four passages. We are fully experiencing this story by now, even before it’s over. The story has become a weird palpable force that is leading us and Grigory through itself.
In “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise” Douglas Glover describes the function of thematic passages in a way that not only summarizes clearly what I’ve just attempted to demonstrate but also provides an excellent bridge to a look at the rest of “Grief.” Here, Glover talks about a specific thematic device involving rhetorical questions, but since by nature all thematic passages pose questions, this applies to the more or less direct, interpretive passages I’ve discussed so far in “Grief,” too.
The truth is that good stories often open themselves up to readers by reading themselves. . . The act of questioning is more important here than the act of answering. . . by asking the question in the text, the author creates a sense that the story is aware of the larger mysteries of its own existence. A story that does not ask its own questions often seems to be fatally unaware of itself, unintelligent and inhibited. It cannot develop any moral or psychological depth. By asking questions the story generalizes its own meaning, opens up thematic depths, and, more importantly, creates new possibilities of action.
So what “possibilities of action” has Chekhov created for himself at this point in “Grief?” With Matryona now dead, the conflict becomes one of Grigory fighting against nature to get home and do what is right: to bury his wife and lead a better life. He still wants a happy ending, but he also wants to finish the process of waking up. He wants redemption. He first expresses this desire just before the fourth thematic passage, muttering “If only one could start life over again . . .”
Then, afterwards, as the night grows darker, he repeats his wish. “ ‘Live my life all over again,’ . . . ‘Get a new lathe and get new orders. I’d give the money to the old woman, I would!”
But the reawakening Grigory receives is not the one he has in mind. The irony is that just as he begins to wake up to these internal nobler yearnings, he falls asleep. And the next thing we know about Grigory is this: “He woke up in a large room with painted walls. Bright sunshine was streaming through the windows.” Consider the contrast between the darkness of the night before and the painted walls and bright sunshine. That combined with Grigory’s twice-stated desire to “live life over again” makes it hard for anyone faintly familiar with the Russian orthodox Christian tradition (in which Chekhov was steeped — and not always pleasantly) not to think of Easter, of the resurrection of Christ. Even if you don’t think of that, the contrast is vivid. And at this point we identify so thoroughly with Grigory that Chekhov, brilliantly, doesn’t bother letting us know how Grigory even got to this room. We don’t even know if the hospital is the building in front of which he fell asleep the night before. So when he opens his eyes to the painted walls and the streaming sunlight, he and we may as well have woken up in heaven. It seems miraculous. We only begin to realize that we’re still on earth when other people enter, at which point Grigory tries to appear, as Chekhov and his translator say, “sensible,” an apt word, given Grigory’s struggle to come to his “senses,” not to mention his yet-undiscovered sensory loss.
‘Must order a funeral service for my wife,’ he said. ‘Tell the priest…’ ‘All right, all right,’ a voice interrupted him. ‘Keep still there.’
When Grigory sees the doctor, he wants to go down on his knees, and when he can’t do this, he asks the doctor why. To which the doctor kindly replies:
‘You can say good-bye to your arms and legs. You got them frozen. There, there. . . What are you crying for? You’ve had your life, haven’t you? You must be sixty if a day – isn’t that enough for you?’
Talk about a blend of comedy and tragedy. As Douglas Glover himself has noted, “It’s Monty-fucking-Python!” It’s hysterical and horrific. But within this blend, Grigory experiences his final and fullest moment of recognition, saying, “‘What a thing to happen to a man, sir. What a grievous thing!’”
This line is the story’s ultimate thematic passage. It ties everything together: on the surface, Grigory refers to his newly discovered state of quadriplegia, but because of all the work of the four earlier thematic passages, this epiphanic line means so much more. It applies to Grigory’s entire life and, by extension, to our lives, to our emotionally and morally if not physically or economically impoverished condition in general. Most importantly, the line comes directly out of Grigory’s mouth; the narrator no longer needs to speak for him. Grigory has awakened. And when the doctor curtly dismisses him and walks out of the room, (“Goodbye to the turner!” is how Magarshack translates the last line of “Grief”), we wake up too.
Written in 1890, five years after “Grief,” “Gusev” is known for its somber, sleep-and-silence-studded atmosphere and above all, for its ending, which has led Richard Bausch to call it the most “audacious . . . story in the world.” Bausch attributes this audacity to “the radical way [the point of view] shifts, in the last paragraphs, from the limited omniscience of Gusev’s consciousness, to an omniscience that includes the sea and sky. The way it leaves the province of human thought and action . . . and enters the animal kingdom.” Reading those words helped explain the disorientation I encountered the first time I read the closing scene of “Gusev.” My reaction was almost physical, as though something had dropped away from me. I am sure, also, that my reaction was intended, for, as Bausch says, Chekhov’s aim in “Gusev” is to “lead us into a perception we do not want: the enormity of the world and the universe and to our puny place in it.” (Not altogether unlike “Grief,” come to think of it.) The profound effect of this “radical” shift in “Gusev” is achieved to a great extent because of the way the story’s thematic passages prepare us for it. (Also not altogether unlike “Grief.”)
“Gusev” is about a Russian peasant who is sailing home after five years of military service in the Orient, while dying of tuberculosis. From his hammock in the ship’s sick-bay, he gets to know Pavel, an educated cynic with an ecclesiastical background, who is also dying. With a few other sick or dying soldiers playing cards in the background, Gusev and Pavel compare their lives and opinions and religious ideas. They also sleep a lot. Both men want to get home. (Again as in “Grief,” the central conflict is one of a journey to a specific destination being thwarted by nature and illness.) Gusev longs to see his village and family, who occupy his many fevered dreams; Pavel wants to ignite a revolution. But neither of them makes it. In a three-act progression, first one of the card players – a character named Stepan — then Pavel, then Gusev die and are buried at sea. The story ends as Gusev’s corpse descends through the ocean and is released from its sailcloth coffin by a shark. Meanwhile, the sky bursts into a sunset whose colors are reflected in the water. The story is about fifteen pages long and is divided into five numbered sections. It is told by a third-person narrator, mainly from Gusev’s perspective.
As opposed to “Grief,” whose major thematic passages appear close together in the middle and are presented by the narrator, but whose final thematic passage is presented in dialogue, by Grigory, the thematic passages in “Gusev” occur throughout the story, delivered first in the speech or thought of either Gusev or Pavel, and then, at the end, by the narrator. Thus, in “Gusev,” there are three thematic threads, as opposed to only one in “Grief.” The first two appear right away in the story’s opening dialogue, in which Pavel scoffs at Gusev’s naïve belief in a story about a fish that “came smack against a ship and tore a hole in the bottom” as well as his observation, after a jug falls off a table, that “the wind must have slipped its chains.”
Is the wind, then, an animal that it breaks loose from its chains?” Pavel asks. Gusev acknowledges that this is indeed his understanding, and Pavel says, “You should have a head on your shoulders and try to reason things out. You don’t have any brains!” This leads to the subsequent passage coming from Gusev, as translated by Robert Payne:
What was strange or astonishing in the story about the fish or the wind slipping its chains? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain, suppose its backbone was as strong as a sturgeon’s, and then suppose that far away, at the end of the world, there were great walls of stone and that the furious winds were chained to these walls. If the winds had not broken loose from their chains, how do you account for the fact that they fling themselves across the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs? If they were not chained up, what became of them when the seas were calm?
Through Gusev’s rhetorical questions, Chekhov carves open a thematic vein, helping us experience more fully something central to the meaning of the story: the mystery of nature’s power. Gusev’s embrace of this mystery is simple and folkloric, but still his questions comment on or interpret a huge part of the action of the story, which is quite simply the action of nature or, more mythically, the cosmos. And by asking what is “strange or astonishing” about it, Chekhov begins to prepare us for the astonishment we experience at the end. This passage isn’t the only one in which Chekhov connects Gusev to the natural and cosmic world. Again and again, Gusev blurs distinctions not only between himself and nature, but also between the imagined and the real. When Gusev becomes drowsy at one point, he feels as if “all of nature was falling asleep.” At another point, he wakes up from a dream of his family so happy to have “seen his own people” that “joy made him catch his breath, shivers went up and down his spine, and his fingers tingled.”
Pavel, on the other hand, is more cynical and enraged, obsessed with human injustice.
“Dear God! You tear a man from his home, drag him out of his nest, send him ten thousand miles away, let him rot with consumption, and . . . You wonder why they do it! . . It doesn’t make sense! . . .”
He points out the immorality of Gusev’s meaningless years in service and the insanity, not to mention political expedience, of putting people on board the ship in such bad health. Gusev counters with:
“Of course, Pavel Ivanich, a bad man is never well treated, either at home or in the service, but if you live right and obey orders, who wants to do you harm?”
But Pavel is all scorn and protest. With him, Chekhov makes ranting a type of thematic passage device. Pavel’s most heated diatribe appears in the third section, after the death of the card-player Stepan.
“In Kharkov I have a friend, a man of letters. I’ll go up to him and say: ‘Come, brother, put aside those abominable subjects you write about, the loves of women and the beauties of nature, and show us the two-legged vermin. There’s a theme for you. . . You people are in the dark, you are blind and beaten to the ground; . . . They tell you the wind breaks loose from its chains, that you are beasts, savages, and you believe it. . . . You are outcasts, poor pathetic wretches. . . I am different. I live in full consciousness of my powers. I see everything, like a hawk or an eagle hovering over the earth, and I understand everything. When I see tyranny, I protest. When I see cant and hypocrisy, I protest. I cannot be silenced: no Spanish Inquisition will make me hold my tongue. No! If you cut out my tongue, I will still protest – with gestures. Bury me in a cellar, and I will shout so loud they will hear me a mile away, or else I will starve myself to death, and thus hang another weight round their black consciences. . . . Yes, that’s life as I understand it. That’s what is called life!”
Of course, neither Gusev nor Pavel are portrayed as two-dimensional characters. Within Pavel’s ranting we hear his compassion, which causes him in a quieter moment to lament that “life only happens once and must be taken care of.” Gusev, despite his innate sweetness and capacity for joy, is an uneducated bigot. He refers to the “crazy Jew” in his village, says he would never jump into the sea to rescue a non-Christian or a German, and admits to having beat up two “Chinamen” who brought firewood into his yard during his years of service. At one point while in harbor, Gusev looks out the ship’s porthole and sees another Chinese man standing on a boat, holding a bird in a cage, and singing. This blissful image inspires Gusev to wish to slug the man (possibly out of jealousy and possibly because he can only relate to the bird in the cage).
It’s notable that – unlike Gusev – neither Stepan (the card player) nor Pavel recognizes the approach of his own death. Chekhov isn’t afraid to be funny at these moments, either. Stepan’s last words – he lies down in the middle of a card game – are, “I won’t be a moment, fellows,” and Pavel, mere hours from dying, boasts: “My lungs are healthy – what I’ve got is the stomach cough. I can stand hell and that goes for the Red Sea. . .”
Gusev, in contrast, faces his death knowingly, yet another example of his uncanny affinity with the incomprehensible. To be sure, he is warned by the deaths of Stepan and Pavel, not to mention the nameless wounded soldier who carries him on deck and tells him: “you, too, Gusev, you’re not long for this world. You’ll never reach Russia.”
This anonymous wounded soldier, very interestingly, whispers these words to Gusev just before, again as in “Grief,” Chekhov slows the tempo and allows his narrator – as the story’s own consciousness – to emerge. This is in the middle of the fourth section, closing in on the end. With the appearance of this anonymous soldier, the point of view begins to widen. First, stepping around the countless bodies of sleeping soldiers, all on their way home (is it becoming clear that sleep is a constant refrain – and metaphor – in this story?), Gusev and his companion make their way to the ship’s prow. As they gaze out at the night and sea, the point of view quietly shifts – almost slips – to the narrator.
“. . . The deep sky lay over them, the clear stars, stillness and peace, and it was exactly as it was in the village at home” – this is still Gusev observing – “while below them lurked darkness and chaos.” Here the narrator is starting to enter the language, the voice. “Great waves were booming; no one knew why.” Suddenly, “no one” steps behind the point of view. Then, in a moment, “you” will, as again, distinctions and identities are blurred. “Every wave, whichever one you looked at, was trying to climb over the rest, hurling itself on its neighbor, crushing it down; and then there would come a third wave with a glint of light on its white mane, as ferocious and hideous as all the others, with a full-throated roar.”
Now comes a crucial shift, where the narrator, with one bold, subjective, declarative sentence, takes control. We forget that Gusev is there. This is the story’s central thematic passage, in which we feel addressed by the story itself.
The sea is senseless and pitiless. If the ship had been smaller, and not made of thick iron plates, the waves would have crushed it without the slightest remorse and devoured all the people, making no distinction between saints and sinners. The ship itself possessed the same cruel expression, devoid of any meaning. This beaked monster pressed forward, cutting a pathway through a million waves, fearing neither darkness nor winds, neither space nor solitude – all these were as nothing, and if the ocean had been populated, the monster would have crushed its inhabitants, making no distinction between saints and sinners.
This passage does so much. It unifies and makes moot all of Gusev’s and Pavel’s ideas of morality and life, and it opens the story to “new possibilities of action,” providing a hinge by which the story pivots to its audacious conclusion. To begin with, Gusev emerges from this trance having unblinkingly absorbed the truth of his mortality. His last words, after the nameless soldier asks him if he’s afraid of dying, show no denial and are anything but naive: “Yes, I’m afraid. I’m full of sorrow for the farm. My brother at home, you know, there’s nothing sober about him – he’s a drunkard, beats his wife for no reason at all, and doesn’t honor his parents. . . . But my legs won’t hold me up, brother, and it’s suffocating here. Let’s go to sleep!”
After Gusev’s funeral, his body, sewn up in the sailcloth, slides into the air off of a “tilted plank” and tumbles into the sea. The point of view has by now broadened to the soldiers on board, who, chorus-like, share this rather lovely, timeless, and all-inclusive observation and rhetorical question: “Strange that a man should be sewn up in a sail cloth and then tossed into the waves. Was it possible that such a thing could happen to anyone?”
And then, with the scene that provoked my disorientation, the mood picks up:
. . . he fell among a shoal of pilot fish. When they saw the dark body they were astounded and rooted to the spot, and they suddenly turned tail and fled. In less than a minute they came hurrying back to him, quick as a shot, and they began zig-zagging round him in the water.
This is the scene Richard Bausch talked about, where the point of view enters the animal kingdom. It’s comic-strip-like. In its next “frame,” the shark appears and swims “below Gusev with dignity and reserve.” Then, mimicking that fish in Gusev’s opening story, the shark tears the sailcloth from head to toe and Gusev and an iron fire bar drop out. Chekhov, with his own dignity and reserve (it can be hard not to discern certain doctor-like qualities in his depiction of the shark), guides us away from what happens to Gusev, and diverts our attention first to the fire-bar as it sinks to the bottom of the sea and then to the sky and the top of the sea, ending the story like this:
Meanwhile in the heavens clouds came and massed themselves against the sunset . . . There came a great beam of green light transpiercing the clouds and stretching to the center of the sky, and a little while later a violet-colored beam lay beside it, and then there was a golden beam, and then a rose-colored beam. The heavens turned lilac, very soft. Gazing up at the enchanted heavens, magnificent in their splendor, the sea fumed darkly at first, but soon assumed the sweet, joyous, passionate colors for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man.
I consider the last line a thematic passage, which ever so slightly mitigates the effect of the longer one preceding it. For what has happened to the senseless and pitiless sea? Like the fish and the shark, it has taken on human characteristics, even as Gusev has relinquished them. As David Jauss points out, “by personifying impersonal nature, Chekhov depersonalizes Gusev, and further emphasizes the meaninglessness of both his death and life.” Yet Chekhov –just barely – spares us and himself from total starkness by honoring Gusev even while emphasizing his insignificance, by describing the “scarcely” nameable colors in the sea and sky as “sweet,” “joyous,” and “passionate,” qualities specifically attributable to Gusev when he was alive.
Finally, it’s been fascinating and illuminating to compare the thematic passages of “Grief” and “Gusev” side-by-side. Whereas in “Grief” these passages lead us from the nameless narrator’s voice to Grigory’s individualized epiphany, in “Gusev” we travel from specific, individualized, human thought into something more nameless and vast, an “unconscious” consciousness alluded to by the title of the hymn sung at Gusev’s funeral, “Eternal Memory.” Whereas in “Grief” we wake up, in “Gusev” we fall asleep. We surrender what is characteristic. We die and vanish. No wonder it’s disorienting.