Monday, July 16, 2012

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov

Source of book: I own this.

This is one of the few works I have read where I can honestly say that I disliked every single character. Every last one. Which, I suppose, is partially the point. The main character, Ivanov, hates everyone too, but most of all hates himself.

This play is the first of Chekhov’s dramas, and it feels a bit like a first effort. It has plenty of witty lines, some humor, and enough darkness for the most modern-minded critic. However, I found it a bit difficult to make out exactly what the author was trying to say.

On the one hand, the plot is simple and easy to follow. The basic flow of ideas is likewise comprehensible. On the other, Chekhov seems unsure of himself when it comes to deciding on the point he wishes to make. Perhaps this is related to the inherent unlikeability of the characters. It would have been helpful had even one of the characters felt sympathetic or recognizably human, and therefore allowed the reader to identify with someone, anyone.

I’m not saying that unpleasant characters are automatically unsympathetic. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, part of the power of the characterization is that the reader can see his or her worst self in Dmitri, Ivan, or Smerdyakov. Each of these characters has a passion or motivation that feels real and human – something that just seems lacking in Ivanov.

The basic outline of the plot is thus: Ivanov is a nobleman who married a Jewess who was subsequently disinherited by her family. Ivanov is in debt, his wife is dying of tuberculosis, and he has lost his appetite for life and love. In an effort at escapism, he either seduces or is seduced by the young daughter of a friend. After his wife dies, he is set to marry the young lady, but instead kills himself. Ivanov’s behavior throughout the play is despicable, but Chekhov seems to treat him as the hero, or at least the protagonist.

In contrast to Ivanov is the young doctor, Lvov, who is an unbearably self-righteous prig. He is continually reminding everyone of how “honest” he is, and considers it his life’s mission to unmask Ivanov. (This is ludicrous, if for no other reason, than that everyone already knows about Ivanov.) If Ivanov (or someone else) were sympathetic, then it would make sense for Lvov to be the villain. The play could then be about hypocrisy. Or it could be about not judging without knowing all the facts.

Another alternative interpretation is that the play could be about Ivanov’s loss of vitality. His lament in Act III is a good representative of the various renditions of that theme, as stated by Ivanov and other characters:

IVANOV: I’m just a nasty, miserable nobody. Only another pathetic, bedraggled wreck like Paul could to on liking and respecting me. God, how I despise myself. How I loathe my own voice, footsteps, hands – these clothes, my thoughts. Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And pretty mortifying. Less than a year ago I was strong and well, I was cheerful, tireless, and dynamic. I worked with my hands. My eloquence moved even ignorant louts to tears, I could weep when I saw unhappiness and protest when I met evil. I knew what inspiration meant, I knew the charm and magic of quiet nights when you sit at your desk from dusk to dawn or indulge in flights of fancy. I had faith, I looked at the future as a child looks into its mother’s eyes. But now, oh God! I’m worn out, I’ve no faith, I spend days and nights doing nothing. My brain doesn’t obey me, nor do my arms and legs. The estate’s going to rack and ruin, the woods fall before the ax. [Weeps.] My land seems to look at me like a lost child. There’s nothing I hope or care about, and my spirit quails in fear of the morrow. Then there’s Sarah. I swore to love here for ever, told her how happy we’d be, offered her a future beyond her wildest dreams. She believed me. These five years I’ve watched her giving way beneath the weight of her own sacrifices and wilting in the struggle with her conscience, but God knows she’s never looked askance at me or uttered one reproach. What then? I stopped loving her. How? Why? What for? I can’t understand. Now she’s unhappy and her days are numbered. And I’m low and cowardly enough to run away from her pale face, sunken chest, and pleading eyes. How shameful. [Pause.] Little Sasha’s touched by my misfortunes and tells me, at my age, that she loves me. It goes to my head, so I can’t think of anything else. I’m spellbound, it’s music in my ears. So I start shouting about being born again and being happy. But next day I believe in this new life and happiness about as much as I do in fairies. What’s the matter with me? What depths have I sunk to? Where does my weakness come from? What’s happened to my nerves? If my sick wife touches me on the raw, or a servant does something wrong, or my gun misfires – then I’m rude, bad-tempered and quite beside myself. [Pause.] I just don’t understand. I might as well shoot myself and be done with it.

In true Russian fashion, Ivanov may say all of these things about himself, but he cannot stand to hear others say them about him. Thus, when Lvov confronts him soon afterward, he complains that he is being insulted.

Ivanov himself cannot figure out what has happened to him. He vehemently assets that he loved Sarah once, and now does not, for reasons he doesn’t understand. The accusation that he married Sarah for her money (which was then denied her) infuriates him, but it is impossible to know what the truth really was at the time.

While this potential theme is interesting, Chekhov never really gives an explanation of what caused Ivanov’s decline. Ivanov thinks he has overloaded himself with responsibilities, and that he eventually broke his figurative back. However, Ivanov is hardly a reliable explainer of anything, and all we have is his own word.

I suspect I will need to mull over the play for a while before drawing any firm conclusions. Perhaps that is what Chekhov intended.

Some other themes warrant mention. The play opens and closes with music and firearms. Ivanov’s wife Sarah is a musician, and the music stops with her death between acts III and IV. Firearms are everywhere, from the opening scene where a brandished shotgun precedes the first words of dialogue, to the final suicide. Guns are strategically placed throughout the scenes, even when they are not actually involved in the action.

Many of the characters also lament the sorry state of young men.

LEBEDEV: …No offence meant, but young men are a pretty spineless, wishy-washy crew nowadays. God help them. Can’t dance, can’t talk, can’t drink properly.

Chekhov also takes aim at doctors while giving a backhanded dig at lawyers. Shabelsky is the loose cannon – both comic relief, and the one person able to say what others are only thinking.

SHABELSKY: Doctors are like lawyers, only lawyers just rob you, while doctors rob you and murder you as well.

And later:

SHABELSKY: …I’ve never trusted doctors, lawyers, or women in my life, it’s all stuff and nonsense, quackery and jiggery-pokery.

Of course, there is an extra layer of irony here: Chekhov was a physician as well as an author.

The drunken Lebedev, who is pretty much Ivanov’s sole friend (apart from Sasha, at least) does his best to console Ivanov, but can’t avoid making a muddle of it. He attempts a profound statement about life, which doesn’t quite work.

LEBEDEV: A man’s like a samovar, old boy. He doesn’t always stand on a cold shelf, there are times when he gets stoked up and starts fairly seething. The comparison’s no damn good, but I can’t think of anything better.

The best aphorism, however, belongs to Borkin, who manages Ivanov’s estate, but is always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes. He comes up with a simile so pessimistic, it incites a laugh.

BORKIN: [sighing.] Our life - . Man’s life is like a bright flower blooming in a meadow. A goat comes along and eats it up. No more flower.

So maybe, after all, this is the theme of the play, spoken by one of many fools. It is a theme that has run through literature, ancient and modern. From Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

To Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

All the intentions and actions of the characters, good or evil, are ultimately meaningless. In the end, tragedy carries the day, and everyone becomes or remains profoundly unhappy. The flower that was has been eaten by the goat.

Note on the translation: I read the translation by Ronald Hingley, which is generally well regarded. It is occasionally criticized for being more “British” than “American” in idiom, but to this Anglophile, that is not a real drawback. I have also heard good things about Paul Schmidt’s translation. I found Hingley’s version to be vastly superior to the unattributed (but obviously older) version available from Project Gutenberg. Hingley captured a certain poetry and vitality completely missing from the rather dry free version. Since Hingley’s and Schmidt’s translations are readily available for a reasonable price, I would recommend going with one or the other.


  1. Or in the words of George Bernard Shaw: "A pessimist thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it."