Nine Things I Learned from Reading Chekhov

When I was looking at The Reading Ape’s blog post on “Why Criticism Matters” this morning, I was reminded that a conversation with Art is also a conversation with Life.  So although we’re into the second week of June already, and I’m deeply immersed in Flannery O’Connor, I want to return just for a moment to May’s reading to document my list of things I learned from reading Chekhov last month. 

  1. Slow down.  It was good that reading Chekhov in Russian really slowed me down.  In order to read good fiction – especially short stories, which are so densely packed – I need to read slowly.  Sometimes I even need to let a story sink in for a day or two and then re-read it in order to unpack it and enjoy it properly.
  2. Pay attention; notice Nature.  Some of my favorite parts of “The Steppe” and “House with a Mezzanine” were Chekhov’s lyrical, precise observations of nature – and his use of images from nature to create mood and tension, and to develop significant ideas.
  3. Observe the uniqueness of individuals, especially their speech habits and distinct mannerisms.  Some people have a gift for this.  I have to work at it.
  4. Be open to a change in perspective.  A good short story can change your perspective on things and can even change you – just like a journey, especially a difficult one, can change you.
  5. Coming-of-age stories will always be fresh because even characters (and people) who initially appear similar have different life experiences.  Reading about any character’s coming of age can lead us to look back at our own transition to adulthood.  It was probably a painful process at some point, but we are who we are because of our formative experiences during this transition.
  6. Suspend disbelief.  As Chekhov says, life is full of fear and wonder; in special places, like the steppe, story and reality merge.
  7. Learn from fellow-travelers on a journey.  People have been doing it and growing from it probably as long as humans have been walking upright.
  8. Question the value of art.  All art forms.  Each time you experience art.  Be open to a different answer each time you ask the question.
  9. Think critically.  The ability to think critically is one of the things that makes us human.  Having this gift makes us responsible – at least, under many (or even most) circumstances – to use it.  Refusal to think critically is a conscious choice that can have serious consequences.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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5 Responses to Nine Things I Learned from Reading Chekhov

  1. Christine says:

    #s 3, 5 and 6 are what jump out to me about Chekhov. Observing people is one of the few things I consider myself to be very good at, so Chekhov’s stories are such a delight to read and, for me, they inspire such kinship and awe and admiration. Coming of age stories are an interesting subject; since we each lose our innocence in roughly the same universal way, the specifics of each person’s quest are endlessly fascinating.

  2. readersquest says:

    Thanks for stopping by! This list is by no means comprehensive – the thoughts are just random things that popped into my head when I was reading last month. Has your own reading of Chekhov led you to any new (or remembered) insights?

  3. Another lovely post here.
    I have a book of Chekhov’s stories (translated by Robert Payne) and after I read your post about idleness I looked to see if “House with a Mezzanine” was included. It is. I’ve decided to read through 40 of his stories this summer. I’ve never read anything by Chekhov and I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. readersquest says:

    Great! Be sure not to miss “The Ravine” and “The Man in a Shell” (possibly also translated as “The Man in a Cello Case”). I don’t think I’ve used any of Robert Payne’s translations, but that’s because by the Survey-in-Translation courses focused on the long novels; by junior year we were expected to work through short stories in Russian. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the stories later this year!

  5. Pingback: Introducing Anton Chekhov « Every Book and Cranny

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