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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born the third of six surviving children on 29th January 1860 in Taganrog, a port town on the Sea of Azov on the south coast of Russia. During his intense career he would make a name for himself as a playwright and author, though the whole time he practised as a physician. Indeed, he once wrote “medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress”. This affair was an extended and colourful one, begun as a means of bolstering his income but developed as a form of artistic expression, through which he would make several key formal innovations which prevail in the writing of various authors who succeed him such as the method of stream-of-consciousness writing, heavily employed by the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce.
Chekhov’s father Pavel Yegorovich, from whose Christian name Chekhov received his patronymic middle name, was the son of a former serf and ran a grocery store in Taganrog. As a devout orthodox Christian and director of the parish church choir in which Chekhov and his brothers sang, the stark contrast between this and his physically abusive attitude at home served as an example for many of Chekhov’s portraits of hypocrisy, while also providing Chekhov with a model of how not to conduct himself in public and in private. This proved a valuable life lesson for him, for at every juncture Chekhov would treat those around him with dignity and respect. His mother, Yevgeniya, was a talented and passionate story-teller, and entertained the children with extensive stories about her travels across the entirety of Russia with her cloth merchant father. As his father provided character inspiration, his mother instilled in him a love of stories and a skill for telling them. He would later affirm that “our talents we got from our father, but our soul from our mother”. The extent of the influence that this childhood had on him can be seen in his later chastisement of his elder brother Alexander, whose tyrannical treatment of his own wife and children reminded Chekhov all too painfully of their own fraught upbringing; he wrote, tentatively -
Let me ask you to recall that it was despotism and lying that ruined your mother's youth. Despotism and lying so mutilated our childhood that it's sickening and frightening to think about it. Remember the horror and disgust we felt in those times when Father threw a tantrum at dinner over too much salt in the soup and called Mother a fool.
Between the ages of six and eight, he attended a Greek school in Taganrog, run by the Greek Church of Taganrog and funded by wealthy Greek merchants. Among the subjects taught were Greek language, God’s law, mathematics, history, calligraphy and singing. Then, from 1868 he attended Taganrog gymnasium, the local grammar school, where he proved a distinctly average pupil. Despite being academically reserved and largely undemonstrative he nonetheless forged himself a reputation as a prankster, for making up humourous nicknames for his teachers and for being a reliable source of witty, satirical remarks. It soon became apparent that his interests lay away from academia for he became involved in amateur dramatics, frequently attending performances at the Taganrog Theatre. The first of these performances was Offenbach’s operetta Elena the Beautiful which he saw when he was thirteen, and from then on he became an avid theatre attendee and spent much of his savings on visits, despite the theatre being out of bounds for Gymnasium students without special dispensation to visit; permission was rarely given, and mostly on weekends. So regular was he that he had a favourite seat, whose most attractive characteristic was its location; situated in the back gallery it was cheap, and being so far out of sight it proved an effective place to hide from the Gymnasium staff who would routinely check for unauthorised students. To further conceal themselves from these spot-checks, Anton and his schoolmates would disguise themselves with make-up, wigs and props such as spectacles and fake beards. Much of the savings which he spent at the theatre came from the annual 300 ruble grant he received from the Taganrog City Council after a failed assassination attempt on the then Tsar, Alexander II of Russia. Inspired by the drama he witnessed at the theatre, he tried his hand at writing short, amusing ‘anecdotes’ and stories. Alongside this he is known to have written a long, tragicomic play, entitled Fatherless, though he later destroyed it and no manuscript remains, and which his brother Alexander denounced as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication”.
His preoccupation with the theatre had a marked result on his school career, and the greatest blow came when he was fifteen and kept down a year for failing a Greek examination. During this time he sang under his Father’s direction in the Greek orthodox ministry choir, a time which he would later recall as one of “suffering”. A letter written in 1892 describes how “when my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing the trio ‘May my prayer be exalted’, or ‘The Archangel's Voice’, everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts”. The family gave an appearance of idyllic happiness and talent, though this contrast between this outward façade and the tyranny and despotism they experienced at home under Pavel’s strict rule serves as another example of exactly the source of the picture of hypocrisy Chekhov paints in his work. When Chekhov was sixteen, Pavel mismanaged his own finances quite spectacularly during the process of building a new house which resulted in a declaration of bankruptcy and a subsequent fleeing to Moscow to avoid debtor’s prison.
By now Chekhov’s elder brothers Alexander and Nikolay were already studying at Moscow University so the majority of the family reunited there, living in poverty, a change of circumstance which left Yevgeniya in a state of emotional and physical infirmity. Chekhov, however, remained in Taganrog living with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house, to complete his education. Although his board was free with Selivanov, he was left to pay for his schooling, covering the costs and surviving on a disparate income cobbled together from the selling off of family possessions and bolstered by private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and by writing and selling short sketches to the newspapers. Every ruble he could spare from his education and his now less frequent theatre visits he sent to his family in Moscow, enclosed with humourous letters designed to cheer them up in their poverty and misery. He now began to take a more earnest interest in his education, reading extensively and analytically, including the works of Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov and Schopenhauer. Meanwhile he enjoyed a series of closeted love affairs, including one with the wife of one of his teachers. His schooling completed and a scholarship to Moscow University obtained, he moved there in 1879 and rejoined his family.
He now assumed responsibility for the family, supporting them by writing regular satirical sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian lifestyle under pseudonyms such as ‘Antosha Chekhonte’ and ‘Man Without a Spleen’, and his prodigious output earned him first a reputation as a reputable chronicler and then, in 1882, a regular position writing for Oskolki, a journal owned by Nicolai Leykin, the most successful Russian publisher at the time. Although the wit and brevity of his work here prevails through much of his later writing, it was considerably harsher in tone, perhaps a reflection of the stressful position of poverty, study and patriarch in which he found himself. In 1884, he qualified as a physician and, although he earned little from the profession and often treated the poor free of charge, he considered this his principle profession. At this time and for the next two years he would regularly cough up blood, a symptom of tuberculosis with which he was all too familiar as a physician. However, not wishing to “submit himself to be sounded by his colleagues”, he kept the condition to himself. The continued success of his periodical writing enabled him to move the family into progressively more comfortable accommodation, and then in 1886 he received an invitation to write for Novoye Vremya (New Times), owned and edited by the millionaire media magnate Alexey Suvorin. Paying double per line what Anton received from Leykin and being given three times the column inches he took the offer immediately and became close friends with Suvorin, a friendship which would last his lifetime.
His work at these periodicals was not the sole extent of his literary output, for in 1885 he published a short story, The Huntsman, which quickly attracted scholarly attention and recognition. The sixty-four year old celebrated writer Grigorovich wrote to him shortly after it first appeared on the shelves, saying “you have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation." The letter continues in this effusive manner before resolving to offer Chekhov the practical advice to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality. In reply, Chekhov admitted that he had been struck “like a thunderbolt” on reading the letter, confessing to hitherto writing his stories “the way reporters write up their notes about fires - mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself." In making such an honest admission, Chekhov arguably undersold himself as a serious author, for despite the appearance of a nonchalant and casual approach, later analysis and comparison of early manuscripts reveals a huge extent of careful revision indicating a far more involved, authorial approach than he allows himself in correspondence with Grigorovich. Nonetheless, receiving such warm congratulation and encouragement along with such earnest advice from so respected an author caused Chekhov to sit up straight and approach his writing with far more serious, artistic ambition. Now twenty-six, and with the patronage of such a revered and loved author, his collection of short stories entitled V Sumerkakh (At Dusk) won him the much coveted Pushkin Prize, awarded "for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth”.
Following this act of formal recognition and somewhat burnt out by the years of continued literary output his enduring success afforded him the time and the money to take a sabbatical, so he engaged in a journey to the Ukraine in 1887 whereupon he was reminded of the beauty of the Steppe. This excursion inspired the novella The Steppe which he started on his return, and which he described in a letter to Grigorovich as “something rather odd and much too original”, and which was eventually published in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald). Later that year he was commissioned by a theatre manager to write a play, and a fortnight later Chekhov produced Ivanov which, though he considered the process “sickening” and described in a letter to his brother Alexander in the manner of a comic portrait, it was a huge success and was widely regarded as a work of excellent and noteworthy originality. Furthermore this period is considered the source of a literary device noted by Ilia Gurliand, who overheard it in conversation, as Chekhov’s Gun; “if in act 1 you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act”. Then, in 1889, his brother Nikolay died as a result of tuberculosis. Their brother Mikhail, who recorded Anton’s depression during the period of mourning after the death, had been researching prisons as part of his studies in law, and Anton too became interested and eventually somewhat obsessed with the idea of prison reform.
This newfound interest in the humanitarian questions surrounding the prison system, combined with a conceivable yet subconscious desire to escape the close environment of mourning surrounding his brother’s death, led Chekhov to journey to the penal colony Sakhalin, an island off the far East coast of Russia, where he spent three months interviewing convicts and settlers with the aim of compiling a census of the island. He made several now notorious remarks to his sister about what he witnessed (among others, a relatively lighthearted and blunt description of Tomsk, "a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.” [ -the inhabitants of Tomsk later retaliated by erecting a mocking statue of Chekhov]). More seriously, though, many of the things he saw during this trip horrified him, writing that “there were times I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man's degradation.” Among these was the plight of the children of the island, describing one such incident in his journals:
On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.
Concluding that the solution to this inhumanity lay not with charity and philanthropy, but with Government intervention and reform, he wrote Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), a work of social science which was praised, not for its literary brilliance, but for its steady and worthy informativeness, which was serialised and published in 1893-4. Though this initial work which stemmed from the trip was not literary in nature, the extended contact and expansive experience he received found itself expressed in The Murder, a story which, though longer than his others, is still considered short in nature.
In 1892 Chekhov had bought Melikhovo, a small country estate forty miles north of Moscow, which was his and his family’s home until 1899. He joked about his residence there, quipping to his friend Ivan Leontyev that “it’s nice to be a Lord” though this lighthearted remark belies the seriousness with which he undertook his responsibilities as a landlord. Within a few years of his taking residence there he had established his usefulness and sense of duty to the peasants, affording them relief from the 1892 outbreaks of cholera and bouts of famine, and building three schools, a fire station and a clinic, and offering his services as a physician to the peasantry of the surrounding countryside. Often he would find queues of patients lining up outside his door in the morning who had travelled by foot or by cart to receive treatment, and frequently he was called out to visit those too sick to travel. His brother Mikhail who resided with the family at Melikhovo recorded this honourable commitment to his role as estate physician, writing -
from the first day that Chekhov moved to Melikhovo, the sick began flocking to him from twenty miles around. They came on foot or were brought in carts, and often he was fetched to patients at a distance. Sometimes from early in the morning peasant women and children were standing before his door waiting.
Though these demanding hours left him with significantly less time for writing, they enriched his literary output for he was able to write informatively and genuinely about the peasantry and their living conditions, most notably in his short story Peasants. He did, however, visit those belonging to the upper-classes as well, though he was not enamoured by them, writing in his journal “Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women”.
He began to write arguably his most famous work, The Seagull, in 1894, in a lodge he had built himself in the orchard on the estate. Its first night on 17th October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg was something of a fiasco; it was booed by the audience, many of whom left, and this poor reception saw Chekhov fall out of love with the theatre. However, despite its poor reception by the play-going audience, it impressed the theatre director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko so much that he proceeded to convince his colleague Constantin Stanislavski to take the play on and direct it in the innovative, progressive Moscow Art Theatre. This revival, in 1898, for the less-closeted Moscow audience was enormously well-received. Whereas the Petersburg performance had rendered the play literally and played down its more psychoanalytical aspects, Stanislavski payed far closer attention to the play’s psychological realism and brought the deeply buried subtleties, lost on the Petersburg boards and on the audience’s narrow-mindedness, to the surface. The play was such a success here that the Art Theatre commissioned further work from Chekhov, staging Uncle Vanya which he had completed in 1896. Furthermore, the positive critical reception had a restorative effect on Chekhov’s interest in stage writing.
However, by now Chekhov’s health condition was worsening, having suffered a major haemorrhage of the lungs in 1897 while visiting Moscow. His early reluctance to be seen by doctors prevailed and he protested to the notion of entering a clinic, though he eventually assented whereupon a formal diagnosis of the tuberculosis on the upper part of his lungs was reached, and the doctors ordered various changes in his lifestyle. His father then died in 1898, after which Chekhov bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Yalta and proceeded to build a villa, moving his mother and sister in with him the following year. Even though he pursued the enjoyment of gardening he had developed while at Melikhovo by planting trees and flowers, he kept dogs and tame cranes and regularly received highly regarded company such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, he spoke of a sense of relief upon each occasion of his leaving this “hot Siberia” for Moscow or to travel further afield. While here, he wrote two more plays for the Art Theatre, though these were composed with much greater difficulty; he remarked that unlike his youth when “[he] wrote serenely, the way [he eats] pancakes now”. These two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard took over a year each.
A quiet marriage to Olga Knipper on 25th May 1901 was performed in keeping with the position of suspicion he had always had towards weddings, with a small ceremony and little outside attention. Knipper was an actress whom he had met at the rehearsals for The Seagull, their marriage conformed to his stipulations;
By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto - that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her ... give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.
This proved convenient as Knipper remained in Moscow performing his work and that of contemporary playwrights, and their long-distance correspondence features various treasured pieces of writing, be they shared complaints about Stanislavski’s method of direction or advice from Chekhov to Knipper as to her performances in his plays. Prior to the marriage, Chekhov had been considered “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor”, preferring brief liaisons and dalliances with unknown women, or brothels, to commitment. Chekhov then wrote one of his most famous stories, The Lady with the Dog, depicting a casual encounter between two strangers who, despite their best efforts and risking the security, stability and respectability of their family lives, find themselves irrevocably drawn to one another.
Chekhov’s tuberculosis was finally getting the better of him, and by May 1904 it was quite clear that his death was imminent. Despite this, Mikhail recorded that “everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off, but the nearer [he] was to the end, the less he seemed to realise it”. He set off for the German town Badenweiler on 3rd June, writing cheerful, witty letters to his sister describing variously the food and the surroundings, while assuring both her and his mother that his health was improving; his last letter contained a sardonic complaint about the German women’s fashion. The circumstances of his death have become one of “the greatest set pieces of literary history”, and are most accurately recorded in this, Knipper’s own account from her diaries, written in 1908:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe ("I'm dying"). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: ‘It's a long time since I drank champagne.’ He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.
His body, transferred to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car whose purpose was for fresh oysters, was then interred next to his father at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Although thousands of mourners mistakenly followed the pomp and circumstance of the military funeral procession for the also deceased General Keller, many hundreds of thousands of readers, writers and actors have followed correctly the path he pioneered for the short story and for twentieth century realism.